Reviews of I Hold Gravity
It’s been a good year for new tunes here in Twangville. Here are the albums I most liked.
i1. The Waifs – Ironbark
2. Phoebe Hunt & the Gatherers – Shanti’s Shadow
3. Son Volt – Notes Of Blue
4. Band Of Heathens – Duende
5. The Mavericks – Brand New Day
6. Blackie & the Rodeo Kings – Kings And Kings
7. Gerry Spehar – I Hold Gravity: Recorded while his wife was dying from cancer, Spehar created a celebration of their life, and particularly some of their road trips, together. Together, they could be the basis for a novel or a movie, but in this case they constitute an album I found hard to take out of my playlist rotation.
8. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
9. David Rawlings – Poor David’s Almanac
10. The Sadies – Northern Passage
Gerry Spehar’s story is unlike many others’. The first part is pretty standard for a young, aspiring musician; he started out on a Stella guitar given to him by a kindly uncle, honed his chops and hit the road. There was some success - he bummed around Europe, playing anywhere that would have him, and he then returned home and formed The Spehar Brothers with his brother George. They worked hard, earned fans and opened for artists like Boz Scaggs and Townes Van Zandt - but Spehar hadn’t built the kind of career that prevented him from leaving the popular duo not long after he and his wife Sue learned that they had a second child on the way.
Spehar’s selfless, courageous choice brought him another kind of success, this time in the banking world, thus providing a stable, financially secure life for his family and affording him the ability to buy a home as well as a nice guitar. He never stopped tinkering with songs, however, and when their kids were grown, Spehar and Sue began to write songs together, filling their compositions with imagery, characters, and real world experiences derived from their formative years growing up in the wilds of the Colorado Rocky Mountains as well as their own adventures traveling in the American West.
But even after returning to music in earnest after a three-decade detour and tapping Los Angeles’ legendary band I See Hawks in L.A. to flesh out his songs in the studio, Spehar learned that life has a way of changing your tune. Sue passed away from cancer during the final stages of producing his long-awaited comeback album, I Hold Gravity. Her shadow and her spirit loom large over that now-completed album, and Spehar has dedicated his reinvigorated music career to the memory of Sue - his life partner and creative muse. I Hold Gravity is beautiful and fearless and it presents the kind of wisdom and perspective that can only come from someone who has the benefit of experience, and who knows that tragedy is part of life.
This one’s going to need a little historical perspective; I’ll try to keep it brief. Young guitar-slinger/singer starts to create a buzz in the early seventies, takes half a lifetime out to raise a family but never stops playing and writing, eventually comes out of self-enforced retirement to take up a writing and performing career with his wife, teams up with I See Hawks in L.A. to make an album. The context is important here, because musical influences and stylings that underpin the album from the late sixties/early seventies are married up with stories of rural America. There are little hints of Harry Nilsson, maybe Jim Croce as well in some of the arrangements, but the influences don’t stop at folk and country.
“Be Nemanic” opens up as a barrel-house blues which morphs into a Stax brass-driven stomper (á la Otis and Carla’s “Tramp”) telling the story of the granite-hewn immigrants who helped build the United States; it’s a rousing story of pride and a hint of a warning. There’s a similar raw edge to the opening song “Dirt” but with a raucous chain-gang feel, as the song explores the futility of mineral exploration. There’s a lot of humour in there too in the zydeco-tinged story of two knowing drug mules and the everyday day tale of country jealously, “Mr and Mrs Jones” with a rockabilly beat, some lovely Hammond and some very Steve Cropper-like guitar fills.
The title song, “I Hold Gravity”, is a love song, pure and simple, made achingly poignant by the fact that Gerry’s wife and songwriting partner Susan died as the album was nearing completion and the album’s closer “Into the Mystic” evokes a sense of deep loss before consolation is sought in communion with nature and the desert.
The ten songs on “I Hold Gravity” will pull you through a wide range of emotions. You’ll smile at “God Lubbock”, laugh out loud at “Mr and Mrs Jones”, yearn for the idyllic setting of “Here In the Pass” and cry at “I Hold Gravity” and then you’ll want to put yourself through that emotional wringer all over again; it’s that good.
“I Hold Gravity” is released on Friday June 23.
