Holly Near has noticed a change in the crowds on her current concert tour.
"New audiences are coming," the singer-songwriter said, "because I think that finally the stereotype that was set out about me is starting to be broken down. There were people who had heard my name and thought, 'Oh, folk singer, long hair, guitar, 4,000 verses about fuel rods.' And that's really not what my show is about at all."
Some of the stereotypes about Near--who brings a soft-rock band to the Wiltern Theatre tonight--are more false than others. The guitar part is wrong, for one thing; she's the rare folkie (or ex-folkie) who doesn't play one. And fuel-rod references haven't played much of a part in her music since many Angelenos were exposed to her at the Peace Sunday and Survival Sunday anti-nuclear rallies of the late '70s and early '80s.
But her activist reputation is well deserved and hard earned. You could forget about the anti-nuclear rallies and still be left with a resume full of potentially controversial lyrics and/or benefit concerts in support of feminism, labor, lesbian awareness and stopping aid to the Contras, among other causes. Redwood Records, the Bay Area-based label she founded 15 years ago, has become a thriving nerve center of socially conscious music.
With headlines about the Reagan Administration providing the left-leaning with just the kind of songwriting grist they need nowadays, you'd think Near would be churning out anthems like pancakes.
But while a mainstream rocker like Jackson Browne is increasingly shunting relationship songs in favor of politics, Near--a self-proclaimed "cheerleader" of "progressive" ideology--is, on record at least, doing just the opposite.
Her 13th and latest album, "Don't Hold Back," has actually been called commercial--by Billboard magazine, the trade bible of the record industry. The songs shy away from topicality and opt for emotions--love lost and found, elusive commitment grasped and released. And the music isn't especially folkish.
"Throughout the years I've really tried to go into different parts of the cultural world and do collaborations," Near noted during a phone interview this week.
"There was a collaboration with a Chilean ensemble, Inti-Illimani; a live album with Ronnie Gilbert, Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie; I worked with a reggae band from Nashville called African Dreamland; I worked with an eclectic Appalachian string band whose name was Trapezoid. . . ."
This time, though, she got really experimental.
"What all this is leading up to is that I've been wanting to do a collaboration with L.A. studio pop artists," she concluded with a hearty laugh.
Sure enough, the album includes vocal contributions by such mainstream pop singers as Kenny Loggins and Bonnie Raitt, and instrumental support from such studio stalwarts as bassist Bob Glaub and drummer Tris Imboden (both of whom are on her current tour).
So was "Don't Hold Back" anything so obvious as a grab for the pop mainstream, or was it just another experiment?
"Well, I'm not a fool," she said with another big laugh. "I know that with Kenny and Bonnie and the others involved, some extra people are going to pay attention to this record who might not have listened to an album that I did with a Chilean ensemble.
Her concerts--and, undoubtedly, future recordings--will continue to reflect her ideology, though she's quicker to resist labeling than she used to be.
"When you call an artist political , it puts them in this little safely fenced-off corral, and I think it makes the reader nervous when they read that. They don't understand that that's a word that's been used to keep them from me."
But even if each row was filled aisle to aisle with older and presumably politically correct fans, Near still wouldn't tone down her rhetoric or worry a whit that her more activism-oriented songs might be wasted on the already-converted.
"I remember going to hear the Weavers and Paul Robeson and Phil Ochs, and I was already converted--but what I got was refueled . And I think instead of worrying about whether one is preaching to the converted, we need to figure out how to spiritually energize the converted, so that those people who do believe will have the energy to keep being active. It becomes a healing. And you know, people go to church every Sunday, not to become convinced they believe in God, but to refuel that concept."