Roll Playing

On his latest album, bookworm musician Jim Roll collaborates with two music-geek novelists

Transforming these words into usable song lyrics wasn't always easy, but, aside from repeating a phrase or two to construct a chorus, Roll didn't tinker with either writer's language much: "I tried -- not out of fear but just as a kind of challenge -- to respect what they'd written and do it as straight as possible. But I was really surprised that I was able to pull some of it off. Rick and Denis both use a lot of three- and four-syllable words that I think in general you wouldn't find in most pop or country songs."

Jim Roll: "I was really surprised that I was able to pull some of it off."
Jim Roll: "I was really surprised that I was able to pull some of it off."

Roll admits that he doesn't completely understand everything he sings on the record, but, as any fan of The Anthology of American Folk Music can tell you, the most powerful songs are often the most impenetrable. Take the title track, which pits Johnson's lyrics against a lone banjo and spooky snippets from old TV shows: Your wife put Amy's head beneath the wheel/And acted out her black psychotic rage/That's why your second wife left you/And rode off on her wooden steed/And drifted off among the buttercups/And left youhere to rot and bleed. Does it matter that we don't know who Amy is, what exactly happened to her or why this act would cause the subject's second wife to leave him? Not to Roll, a student of what music writer Greil Marcus once called "the old, weird America": "Even though I was a suburban-Chicago pop person, I really got obsessed with old-time music several years ago," Roll says. "I went to West Virginia and studied fiddle and spent a lot of time with those old folk songs. And I've always been a big Dylan fan, who drew from that stuff, too. So it's really fun when I get to have these surreal, rocking, freaky nonlinear songs that still somehow feel like they mean something. And they probably do; I just can't figure it out."

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