Amy Rigby is the best songwriter you've never heard. Post-punk grad, former temp worker, single mom, touring musician: Rigby made her bid to be American music's chief chronicler of underemployment and bohemian domesticity with her 1996 debut, Diary of a Mod Housewife. This week she'll make her second appearance in Memphis, performing alongside new musical partner and fellow cult favorite, British post-punk singer Wreckless Eric.
Landing in the middle of the "alt" era, Rigby's debut came across like a big sister illuminating the contours of a precarious future for all the barely post-collegiate competition. Essentially, her record was Exile in Guyville for grown-ups. That it remains her best album is because it feels like a record about saving a life. Everything that's followed has been about living one.
Musically, Rigby works in a residual-culture milieu that anyone but the most tight-assed avant-gardist should be able to respond to: sturdy bar-band rock-and-roll and straightforward folk-rock occasionally spiked with sharp flourishes. Her concrete songs are put across with a charmingly fizzy voice and merciless, bull's-eye phrasing.
In the 10 years between Diary of a Mod Housewife and her most recent solo album, 2005's Little Fugitive, Rigby released five albums, a body of work that boasts more ace new songs in her chosen folk-like form than perhaps any other songwriter in that period.
From "Beer and Kisses," the sing-along should-be standard that rings out on Diary of a Mod Housewife, Rigby's body of songs has tackled the difficult balance between "All I Want" and "What I Need" — relationships complicated by day-to-day stresses ("We're Stronger Than That"), dwindling sex drives ("Are We Ever Gonna Have Sex Again?"), past histories ("So You Know Now"), and complicated family dynamics ("The Trouble with Jeanie," about the gruesome discovery that a new husband's ex is a terrific person). There are great songs that touch on the bittersweet realities of parenthood ("Don't Ever Change"), on departed heroes ("Dancing with Joey Ramone"), and on wisdom born of experience ("The Summer of My Wasted Youth"). And through it all, Rigby keeps her head — and her humor and hope — while negotiating a series of third-rate romances and low-rent rendezvous.
In a just world, Rigby would at least be a subcultural star on the magnitude of Lucinda Williams, a musically similar contemporary. Williams is more of a formal genius, but Rigby's songs are smarter and funnier.
In theory, there's a home for this kind of traditional songcraft grounded in the work, love, and family lives of middle-class adults. It's called Nashville, and Rigby spent five years finding out it wasn't for her.
"I always thought, Oh there could be a place for me in all of that," Rigby says of Nashville's professional songwriting community. "But the more time I spent there, the less I believed that. And also the less interested I was."
Despite a publishing deal that never landed a big country hit on someone else's record, Rigby says she learned a lot from the experience:
"I feel like I really did 'hone my craft.' Even if you don't think that's why you're going there, in the end that's something you get out it."
After a stop in Cleveland, Rigby ended up living in France with Wreckless Eric, a British singer best known for his much-beloved late-'70s single "The Whole Wide World." Musically, the pairing has taken Rigby in a different direction. Even her solo writing efforts on the pair's recent eponymous duet album are more grounded in musical texture than ever before.
"The last couple of years I haven't been interested in writing songs," Rigby says. "It's like I need a purpose for writing, a reason to feel like there's a point in making another record. Working with Eric [gave me that]."
Rigby's contributions to the duo's album are all personal but are typically less thematic than the bulk of her solo work and more light-hearted.
The comically disapproving "Men in Sandals" was inspired by a night out in Nashville.
"There was a band onstage, and I was sitting with a friend," she says. "One of us said, 'There's something wrong.' And I said, 'Yes, at least half of that band is wearing sandals. Something must be done about this,'" Rigby says with a laugh.
"A Taste of the Keys," a bemused nightmare fantasy about waiting tables in the tropical-themed restaurant of the title, was written when Rigby lived in Cleveland. "It's about what it would have been like to have gone into that particular restaurant — which I did contemplate — and get a job," Rigby says. "You could actually see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame down the street. I thought if it comes to that and I have to work there, that might be it for me."
But most affecting might be "Please Be Nice to Her," a worried plea inspired by Rigby's 19-year-old daughter and Eric's twentysomething daughter but also by the younger women Rigby sees at her concerts.
By combining their largely disparate cult followings, Rigby and Wreckless Eric might build the bigger audience that each deserves. But what to say about a pop-music marketplace where someone as accessible, relatable, and accomplished as Rigby falls through the cracks? Are we too juvenile? Too misogynistic? Too susceptible to the romanticism Rigby's too sharp to fall prey too?
Rigby once asked "20 Questions" (from Diary of a Mod Housewife — go buy it!) but has had the decency not to quite ask those.