Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Support Americana's Opry -- Music City Roots

How many of you have had the great pleasure of listening the Grand Ole Opry?  Ever been fortunate enough to attend an Opry broadcast?  Whichever way you've experienced the Opry, you know full well how special that organization is.  It's an institution steeped in history, one that's been going on for almost 90 years and shows no signs of letting up.  For many, the Grand Ole Opry is regarded as the "home" of country music.  It's tough to disagree.

Americana has it's own home.  That home is Music City Roots and, similar to the Opry, it is a weekly radio show broadcasting the finest performers in Americana to the world on Hippie 94.5 FM in Nashville, and around the world on the internet via live stream.  The show is a live performance held from the stage of the Loveless Barn at the "edge of Music City."  Some of the artists to have graced the Roots stage the World Famous Headliners, Kathy Mattea, Eric Brace and Peter Cooper, Todd Snider, Chris Altmann, John Cowan, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Bobby Bare, Jr., Justin Townes Earle, The Vespers, Amanda Shires, Mike Farris and so many more incredible artists that there's not enough space to list them here.  The incomparable Jim Lauderdale is your weekly host, with Nashville radio legend Keith Bilbrey as your emcee.  Craig Havighurst conducts in-depth interviews that connect the performers with the audience.

Music City Roots began its run four years ago, ironically on the same radio station that carries the Opry.  Recently, Music City Roots issued a call to it's many listeners and followers to help offset some of the costs of producing this important weekly radio show.  The cost of a ticket is $10 and Music City Roots is asking for their listeners, either online or radio, to consider making a donation to help keep the Roots strong.   I am proud to say that I have donated, as this show is arguably the best live music show on radio today.  And yes, I'm including the Grand Ole Opry in that conversation. 

Music City Roots is a show that deserves to be on the air for many, many years to come.  It is to Americana music what the Grand Ole Opry is to country music.  It's a home base.  It's an institution.  It's an important part of the musical and cultural fabric of North America.  If you have not had the pleasure or opportunity to watch and/or listen to a Music City Roots broadcast, tomorrow night's show has a lineup that is stacked from top to bottom.  Grammy nominees Sarah Jarosz and John Fullbright take the stage, along with the North Mississippi All Stars and Bobby Rush with Blind Dog Smokin'.  The previously mentioned, and also Grammy-nominated Jim Lauderdale hosts the festivities. 

Click here to make a donation and to learn more about what your donation will be supporting.  If you want to check out the show, click here for tomorrow's live stream and to check out past episodes of Music City Roots, Americana's Opry.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Album Review: Mandy Barnett, I Can't Stop Loving You

Thanksgiving has come and gone for my American friends this weekend, which means that the holiday travel/shopping season is officially underway.  I avoided that whole crazy Black Friday mess by venturing south of the border to Erie, Pennsylvania to kick start my Christmas shopping a couple of weeks ago.  It was at the local Cracker Barrel that I happened upon this wonderful album by one of the most unique voices in country music. 

Mandy Barnett may be the best female vocalist that you've never heard of.  Or at least, not heard about for a little while.  Tasked early on in her career with playing the title role of Patsy Cline in the stage production of "Always ... Patsy Cline", Barnett has done an excellent job of keeping the extensive classic country music sound alive and relevant for many years.  She continues this journey with her latest album released on Rounder/Cracker Barrel Records with a tribute album to her friend Don Gibson.  Mr. Gibson was the voice and pen behind some of the most important songs in the history of country music.  Indeed, if there were a definition of those who founded the term singer-songwriter, you would have to include Hank Williams, Sr, Roger Miller and Don Gibson in the same sentence.  Here, Mandy Barnett gives new life and new vision in to some of Mr. Gibson's finest works. 

This album represents a great cross section of Don Gibson's hits.  The biggest hits, what one would call his signature songs (as a performer), like "Oh Lonesome Me" and "Lonesome Number One" are present and given a fresh, new interpretation by Barnett.  Lesser known tracks from Mr. Gibson's catalogue are front and center on this album, such as "Oh Such a Stranger", one of the rare Gibson single's that is beautifully written but did not chart  on its original release in 1964, but only peaked at number 61 in 1978.  Mandy Barnett turns in a beautiful rendition of the Gibson-penned "Legend In My Time", a number one hit for Ronnie Milsap in 1977, a real highlight of the album.

However, it must be said that the two cornerstones of the album are Mandy's performance of Mr. Gibson's two signature hits as a songwriter, the oft-recorded "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Sweet Dreams."  The former made famous by such vocalists as varied as Ray Charles, Conway Twitty and Roy Clark, the latter made famous by the incomparable Patsy Cline.  These two songs are classics in the great American songbook lexicon.  There are not too many vocalists who are capable to record either of these songs.  One must possess a special talent to be able to capture the essence and emotion of the two songs.  Comparison's to the original versions are inevitable.  It is here where Mandy Barnett truly shines.  She is one of the very few who can reach the levels required to make these songs her own, and she does it in spades.

When piecing together a tribute album for an artist as legendary as Don Gibson, only the best musicians will do.  Barnett succeeds in this area as well, as she assembles A-list legends in the studio to take this project to the highest level.  Country Music Hall of Fame Members Harold Bradley (guitars) and Charlie McCoy (harmonica), the incomparable Lloyd Green (steel guitar) and Hargus "Pig" Robbins (piano) are among the cast of outstanding studio musicians that contributed to this album. 

The liner notes tell Mandy's story of her brief but fruitful friendship with Mr. Gibson.  The impact on her life is clear, and this album represents her love and tribute to her friend.  What a wonderful tribute it is.  If you are travelling around the United States this season, stop in to one of the many Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores and pick up this album to hear one of the greatest female vocalists of our time perform the best works of one of the greatest singer-songwriters of our time. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Album of the Year, in Any Year -- Jason Isbell, Southeastern

Not that I've ever attempted the task, but I believe that piecing a full album of music together is nothing short of a monumental task.  This isn't to say that it's an unpleasant task, but monumental just the same.  Writing enough songs for the project, so that you have enough material to work with.  If you don't write your own songs, the added layer of finding the right songs that suit your musical style.  Getting the right producer, the right musicians, the right studio, the right record label, promotion team, publicist and on and on.  When considering this basic laundry list of items, neither of them small tasks, it's no wonder that many artists consider it a great honor to have their work named in an "Album of the Year" category, whichever genre they may ply their trade.

In my last piece, I wrote about three songs that have had significant impact on my life as a music fan and budding music blogger.  Of all the albums I have listened to over the years, there is one recent release that stands out as one of the most impactful, meaningful and deep albums that I have ever heard.

Jason Isbell is on a seemingly unbelievable roll, as his already stellar albums keep getting better and better.  With Southeastern, he hits a creative high and has produced an album that I believe would be an Album of the Year, in any year.  It's that good.

"Cover Me Up" is a great lead off to the album, as it captures the essence of this album.  That is, a deeply personal, snapshot about where the author has been and where they are in the present.  "Cover Me Up" shares the story of a hard living individual who has finally found the love he was missing in his life.  Considering that Isbell has recently married himself (to fellow artist Amanda Shires), an arguement could be made this song is a chapter in Isbell's life.  "Stockholm" and "Travelling Alone" continue on the theme of a lost soul finding their soul mate, completing oneself. 

It is, however, the fourth track on the album that will make one stop in their tracks.  The song "Elephant" is an absolute masterpiece. Describing the story of a true and lasting friendship that captures the essence of "'til death do us part."  It's a love story, but not in the romantic sense.  It's the story of devoted friends who share their finite time together, while avoiding the fact that one is dying from cancer - the clear elephant in the room.  One of finest songs ever written, it is a high point on the album.

