Although a lot of his music can be categorized as country, singer-songwriter Michael Fracasso isn't expecting Nashville heavyweights to be courting him anytime soon.
"I was telling an audience just the other night that I wanted my first record to be a country record," he says between chuckles. "But with a last name like `Fracasso,' becoming a country artist is kind of a shot in the dark."
Of Italian descent, Fracasso doesn't look like anyone's idea of a country-music star in the making. While the photograph on the cover of his debut CD, Love & Trust (issued by DEJADISC in 1993) finds him standing beside an old dog clad in jeans and a Western shirt, Fracasso's Sal Mineo-esque features can't help but clash with the setting. A similar contradiction appears on the disc's liner, in a laudatory paragraph attributed to vocalist Lucinda Williams: After noting that Fracasso "has that high, lonesome sound" that conjures images of the West Texas prairie, she concludes with the comment, "By the way, he makes the best pasta around."
Williams's plug makes Fracasso sound like a cross between a cowpoke and a spaghetti chef, which he most certainly is not--he'd never consider affecting such a cutesy pose. But her words offer an indication of just how difficult it can be to categorize this performer. Fracasso's music, as heard on Love & Trust and his latest recording, the fine 1995 Bohemia Beat offering When I Lived in the Wild, bears the marks of a great many styles--pop, rock and hillbilly among them. Rather than aping them, however, Fracasso blends them together to create a synthesis that's wholly his own.
Raised in Mingo Junction, Ohio, a burg that served as the backdrop for many of the U.S. sequences in 1978's The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino's Vietnam-guilt epic), Fracasso says his upbringing was filled with music. "Twenty miles down the river was Wheeling, West Virginia, where there's this big country-music hall," he notes. "Just about every big country artist performed there, and the radio station there, WWVA, is huge--it broadcasts all the way up to Canada. So I heard all of that, and I heard the Appalachian music, too. I loved that kind of music--the really old-timey stuff."
By the time he was in high school, Fracasso was writing and singing his own songs. Still, it took him a while before he committed to a career in music. The owner of a degree in environmental science, he worked for a time in the Washington State forestry department before packing his guitar and heading for New York City.
In short order, Fracasso was a regular on the early-Eighties folk circuit. Not that the folk umbrella adequately covered his approach. "One of my first reviews was in Variety," he remembers, "and the writer called me `rustic.' So I guess I always mixed this city sensibility with something else."
As a result, Fracasso says, "I never really fit in with the East Coast-Boston-New York folk scene." He eventually put together a band (after being told by a club owner that he couldn't be booked without one), but what started out as a musically compatible situation become more problematic as time passed. He wasted several years working with a high-rent producer he declines to name before realizing that his songs were getting distorted by the process. Frustrated, he left his group and started performing solo again. Then, in 1989, he decided a change in scenery would do him good, and he moved to Austin, Texas--a place about which he knew practically nothing.
"One time I was on a trip with my girlfriend, and we stayed in a motel outside of Austin," he remarks. "But we didn't have the time or the resources to go into the city. So until I moved there, the only time I'd seen it was when I looked over my shoulder as we were driving on I-35."
True to his cautious nature, Fracasso didn't simply dive into Austin's thriving music community; in fact, several months passed before he got up the nerve to play at an open-stage night. Once he did, he begain building a reputation as a fine tunesmith and performer. After financing a self-produced cassette, he decided on a whim to shop it to various local labels and was startled when representatives from several expressed interest. He ultimately took the deal offered by DEJADISC, which released the material (some of which was reworked in the studio) as Love & Trust.
This first batch of songs instantly established Fracasso as an artist with a sharp eye, a keening vocal style somewhat reminiscent of Jimmie Dale Gilmore's and a talent for penning memorable miniatures about romance, be it consummated or unrequited. Perhaps most impressive was the CD's range, which was wide enough to encompass the jaunty sensibility of "Apple Pie," the melancholy feeling at the root of "The One That Got Away" and the sensuous blasphemy that characterizes "Wise Blood." Fracasso's words have a poetic tone, but he never calls too much attention to them. His subtlety causes his turns of phrase to sting longer and echo more eloquently.
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While Love & Trust failed to break through to a mass audience, it caught the ears of a great many music professionals. Bohemia Beat, affiliated with Rounder Records, quickly snapped him up and shepherded When I Lived in the Wild into the marketplace. The platter is just as strong as its predecessor: Highlights include "Tell Mary," an especially poignant tale, and "How Very Inconvenient," which drips with dry, dark wit. In addition, Fracasso is one third of Hamilton Pool, a musicians' collective whose debut album, Return to Zero, was just released on the Watermelon imprint. Songwriter Mark Hallman and former Fairport Convention member Iain Matthews are the bigger names in the Pool, but the group's renditions of "Apple Pie" and "The One That Got Away" are easily the most pleasing of the disc's thirteen tracks.
This spate of activity may help lift Fracasso's profile--and the fact that Wild has started to register on the new Americana chart inaugurated by Gavin, a music-industry tip sheet, can be interpreted as a good sign. Even so, Fracasso can't yet afford to travel with a band full-time, and he frequently faces audiences with little or no familiarity with his catalogue. When asked if he enjoys the challenge of winning over such a crowd, he laughs and responds, with bracing honesty, "I'll tell you, there's nothing better than playing for people who love your music already. It's a whole lot easier." He's just as self-effacing in response to the observation that renewed interest in singer/songwriters may be spawning a generation of fans actually patient enough to listen to lyrics. "Is that true?" he wonders. "That would be great if it was true. People tell me that the storytelling in my songs is one of the things that they really like about them, but I'm always really surprised when they say that.
"I don't think I'm doing anything new. Gram Parsons was doing this years and years ago, but he kind of fell through the cracks. I just hope I can avoid the same fate."
Kevin Welch, with Jimmy LaFave and Michael Fracasso. 8 p.m. Friday, March 10, Bluebird Theater, 3315 East Colfax, $12/$10 Swallow Hill Music Association members, 777-1003.