LeE HARVeY OsMOND
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. - When Tom Wilson released 2015's Beautiful Scars, his third album under his alternate moniker, Lee Harvey Osmond, he was just beginning to grasp the full irony of using an assumed identity. Turns out Wilson had been living his entire life under one - a fact he didn't learn until his 55th birthday, when his cousin confessed she was really his mother and his heritage was Mohawk, not Irish.
That's why the cover depicts Wilson as a powerful and raw figure, warrior-like - someone who looks as if he's still wild. "That's actually how I feel as an artist," Wilson explains. "At 56, I'm just emerging from the woods, with all of this new knowledge of who I am."
That Latent Recordings album, which originally was released in Canada, is set to come out in the U.S. on March 25. Produced by the Cowboy Junkies' Michael Timmins, Beautiful Scars shares its title with Wilson's upcoming memoir for Random House/Penguin, and inspired his latest collaboration with filmmaker Jeth Weinrich, a short-film trilogy titled Where the Dirt Ends the Love Begins .
"The album is where I am now," Wilson says. "It was made during this discovery." The "beautiful scars" concept also infuses Wilson's large-format paintings: his work suggests influences from Picasso to his Mohawk background. He's still trying to wrap his head around that latter element.
"I didn't know where the inspiration was from, and I'm not a cosmic guy, but if you see my art or listen to what I've been writing about on this album, I've been documenting this through the fucking cosmos for the last couple of years," says Wilson, also known as a member of the Americana trio Blackie & the Rodeo Kings.
"In your life you accumulate a wealth of pain and a wealth of learning that make you blossom as a human being at a certain point, and for me, it's this point, in my mid-50s," he adds. "My old line used to be the chip on my shoulder served me well. Now these beautiful scars are serving me well."
And his story continues to evolve, with more zigs and zags than a stitch job on a bad cut. When Wilson, raised in a blue-collar steel town by an aunt and uncle, finally met his newly discovered relatives, he learned of his relation to the famed Mohawk Skywalkers, the iron men who built New York City. A family elder is in the iconic photo (Lunch atop a Skyscraper) of a crew sharing a lunch break while perched like birds on a wire.
The self-described acid-folk of previous Osmond albums A Quiet Evil and The Folk Sinner also takes on new characteristics as the Wilson-Timmons relationship evolves; it dates back to their collaboration on The Kennedy Suite, a song cycle about the events of Nov. 22, 1963.
Wilson says he invoked Osmond in the first place because that effort reignited his desire to make the kind of music he did with Cowboy Junkies/Miles Davis-inspired '90s band Junkhouse - before they became a drug-taking, equipment-smashing rock band with a big record deal. That is, music of truth and relevance, performed with passion and finesse by players who serve the song, not themselves.
Often stylized as LeE HARVeY OsMOND, the name also serves as a reference to the tumultuous era in which pop culture took over and Wilson's sociopolitical and creative sensibilities (including his slyly humorous subversive streak) took shape.
But instead of the aural equivalent of that upper- and lowercase mashup, Wilson sought a meditative vibe. It flows through the sound of Aaron Goldstein's crying pedal steel, which might segue into Michael Davidson's cool vibraphone notes or harmonies by Andrea Ramolo, who duets with Wilson on the beguiling, yet melancholy "Hey Hey Hey." "Shake the Hand" echoes with funk and twang, while the fluttery flute groove brass/woodwind player Darcy Hepner blows in "Black Spruce" could have flown out of Creed Taylor's '70s CTI jazz catalog. The delicate "Dreams Come and Go" casts a glow on Wilson's rich, unvarnished baritone and accomplished picking, not to mention the potential of his co-writer and harmony vocalist, son Thompson. (He's also heard on "Planet Love.")
That vibe - a near-drone on the creepy, yet compelling "Oh, the Gods" - can be heard even in the sultry, seductive allure of "Loser Without Your Love" and "Blue Moon Drive," a song that practically undulates with sexiness. That's illustrated in its video, a pastiche of images from "Private Snafu" and other '30s- and '40s-era adult cartoons, which alternates between va-va-voom Jessica Rabbit types and their horny male oglers.
"Hell Boy Blues," a bonus iTunes track, has an irresistible grittiness - the kind we might expect from a guy who wanted a guitar so badly as a kid, he connived his way into one from a store giving freebies to those who signed up for lessons. A 12-year-old living in a money-strapped household (his adoptive father was blinded in World War II), Wilson registered with fake info, snagged a six-string and never returned.
That guitar led to a career of crafting tunes recorded by artists as diverse as Lucinda Williams, Mavis Staples, Billy Ray Cyrus and George Thorogood. It also led to several international hits with Junkhouse, and to forming Blackie & the Rodeo Kings with Colin Linden and Stephen Fearing, then to working with Bob and Daniel Lanois and to the albums under Wilson's given name. Clearly a man with no shortage of creative directions, he's thrilled about his latest one.
"I love performing this music because I've actually managed to create something that reaches deep into me, and pacifies me in some ways," he says. "Beautiful Scars is the beginning of a series that I'm going to continue doing, hopefully, for the next 20 years. I'm just trying to create something that - even if it sounds corny - makes the world a little more bearable and encourages people to open up their hearts a little more every day." As he knows, a heart that's open is always beautiful - no matter how many scars it bears.