Other serious, dark topics are covered as well.  A story about revenge on an abusive father is told in "Yvette", while "Super 8" may harken back to Isbell's more wilder days before sobriety.  "Relatively Easy", the album closer, reads like an old Merle Haggard song but it is all original by Isbell. 

The writing, musicianship and production make this a truly special album.  Not to wear out the line, but this is an adult album that deals with adult topics and situations.  It's a finely crafted masterpiece that captures a creative highmark in Jason Isbell's career.  The amazing and equally exciting thing is, Isbell doesn't appear to have reached his peak.  With  his ongoing lifestyle changes, we are witnessing the growth of a very unique and special talent. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Great Songs, Lasting Impact

On my way to work one day last week listening to "The Big D" Dallas Wayne do his usual outstanding morning show on Sirius/XM's Outlaw Country channel, a subject was broached that spawned this piece today.  He stated there were 3 albums that stand out in his mind as being the most impactful, most complete and powerful records that have simply blown him away.  One of them was an album by Steve Earle, "Guitar Town", an album and singer that was ahead of his time when that record was released.  While Dallas was talking albums, I'm going to focus on three songs that have forged my tastes in music over the years.  Songs that still sound as fresh today as they did when I first heard them years ago.  I will confess, one of the songs is a recent release.  No matter, it's one of the best written songs that I've ever heard. Here's my big three:

  1. The Dark End of the Street, Flying Burrito Brothers version:  Written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman, this song has been covered many, many times by a range of artists as diverse as Percy Sledge, The Allman Brothers, Bruce Springsteen, Ryan Adams with Courtney Love, Aretha Franklin, Eva Cassidy, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, and Richard and Linda Thompson.  A beautifully written story of lust and sin, it's no wonder this song has been covered so many times.  But for me, this version by the Flying Burrito Brothers is the definitive version.  A group that was at the forefront of the country-rock movement in the late 1960's/early 1970's, the musicianship and harmonies on this version are second to none.  The vocal performance of Gram Parsons on this track captures the pain, longing, fear and guilt of the narrator as if the man was living the story himself.  It was this song that introduced me to the early country-rock sound that existed before the Eagles came to prominence.  A vastly underrated group in their time, the influence of The Flying Burrito Brothers, and especially member Gram Parsons, is still being felt in popular music today.  A movement exists to have Mr. Parsons inducted in to the Country Music Hall of Fame, but that's a whole other topic for another day.
  2. The Grand Tour, George Jones version:  Written by Norro Wilson, Carmol Taylor and George Richey, this song became Mr. Jones's sixth number one song in 1974.  I was only one year old at that time, so clearly my memory of this song would be a little foggy at that time.  My first memory of this song was not long after, if one can believe it.  I can remember sitting in the back seat of my dad's 1976 Ford LTD when I was four years old and hearing that song for the first time in 1977.  Obviously I was much too young to appreciate the subject matter of the song, but what struck me back then as it does today was the sadness and the loneliness that Mr. Jones had in his voice during that performance.  As the year's rolled on and life happened, my appreciation for the story and performance of this song deepened.  There will never be another George Jones, one who can convey pain and heartbreak in such a way as to make one feel like they were not alone in this world ... that someone else had experienced what one was going through and they made it.  We are blessed to have recordings such as this song that remain a part of Mr. Jones's legacy.  This is the quintessential version of this song.
  3. Waiting on June, Holly Williams:  Written by Ms. Williams, this biographical tale is one of the greatest songs ever written.  Told from the perspective of her grandfather on her mother's side, it is a tale of her grandparents life story together.  The story begins as 10 year olds in the cotton fields, and ends as we all meet our inevitable end.  But what a story that exists in between.  This song and performance is an outstanding, lasting, and beautiful tribute to her grandparents.  I can actually make it through this song without tearing up now ... not an easy task.  One should not be surprised at the level of talent that exists with Holly Williams.  Her family lineage is well established, as the daugther of Hank Williams Jr., and granddaughter of Hank Williams, Sr.  With this song and this performance, Ms. Williams sets herself apart from the field of her legendary predecessors.  It is an honor to have Holly Williams in the Americana field.  She will have a long, lasting career as a singer and songwriter.  This song alone has established that.
The goal of this piece was to highlight a few songs that have had a lasting impact on me.  It's a personal list, not one that is meant to be exhaustive or indicitive of anything other than personal preference.  Another goal was to hear back from those reading this.  Check out the link to hear the songs, let me know what you think.  I would also love to hear the songs that have an impact on your lives and/or how it helped forge your musical tastes, whatever those tastes may be. Feel free to leave any comments and/or song ideas in the comments below.  I read them all, and I love hearing about music, old and new.  

When this piece started out, Dallas Wayne was talking about albums.  Check back in a couple of days to find out which album has knocked me out this year.  

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Days 4 and 5 Round Up, Americana Music Fest, Nashville TN

The final 2 days of the Americana Music Festival have come and gone, with the festival wrapping up in glorious fashion.  Saturday can be a tough go for the performers at this festival, but only because the attendees have been so inundated with so much music, information and late nights over the previous four days, not because the performers aren’t giving it their all.  It’s with this in mind, that I thank all of the performers on Saturday night for their contributions.  You did yourselves and the Americana movement proud.

Levi Lowrey is an up and coming star in this genre.  A multi-talented singer-songwriter out of Georgia, he finds his recording home on Zac Brown’s label, Southern Ground Recordings, Lowrey performed a solid set at the legendary 3rd and Lindsley in Nashville.  Backed by a stellar band, one of the great highlights of his show was the performance of “Colder Weather”, a 2012 hit for the Zac Brown Band that was co-written by Lowrey.  Lowrey’s version of “Colder Weather” contains a mysterious alternate verse that is not contained in the Brown recording, yet it is arguably the most poignant verse in the song.  Levi Lowrey is on the road, and will be back in Nashville on September 27 and 28 for Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Music and Food Festival.  He and his band are well worth your time and money, you will be duly entertained at their show.
The final act of Saturday night’s festivities at 3rd and Lindsley was an act I had been hoping to see for some time.  Mike Farris caught my attention with a performance on Music City Roots with his incredible showmanship, powerful vocal delivery, and positive message in all of his songs.  Backed by a large band that included horns, keys and background singers, Farris injected new life in to the club at a late hour when most attendees were fading.  Having returned from Spain not long before his performance on Saturday night, Farris gave everyone  the last little bit he had left in the tank and the crowd responded by doing the same.  A real treat was hearing Farris’ version of the Mary Gautier classic “Mercy Now,” which is sure to be a classic when released.  With a positive message in all of his songs, especially with his rendition of “This Little Light of Mine”, Farris sent the attendees of the final showcase night home feeling good, positive and waiting until next year.

However, this was not the end of the Americana music festival.  A surprise addition to the festival saw the weekly Nashville Sunday Night’s show, presented a living legend in Americana music with Lucinda Williams concluding her tour at 3rd and Lindsley.  This performance, captured via live broadcast on Lightning 100 in town, was a presentation of her debut album which was released 25 years ago.  Sounding as strong as she’s ever sounded, Lucinda performed an incredible set that re-visited such classics as “Change The Lock”, “Passionate Kisses” and “The Night’s Too Long”, the latter two which became major hits for Mary-Chapin Carpenter and Patty Loveless respectively.  Recognizing the significance of the occasion, Jim Lauderdale raced back from the Rhythm and Roots festival in Bristol, TN for a guest appearance with Lucinda. 
And so wrapped up another Americana Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee.  It’s a festival like this that really cements the reputation of Nashville as Music City U.S.A.  An outstanding lineup was featured and all involved in the organization of this event deserves all the credit in the world.  It surely must have been a monumental task.  The only challenge that remains is how to top, or at least equal, the quality of performances for next year.



