Very few records in my CD collection feel like they contain the entire life of the artist. Canadian singer/songwriter and lesbian icon Ferron’s 1994 album Driver is one of those records, and it’s also among the best. I’m surprised when I realize that it came out nearly 23 years ago now. It’s one of just a handful of CDs that I’ve returned to on a frequent basis since its release, and in a way it feels as if it never quite leaves my consciousness. The twelve tracks on Driver, the same number of hours on the clock and months in a year, seem to have been written and recorded to trace the passage of time itself, meaning that they’ve also been ingrained into the passage of time for me since they were first put out into the world.
I vividly remember hearing Ferron perform at a concert in Provincetown about 15 years ago now. The venue was the sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House, a beautiful old New England church that’s right in the center of town. I was feeling a little bit sleepy that evening, so after the lights went down at the start of the show, I decided to go all the way to the back of the venue and stretch out alone in one of the pews there. I already knew the songs from Driver very well, so whenever she played one of those songs, I allowed myself to semi-doze as my mind floated along on Ferron’s guitar and gently rough-hewn voice (accompanied by the impeccable musicianship of her touring partner, Shelley Jennings), though it felt less like I was dozing and more like I was traveling.
Fittingly, Driver is about the necessary tension between traveling and settling down, between solitude and companionship. Relationships are at the center of the album, including the relationship between the singer and herself, between the singer and her own history. The album’s first track, “Breakpoint,” opens through quietly atmospheric instrumentation and a line that’s both a warning and a seduction: “Let’s turn the outside way down low and play with fire.” No matter how tight the bond is when two people meet and fall in love (“To fall from a plane would make more sense, but who is so logical,” Ferron jokes), every relationship takes place across a kind of fault line, “your storm and my storm dissolving at breakpoint.”
And it’s at the breakpoint between people that Driver really departs on its second track, “Girl on a Road,” long known as Ferron’s most autobiographical song. She ran away from home at fifteen, with only a shopping bag of possessions: “I said goodbye to no one and in that way faced my truth.” In addition to hinting at an early understanding of her gender and sexuality, her truth is mainly an artistic one. “I wanted to turn beautiful and serve Eternity,” she sings, “and never follow money or love with greasy hands, or move the earth and waters just to make it fit my plans.” The song is clearly written not just as a memory, but also as an inspiration for all girls who left home at a young age, something that I’ve always related to as a young gay man who did the same.
I think Ferron’s Driver has appealed to me for so long because it’s equal parts street smarts and deep wisdom. That potent combination is captured perfectly by a clever turn in “Cactus,” my favorite track on the album: “You’re young one day but youth is rude, and while you watch it walks right past. But hey, then you get your chance to think like me.” Driver is filled with such pinpoint lyrical observations, so precise that comparisons to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan don’t really do them justice. “There’s a rhythm to the highway to match the rhythm of your fears.” “There’ll always be gorgeous babes around, it’s the nature of towns at midnight.” “And the coldest bed I’ve found does not hold one but it will hold three.” “Still the odds fall sweet in favor to an open heart.” “An open heart is a moving train.”
Openness to diverse musical styles is abundantly evident on Driver, too. Although most of the songs walk a traditional folk line (including the contemplative “Independence Day” and wistful “A Name for It”), jazzy piano interludes find their way into songs like the sexy, playful “Call Me,” a soaring soprano saxophone solo drifts through the midsection and close of “Borderlines,” and Ferron breaks out into true country hoedown mode on the celebratory “Love Loves Me,” complete with accordion, hooting yelps, and choral clapping. The prologue and epilogue of “Sunshine” and “Sunshine’s Lament” also feature classical viola and piano balladry, in order to convey appropriately the heartbreak of those songs.
Driver’s closing track and final destination, “Maya,” is named after Ferron’s daughter and begins with an indelible image: “Last night I dreamed Joni Mitchell cut her hair and changed her named to Gaia.” The song is about keeping house with a lover and raising a child together, while also growing a symbolic garden. The singer poetically reconsiders what has brought her to this place: “It was always worry dolls and love’s back door and haunted halls to the ocean floor, where I’d lick my wounds behind a rust-warped door and try to prove love couldn’t find me.” “Maya” addresses the significance of the album’s title as well. “It seems like I’ve been driving now for a long, long time,” Ferron sings. Then she whispers, “Oh, the dance of it all,” and a swaying melodica carries the song to its fading end.