I would love for people to hear my music and like it, but then there’s that big dirt pile of selling, being popular. I have always wanted to make popular music without being popular. Writing good songs, making good records, doing good shows. Let someone else be king of the dirt.
In her twenty-plus year career, Sam Phillips has seen the dirt pile from every angle. As a child, she dreamed golden dreams from its base. She conquered its gilded crags in her twenties, recording as Leslie Phillips and selling hundreds of thousands of records in the CCM market. But as she dug her hook into the summit, the glittering decoration ripped back, nothing but painted tinfoil.
No longer blinded by the dirt pile’s blunted glow, Phillips began releasing albums under the name Sam Phillips following her departure from Myrrh Records in 1988. Her decision to leave Myrrh was influenced heavily by T-Bone Burnett, the powerhouse producer of the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the Counting Crows’ August and Everything After, among numerous others, and the invited keynote speaker at Calvin's Festival of Faith and Music 2009. Burnett would prove to be not only a music guide, but a spiritual one as well, and the couple married shortly after Phillips' departure from Myrrh. She had become disenfranchised with the Christian music industry, an institution that is typically just as industrial as its "secular" counterpart. "I don't agree with a lot of it," Phillips told the L.A. Times in 1988. "A lot of it is selling God. The so-called 'born-again' movement in this country has about as little to do with real Christianity as a Xerox of a hundredth-generation print of the Mona Lisa has to do with the real thing.” Under Burnett's tutelage, Phillips developed in her art a much deeper, more profound vision of what it means to be a Christian making music and functioning in the world, enjoying a freedom to ask questions, to poke and prod at the ins and outs of creation—in other words, she found in the "secular" music industry the ability to express herself more honestly; it's more than a little ironic that she had to change her name to do so.
Phillips' three records for Virgin found her playing in baroque soundgardens, Beatlesesque pop, industrial dance, and smoky cabaret, and those were followed by a pair of rough, stark folk albums for Nonesuch Records (home of artistic giants Brian Wilson, Wilco, and Phillip Glass). Don’t Do Anything, Phillips’ new release on Nonesuch, finds her with her back to the pile—and to everything, really. Having split with Burnett, Phillips produced Don’t Do Anything herself, a first in her thirteen-album career. The result is a record that is as familiar as it is frightening, simultaneously comforting and disarming. The title track mixes high string arrangements, a bit of Lucinda Williams’ growl, and—somehow—bumpy lo-fi guitars that could have been lifted from a Guided By Voices record. Robert Plant and Allison Krauss covered Phillips’ gypsy-folk “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” on their Grammy-winning Raising Sand record, and Phillips stays close to that group’s rollicking interpretation.
Pain and loss make their requisite appearances throughout Don’t Do Anything, though Phillips doesn’t seem to be wallowing in the ashes of her marriage; instead, she’s leaving deep footprints, shaking her head and moving on to the rest of the world’s problems: “I thought if he understood, he wouldn’t treat me this way. No explanations,” she sings on the album’s opening song, going on to note that “time is sinking. No explanations.”
But it’s the title track that’s the most compelling. At ground level, it’s a fairly simple song about unconditional love; “I love you when you don’t do anything: when you’re useless, when you don’t do anything,” Phillips sings. Those guitars may be dragging in the dirt, but they’re somehow plowing in hope, particularly when coupled with the weary confidence of Phillips’ voice. Suddenly, Phillips’ choice to name the record after this song, whose title seems so apathetic and hopeless, takes on new significance. Perhaps there is a sense of light—no matter how distorted that light is made by the dirt—shining through the darkness, a light more profound than reflections from a sorta-shimmery dirt pile.