Pokey LaFarge Signs with Rounder; Michael Daves Plans Twin Album Project; Signature Sounds Celebrates 20 Years
- Pokey LaFarge has signed with Rounder Records. He’s currently putting the finishing touches on his next album. (via press release)
- MilkDrive will release a new album called Places You’ve Not Been in March 2015.
- Michael Daves met his fundraising goal for the Twin Album Project yesterday. In May, he’ll release two albums with identical track listings; the first album will be traditional bluegrass, recorded with Mike Bub, Sarah Jarosz, Noam Pikelny, and Brittany Haas, while the second album will “focus on a raw, experimental take on the bluegrass and old-time songbook” and include different musicians. The Kickstarter campaign is running through November 20 if you want to contribute.
- The Tanya Tucker exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum opens tomorrow. (via press release)
- Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell’s second duets record is almost completed. (h/t Jonathan)
- Signature Sounds Recordings will celebrate its 20th anniversary with the March 3 release of Rarities from the Second Decade, which will include music from Eilen Jewell, The Sweetback Sisters, Zoe Muth, Lake Street Dive, and other Signature Sounds artists. (via press release)
- Barry Mazor was interviewed for a PBS NewsHour piece on Ralph Peer.
- Bettye LaVette will release her next album, Worthy, on January 27, 2015. (via press release)
- The folks at Rolling Stone Country compiled a list of 50 rock albums every country fan should own.
- Charlie Robison’s high school football days gave him a bum knee and so many concussions that now “he sometimes finds himself in the grocery store without a clue why he’s there.”
- Justin Moore and Brantley Gilbert pulled their most recent albums from Spotify.
- Heads up, Texans: the first annual Smithville Folk Festival will be held on Saturday.
- Banditos have signed with Bloodshot and will release a new album early next year.
- Lucero’s Ben Nichols wrote about Tom Waits for American Songwriter’s “Role Models” series.
- iHeartMedia and Bobby Bones have partnered to launch development and production company Right Side Blind Productions. MusicRow.com reports that the “Los Angeles-based company will develop scripted and unscripted programming for cable and network television with an emphasis on original, sophisticated and innovative concepts.”
- Song and video premieres:
Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band – “Let’s Jump a Train”
Whitey Morgan & The 78s – “Where Do You Want It?” (live)
Sons of Bill – “Bad Dancer”
Lucinda Williams – “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”
First Aid Kit – “Stay Gold” (live on Conan)
- Here’s Will Hoge’s new video for “Middle of America.”
- Barry Mazor talked about Ralph Peer on Marketplace the other day. Listen here.
- Garth Brooks played a free show in San Francisco yesterday. (warning: autoplay)
- This is nice: during one of Garth’s Minneapolis shows, he serenaded a fan who has been battling cancer, then gave her his guitar. (another autoplay video)
- Abigail Washburn recorded “Backwater Blues” for forthcoming Bessie Smith tribute compilation The Empress of the Blues, which will be released on CD November 25 (the digital version came out several weeks ago. Other participating artists include Tift Merritt, Dawn Landes, and Holly Golightly.
- In 2002, a 12-year-old Taylor Swift sang the national anthem at a Sixers game. Here’s the video. It is less painful to watch than the Sixers’ current season (with the exception of this and maybe also this).
- Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge is celebrating its 54th birthday today with a free concert/block party. Check out a 2010 article written by Jewly Hight for the Nashville Scene about how Tootsie’s changed Nashville and country music.
- Sean Watkins will kick off a solo tour on January 8, 2015 in San Diego.
- Kenny Rogers announced his Farewell Down Under Tour, which will begin January 23, 2015 in Sydney and end February 15 in Hamilton, New Zealand. (via press release)
- KUTX posted a video of Scott H. Biram performing “Goin’ Home.”
- The Tennessean compiled a photo gallery of the Opry’s birthday celebration in 1964.
- Keb’ Mo’ discusses his 30+ year career with The 615’s Chuck Dauphin.
- Carrie Underwood wrote a Veterans Day essay for Time.
- Keith Urban’s selling an new line of guitars on the Home Shopping Network this weekend.
- Folk singer Dougie MacLean has reportedly accused BBC Scotland of shunning Scottish folk and acoustic music.
- Tanya Basu of The Atlantic wonders why actresses reinvent themselves as folk (not pop) singers. Her hypothesis: “In essence, folk attracts inexperienced, sometime-artists who seek to venture into the fickle world of mass music appreciation. Folk is known for raw, reflective soundscapes, while pop music tends toward the carnivalesque. Lyrics are clean and relatively PG, with almost no references to sex. Because innuendo is minimal, videos featuring [Leighton] Meester, [Scarlett] Johansson, and [Carla] Bruni place nearly no focus on their bodies, despite them establishing previous careers where their bodies were a celebrated aspect of their performance. Objectification is kept to a minimum.”
- The Lone Bellow is releasing a 7” single entitled “When You Go” on Black Friday. Other Black Friday special releases include recordings by Ryan Bingham, Waylon Jennings, and many, many more. (via press release)
In mid-September, Sid Griffin of The Coal Porters and Long Ryders released The Trick Is to Breathe, his first solo album in a decade.
