Michelle Malone is back in town this weekend as part of Park Tavern’s ongoing Unplugged in the Park shows. Malone will play Sunday, Aug. 21, at 7 p.m. The Atlanta native’s career has been filled with highs and lows, but she’s found new wisdom in the old mantra that music matters.
I went to a show back in the late ‘80s, possibly the early ‘90s, at the Fox. Certain things about that evening are etched into my memory: My mom drove me there. The lobby was draped in a brume of Patchouli. The Indigo Girls, in all of their pre Lilith Fair glory, headlined it. Insane Jane may have played. I’m almost positive Kristin Hall belted out a few. Hollyfaith was definitely on the bill; front man, Rob Aldridge stood in for Michael Stipe on “Kid Fears” – one of the show’s many collaborative encores. There were other things, too: the line to the bathroom, the beer-soaked carpets, and the little stars in the ceiling. There was also Malone, a cigarette tucked in the headstock of her signature Martin acoustic – her songs as riff-packed and jubilant as they were plaintive.
The Atlanta-born singer-songwriter remains a vibrant link to this city’s rich musical past. I chatted with her from her home in Decatur – that’s Decatur, Al. She briefly touched on why she calls the little berg just southwest of Huntsville home these days.
“Well I’d been [in Atlanta] my whole life,” she said, “and I just thought it was time for a change. I lived in Boulder, Col. for a couple of years and headed back down South because my father was ill, and I wanted to be closer to him, but I wasn’t ready to be back in there just yet. So I found this little town here; it’s pretty Mayberry-esque. When I moved in they brought me pie.”
“Debris,” Malone’s latest album, her tenth in more than 20 years of recording and touring, is a little more Lucinda Williams than it is Andy Griffith. Though it was released more than two years ago, one of its songs, “Restraining Order Blues” wound up on an episode of the popular HBO series “True Blood.” The episode, titled “If You Love Me, Why Am I Dyin’?” aired in July. Malone matter-of-factly explained how one of her bluesy throwbacks found purchase on yet another TV program. (She’s had songs on “Dawson’s Creek” and “Felicity,” as well.)
“It’s just about timing,” she said. “You have a company that pitches your music to people in film and TV, and if you happen to fit the style they’re looking for … It has nothing to do with how popular you are; it’s really just timing. There’s really no more romance in it for me. I love being on stage, and I love the hour of the day when I get to perform; that’s the magic, and that’s the romance. The other 23 hours is a grind … But for that one hour of the day I get to play guitar for people who are there because they like music. I’m really appreciative of that now.”
A former Arista Records artist, Malone, laughed off her sometimes turbulent past and shaky relationship with the entertainment industry: “I kind of went crazy in college [at Agnes Scott] and in my record deal [with Arista]. I was a free spirit for a long time, and it took me awhile to get grounded. Long story short – here I am all these years later, playing music, and enjoying it much more now that I value it and am able to make a living doing it.”
Her last show in Atlanta was in mid-July at Eddie’s Attic, a virtual big-brother program for open micers and wannabe John Mayers. But there was a time when Atlanta musicians, including Malone, had to make the rounds at grittier venues before the Fox came calling. She recalled some of her favorite haunts.
“I had a soft spot for the White Dot and the L5P Community Pub because those are the places where I really cut my teeth,” she said. “The White Dot was a free-for-all for so many up-and-coming Atlanta bands like Mary My Hope and Follow for Now. I played brunches at the Little Five Points Pub.”
So what’s next for Atlanta’s prodigal daughter? “I’m just not in a hurry to get another record out,” she said whimsically. “Music’s my lifeblood, if I stopped doing it, I’d probably shrivel up and blow away … I’m just a girl with a guitar having a good time. I don’t see why that’s important, but I’m glad it is to some people.”
To find out more about Malone, visit www.michellemalone.com.