SAN DIEGO — Cindy Lee Berryhill wrote her first song when she was 10 years old and living in rural Ramona.
Titled "Cretaceous Times," the song mourned the extinction of the dinosaurs in 10 verses and a chorus:
So it come an end to cretaceous times.
"Both my parents played the guitar, and they told me I could take lessons, too, provided I learned by the book," Berryhill said. "I soon got really bored, however, so I started playing chords and somehow wound up writing songs.
"When I took my first song to my guitar teacher, he said, 'You might make a nice little folk singer some day, but don't you think there are too many verses?'
"Over the years, I kept hearing the same thing. So after a while, I began thinking I would grow up to be a writer, maybe a science-fiction novelist, instead of a musician."
That was well over a decade ago--exactly how long, Berryhill won't say. ("I don't like to give my age. Let's just say I'm not a little girl anymore.")
Any misgivings about her career plans have long since been overcome, and Berryhill has, in fact, grown up to be a musician instead of a science-fiction novelist.
But she's still writing songs "with too many verses" about subjects every bit as unusual, as distant from ordinary love songs, as her initial ode to dinosaurs.
Eleven of them are included on "Who's Gonna Save the World?" her debut album on Rhino Records, the Los Angeles company whose eclectic catalog consists of everything from reissues of old Turtles and Ricky Nelson albums to novelty and TV theme-song compilations.
Accompanying herself on the acoustic guitar and backed only by a drummer and a stand-up bassist, Berryhill sings in a voice that is at once girlish and wizened; her lyrics reflect ponderous innocence and from-the-mouths-of-babes insight.
"Steve on H" is a tribute to a friend hooked on heroin; "Ballad of a Garage Band" details the various hardships and setbacks every musician must endure when first embarking on the rocky road to stardom.
On "Damn, Wish I Was a Man," Berryhill strikes a chord for feminism:
I'd be sexy with a belly
like Jack Nicholson
Lord, if I was a man,
It'd say "no fat chicks"
On the bumper of my Lincoln.
And on the title track, she laments her own lost youth, when her idealism turned to cynicism:
Who's gonna save the world?
Now that I stepped down
And it's over the hill at 21
To Mommy's house we go
The anvil fell
Went straight to hell
I had to get a job.
"To me, this record is simply modern American music that bespeaks our times," Berryhill said. "It's just all about me and my feelings about stuff, about the topics and issues of our day.
"I'm not trying to maneuver some big message out on people--people will glean from it what they will."
The album's release Saturday coincides with the start of Berryhill's two-week promotional tour. The first stop is Saturday, here in San Diego, at Rio's nightclub (formerly the Halcyon) in Point Loma. That will be followed by performances in New York City at a college radio convention; Boston, with reggae star Jimmy Cliff, and several Washington, New Jersey and Rhode Island clubs.
Already, an advance copy of "Who's Gonna Save the World?" sent to the L.A. Weekly in Los Angeles, has received glowing words of praise. Noting that Berryhill's songs "are personal, political, funny, and feminist," a reviewer said she reminded him of Dolly Parton crossed with Patti Smith, "sometimes a kind of skinned-knee, muddied-up Susan Vega, and occasionally, in her storytelling mode, of a female Peter Case."
Raised in Ramona, Berryhill began performing professionally as soon as she graduated from Ramona High. She spent a year and a half with the Dynamic Ducks, a vaudeville troupe based out of a Mexican restaurant in Poway, before moving to Hollywood to study acting for a year at Lee Strasberg's Theater Institution.
In 1984, Berryhill returned to San Diego--and to music. During the day, she managed Western Audio Recording Studios in Santee; at night, she performed as a solo act in tiny coffeehouses and nightclubs like the Wing Cafe in Golden Hill and the Apartment in Mission Beach.
Later, she moved up into bigger nightclubs like the Bacchanal in Kearny Mesa and the Spirit in Bay Park, where she frequently played with the Beat Farmers; in 1985, she toured the country for several months, traveling aboard a Greyhound bus and setting up gigs as she went along.
"When I got back to San Diego in late 1985, I decided it was time I talked to a few record companies about doing an album, and of all the labels to whom I sent demonstration tapes, Rhino was the most interested," Berryhill said.
"Negotiating the contract and then recording the album took nearly two years, but now I'm done and my record's finally coming out. So I guess after all this time, I've proved my guitar teacher wrong.
"I'm making a living with my music, even if my songs do have too many verses."