Produced by Griffin and Thomm Jutz (with an executive production credit going to President James A. Garfield), The Trick Is to Breathe pairs Griffin’s smart, wry lyrics with a sharp backup band that includes Jutz, Sierra Hull, Justin Moses, and Mark Fain.
Today we’re pleased to premiere Griffin’s video collage for “Elvis Presley Calls His Mother After The Ed Sullivan Show,” a song — which Griffin describes as the hypothetical result of a Beat Poet writing music in the Brill Building — that imagines just what The King said to Gladys Presley after his performance on Sullivan’s television program the night of September 9, 1956.
- CMT premiered the video for Bill Anderson’s “Old Army Hat.”
- Listen to Trisha Yearwood’s “Met Him in a Motel Room” from PrizeFighter, which comes out next week.
- Jason Isbell: Live at Austin City Limits will be released on DVD November 24, so you can force your family to watch it on Thanksgiving. (via press release)
- There are zero surprises in the list of nominees for the 2014 American Country Countdown Awards, which will be broadcast on Fox December 15. Fan voting begins November 24.
- C.M. Wilcox posted a new installment of Quotable Country.
- Garth Brooks joined Twitter.
- Songwriters pitched material for Brooks’ new album via email. From an article written by Nate Rau and Cindy Watts of the Tennessean: Instead of leaving the work of filtering through song pitches to the middle men, Brooks went straight to the sources. He created an email address — email@example.com — and allowed songwriters and publishing companies to directly send him their songs. The email address leveled the playing field. It didn’t matter if it was Universal Music Publishing or an independent company with just one or two writers, all were welcomed, and even encouraged, to send in their pitches. ‘This email system where you could access twenty-four-seven, and everyone has your email and they pitch you one song per email, or some people would pitch you 25 songs per email,’ Brooks said. ‘Two months into the looking process we were already past 2,000 emails. I don’t have a clue how many we got — well over 7,000 easy.’”
- Dale Watson was pretty funny on NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me, where he discussed chicken shit bingo, chupacabras, and played a game called “Elementary, My Dear Dale.”
- This is neat: Michael Connolly launched streaming video service The Roots Channel, which he describes in this video (warning: autoplay) as “Netflix for roots music with a fair-trade revenue model” For $9 a month (or a one month trial subscription for $1.99), you’ll be able to see full-length concert films, documentaries, and more.
- Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” is the American Songwriter Lyric of the Week.
- Fellow children of the ‘90s: singer-songwriter-former Power Ranger Amy Jo Johnson recently performed in Toronto while wearing her old Pink Ranger costume.
- Sons of Bill played a couple songs for Relix.
- Diamond Rio is releasing a live album exclusively through iTunes next week. (via press release)
- Also out next week: The Roys’ Bluegrass Kinda Christmas.
- Eric Church will join Kenny Chesney’s The Big Revival Tour for five shows.
- Jim Beviglia of American Songwriter takes a look at The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.”
- Frazey Ford released a video for “September Fields.”
- The Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum opened a Roy Orbison exhibit.
- Amos Lee recorded a version of Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” for tonight’s Sons of Anarchy episode.
- Album releases:
Emma Hill – Denali
Flatt & Scruggs – Nashville Airplane (now available in mp3 format)
Garth Brooks – Man Against Machine
Glen Campbell – The 12 String Guitar of Glen Campbell (mp3)
Hank Snow – Christmas with Hank Snow (mp3)
Homer and Jethro – A Cool Crazy Christmas (mp3)
Jeff Bates – Me and Conway
Larry Cordle – All-Star Duets
The New Basement Tapes – Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes
The Sandman’s Orchestra – Crying for the Moon
Zac Brown Band – Greatest Hits So Far
Nell Robinson’s family has fought in nearly every American conflict from the Revolution to the Iraq War. Working with producer Joe Henry and guests Kris Kristofferson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, John Doe, and noted author Maxine Hong Kingston, Robinson tells the story of her family’s service in her new album, Nell Robinson & The Rose of No-Man’s Land, a collection of traditional songs (“Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier”), originals, well-chosen covers (including Mel Tillis’ “Stateside” and Guy Clark’s “Heroes”) and excerpts of letters and poems written by family members during the course of their service.
We spoke with Robinson over email about her new album, her family’s history, and her involvement with veterans’ organizations.
What inspired you to begin this project?
My sister’s husband is a pilot in the reserves and volunteered to go to Iraq some years ago. Even though we grew up in a military family (my Dad was career Air Force), we were all really upset and worried for him and for my sister and their three kids. At the time there were protests happening in Berkeley, where I was living at the time and a lot of shouting and anger at the local Marine recruitment office, which also bothered me. I’m tired of shouting and the cardboard cut-out stances on issues, including these related to war. I wanted to delve into a conversation, to “dimensionalize” the issues, understand and grapple with the issues.
We started the show called “Soldier Stories” and basically curated a set of songs and a few letters to bring people together to reflect and heal. I have linked with local veterans healthcare groups for fundraising since the first show. But it became very personal the summer my Dad died and I went on a pilgrimage; I walked about 450 miles and had a lot of time to think. In a way, I visited with my kin on that pilgrimage. When I got home, I hired my nephew Henry Hoke to travel around and interview our relatives and to gather letters on the topic of war, service, and pacifism. We’ve fought against each other, and against war itself since the American Revolution. We set up the live show by inviting people to join us on the front porch of an old shotgun farmhouse, a family gathering, where the conversation turns to war… “Come on in, join the conversation.”
