This may be the last chance for Chicagoans to hear folk-music icon Rosalie Sorrels in person. The hard-traveling chanteuse has told me she’s been “trying to retire” from the road for some time; now in her late 60s, she prefers not to drive at night, and over the last few years she’s cut back her itinerary sharply, mostly playing towns close to her Idaho home or making brief jaunts by plane. Sorrels cites musical role models as diverse as Hank Williams and Billie Holiday–her clear twang is tinged with heart-tugging country loneliness, and her tough, bluesy delivery is buoyed with a jazzy rhythmic fluidity–but on her most recent disc, last year’s No Closing Chord (Red House), she presents a collection of songs by folk matriarch Malvina Reynolds, who befriended and mentored Sorrels in the 60s. She inhabits the tunes so fully that a new listener might easily assume she’d written them: On “What Have They Done to the Rain?,” a chilling story set in the aftermath of a nuclear war, her voice trembles with grief and outrage; on the no-nonsense pro-choice song “Rosie Jane,” she balances bitter humor with gentle compassion for the frightened protagonist. Reynolds wrote “On the Rim of the World” in the 60s for the flower children of Haight-Ashbury; on this recording, which originally appeared on Sorrels’s 1991 album Be Careful, There’s a Baby in the House, the velvety vocals, wafting above a lilting three-four rhythm, carry an almost impossibly delicate combination of tenderness, hope, and longing. And on “No Hole in My Head,” Reynolds’s prickly assertion of her individualism (“Everybody thinks my head is full of nothin’ / They try to put their own special stuff in”), the lush sound of a piano trio in the background clashes ironically with the tune’s defiant message. A mother of five who began her musical career by leaving an abusive husband with her kids in tow, Sorrels is well acquainted with the joys and sorrows of independence–in every note she sings, you can hear how deeply she feels the toll taken by life on the road, as well as how fiercely devoted she is to the path she’s chosen. Tuesday, October 23, 8 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo; 312-362-9707.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.