BY FRED MILLS
Presumably Charmed Life is an ironic album title, considering some of the misfortune—including a 10 year stint prison stemming from an addiction-fueled armed robbery gone awry—that Tucson rocker Billy Sedlmayr has weathered over his long career. Or perhaps in Sedlmayr’s eyes it’s actually a literal description; he’s simply glad to be with us and making music. For there were times when locals might have wondered, with no small justification, whether or not he was even still alive. This I know firsthand, because I lived in Tucson for about a decade and Sedlmayr, who was in the joint for much of the time I was there (and will always be “Billy Sed” to me because that’s how the music community referred to him), seemed at times as much a ghost as a legend. Nearly every musician I encountered had his or her own Billy Sed story, some tinged with fondness, some with sadness, all with at least a touch of awe.
As his bio from the Kickstarter campaign that helped fund this album explained, “For over three decades now Billy Sedlmayr has been deep in the fabric of Tucson music, from his early days as an underage musician playing dusty bars long since gone with punk rock pioneers The Pedestrians, then playing with Giant Sandworms, laying down the blueprint for Tucson music. Over the years Billy’s made music with local legends like Rainer, Howe Gelb, Dave Seeger, Rich Hopkins, Dan Stewart, Van Christian and many more, a founding member of a scene that produced bands like Naked Prey, Green On Red, Giant Sand and more.”
That backstory informs the songs of Charmed Life both directly and indirectly. Produced by Gabriel Sullivan (of Giant Sand and Taraf de Tucson; we recently premiered a Sullivan track HERE), it’s a record of simultaneous intimacy and expansiveness, and as befits its desert origins, of moonlit luminosity and sun-baked glare. Sedlmayr, backed by Sullivan and a host of Tucson talent that includes members of GS and TdT as well as erstwhile Bob Dylan drummer Winston Watson and multiinstrumentalist Andrew Collberg, serves up a dozen dusty travelogues. Chief among them is opening track “Pan American Highway Blues,” a country rocker powered by Spanish guitar and pedal steel in which Sedlmayr, singing in a voice as weathered as he appears physically these days, looks back on life—a highway—somewhat ruefully:
“If these chalk lines were my failings
And the driver then my soul
It goes slowly by the way of this ol’ road
So how does it feel now that you can’t go home?”
Elsewhere Sedlmayr meditates upon his surroundings both metaphorically (“The Desert Is No Lady,” a brooding slice of Calexico-styled spaghetti western pop) and literally (“Monsoons, Florence,” a twangy, mostly recited piece flashing back to his time cooped up in a cell), even slipping over the border for a lovely Mexican ballad sung in Spanish (“El Terco Corazón,” with accordion and nylon string guitar prominent). Perhaps it’s the widescreen, cinematic, Mariachi-flavored “Tucson Kills,” though, that’s the most affecting, a nakedly autobiographical tale in which Sedlmayr reflects upon old girlfriends and departed friends (among them Rainer Ptacek, recently profiled HERE at Blurt), of slowly vanishing lifestyles and eroding culture, of barrio scenes and seedy bars, and of how he “left a dozen times/ But I always crawl back/ Against my will/ Yeah, Tucson kills.” Someone should make a film based on this song.
Sedlmayr’s right—something about Tucson gets under your skin, and no matter where you go or how much time elapses, it’s there for good, always beckoning. The desert’s not an easy place to live or get ahead in the usual sense of what folks term “progress,” but for those who stay there and even for those who, like Sedlmayr, find themselves returning time after time, it has a certain nurturing power that is impossible to ignore.
Maybe that’s what Sedlmayr meant when he titled his album.
DOWNLOAD: “Pan American Highway Blues,” “Mary Ordinary,” “Tucson Kills”