Did you learn anything new about your family members and their service while working on this album?
I’ve heard a lot of the stories over my life. The stories we collected recently showed me the ways in which war had torn my family apart and yet we kept healing those rifts. From fighting on different sides of the American Revolution and Civil War to holding different views on Vietnam. My Uncle Bill says our family love healed the rifts. I also wonder if our tradition of story-telling is part of the healing. “The old men from the wars, they would not talk about it” is what my Uncle Bill said about Civil War and WWI vets – yet we can talk around it, we can listen, and maybe get close to truths.
I was also intrigued by the many roles women have played, not only trying to keep home going while the men are at war, but as nurses, translators, spies, and now as combatants. I’ve learned a lot, I’m still learning. I was surprised at the humor we encountered. “It’s not all bad times in war,” is how my Uncle Bill put it. We all know that going through stressful experiences bonds people together, can bring the best out of them. The brotherhood of the military is very powerful. Jim Nunally and I wrote “Happy to Go” to try to capture the dilemma of people wanting home and family and also to do their jobs and be there for their “brothers.”
What drew you to the covers you included on this album?
There are hundreds of great songs on the themes of war, service, and peace. It is really hard every year to narrow them down and put them into a narrative. It’s not just a collection of songs; they lead us places with their perspectives. Johnny Cash’s “Drive On” hits themes about Vietnam that are important: the lack of welcome for returning veterans, the love of family who try to understand the veterans experience, the experiences of courage and fear and craziness in combat, and losing friends. “Stateside” is a song Mel Tillis wrote while in the Air Force during the Korean War, I believe, and is familiar to a lot of GIs: the young man missing home, familiarity, his sweetheart. Universal themes. Guy Clark wrote “Heroes” when he heard the suicide statistics for recent vets. Statistics that are truly numbing – the song conveys the humanity, the real tragedy in one life. One of the challenges of the show, because it’s not political, is to air many perspectives over time. And to include music that also just sounds and feels different, in terms of tempo, rhythm, and genre. We have songs that inspire, and make us smile and feel joy as well. In the live show we ask people to sing on the songs they know. Otherwise it would be very easy to get bogged down in delivering the same kind of typical war or peace song.
Although the traditional songs and stories on here span centuries, many of the same issues appear throughout, like “shell shock”/PTSD and the failure of the American public and government to support returning service members, whether they served in World War I or Vietnam. Did the recurrence of those shared themes in these songs surprise you at all?
These lyrics and songs continue to reveal themselves to me. And their interplay with the family letters and stories open up new ways to understand history and people as well. I am not surprised by the themes repeating over time, sometimes it seems like we just can’t learn our lessons. But I do not in my heart buy that; we do learn. I see that in the public’s view of veterans returning from war, evolving views on women in service, in our deeper understanding of shell shock/PTSD, how treatment of alcohol and drug addiction has improved. What disturbs me is how our system has broken down, how the wars and conflicts, military service members and veterans have been isolated. The Bonus Army stories really woke me up to how big national movements helped bring better support for veterans after WWI. I suppose I feel like fighting the isolation of the issue and the people directly affected, what our storybooth proves and what my family history has shown me, is how the effects of war roll through generations, communities, families. I talked with a young man after one show, maybe 21 years old, who started to say that he didn’t have a story – then he stopped himself and was quiet, and he said “I feel so tired by these wars. It’s so sad.” We are affected and yet our country is still seeking a way to grapple with that.
The recording process was both magical and deeply scary. Joe Henry and his family and the musicians he brought in made me feel so comfortable. Joe brought an ease to the process, an organic approach that I loved. He left the mics on even during rehearsals and sometimes we just entered a song in an unplanned way…and that was it. I had been singing these songs for a few years, and in a particular style, mostly bluegrass arrangements. When I was preparing to record with Joe, I wanted to break out of my habits and be completely open to where Joe might take the process. So I worked with a jazz musician to reinterpret traditional versions and rhythms for songs like “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier.” Jim Nunally was incredibly helpful, he and I ran each song in several keys. The first song we recorded in the studio was “Blue-Eyed Boston Boy,” and I don’t think that went very well to start with. I was singing in a key I was not accustomed to and I felt vulnerable and nervous. Later, adding my harmonies to John Doe and Jack Elliott’s [vocals], these guys are so good and so experienced that I felt unworthy.
Some of the songs and stories really hit home for me, like “Heroes,” and I had a hard time keeping it together. Before each song, the musicians got together and I told them a little bit about the background of the song and why I had it in the repertoire. All the guys were super interested in the histories and I think it made a difference in the ways we interpreted the music. I brought photos of family and friends — recent and historic photos — and I had those in the recording booth and around the studio, and introduced the musicians to them. That kept me grounded; it helped. One of the things Joe said when I was worrying about an imperfection or a mistake – is, “Yes, but it’s musical.” It was such an interesting take on performance and it makes sense to me.
How did you get involved with the “My Story” project?
After every show I am inundated with stories from people. About themselves, their families. About conscientious objectors being spurned by their families, from Vietnam veterans who had not admitted that fact for 30 years, to people who say that their own kids didn’t know their stories.
