Starlight on the Rails: A Songbook
Utah Phillips has become an American folk institution -- or is that an anti-institution? A former union organizer, he might not be well known in the greater scheme of music, but he's certainly worth this four-CD, 61-track box set. What makes it especially fascinating is the fact that each of the cuts is accompanied by Phillips' reflections on the pieces, whether performed by him or others. He's as much a raconteur and philosopher as songwriter. With its mix of live, studio, and unreleased performances, it justifies calling itself definitive, whether on the topical "Talking N.P.R. Blues," which excoriates not only the corporatization on public radio, but also the attitudes of the FCC. He can be funny, he can be serious, but whatever tack he takes, he makes his point concisely and effectively. He's lived a hobo's life, been there and done that, a symbol of America that's fast disappearing, a time where the ideas of Mark Twain helped define a growing nation. He's known the drifters, the characters, the politicians. Some he's liked, some he's loathed. But along the way he's lived and acted for his conscience and written some fine songs, such as "Yellow Ribbon" and the title cut. For anyone who's a fan of his work, this is a must-have purchase. But even for those less familiar with his canon, it's a vital peek into America as it was, and in some small corner, still is. Hopefully he'll be around for many years to come, remaining an inspiration to a younger generation of troubadours, celebrating people and loudly criticizing what needs to be criticized.