Saturday, September 21, 2013

Day 3 Roundup, AMA Week, Nashville TN

Another exciting night of Americana music has come to pass in Music City.  As usual, an incredible litany of talent was showcased all over town, with the most active venue being the Mercy Lounge/High Watt/Cannery Row complex. 

It was a night to try and catch acts in all three venues contained in this building, and the music did not disappoint.  The tough decision was where to stay.  It seemed the only logical conclusion was to roam around a little bit.  Downstairs in the Cannery, New West Records was celebrating the 15th Anniversary of the much-celebrated record label with performances from their entire roster.  I came in at the time Buddy Miller was onstage and delivering a scorching set that included guest performances with Rodney Crowell for two songs (including the classic "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight") and the McCrary Sisters.  Some of the many, many great things about seeing Buddy Miller live is seeing how much he loves playing and experimenting with music, creating new sounds, and just watching how much he loves being on stage and performing.  Every time I see his name advertised anywhere, I always do my best to check out his show.  It's always worth the time, and you will always be entertained. 

Next up was Delbert McClinton and Glen Clark, two old friends from Texas that recorded an album together 42 years ago and reunited to release an album this year called "Blind, Crippled and Crazy."  McClinton is a legend in the music business, carving his legacy with crafting a hard, country-blues sound.  Performing tunes that were largely from their album. Delbert and Glen put the scald on the Cannery, belting out some hard core blues such as "Been Around a Long Time" and the tongue-in-cheek "Peace in the Valley."  The set closed off with a return appearance by the McCrary Sisters, additional back-up vocals on "Givin' It Up For Your Love", one of Delbert's all time best. 

The final performance of the night, at least for me, was the extended set delivered by The Bottle Rockets.  Where Delbert and Glen put the scald on down in the Cannery, The Bottle Rockets burned the place down with arguably the best set I've attended at the Americana Music Festival.  The energy that was in the room was nothing short of amazing, with band and audience feeding off each other in ways that are not often replicated.  Performing crowd favorites such as the guitar heavy "Radar Gun" and "The Long Way", from the Lean Forward album, to sing-alongs like "Welfare Music" and "$1,000 Car,"  the raucous crowd got the encore they were looking for with a three song finale that included "Countin' On You" and "Take Me To The Night."

With much respect to the other performers that were to follow The Bottle Rockets, I left the venue after their performance.  There was no need to see anyone else, it wouldn't be fair.  The Bottle Rockets were on a rare level that no one was going to exceed last night.  Having said that, I do want to give special mention to Judah and the Lion, a group of young musicians whom I understand have just graduated from Belmont University in Nashville.  I caught a couple of their songs earlier in the evening.  They are an outstanding group of young musicians who are well on their way to having a solid career.   Do keep an eye on these young musicians, I know I will be.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Day 2 Roundup, AMA Week, Nashville, TN

The best music in the world continued to play in Nashville on Thursday night at the annual AMA festival with arguably one of the strongest nightly lineups in festival history.  Stellar lineups were presented at all of the festival venues with artists ranging from the North Mississippi All Stars, and Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale at the Cannery, to outstanding newcomers John Fullbright and Nikki Bluhm and the Gramblers at the Mercy Lounge.  3rd and Lindsley presented a night of Americana pioneers, and that's focus of this write up today.

Rosanne Cash has long been a supporter of outstanding Americana music, even before such a format was recognized.  Her musical heritage is beyond reproach, having grown up under the influence of her famous father and stepmother, Johnny and June Carter Cash, as well as the Carter Family.  Creating and releasing thoughtful and insightful albums have been the standard for Roseanne Cash for her entire career, which now spans more than 30 years.  Her performance at 3rd and Lindsley last evening served as a preview for the next chapter in her storied career.  The River and the Thread will be released in January of 2014, an album of original material following the release of the outstanding cover album The List.  The album should speak to many of us.  Its core subject is returning to ones roots, that home base that they may have left behind a long time ago.  It could be for varying reasons ... work, restlessness, escape.  However, when returning to that home base after an extended period, that person feels the connection to themselves, that feeling where you know that you are the person you are because of those roots.  It reveals a new appreciation for where you came from.  It's an important theme of the album for Cash, who mentioned she has been living in New York City for long time, and the preparation for this album brought her back to her southern family heritage.  Some great material on this album with key tracks being "What's The Temperature Darlin'?", a great lifelong love story; "Tell Heaven", an all-inclusive religious song about believing in a higher power and faith; and "When the Master Calls the Role", a beautiful, lyrically stunning Civil War song written by Cash, husband John Leventhal and ex-husband Rodney Crowell.

British folk legend Billy Bragg has been leaving quite the impression on Nashville and the Americana faithful, reminding everyone of why he's been so successful for so many years.  Touring in support of his first album in 5 years, "Tooth and Nail," Bragg's set included many selections from that album, as well as a couple of stellar cover songs.  "Handyman Blues" is a great tongue-in-cheek track from "Tooth and Nail" about the life, times and indeed, perils of loving a songwriter.  "Swallow My Pride" is a beautifully written song of reconciliation, penance and healing a relationship with ones other half.  "Chasing Rainbows" is a straight up country song loaded with pedal steel, featuring strong lyrics with that always wry, British sense of humour.  A very poignant moment in Bragg's set saw the return of Roseanne Cash to the stage, where they performed the Johnny Cash standard "I Still Miss Someone."  Their vocals melding together beautifully, a true highlight of the show performing the song to a hushed crowd. 

Fellow British folk-icon Richard Thompson was on stage next, making a return appearance to the Americana Music Festival stage.  Similar to his on-stage predecessors, Thompson performed tracks from his latest release "Electric."  A song many can relate to was the performance of "Saving The Good Stuff For You", a beautifully written song about growing up to be a better man.  It's an adult song, for adults.  The performance of "Salford Sunday", a whimsical song about love lost was beautifully performed.  However, it was the performance of "Vincent Black Lightning 1952" that left the 3rd and Lindsley crowd spellbound.  Quite frankly, the guitar work on this song is like nothing I have ever seen.  The entire performance was incredible, but this particular piece was astounding.  Some people have called Richard Thompson a guitar god, and the description could not be more accurate.

And now, on and out to Day 3 ...

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Day 1 Roundup - AMA Festival, Nashville, TN

The annual Americana Music Association Festival and Conference is in full swing with the first official night now complete.  The festival kicked off with annual awards show at the Ryman which, as always, featured incredible and unique performances that one can only see at this awards show.  It's the only place you'll find a finale that includes Jim Lauderdale, Joy Williams of the Civil Wars, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Roseanne Cash, Dr. John, Richard Thompson, Billy Bragg, Shovels and Rope, Tift Merritt, Dr. John and as wonderful a house band as you'll ever gather with Buddy Miller at the lead performing "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight", an old hit on separate occasions for Emmylou and the Oak Ridge Boys.  What was especially great about this particular performance was hearing Rodney Crowell and Roseanne Cash perform a few lines together, something that rarely happens these days.  Steven Stills just tore it up with a performance of the iconic Buffalo Springfield tune "For What It's Worth."  The Milk Carton Kids made an astounding case as to why they could easily have been presented with the Emerging Artist award, an honour that was bestowed upon Shovels and Rope.  Two very different styles of music between the two duos, both excellent acts and all tremendous artists. 

Speaking of duos, they were front and center during the awards show with the Association giving much love to Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, awarding them with the Duo/Group of the Year award and Album of the Year for  "Old Yellow Moon."  In addition to Emerging Artist, Shovels and Rope also picked up the award for Song of the Year for their performance of "Birmingham."  The AMA Awards are truly the most unique award show presentations in the industry today.  I always find it a treat to attend this show.  For those who could not attend, Austin City Limits will be featuring a special broadcast of the music portions of the show at a later date (I suspect in November), and AXS TV in the United States has carried the show live for the past two years.  Be on the lookout for a replay.  Click here for a great rundown of the rest of the award proceedings.

