04.16.11

Quick Reads: Rock/Pop Reviews

SOCIAL DISTORTION - WHITE LIGHT WHITE HEAT WHITE TRASHSOCIAL DISTORTION – WHITE LIGHT WHITE HEAT WHITE TRASH (Epic/Sony)

Social Distortion is one of a handful of acts left from the early 80s Southern California punk scene. Formed in 1978, the group originally garnered notice for combining the more obvious British punk roots with hints of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, resulting in a melodic sensibility far beyond that of it’s competition. Early album titles Mommy’s Little Monster and Prison Bound reflected leader Mike Ness’ nihilistic perspective.

That stance has evolved to a point where today the anger is no longer directed outward. Songs like I Was Wrong and Gotta Know The Rules depict the realization that the world view once espoused was naive, and impossible to live by. The transition is easier said than done. The fatalistic stance is gone, but at a price. Ness has spoken of the private hell his journey took him through, including a serious heroin addiction and the deaths of close friends and family members. The sense of regret permeates this album. I Was Wrong takes a lifetime to write.

While the band has matured, they’re not yet ready to slow down. Opening with Dear Lover, twin guitars blast forth with a power and passion that immediately removes any doubt whether Ness and company have mellowed. Posing the question “why does love always have to hurt,?” the song works whether the lover in question is human or habit.

The crux of White Light… is summed up in Through These Eyes: “Through these eyes I’ve looked the Devil in the face/And I’ve seen God’s holy grace/ Through these eyes I’ve tried to walk the straight line/I found myself again, but nearly lost my mind.” The prevalence of religious iconography in When the Angels Sing and Crown of Thorns are an essential part of the equation. Ness has spoken of recent spiritual rebirth following the death of his grandmother, but has intentionally been vague with the press.

Bigger and tighter than ever before, this is Social Distortion’s finest record to date. Honest and uncompromising, White Light… puts the vast majority of alternative acts, secular and CCM, to shame.

© John Cody 1997

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04.16.11

Quick Reads: Jazz Reviews

Jimmy Scott - HeavenJIMMY SCOTT – HEAVEN (Warner Bros.)1996

With a career plagued by bad luck remarkable even for the cutthroat entertainment industry, Jimmy Scott, at age 71 is still an unknown commodity to most of the listening public. Unscrupulous management and unfair recording contracts have resulted in many of his best performances remaining unreleased or virtually impossible to find.

First recording in 1948 as vocalist with Lionel Hampton’s band, he has recorded sporadically ever since, working with such legends as Charles Mingus and Ray Charles. One of the great jazz ballad singers, the few Scott albums to see release are today cherished collector’s items.

Billed as “Little” Jimmy Scott, a diminutive stature and delicate looks led many to assume he was a child. Due to a medical condition Scott never went through puberty. In addition to the more obvious physical ramifications, Scott’s voice has remained high pitched, resulting in a sound that is somewhere between adolescent and a mature saloon singer, as likely to alienate as attract, with an eerie sense that once heard is not easy to forget. Scott often takes numbers at painfully slow tempo, emphasizing the songs’ lyrics, phrasing each word to create an intimate, at times almost otherworldly sound.

In 1992 Scott signed with Sire/Warner Bros., finally securing a fair recording contract. Heaven, the third album for the label, is made up entirely of gospel-based material. While there are a number of traditional numbers, more surprising are those from less obvious sources: songs by Talking Heads, Curtis Mayfield and Bob Dylan mix easily with standards like Just As I Am and Wayfairin’ Stranger. Scott’s treatment on these tune is such that little of the original melody is left intact. Familiar songs transform into entirely new creations: Julie Miller’s All My Tears, already covered by Emmylou Harris on last years’ Wrecking Ball, comes off as a long lost jazz ballad, hardly reminiscent of the original version.

A few years back Scott appeared on an episode of TV’s Twin Peaks as a lounge singer. The role was entirely fitting: an otherworldly singer with chops that appear heaven sent, but with a decidedly bizarre twist. Ethereal lounge. In Heaven we get a very personal glimpse of one individual’s relationship with his Creator.

© John Cody 1996

Ted Gioia: The History of JazzTed Gioia: The History of Jazz, Oxford, 1998.

THERE IS a long-standing tradition of jazz artists incorporating aspects of the gospel into their music, from spirituals by Louis Armstrong and Charlie Haden to jazz librettos from Dave Brubeck and Stan Kenton and the more esoteric works of Charles Mingus, Pharaoh Sanders and John Coltrane.

All these artists are given ample space in The History of Jazz, a fast moving, concise (400 page) account of the form. The book covers all eras and significant players, offering far more than a cursory overview of the music. From the very beginnings to present day, each era’s story is told in a way that stirs the imagination and will have the reader eager to explore the music. Anyone, from neophyte to longtime afficionado, will find plenty to enjoy.

Richard Cook and Brian Norton, editors: Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, Fourth Edition, Penguin, 1998.

This massive tome (over 1,700 pages) consists of reviews, reviews and more reviews. Nothing else. No bios, no photos, just the goods on individual albums. The authors betray a preference for specific styles, but that’s half the fun. With a decidedly Eurocentric approach, the Penguin Guide covers hundreds of artists who have never made it across the pond; a number of European-only releases are included.

Steve Holtje and Nancy Ann Lee, editors: All Music Guide to Jazz, Miller/Freeman, 1998.

In addition to more than 1,200 pages covering 18,000 recordings and 1,700 artists, All Music Guide includes an additional 150 pages of essays, critiques of jazz-related books and videos and profiles of significant record labels and producers from the genre.

Michael Erlewine et al, editors: Music Hound Guide to Jazz, Visible Ink, 1998.

Music Hound entries include a short bio, followed by sections on what to buy, what to buy next, the rest (discs rated, but without write ups), worth searching for (out of print, vinyl), and, if applicable, what to avoid. More than half the releases in this 1,300 page work are rated without comments. Bonus points for including Spike Jones.
As with all Music Hound titles, a CD featuring well known artists from the genre is included. Ten significant Blue Note recordings are featured, including Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, Chet Baker and Dinah Washington.

© John Cody 1999

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04.16.11

Quick Reads: Gospel/Blues/Soul Reviews

Deep River of Song

  • Various – A Warrior On The Battlefield (A Capella: 1920’s – 1940’s) Rounder 1997
  • Deep River Of Song: Bahamas 1935 (Rounder)1999
  • Deep River Of Song: Black Appalachia (Rounder) 1999
  • Deep River Of Song: Black Texicans (Rounder) 1999

Three more titles from the massive Alan Lomax collection. As with the bulk of the series, these discs capture a sound long gone. Recorded on primitive equipment, it’s somewhat akin to taking an audio trip to a lost world. The majority of material was recorded during the early 30’s, a time when, owing to the availability of radio and phonographs, regional differences were just beginning to fade.

The Bahamas disc consists of accappella chanteys and anthems sung by spongers from Andros Island. These are the earliest recordings to come out of the region, in a style called ‘rhyming spirituals.’ Not tropical music as is popularly defined, and certainly nothing a tourist agent would use to entice potential travelers to tropical beats. Only 3 of the 24 tracks here have been previously released.

Black Appalachia treads more familiar territory. Subtitled String Bands, Songsters and Hoedowns, the disc contains quite a few upbeat numbers and instrumentals, although there’s nothing here that’s gonna end up on the Nashville Network. A Warrior On The Battlefield (A Capella: 1920’s - 1940’s)

The lyrics on the Texas disc may be about riding the range, but these were not the songs of Gene Autry or Roy Rogers. While you’d never guess from the western movies, it’s estimated as much as a quarter of all cowboys were black. Guitars and harmonica provide minimal accompaniment.

A Warrior On The Battlefield collects 25 samples of Accapella quartets between the wars. The style was evolving rapidly, and ranges from almost barbershop harmonies to the more sophisticated to jubilee style, most notably by the Golden Gate Quartet. The sound originated in the deep south, and by the middle of the century was at it’s most popular. With the practitioners now gone, the tradition continues today in Bluegrass. On the surface that may seem odd, but listening to this disc, outside of accompaniment, there’s not much difference between the Bethel Quartet Davis Bible Singers and Bill Monroe.

There Will Be No Sweeter Sound: The Columbia-Okeh Post War Gospel Story 1947-1962Various Artists: There Will Be No Sweeter Sound: The Columbia-Okeh Post War Gospel Story 1947-1962 (Legacy) 1998

A double disc set of semi-obscure African-American gospel groups includes The Mello-Tones, Bill Landford The Landfordaires, both at six songs each, The R.S.B. Gospel Singers with five, and nine others offering anywhere from one to four tracks apiece.

Outside of three tracks each from ‘47 and ‘62, all recordings were made during a five year period between ‘49-’53. Coming so soon after World War II, there’s a understandable sense of optimism. This was gospel music’s golden age, and all the world seemed to be right, at least for a few years. While the names may be unfamiliar to all but the aficionado, it’s still a marvelous introduction to a wonderful, almost lost genre.

Testify! – The Gospel BoxTestify! – The Gospel Box, Rhino, 1999

The real deal. Spanning 1942-1997, Testify clocks in at well over three hours. Boasting fifty tracks, a sixty-eight page booklet containing individual track notations, essays and photos, the package is veritable history lesson on black gospel music.

Formed in 1817, the African Methodist Episcopal Church was the first denomination established by and for blacks. While the Negro spiritual was already widespread, the style of worship employed here had more in common with the conservative white churches of the day. Post-Civil War, it was common for blacks to ignore their musical heritage, attempting instead to assimilate into mainline worship through Anglo-American hymns. A lengthy struggle existed between those who preferred Negro spirituals and adherents of the more staid European forms. A significant boost to the music’s stature came in 1895 when Czech composer Antonin Dvorak claimed that a truly indigenous American music existed in the black spiritual. It would take another decade before the music would begin to achieve widespread acceptance.

The first significant alternative to the conservative, less demonstrative Baptist and Methodist orthodoxy came about in 1906 via the Azusa Street revival and subsequent growth of Pentecostalism. The Holiness movement stressed the emotional side of the worship service, which was closer to African tradition. Musicians were considered to be exercising divine gifts, and experimentation in instrumentation and form was generally well-received, allowing unencumbered growth. Cross pollination meant boogie woogie rhythms could meet head on with praise lyrics. From the boisterous “Holy Roller” to the more staid jubilee quartet, this was the beginning of Gospel’s golden era.

One result of this creative climate was Thomas Dorsey coming to the church. Already successful as pianist, writer and accompanist for a number of blues singers, Dorsey began writing hymns in the 1920s, and was eventually accepted within the Baptist community. Later known as the Father of Gospel Music, he would continue to write the occasional risqué blues number. Thus “It’s Tight Like That” sits alongside standards like “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “If You See My Savior” in his formidable catalogue.

The struggle between sacred and secular has always been a contentious issue. The same elements that made this music unique resulted in it’s wholesale rejection by more conservative members of the church. Whenever Christians try to incorporate contemporary culture into the gospel message they run the risk of being misunderstood. Conversely, for those willing to listen, the songs crossed all denominational lines, evincing the true power of music.

