It would have been easy for Holly Near to stick to what she did so well. By 1982, her big brassy voice, her uncompromising political lyrics and broad theatrical style had made her a hero to both the women's music movement and the leftist folk movement -- a Joan Baez for the '80s.
Instead of continuing to work in the comfortable cabaret vein as a soloist backed by a pianist and rhythm section, Near decided to challenge herself artistically and personally by working with some of the most talented musicians in the international folk movement.
Over the past three years she has recorded a live album of folk songs and show tunes with Ronnie Gilbert, one of the original Weavers ("Lifeline"); an album of Appalachian music with America's top chamber-folk group, John McCutcheon & Trapezoid ("Watch Out"); a live album of Andean folk music with Inti-Illimani, the exiled Chilean chamber-folk group ("Sing to Me the Dream"); and a live album with Gilbert, Pete Seeger (another Weaver alumnus) and Arlo Guthrie ("Harp").
"It's not my nature to take the easy way," explains the 36-year-old Near. "I need to try new things; I need to take risks. When these opportunities came along, they were too good to pass up."
Near's first solo tour in three years comes to Constitution Hall Sunday. She'll be accompanied only by pianist John Bucchino, but she'll sing many of the songs that grew out of the collaborations of the past three years.
Near grew up in the rural northern California town of Potter Valley. "We didn't have a television and it was an hour's drive to the nearest movie theater," she recalls, "so records were very important to me. My grandmother in New York used to send me all the Broadway sound tracks, and my parents had a lot of folk music records: the Weavers, Paul Robeson and Bertolt Brecht. And I used to hear Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells on the local country music radio station, so I had pretty diverse influences.
"I remember we drove down to San Francisco once to see the Weavers when I was about 10; it took five hours in our station wagon. All four of them stood around one microphone, and Ronnie just reared back and belted out the song. I was so impressed that the next day I went out to a hillside on our farm and just sang out over the whole valley. She was very important to me when I was a little kid trying to figure out how I could sound."
It was only later that Near realized the political implications of the Weavers' songs and their blacklisting during the McCarthy era. By this time she was an up-and-coming television and stage actress who sang jazz standards in nightclubs. She got caught up in the movement against the Vietnam War, however, and began writing overtly political songs herself.
"If I hadn't got involved in progressive music," Near says, "I might have had a career like Melissa Manchester, Liza Minnelli or any of those pop singers with a big voice and a theatrical style. If I had had the energy and support, I would have tried to stay in the show business industry and still be openly critical of the Vietnam war and women's roles, but at the time I felt I had to make a choice, so I became more of a troubadour than a showgirl.
"It's hard, though, because a big part of me is still attached to theatrical music. I'm often called a folk singer because I write topical lyrics, which is fine because I write about folks who go to work every day. Yet I don't play guitar, and my music often sounds a lot more like Kurt Weill than Woody Guthrie. So I've tried to create a category that's all my own: original songs in the show-tune style with politically conscious lyrics."
When Near and Gilbert needed a last-minute replacement for their pianist on their 1983 tour, they auditioned Bucchino, who was working as a waiter in Los Angeles. When he not only learned the whole show in a few days from a tape but also added his own arrangements, they hired him. Now they share him on their solo tours; Near uses him tonight and Gilbert uses him when she appears at Club Saba Oct. 6.
Near met John McCutcheon and the four members of Trapezoid when she performed at the Augusta Folk Festival in Elkins, W. Va., in 1982 and 1983. When they rehearsed several songs together for an evening concert, Near was so entranced by the sound of stringed instruments on her songs instead of the usual piano that she resolved to make an album with them.
"Some of my songs grow out of that Appalachian Mountain tradition," Near acknowledges, "and while my pianist can play them very well, it's just not the same as playing them on mountain instruments. By recording with Trapezoid, I felt like I was letting the songs go back to their roots." (Trapezoid plays at the Wolf Trap Barns Nov. 9; McCutcheon plays there Nov. 23.)
Near had a similar experience with Inti-Illimani, a group from another set of mountains: Chile's Andes. After she did a short tour with them in England in 1983, they proposed an American tour and she leapt at the chance. They lived together for several weeks in the tour bus, rehearsing and writing songs as they went.
"It was an exciting experience," Near says. "Here you have seven Latin American men who sing in Spanish and live in exile in Italy and one white feminist from rural California. The usual assumption is that people so different won't get along, so they go into such situations with their guard up.
"I tried to live the opposite way; I don't go in assuming sameness or fearing diversity. I go in with the assumption that of course it will work; when conflict comes up, we'll deal with it like mature people. And, of course, I was right. If foreign policy were conducted this way the world would be a lot more peaceful place."