Joan Shelley can say a great deal in very few words. On her new EP Rivers and Vessels, the Kentucky folk singer turns those gifts to interpreting the works of such artists as Nick Drake, JJ Cale, and Dolly Parton, including a haunting cover of Parton's "The Bridge" that features Bonnie "Prince" Billy.
Released on her 1968 album Just Because I'm a Woman, "The Bridge" tells the story of a pregnant woman who's been deserted by her lover and returns to the bridge where they first kissed. Though it ends with an abrupt cliffhanger, the song strongly implies that the woman is there to commit suicide.
"When I heard this song for the first time, it was from a video of Dolly playing on the Porter Wagoner show and I was so excited and challenged by it that I immediately wrote several songs in response — which were feeble by comparison," Shelley tells Rolling Stone Country. "But the song gave me something to aim for: The way her perfectly simple yet odd guitar part sits in lines of the verse; the sweet and economical way she could deliver such a devastating story. It's brilliant.”
Where Parton's solo vocal emphasizes the isolated desperation of the song's narrator, Shelley and Bonnie "Prince" Billy's harmonizing gives "The Bridge" an ancient, shared feeling – though also a thematic irony with the presence of a male voice, given the absentee father's role in the unfolding tragedy. Rather than having tensions escalate as the story reaches its climax, the grief rolls along with a steady inexorability.
Rivers and Vessels is available now with all proceeds going to Kentucky Waterways Alliance, which focuses on the preservation of waterways in Shelley's home state. It's the follow-up to her 2017 LP Joan Shelley, which was produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco.
Shelley will be touring this spring starting April 4th.
Rivers and Vessels track listing:
1. "Time Has Told Me"
2. "Magnolia" (feat. Julia Purcell)
3. "Pretty Little Miss" (feat. Doug Paisley)
4. "The Bridge" (feat. Bonnie “Prince” Billy)
5. "How Sad How Lovely" (feat. Daniel Martin Moore)
6. "Silver Whistle"