Opening with Praise The Lord and Pass the Ammunition and Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’ both from World War II, temporal issues are addressed alongside the spiritual. The thread continues through the decades with civil rights concerns like the Fairfield Four’s Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around. Martin Luther King’s assassination brought an end to the optimistic perspective, and while the tradition continues today in acts like Sounds Of Blackness, by the early 70’s a darker social climate found better expression through mainstream acts like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

Only half of the tracks included are from Gospel’s golden era. By disc three drum machines are common, and subtlety is an all-to-rare commodity. The understated feel so common initially is missing on the majority of recent material. Too many divas, and too few willing to just sing the songs.

While the track list is a veritable who’s who of Black Gospel, a few acts are conspicuous in their absence: no Soul Stirrers, Pilgrim Travelers or Sister Rosetta Tharpe. There’s also a few interesting inclusions, including R&B legend Laverne Baker teaming up with Alex Bradford & The Bradford Singers on Precious Lord.

Rhino released Jubilation!, a splendid three volume series in ’90, which is well worth seeking out, as only a dozen tracks are duplicated between the two packages. For the most part the previous set’s first two discs concentrated on black gospel from the 40’s and 50’s, along with a third devoted exclusively to country gospel. Though less encompassing, it makes for a more satisfying listening experience. Testify!, due to the wider time frame, suffers at times from a lack of cohesion. That caveat aside, both packages are highly recommended.

  • The Persuasions: On The Good Ship Lollipop, Music For Little People, 1999
  • The Persuasions: Frankly A Cappella, Earthbeat!, 2000
  • The Persuasions: Sunday Morning Soul, Bullseye/Rounder, 2000

The Persuasions: On The Good Ship LollipopThe Persuasions, hold a singular position in the vocal group pantheon. Now in their thirty-fifth year, they’ve worked with everyone from Frank Zappa to Joni Mitchell, sung doo-wop on street corners and recorded avante garde with Ned Sublette. Simply put, there’s nobody like ‘em. Barbershop it ain’t. Defying categorization, these three releases offer ample evidence of their versatility.

Lollipop includes some of the hippest versions of nursery rhymes ever waxed. The quintet makes everything sound good, so it’s no surprise that even the most rudimentary lyric ends up sounding like something bop monologist Lord Buckley would dig. Entirely a cappella, to quote an earlier album title, they still ain’t got no band. Time-tested tunes like ‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic,’ ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain,’ and ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’ sit comfortably alongside a handful of originals, including ‘A Cappella Fellas,’ a theme song of sorts. Kids will enjoy this, but so should anyone who loves good music.

The Persuasions: Frankly A CappellaFrankly A Cappella is a whole other proposition. In 1969 the group was signed to Zappa’s fledgling Straight record label. The roster included Alice Cooper, Captain Beefheart and Tim Buckley – in hindsight, heady company, but at that time perceived as a laughable troupe of rejects, typical of Zappa’s eccentricities. An A cappella group fit right in. That he would undertake such a seemingly uncommercial endeavor, and turn it into a success, speaks volumes as to Zappa’s taste and foresight. While the Persuasions would go on to record for over a dozen other labels, they never forgot the fact that Zappa was the first.

The twelve tracks cover all phases of Zappa’s career, and while there’s not a stinker in the bunch, the earlier songs are highlights. ‘Theme from Lumpy Gravy,’ originally an instrumental opus, is particularly impressive. ‘Electric Aunt Jemima,’ ‘Tears Begin To Fall’ plus three songs from his underrated Ruben & The Jets (1968) showcase Zappa’s long-standing love affair with doo-wop.

The group performed ‘The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing’ as part of ‘Zappa’s Universe,’ a 1991 concert tribute marking the composer’s fiftieth birthday. Reprised here, the song is a typical example of Zappa’s intolerance for fundamentalists of all types. He was particularly vocal in his disdain for the religious right’s antics, and usually right on the money.

The Persuasions: Sunday Morning SoulSpirituals have always been part of the group’s concert performances and recordings, but Sunday Morning Soul is their first all-gospel effort. According to the liner notes, the disc is “a tribute to their faith as well as their roots.” Not that they’ve strayed too far – lead vocalist Jerry Lawson retains active membership in the New Hope Baptist Church Choir of Apopka, Florida – the town he was born in. The group took it’s name as an oblique reference to Christ having to persuade the people to follow his teachings, figuring it would take a lot of persuasion to make a living as musicians without instruments.

For the most part made up of gospel standards, including ‘Did You Stop To Pray’ and ‘Dry Bones,’ this is the material they started with, and it fits like a glove. A take on T Texas Tyler’s ‘Deck Of Cards’ is reminiscent of ‘It’s Alright’ a highlight from the group’s debut disc.

© John Cody 2000

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04.16.11

Quick Reads: Country Reviews

  • CARTER FAMILY – ON BORDER RADIO – 1939: VOL. 1 (Arhoolie)(1995)
  • STANLEY BROTHERS – THE COMPLETE COLUMBIA STANLEY BROTHERS (Sony)(1996)
  • STANLEY BROTHERS – ANGEL BAND: THE CLASSIC MERCURY RECORDINGS (Mercury)(1995)
  • ROSANNE CASH – RETROSPECTIVE (Columbia)(1995)

CARTER FAMILY - ON BORDER RADIOThe Carter Family were one of the most significant ensembles in the history of American music. The roots of folk, country, gospel and bluegrass all stretch back to the group. Originally from the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, A.P.Carter, his wife Sara and her cousin, Maybelle recorded for 14 years, from 1927 until 1941. In various permutations the family has remained a presence on the music scene ever since.

On Border Radio offers excerpts from radio shows broadcast in 1939 on Mexican/American border radio. In addition to the trio the disc features the first recorded appearance of a second generation of Carters: four of their daughters, aged 6-12 are featured on a number of selections.

The mood is more relaxed than on studio recordings. At the time it was assumed these recordings would be heard once or twice and thrown away. The sound is surprisingly good considering the source is long discarded acetates. Announcer “Brother” Bill Guild’s introductions of songs, replete with infrequent Biblical references, (a large part of the repertoire is comprised of spirituals) and advertisements to visit Mexico enhance the mood, and are perfect compliments to the music. A worthy addition to the Carter Family’s catalogue.

Complete Columbia Stanley BrothersRalph and Carter Stanley also hailed from the Appalachian Mountains. For nearly 20 years the Brothers were one of the country’s top bluegrass attractions, rivaling Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe in popularity. First recording in 1948, the Stanley Brothers were perceived by Monroe, the undisputed father of bluegrass to be such a threat that upon their signing with Columbia Records the next year, he left the label in protest. High lonesome three part harmonies coupled with soulful playing brought about a sound that owed equally to Monroe and the Carters. The Stanley’s’ version of a Carter Family original The Wandering Boy is included on the Columbia release, which collects material recorded from 1949-1952. The Mercury anthology samples material released on the label between 1954 -1958. The Stanleys never attempted to modernize their sound, sticking with traditional bluegrass themes of faith, mother, and home.

The Carter Family has continued with impressive showings from generation number three. Carlene Carter, June’s daughter, has produced a number of successful country releases over the last few years, meanwhile stepdaughter Rosanne Cash (daughter of Johnny) has followed a path that has led her away from the country scene.

BOB NEUWIRTH - LOOK UPBOB NEUWIRTH – LOOK UP (Watermelon)

Bob Neuwirth is a true underground legend. As Bob Dylan’s right hand man he appeared in the Don’t Look Back film, wrote Mercedes Benz with Janis Joplin, baby-sat Jim Morrison, mentored Patti Smith and toured as part of the Rolling Thunder Revue. Look Up, described as “a modern day field trip” pairs Neuwirth with musical friends around the world, recording in their homes. Informal enough to leave an unanswered telephone ringing, Neuwirth delivers songs in a gruff voice that bellies his reputation as one of the finest writers around. Cronies including Butch Hancock, Sandy Bull, Elliot Murphy, Victoria Williams, Patti Smith and Peter Case. Neuwirth’s take on the gospel is a natural as anything he writes about: dreams of salty Margaritas and Jesus both ring true.

© John Cody 1996

JOHNNY CASH - UNCHAINEDJOHNNY CASH – UNCHAINED (American)

Mixing contemporary covers with originals and older chestnuts, Johnny Cash offers a companion to his splendid return to form, 1994’s American Recordings. While that album was primarily accoustic, Unchained features first rate backing throughout from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Soundgarden’s Rusty Cage could well depict Cash’s physical struggles. A jaw ailment keeps him in almost constant pain. The condition, unresponsive to years of therapy and numerous surgeries is further exasperated by his steadfast refusal (Cash has a history of addictions to pills) to accept any form of medication. Thus there is more than a cursory reading of the lines “You wired me awake and hit me with a hand of broken nails” but the hope lies in the chorus, where, like the lure of heaven, he declares “but I’m gonna break my rusty cage and run”. Throughout Cash makes it clear real peace is to be found in Christ, from the title track where he cries “Take the weight from me, let my spirit be unchained” and in Josh Haden’s Spiritual where he repeats “Oh Jesus, I don’t want to die alone.”

Covers of Dean Martin’s biggest hit Memories Are Made of This and Hank Snow’s I’ve Been Everywhere sit well alongside Beck’s Rowboat. But spiritual themes dominate the album, including Kneeling Drunkard’s Prayer and Meet Me In Heaven.

Throughout Cash is backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who are the perfect backing band for this project.

  • ROSANNE CASH – RETROSPECTIVE (Columbia)(1995)
  • ROSANNE CASH – 10 SONG DEMO (Capitol)(1996)

Like her father, Rosanne Cash has followed a path that into areas foreign to most of the country music mainstream.

ROSANNE CASH - RETROSPECTIVERetrospective compliments Cash’s previous collection, Hits: 1979 -1989, offering an excellent overview without duplicating tracks included on the previous package. While her initial success was within the country vein, each successive release moved further away from any sort of Nashville formula. Cash’s final albums for Columbia, Interiors and The Wheel, marked a radical abandonment of the status quo. For purists irked by her decidedly feminist slant these albums nailed the lid shut on any chance of long-term country stardom. Both discs document the dissolution of her marriage to singer Rodney Crowell. Always an eloquent voice when dealing with affairs of the heart, these albums easily surpassed previous efforts. Songs such as What We Really Want and On the Surface (her final #1) deal with horrid issues with a matter-of-fact approach. From here on in she would be labeled a “women’s writer” rather than country. With a handful of tracks recorded specifically for the collection, Retrospective offers a fine overview of a first rate artist often misunderstood.

ROSANNE CASH - 10 SONG DEMOCash’s debut for Capitol Records, 10 song demo (actually 11 songs – the original title stuck) continues the string of excellent releases. Initially recorded as pre-production demos for a fully produced album, the label proposed the tapes be released as is and Cash agreed. Performances are limited to new husband/producer John Leventhal and Cash herself. The songs suit the sparse arrangements perfectly. Anything more would have approached overkill. Thematically the introspective journey is continued. While Cash appears to follow a number of philosophys, even when new age ideology is espoused, she counts the cost of living outside God’s will. Price of Temptation speaks of the cost of betrayal. The Summer I Read Collette relates her discovery of the French author, an obvious influence.

