My fondness for Janis Ian comes as no surprise to longtime VG readers. My monthly column is named after one of her songs, and I have followed her career since I bought my first LP, which was also her first LP. Billie’s Bones marks another installment in her musical saga, and like most of her work, lets us into her rich interior world.
Close on the heels of her live double CD release, Billie’s Bones features all new material recorded in a studio environment. Songwriting is not just an art, but also a craft, and the craft of songwriting takes years to perfect. Here, on Ian’s 18th studio album, you can’t help but be impressed by her mastery of this craft. On the title track she combines haunting melody with multi-leveled lyrics to create an arresting sonic landscape. Other songs take you from Paris to Amsterdam and back to her adopted home of Nashville. The uniting force is Ian’s sharp wit, musical soul, poetic heart, and crusading will.
Produced by Jeff Balding and Marc Mareau with her longtime front of house engineer Phillip Clark serving as the associate producer, Billie’s Bones has the polish and finesse of a major label production. The musicians roster includes Jim Brock on percussion and drums, Richard Davis on upright and arco bass, Dan Dugmore on dobro, lap and pedal steel, electric guitars, banjo, and nylon string guitar, with Harry Stinson and Dolly Parton on harmony vocal joining Janis’ acoustic guitars, keyboards, and lead vocals. More fully fleshed out than her last studio release, God and the FBI, which was done on a Mac in a rented house, the arrangements on Billie’s Bones remain understated so Janis’ voice remains in the forefront. The songs are the stars here.
In an age where most pop stars’ careers are over before they’re old enough to get a driver’s license, it’s heartening to see that an adult artist cannot only survive, but continue to expand artistically. Janis Ian is my hero. She proves that modern musical art is not the exclusive province of the young, and that given half a chance, a contemporary musical artist can grow and prosper.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s May ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.