It doesn't happen that often, but on occasion, a plan can go astray.  My plan last night was to cover the Lone Bellow and JD McPherson's portion of the showcase.  However, to their deserved credit, the Mercy Lounge was at capacity when I arrived at the venue so I was not able to get in.  Fortunately, the Mercy Lounge, High Watt and Cannery Ballroom are all connected, so I ventured to the High Watt where I soon discovered how gifted and amazing Drew Holcomb and The Neighbours are.  Performing a set largely comprised of material off their latest release "Good Light", Drew and the Neighbours delivered a powerful set that ranged from the autobiographical ("Tennessee") to the haunting ("A Place To Lay My Head"), from the romantic ("The Wine We Drink" -- which is a powerful, beautiful song) to the inspirational ("Good Light"), all delivered with complete heart and soul.  This group has a real diverse sound to it.  They can transition from a straight up, heartland rock and roll sound as heard on "Good Light" to a slightly Celtic delivery on "A Place to Lay My Head."  A group of excellent musicians who are creating music that speaks to them, look for Drew and the Neighbours in your area as they hit the road soon.  Judging by the reaction of the crowd at the High Watt, their music speaks to the people as well.

The final act I caught was based on a recommendation from my friend Nelson of WDVX radio in Knoxville, TN.  St. Paul and the Broken Bones opened up for Jason Isbell in Knoxville earlier this year and apparently blew apart the stage they were so good.  From Birmingham, AL, this group of young men have quite the future ahead of them.  Reaching in to the soul, jazz and blues portion of Americana, St. Paul and the Broken Bones could have taken people to church last night, as there were moments you thought you were in a tent revival.  The powerful, soulful and strong vocal delivery of St. Paul, paired with the outstanding musicianship of the Broken Bones created the most unique act I have seen in my 3 years attending this conference and festival.   A real highlight of the show was a cover of the Aretha Franklin classic "Respect."  Young, professional and talented, St. Paul and the Broken Bones are going places.  They are ones to watch, indeed.

And to think this was only the first night ...  

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

First Time For Everything

I've said it many times before, but I'll say it again:  I love Nashville.  While commercial/mainstream country music is the single biggest driver of the economic engine in town, what truly makes this town Music City USA is the musical diversity that exists when you walk off the beaten path.  I was fortunate enough to experience this on three different levels last night.

My first stop was at the Grand Ole Opry, where last night Old Crow Medicine Show were inducted as the Opry's newest member.  The induction of Old Crow to the Opry is significant in many ways.  As a string band playing an old-time style of music, Old Crow isn't your prototypical artist that one would think would be an ideal inductee.  This thought isn't a stretch, given that the Opry typically inducts members who are in the middle of a successful chart run (Keith Urban, Darius Rucker) or have had significant chart success previously (Charlie Daniels, Mel Tillis, Charley Pride).  While Old Crow has done well selling albums, chart success has been elusive.  This clearly did not matter to the Opry selection committee, and it's a refreshing change. 

It's with great hope that with the induction of Old Crow to the Opry, that this is a signal where the Opry selection committee has expanded their reach with respect to new prospective members.  There are many great, well known and exceedingly popular entertainers in the broader country music landscape, which includes elements of Americana, that are stellar candidates for induction to the Opry.  For example, Elizabeth Cook comes to mind. 

It was a special night at the Opry to be sure.  I would be remiss if I didn't mention how great it was to see Little Jimmy Dickens make an appearance for the first time at the Opry in a long time.  Mr. Dickens has been in ill health of late, and it was a great moment when he took the stage.  Mr. Dickens did not perform, rather he answered a few questions from the wonderful Eddie Stubbs.  It is with great hope Mr. Dickens returns to performing again in the near future.  Congratulations to Old Crow Medicine Show on their Opry induction.  It was my first time attending an Opry induction and it was wonderful.

From the Opry I made my first foray in to East Nashville, where my friend Sloane Spencer of Country Fried Rock fame was co-hosting "AMA Eve" at the 5 Spot with Twang Nation's Baron Lane.  I was looking forward to this event as the burgeoning music scene in East Nashville has been well documented but something I have not experienced.  If you're coming to Nashville for mainstream country music, you won't find it on this side of the Cumberland.  And that's not a bad thing. AMA Eve was my first showcase of music in East Nashville and it didn't disappoint.  East Nashville mainstay Derek Hoke put on an absolutely killer set, with the great Robyn Hitchcock joining Derek on stage for a few songs.  There's nothing like  watching a group of solid, veteran musicians when they find their groove on a club stage.  As emcee for the show, Derek was bang on when he called Great Peacock the best band in Nashville today.  A solid group of young musicians, they delivered an amazing set that was worthy of the earlier praise effused upon them by Hoke.  East Nashville is starting to become a happening place with its music scene leading the renaissance.  It's truly great to see what music can do to help build a community.

My final stop of the night was in Midtown, where for the first time I'm taking up residence this week.  About a mile or so away from the bustle of Lower Broadway, there is still plenty of music to be found on the west side of town.  At Winner's, a young trio called Haggard's Halo were churning out some great old hits that I hadn't heard in a while.   Songs like "Past The Point of Rescue" by Hal Ketchum and "Soulshine" by the Allman Brothers.  It was near the end of the set when I happened upon Halo playing at this neighbourhood gem.  Their closing set of the night was an outstanding version of "Takin' Pills" by the Pistol Annies.  Haggard's Halo is a group worthy of your time and attention, and I would encourage you to be on the lookout for them on your next trip to Music City.

It was a great night to get one in the mood for the musical diversity that is the Americana Music Festival.  The Opry induction of an Americana group.  Some great rockabilly and other Americana music in East Nashville, mixed with a little mainstream hits to close off the night.  Where else can you find that musical diversity on a Tuesday?  I suspect nowhere. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes?

As a music fan, this question is now more than a George Jones song title.  It appears that we're living in a rare musical age, where we are now in the position of saying goodbye to the musical greats who have helped to shape music in all genres.   The page, for better or worse, is turning.

It's a thought that crossed my mind first with the passing of George Jones, but struck me again with the recent passing of singer-songwriter J.J. Cale.  The world itself lost a treasure with the most recent passing of "Cowboy" Jack Clement. Where Mr. Jones helped define country music with his voice, Mr. Cale helped define music with his words and musical styling.  To give an idea of the diversity of Mr. Cale's recorded catalog, look no further than these three classic recordings:  "After Midnight" by Eric Clapton, "Clyde" by Waylon Jennings, and "Call Me The Breeze" by Lynyrd Skynyrd.  All three are signature offerings from those artists ... all three are written by J.J. Cale ... and all three couldn't sound more different from each other.  

When considering these works (and this is but a small sample of Mr. Cale's catalog) and their musical diversity, one has to wonder where is the next visionary?  There are many great storyteller's out there and this is not to discount their work, but where is the next songwriter to exert his or her influence to the extent that J.J. Cale has?  My guess is, that it will be a long time before we see the likes of Cale again.

The passing of "Cowboy" Jack Clement cannot be understated either.  A virtual music historian, one cannot begin to imagine how many stories involving Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Charley Pride and so on,  passed on with Mr. Clement.  The Tennessean's Peter Cooper wrote an excellent essay  on the passing of Mr. Clement, beautifully showing the diversity, spirit, talent and wit of this man.  I encourage you to read it. There is one phrase that sticks out in my mind from Mr. Clement, and I keep it in focus every time I start to feel stressed out about how this blog is working out:  "Remember, we're in the fun business.  If we're not having fun, we're not doing out job."  How many people can claim that attitude? 