Sharing an approach similar to younger singers like P.J. Harvey and Liz Phair, Cash manages to convey the same sentiments without resorting to over the top statements, be it lyrical or musical. It’s a more mature, spiritual approach that comes across as a grown up version of the above mentioned artists. There is acceptance of loss, celebration of what remains, and a sense of calm throughout. An honest depiction of “the inner richness of women’s lives” her music is universal.

JASON AND THE SCORCHERS - CLEAR IMPETUOUS MORNINGJASON AND THE SCORCHERS – CLEAR IMPETUOUS MORNING (Mammoth/Attic) (1996)

Coming onto the scene in the mid 80s, Jason and the Scorchers offered a potent blend of country mixed with punk rock energy. A killer version of Bob Dylan’s Absolutely Sweet Marie got the band noticed quick, and a series of albums soon followed. Known for their wild live shows, the band was at the top of the short-lived cowpunk scene. Jason was equally well known for his excesses: in addition to a stage persona that brought to mind Carl Perkins-meets-Iggy Pop, a serious drinking problem grew. Over the years the band was overshadowed by younger acts, eventually losing it’s major label deal and reduced to playing increasingly smaller venues until the inevitable parting of the ways came near the end of the decade.

After an ill-fated solo outing and a messy divorce Ringenberg hit bottom. Upon sobering up Ringenberg returned to his Catholic roots, and regrouped all four original Scorchers for 1995s’ A Blazing Grace. Since the band’s reuniting drummer Perry Baggs, whose father was a gospel singer, has also returned to the church. Returning to the scene they helped create (now labeled alternative country), the ferocious edge remains, and the band is experiencing a second wind 15 years after they first hit.

If A Blazing Grace served notice that the Scorchers were back, Morning ups the stakes, with more solid writing and playing. Although there seems little chance of the act ever becoming popular on the CCM scene, a strong sense of biblical grace is apparent through most of the album. Self-Sabotage offers a cow punk read on Paul’s questioning (Rom 7:15) of why he does what he doesn’t want to do. Going Nowhere tells the story of a prodigal daughter. Victory Road offers a joyous picture of one reaching out in faith: I’ve been looking for a miracle/tell me brother have you seen one/I’m so tired of being cynical/I want to kick my way to freedom. Everything Has A Cost features a duet with Emmylou Harris.

NORMA WATERSON - NORMA WATERSONNORMA WATERSON – NORMA WATERSON (Hannibal)

Waterson delivers a collection of folk tunes that evince her reputation as one of the finest vocalists in the genre. A stellar cast of back up players includes Richard Thompson, Danny Thompson and Martin Carthy. In addition to traditional tunes Waterson has assembled an impressive selection of newer material from writers not normally associated with the form, including Elvis Costello, Jerry Garcia, and Ben Harper. In the tradition of British folk, there are a number of adult subjects addressed, including a woman’s death at the hands of her father. Broken hearted lovers abound.

In amongst the darker forays Waterson includes songs that celebrate the gospel. The traditional There Is A Fountain In Christ’s Blood is given a reverent reading. Richard Thompson’s God Loves A Drunk, originally from his own Rumor and Sigh, offers a unique slant on the creator’s view of seemingly hopeless alcoholics.

  • JULIE MILLER – BLUE PONY (Hightone)
  • JIM WHITE – WRONG-EYED JESUS (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)

JULIE MILLER - BLUE PONYBetween 1990 and 1994 Julie Miller released four solid discs, each aimed squarely at the CCM market, and as good as they were, all missed the mark sales wise. Her fourth, Invisible Girl was particularly strong, but sales remained as depressing as ever. Given the right exposure, Miller’s rootsy mix of twang guitar and Appalachian style folk tunes coupled with a childlike delivery would seem to insure a bigger audience. The vocalist she most brings to mind, sometime singing partner Victoria Williams, is an prime example of quirkiness catching on with the general public.

With Blue Pony Miller has followed her husband Buddy, (whose debut effort Your Love and Other Crimes was one of the finest albums released in 1995) to mainstream label Hightone.

While the disc was recorded for a new market, Miller hardly changes her stance. As she explained to World Magazine, “I know the album’s for Hightone, so I’m not going to sell them a really heavy duty gospel record. But, then again, if I can’t be myself and release my heart – what’s the point. Our days are numbered, and I just want God to use my life. That’s all I really care about.”

Blue Pony makes good on the promise of all these years, offering the most mature, enjoyable disc of her career. Perhaps with Hightone behind her Miller will finally begin to reach the audience she deserves. To that end, the influential Entertainment Weekly magazine recently awarded the disc an A rating.

Miller’s pal Victoria Williams guests on the following two releases.

JIM WHITE - WRONG-EYED JESUSJim White’s debut, Wrong-Eyed Jesus, comes complete with a curious written testimony entitled The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted “Wrong-Eyed Jesus!”. Sincere, and insisting it’s true, White comes across like a character straight out of a Flannery O’Conner story. Originally from Pensacola, Florida, White was raised in the Pentecostal church After what he describes as a “spiral of tragedy” a move to New York led to a career as a fashion model. For three years he traveled the world on high profile assignments, during which time he attempted to live the life of an ascetic. Summing up his philosophy in a recent interview White explained his philosophy- “If I said no to everybody about everything, somehow all the no’s would accumulate into one aggregate yes.” Abandoning modeling, his next move was to directed the feature-length movie, It’s a Beautiful World, a gloomy tale of deception and beauty. Only then, and almost by accident, did he turn to music. Overheard while singing alone, a friend encouraged White to record his songs. Purchasing substandard recording gear at a garage sale, a tape eventually reached David Byrne, who signed White to his label, Luaka Bop.

At times it’s next to impossible to pick up on exactly what White is saying thanks to a prominent southern drawl. The majority of songs deal with religion, spirituality, and life in general. Plucked banjos, steel guitar and half spoken vocals bring to mind early 20th century southern revivalists.. That’s not to say the stance is always serious. The Road That Leads To Heaven offers the self-depreciating sentiment: “She’s a brainy girl/that is good/she’s smarter than me/then so is wood.” Too wide ranging to fit into the currently popular No Depression scene, for those interested in something a bit more adventurous, White is worth searching out. Williams guests on the track Angel Land.

© John Cody 1997

Roger McGuinn: McGuinn’s Folk Den Vol 1Roger McGuinn: McGuinn’s Folk Den Vol 1, McGuinn Music, 1999

Roger McGuinn has always been attracted to the cutting-edge, be it gadgets or concepts. From his pioneering use of synthesizer (Moog Raga) with the Byrds, singing about friendly aliens a quarter of a century before we’d heard of the X-Files, or addressing car phones (from his solo disc Back To Rio) back when the idea was still novel, he’s always been a few steps ahead of the crowd.

Fittingly, he’s one of the first noteworthy artists to fully embrace the internet and it’s attendant breakthroughs in sales and distribution. After almost 5 decades recording for major labels, this is his first effort released without industry involvement. Utilizing the Digital Automatic Music (DAM) system, the disc works in both MP3 and standard CD audio formats.

Recorded at home, each of these tracks was previously featured as song of the month on his Folk Den website. Revisiting to his roots, the songs are traditional, or like Blind Willie Johnson’s John The Revelator, have become part of the folk vocabulary. McGuinn first recorded Mighty Day, which commemorates the great Galveston Flood of 1900, in 1961, as an accompanist for the Chad Mitchell Trio. The recording here is of similar vintage, and is easily mistakable for Bob Gibson, one of McGuinn’s early influences.

The remaining recordings are from the last couple of years, including a number of songs that reflect his faith – John The Revelator, Mary Had A Baby, Wayfaring Stranger. A natural pairing, just McGuinn and his guitars, it’s a surprise it was never attempted before. Then again, there’s no marketing experts to say it won’t work.

Price is reflected in the minimal packaging: $7.99 plus 50 cents postage gets the disc, a plain paper sleeve, and that’s it. But it’s the music that counts, and this is a bargain. Liner notes can be downloaded at his website. Not one to sit still, McGuinn is now offering downloadable video from his website.

Residents: WormwoodResidents: Wormwood, ESD, 1998

Conceptual artists employing a dada-esque mindset, the Residents are one of the quirkiest and downright original acts ever to enter a recording studio. Based in San Francisco, the group has released uncompromising music since the mid 70s.

Their debut, Meet the Residents, took the Meet the Beatles album cover artwork, modifying each Beatle’s face and in effect turning the fab four into mutants. Capitol Records was not amused, and subsequent pressings featured revamped artwork. A catalogue of over 30 releases includes such titles as Third Reich And Roll, Duckstab and 1989’s The King & Eye, a slightly more accessible disc which coupled reworked Elvis Presley songs with narration to a group of young listeners, confused as to just what sort of monarch this was.

Subtitled Curious Stories From The Bible, Wormwood is a collection of 20 tracks inspired by scripture. A spokesman for the group (they’ve never spoken publicly) describes the album as “The Residents’ window onto an ancient and bizarre culture.”

Claiming the Bible has been “handicapped” and “held hostage by zealots,” the project isn’t taking a stand against intolerance as much as offering “another voice.” These are not the stories dealt with on a typical Sunday sermon. Titles like They Are The Meat and Spilling The Seed are never going to be endorsed by Focus On The Family. The disc’s booklet contains lyrics, commentary and relevant scripture for those who would doubt these tales really come from the Bible.

For those interested in learning more regarding these curious stories, a few books worth checking out would be the Hard Sayings series (InterVarsity Press) and Gleason L. Archer’s Encylopedia of Bible Difficulties (Zondervan 1982).

As for the group’s own philosophy, the spokesman claims it’s quite random: “They feel that we’re all rolling around in a giant pinball machine”…. “If you’re lucky, you get to reach out and punch the flipper every 10 or 15 years.”

© John Cody 1999

Lyle Lovett: Live In TexasLyle Lovett: Live In Texas, Curb, 1999

Recorded in ’95, Live In Texas features Lovett and his Large Band taking on material from throughout his career. Lovett has a longstanding love affair with the Lone Star State – his most recent studio effort, 98’s Step Inside This House, was a two-disc tribute covering material from his favorite Big Sky songwriters. That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas) first recorded on The Road To Ensenada (’96) and reprised here, is a gospel-styled love song to the state, offering the couplet “Even Moses got excited when he saw the promised land.”

One of the more intriguing characters in music today, before his first album was released Lovett had already earned a degree in journalism, (which may partially account for some of the more colorful characters inhabiting his songs) and over the past decade he’s acted in a handful of movies, including critical favorites The Player, Short Cuts and The Opposite Of Sex.

Lovett’s late father was a long-serving member of the Trinity Lutheran Church in Klein, Texas. The family has deep roots there – his great grandfather helped found the church in 1873. When Lovett passed through town a few years back he made news when he was spotted attending Sunday service at a Lutheran church in Revelstoke. If this sounds like a public stance keep in mind Lovett has always played his cards close to the vest. There’s little help perusing lyrics. His songs at times appear almost nonsensical, yet somehow work, as in the opener, Penguins, a love song to the Webbed Wonder.

