Whit Hill lived and worked in Ann Arbor as a singer-songwriter, dancer, choreographer and writer–including for the Observer–for decades before moving to Nashville a few years ago. She still maintains her ties here, coming back every August for Nashbash, the annual music and food festival she helped found. When Hill returns this year (on August 20), she will showcase a new pastime that has surfaced in her life since she moved south. In 2011 Hill bought a metal detector and added “metal-detectorist” to her already Renaissance-length resume. She admits to being obsessed with her new hobby, and her latest CD is I Dug it Up, A Collection of Songs Inspired by Metal Detecting. Seems like a pretty narrow field to cultivate, right? Wrong.
It’s a long-held truism that hidden in the microcosm is the macrocosm or, as James Joyce wrote, “in the particular is contained the universal.” While Hill’s songs here use the very particular language and images of metal detecting, they unearth universal themes: the battle between the sexes, the horrors of war and the longing for peace, and remembering and honoring those who have gone before us.
The CD shines with fine craftsmanship; literate lyrics with fresh rhymes and off-rhymes (“beneath the grass and the magnolias / lies the blood of soldiers”), and satisfying twists and surprise endings that would please O. Henry. The words ride sassy, strutting melodies and poignant, atmospheric ones, from the lively bluegrass of “Dig That Dime” to the grunge rock of the title track. All arrangements are expertly constructed and performed by Hill, along with her husband, Al, a terrific multi-instrumentalist, and many Nashville musicians.
The album’s highlight is “Triune,” named for a small town in Tennessee that was the site of a Civil War battle. Hill’s narrator in this stunning song (co-written with BettySoo) is a bullet. “Don’t make me fly out on that field / To kill and then to fall / If I were made for this, I wish / I’d not been made at all.” When that chorus is repeated, the soldier in whose pouch it lies joins the bullet in a duet. The song can rightfully take its place alongside John McCutcheon’s “Christmas in the Trenches” and Eric Bogle’s “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” as one of the finest antiwar songs ever written in English.
Sure, there are songs here that are primarily inside jokes to fellow diggers. “Aluminum … Foiled Again” for example, is about the frustrating false positives that they hear when a promising signal turns out to reveal only a chewing gum wrapper. But even then it’s not much of a stretch to see that song–and Hill’s hobby–as an expression and extension of the common creative process: listen for a signal, dig in the dark, uncover and bring up beauty–or not. For Hill, metal detecting has become yet another way to create art. There is no dross, only jewels on this album.