Then when I connected with the Coming Home Project for one of our shows, I met Mark Pinto. He is a photographer, artist and Gulf War veteran. A super interesting guy and a former Buddhist priest. He described an installation he’d created that had stories playing over a vintage telephone and I’ve wanted to play with that now for three years. So this year I was able to raise some grant money from a friend, Leigh Teece, to sponsor the development of Mark’s concept into a “storybooth,” a way to collect and share stories related to war, service, and peace. We originally approached Story Corps but decided to do our own grassroots version, more like an interactive art installation. The response has been amazing! I welcome people to send in their stories – one minute please – via audio or video. Check it out.
How did the writer Maxine Hong Kingston become involved?
Maxine started the Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace writing group almost 25 years ago – I knew about it from a good friend who belonged. I want to involve people in this show and project who have the issues close to heart. So I met with Maxine and asked her if she was interested in reading a piece from the Bonus Army for the album and she was delighted. She has a great voice and she was absolutely wonderful in the live show. She has since invited me to the writing group and I sang them a song that is based on my great-grandfather’s poem after his return from WWI. I think we share a real connection to history, ancestors, and ghosts.
You’re currently out on tour, and in each city you visit, you’re getting involved with veterans’ organizations. Can you share a little bit more information about your involvement with those groups?
I have been an activist since I was a kid, an outgrowth from my upbringing and the idea of service being so ingrained in us. Spent many years as a campaign and community organizer, fundraiser. While I was creating the first shows, I became more aware of the ways in which veterans are not being treated right, waiting years to get medical help from the VA, many are homeless, losing their families, suffering from brain injuries that in previous years would have killed them and we don’t know how to help them live — and what are we doing to help them? Not enough. So each show we raise a matching grant from a Bay Area foundation and help local veterans groups with fund/friend-raising. I prefer local rather than national groups because the money goes right where it ought to. I’m proud of these collaborations, I’ve met some great people and we’ve raised $200,000 or so. That’s a drop in the bucket, but it’s something.
The “My Story” project has opened up amazing perspectives on our history with war in the country. When we are told that just 1% of Americans are affected by current wars, I get it: they mean that a tiny percentage of folks are serving, many are reservists who return again and again, and the sacrifices are not being spread around. But the storybooth project helps us tell all our stories, to witness, listen, learn, reflect. We are all affected by our history with wars – they affect our sense of safety, our anxiety levels, excite memories of past wars. I imagine that next year I will be choosing new songs, maybe writing some more, and using the audience’s stories throughout the show rather than just my own.
We have five copies of Nell Robinson & The Ghost of No-Man’s Land to give away to Engine 145 readers. To enter our contest, leave a comment below before 12 p.m. EST on Friday, November 14, that tells the story of your or a family member’s service. Winners will be notified by email, so be sure to use a valid address.
Sam Hunt Tops Three Billboard Charts; Bradley Whitford Cast in Hank Williams Biopic; New Music Videos
- Garth Brooks unveiled a new song titled “Mom” on Good Morning America last Friday. He calls it his second-favorite song he’s recorded behind “The Dance.” What do you think?
- The good folks over at My Kind of Country have named Garth their spotlight artist this month.
- Paper Angels, the made-for-television movie based on Jimmy Wayne’s book of the same name, will premiere Sunday, Nov. 16 on the UP Network. His more recent book, Walk to Beautiful: The Power of Love and a Homeless Kid Who Found the Way, just made the New York Times’ best-sellers list.
- George Strait is No. 5 on CMT All-Time Top 40: Artists’ Choice countdown.
- Jimmy Kimmel had a “sleepover” at Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s house. McGraw has also parted ways with his management company and publicist.
- Faith, meanwhile, is acting in a film called Dixieland.
- Jana Kramer’s next album will include a duet with Steven Tyler.
- Jim Ed Brown’s In Style Again will be released on January 20, 2015. (via press release)
- An addition to your painfully-awkward-to-watch file: President Obama trying to sing along with Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again.”
- Jason Aldean has pulled his latest album from Spotify. (warning: autoplay)
- Sam Hunt topped the Top Country Albums, Country Airplay, and Hot Country Songs charts.
- Kudos to Billboard’s Chuck Dauphin for winning the 2014 CMA Media Achievement Award last week.
- Chris Thile was named the 2014 Outstanding Alumnus in Fine Arts by his alma mater, Murray State University.
- Mary Davis, Randy Travis’ fiancée, updated WFAA on the country star’s condition. He’s having to sign things with his opposite hand but is using music in his recuperation, and recently walked several hundred yards without his cane.
- Zac Brown told Rolling Stone Country’s Jason Newman what to expect from ZBB’s new album: “We’re all continuing to grow up and get better as musicians and the chemistry as a band continues to deepen…Our boundaries have dissolved and we’re going to still do things that are somewhat familiar that people like, but we’re also going to stretch out and take chances beyond what we’ve done before. Some people are going to be really surprised.”
- Ryman Hospitality Properties, consisting of The Grand Ole Opry, The Ryman Auditorium, and WSM among other things, is doing quite well in the profitability department.