Church is typical – the story of a congregations’ hunger pangs as the Pastor threatens to preach all day long. A dove descends to the pulpit, only to be eaten by the preacher. The moral of the story: “Children it is plain but true/God knows if a preacher preaches long enough/Even he’ll get hungry too.”

For the neophyte, Live In Texas is an excellent introduction. Longtime fans, however, might prefer some original material – it’s been four years since a disc of new songs was released.

Terry Allen: SalivationTerry Allen: Salivation, Sugar Hill, 1999

Another Texas treasure, Terry Allen has never enjoyed more than marginal sales.

Operating under the radar, he’s produced a body of work that rivals and often exceeds any of his contemporaries. Working in theatre, sculpture, film, painting and more, music is just one facet of a remarkable talent. He’s received three NEA grants and holds a Guggenheim Fellowship. A renaissance man few are aware of. He’s recorded for 25 years, but outside of a handful covers by the likes of Little Feat and Bobby Bare, he’s still an unknown.

Like Lyle Lovett, his songwriting straddles too many genres to fit a single category. Numerous forms co-exist, the most prominent being country, but it’s about as far from the country espoused by Garth and his ilk as one could imagine. The songs are real, at times ugly, and unlikely to find their way onto radio. Tellingly, when asked to list his favorite musicians, the first name up is Captain Beefheart, followed by Joe Ely, David Byrne (he’s worked with both) and Lou Reed.

A keen observer of the human condition, here he takes on some of the dodgier aspects of the Americanized Christianity, including TV Preachers, cultists and holly rollers. He’s described the theme of the disc as dealing with “the collision of the need to damn and the need not to be damned…It deals with human needs slamming up against spiritual needs.” The results aren’t likely the pass muster in many churches, but like last summer’s Kevin Smith film Dogma, it’s an interesting, thought provoking journey.

A witty, literate writer, for the most part Allen avoids cheap shots. Salivation will likely do nothing to change his status within the music industry, but for those wanting something interesting, thought provoking, this will do the trick.

Tonio K: YugoslaviaTonio K: Yugoslavia, Gadfly, 1999

Yugosalvia marks K’s first album of new material in over a decade. While the still born Ole saw belated release in ‘98, and Rodent Weekend ’76-’96 (Approximately) a compilation of outtakes and rarities, was released the same year, this marks the first collection of new material since Notes From the Lost Civilization in ’88.

Much of the material here was written with other artists in mind, and as such is a bit more palpable that K’s more esoteric numbers. But there’s plenty of vintage material. Opening with “Sixteen Tons Of Monkeys” it’s clear he’s lost little of his bit over the years. Described in the liner notes as an “abstract autobiography” it captures the frustration and confusion that comes with trying to make sense of the world we live in. Like a character out of the Old Testament, he asks the hard questions and ain’t satisfied with pat answers.

Like T-Bone Burnett, Tonio K assumes his listeners are intelligent, and his disgust is tempered with compassion. Life’s Just Hard makes it clear we all struggle, and life without love means : “We die trying/To invent a substitute/We’ll do anything/Say anything/Be anything/Believe anything.”

A fine addition to the K. canon.

Julie Miller: Broken ThingsJulie Miller: Broken Things, HighTone, 1999

Broken Things is Julie Miller’s sixth album, and second release on HighTone, following the well received Blue Pony (1997). The title track, originally on He Walks Through Walls (1991), was subsequently recorded by the Williams Brothers, and more recently Lucy Kaplansky. ‘All My Tears,’ from Orphans And Angels (1993), later covered by Emmylou Harris and Little Jimmy Scott, is reprised with Steve Earle sitting in on mandolin. Apart from a cover of the traditional standard ‘Two Soldiers,’ the disc is made up of nine new original tracks that show her to be in top form.

Before moving into the mainstream, Miller released four discs into the CCM market. Years ago she described her frustrations to CCM Magazine: “I’m not for everyone; I’m sort of funky and messy. I think Myrrh [her label] wanted to make me a poppier pop artist than I already was.”

It’s not so much the earlier albums were bad – each includes a few excellent tracks – as the way she was packaged by the label, attempting to sell her as just another off-the-rack happy Christian, in the process cheapening a fully-realized artist.

One track she recorded, ‘S.O.S. (Sick of Sex)’ was rejected by the company as offensive, but finally saw release on her third album after much finagling. ‘Strange Lover,’ a song on the new album dealing with cocaine abuse, which would also likely have been rejected back then, stands as just one facet of a remarkable writer’s vision on Broken Things.

Buddy Miller: Cruel MoonBuddy Miller: Cruel Moon, HighTone, 1999

Honky Tonk for the new millennium.

Buddy Miller enjoys a well-deserved reputation as sideman par excellence, having worked with Steve Earle, Shawn Colvin, Jim Lauderdale and Emmylou Harris. He’s also released a pair of alt-country discs that were a breath of fresh air, rivaling his employer’s best efforts.

Everything more or less stays the same on Cruel Moon. Strong originals and smart covers, including the Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil chestnut ‘I’m Gonna Be Strong.’ The song gets a remarkable makeover, into a plaintive cry only hinted at in the original Gene Pitney hit. The Staple Singers’ ‘It’s Been A Change’ is likewise given a whole new reading.

But it’s the original songs that stand out. Covered by the likes of Brooks And Dunn, Dixie Chicks, and Lee Ann Womack, Buddy beats them all for authenticity. Womack, who sang ‘Don’t Tell Me’ on her second album, has tracks from both Buddy (‘Does My Ring Burn Your Finger’) and Julie (‘I Know Why The River Runs’) on her latest disc, I Hope You Dance, released this month. In the April issue of ICE she spoke of her admiration for Miller’s work: “I’m almost embarrassed for anybody to hear mine after hearing his.”

Dealing with the darker side of relationships, songs like ‘I’m Not Getting Any Better At Goodbye’ come across like a country cousin to Richard and Linda Thompson’s groundbreaking Shoot Out The Lights. In this case it appears the Millers manage to keep the angst to the music. In an interview with NPR, Julie made it clear their inspiration comes from the sad songs of the Louvin Brothers and Stanley Brothers.

Both discs were recorded at the Miller’s home studio. The arrangements sparse, the sound pristine, capturing things as they went down, with an intimacy that’s missing from the majority of big budget releases.

Warren Zevon: Life’ll Kill YaWarren Zevon: Life’ll Kill Ya, Artemis

Warren Zevon is one of the more astute chroniclers of modern life. Like Tonio K, he has an all-to-rare take on the world we live in, where everything is for sale at the right price. Usually cheap. The most cutting of the seventies L.A. rock crowd, he was out of place even at his commercial peak. Jackson Browne has described him as the “first and foremost proponent of song noir.” Others sang of peaceful easy feelings, Zevon offered an far more unsettling – albeit believable – worldview. Highly literate, his idiosyncratic songs draw comparisons to novelists as often as other songsmiths.

At the age of twelve he was a classical music prodigy, writing twelve-tone music in the style of Stockhausen and befriending Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. A few years later an about face, brought on by ‘peer pressure, puberty” and the realization that classical music was hardly grabbing the ear of his generation, resulted in his working within a more contemporary form – pop music.

He penned a couple of singles for the Turtles, scored television commercials, and placed a song on the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack. His first solo effort, Wanted Dead Or Alive (1969) was ignored, and he moved to Spain in 1970.

Returning to America, he put in a stint as bandleader for the Everly Brothers before releasing an eponymous-titled album on Electra 1976. Perceived as his real debut, the record garnered rave reviews.

Life’ll Kill Ya is his thirteenth release. While long-time problems with alcohol have been dealt with, he’s hardly mellowed. The personal habits may be cleaned up, but the bite is as strong as ever. Aging and mortality are constant themes, and religious imagery is employed on numerous occasions.

“I Was In The House When The House Burned Down,” an allegory to our limited time on the planet, includes a reference to Simon of Cyrene – ‘I met the man with the thorny crown/I helped Him carry his cross through town.” The closer, “Don’t Let Us Get Sick,” is a perfect prayer for the middle-aged non-believer. The title track, dealing with the inevitability of death, questions the possibility of heaven or reincarnation, and ends neatly with the Latin phrase ‘Requiescat in pace (Rest in peace)/That’s all she wrote.’

One of the more intriguing numbers is “Hostage-O” which might be about turning over one’s will to the creator of the universe, but could just as easily concern a more earth-bound submissive/dominant relationship.

‘Ourselves To Know’ employs the Crusades as an image to mirror life’s journeys.

There are more than a few instances of profanity on the disc, but like all great art, that’s hardly the point. ‘My S---’s F----d Up’ offers one of the sadder refrains: ‘That amazing grace/Sort of passed you by/You wake up everyday/and you start to cry.’ Anyone more concerned with the number of curse words per song would best avoid this disc, but for those willing to hear what’s being said, a great disc from a great writer.

Zevon explained the focus: “Old age is an equally appropriate if not more appropriate subject for rock and roll than misunderstood youth.”

© John Cody 2000

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02.1.11

Over The Rhine: 20 years on, the conversation continues

By John Cody

For most musicians, playing comes down to a simple choice. If you’re motivated, you play.

For Linford Detweiler, that was hardly the case.

Detweiler and his wife Karin Bergquist – along with a revolving cast of backup musicians – have recorded as Over the Rhine for over 20 years. Their newest effort, The Long Goodbye is arguably the strongest album of their career. I spoke with him recently about a number of subjects, including his rather unique roots.

“I grew up with this background of forbidden music: ‘music is dangerous; be careful.’ So for me, becoming a professional musician was walking a dangerous road.

“Both my parents were raised on Amish farms, and I have lots of stories about the awkward navigation from that sort of culture – one that’s completely removed from the modern world.”

Music and art were considered inherently decadent, which resulted in numerous acts of covert creativity “My father was a very restless child with artistic leanings, and he sketched faces on the side of the white-washed barn with a piece of charcoal. People would gather around these drawings that he had made and recognize themselves.

“They weren’t allowed to have musical instruments; but my uncle Rudy loved music, and he had an acoustic guitar in the haymow. He would sneak into the barn after dark, and play his guitar – and then bury it in the hay. One of his brothers – not knowing it was there – accidentally ran a pitchfork through it one time.”

Linford Detweiler

Other instruments were placed strategically about the farm. “Rudy also hid an accordion under the horse’s manger, and I’ve often drawn the parallel with all this instruments being hidden in the hay: it brings to mind the Christ child in the barn, like a forbidden song.”

He notes that “A cappella singing was allowed, but no accompaniment.” Only one instrument passed muster: the lowly harmonica. “So dad and my uncle played their harmonicas all their lives. That was an exception.”

Eventually, his parents decided to leave the sect. “Dad was very haunted and restless, and we moved around quite a bit. I say now that he was looking for a city not made by human hands, but he wanted to see what was out there. We lived out in Montana for six years and tried different things, but he never quite found his vocation. They were always strong believers and very religious people. They became Mennonite for a while; and dad was a Protestant minister for part of his life.”

Once they left the Amish community, music became a mainstay in the home. “Dad bought a record player, and began to bring home records – everything from Mahalia Jackson to very early Eddy Arnold records to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. He didn’t know it was against the rules to play the Mahalia Jackson, Eddy Arnold and Beethoven all in the same evening.

