Herring writes, it would appear, because of a desire to say something, to investigate something and to engage her listener. That's uncommon in the world of popular music, which is one of the reasons that it is has been so distinct from the other arts, such as painting, sculpture, dance, writing. Popular music for a large part of the 20th century was about commerce; "good albums" were the ones that sold. Getting signed was an end to itself -- as brilliantly skewered in the Cameron Crowe movie "Almost Famous" -- not the desire to say something, or affect listeners, or to turn over ideas.
There was great music, I suppose, but there wasn't a lot of room for people to behave as artists have traditionally done. Personality, wealth, drugs, egos, money, rebellion and numbers were all a part of it. Pop music often had other motives and uses, and creating something of real artistic worth wasn't essential.
Herring, from the get go, has been different in large part because her writing is so richly literary. Working within the folk/acoustic idiom, she's a writer in exactly what that term means, one that doesn't think of her work, I would go so far as to guess, in strictly structural terms --chorus, verse, hook -- but as something more fundamentally creative and expressive. In her writing she continually reaches out and engages with a truly literary tradition. "Wise Woman" is rich, beautiful and full of ideas that Herring is turning over and over, seeing them from different perspectives and letting us see them too.
The literary allusions aren't called out, but there are a lot of them, and they provide layers of interest, things to learn. (This as distinguished from so much literary allusion in pop songs, such as Sting name dropping as if the only message is wow!, he's smart!, he reads books! he quotes Shakespeare!) Herring's companion discs of 2010, "Silver Apples of the Moon" and "Golden Apples of the Sun," gain their titles from a Yeats poem, "The Song of Wandering Aengus." You don't need to know that, but if you do, it's delightful. It opens up all sorts of thoughts, both directly and also simply through juxtaposition, such as including a version of the Carter Family's "Dixie Darling" and Kate Wolf's "Here in California" on "Silver Apples of the Moon." It's the kind of stuff that just takes you to new places, both literally and figuratively.
Herring is an adult who speaks to us as if we are adults, and that's especially true in this latest album, "Camilla." The people in her songs toil with the complexities of life, aging ("Travelling Shoes"), protest ("White Dress"), tragedy ("Black Mountain Lullaby"), relating to others ("Until You Go"). In the lush "Maiden Voyage" we feel the full range of thought and emotion that a mother and child from the South have when traveling to attend Obama's inauguration. Herring doesn't shrink from the fractures and fissures of life, but engages them, explores them and lets the loose ends fall wherever they may.
"Can't you feel the aching in your shoulders," she asks in "Summer Song." "It's been a hard summer in these hills." Those hills, at least conceptually, are found in and around Camilla, Ga., a real town that gives this album its title and its setting. But the hills could be anywhere, and the town is as much a geographic place as it is a fictive setting not unlike Updike's Brewer, Penn., Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County or Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon. "To me," Herring has said, "Camilla is about grief and injustice. Deep love and hope. Perseverance. Heroes." There she's speaking about the town, but already in her mind it has become a character of the work.
The selections here are nicely varied, and include a lush a cappella piece with Mary Chapin Carpenter and Aoife O'Donovan, "Traveling Shoes." Elsewhere we move from the raw acoustic blues of "Fireflies" to the gorgeously-haunting "Until You Go." Throughout, Herring's achingly-honest vocals lead us through these stories of longing and hope. The capstone of the work is "Joy Never Ends (Auld Lang Syne)," where we are granted a larger view (literally, with the song suggesting a vantage point of 76,000 feet, where the atmosphere of the earth becomes outer space). There are some great guests here too, notably Americana A-listers Fats Kaplin (on a variety of stringed instruments) and Bryn Davies (on bass), a turn by Leonard Podolak (of the Duhks) on "Fireflies" and Andrea Zohn on "Joy Never Ends (Auld Lang Syne)."
"Camilla" isn't a novel, and it doesn't tell a story, but it is nevertheless novelistic in that it presents a single, crafted work rather than being a collection of songs. Herring deals deftly and compellingly with a range of ideas with wit, skill and depth. She has said that "I feel braver on this album," and it shows. It's simply a beautiful, chilling and hopeful piece of writing and performance.