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Music Review: Various Artists – Mark Twain: Words and Music

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In 2005, Cindy Lovell, executive director of the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, MO, contacted Grammy award-winning producer/musician/singer/songwriter Carl Jackson. Lovell had an idea she thought might interest him. Her concept was to produce a unique audio tribute to commemorate Twain on the 100th anniversary of his death in 2010. In short order, Jackson and Lovell dived into the project. But the complexity of including all the performers in what would become a star-studded two CD set meant it couldn’t be released until September 2011. It was worth the wait.

To tell the story of Samuel Langhorne Clemens from cradle to grave, the core of this fusion of “Words and Music” are the voices of narrator Garrison Keillor, Clint Eastwood as Twain, and Jimmy Buffett as Huckleberry Finn. Interspersed throughout the spoken-word story of Twain’s life are songs about the author or his creations performed by Jackson, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Rhonda Vincent, Bradley Walker, Sheryl Crow, The Church Sisters, Brad Paisley, Marty Raybon, Val Storey, Joe Diffie, and Ricky Skaggs. Any wonder it took so long to coordinate this project? With the exception of Crow’s acapella “Beautiful Dreamer,” all the songs are original reflections of the life and times of Samuel Clemens in country, bluegrass, or “Americana” musical settings. This should come as no surprise considering Jackson’s pedigree.

Perhaps inevitably, disc one is the more engaging of the two. That’s largely due to the fact it traces Twain’s childhood through his time on the river through his years out west and finally to his marriage and birth of his daughters. Keillor, Eastwood, and Buffett easily move back and forth from biography to autobiography to passages from Huckleberry Finn, demonstrating how Clemens’s childhood was used in his fiction. We get few other non-autobiographical sketches or stories, although Eastwood delivers a credible version of the “Genuine Mexican Plug” incident where a young Clemens learns it’s no easy feat to tame a wild horse. Near the end of disc one, Angela Lovell reads passages from Suzy Clemens’s biography of her father, and these are very happy memories indeed.

Then, disc two opens when Twain was a celebrated international author at the height of his fame and fortune. But quickly, the tone changes as we hear the stories of his daughter Suzy’s death, about the decline and passing of his beloved wife Livy, and how his writings darkened in the later years. There’s far less humor here. History, of course, is history–both the spoken material and the musical selections illustrating this period must reflect what actually happened. It’s not the production here that brings the listener down, but rather the events themselves. It’s here where the music really contributes to the experience, reminding us that we all share the same emotions Twain suffered in his saddest years.

No doubt, there will be those who complain about what was left out of this condensed version of a very complicated life. Some will feel that the choice of performers draws from a limited range of musical genres, and there’s no inclusion of any music the Clemens family might have heard themselves back in the 19th century. But no endeavor of this scope could be all inclusive, and little of the new music was intended to represent popular melodies of the times. Still, on one level, educators will appreciate this collection as an obvious means to connect with students in the classroom. Country fans will enjoy this sampler of current stars sharing the stage in this aural tribute to an important American author.

Beyond these audiences, anyone interested in learning a bit about American history, learning something about the “Lincoln of our letters,” or just being entertained by this multi-faceted story should enjoy this gathering of contemporary personalities lending their talents to a good cause. The proceeds from the sales of this nicely produced collection will help preserve the Mark Twain Museum. For the money, you get the two discs and a 40-page booklet containing all the narrative and song lyrics, along with the knowledge you’re contributing to keeping the story of Twain alive for future generations. Listen to that story, and you’ll know why it is worth it.

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About Wesley Britton