“He also bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and made field recordings when we were kids. He’d go out at night and record at the edge of a swamp, or just walk down back roads and make recordings.” My parents knew I loved music, and when they left the Amish, they brought an upright piano into the house.”

It could, on occasion, be cause for consternation. “My grandmother, who was Amish, was coming to visit, and here was this affront – a piano – right in our living room. My sister Grace looked at it carefully, and said ‘Linford, if we cover it up just right, I think she might think it’s a furnace.’

“My parents loved the fact that I would sit at the piano, and that I took to it quickly and naturally. I went there often as a child to make up my own music. It’s where I learned to read music; my mother would be washing the dishes and she would hand me the hymnal and say ‘Just try to find something that I don’t know; play a hymn.’ And I never recall ever playing a hymn that she didn’t know.”

Playing hymns met with approval; but once he found his own voice, it was a different story. “When I started writing songs, and getting interested in this whole era of the sixties, and what a song could mean in terms of modern culture, then I began to step into something that was so foreign to my parents, there was almost no way to bridge the gap.”

That’s when it got interesting for Linford. “It was extremely exciting for me. And as I differentiated myself from my family, it was not without its concerns and traumas. But shortly before he passed away, my mom and dad came and saw us play. That was one of the first times that they had seen us with the full band. I told a few stories from stage, and said that for years I had been thinking that I would pick up the phone and call my parents and say: ‘Mom and Dad, I’ve got good news. It’s a little bit bittersweet, but the Over The Rhine thing, we’re all done with that now. That chapter has ended, so I’m going to go ahead and get a real job and get back to my real life.’ I always thought I would make that phone call.

“I really believed that when I was starting out. And then I began realizing that I never was; that this is actually what I do. And I told some of our old stories, and tucked that note in there, and then I introduced my parents. Everybody was curious; would my parents be a little shy about being introduced, or have mixed feelings? Well,” he chuckles, “I said my dad’s name, and he practically shot up out of his chair. He was very caught up in what was happening and I think quite proud of what I had accomplished. But culturally, even then, it was a little far out there. So I didn’t pressure them to understand it, or anything like that.”

“It was a complicated relationship,” Detweiler notes. “There were six of us kids, and my dad loomed larger than life in all of us – in all of our lives.”

The old adage of being done with our past, but the past not being done with us, comes to mind; he realizes his father lives on – for good and bad – in his own personality.

“Oh, yeah, absolutely,” he laughs. “He’s still here. But I think he ended well. Dad had a couple of really good final laps, if you want to use the metaphor of running the race. It really ended up well. I feel like he did a lot of healing homework in his last few chapters.”

Given his formative years, it’s hardly a surprise to find a subtle spiritual underpinning to much of Over The Rhine’s oeuvre. “Karin and I both grew up in the church,” Detweiler explains, “and were exposed to gospel music early on. That influence is something we’re quite proud of. The hymnal is a part of our American music heritage that critics sometimes don’t know what to do with, but I firmly believe there could have been no Johnny Cash or Elvis Presley without those hymnals – those hymns they grew up with.

“So when we began writing our own songs, there was a dilemma: do we sign some kind of gospel record deal? It certainly wasn’t out of the question. We knew people that knew people. But we quickly decided we wanted to take our music into the general marketplace, and put it out there with the great songwriters we were discovering. And one of our first big breaks was getting to open some shows for Bob Dylan.”

It was only five or six dates, but the experience would inform all that came after. “We got to stand on the side of the stage with this iconic songwriter who sort of gave us permission vicariously to take what we are doing seriously. And that’s where we felt at home.”

They signed with a mainstream label, but never shied away from addressing matters of the spirit. “I’m still very much sorting out the tradition that I came from, my own relationship with God and what I believe. I’m sorting through that, and I want to engage people on that level.

“For me, writing is often very much tangled up in trying to figure out what it is that I care about. What is it that I’m feeling? I’m asking a lot of questions as I go, and for people that want to get into life’s bigger questions, I hope they can find some good questions being asked in my own songs. It’s not so much about saying that ‘this is what I know for sure,’ it’s more about saying ‘I really think I’m learning this. I’ve experienced this small victory that I want to celebrate; how about you? Are you with me one this?’

“G.K. Chesterton said we need priests to remind us that one day we are going to die, but we need a different kind of priest – the poet, the painter, the singer – to remind us that we are not dead yet. That’s what I want to do with my songs; I want to remind people that we are not dead yet.”

They take inspiration from a wide range of sources. “It’s different people at different times, but I’m certainly drawn to fresh language in song – to people that have a lot of facility with language. People like Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman.”

The list – as Detweiler readily admits – consists entirely of older artists. “I don’t want to sound curmudgeonly,” he laughs, “but those have been some of the teachers that I discovered as a young songwriter, and they have remained important teachers. I hope I’m continuing to find new teachers. Joe Henry has been an incredible find. I’ve learned a lot from him, both in terms of writing and in terms of being a human being.”

Writers – fiction and non-fiction – are another source of inspiration; “I find myself returning to authors like Annie Dillard, Fredrick Buechner and even Lauren Winner. I like exploring the same terrain as Annie Dillard, whose books function on a lot of different levels; some people appreciate them for the craft, some love her interest in nature – and her unique way of engaging with the natural world – and some are very interested in what she’s exploring spiritually. That’s what I aspire to.”

Sometimes, in spite of a writer’s intent, multiple interpretations can be valid. “That’s the mystery of writing,” Detweiler agrees. “Sometimes listeners will teach us things about our songs. We love that back and forth conversation, and hopefully – because of the different levels – there isn’t just one right or wrong interpretation that neatly summarizes everything.”

Another enigma is how the artist can at times appear far removed from the art. From Hank Williams to Townes Van Zandt, stories of lives lived in marked contrast to their own lyric are legendary. “I have friends that hung out with Townes quite a bit, and it was a wild ride,” Detweiler notes. “Apparently, he had a lot going on. But I don’t divide the world into the broken and the unbroken. I think we are all flawed, we all struggle at times.

“The film Amadeusreally explored that idea beautifully, as somebody very gifted being simultaneously flawed.” For instance, John Lennon; “All those amazing songs he wrote about love and unconditional love, and the power and freedom that’s connected to loving your neighbor well. And then you think of Lennon’s personal life, and the bitterness that he struggled with, and I realize that people like Townes and John Lennon aren’t necessarily writing a personal history of what is happening, they’re writing about what they are aspiring to. And I love that tension. I often write what I’m aspiring towards. That’s why anybody can hand something beautiful to the world. You don’t have to be all the way there, but if you can see it out in front – if you can tune into that vision or whatever – you can have something to say.”

One of the standout tracks on the new album, ‘All My Favorite People’ deals directly with the dichotomy. “I came out with it as I surveyed my own life and my whole family. Karin and I looked at each other one day, and one of us said ‘All my favorite people are broken.’ And we explored that. I worked on the song over the course of a couple of years, figuring out what’s trying to be revealed.

“I was working on a line: ‘I see each wound you have received as a burdensome gift;’ and whenever we make a pronouncement like that, a good editor will step in. We edit each other, and often find ourselves reframing our songs in terms of questions, and Karin made a slight tweak. She changed it to: “Is each wound you’ve received just a burdensome gift?” It’s just a subtle shift of what’s happening in terms of the conversation, where I’m putting the question out there: Iwonder about this, Ithink I’m learning something about this – what are you learning? And those kinds of conversations are what we are really interested in.”

In an industry where acts come and go with regularity, remaining a viable entity for two decades is a remarkable achievement. How has Over The Rhine endured? “Fortunately, we have people that have stuck with us from the very beginning. And along with that we have people that continue to discover the band every time we release a record. People are still finding out about us.

“Our audience is pretty diverse. If we play a concert that’s restricted to 21 and over, we will usually get emails from kids in college saying “are you sure there’s no way we can get in?” That’s maybe the most encouraging part of the equation; that young people are still getting excited about the music.”

With radio no longer able to break acts, and brick and mortar stores carrying fewer CDs, traditional methods of reaching an audience no longer apply. “A lot of it is word of mouth, and a lot of it revolves around our vision of connecting directly with our listeners. We were one of the first bands in America to have our own website. It was a kid at MIT that set it up for us and we barely knew what it was. It had a URL of about 46 characters; we kept it on a server at MIT’s campus.”

From the start, they took a hands-on approach. “We were stapling together hand-written newsletters and mailing them out, and really trying to not let other people do that work for us. Even if we were signed to a major label, we wanted to maintain a direct connection.”

That connection is largely responsible for The Long Surrender. “When we realized we were going to be making this record with Joe, we looked at different options for funding, and decided to go directly to our fans; to tell them about this opportunity and invite them to step in and fund this record and make it with us.

“That could involve preordering a CD at $15, which meant you would get the CD couple of months before it came out in stores, your name listed on the band’s website, and bonus tracks, all the way up to $10,000; where we’ll come do a private concert, put you on our guest list for a year, and give you a whole bunch of other treats.”

They had takers at every level. “We had a little over 2,000 people participate. One couple in Austin, Texas pitched in ten grand. We’re going to go down there in the spring and play a show in their barn for them and their friends. We just had one taker at that level, but the important thing is we got the entire project paid for, and we got to treat it as a barn raising, or a community effort.

“I think people really appreciated being part of process and seeing it come together. We sent the demos out to a lot of the donors, so they got to hear sort of the early versions of these songs, hear some of the songs that didn’t make the final cut, and be part of the whole process.”

The new business model is a radical departure from the past. “It’s extremely preferable to having a record label loan you the money, and then take 80% of the proceeds forever. Nowadays, there is no middleman; it’s really just us and you. It’s a fairly new idea, but other songwriters have done it, and it made perfect sense.’

Joe Henry

The choice of Joe Henry as producer was inspired. In addition to his own catalogue of stellar solo releases, over the last decade he’s become a producer of note, with Solomon Burke, Bettye LaVette, Aimee Mann, Mose Allison and others benefitting from his skills behind the board. The paring with Over The Rhine is a natural; Henry is willing to mix things up, creating a unique blend informed by what has come before while offering fresh takes on long-established artists.

“Like a lot of people, we had been noticing the records that he was producing, and we were getting really interested in his gifts as a producer. I loved the Solomon Burke records and the stuff he had done with Elvis Costello and Allan Toussaint, but I couldn’t quite figure out what that would mean for Karin and I. And we loved that idea of not being able to imagine the record in advance. It was a bit of an unknown, and that’s very exciting – when you trust a person – it’s very exciting to open yourself up like that.”

“Joe is a great writer, and there was an intuitive connection on that level. But there’s fearlessness; an element of danger about what he is doing. He’s not necessarily approaching it as ‘how do we make this an easy experience for the listener?’ It’s more like: ‘let’s blow the seams out of the songs.’