The album that took thirty years
Back in the 1960s it wasn’t so much that Gerry Spehar could have been a contender, rather more that he was one.
The Spehar Brothers – the band he was in with his sibling George – were the buzz of the Midwest club circuit, opening for Boz Scaggs, Ian & Sylvia, John Fahey, and Townes Van Zandt. Bill & Bonny Hearne cut Gerry’s song ‘Georgetown’, with Nanci Griffith contributing vocals. If you’re wondering, at this point why you’ve never heard of him, you could be forgiven for thinking it was the usual tale of too much too young and a self-destructive streak. Not a bit of that here. Instead the truth is rather more, well, normal. Spehar was already married to his childhood sweetheart, and when she fell pregnant with their second child, Spehar got a proper job and dedicated himself to his family. Not that he ever really gave up the guitar. He still cut demos, and he made a tribute album to his brother at the start of the millennium, and now with the kids all grown up, it was time to make a proper return.
The result is “I Hold Gravity”. Ten laid back Americana songs that he cut with I See Hawks In LA as his backing band – and do not fret. It is worth the wait.
Opener “Dirt” is rather more strident than some of its brethren, featuring some fine, screeching lead guitar and fine Hammond Organ, but its clever lyricism is totally in keeping with the rest. “Muleshoe Mules” is a good old-fashioned hoedown that recalls Waylon Jennings, but it’s the gorgeous title track that really convinces. It is made all the more poignant too, by the fact that his wife Sue passed away during the completion of the album.
There is something of “Exile On Main St.” era Stones about the loose bar room sound of “Be Nemanic” and the quite brilliant, quirky tale “Holy Moses Doughboy” could be on a Warren Zeavon album and not be remotely out of place.
As befits a record that was a labour of love rather than one that was born out of pressure, there is a magnificently laid-back element to work like “Here In The Pass” – which is very much the sound of a man who is content to watch the world go by. Often the record has an acerbic wit about it, but nowhere better than on “Mr. And Mrs Jones” a tale of revenge like none ever before, set against a funky bass line and perfect keyboard work. “How To Get To Heaven From LA” has a dollop of the West Coast about it, “God Lubbock” is a goodtime bar room stomper that the Kentucky Headhunters would love, but whatever it does and wherever the music goes, it does it magnificently.
Indeed as “Into The Mystic” closes things, you are left with conflicting emotions, on the one hand you are upset that Spehar took three decades to make “I Hold Gravity” but at the same time fully recognise that it might not have been as good if he’d been forced to put it out.
Either way, it’s here now and to Gerry Spehar we say only: welcome home.
A country album with roots that paints landscapes of rural America.
Review: During the 1970’s and up until 1986 Gerry Spehar was based in Colorado and had a thriving musical career. He played as a duo with his brother George in the 70’s and in the Spehar Brothers Band with both George and brother Tom. He then performed solo until meeting Bobby Allison whom he began writing and performing with in 1981. During all this, Spehar opened shows for the likes of Merle Haggard, Boz Scaggs and Townes Van Zandt. In 1986 Gerry made what he describes as the hardest decision of his life, turning his back on the music business to focus on providing a stable foundation for his family.
30 years later, Spehar returns to the music that he loves and the result is I Hold Gravity, a collection of 10 songs on which he collaborated with his other great love, wife Susan. The album chronicles their final cross-country drives, their mountain heritage, and an L.A. to Texas landscape filled with shrimpers, dynamiters and wildcatters, wrestlers, roughnecks, overambitious farmers, and Monsanto lawyers. Spehar spent the past year producing and finishing this album and taking care of Susan, who sadly passed away from cancer in September, just as they were finishing the recordings.
The love that Spehar devoted to this project is evident throughout as he brings these landscapes and characters to life with an affection borne of someone with a real understanding of his roots. Opening track Dirt, an electric guitar driven rocker about economic ambition, draws on Gerry’s family roots as coal miners and ranchers. Here in The Pass describes life oyster fishing on the Gulf and Blue Bayou while God Lubbock celebrates, if that is the word, the sweat and graft of working in a dust bowl environment ‘heat rises, time slows, 110 in the shade, ride that tractor, till those fields, sweat pours, pitiful yields.’