- T Bone Burnett discusses Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes (an album of unpublished Bob Dylan lyrics set to music by a supergroup consisting of Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, Jim James, Taylor Goldsmith, and Marcus Mumford) on NPR.
- Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) and Cherry Jones (24) have been cast as Fred Rose and Jessie Lillybelle “Lillie” Skipper Williams, respectively, in the Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light.
- Stream Thompson’s (Richard, Linda, Teddy, Kami, and more) new album, Family.
- New music videos with a couple of key live performances from the past week or so:
Christian Lopez – “Will I See You Again”
Carrie Underwood – “Something in the Water”
Blake Shelton and Ashley Monroe – “Lonely Tonight”
Kenny Chesney – “Flora-Bama”
Chase Bryant – “Take It on Back”
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West – “Living in America” (Live at WAMU’s Bluegrass Country)
Whitney Duncan – “Roll All Night”
Keni Thomas – “Hold the Line”
Parker Milsap – “Truck Stop Gospel”
Whitehorse – “Sweet Disaster”
Paul Thorn – “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”
Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley – “Friend of the Devil” (Music City Roots)
Missy Raines and The New Hip – “Thirsty in the Rain” (Music City Roots)
Band of Heathens – “Shake the Foundation” (on The Texas Music Scene)
Roo Arcus – “Let’s Get Out of Here”
Here You Come Again: ’80s Country — David Frizzell, Shelly West, Earl Thomas Conley and Razzy Bailey
In this column’s (far too-long ago) previous installment, I lamented that so many country albums, and even some big hit singles, from members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, no less, remain out of print. I pointed out a few releases from Morello Records, a British label that has lately been reissuing lesser-known gems from some of country music’s brightest stars.
Then again, most of the successful country artists of any given moment are most definitely not Hall of Famers. Predictably, the state of current country reissues is even worse for the innumerable second- and third-tier stars of the genre’s past. I have in mind people like Ferlin Husky, say, or Del Reeves and Dave Dudley, or Cal and Margo and Sammi Smith, or the Johns Conlee and Anderson, but there are dozens upon dozens more—all of whom were significant in their moment and still worth revisiting, or discovering if you missed them in real time. Yet all we’ve been reasonably able to expect in the way of reissues for such stars—this is doubly true for relevant country acts from the much maligned late ‘70s and early ‘80s—is the very little we’ve already got: cheap-o, redundant, and liner note-less best-of sets that arrive periodically to cash in on the arrival of each fresh technology.
I’ve been glad to see Morello helping out here too, just a bit, releasing two-fer sets from the back catalogs of Gary Stewart, Moe Bandy, Janie Fricke, Crystal Gayle, Larry Gatlin, Dean Dillon, Suzy Bogguss, Lacy J. Dalton, and Paul Overstreet, among others. The careers of these artists mostly haven’t become oft-told chapters in the history of the music, let alone transcended that history by gaining traction on the pop charts (Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” is the sore-thumb exception). But the music they made, taken individually and together, helps us hear what exactly country was, how it sounded, and what it meant at any given moment.
For David Frizzell and Shelly West, that moment was pretty brief, with their best and most popular music all coming within a couple of years in the early ‘80s. Both singers came from a famous and beloved country family: David was Lefty Frizzell’s brother (“I Love You a Thousand Ways” debuted on the national charts a couple of months past David’s ninth birthday) while Shelly was Dottie West’s daughter (and was married for several years to Lefty and David’s baby brother Allen). The two had bounced around unsuccessfully for years before teaming to record “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma.” At first it looked to be as unsuccessful as anything else they’d tried; the cut made the Music Row rounds with nary a bite—until Snuff Garrett included it on the soundtrack to the Clint-Eastwood-with-orangutan comedy Any Way Which You Can in late 1980. That landed the pair an album deal with Warner Brothers and “You’re the Reason…” topped the country charts in April 1981. The had a five-album run together and earlier this year Morello paired their first two titles: Carryin’ on the Family Names from 1981 and the following year’s The David Frizzell & Shelly West Album.
None of Frizzell and West’s hits ever crossed over, but their music always sported a pop sparkle: “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma” was sort of a middle-American “Please Come to Boston,” and their “I Just Came Here to Dance,” a #4 hit off their second album, is an engaging sonic summary of the last days of Saturday Night Fever and the first year of Urban Cowboy. Frizzell and West’s entire approach was built upon trends of that c. 1980 moment: Shelly’s mom was at the same time scoring similarly romantic hits with Kenny Rogers; the year before Hank Williams Jr. had rode his own “Family Tradition” all the way to number one. The duo’s trad’ themes and extremely twangy voices—Frizzell’s scratchy but gentle like fine sandpaper and enunciated formally; West’s husky, brassy and a bit slurred—are inevitably slicked down here by synths and strings and gated drums. Their harmonies combining the conversational (David) with the nearly shouted (Shelly)—it’s all very rag-tag, but it cleans up nice.
