By Josh Hurst
Josh Hurst lives in Charlotte, NC and writes about music and film for Christianity Today and his own blog, The Hurst Review.
Don’t be fooled by aw-shucks modesty or folksy wisdom in either politicians or singer-songwriters. When Joe Henry sings that “we all have stories, I suppose,” he is, of course, saying something deliberate, even if he tries to give the impression that it’s off the cuff. The song—“She Always Goes,” from an early country-rock album called Kindness of the World—pulls off the trick of sounding both like an homage to, and a subversion of, the tears-in-your-beer country weeper. This is the sort of songwriter’s trick that proves the “everyone-has-a-story” truism isn’t so much barstool philosophizing as a poet’s knack for understatement.
Though he’s won a well-deserved Grammy for his work as a record producer, the sheer scope and complexity of Henry’s narrative imagination constitute the greater achievement.
Simply put: Joe Henry's story is one you need to hear.
Looking at his bio you might think of him as a walk-on extra, or, at best, a bit player. He happens to be related, by marriage, to Madonna. As a boy, his school desk sat right beside that of Jeffrey Dahmer, who would go on to win notoriety for the gruesome slaying of seventeen people. Henry’s residence and studio, known simply as Garfield House, was once home to the First Lady of the same name.
Being a talented and increasingly in-demand record producer has its perks, however; in recent years, Henry has been promoted from walk-on to casting director. His Rolodex seems to contain the name and phone number of just about every talented musician in the world: he’s worked with New Orleans piano legend Allen Toussaint, soul veteran Solomon Burke, former New Waver Elvis Costello, and cult folksinger Loudon Wainwright III.
Still, if the important thing about any good story is the way it’s told, then what’s most striking about Henry’s own narrative is the way he tells it—namely, by not telling it at all, at least not directly. Henry has never been a songwriter concerned with telling the tale of his own life; his ambitions are grander than that.
With each album he’s made, Henry’s pulled the camera back to reveal an even broader field of view, and it has become increasingly clear that the story he wants to tell is not the story of Joe Henry. It’s the story of a nation. It’s the story of the human condition.
How’s this for a list of themes: Truth, and the suppression thereof. The frailty of human love contrasted with the shocking power of divine love. Addiction. Providence. Grace. A nation’s decline and a people’s malaise, and the whispered hope of redemption.
These don’t sound like the topics of choice for your typical navel-gazing folky—but then, Henry is anything but a typical, navel-gazing folky.
Such a big, messy story—one that pulls the heart down into the deepest valley before pointing the way back to Heaven—demands a serious cast of characters. Henry knows just the right folks: jazz legend and junkie Charlie Parker. Haunted comedian Richard Pryor. Willie Mays, “the greatest center-fielder of all time.”
For all the well-known ghosts rattling around in Henry’s songbook, his greatest casting coup is this: That God himself appears—not just in a cameo, but as the story’s central character, the presence around whom all the other characters orbit. It is he who shines through the cracks in all the other characters, he who keeps the story moving forward, and he who makes sure that the ending is never what you’re expecting.
Take Henry’s song about saxophonist Charlie Parker. Universally acknowledged as one of the great jazz musicians, Parker was also a notorious drug addict; his is one of the most harrowing tales of self-destruction in the entire canon of jazz lore.
In “Parker’s Mood” (from the album Civilians) Henry takes on Parker’s voice, singing as though the man is addressing his lover. Not surprisingly, the song sounds an awful lot like an apology. The giant of jazz stumbles home one night, not sure what time it is or where he left his socks and shoes. The sense of spiritual desolation and physical isolation is almost unbearable: “The only light in here is my flickering TV / watching back at me.”
Parker knows that he’s killing himself—“when I came home this morning, I was dead on my feet / Drunk on the victory of my own defeat”—and he knows that his self-destruction doesn’t just spell doom for himself, but for those he loves: “The things we put together, / Ah, the world will tear apart. / Well I beat them to the start.”
Henry’s voice aches with sadness as he sings these lines, but a paradox enters the song’s refrain: “Oh my love is here to stay.” The light of grace seems to shine through the cracks in Parker’s broken humanity; we not only see his self-destructiveness, but also the works of beauty that remain with us. Here was a man who, though flawed and frayed and hopeless on his own, was a vessel through which God moved and shook and shone the bright lamp of his grace, granting this man of unspeakable pain an inimitable gift.
And he’s given one to Joe Henry, too.