I say this as it seems the music business, by and large, has changed.  Profits are the number one priority in most circles, creativity is an afterthought except in the most rare of circumstances.  With record labels being focused on the next big fad and/or trend in order to maximize profit, diversity of material becomes a victim.  Having said that, I would suggest that with the rise in popularity of Americana, it should be clear to the recording business that people will always come back to what is real.  Fads and trends will come and go, but authenticity is forever.  People will ultimately come back to anything that is authentic.  It can then be argued that if creativity and musical diversity becomes the priority, the profit margin will take care of itself.  One can only hope that the business side of the music business will recognize this fact sooner rather than later.

Which brings us back to the original question:  Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes?  At this time, there really isn't an answer, at least not an easy one.  The 1960's and 1970's, when Mr. Jones, Mr. Cale and so many other great artists were at their creative apex was arguably the greatest period is music. The list of influential musicians, vocalists, groups and songwriters from all genres is fairly exhaustive.  But as I noted above, it was a different time.  Artists were allowed to develop and create, today this is not the case.  Perhaps the more appropriate question to be asked is "How do you replace the irreplaceable?" which certainly describes Mr. Jones, Mr. Cale and Mr. Clement.  I think the clear answer is, you don't.  You appreciate the gift of their time, their talent and their incredible body of work that is their legacy.  And carry it with us as we move forward.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Album Review: Alabama and Friends

It isn't very often that you will find a review of a mainstream country music album in this space.  But as with all things, to every rule there is an exception, especially when the album is as good as the one being written about today. 

Country Music Hall of Famer's Alabama have been on a steady rebound since appearing on Brad Paisley's hit single "Old Alabama."  Their appearance on this single, as well as joining Paisley on stage to perform the song at select events, was a great re-introduction of Alabama to the country music scene.  It also served as a revelation of Alabama to virtually an entire generation of young country music fans who may not be familiar with the music of this vitally important group.  Another huge step in this introduction is set to continue.

August 27th will see the release of "Alabama and Friends" (Show Dog/Universal), a tribute album that pairs Alabama up with the hottest country stars of today, a few rising stars and one legendary lady performing some of Alabama's biggest and greatest hits.  The boys from Fort Payne also contribute to the album as well, with their first new recordings for an Alabama album in roughly a decade.  Most of the new versions of these great songs stay true to the original recordings, which is ample proof of the influence that Alabama's music has on the younger stars of today.

Case in point are the first two tracks off that kick off the album.  The lead track is the classic "Tennessee River" performed by one of the biggest names in music today, Jason Aldean.  Listening to Aldean's ever-growing catalogue of hits, you can hear the Alabama influence in many of his tunes as evidenced by his take on "Tennessee River."  This selection would fit perfectly in one of Aldean's shows and sounds like an Aldean hit ... all while staying completely true to the original version, as it's virtually a note for note remake.  Luke Bryan sounds completely at home performing "Love In The First Degree," again a note for note remake that could appear on any Luke Bryan album and fits well within his range.

Rascal Flatts perform a wonderful take of "Old Flame", switching it up to have a more pop sound.  Alabama lead singer Randy Owen joins the group to contribute a few lines with the vocals combining beautifully.  "Lady Down On Love", one of Alabama's biggest hits, has always been identified by the opening guitar solo and Randy Owen's stellar vocal performance.  Kenny Chesney switches the electric guitar intro for a more classical sounding acoustic guitar intro, and the switch is brilliant.  This performance is one of the  most poignant moments on the album, one that Chesney and Owen (who performs a verse and chorus on the tune that he wrote for Alabama) can be very proud of.  One can tell right away that Chesney has performed this song many, many times on the club stage on his way up to superstardom. 

The Eli Young Band's take on "The Closer You Get" fits right in their wheelhouse, as the Texas band rips through one of Alabama's biggest hits.  They were a great choice to perform this selection.  Superstar Toby Keith turns in a brilliant performance of "She and I".  The smart use of a slide guitar intro and at points throughout the song gives this song a really fresh appeal.  Young up-and-comers Florida Georgia Line deliver a fun and energetic turn of "I'm In A Hurry (And Don't Know Why)", showing that they too have felt the influence of this important band.  Hopefully this duo will include this track in their live show, as they really crank this one out.  Trisha Yearwood, the only female on the record, performs a beautiful rendition of the Mike Reid-penned "Forever's As Far As I'll Go".  Yearwood's soft and stunning vocal breathes new life into one of the great country music loves songs of all time. 

The honorees of this tribute album themselves step to the plate to deliver their first new music with two stellar tracks, "That's How I Was Raised" and "All American."  The latter of these two could be one of the most important songs of the year.  "All American" addresses an issue that seems to have been lost on many, if not most, people in recent times.  It speaks to the challenges of the past few years and some of those root causes.  More specifically, the song talks of the utter disconnect between the government and its people, the big bosses of large companies getting their monetary rewards while their employees are losing their jobs or starving while working for minimum wage.  It speaks to the lack of understanding and/or caring for another persons point of view.  The title of the song is captured in the following line, and is really the question of the day that many people ought to be asking: "aren't we All American?"  It shouldn't be an we versus they situation.  It should be an "us" situation, because we're all American (of course, many of you know I'm Canadian and we face the same challenges on this side of the border ... I'm sure you get my point of the song though).  This song should absolutely be a hit, but as Ronnie Dunn found out with "The Cost Of Livin'", songs with substance and social relevance aren't selling nor getting played on country radio these days.  Hopefully this will change with this song.

The final track on this stellar album is also the most poignant.  Jamey Johnson is one of those guys who could sing the phone book and would make it sound like a country classic.  Jamey's take on Alabama's first big hit and autobiographical song "My Home's In Alabama" is one of his best performances to date.  Released in 1980, this song was a top 20 hit, and is the song that introduced Alabama to the world.  Indeed following the release of this song, which walks the line between country and southern rock, country music was never the same.  The landscape had been altered permanently and was the beginning of a long and successful march that eventually saw Alabama score 41 number one songs, countless top 5 and top 10 records and induction in to the Country Music Hall of Fame.  

It had been mentioned years ago when Alabama first came on to the national consciousness of country radio that they had the potential to be as important to country music as the Beatles were to rock and roll.  When you look at the artists who perform the songs on this album and consider where they are career wise in the musical landscape today, it's hard to argue against that point. I think it prudent to paraphrase Brad Paisley for a moment, so I will.  If you are a young country music fan who is not aware of or had an introduction to the music of Alabama, I encourage you to go to your local record store and purchase an Alabama album.  Discover this groundbreaking band.  And on August 27, 2013, go back and purchase "Alabama and Friends", because you will see the influence this band has had on country music today.  To me, "Alabama and Friends" is flawless, it's an outstanding album that is a brilliant showcase for the most important band in the history of country music.

For a sneak preview, this album is available for streaming on the offical Alabama web site. Click here to lisen.  Enjoy!  

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Concert Review: Jason Isbell/Amanda Shires, Lee's Palace, Toronto, Ontario -- August 2, 2013

Music events on the Friday night of a long weekend in Toronto can be a bit of a crap shoot. Many, many people leave town for cottage country, leaving those of us behind to seek out our weekend's entertainment. Given this challenge and environment, I cannot tell you how thrilled I was to attend the Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires show at a packed Lee's Palace in Toronto. The large crowd was rewarded with a first rate, professional, outstanding show from a group of the most gifted artists and musicians that are on the road today.