“We sent him all the demos and he had great feedback. He had this list; a couple of nudges here and there in a certain direction, but he put most of his work into carefully assembling the players for the record. Most of the hard work went to figuring out who needed to be in the room. He got an amazing group of players that really wanted to tune into what Karin was doing. And then he steps back and very gently orchestrates the proceedings. We were able to do what it is that we do; sit at the piano and play these songs with complete commitment and abandon. It was like leaning back into a great comfortable chair. We were effortlessly swept away, like we had been put on a train after dark; everything just started to move out of the room. It’s hard to explain, but it was embarrassingly easy to make the record,” he laughs. “We didn’t labor. We started on a Monday afternoon and wrapped up the following Friday afternoon.

“Joe kept track, and at least six or seven of the tracks on the record were first takes.” Like old school sessions, everything was live off the floor. “Everybody was playing together. If we did do a second take, Karin sang the entire song again every time.”

In every case, the vocals are entire performances, from start to finish. “Those are complete, intact performances. No overdubbing. Karin sang all that stuff live.”

They co-wrote two songs with Henry. “When we showed up at the sessions, Karin had one song that we felt really belonged on the record musically, but she just had one word, and the word was ‘soon,’ and I think it was Thursday, we were almost done, she asked Joe if he’d want to take the shot at writing the words.

“So before breakfast she had that lyric in her inbox. She made a few tweaks and we went in and sang the song. And it’s got some of my favorite lyrics on the record.”

While the musical component is obvious, Henry’s personal life made an impression as well. “When we were exploring the idea of making a record together, Joe mentioned that his parents were going to be attending one of our shows. It was a coincidence; they had heard us on one of the NPR stations and we were playing in Shelby, North Carolina where they live. Joe wrote a short tribute to his parents, because he knew that I would be meeting them. And I remember responding and saying what a rare pleasure, to read such well articulated love. I just couldn’t believe that Joe would take time to send me this letter in appreciation of his parents, in advance of us having the opportunity to meet them.”

That initial impression was cemented after Detweiler and Bergquist traveled to Henry’s home in California for the recording. “It’s a special family, where encouragement, support, and love are the order of the day. I’m sure they’ve had their difficulties along the road, like anyone has. But it’s been a gift to see a family care for each other so well. That was the atmosphere we were in while we were making the record at Joe’s house; you can’t help but encounter the whole package”

“And then, seeing the attention Joe pays to the details of his life; he can make an incredibly good cup of espresso,” he laughs. “Whether it’s that, or it’s the music that he chooses to listen to at dinner time – he mostly listens to older traditional jazz records and sometimes he’ll play songwriters, but I found it to be incredibly inspiring. It was kind of the week of a lifetime. It’s been an amazing new friendship. We really enjoyed that process and look forward to more.”

When I spoke with Karin back in 2006, the couple was in the process of healing after a particularly rough patch in their marriage. They’re still together, and thankful.

The album that precipitated the break (Ohio) was one of their strongest. Artistically, they were on a high. “That’s the thing; we got so caught up in touring and everything that was happening around that particular record that we just kind of ran out of gas when it came to loving each other apart from all of that.”

Rather than continue, they called off an important tour. “We shut it down for a little while, went home and kind of recalibrated. When the momentum begins to build for a relationship to blow apart, it can be a real challenge to find that fresh beginning. And I think we were part of the fairly small minority that were able to turn it back around and make a fresh start.”

The new album’s title, The Long Surrender, speaks to the realization that life can be hard, and issues sometimes ongoing. “I think it’s universal. And when it comes to Karin and I, the biggest take away from that chapter was the fact that we had two things that we were nurturing simultaneously; a marriage and a songwriting partnership. And they both require a certain amount of creativity and care and commitment. We made the mistake when we were younger of thinking that if the songwriting is humming along, then we could put the marriage on hold indefinitely if we were on the road or whatever. Learning to balance both – taking care of both – on an ongoing basis is something that we continue to experiment with. But I’m extremely grateful that we’ve made it work.

“Karin and I always had really good chemistry musically, and that was the first sort of connecting – music was what connected us initially, and then we realized that we were in love. And so I don’t know if they’re completely intertwined at this point, or if one could exist apart from the other. But let’s hope that we never have to figure all that out.

It’s clear that Over The Rhine’s audience is a vital part of the equation. “We’ve described that as people inviting our music to be part of the big moments of their lives,” Detweiler explains. “When that begins to happen, a deep relationship begins to form.”

He recalls a defining moment early on in their career. “We were getting a lot of letters, and I remember one day spreading eight or nine different letters out on a table, and it spanned a lot of human experience, beginning with: “I just wanted to let you know I fell in love and met my fiancée in college and this particular record was sort of our personal soundtrack for all of that.” That would be one letter. Then the next letter would be: “We were married last month, and we danced our first dance to this particular song on this particular record.” The next letter would be: “We took your records to the hospital; we were giving birth and they played them continuously, so you were there in spirit.” And I remember this letter from an old Irishman in particular, he had gone into the hospital to have surgery for cancer, and he took one of our records, and a couple of songs in particular that almost functioned as guardian angels for him, as he listened to this music in the hospital. And then the last letter was talking about burying a loved one, and a particular song the family had embraced as a mile marker for that season of loss.

“We were looking at each other, and obviously some writers and artists have various concerns when it comes to making a living – achieving a certain amount of recognition so that you don’t have to worry about paying last month’s bills – but on the other hand, we realized: what greater reward could there possibly be than to have the music finding its way into these big moments? Really: what more can we ask for? That’s continued to happen, and as long as we feel like we’re doing good work that people are continuing to embrace on that deep level, it’s enough to keep us going.”

www.overtherhine.com

© John Cody 2011

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01.1.11

Reliving the glory days of folk music

By John Cody

The term ‘folk music’ encompasses a wide variety of sounds and styles.

That was never more apparent than in the late sixties and early seventies. Traditional guitar strumming troubadours were still around – and in the case of acts from James Taylor and John Denver, selling better than ever.

But there was much more, as three recent books make clear. Together, they underscore just how vital and varied the folk scene was for a season.

Becoming Elektra: The True Story of Jac Holzman’s Visionary Record Label, by Mick Houghton (Jawbone), tells the story of this unique label and the man who made it all happen.

Formed in 1951, Elektra Records’ roster was rooted in folk music. Be it Ed McCurdy and Jean Ritchie singing traditional numbers, Oscar Brand offering topical humor, or Theodore Bikel singing Jewish Folk songs, they were all hand-picked by Jac Holzman.

As the sixties unfolded, Phil Ochs brought a political sensibility to the proceedings, while more introspective writers like Fred Neil and Tim Buckley dealt with personnel politics.

By 1966, Elektra had gone electric, with the Paul Butterfield Band and Love leading the charge. The following year the label had its first number one hit, with the Doors’ ‘Light My Fire.’ While folk was never abandoned – Judy Collins remained for over two decades – the updated roster saw acts as diverse as Carly Simon, Bread and Queen bring significant commercial success to the label.

Elektra released a number of gospel-informed LPs over the years, including straight ahead efforts like 1964’s Sweet Hallelujah by the Christian Gospel Choir, Jeanie Greene’s 1971 effort, Mary, Called Jeanie Greene, which offered a southern-fried version of the gospel; to legendary Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence unique take on traditional gospel numbers.

There were curios, too, like Methuselah’s Matthew, Mark, Luke And John, which featured plenty of biblical imagery – if rather dodgy theology – coupled with a rock beat.

Rather than emulate their American peers, folk musicians in the U.K. followed an entirely different path. The playing was at a whole other level, with the likes of Davey Graham, Bert Jansch and John Martyn rewriting the rules on how to play both electric and acoustic guitar. There was a propensity for adventure; Pentangle added a jazz rhythm section and performed Charles Mingus compositions alongside traditional madrigals.

While the Yanks were getting back to the country – be it Colorado, Carolina, or California – Fairport Convention decided to explore their real roots; all the way back to the 16th century ballads of their forefathers. The songs they discovered were full of blood, lust and revenge, and precious little in the way of peace and love.

The result – 1969’s Liege & Lief -was the single most important album to come out of the fertile folk scene.

The group boasted a wealth of talent; Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, Ashley Hutchings and Ian Matthews would all go on to significant solo careers, and the long serving rhythm section of Dave Mattacks and Dave Pegg showed up on literally hundreds of albums over the years. The group produced a number of sterling offshoots, including Steeleye Span, Fotheringay, and the Albion Band.

The Fairport family has been well served in the CD era, with a number of fine compilations. Thomson and Denny in particular, have received multiple box set treatments, and each is the subject of a significant new archival release.

After leaving Fairport in 1971, Thompson recorded a series of albums with his then wife Linda that coupled literate yet expressive songwriting with flawless musicianship. Their final effort together, 1982’s Shoot Out The Lights, was an emotionally harrowing song cycle, written and recorded as the marriage was coming to an end. Songs like ‘Don’t Renege On Our Love,’ ‘Walking On A Wire,’ and ‘Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed?’ dealt with infidelity, trust, and related matters from an all-too familiar perspective.

The album was already an essential purchase, but Rhino Handmade’s new expanded edition offers even more; a second, live disc taken from the subsequent American tour to promote the album. By then, the gloves were off; Linda physically attacked Richard onstage on more than one occasion. The performances, however – many taken from the final show before she walked out on the tour – are mesmerizing; intense and focused, and, despite such dire circumstances, presenting all involved at their very best.

When Sandy Denny died in 1978, the world lost one of the all-time great voices. Only 31 years old at the time, she was undisputedly the preeminent vocalist in British folk rock music, possessing one of the most beautiful, haunting voices ever to grace a recording studio or stage. While it never translated to hit records or sales, thankfully, she left a formidable catalogue.

Pulling together all her previously released work, from early stints with the Alex Campbell Folk Group and the Strawbs, through Fairport and on to Fotheringay and her solo albums, Sandy Denny is a strong contender as the mother of all box sets.

The packaging is gorgeous, with photos, handwritten lyrics, a hardbound book featuring testimonials from peers and fans, period interviews, and much more. But none of that would matter if it wasn’t for the music. At 19 discs, the box clocks in at over 21 hours.

Guest appearances, live recordings, BBC transmissions, it’s all here. After the previously released material comes another eight discs, for the most part unavailable until now. Solo demos, an entire 1974 Fairport concert – the list is long and impressive.

This is hardly barrel scraping; despite the massive amount of material, there’s nary a duff track to be found. Like Bob Dylan, the scraps on Denny’s cutting room floor contain gold. Individual song titles show up more than once, but the performances vary enough that each is worth hearing.

As exciting and varied as the music could be, these acts shared a common trait; few made a dent outside of their home turf. Many barely even made an impression at home; Nick Drake and Vashti Bunyan received belated recognition decades after the fact, but were ignored by public and press alike during their heyday.

Bill Fay is the latest to undergo critical reassessment; he recorded two albums for Decca that were all but ignored upon release. It took 35 years before they became available in the CD format, and both – 1970’s self-titled debut, and the following year’s Time Of The Last Persecution – are gems.

Like Nick Drake, Fay comes across as wise beyond his years. His self-titled debut showcased a remarkable talent, with a warm, acoustic approach enhanced by sparse but effective use of horns. The album’s opener, ‘Garden Song’ is a stunner – coming on quietly before building to a joyous wall of sound.

