The much-awaited opening of the Katharine Cornell Theatre (KCT) Concerts season has arrived, and just in time to brighten the darkest month of winter. There promises to be the usual line-up of stellar acoustic musicians from around the globe: fiddlers, flautists, banjo players. However, this year’s series kicks off with a home-grown jewel: world-traveled yet deep-rooted Island native Willy Mason, making music with a few of his longtime Island friends.
Whenever Willy comes home to play, it’s cause to celebrate. There’s the feeling that the neighbor’s boy has returned from a strange land, bone-tired but profoundly happy to be back among familiar faces in a familiar place. And it’s true: in the past year, Willy has flown back and forth across the Atlantic. He has traversed the United Kingdom and Europe, played at the Montreux Jazz Festival, opened for Norah Jones, and had his hit song “Oxygen” recorded by opera legend Renée Fleming. On this continent, he has driven from gig to gig in a mini-schoolbus that has been modified for sleeping when all other accommodations fall through.
But in a deeper sense, Willy Mason is a soul far more road-worn than his 26 years might suggest. There’s an amused patience to the often loping tempo of his songs, and an elliptical quality to his lyrics, that come from a wisdom few attain in a lifetime. Of course it would age anyone to be catapulted from a rural high school on a small Island to world-wide stardom in the piranha-infested entertainment industry. But not many would come to terms with it as astutely as Willy does in his song “Carry On,” comparing himself to a burnt moth on a bedside table:
It was a world I never made;
I just fell into this old parade.
They told me it’s my time to shine
And they got ways to light me up at night.
They didn’t care from where I came;
It seemed they’d lost their pride and shame
Looking for a fire of their own.
Those are the words of a man who has been through a crucible. Willy’s story may be the tale of people trying to make a big deal of a man who just wanted to stay his natural size. His gift, and his burden, is a genuine likeability and eagerness to please that are like catnip to intruders.
The world-wearied voice and boyish, unkempt presence are completely real. With his unobtrusive, unostentatious guitar playing, Willy draws you into a place that is both contemporary and timeless, both personal and universal. It’s a fragile yet powerful experience if you trust yourself to relax and let his voice carry you.
In a few recordings available on amazon.com or at kctconcerts.com, Willy plays with a band. But honest human nakedness is his theme and being, and he’s best at his simplest. A guitar is all he needs to deliver shards of something shattered, tenderly offered as if they belonged to all of us, and he is sorry for that. “I don’t make promises no more; I just go lookin’ for the door,” he laments in “Looking for the Door.”
There is lots of space in Willy’s songs. Long interludes fray the connection between phrases, whose meaning is in any case elusive. In its plain-spokenness but reluctance to be pinned down to one interpretation, this is true poetry.
He’s colored by his time and place, but that’s just surface. Just beneath, a Willy Mason song could be 100 years old; could be from Appalachia, or the deep South. He doesn’t imitate anyone you’d recognize, yet falls squarely in the realm of raw American folk. In an earlier era, field researchers from the Smithsonian might have hiked to Willy’s cabin to preserve his songs. A passage from “Restless Fugitive”:
Tell us how they brought you down
And why’d you let them hang around;
Tell us when you left the earth,
And promise, next time, you’ll call first.
Vulnerable and sweet, genetically incapable of posturing, Willy is the real deal: a singer-songwriter whose good heart keeps him humble, who resists the easy, and whose feet are not only on the ground, they are firmly on Island ground. With a friendly home-town audience, Saturday’s concert is bound to feel a lot like a family reunion.
Willy Mason in Concert with Jemima James, Dan Waters, Nina Violet and Marciana Jones, 8 pm, Saturday, March 5, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $15; $10 in advance at Aboveground Records, Alley’s, Island Entertainment, Scottish Bakehouse; free for children 12 and under. 508-693-6237; kctconcerts.com. Funded in part by a grant from the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council.