by James M. Manheim
Chuck Suchy ("SOO-key") farms land near Mandan, North Dakota. In 1982 someone gave him a copy of "Field behind the Plow," the folk classic by Canadian songwriter Stan Rogers ("Watch the field behind the plow turn to straight dark rows. Put another season's promise in the ground"). "It was at that moment," Suchy has said, "that I realized that the life I was immersed in was worthy of song."
From the start, he had a knack for writing songs with wide-open musical and textual spaces appropriate to the environment they describe-often five or six minutes long, and covering an entire cycle of some kind: a day in the field, a Saturday night at a community hall, a generational echo. The Minneapolis roots musician Peter Ostroushko discovered Suchy and recorded him effectively, in simple, straightforward arrangements that brought out the silences between the words and notes of Suchy's songs. (In person, it's just Chuck and his guitar.) Suchy has performed on A Prairie Home Companion, surely a fine showcase for his talents. Anybody who likes Garrison Keillor's weekly news from Lake Wobegon should enjoy Suchy's concert at the Ark on Tuesday, September 13. And more locally, the folks who pack the Ark for Jay Stielstra's periodic reappearances should check out Suchy, too-the music of these two real midwesterners shares a rhythmically square, totally-untouched-by-contemporary-pop quality that keeps the focus on the solid lyric craft.
In recent years, though, Suchy's music has expanded beyond this niche. His latest album, Evening in Paris, is still rooted in North Dakota but reaches out from there in very unusual ways. Its title track is a reminiscence of young people who would sit in cars and listen to clear-channel radio stations, bringing sounds of the city to their small town: "Mohair aroma, dime-store perfume / Evening in Paris, a prairie moon." The song's refrain consists of the call letters of various radio stations-a simple but wholly unexpected device. Suchy sings of inheriting the
spirit of music from a Native American hitchhiker, of chains of unresolved issues that come down from ancestor to ancestor so that "we hear the ancient voices / in choices of our own." And "On the Banks of the Old Cannonball," about a German American under suspicion during World War I, is full of resonances for any American community today.
It's a mild-mannered but superb piece of work. And it's still full of wide-open spaces. Chuck Suchy makes music from the heart of the heart of the country.
[Review published September 2005]