No one would have pegged Bill Callahan to become America’s bard of deep and happy comforts, but he’s always been a contrary fellow. In the nineties, as Smog, he was the indie label Drag City’s sharp-elbowed provocateur, a curmudgeon before his time who combined lo-fi folk and blown-out noise with cryptic, sometimes sinister stories. But something shifted around 2005, on the gentle, expansive masterpiece A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, which revealed Smog to be a long-worn chrysalis that Callahan was casting off.
On subsequent albums, under his own name, his poetry got more compressed, his diaries more expansive. His music shed some of its blinds and snares, beginning to beautifully observe the arc of a life distinguished more by its commonness than its rarity. Dream River was Callahan becoming a husband, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest was Callahan becoming a father, and Gold Record was Callahan at middle age (though he did first detour for an album-length dub version of Shepherd—this is still Bill Callahan, after all).
Gold Record prompted The Guardian to call for his addition to “the pantheon of great American singer-songwriters;” meanwhile, his voice, which The New Yorker’s Amanda Petrusich identified as a “still, heavy baritone that is somehow both entirely affectless and drenched with feeling,” keeps growing more profound. It turned out that Callahan’s early provocations were but the first chapter in a singular book of life, and he’ll crack that tome with a full band at Big Ears.