If ever there was an anthem for rock music's back-to-the-earth movement of the late 60s and early 70s, "Opening" was it. Written by Bill Pillmore with help from fellow Cowboy member Pete Kowalke, it opened Cowboy's "Reach For the Sky" LP and encapsulated what many felt in a country so engrossed in itself that individuals seemed to matter little and identity was in danger of being lost in the mass. For a handful, the song was a mantra, a path. One minute and fifty-three seconds of sanity amidst chaos. Some fans thought that if Pillmore had written nothing else, it would have been enough.
Pillmore left Cowboy right after the critically-acclaimed but destined-for-failure "5'll Getcha Ten" album was completed (the band's second), gone before the vinyl had cooled. A family awaited, and a life in which music played a role, though a role not as active. He ran a hardware store, tuned pianos and did what any good husband and father does: provided. For thirty-plus years, his guitar and piano supported him in his endeavors, simply as food for his soul. But he wanted more. The music is in his blood.
Lucky for us it is. A short while ago, Pillmore stocked his attic with recording equipment and eased himself back into the music business. While his intention was to record others, it was natural that he should record himself, as well. Of course, it took persuasion on the part of various friends and family members, daughter Jess in particular, to get him beyond the demo stage, but he got there.
"Look In, Look Out", the first recorded music from Bill Pillmore since his days with Cowboy, hit the streets a couple of months ago. My first impression was automatic: This is not Cowboy. My second was peripheral: Regardless, there are some good tunes here. My third, a little deeper: Some damn fine tunes. My fourth, understanding: This is Bill Pillmore, singer/songwriter, warts and all, with no pretenses.
It is the lack of pretenses that makes this an album worth hearing. Pillmore has a way of delivering the goods without the frills and pyrotechnics many performers feel they need. In short, his gimmick is no gimmick. What you hear is what you get, laid out in a simplistic yet captivating way. The Bill Pillmore way.
"Coming Back To You" is a perfect kickoff for this collection. Rooted in folk, Pillmore lays almost casual vocals over the top of a beautifully constructed instrumental layer courtesy of session players Craig Barnette (drums), Farris Nix (bass), Dan Phelps (electric guitar), and his own acoustic guitar. Simple, straightforward, it sets the tone for the rest. Hard to believe it wasn't planned that way. "We rearranged the center of it on the spot," Pillmore explained, "because what I was doing was rhythmically incongruent with the rest of the song. We changed the break in the center." A classic example of work in progress.
"Sundial In The Shade" was another session creation. "I wrote that in 3/4 time," said Pillmore, "and Jess said let's put it in 4/4. Dan (Phelps) said let's do both. (It ended up) pretty cool."
The song that Pillmore claimed found itself, though, was "Somebody's Baby". "It was a song that I didn't think was enough of a song to make the record, but in the process, it became a song. And I learned how to sing it." The seed was planted while watching a PBS screening of Ken Burns' documentary on the life of Mark Twain. The apparent isolation and desolation of Twain's wife struck a note. "She wrote a letter to her mother and said, sometimes I just need to crawl up in your lap and hear you say everything's all right. I didn't know if that would be too much of a downer song or what, but it spoke to me. That one line."
The album is not all ballads and folk tunes. The upbeat "I Love My Car" is a light rocker, a tribute to the happiness some of us feel for our wheels. "Le Cliche" hearkens back to Cowboy's first LP and Pillmore's "Pick Your Nose", a nod to what used to be called Hillbilly music (a little more twang, if you get my drift). "Woman Of The World" is Pillmore's light-hearted lament at daughter Rose's coming of age and his own changing role as dad.
Ballads and folk tunes are a strength here, though. "Fly Away With Me" is as close to straight folk as Pillmore gets, complete with hand-clapping, footstomping percussion. "Angel's Wings" tears at the heartstrings, a tale of a boy laid to rest in Heaven, if I hear it right. And then there is "Cowboy Lullaby". Written before even the Cowboy days, it captures the surreal space we all have between reality and sleep. And thanks to the beautifully orchestrated electric guitar at the end (courtesy of the tasteful Dan Phelps), it carries the listener to a height of electric emotion as it fades out.
Musicians around Florida seem to want to call what he does Americana. I suppose that fits, for there is a roots aspect to everything on the CD, but there is more. There are intangibles beneath the notes and the chords and the rhythms which defy a simple categorization. It is that depth of soul found in even the most happy of the songs... that certain something that allows a connection with the performer.
And it apparently carries over to live performances. Tom Wynn, Cowboy's drummer during Pillmore's days with the band, caught a gig and sent an email saying, "Bill's better than I've ever heard him." If that's true, he is a musician worth hearing and seeing. Let's face it, if you can't trust the drummer, who can you trust?