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Straight Outta Grand Forks

Championed by Bonnie Raitt, Tom Brosseau may well be the most intriguing new artist you've never heard

By Bill Forman

A concert promoter friend once spoke to me with reverence about Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman"--a recording so plaintive, she said, that only a blind man could have done it. Orbison, of course, wasn't blind, though his ever-present dark sunglasses were enough to mislead an otherwise musically knowledgeable person. His music, however, was undoubtedly plaintive, conjuring up an elegiac longing that's rarely, if ever, been matched in the realms of country or opera, let alone in the pop music world where Orbison labored until his passing.

In fact, so potent were Orbison's seminal recordings that an artist born decades later would hear those same qualities and take them as his inspiration to become a musician. "For me, it all goes back to really wanting to be Roy Orbison," says Tom Brosseau, who recalls being blown away by "Leah" as a young man growing up in Grand Forks, N.D. "Roy had these thick glasses; he looked kind of funny, you know? He was no Elvis. But he had this voice, and he was so different from all the other rock & rollers at the time. 'Leah' was just so operatic, this high voice and this huge finish. I think he probably just looked at himself in the mirror and he said, 'This is what I've got,' you know?"

Brosseau may not have Orbison's looks--lanky enough to give David Byrne or Tom Verlaine a run for their money, his Middle American image wouldn't look out of place in a Polish Brothers film--but his voice and songwriting may well be as distinctive as Orbison's. Like Chet Baker, Jimmy Scott and Jeff Buckley before him, Brosseau's voice has a range and intonation more commonly associated with female vocalists, while his songwriting shows an admiration for Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Jerome Kern and the Gershwins.

Bonnie Raitt, who in the past has championed underrecognized talents like Sippie Wallace and John Hiatt, has been raving about Brosseau lately in interviews. It's also easy to hear why Brosseau's latest album, What I Mean to Say Is Goodbye, landed on Best of 2005 lists from both the Chicago Tribune and Billboard's guest writer John Doe. From its opening song's meditation on the 1997 flood that swept away much of Brosseau's hometown to the richly evocative "Wear and Tear," about a decaying barn infused with ghosts of the past, the album suggests the emergence of a unique and promising talent.

Like Freedy Johnson in his less bleak moments, Brosseau also has an eye for quirky detail and a penchant for unusual songwriting--witness "How to Grow a Woman From the Ground," from a CD Brosseau recorded live at the L.A. club Largo. It was at Largo, after going to college in St. Paul and an abbreviated attempt to make it in Nashville, that a relocated Brosseau first hooked up with Wilco filmmaker Sam Jones, who ended up producing What I Mean to Say Is Goodbye. "It seems like the album revolved around people from Largo," says Brosseau of the record, which includes empathetic backing from Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, Elvis Costello drummer Pete Thomas, Nickel Creek violinist Sara Watkins and ubiquitous L.A. producer Jon Brion on second guitar.

Onstage, Brosseau is also an engaging storyteller, likely to entertain audiences with the true story of how his parents won him Tom Jones leisure suit at a diabetes fundraiser, or the perhaps more apocryphal tale of Johnny Cash advising him in an alley outside the Ryman to put a sheet of paper between his guitar strings. But once he begins to sing, Brosseau will suddenly get this strange look in his eyes as he stares intently at--what?

"I'm looking at the actual event in the song," explains Brosseau of his onstage demeanor. "I mean, I hope to try and look at people, but if I'm not, I'm trying to relive the circumstances in which the song was written. Like 'Too Much Wear and Tear to Care' off the new record is about the barn that my Uncle Palmer had, so I'll be thinking about that."

In other words, you may be able to take the boy out of the Red River Valley, but apparently not the reverse. "It's kind of crazy, but I still think of North Dakota as home," says Brosseau, who is so committed to touring--he drove through Santa Cruz last fall in order to play at a house party--that he hasn't really acclimated to L.A. "I haven't lived in North Dakota since 1999, but after growing up there, I feel like I have the whole state inside my heart."

Tom Brosseau plays with Brandi Carlile on Saturday, Jan. 21, at 8pm at the Attic, 931 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; $10; 831.460.1800.

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From the January 18-25, 2006 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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