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Book Review

‘Diamond in the Rough’ by Shawn Colvin

Shawn Colvin performed at the 2012 Awards for Lyrics of Literary Excellence at the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in February.
Shawn Colvin performed at the 2012 Awards for Lyrics of Literary Excellence at the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in February.MARC ANDREW DELEY/GETTY IMAGES

Before she is even out of her memoir’s prologue, Shawn Colvin brings up “Sunny Came Home,” the 1996 song that earned her Grammy awards for song and record of the year and is her greatest commercial achievement thus far. Colvin not only plays the “Sunny” card quickly but also frequently, as different fragments from the hit’s lyrics serve as chapter headings.

Yet Colvin, 56, calls her book “Diamond in the Rough” after the title of her first real composition, a song she wrote roughly a decade before “Sunny” and the one she says “defined everything I would write from then on.”

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Colvin’s memoir works the same way, charting obvious achievements but emphasizing personal, less-well-known triumphs and setbacks that shaped the artist. Colvin smartly accentuates a pinnacle early since much of her march to the public spotlight was hobbled by mental breakdowns, alcoholism, and self-doubt. Letting the reader know early on that things more or less turned out OK allows Colvin to tackle her troubles with a survivor’s voice. There are humor, remorse, and gratitude in her narrative.

Colvin begins with childhood episodes that portend her musical pursuits and personal struggles, carrying on up to concert tours and anxiety attacks occurring as recently as 2009. The folk-pop star says that she was fortunate to have become a music geek as a teenager in the mid-1970s during a golden era of singer-songwriters. Colvin finds solace and inspiration in the works of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Simon & Garfunkel.

Colvin’s initial promise surfaced as she sang in coffeehouses and bars near her southern Indiana home. She joined the Dixie Diesels, a country band that relocated to Austin, Texas, where she absorbed musical lessons and met contacts that influenced her career to this day. But also in these years between age 19 and 22, Colvin was hampered by anxiety, alcoholism, and anorexia. She stopped singing and returned to her parents’ home, finding work in a university lab cleaning rat cages.

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But hitting a bottom inspired Colvin to write lyrics — just a few lines, but enough to get her back on track. Her journey continued to Berkeley, Calif., and more significantly to New York in 1980 at the behest of Buddy Miller, whom she first met in Austin and who remains a key collaborator (Miller produced Colvin’s new album, “All Fall Down,” released simultaneously with the memoir).

Working in Miller’s band introduced Colvin to an array of talented musicians, chief among them John Leventhal, who Colvin flat out says is responsible for her becoming a songwriter.

“Diamond in the Rough” is crammed with accounts of Colvin’s disastrous relationships with men, including philandering boyfriends and two doomed marriages. But it’s her six-year, on-again-off-again romance with Leventhal, and their even lengthier professional union, that is the book’s most interesting relationship; the two practically “parented” Colvin’s first album into existence.

“Steady On,’’ Colvin’s 1989 debut on Columbia records, made when she was 32, earned her a Grammy and professional footing. Succeeding efforts “Fat City” and “Cover Girl” moved her higher up the contemporary-folk hierarchy. Discussing the making of each album, Colvin illuminates the magical blend of craft and happenstance that leads to powerful music.

Colvin attributes the high-water mark of “A Few Small Repairs” and its signature tune “Sunny Came Home” to a happy confluence of being the right artist to make the right record at the right time.

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After “Sunny,” Colvin became a mother, withstood changes in the music industry and navigated recurrences of debilitating depression. Humorous asides into her clothing obsession or self-effacing declarations of neurotic behavior lighten some of the heaviness.

Examining her early life, Colvin assures readers that music was her salvation, and by the final chapters that reflect on where she is at currently, she convinces them that her music still serves that purpose.


Scott McLennan can be reached at smclen
nan1010@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcLennan1.