Frizzell and West are in many ways emblematic of country music in the early 1980s—and at their best, they remind how often and unfairly that era has been dismissed by critics out of hand. Granted, Frizzell and West are usually only as good as their material, and their best material is usually limited to their singles, whether working as a team or as the solo acts their duet success allowed them to become. In the latter instance, Morello has now collected both Frizzell’s and West’s first two solo efforts on one disc a piece. For Frizzell, those were 1982’s The Family’s Fine but This One’s All Mine (with the still funny, and spun unexpectedly toward a put-upon female point of view, “I’m Going to Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home”) and ‘83’s On My Own Again (with the Top Ten “Where Are You Spending Your Nights These Days”). For West, it was West by West (featuring the chart-topping and still immensely popular “Jose Cuervo,” as well the Top Five “Flight 309 to Tennessee”) and Red Hot (with Top Ten hit “Another Motel Memory”).
All of these albums, solo and duet projects alike, are of a piece—and more or less equally hit and miss. But if I were to recommend just one of the Frizzell and/or Shelly West albums it would be their first together, Carryin’ on the Family Name. That’s mainly because, in addition to ‘You’re the Reason…,” the album has the good sense to turn Roger Miller’s “Husbands and Wives” into the duet performance it was always begging to be and because of a couple of unexpected cameos: “Mighty Merle” Haggard lays down a noisy, abbreviated guitar solo on their “Darling, Would You Marry Me Again” and contributes one line (“But Dave, I had to learn it / You came by it naturally”) to “Lefty,” Frizzell’s ode to living in his late brother’s shadow.
Earl Thomas Conley entered the country charts at the same time Frizzell and West did: His first number one, 1981’s “Fire and Smoke,” came out just three months after the release of “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma.” But Conley sustained that level of success much longer, into the early 1990s. Indeed, Conley scored an amazing 18 country chart toppers between ’81 and ’89—just one fewer than George Strait earned during the same period—and ETC, as he was known, landed an additional eight records in the Top Ten over an only slightly longer period. This is a major career, in other words, but one that rarely registered beyond country radio and that by now is forgotten even by big portions of the country audience. His mostly out-of-print catalogue is both a cause and consequence of that forgetfulness.
That’s beginning to change, though. For one thing, Morello released two Conley efforts on a single disc a few years back: 1985’s ten-track Greatest Hits and 1988’s The Heart of It All. With Conley looking like he’s auditioning for Miami Vice on the cover, the former finds Conley drawn to songs, usually ones he wrote himself, that home in on complex adult relationships that are going to stay messy and hard no matter what anyone does: The memorably dramatic “Holding Her and Loving You,” for instance, is the sort of guilt-ridden cheater’s ballad usually associated with Conway Twitty, and Conley’s husky, faintly soulful voice pulls off what could seem glib and cheesy.
Meanwhile, The Heart of It All, not one of Conley’s best-selling albums but my nominee for his best, is all about kindnesses that remain unspoken (he’s no good at “Love Out Loud”) and self-medicating that doesn’t work (a cover of the Don Henley cut “You Must Not Be Drinking Enough,” a telling choice considering Conley’s slick brand of rock-and-soul-influenced country). Plus there are all those hurtful words that just can’t be taken back: On “What I’d Say,” say, ETC doesn’t know for sure what he’d tell his ex if he ever ran into her, but “go to hell” is the option he keeps coming back to.
In Country Music, U.S.A., historian Bill C. Malone compares Conley to another eighties country star, Razzy Bailey; Malone calls both men’s music “very black-influenced.” That assessment is dead on, to a degree, and was another sign of the time. Like superstar Kenny Rogers, Conley and Bailey both sing with a soulful, lover-boy huskiness. Conley’s 1986 hit “Too Many Times” was a duet with R&B singer Anita Pointer, and Bailey’s thirteen Top Tens, usually produced by Bob Montgomery, regularly featured R&B horns and organs—and swirling Philly-soul-styled strings.
That Pointer duet, by the way, fell between the Conley mentioned albums above but is available on Once in a Blue Moon: RCA Singles, 1981-1992, a swell compilation from German reissue label Yellow Label/SPV. Not entirely coincidentally, SPV also released at the same time a 19-track Bailey anthology I Keep Coming Back: RCA Country Hits, 1978-1984. Before its release, the total of in-print Bailey albums, even limited to greatest hits sets, was…zero.
Both Yellow Label collections illustrate that “very black-influenced” style Malone cites as being particularly important to country music in much of the eighties, but it’s also true that those immediate inspirations sound second-hand. As has so often been the case with African-American-indebted country acts: Merle Haggard has a lot of black influence in his music, for example, but he mostly came to it by way of Bing Crosby, Bob Wills and Emmett Miller, in the process giving retired pop sounds a new life on country radio. So, while the Bailey set concludes with a cover of “In the Midnight Hour,” the voice-and-music results across Bailey’s catalogue remind me less of Stax-Volt than of blue-eyed rock-n-soul, acts like Kenny Rogers, and Michael McDonald and Bob Seger, or especially (the more I listen, the more I hear it) Charlie Rich.
In any event, where Conley gets busy brooding over losses and mistakes, Bailey devotes his time to practicing his pick-up lines in steamy, hyper country-soul numbers like “What Time Do You Have to Be Back in Heaven,” “Scratch My Back (and Whisper in My Ear)” and, his biggest hit, 1981’s wonderful “She Left Love All Over Me.” My favorite is probably “I Ain’t Got No Business Doin’ Business Today,” which in 1978 so completely evoked the irresistible rhythm track from Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come” (itself “very black-influenced” but, again, several steps removed) that for all practical purposes it might as well have been a DJ sample. Bailey is bragging about how he’s calling in sick on that one, not because he’s hung over or hates his job but because he and his lady plan to spend the day in bed. Like a lot of black music, and like Razzy damn near all the time, it’s randy and funky but you can still two-step to it.
