Amy LaVere

Amy LaVere’s Life on the Run

Stephen M. Deusner

By Stephen M. Deusner

on 06.18.14 in Features

When Amy LaVere sings “Rabbit,” the opening track and beating heart of her fourth album, Runaway’s Diary, she sometimes has trouble keeping her composure. A conversation between a young runaway and an older mentor encouraging her to go home, “Rabbit” is a quiet, melancholy number with a minimal arrangement, as though the singer has packed only the things she can carry: a shuffling snare-and-tom drumbeat that keeps count of the highway signs as they pass by, a guitar like a sympathetic hand on your shoulder, and LaVere’s roving upright bassline.

“Performing that song breaks my heart,” she admits. “I see women on the streets all the time, and I feel like I can figure out how they got there, whether through abuse or something as irresponsible as what I did.” A runaway herself — although only for a short time as a teenager — LaVere understands that she could easily have become the wandering soul who narrates “Rabbit” — a junkie or a prostitute or another statistic among the dead — rather than a highly-praised singer-songwriter and actress (her film credits include Walk the Line and Black Snake Moan). “It’s a frightening song for me, because I was so close.”

‘I see women on the streets all the time, and I feel like I can figure out how they got there, whether through abuse or something as irresponsible as what I did.’

LaVere conceived the song as a duet with her friend and tourmate Seasick Steve, who left home as a teenager in the 1950s and rambled for most of his life. LaVere looked up to Steve as both a musician and a fellow traveler. “He was a real hobo, hopping trains and looking for work. He stayed on the lam into his 30s,” she says. “I had this idea about writing a duet about us being out there together, since he’s the type of character I probably would have run into and who would have sent me back home.”

As she accessed her own story, LaVere’s voice edged his out; rather than a conversation, “Rabbit” became a monologue about a time in her life when things could have gone very badly very quickly. “I wanted to put myself in my own shoes, had I stayed out there,” she recalls, noting that the song became the lynchpin for Runaway’s Diary, whose story coalesced around the composite character LaVere named Rabbit. “I realized that it was shaping up to be something of a concept record, and that got me excited and writing songs to follow that thread.”

Working with producer Luther Dickinson (a North Mississippi All-Star whose father Jim Dickinson produced Big Star, the Replacements and LaVere’s first two albums), she sequenced the album to resemble a novel, opening in media res with “Rabbit” before flashing back to the establishing scenes of “Last Rock ‘n Roll Boy to Dance” and “Big Sister.” “The girl is acting irresponsibly on ‘Last Rock ‘n Roll Boy to Dance,’ questioning her environment and challenging the rules,” LaVere explains. “And then with ‘Big Sister,’ there’s dissatisfaction at home.” So she hits the road on “Self Made Orphan”; the cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Where I Lead Me,” LaVere explains, is “when she’s out on the lam and really enjoying herself. People are telling her to go home, but she’s saying no. It’s a joyful part of the adventure.” Things turn darker on “Snowflake” and “Dark Moon,” before the prodigal daughter returns on “I’ll Be Home Soon.” The short “Reprise” implies that the lure of the road has not abated, that she may be leaving again soon. “It’s a long life, but I know it’s a dead end,” she sings. “There’s time to start over again.”

‘Without drugs, that small town was so boring. There was nothing I turned down.’

Runaway’s Diary is not strictly autobiographical; it’s less about what actually happened than it is about what could have happened. LaVere was, by her own admission, a wild child, her disposition exacerbated by her family’s constant relocations. “We moved 22 times, so I’d been in 13 different schools. My dad was on a long project for General Motors, so we moved to a small town north of Detroit. That was the first time we bought a house and were in one place long enough for me and my sister to finish high school.” The momentum of so many relocations, not to mention the sleepiness of that small town, sent LaVere reeling. “I guess I was addicted to the adventure of moving, and I was going out of my mind.” Soon, LaVere began looking for ways to alleviate the boredom, to inject a bit of adventure into her small-town life. “Without drugs, that small town was so boring. There was nothing I turned down.”

Eventually, she flirted with harder narcotics. “I tried crystal meth. It was a small town, and meth wasn’t as prevalent thing at the time. Nobody knew about Faces of Meth [a program in Oregon that compared before and after photos of meth addicts] or any of the dangers of it. But I had the best time of my life. I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is my new drug of choice. Fuck acid, I love crystal meth.’ It scares the shit out of me to think, had that been readily available in my town…” She entertains the thought briefly, but doesn’t speak it. “It’s really frightening to see how fragile self-preservation can be for a reckless, restless kid.”

‘When we got caught, I was like, ‘Send me home.’ It wasn’t home that I wanted to go to, but I sure as hell didn’t want to stay on the lam and become a hooker or something.’

It was almost inevitable that LaVere would run away, although she swears it wasn’t her idea. An older girl named Becky, who knew a woman in Chicago who claimed to represent a modeling agency, asked LaVere if she wanted to join her in a clandestine trip to the other side of Lake Michigan. “I wasn’t really friends with Becky. I think she knew I was the only other punk rocker girl in school who was rebellious. She was like, ‘I’m running away. Wanna go?’ Hell yeah! It was a total adventure. My parents were both traveling, so my older sister was my guardian. She was a hell-raiser, so I didn’t fear getting into trouble.” LaVere had a check her parents had given her for show choir; rather than buy a uniform for her high school’s competitive singing group, she cashed it and bought tickets to the Windy City. When she and Becky arrived, however, the woman at the modeling agency never picked up the phone, and eventually the two girls were found sleeping at the train station, mistaken for prostitutes by passersby. “When we got caught, I was like, ‘Send me home.’ It wasn’t home that I wanted to go to, but I sure as hell didn’t want to stay on the lam and become a hooker or something.”

The trip lasted only a handful of days, but it left a big impression on LaVere. Instead of finding adventure, she barely left the train station. Instead of discovering new freedom away from home, the trip showed her how hard life could be “out there.” On Runaway’s Diary, Rabbit is the version of LaVere who never came home, who stayed on the road by herself, who simply got lost somewhere in America. Many years later, she shudders to think what might have become of her — and what becomes of young women every day. “I can’t remember why I ran,” she sings, “or how I got so lost, or how to get back home.”

LaVere, however, remains restless. Touring and traveling satiate her wanderlust, but the desire to pick up and move along to the next town is still strong. After living in various cities around the country, she has settled in Memphis, which she has called home for 15 years now. “I moved into this little hipster neighborhood — hipster’s not the right word, but it’s an artistic neighborhood where anything goes. I’m sure there are similar neighborhoods in any decent town, but I just found mine and created my own family — or was accepted into a family.” She owns a house with a yard, has friends and local haunts, yet her touring schedule for Runaway’s Diary will take her away from it all for the rest of the year. After so much reflection and self-reckoning, it’s become a mixed blessing. “As much as I talk about running away, it’s nice to have a home.”