by Carl Wilson
On Saturday night I went to see Kelly Hogan play, a pleasure that I’ve had probably half a dozen times in my life and one that never gets less pleasurable. Hogan was recovering from a recent bout of pneumonia, she told us, and she kept a cotton handkerchief hanging from her mic stand to take the phlegm between songs – so for the first time in my experience, her voice that’s normally like a ship’s horn cutting through fog faltered and cracked on some of the big notes. But that was fine, or more than fine, because it just made her lean emotionally harder into the quieter stuff. She’s the kind of singer who can make every line a surprise, even of a song you know by heart: Every moment of a song is another turn of the wheel for Hogan.
Researchers like Dan Levitin talk about how the brain loves the musical tension between repetition and novelty, but Hogan reminds me that much of the music I love best never feels like it’s repeating, even when the notes are purportedly the same. (She had a perfect complement in guitarist and bandleader Jim Elkington, who likewise seems to have arranged every line of his multilayered accompaniment to mirror specifically the emotional progress of the song.) And of course she was warm and funny and made you want to pattern your life and personality on her, because that’s just what Hogan’s like, and why there weren’t a thousand people there in supplication is a mystery to me.
So in an effort to Be More Like Kelly Hogan, I took note of her tribute to Margaret Ann Rich, who wrote the song Pass On By that Hogan covers on her new album, and many others – most of them for her husband, the country star Charlie Rich, but for Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge and others too. This is her most famous song, which different people hear different ways: Dave Marsh describes it in The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made as a “thinly disguised roman a clef about being married to an alcoholic singer/piano player who almost-but-not-quite reached superstardom, not once but thrice.” He also claims that many critics have interpreted it as “a criticism of the American class system” (though Marsh thinks not). When he’s covered it live, the alt-country performer Robbie Fulks describes it as “all of existence in two verses.” You could say a lot about its vision of marriage and gender too. Or you could just listen.