- Loretta Lynn signed a multi-album deal with Legacy Recordings. The first album is slated for release in 2015. Lynn has been working with daughter Patsy L. Russell and John Carter Cash at the Cash Cabin Studio “on a project that travels back and explores Loretta’s musical history, from the Appalachian folk songs and gospel music she learned as a child, to new interpretations of her classic hits and country standards, to songs newly-written for the project.” (via press release)
- Here’s Kenny Chesney’s video for “Flora-Bama.” (warning: autoplay)
- Taylor Swift on why she pulled her music from Spotify: “[Music] is changing so quickly, and the landscape of the music industry itself is changing so quickly, that everything new, like Spotify, all feels to me a bit like a grand experiment. And I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists, and creators of this music. And I just don’t agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free.”
- At the White House yesterday, Willie Nelson took part in a music workshop for students from military communities. Nelson is also going to host Inside Arlyn, a television series that’ll find the Red Headed Stranger inviting “fellow music legends and new artists into an Austin recording studio for intimate interviews and performances.”
- Chuck Dauphin profiled singer-songwriter Hilary Scott (not to be confused with Hillary Scott, one-third of Lady Antebellum).
- On January 10, the DAR Constitution Hall in DC will host a star-studded salute to Emmylou Harris. The lineup includes Kris Kristofferson, Mavis Staples, Rodney Crowell, Patty Griffin, Steve Earle, Joan Baez, Lucinda Williams, Martina McBride, John Hiatt, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Trampled By Turtles, Sara Watkins, The Milk Carton Kids, Iron & Wine, Shovels & Rope, Shawn Colvin, and Sheryl Crow, with more artists to be announced at a later date. Tickets start at $73.
- The Howlin’ Brothers played a few for Folk Alley.
- Highly entertaining fashion blog Go Fug Yourself looked at the “fugs and fabs” of the CMA Awards.
- Jewly Hight toured Hatch Show Print for a cool CMT Edge piece.
- Jason Isbell was interviewed by WUNC’s Eric Hodge. Listen here.
- 16.1 million viewers tuned in to the CMA Awards on Wednesday night, a drop from last year’s 16.8 million. However, the number of teen viewers saw a four percent increase this year, while the number of kids watching was 19 percent higher this year than in 2013.
- There are seven days left in Chris Gantry’s Kickstarter campaign. The singer-songwriter needs more than $12,000 to fund a new album.
On April 10, 1963, the USS Thresher (SSN-593), a nuclear-powered submarine, sank in the Atlantic Ocean while undergoing deep-diving trials. All 129 men on board were killed, making it the country’s deadliest submarine disaster. (You can read more about it in this interesting 2013 Navy Times article, which suggests that the sub imploded at a depth of 2,200 feet.)
In the aftermath of the tragedy, several folk songs were written about the Thresher; some are patriotic, others…not so much.
5. The Kingston Trio – “Ballad of the Thresher”
This one can be found on the 1963 album Sunny Side, which was released just a few months after the Thresher sank. Keeping with the album title, the Kingston Trio tries to find a bright side to this horrific disaster: “Now her reactor is still, but very good company she keeps / Men from the Lexington, Hornet, and the Wasp / Are down there with her in the deep.”
4. Shovels & Rope – “Thresher”
The No. 4 slot goes to the newest song in today’s Friday Five. On this seven-minute track from Swimmin’ Time, which came out earlier this year, Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst sing from the perspective of one of the sailors onboard the Thresher, ending with a pleading, “Mother Ocean we are at the mercy of thee.”
3. Tom Paxton – “The Thresher Disaster”
These lyrics are heartbreaking: “We lost 129 and I feel like I just lost a friend…I sit and wonder why those poor sailors had to die / And I wonder when this killing’s gonna end.”
2. Phil Ochs – “The Thresher”
Ochs’ songs were smart and sardonic; here, they riff on the 1950s submarine novel (and film) Run Silent, Run Deep, : “Can’t you see the wrong? She was a death ship all along / Died before she had the chance to kill / And she’ll never run silent / And she’ll never run deep / For the ocean has no pity / And the waves they never weep.”
1. Pete Seeger – “The Thresher”
Seeger’s lyrics about the Thresher tragedy that “crushed her crew alive” still manage to be hopeful, as he prays that the loss of the Thresher will help to bring about a day when “ships are all designed to sail together peacefully.”
Next week, singer-songwriter Larry Cordle will release All-Star Duets, an album that’s been in the works for a decade. “It was just one thing after another,” he explains. “Trying to get people’s releases and to sign off on this stuff was just a nightmare. [Also], I kind of went broke a time or two and couldn’t work on it anymore.” The project might never have been completed if it weren’t for his pal Randy Kohrs, who Cordle describes as “bulldoggy” enough to get the job done.
All-Star Duets, which is worth the ten-year wait, pairs Cordle with a number of duet partners — like Garth Brooks, Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs, Kathy Mattea — on a dozen of his original songs, including “Murder on Music Row,” “Lonesome Standard Time,” and “Two Highways.”