Jason Isbell, along with his stellar band the 400 Unit, are riding an incredible wave these days.  Isbell has always been a compelling artist, writing and performing some of the most thought provoking songs in music.  Touring in support of his recently released album Southeastern (Southeastern Records/Thirty Tigers) (which is outstanding, by the way) Isbell and the 400 Unit are at the top of their game.  Opening up with "Flying Over Water", Isbell and the band showcased their talent for nearly 2 hours and held the crowd in the palm of their hands the entire time.   

Paying homage to his previous life as a member of the Drive-By Truckers, Isbell turned in a stellar performance of "Decoration Day", followed by the haunting "Tour of Duty", a tale of a soldiers return home.  "Tour of Duty" is a song that is relevant in any era, and is ample evidence of Isbell's outstanding songwriting.  "Heart on a String", a track from his 2011 release "Here We Rest" invoked visions of the great Delbert McClinton with its blues groove and Isbell's husky vocal delivery.  "Stockholm", a hard driving track that appears on Southeastern received a great reaction from the crowd, while "Codeine" produced the evening's first singalong and could very well be Isbell's signature song.

Next up were performances of three Southeastern tunes that make this album a must have.  "Different Days", the incredibly written "Elephant", and the beautiful "Travelling Alone" with the lovely Amanda Shires-Isbell harmonizing.  An Isbell show would not be complete without performing "Alabama Pines", the 2012 Americana Music Association Song of the Year.  It was back to the Trucker days with a performance of "Outfit" to close out their main set.  The crowd would not be denied an encore on this evening, as Isbell and the 400 Unit returned for a 3 song finale that included a tribute to legendary Canadian group The Band, with "Danko/Manuel", a song written by Isbell and recorded while a member of the Drive-By Truckers.  From there a final preview of Southeastern with "Super 8", and a blistering cover of the Rolling Stones "Can You Hear Me Knockin'?"  that would make Mick and Keith awfully proud.

Opening the night on a much softer, yet no less brilliant note was Amanda Shires.  Touring to support her just released album Down Fell the Doves (Lightning Rod), an album which will be reviewed here in the coming days, Ms. Shires was the perfect opener to the evening's festivities.  Performing solo with only her ukulele as accompaniment, Shires held the crowd captive with her beautiful vocals and haunting lyrics.  It was an admirable performance highlighted by the cleverly written "When You Need a Train It Never Comes", the gorgeous "The Garden (What A Mess)" and the show-stopping "Wasted and Rollin'", the latter two appearing on Down Fell the Doves.  Ms. Shires pulled double-duty on this night performing her own show, then taking her spot in the 400 Unit accompanying new husband Jason Isbell during his set.  

In viewing this performance it is clear that Jason Isbell has a new focus, as compared to the last review I had in this space.  He has quite publicly undergone two major lifestyle changes that to me, have helped shape him in to one of if not the top male act in Americana today.  Amanda Shires continues to rise.  The creativity and talent that this young lady brings to the stage every night cannot be measured.  Together, they appear to be pushing and encouraging each other to new career heights that are only now being realized.  If Americana has a power couple, that couple is Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires.  Spend time at the show and you'll see what I mean.

The tour continues on August 9 in Wilkes-Barre, PA at the Kirby Center; August 10 in New York City at Lincoln Center Out of Doors (Free Show); on August 11 in Baltimore, MD at Baltimore Soundstage; and August 17 in Nashville, TN at the Ryman Auditorium with Caitlyn Rose opening.  Amanda Shires has performances in Nashville at Grimey's Records on August 14; in Austin, TX at Waterloo Records on August 18; and back in Nashville at The High Watt on August 23.  Check out Jason and Amanda's web sites for more tour information.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Album Review: The Bright Spots, Randall Bramblett

Whenever anyone asks me what I like most about the Americana music genre, I always tell them that it's the freedom the artists have to create the most compelling music possible. Such is the case with the latest release, The Bright Spots, by music veteran Randall Bramblett.  Released in May on powerhouse Americana label New West Records, Bramblett has pieced together an album that works for all summer occasions.  This album is perfect for relaxing in the backyard, or rolling down the highway on that weekend roadtrip.  

Bramblett kicks in to the funk right off the bat with "Roll", a tune that speaks to making the best of all situations in life.  Leading with solid percussion and blues guitar, followed by blistering horns and vocals, this is the perfect lead song to set the table for what's to come.  The use of the keyboard and understated vocals make "Every Saint" a nice blues number that speaks to a man trying to find his salvation and spirituality.  "'Til the Party's All Gone" is a nice follow up to the heavy "Every Saint", as this is a really nice and light number.  The horn section in the chorus of this tune are really effective in driving home the feel-good nature of this song.

Perhaps the best musical performance on the album comes with "My Darling One."  Quite frankly, this song is good enough to be played on any mainstream radio station if only they would have the stones to play it.  Bramblett's smooth yet gritty vocal is the perfect offset to the fabulous guitar, organ and piano.  This performance brought out the best in everyone involved. From this performance, Bramblett rolls right in to some hard core blues with "Whatever That Is" a tune that, when listened to, invokes visions of sipping on some fine whiskey and beer in a smokey blues bar.  "John The Baptist" kicks up with a psychedellic sound before rolling right back to the blues.  

The second half of the 12 cut album kicks off with "Shine", an inspirational number that speaks to keeping ones spirits up and always remembering that tomorrow has the potential to be a better day.   Blues and funk make a wonderful marriage on "Tryin' To Steal a Minute".  This is followed by the beautiful "Detox Bracelet", a song that takes a wistful look back on what might have been.  Psychedelic, funk and blues meld together nicely on "You Bring Me Down", while the album closes out with the spiritual sounding "All Is Well" and the reflective "Rumbling Bridge."  

Given that Mr. Bramblett is from southern United States where musical influences abound, it is not surprising that Bramblett is able to create such an excellent piece of art like The Bright Spots.  Working with such contemporaries as Gregg Allman and the late Levon Helm will surely go a long way in stretching your musical boundaries and creativity.  With the Bramblett written composition of "Used To Rule The World" appearing on Slipstream, the Grammy-winning album by Bonnie Raitt, and the May 2013 release of this fantastic album The Bright Spots all taking place within the last 12 months, one can definitely say this is the year of Randall Bramblett.  

Monday, July 15, 2013

Concert Review: Alejandro Escovedo and the Sensitive Boys, The Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto, Ontario -- July 8, 2013

It was a busy and historical weekend in Toronto as the inaugural Toronto Urban Roots Festival (TURF) took over the grounds of Fort York by day and the venerable Lee's Palace and Horseshoe Tavern for festival goers who wanted to keep the party rockin' by night.

Americana legend Alejandro Escovedo with his band, The Sensitive Boys, had the distinct honor of being the final act for what appears to be the wildly successful festival's first run.  Playing his second set of the day after appearing on the main stage at the festival grounds, Alejandro showed the large Horseshoe crowd he still had plenty in the tank to close out year 1 of TURF and get everyone looking forward to next year's installment.

Opening his hour long set with "Castanets", a great, rocking song to get the crowd moving after a long weekend of music in the outdoors.  "Castanets", of course, has a legendary appeal to it on its own, as back in 2005 it was revealed that then U.S President George W. Bush had that song on his iPod.  Upon learning of this, Escovedo apparently vowed not to play this song until it was either (a) removed from the President's iPod, or (b) Bush was voted out of office.  In 2008, the song found its way back on the live stage after a roughly 2 year absence, with the departure of the former President.

Escovedo has the benefit of performing every night with one of the finest backup bands I have ever watched with the Sensitive Boys.  To watch lead guitarist Ricky Ray Jackson and Escovedo trade licks is a pleasure for any guitar aficionado.  The professionalism of the entire group is apparent.  They show up and start their set on time and are there to entertain with a straight ahead performance.