Contrast these sobering takes on working life with How to Get to Heaven from LA and Mr. & Mrs. Jones a couple of slyly humorous tracks. Mr. & Mrs. Jones is a wicked tale of keeping up with the Jones and the lengths some people will go to bring those Joneses down a peg or two. All this within a familiar landscape of growing corn on the plains of Iowa. Spehar enlisted the LA band I See Hawks in LA as his studio band and this track brilliantly showcases the talents of Chris Tuttle on Wurlitzer and Paul Lacques on guitar.
The album ends with Into the Mystic a simple acoustic guitar production but one of the album highlights as it recalls that point in his life when music and the bigger world called to Spehar. It is about that calling and that difficult rite of passage we all face at some point.
By drawing on his life and his roots Gerry Spehar has delivered an album that paints pictures of a hardworking and unglamorous American way of life. Along with co-producer Lacques, the result is a folky, country album with roots.
This is the extraordinary story of Gerry Spehar, whom almost no one knows and who, after a silence of at least 30 years, has suddenly produced an unexpected and almost sensational album. Here is a very rich and diverse life story, which stretches from Colorado to the French 68 Revolution and then to a bank job in L.A. Again and again throughout his life Gerry picked up the guitar and, for example, founded a local duo with his brother. In LA, he had contact with George Massenberg, Greg Leisz and others from the big scene, but still his bread and butter job left him little time to devote full days to making music. Many songs thus had to wait for retirement and for a decisive meeting with the musicians from "I See Hawks In LA" to reach the public. Spehar notes that the 10 songs are the soundtrack for a trip he took with his wife Susan. So he tells about the oil fields of Texas (Dirt), about the vineyards of Nappa Valley (Muleshoe Mules), about legendary showmen who appeared in Colorado (Be Nemanic), about fish hauls in the Gulf of Mexico (Here in the Pass) and about the trials and tribulations of Iowa farmers (Mr. and Mrs. Jones).
Gerry Spehar's music is rooted in traditional Californian singer/songwriter rock and the modern folk of the Rockies. He is reminiscent of Jack Tempchin or even Warren Zevon, but without the crude cynicism of the latter. Vocally, he is somewhat on the track of Larry Lee (formally with "Ozark Mountains Daredevils" now the head of "Beyond Reach"). At the end of the production his wife died of cancer, and not for that reason alone is the theme of death present in some songs: In the lightly ironic "How To Get To Heaven From LA" he says very practically: "Seek Absolution everyday in your own way". In “God Lubbock” the actual end is mentioned without decoration: "Dig a hole in the dust bowl out on the lone prairie and let the wind blow over me." And in the CD’s title song he promises his wife that he will keep both feet on earth (I Hold Gravity). So Gerry Spehar's new primary activity may also be a creative form of mourning, for which one can only wish him all the best.
Gerry Spehar is definitely not a brand new artist, although he took a more than thirty-year break. Born and raised in Grand Junction, Colorado, Spehar got a Stella guitar from his uncle on his 13th birthday. Captivated by Mississippi John Hurt, he practiced his guitar style for hours on end. He moved to France in the sixties to study, but the protests of 1968 put an end to that and Gerry returned home. Music was in his blood, but when his wife Susan became pregnant Gerry took a fulltime job in the banking industry. All the while he kept making music, but his job soon took over. Now, 30 years later, Gerry and Susan picked up where they left off. Not as musicians, but as songwriters. But life can be tough. What should have been a beautiful comeback for the duo turned out differently. While Gerry and the band were completing the recording of “I Hold Gravity,” Sue died of cancer. But she was able to hear the songs before she died, and Gerry was not deterred. He persevered and dedicated the album to his beloved Sue. The album moves between country and Americana. Gerry starts with “Dirt”, a wonderful light country rocker with solid guitar work, continuing with an Americana-style accordion and slide guitar version of “Muleshoe Mules.” In the folk-suffused title song, Gerry then says a final goodbye to Sue in admirable fashion. The country rocker “Be Nemanic” kicks off with piano, at a later point complemented by restrained funky brass. That a country ballad doesn’t have to be corny, Spehar convinces in Here In The Pass, which includes beautiful acoustic guitar. The closer, Into The Mystic, ranks among today’s top Americana.
Gerry and Sue Spehar have written brilliant songs for this comeback album. Sue would have rightly been proud of the end product.
