Listening: The Genius of Judee Sill

The college radio had two studios: the live studio and the production studio/library. The latter was usually empty, and anyone could come in and listen to whatever they wanted. I took over the room whenever I could because I loved to listen to new music.

That was where I first heard several of the underrated artists I have spent the rest of my life hawking to anyone who will listen, like John Kongos, Linda Perhacs, and most especially Judee Sill. 

My memory of hearing Judee Sill’s first album is the most vivid. I remember sitting and staring at the “UNIpak” foldout cover and reading along with the lyrics sometime during my freshman year of 1971-72, wearing the big old headphones we wore in those days and absorbing the lush music that was part folk, part country, part classical, and essentially genre-busting, and her sweet voice with its improbable Texas twang — “Headin’ fer a star” rather than “Heading for,” for example — over a folk guitar and a baroque string section.

I remember being impressed by the first three songs, but I was thoroughly charmed by the fourth track, “The Lamb Ran Away With The Crown,” which has a catchy tune, a playful beat, clever signature changes, and delightfully cryptic lyrics: “Once I heard a serpent remark, ‘If you try to evoke the spark, You can fly through the dark With a red midnight raven To rule the battleground,’ So I drew my sword and got ready, But the lamb ran away with the crown.”

The song ends with Sill harmonizing with herself in a gorgeous round that has been a cheerful earworm for me on many an occasion in the ensuing years, and I remember grinning with the headphones on as the song faded away.

And then in Track 5, Judee Sill hit me in the heart and I fell in love for a lifetime.

There’ve been a handful of times in my life that a song paralyzed me, and the only thing I could do was sit and listen in awe. That’s how I reacted to “Lady-O” the first time I heard it. I was thoroughly mesmerized for the entire album when I listened to it that first time, but the one-two punch of “Lamb” and “Lady-O” was the emotional highlight.

Judee Sill led a harsh life, and she made a boatload of bad decisions, one of which was to descend into drug addiction after her brilliant two albums failed to sell and Asylum Records dropped her. She died of a drug overdose at age 35 in 1979 and remains relatively unknown except to those of us who know her work.

I was tickled to hear that interest has rekindled again in the wake of a new documentary, “Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill,” and disappointed that I didn’t hear about it until after it had already been streamed for a short period of time in November. Currently it’s nowhere to be found; no doubt that will change, and I look forward to seeing it someday.

But really, the way to get to know Judee Sill is to listen to those two albums, Judee Sill and Heart Food. They belong on any list of the Top 10 singer-songwriter albums of the 1970s or any era.

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