The Happiest Way to Be Sad
On his 13th album, Milwaukee's beloved proponent of old-time Americana, Lil' Rev, places himself on new ground. It's his first collection of all-original songs and the first time he has recorded with a drummer. “I've usually been focused on finding dusty old gems, mining the nuggets and reinterpreting the old tunes in new ways,” he says.
Not that Rev's own songwriting hasn't been shaped by his journey down the byways of the American experience. The slightly elegiac “When the Railroad Met Main Street” was inspired by meeting a retired trainman at one of his many nursing home performances. “The Lonesome Ukulele Players Love Plea” could have been written sometime in the early decades of the last century, a forgotten hit from the sheet-music trade. An avid collector of Tin Pan Alley tunes, Rev recently played through about 300 songs of the era he had collected on sheet music. “I wanted to learn the chord progressions of that period—and then all these songs came pouring out of me,” he explains.
“Pete Steels's March,” by contrast, comes from a deep rural blues tradition. And “She Sure Got Shikker” plays with the idea of Jews in the blues, a theme he has explored in many cultural presentations around the country. He attracted local stars to accompany him on The Happiest Way to Be Sad, including singer Robin Pluer, bassist Guy Fiorentini, harmonica cats Jim Liban and Steve Cohen and lap-steel guitarist Peter Roller.
Lil' Rev performs 8:30 p.m. April 21 at Linneman's Riverwest Inn with Jim Liban and Steve Cohen; 7:30 p.m. April 28 at Waterhouse Foods, Watertown; and May 10 with John Sieger at Linneman's Riverwest Inn.