Escovedo's musical diversity was on full display as well, rolling from a nice, beautifully performed ballad "The Rain Ain't Gonna Come" to a more psychedelic sound with "It Makes No Sense."  One of the real highlights of the night was the performance of the Chuck Prophet co-written song, and the band's namesake, "Sensitive Boys."  The band's musicianship really shone on this particular performance.

Ironically, the strongest reaction from the crowd came with the encore.  One certainly can't go wrong playing a Neil Young song on stage in Canada, and you certainly can't go wrong when you play a version that rivals the original.  The performance of Young's "Hurricane" brought anyone sitting to their feet and was a fantastic way to close out the show and the inaugural TURF.  If the crowd's and crowd reception are any indication, this was the first year of many years to come for TURF.  

Alejandro Escovedo is on tour extensively through the rest of summer and in to the fall, performing with The Sensitive Boys on a few dates, with Los Lobos and Los Lonely Boys on a few more, and co-headlining a tour in the fall with Shelby Lynne.  Check out Alejandro's web site for dates and times, and by all means go and see this wonderful performer. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Album Review: Swamp People, Music Inspired From the History Channel Series

By now, it can't be a secret to many of you that I'm way behind on my album reviews.  I have a stack of albums at home that I'm only now beginning to work through.  I say that with many apologies going to those of you who have been kind enough to send me your material.  You put a lot of time and effort in to creating your art, and I have not been the best lately at properly acknowledging your work.  Summertime is here, it's a new season and I'll do better, I promise.

One album that I have popped in to my CD player, is one that was recently released on Rounder Records, Swamp People, Music Inspired by the History Television Series.  Mixing newer and original songs with familiar classics, this album represents a great cross-section of American music.  Its inspiration comes from the bayou's and the swamp's of Cajun country, the great state of Louisiana. 

Swamp People leads off with an original tune of the same name that was written specifically for the show and album, and it's a great number steeped in old swamp-rock tradition.  It sets the perfect tone for the rest of the album.  The following track will be familiar to many listeners, as the late great (and vastly underrated) Jerry Reed tells us the story of Amos Moses.  Mr. Reed's unique style of guitar playing on this wonderful track is more than welcome and appropriate when you're paying tribute to the bayou region.   

Cajun music legend Buckwheat Zydeco takes an instrumental turn on the infectious Zydeco La Louisianne.  As with Jerry's Reed's contribution, you simply cannot have an album inspired by the Cajun region of the United States and not have Buckwheat Zydeco present.  The same can be said for Beausoleil, as they are joined by Michael Doucet on the French tune Kolina.  One track reminded me of the East Coast/Nova Scotia sound that one can get on this side of the border, and that's the wonderful Amanda Shaw contribution, French Jig.  It's perhaps not surprising that this tune does remind me of Nova Scotia, as the Clare region of that province in the original home of the Acadien.  A large portion of the Acadien immigrated to Louisiana forming today's Cajun region, and the rest is history. 

Blues takes center stage as well with singer-songwriter Tony Joe White relating his Polk Salad Annie.  And it wouldn't be a tribute to Cajun country without honoring that amazing Cajun dish, Jambalaya (On the Bayou) by the one and only Hank Williams, Sr.  To round out one of the great musical journey's on an album today, The Neville Brother's kick up the funk on arguably the best track of the album, Fire on the Bayou.

The partnership of Rounder Records and History Television has led to this excellent album that has been released in time summer.  This album would be a great addition to anyone's collection and will sit very well in the CD player's of many cottages, or vehicles on that summer vacation or road trip.  This album has it all --  classic country, blues, a bit of funk and a generous portion of Cajun.  It's a great cross-section of what Americana music is, when it comes right to it.  An excellent album, hopefully there will be a Swamp Music 2 in the future.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Concert Review: Patty Griffin, Danforth Music Hall, Toronto Ontario

If one were to go through, or even create, a list of Americana artists that could be considered legends of the genre, it is a certainty that Patty Griffin would be one of the first names rolling over your lips. Since 1992, Griffin has been a staple on the folk/Americana scene when the term "Americana" was being kicked around as a concept.   With the recent release of her seventh studio album American Kid (New West), Griffin goes about cemeting her legendary status in the genre.  American Kid is her first album of all new material since 2007's Children Running Through.  In between, Griffin has toured with Robert Plant as a member of the Band of Joy, and won a Grammy Award in 2011 for her gospel album Downtown Church. 

Taking the stage last night at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto as part of her 2013 tour in support of American Kid, Griffin delivered one of the finest performances to ever grace the Danforth stage.  A hearty Tuesday night crowd greeted Ms. Griffin and she responded with a powerful rendition of "Carry Me."  Backed by a wonderfully talented 3-piece band, they rolled from the slow and vocally powerful "Carry Me" to the uptempo "No Bad News."  While Griffin has a sizeable and very impressive catalogue of material to perform and choose from, the show featured many songs from the American Kid album and rightfully so.  The selections from this album during the show are some of the strongest, well written songs I have heard in a while.  

Revealing the personal nature of her selections from American Kid that were included in the show lent to the intimate nature of the show.  The audience was able to get a feel of how deeply personal this album is to Ms. Griffin.  "Don't Let Me Die In Florida" was a song inspired by her Northeastern-raised father who much preferred the cold of Maine to the heat and humidity of, well, anywhere else but Maine. "You Don't Have to Work No More" was clearly her protest song regarding a chapter in recent American history that is only now coming to a close.  

The most beautiful performance of the night was Patty's rendition of her eponymous song "Mary."  Covered by several artists including Beth Neilson Chapman and the Dixie Chicks, it's hard to imagine anyone topping the understated yet vocally powerful performance of the song's creator.  Showing off the diversity of herself and her band, Griffin turned her lead guitarist loose on a Latin number where Griffin performed the song entirely in Spanish, while her guitarist showed off his incredible talent playing flamenco-guitar.  

Last night Patty Griffin showed the Toronto crowd why she is a trailblazer in folk and Americana music who remains relevant to the genre today.  Indeed, Griffin is vital to the Americana scene. A true professional who is gracious to her fans, a gifted songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and powerful vocals that come so naturally to her it will make you watch and listen in awe, Patty Griffin is one of the artists that Americana artists should aspire to follow.  

The tour continues on June 13 at the Pantages Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota; June 15 at the Wilson Theater in Bozeman, Montana; June 18 at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts in Vancouver, British Columbia; and June 19 at Nepture in Seattle, Washington.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Concert Review: Charley Pride - May 18, 2013, Memorial Centre, Peterborough, Ontario

Classic country music took center stage in Peterborough, Ontario this past Saturday with an afternoon performance by a living legend on the final stop of his spring Canadian tour.

Country Music Hall of Fame and Grand Ole Opry member Charley Pride took the stage for an afternoon performance that thrilled the mostly senior crowd.  Having grown up listening to Mr. Pride's music and watching him on his many television appearances, it was a treat to watch this veteran of nearly 50 years in the music business show the music world that he still belongs in the landscape.  At 75 years old and still in strong voice, Mr. Pride performed an hour and a half show that was filled with humour, gracious moments with the crowd and so many hit songs that it would make any of the new crop of "country" artists dizzy with envy. 

Opening up the show with a great cover of the Dave Dudley classic "Six Days on the Road", Mr. Pride moved on to such early hits as "Just Between You and Me", "Is Anybody Goin' To San Antone", and "I Wonder Could I Live There Anymore."  And the hits kept coming, as he and his stellar band The Pridesmen rolled through a great medley of songs which included on Pride's earliest singles "The Snakes Crawl at Night" and one of his later hits, "Burgers and Fries." 