Fay’s subjects were mainly the disenfranchised and misunderstood; and he wrote from a decidedly Christian worldview, as apparent on tracks like ‘Be Not So Fearful’: “Be not so nervous / Be not so frail / Someone watches over you / You will not fail.”

Bill Fay singing with Jeff Tweedy and Wilco onstage in 2007

The song has been a highlight of Wilco’s live shows on and off for over a decade. Band leader Jeff Tweedy – who has long trumpeted Fay – managed to coax him into joining them onstage in London on two occasions; his first times onstage in over 3 decades.

The title track to Fay’s second release offers a dire warning; “You must know what it all really means / It is the time of the Anti-Christ…and you will wait for the ships in the air / And you wait for a sign like a trumpet sounding / And you go out and walk to the Christ.”

Many tracks, such as ‘Omega Day,’ and ‘’Til The Christ Comes Back,’ are equally blunt. ‘Plan D’ foretells: “the sea shall rise and the skies open”; and ‘Pictures of Adolph Again,’ offers a choice: “Christ or Hitler, Christ or Vorster / Christ or all the Caesars to come.”

Fay is profiled in two new books; Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (Faber), by Rob Young, sticks with its geographic mandate; but it stretches back over a century, covering well over a hundred acts in the process.

Jeanette Leech’s Seasons They Change The Story of Acid and Psychedelic Folk faithfully charts the one particular strain of folk music, from its inception in the 1960s to the current resurrection, with acts like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newson exploring long forgotten roads once again.

© John Cody 2011

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12.1.10

Dylan and Cohen gave rock music credibility

By John Cody

The notion of rock music as a bono-fide art form first came about during the mid-to-late sixties. After a decade of being treated as little more than pop fodder, suddenly musicians were deemed every bit the equal of the writers that had shaped western social mores in the first half of the century.

A recent spate of reissues and previously unreleased vintage material from Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen offers proof that, while not every kid who picked up a guitar created lasting art, the change in perception was warranted.

Few catalogues can rival Dylan’s remarkable series of LPs released in the 1960s.The Beatles and Rolling Stones come closest, but they were collective efforts; you’d have to go back to Elvis to find a single individual who shook things up to a comparable extent.

The Original Mono Recordings spans eight albums over seven years, from his self-titled debut in 1962 through to John Wesley Harding, released in late ’67, shortly before stereo supplanted mono as the de facto format.

Mono was the format in which the public first heard these records; both on radio and vinyl. For one, it was cheaper – stereo LPs cost a dollar more. Stereo mixes were for the most part afterthought, usually rushed off after proper care had been taken on the more important monaural mixes.

Invariably, there’s a heightened, an almost in-your-face directness, whether on the early material – the notion of guitar, harmonica and voice needing more than a single speaker seems contradictory; a surround sound version of one man – but it continues through onto the electric material.

The rapid evolution from Woody Guthrie-inspired folkie, through bohemian beat poet, to rocker and then back to the basics – all in well under a decade – was, and remains, unprecedented. Dylan was constantly on the move, abandoning whatever movement tried to make him their own.

Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival

Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival

When he plugged in, it was a cataclysmic, life-changing event for many fans. His electric set at the Newport Folk Festival in the summer of ‘65 provoked reactions reminiscent of Stravinsky’s debut of Rite of Spring in a Paris theatre in 1913. Listeners were forced to take sides; Pete Seeger tried to cut the power lines with an axe, while at a concert in England soon after, an outraged audience member, feeling betrayed, famously shouted ‘Judas!’

More than 45 years on, the performances – acoustic and electric – easily transcend their era. Memorable lines tumble out; ‘To live outside the law one must be honest,’ ‘Don’t criticize what you can’t understand,’ ‘He not busy being born is busy dying.’ This was not your mother’s pop music.

While it wasn’t until the following decade that Dylan announced – very publically – that he had become a Bible-believing Christian, it’s easy to spot the thread that leads there.

Poet Allen Ginsberg, after initially ignoring him, claimed of Dylan’s talent; “It’s sort of a Biblical prophecy.” Mavis Staples noted, “They were inspirational songs. And they would inspire. It’s the same a gospel; he was writing truth.”

His longtime producer Bob Johnston put it more bluntly; “I don’t think Dylan had a lot to do with it. I think God instead of touching him on the shoulder, he kicked him in the ass; really. And that’s where all that came from…I mean, he’s got the Holy Spirit about him. You can look at him and tell that.”

Dylan spent the bulk of his career an intensely private person. That’s all changed; these days, in addition to hosting a well-received radio show, he’s published the first volume of his autobiography, and opened up on his personal life in the film No Direction Home. Ironically, in removing the mystery, he’s simply confirmed the genius.

One of the most fascinating chapters in Dylan’s lengthy career is the 1975-6 Rolling Thunder Revue. Sid Griffith’s Shelter From the Storm offers an in-depth account of the era, which featured a rag-tag group of fellow travelers crisscrossing the country on an old bus, stopping along the way to play once-in-a-lifetime shows.

The talent on board was considerable; Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn and more. A number of careers were launched during the tour, including T Bone Burnett, Steven Soles and David Mansfield, who formed the Alpha Band immediately after.

In addition to the live shows, Dylan cast many of the players in his first foray into moviemaking, the four hour plus Renaldo And Clara. Still one of his most misunderstood efforts, Griffith manages to place the film in context, making it fresh for reevaluation.

Leonard Cohen came to music already established as a successful poet and writer. His debut LP, 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen was met with critical raves and placed him into the upper echelons of the music scene almost overnight. Bird on A Wire offers an close-up view of the man on tour, five years into his career as a performer.

The bond between artist and audience – and how profoundly each affects the other – has rarely been so clearly displayed. Director Tony Palmer (All You Need Is Love) followed Cohen on a 20-city tour across Europe in the spring of 1972. He was only three albums into his recording career at the time, but all three – Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs From A Room and Songs Of Love and Hate are classics.

The latter, and then most recent, was arguably even more emotionally raw than what had come before. That’s reflected throughout the film. A tangible sense of vulnerability comes across repeatedly onstage and off. Whether dealing with security personnel attacking audience members, or a faulty sound system wreaking havoc, there’s an underlying sense of tension. In the latter case, audience members demand refunds, and as tempers boil over, Cohen offers up his own pocket cash.

The final show in Tel Aviv leaves all involved emotional wrecks. An overcome Cohen simply stops mid-show, refusing to continue. Negotiations – including the audience collectively offering to sing the songs themselves – eventually lead to his return.

As fascinating as these side trips are, they’re distractions; the real focus is the music, which is sublime. Cohen manages to connect with the audience on a level rarely achieved by more seasoned performers.

Yet there’s an incongruity; he appears at once deeply involved in the process, describing performing as a “holy experience,” and conversely, ready and willing to walk away from it all. The fact he has repeatedly done just that – including spending five years at a Buddhist monastery – shows he really could step away from the spotlight.

Bird On A Wire is one of the most fascinating tour documents ever made, yet until recently, few had even seen it. After an abbreviated theatrical run, the film remained unseen for almost 4 decades. The DVD release marks it’s commercial debut on any format.

Songs From the Road opens with Cohen, age 75, onstage in Tel Aviv in 2009. It’s one of a dozen performances taken from his 2008/9 tour – his first in 15 years – which ran for two full years.

Despite the 35 year gap, there are consistencies; songs of love, mortality, transcendence and Biblical themes abound. As well, the back-up musicians Cohen employs are invariably impressive; there’s an almost telepathic support that enhances the readings in every case.

© John Cody 2010

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11.1.10

After seven decades, Mavis Staples has a career high

By John Cody

Mavis Staples grew up – alongside her father, brother and sister – traveling the Gospel Highway. Collectively known at the Staple Singers, the family was one of the most popular groups to ever come out of the church.

Her career began almost inadvertently, in 1950, after Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples became frustrated with his own group, The Trumpet Jubilees, and their lack of commitment. After one too many missed rehearsals, he enlisted his children.

In addition to traditional gospel, the Staples sourced Delta blues, folk, R&B and soul, creating a hybrid that took concepts of Biblical justice and social conscience into the hit parade. In their heyday, the group stood on the front lines of the civil rights movement with Rev Martin Luther King, and enjoyed crossover hits like ‘Respect Yourself,’ ‘I’ll Take You There’ and ‘Let’s Do It Again’ – the latter two of which hit the top of the pop charts.

In all, they were together for a half century; right up until Pop’s death in 2000. His passing hit everyone hard; especially Mavis, who took time off, at one point believing she would never sing again.

Encouraged by her family, she eventually returned to performing.

Her solo catalogue – which began in 1969 and ran concurrent with the family’s recordings – encompasses electro-pop, soul music, disco and country.

While her early records contain a number of worthy recordings, it’s in the last few years – since her return – that she’s really hit her stride, with a series of albums garnering multiple Grammy nominations in the gospel, folk, blues and pop categories.

2004’s self-financed Have A Little Faith gave notice she was back, while We’ll Never Turn Back – a collection inspired by the civil rights movement and produced by Ry Cooder – brought rave reviews.

Hope At The Hideout, an incendiary live performance recorded in her hometown of Chicago, followed soon after.

Fellow Chicagoan and long-time fan Jeff Tweedy was in the audience that night. Taken with what he saw, he approached Staples with an offer to produce her next CD.

Tweedy – best known as the leader of Wilco – is one of the most exciting musicians on the scene today, with considerable artistic and commercial success. That alone was reason enough to warrant interest, but for Staples, the deal clincher was something else entirely: the way in which he put his family first, which resonated with her own upbringing.

The two bonded over their shared sense of family. As happy as she is with the album, Mavis claims she’s even prouder to have been accepted as honorary Grandmother to Jeff and his wife’s two children.

In keeping with that family-friendly philosophy, they recorded at the Wilco rehearsal loft rather than use a studio away from home. As well, the decision to stick with Staples’ touring band – augmented by a few Wilco members – was an inspired move. They play with a sense of familiarity and economy – reminiscent of the great Muscle Shoals studio band that played on many of the Staples’ best records.

In addition to picking all the material, Tweedy brought in two of his own songs written especially for the project. A third; ‘In Christ There Is No East Or West,‘ is credited as traditional, but Staples claims it’s actually another Tweedy original. The song is loosely based on a hymn popular with guitarists (both John Fahey and Leo Kottke recorded it), but bears the unmistakably imprint of Tweedy’s best writing, with a tangible sense of melancholy and joy intertwined.

Three songs originally recorded by the Staples – all penned by Pops – are revisited; ‘Too Close (To Heaven),’ ‘Downward Road (Is Crowded)’ and ‘Don’t Knock,’ a rousing call-and-response recorded by everyone from the Kingston Trio to Tom Jones, who covered the track on his recent gospel effort, Praise and Blame.

An a cappella rendition of the traditional hymn ‘Wonderful Savior’ came about under unique circumstances. Rather than using the studio proper, the track was recorded in the staircase – in the dead of winter.

“I said ‘it’s freezing, I’m not going out there,’ Mavis recalled in a recent interview. Tweedy was adamant that this was the sound they needed. “So he said, ‘somebody get Mavis a coat and gloves.’” Staples was sold once she heard the results; “when I heard it back, I said ‘we better go out there again!’”

