When we last checked in on Mary Lou Lord, she seemed to be on permanent hiatus following a 2005 diagnosis with a rare vocal cord affliction, though an appearance at SXSW the following year suggested she was still open to possibility. But the pixie-faced singer-songwriter who rose from the subways of Boston to indiegrunge fame through a combination of raw talent and close relationships with both Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith has been on the move lately, co-founding Girls Rock Camp in Boston, embarking on a new kickstarter-driven album, hosting open mics, and playing alongside her talented teenaged daughter Annabelle in a recent live tribute to Elliott Smith alongside Rhett Miller, Chris Thile, Bob Dorough, and others that was featured in The New Yorker.
More generally, Lord’s Facebook feed is a daily dose of awesome, a delightful combination of raw human observation and the loving curation and celebration of a number of amazing musical legacies both past and present, from Joni Mitchell and Smith himself to mutual faves Elizabeth Mitchell, Haley Bonar, Teddy Thompson, and First Aid Kit. Though she is still recovering from a serious fall off a fire escape last month, that didn’t stop her from making major news in Stereogum after an “epic” Facebook response to Courtney Love’s terrible rendition of Big Star hit Thirteen wandered into a more general response to Love’s tendency to claim in public interviews that Lord snuck onto Kurt and Courtney’s porch to kill their cat – a thoughtful, emotional, coherent use of social media that only cemented our faith in the woman’s resilience, and made Courtney seem even more insane, as if such thing were possible.
As Lord noted at her recent live performance, she doesn’t perform much anymore, and a small but growing set of Soundcloud covers, including takes on Jason Molina, Dylan, and Richard Thompson, reveal an artist still struggling to vocalize, though the resulting strain has a rare intimacy, and reveals charm of its own. But if this is a comeback, we’re all for it. Read our original feature, check out our newly-expanded list of covers – including a stunning Lucinda Williams take from her newest album – and follow Mary Lou Lord on Facebook to keep up with the resurrecting career of a well-deserving superstar.
As far as I can tell, the only major distinction between modern folk and a certain sort of indie music seems to be how the artists choose to produce and use instruments on their songs. And though you won’t find this sort of fuzzed-out guitar on the other folkblogs, the way the modern singer-songwriter mentality seems to find voice in both indierock and folk fascinates me.
But production isn’t what makes folk, and even if it were, the distinction is often fluid. The small but growing cadre of indie artists who perform in both folk and alt-rock modes owe no small debt to a select group of artists — Evan Dando, Lou Barlow, Tanya Donelly, Jeff Tweedy, Ben Gibbard and others — who have, over the years, moved easily across the bridge between the two forms. But these artists, in turn, owe the very existence of that bridge to other, lesser-known forerunners, like Elliott Smith and Daniel Johnston, who spent their entire careers building the bridge for them to cross.
As part of our ongoing exploration of this curious relationship, today we feature one underappreciated artist who is more often found among the indierock, but who has claimed folk credibility from the start: Mary Lou Lord, folksinger and cover artist.
I was a high school student in Boston during Mary Lou Lord’s busker days, and not an apt or diligent pupil; I often skipped class to head off down the T into Harvard Square with friends. Given our relative age, then, and her own preference for playing along the Red Line, I suppose I must have passed by Lord a couple of times. But back then, my ears were full of post-punk grunge, and she was just another streetcorner kid with an acoustic guitar, a ragged approach, and an innocent, little-girl voice. By the time she started recording alongside the best of the growing post-punk world, I had already moved on.
The heavy fuzz and feedback of much of her production puts the bulk of Mary Lou Lord’s recorded work squarely in line with early nineties alt-rock; if you’re looking for her in your local indie record store, you’ll find it alongside the pre-grunge of artists like The Lemonheads and Juliana Hatfield. But like Beck, Lord has always had a folk heart, and worn it proudly. Though she’s famous for her catfights with Courtney Love, she toured and recorded with Elliott Smith, and opened for Cover Lay Down fave Shawn Colvin. By identifying herself with those artists and others, Lord categorizes herself as an artist straddling the bridge between singer-songwriter folk and the indie world.
The songs that Lord has chosen to cover over her two-decade career speak volumes about which artists she considers her musical peers and forefathers, and here, too, we find a curious connection with the folkworld. In and among the Magnetic Fields and Big Star covers, we find covers of Smith and Colvin, indiefolkie Daniel Johnston, Lucinda Williams, Richard Thompson, and even oldschool pre-folkie Elizabeth Cotten. Clearly, this is a woman who listens to folk music on her own time, recognizes good songwriting regardless of original instrumentation, and takes them where she can find them.
Here’s a few of my favorite Mary Lou Lord coversongs which hit that spectrum, and then some. Most are solo acoustic, delicate and coy, but don’t be scared by the occasional guitarfuzz; this is, at heart, a form of folk. Heck, if feedback was all it took, Dylan wouldn’t be a folkie anymore, either.
- Mary Lou Lord: Jump (orig. Van Halen)
- Mary Lou Lord: Shake Sugaree (orig. Elizabeth Cotten)
- Mary Lou Lord: Speeding Motorcycle (orig. Daniel Johnston)
- Mary Lou Lord: Fearless (orig. Pink Floyd)
- Mary Lou Lord: Thirteen (orig. Big Star)
- Mary Lou Lord: Hard Road (orig. Lucinda Williams)
- Mary Lou Lord: I Don’t Want To Get Over You (orig. Magnetic Fields)
- Sara Radle w/ Mary Lou Lord: Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys (orig. Ed Bruce) 
- Mary Lou Lord Soundcloud Covers [2012-2013]
It’s hard to link to the collected works of Mary Lou Lord; her recorded output remains scattered across several indie labels, some of them short-lived. But some of her back catalog is still available, and it’s chock full of folk covers.
Folk fans are probably best served by starting with the cover-heavy Live City Sounds, a hard-to-come-by acoustic album with several Richard Thompson covers which sounds like the streets where I once passed Mary Lou Lord in her busking days. Alt-punk label Kill Rock Stars also still carries a split bill EP and a couple of compilations.
Though her newest album seems not to have been released yet – she leaked the new Lucinda Williams track last year herself after it started getting play on media outlets – those looking for a more recent treasure trove would be well served to bookmark Mary Lou’s Soundcloud page, which has a growing mix of living room coverage and old found studio sound, including some mid-nineties tracks of her goofing around with Elliott Smith.
Bonus tracks? Sure – here’s a couple more Big Star coversongs in the same grungefolk vein. Dando’s cover is one of my favorite coversongs ever, hands down. And doesn’t Mary Lou Lord sound like a female version of Elliott Smith?