Gorgeous and Timeless Laid Back West Coast Country
Singer-songwriter Gerry Spehar’s ‘story’ will resonate with many musicians who read this review. He ‘lived the dream’ in the 60’s hitch hiking across Europe, then returning to Colorado where he formed a band with his brother and supported many ‘big names’ who visited Boulder. Then reality bit him on the backside; he fell in love with Sue, had two kids and with not a lot of money coming in from that music malarkey he gave it up for a proper job in a bank.
After 30 years of writing and playing in his ‘man cave’ Gerry and Sue decided to push the songwriting part of their relationship only to find people liked Gerry’s singing…..hence I HOLD GRAVITY. The opening track Dirt is quite breathtaking; it’s Alt. Country but tightly wrapped and deeply intense, with guitars buzzing behind that softly grizzled voice like wasps around pop. The title track I Hold Gravity is a death defyingly beautiful love song, and one that will sound just as fresh when someone discovers it in 30 years time.
With all those years cooped up playing and writing; Gerry Spehar has a lot to say, and he says it so very eloquently I can’t believe it’s taken until now for him to be discovered. How To Get To Heaven From LA; must surely be a Guy Clark out-take; but no it’s 100% Gerry Spehar; just as Into The Mystic may share a title with Van Morrison’s song; but this one is pure Country Gold.
I’m intrigued to find out who Holy Moly, Doughboy is about, as it must surely be about a real man ‘gassed in WW1 and built a cabin in the rocks below the Holy Moses mine.’ The slow militaristic drumming and feint trumpet in the background give this touching story a resonance far beyond words in my vocabulary.
The first song I was actually drawn to was Mr. and Mrs Jones, a slightly funky in a singer-songwriter fashion tale of jealousy between two country farmers, that has more twists and turns than a coiled spring and I wasn’t expecting the story to end the way it did; but as my Daddy used to say “What goes around, comes around.”
But my favourite is actually Here In The Pass; a haunting laid back Country song; just perfect for kicking back to with a cold beer or hot cup of tea on a Saturday night as the sun sets over the yard arm.
Now I’ve got to the end; it pains me to say that Gerry’s wife of all those years didn’t get to see this finished article as she sadly died of cancer during the final stages of the recording process.
I like most of the music I review; but occasionally I discover records like this which I get to fall in love with…..and fall in love, I have and you may too.
#The second time I played this album there was something ‘niggling’ in my heard; something it reminded me of……but I couldn’t think of what; so just let it wash over me and seep into my musical subconscious; then I read the Press Release. DOH! Gerry Spehar’s ‘backing band’ are none other than RMHQ favourites I See Hawks in LA!
In one form of another, Gerry Spehar was one of the biggest acts in the '70s Colorado music scene, nobly giving it all up sometime in the '80s to focus on his family, which, if you’ve ever been to Colorado, is absolutely living the dream. It’s about three decades later, however, and he’s finally returned back to the scene with I Hold Gravity, a diverse collection of ten tunes dedicated to his wife Susan.
And quite the tight collection it is, a travelogue of America andAmericana, the sorted and sordid tales of its characters and caricatures, barreling right in from the churning opening cut “Dirt,” a paean to the ditch-diggers of this country with its oft-repeated lines of “Dirt, dirt, shovel ‘til you hurt” bringing it all back home. Meanwhile, the back-porch twang of “Muleshoe Mules” is a sweet-enough hymn to driving through small towns, while the big love of the title track is a heartfelt and, more importantly, thoroughly mature tribute to a lifelong love affair.
A juke-joint piano body-slams some overzealous swagger in the wrestling tribute “Be Nemanic,” a beer-swiggin’ good time working overtime as the traumatic character study of “Holy Moses Doughboy” is a cadence-laden story of war come home that brings things to a halt long enough to catch some breath. But it’s the absolute double-duty Band-esque beauty of the Gulf Coast tribute “Here in the Pass” and, especially, the lush wind-through-the-hair closer “Into the Mystic,” wistfully recalling a time when things seemed more important than they probably really were.
It’s all especially heartbreaking when learning that Spehar’s beloved passed last year as they were recording I Hold Gravity and, while I’m sure that would bring most other performers plummeting back down to Earth with a thud, Spehar’s soulful tribute allows the proceedings to ascend to Heaven without looking back, pure gravitas for Gravity all the way.