It was one of Mr. Pride's newer songs that really captured the audiences' attention.  Appearing on his most recent gospel album, Pride and Joy, "God's Coloring Book" written by Dolly Parton, was a real highlight of the night (the album version features Ms. Parton on vocals).   Interestingly enough, Ms. Parton wrote this song when she was only 19 years old.  When you hear the lyrics, you recognize that the 19 year old Dolly Parton was ahead of her time and destined for great success. 

A Charley Pride show would not be complete without two of his staples to close out the show.  Completing the show with his biggest, and Grammy-winning hit, "Kiss An Angel Good Morning", followed by his cover of Hank Williams, Sr.'s "Kaw-Liga", Mr. Pride showed he can still run with the young crowd that dominates the country music scene today.  With a final encore of "Cotton Fields" sending the delighted crowd into the early evening, the young crowd would do well to attend a Charley Pride show and take many, many notes from this music legend. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Dierks Says it Well, About George Jones and Country Music

For my post tonight, I'm going to defer to an artist whose appreciation for classic country and Americana is unparalelled by a mainstream country singer.  Dierks Bentley wrote a guest blog post for CNN, sharing his thoughts and memories of his friendship with George Jones.  While Dierks spoke of the sadness and sense of loss that he is personally feeling over the death of Mr. Jones, his blog also brought to light the entire genre of country music, its long and illustrious history, and the overall effect it can have on an individual.  In his post, Dierks captured everything that I have felt about country music over my lifetime.  I could not have said it better myself.  

With the funeral for Mr. Jones taking place tomorrow, and with many thanks in advance to Dierks Bentley and his people, I share his words with you tonight.  Click here to visit Dierks' web site where you can read this piece, as well as get news on Dierks and where he and Miranda Lambert will be touring.  Let's all take up the responsibility of keeping the memory and work of great artists like Mr. Jones, Mr. Waylon Jennings, Ms. Tammy Wynette, Mr. Johnny Cash and so many others who have passed before us alive and in the consience of all young music fans and artists going forward.  Listen to their work and share it unapologetically.  The future of our beloved music, be it country or Americana, depends on recognizing and honouring its illustrious past.

"Damn it, I knew I needed to get in touch with George when I'd heard he was ill, that he had been admitted to the hospital for respiratory ailments. How did I let this happen?"
Those where my initial thoughts sitting on the tarmac at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport reading the texts and e-mails about George Jones's death Friday morning.
George was a friend, a country music legend, an influence to me and to countless other musicians.
If you aren't able to fully hear and appreciate George Jones' voice, you really can't fully appreciate country music. His voice opens up country music's depth and power. You feel it or you don't. It helps to have done some living and to have had your heart broken, like George did. And it really helps if you can hang around one of its greatest singers, which I was fortunate enough to do over the years.
During a show at the Ryman Auditorium in the mid-'90s, I heard the great bluegrass singer Peter Rowan say that if you have a musical hero, you should do anything you can to be near that person. For him that meant driving Bill Monroe's tour bus. For me, it meant hanging around Terry Eldredge, my hero when I moved to Nashville, and the lead singer of a band called "The Sidemen," which played Tuesdays at the Station Inn.
Terry idolized George Jones. It was through him that i began to "hear" George, not just listen to him. There is a big difference between listening and hearing. I had listened to George growing up with my dad, a big country fan. I had listened to him in high school again, when I discovered Hank Williams Jr. and found out Hank also loved George. But it wasn't until I was in Nashville and hanging out with Terry that I finally heard George Jones. I finally got it. The tone and the ache of his voice clicked. I heard how every word George sang was first filtered through a broken heart.
We became friends eventually. From time spent together backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, visits at the home of George and his wife, Nancy, dinner at his favorite O'Charley's or Logan's Roadhouse, I cherished every moment in his presence, getting to hear firsthand accounts of stories I had read, the jokes and the laughter, the love between him and Nancy.
Having the opportunity to sing to George from the Opry stage for his 75th birthday in 2006 and to record in the studio together are unforgettable highlights of this crazy honky tonk dream.
People will always say that "He Stopped Loving Her Today" was George's best song and perhaps the greatest country song of all time. I certainly wouldn't disagree. But do yourself a favor and dig a little deeper. One of those nights when you are feeling down or lonesome, instead of going to the usual modern day distractions, grab some whiskey and listen to "A Picture of Me (Without You)," "The Cold Hard Truth," "A Good Year For The Roses," or my favorite, "The Door." Put your heart in George's hands and trust that he will take care of it.
That is what great country music (at least my favorite kind) and great country singers do; that is what country is all about: consoling the lonely, letting you know someone else has been there and has felt the way you do. It's about walking you through the hard times.
My dad was a member of this country's greatest generation. He grew up in The Depression and fought in WWII. There aren't many left. George is a member of country music's greatest generation. And there are only a handful of those men and women left. Go to their shows, talk to them if you can. Let them know how much you appreciate their music and if you are lucky enough, their friendship. Let them know the impact their singing or songwriting has had on your life. But don't do it for their sake, do it for your own.
So that when they are no longer with us, you might feel just a little less sad.

Friday, April 26, 2013

My George Jones Memories

April 26, 2013 will be remembered as one of the most important days in music history.   I speak of course of the surprise passing this morning of the greatest country music singer of all time, George Jones.  

It's hard to describe the impact of George Jones on country music.  It's just so great.  His legacy has been well documented -- roughly 200 albums recorded, 50 years in the music business,  and an astounding 168 singles charted on Billboard ... more than any recording artist in any genre in history.  From what I can gather, he's the only country singer that would cause the great Frank Sinatra to step aside and allow to take center stage.  He has influenced countless singers in all genres over generations, from the Garth Brooks to the Oak Ridge Boys, Elvis Costello to Clint Black, James Taylor to Jason Aldean.  It's tough to measure the loss of this artist whom Patterson Hood of the Drive-by Truckers rightly described as a Genius country singer.  

The music of George Jones had an immediate impact on me growing up.  As a kid, country music is what I listened to, mainly because that's what my parents listened to.  It was really the only music I was exposed to until I reached high school.  While I was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, I spent a great deal of my youth growing up in Minden, Ontario which is where both sides of my family come from.  Playing music in those parts was a way of life and a way of entertaining yourself on the weekends.  We spent many, many nights in my grandmothers' kitchen at the old farmhouse playing some great country music, much of it classic George Jones songs such as "She Thinks I Still Care" and "Tennessee Whiskey."  On a day such as this, I'm taken back to those times.  And I smile.  They're such great memories.

I know that I'm not alone when I speak of the family sing alongs and kitchen parties with George Jones tunes at the forefront.  I know I'm also not alone when I speak of hopping in the family car with the radio on and mom or dad popping in a cassette tape, and that tape was the "Same Ole Me" album, or one of his many greatest hits albums and being mezmerized by the beautiful ebb and flow of George's voice.  George had one of the most unique vocal stylings of any artist in history.  His voice could start soft and rolling, then soar to heights that just aren't reachable by many artists of today or any day for that matter.  There was always real emotion in his voice and performance that led to chill bumps for the listener.  His voice contributed to the production, it really was another instrument on the record.  

As I listen to the Grand Ole Opry broadcast tonight, I'm reminded of why I love country music.  It's because of the history of this great genre.  I love the stories, the vocal performance, the writing and the personalities of the artists.  I love that my family introduced me to this great and historical style of music.  And a lot of that has to do with the greatest vocalist of all time, George Jones.  

Country music will live on and will endure.  No one single artist or group entity is bigger than the genre, not even the greatest, George Jones.  But the reason country music is where it is today is because George Jones was so big.  He was a larger than life figure in music, crossing so many boundaries that Kid Rock and The Rolling Stones consider him one of their heroes.  And I personally will be forever grateful for the wonderful catelogue of music, and the wonderful memories of listening to his records and sharing that time with my family.  It was George's music that brought us together.  Just like George, they're priceless.