Stairway to heaven

Obituaries aren’t the easiest things to write, which is to say that Bill Compton died last Thursday. Bill wrote record reviews that appeared in the “In the Mix” section of this paper. His most recent was his take on the newest CD from the Austin, Texas, band the Hot Club of Cowtown.

I never knew Bill personally; I kind of inherited him from the previous editorial regime, and it was one of those cases of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” that you occasionally hear about, so I didn’t. A couple of Bill’s gem-like reviews would show up via e-mail once a month or so, and, after mild editing—he always wrote them slightly longer than space would allow—they would find a home in these pages.

Bill was a few days short of turning 56 when he died at home on September 19 in Lacey, Wash., just outside of Olympia. He’d been diagnosed with an aggressive form of stomach cancer in early September. According to his daughter Laura, a copy editor from the San Francisco Chronicle who once worked here at SN&R (hence the connection), Bill died with dignity, surrounded by music, family and friends.

He was an educator; he taught high-school English, literature, drama and creative writing. After he retired in 1998, he became immersed in Irish history and traditional music, and he traveled to such Celtic hot spots as Ireland and Scotland, along with Cape Breton in France. He also took up playing the fiddle.

Bill had impeccable taste in music; he liked the same mix of Americana, singer-songwriter stuff, bluegrass, Celtic music and other rootsy forms that many of us aging rockers gravitate toward when our temples start turning gray. He could get to the nut of why something worked or didn’t work in a few sentences, which is what a reviewer is supposed to do, and he could do it with uncommon style and grace.

He could deflate an icon when need be, too. Most of the reviews I’ve seen on Dolly Parton’s most recent CD, Halos & Horns, gave her the same hosannas she deservedly received for her two previous discs, The Grass Is Blue and Little Sparrow. The problem is that the new disc, which ends with a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” is decidedly inferior to its two predecessors, which returned Parton to her mountain-music roots. Bill nailed the problem, ending his review by calling it “an oddity of an album that is surely a tribute to the perils of self-production.”

Reading Bill’s reviews was like reading letters from a friend, and losing him prematurely is akin to losing one. Rest in peace, brother.