“Writing workshops be damned,” writes The Kingdom of Zydeco author Michael Tisserand in the liner notes to Darryl Purpose’s 2001 album A Crooked Line. “Storytelling seems to mainly be something that involves a ‘knack.’ Purpose is one of the best, and he found his knack out of necessity.”
At least, that’s what Tisserand says Purpose says about his knack. It’s true that Purpose can spin an interesting yarn out of unlikely anecdotal materials. “California (Rutherford Hayes in the Morning),” which leads off A Crooked Line, combines biographical details (“He was a Union General/President till eighteen eighty one/He was married to Lucy Webb/Who had a heart as golden as the/Sunlight on the curtain lace”) with an account of the first presidential visit to the Golden State (“A President on a pilgrimage/With Chester Arthur and the Holy Ghost/To sail through the new canal/and disembark on the California Coast into a new century”). “Late for Dinner” recounts the experiences of an emotionally shattered but still tender veteran from the point of view of the woman who married him: “Sometimes when he held me tight, he’d look like he was blind/Or starin’ at a graveyard far away.” The marriage lasts for 13 years, and then one day he disappears. “And if he blew in through that doorway today,” Purpose sings for this woman scorned, “Like a long-forgotten echo of winter/I don’t know if I’d shoot him in the face/Or tell him that he’s late for dinner.”
Purpose’s press kit includes a blurb from an in-flight magazine in which the writer gushes, “Purpose has the voice of James Taylor, the brains of Bob Dylan, and the soul of Willie Nelson.” One might add “the inflection of Peter Lorre” to that list—at times, as much as half of Purpose’s distinctive baritone escapes through his nose. And he’s a walking catalogue of folkie vocal mannerisms, like singing “time” the way the Dutch supervillain in the last Austin Powers movie says “tight”(like “tuyt”), and those weird throat-clearing uvular R’s I’ve never much liked in folk singers. You don’t realize how many English words have R’s in them until you hear Purpose sing a couple lines.
But the storytelling, now—Purpose is an ace, and no surprise there from a performer with such a checkered and colorful past. He’s a onetime blackjack champion, proud participant in the coast-to-coast Great Peace March for Nuclear Sanity in 1985, and an early perestroika-era musical ambassador to the Soviet Union with his old band, Collective Vision. The guy’s got some amazing tales to tell, and they glide right over the Peter Lorre impersonation.