The majority of selections are gospel-based, but even those from completely different genres work. The entire album has a distinct sense of the heavenly; Randy Newman’s ‘Losing You,’ for instance, becomes a heartfelt tribute to her father.

Tweedy’s ‘Only The Lord Knows’ was the final track recorded for the project, and Staples claims she was brought to tears by the message; “That was our political song. You talk to this one, listen to that one, pick up the paper, but you can’t get any answers. The White House, the church – I can’t get any straight answers to the things I want to know. So for now, we’re on our own, and we have to go to the Lord. He’s the only one who knows.”

By any measure, You Are Not Alone is a remarkable achievement. The partnership brought the best out in both parties, and each is claiming to be looking forward to working together on a follow-up.

Sixty years on from her debut, and more than 40 since her first solo recordings, Staples has managed to produce music as vital as anything from her past, marking a career high at an age – 71 years old – when others are slowing down.

© John Cody 2010

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10.1.10

New Music from Three Country Philosophers

By John Cody

It’s been well over a decade since the record buying public began to reassess older performers. That change in perception began with Johnny Cash.

By the time he hit his sixties, Cash was considered a spent force. The country music industry had cast its one-time golden boy adrift, and – dropped by two successive record labels and without a contract for the first time in his career – his prospects were decidedly bleak.

His profile was raised in 1993, when U2 invited him to sing ‘The Wanderer,’ which closed their Zooropa CD , but it was the following year that everything changed.

That was when Rick Rubin – famous for producing rap and metal acts like Slayer, Danzig and the Beastie Boys – took him into the studio for the first in an ongoing series of American albums.

Refusing to follow trends, Rubin’s formula was deceptively simple – initially just Johnny and his guitar, later efforts featured sparse, understated accompaniment – and would eventually return him to the top of the charts 40 years after his only other #1 album.

The final installment in the series, American VI: Ain’t No Grave was released earlier this year, in conjunction with what would have been Cash’s 78th birthday.

That the album exists at all is testament to music’s power to soothe and heal. It was recorded under almost unbearable circumstance; his wife June Carter Cash had died during the sessions, and Johnny’s own battle with Parkinson’s disease was taking a toll; he would be dead three months after the final sessions were completed.

Yet, it’s anything but morbid. The opening title track is a defiant declaration that death has not won. It’s an ongoing theme throughout the disc. Despite suffering pain and loss, there’s an almost celebratory feeling to many of these songs.


Cash’s final composition, ‘I Corinthians 15:55,’ quotes directly from scripture; “Oh death, where is thy sting?/Oh grave, where is thy victory?”

There’s no fear or trepidation. Alongside songs that deal head on with the heaviest of subjects are covers from a wide range of sources, including folk standards ‘Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,’ and ‘Wonder Where I’m Bound,’ Kris Kristofferson’s ‘For The Good Times,’ and ‘A Satisfied Mind.’

The disc concludes with ‘Aloha Oe,’ a traditional Hawaiian song of farewell that ends with the prophetic lyric, ‘until we meet again.”

Ain’t No Grave runs barely over a half hour, yet feels complete.

Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson have experienced similar creative renaissances to Cash; despite being abandoned by Nashville, in the last decade, each has released albums that rival their best work.

While undisputedly country-based, both work from a wide, varied musical spectrum, with blues, folk, and even jazz finding its way into their repertoires. Like country philosophers, they’re deceptively simple in their delivery, with a laidback, easygoing sensibility.

More than any singer alive today, Haggard reflects the values of the working man. Plainspoken and to the point, there’s an uncommon wisdom that runs through his best songs.

Cash may have sung about being a wanted man, but Merle actually did the hard time. While incarcerated at San Quentin, he witnessed Cash perform for inmates three times. Those shows changed his life; he came to the realization that he could do this, too.

More than half a century on, his repertoire of classics have been covered by literally hundreds of acts, from Dean Martin to the Grateful Dead, Joan Baez and Lynyrd Skynyrd to – well – Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.

A recent bout with lung cancer necessitated having part of a lung removed. Ever the trouper, two months later, he was back on the road.

At 73, he’s seen more than most, including watching both Elvis and Bob Wills perform, as he sings in ‘I’ve Seen It Go Away,’ so there’s not a lot that’s going to impress him. Through it all – the good times and the tears – comes the toughest lesson; “the sad part is, I’ve seen it go away.”

‘Pretty When It’s New’ looks at love from a similar perspective; “Old love’s even sweeter/that old saying’s really true/loves is always pretty when it’s new.”

‘Live and Love Always’ features Merle on fiddle, doing his best Bob Wills, cheering on his wife as she takes over on lead vocal duties.

Haggard has released gospel albums in the past, including 1971’s Land of Many Churches, and 1981’s Songs for the Mama That Tried. Here, those songs are simply part of who he is, and sit naturally alongside the rest of the material, including the title track’s concise world view: “I believe Jesus is God / and a pig is just ham / I’m just seeker / I’m just a sinner / I am what I am.”

It’s hardly a boast. After all these years, there’s nothing left to prove. Instead, there’s an overarching sense of humility; no bold statements, just the unvarnished truth.

Despite being one of his generation’s finest writers, Willie Nelson’s latest; Country Music is – bar one track – comprised of cover material. That’s been a constant in his recording career; Nelson seems as happy showcasing other’s work as he is playing his own formidable body of compositions.

At 77, he’s as prolific as ever, with over 20 albums released in the last decade alone. This time out, with T Bone Burnett in the producer’s chair, he concentrates on country classics (‘Dark As A Dungeon,’ ‘A Satisfied Mind,’) as well as gospel-informed numbers like ‘I Am A Pilgrim,’ ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’, and ‘Satan Your Kingdom Music Come Down.’

The album’s title might sound confining, but Nelson’s version of country is far wider than the term can imply. A cover of Al Dexter’s 1942 hit ‘Pistol Packin’ Mama’ harkens back to the western swing sound as popularized by Bob Wills & His Texas Cowboys in the 1930s and 40s. That big-band-meets-country style was a crucial influence on Nelson and Haggard, both of whom have visited the genre repeatedly during their careers.

Haggard released A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player (Or My Salute to Bob Wills) in 1970, with many of the original Playboys alongside, and last year’s Willie And the Wheel coupled Nelson with Asleep at the Wheel, the foremost proponents of the western swing sound.

Nelson’s inherent swing, coupled with a decidedly laid-back approach, has garnered some significant fans from the jazz world; Miles Davis wrote and recorded ‘Willie Nelson,’ in his honor, and Country Music was preceded by Two Men With The Blues; a duet album with jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

Not bad for a senior citizen.

© John Cody 2010

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09.1.10

70 is the new 20 for Tom Jones

By John Cody

We all get old – and in a culture that worships youth, that can a problem. Used to be that once a performer hit middle age, they were relegated to the where-are-they-now file, and forced to tour the oldies circuit.

For some, that remains the case; but ever since the baby boomers began hitting retirement age, things have changed. The refusal to let go of their heroes has led to a curious state of affairs, where careers are extended long past what was previously thought possible.

For every 60-something strutting the stage attempting to recreate the past – the Peter Pan syndrome in all its glory – works of remarkable depth are being produced by others well past retirement age.

Last year’s Together Through Life saw Bob Dylan, then 67 years old, become the oldest performer ever to score a #1 position on the Billboard Album Charts (Louis Armstrong was 63 when Hello Dolly hit the top in 1964). It was the latest in a decade-long return to form for Dylan; and while his is a singular talent, this was hardly an isolated occurrence.

At 71 years old, Dion DiMucci is enjoying a similar artistic renaissance. Over the last half decade the doo wop legend has released a trio of albums (Bronx In Blue, Son Of Skip James, and Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock) that manage to explore his roots and reveal ongoing growth at the same time.

Robert Plant – at 61, a relative youngster in this list – opted out of the rumored Led Zeppelin reunion tour, stating: “it’s the mark of very old men who are very bored.” He chose instead to focus on promoting Raising Sand, his duet album with bluegrass sensation Allison Krauss.

The album – a considerable artistic stretch for Plant – garnered rave reviews and multiple Grammy awards.

At 70, Tom Jones now sports silver locks, and has come a long way from the days of old.

Originally known for his hard driving rock ‘n’ roll and soul material, by the 1970s he had taken on a glitzy persona that exuded sexuality and showbiz. It was incremental at first, but within a decade he’d ended up in Las Vegas – literally and figuratively – where rambunctious female audience members tossed their undergarments to the stage on a nightly basis.

By then, any critical goodwill was long since squandered, and he was ripe for parody. The image that had turned him into an icon felt more like a straightjacket.

In the late 1980s he decided it was time for a change. Distancing himself from the Vegas shtick, he took on more interesting projects – such as collaborating with techno pop group Art of Noise – and staged the first of numerous comebacks.

He’s currently in the middle of yet another resurgence.

His 2008 release, 24 Hours featured an updated mix of R&B and modern soul. Along with original material were choice covers by Bruce Springsteen, Tommy James – and ‘Sugar Daddy,’ a track written for him and featuring Bono and The Edge.

Despite the disc’s popularity, Jones decided to follow it up with something seemingly totally out of left field.

Consisting entirely of gospel-based songs, Praise And Blame is certainly not what anyone was expecting.

Especially, it seems, his label.

It’s his first release with Island Records, and shortly before the album came out, Western Mail reported on a leaked email from an Island executive who complained the project was a “sick joke,” claiming “we did not invest a fortune in an established artist for him to deliver 12 tracks from the common book of prayer.”

There’s an odd irony here: years ago, Jones was perceived as commercial fodder of the worst sort, whereas Island was a fiercely independent label that stood for artistic freedom – with acts like Bob Marley, U2, and Tom Waits highlighting it’s storied roster.

Jones sang alongside the band, live in the studio. Nearly all are first takes, without overdubs. It’s heartfelt, and ample evidence of just how good a vocalist he remains.

In many ways Praise And Blame is simply a return to his roots.

Growing up in Wales, Jones regularly heard acts like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson on the radio, and recently commented on how their songs are "just like rock’n’roll – every bit as exciting, but with deeper lyrics."

Material comes from a number of sources, including Bob Dylan, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Billy Joe Shaver and John Lee Hooker – whose ‘Burning Hell,’ is a highlight.

Curiously, after assigning proper composer credit on the first seven tracks, the remaining four are credited to Jones and Producer Ethan Johns. While they’re older, they’re certainly not obscurities: Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine,’ ‘Didn’t it Rain’ ‘Ain’t No Grave’ are popular numbers (Sister Rosetta Tharpe covered all 3); and even ‘Run On’ was recorded by the Golden Gate Quartet and Elvis Presley.

As producer, Johns (Kings Of Leon, Rufus Wainwright) does an admirable job at keeping things on track. The band – including guest stints from Booker T, Augie Meyers and BJ Cole – along with back-up vocals from Orin Waters, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings – play with a sense of cohesion from start to finish.

Despite one Island executive’s apprehension, there’s little reason to worry; Praise And Blame stands alongside Jones’ best work.

Tom Jones performs “What Good Am I?” on Later… with Jools Holland, May 25, 2010.

© John Cody 2010

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