Review: ‘Diamond in the Rough’


Review at a glance: Singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin goes behind the music for her autobiography, chronicling her growth as an artist, her romantic misadventures and her nagging lifelong anxiety.

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I’ve been on the Shawn Colvin train nearly 20 years.

Diamond in the Rough by Shawn ColvinI remember seeing the singer-songwriter first at a local downtown music festival, making one of the finest discoveries of my life. Never having heard of her, I was drawn in to the unfamiliar folk-pop songs.

I bought her cassette, “Fat City” [aff. link], soon after. Colvin remains one of the few artists I’ve followed album after album, year after year, tour after tour.

Her latest work isn’t from the studio or the stage. It’s her autobiography, “Diamond in the Rough.”

For one of her return engagements to Birmingham, I had the good fortune to interview her for the Birmingham Post-Herald in 2001. (Well, I insisted, wielding my power as features editor.) You should never meet your heroes.

I naively thought my knowledge of her discography, her TV appearances and her touring would help me stand out from the thousands of interviews she had given to date. I was wrong. I recall she was a little testy from the moment she answered the call, which brought me down to earth quickly.

Having had more than a decade to recover from that telephonic encounter, I was interested when Colvin began promoting her autobiography this summer. She had never penned a book before. And biographies these days seem limited to historic figures and trashy reality stars.

While not a rock star, Colvin covers requisite territory: a childhood love of music, the long climb from obscurity, the rocket ride to fame and minor fortune, the struggle to overcome alcoholism, the broken marriages. She delves deeply into her songwriting process and the ups and downs of performing, whether in the small clubs of her youth or the nonstop grind of an international tour.

She is rather frank about her challenges. Her deep-rooted anxiety manifested early on in feeling trapped in middle school and high school. Colvin would ditch frequently, preferring the bitter cold of an Illinois winter outside to the confines of the classroom. As a struggling singer in New York, she would take six packs of beer to her apartment to drink in solitude, when not getting hammered during and after gigs.

Alcoholics Anonymous sobers her up, but leaves her with the often-crippling anxiety she had been suppressing through drink.

Her other drug of choice seems to be the wrong guy, though she readily admits to her own shortcomings in romantic commitments. At least by 56, she appears to have made peace with her self-destructive tendencies in relationships.

Her pain has informed her work, naturally. “A Few Small Repairs” [aff. link], her best-known CD, sprang from her recent divorce. The 1996 brought her a second Grammy, and more pressure for a big followup. We see her struggle to adapt to the decline in the post-Lilith Fair heyday and the rapidly collapsing traditional music business model.

Colvin’s lyrics open each chapter, giving context to her work over the years. She collaborated with John Levanthal starting out, but dedicated herself to learning to solo after her debut release. Fans of her catalog will enjoy discovering the intent and the meaning behind the music. Newbies might sample her songs to understand better (and here’s hoping the e-book version contains such links).

She presents her story with humility and a casual attitude. It is a brisk read, covering the ride so far from rebelling teen to overwhelmed mom.

The average reader will find it interesting enough, hopefully pushing them to sample her MP3s. I find myself listening to her catalog from the beginning with new perspective.

But after “Diamond in the Rough,” I understand Shawn Colvin the person better, after having connected with the songstress lo these many years.

Video: “The Facts About Jimmy” [live], Shawn Colvin

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