We caught up with Cordle last week and got the scoop on the new-old record; he also sent over one of the tracks from the album, a duet version of “Lonesome Dove,” which he recorded with Trisha Yearwood.
How did you choose the material for All-Star Duets?
I tried to think of the songs and artists that had the biggest impact on my career. Immediately, Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, and Garth Brooks came to mind. Honestly, just calling them was sort of random. At the time – this was ten years ago – I thought, “Well, I’m going to call all the biggest stars I know. The rest of the guys on the record I knew much better, so I figured they probably wouldn’t be hard [to get].
Tell me about the story behind “Lonesome Dove,” which Trisha Yearwood recorded for her debut album.
I was looking for an old Martin guitar and Carl Jackson’s daddy used to own a music store. He was here in Nashville once for a show Carl and I were playing at the Bluebird; I told him I was looking for an old Martin and he found me one. So Carl and I went to his hometown in Mississippi to pick it up. The Lonesome Dove series had started and we all just loved it. I told Carl that I’d like to write a song named “Lonesome Dove” but that I didn’t want to make it about the show. He had worked with Emmylou and Linda Ronstadt and I envisioned this song being something that maybe they could do.
On the way back home from picking that guitar up, Carl got the it out of the case and started playing while I was driving. We started talking about it and wrote the song on the Natchez Trace between there and home.
Alison Krauss was really banging out big everywhere, and we had her come sing the demo for us. I had known Trisha; she sang on a few things for me in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, I guess. Back then she was a receptionist at Mary Tyler Moore’s company over there on the Row. I have no idea who took the song over to Trisha. There were several Lonesome Dove songs in town around then, and most of them kind of went along with the theme of the show except ours.
I had run into Garth Fundis at the publishing company I was working for at the time, Polygram, and he told me he had that song in his “A Drawer,” which meant, “Hey, I really like this and am going to find somebody to record it.” I didn’t even know he knew the song, so it was news to me.
While Alison was doing the demo, I thought she’d maybe do the song herself, but that didn’t wind up happening. It didn’t work for Emmy, it didn’t work for Patty Loveless, and I began to have all kinds of questions about it, so running into Garth Fundis was really fortuitous for me because I really started believing in the song again.
Maybe another six or eight weeks went by and one of the boys at the publishing company asked me if I’d heard Trisha sing it. I said, “No. Are you sure it’s my Lonesome Dove song?” They said, “Yeah, it’s you and Carl’s song.” So I went to the Bluebird one night when she was performing and sure enough, she was singing the fire out of that thing. It was one of the finest records that I ever had. I’ve got a cassette tape of her and Don Henley singing the song during a live show at the Hollywood Bowl. It’s one of my fondest possessions.
We recorded this new version back in 2004 or 2005. Trisha just came into the studio, and I started singing the thing so she could hear it. When we got to the first chorus, she sang the harmony on that, and there was a key change in there, and she sang it without a problem – her performance on this is really stunning. She sang the harmony on this thing before I had my lead vocal done. (laughs)
When you’re not driving back from a road trip, how do you write?
I love it when inspiration happens, but when I first came to town, some of the older songwriters told me if I was ever going to make a living doing this, I’d need to learn that success was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I took that to heart. If you want to do this and be successful at it, you need to go to work. That’s what I did. I booked time with other writers – I learned pretty early on that I liked co-writing – and we went to work five days a week like any other man or woman in any other job.
Sometimes that’s hard for a lot of people to understand. I have people say, “I don’t know how you can write songs like that.” Well, you don’t every day. But the process of it all was worth something. I’ve never had one of those sessions that I thought was wasted. There’s always been something that I’ve been able to look back on at another time. To me, songwriting is a learning process. If you’re not willing to learn something new about it, then you’re over. It is changing all the time. Your uniqueness hopefully never changes, but there are different aspects to songwriting that you might have never considered before you got together with some other writer who has a totally different way of doing things. You see if you can adapt to that, see if you can learn anything. It’s a great job. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Anything.
I strive to write the best songs I can regardless of whether they’ll make money or not. I still try to write good songs. I’m not always able to achieve that, but I still try really hard.
- Dave W.: Just read the news here. Will miss E145 very much - love this site. All the best to you Juli …
- Leeann Ward: Oh, dang! This is real. Farewell to the most generous, informative, quality, intelligent, consistent, ethical country music blog! You …
- bll: Thanks Juli for all the great articles and information; you'll be missed by me and I suss several others. Best …
- Both Kinds of Music: I hope people appreciate the irony that one of the best "Americana" albums is titled Metamodern Sounds in COUNTRY Music.
- Barry Mazor: I would not rule out that possibility..There's a different set of voters involved..
- Dana M: Does anyone else think that Brandy Clark actually has a good chance of winning since this isn't a country awards …
- Juli Thanki: UPDATE: Brandy Clark got a Best New Artist nom. BEST AMERICANA ALBUM: Rosanne Cash -- The River & The Thread John Hiatt -- Terms …
- luckyoldsun: Glenn Campbell is great and I'd love to see him get an award, but the words of that song may …
- Casey Penn: Juli, it was an honor to write for you here on Engine145.com. You're good at what you do, and The …
- bob: Go Brandy FGL - Just go away.