Archive for July, 2008

Artist Profile: Tift Merritt

Posted in Profile, Tift Merritt on July 18, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

Tift Merritt was born in Texas, but her musical journey began in North Carolina where her family moved when she was a kid. Tift learned to play guitar as a teenager when her father taught her a few chords. Her first break came when she was invited to sing and play rhythm guitar with the Two Dollar Pistols. She appeared with the Pistols on their 1999 EP, The Two Dollar Pistols with Tift Merritt… a collection of mostly covers of classic country tunes such as Cowboy Jack Clement’s “Just Someone I Used to Know.”

The Two Dollar Pistols with Tift Merritt: Just Someone I Used to Know (Buy Album)

Feeling the urge to write and record her own material, Tift set out on her own and formed a band called the Carbines. She was joined by Zeke Hutchins on drums, Jay Brown on bass, and Greg Reading (Chatham County Line) on guitar. The band developed quite a following in North Carolina and seemed poised to sign with Sugar Hill Records. When the deal fell through, fellow North Carolinian Ryan Adams came to Tift’s aid and helped her land a deal with his label, Lost Highway.

Tift’s first release for Lost Highway was 2002’s Bramble Rose, a solid debut that garnered quite a bit of critical praise. The album featured The Carbines in a supporting role and featured several slow-burning, soulful country ballads. The one exception was “Neighborhood,” a Stones-style country-rock strut that admonishes the subject for his carousing ways. The album was successful in introducing Tift to the world, but was just a taste of what was to come.

Tift Merritt: Neighborhood (Buy Album)
Tift Merritt: Trouble Over Me (Buy Album)

If Bramble Rose was Tift’s way of introducing herself to the world… Her sophomore effort, 2004’s Tambourine, was her way of letting the world know she intended to stay a while. With the help of producer George Drakoulias, Tift expanded her repertoire to include more elements of rock and classic soul. Drakoulias had previously produced one of Tift’s favorite albums, Maria McKee’s You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, and one of my favorite albums, The Jayhawks’ Hollywood Town Hall. Drakoulias even used his connections to get McKee and the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris to appear on the album. Heartbreaker Mike Campbell also joined the sessions.

The album was a critical smash. Tift received a Grammy nomination for Best Country Album as well as nominations for Aritst, Album, and Song (“Good Hearted Man”) of the Year at the Americana Music Awards. It was my favorite album of 2004, and is one I still revisit often.

Tift Merritt: Good Hearted Man (Buy Album)
Tift Merritt: I am Your Tambourine (Buy Album)

Tift toured relentlessly after the release of Tambourine, and found that spending so much time on the road rushing from place to place was getting old. She needed a break… some time to relax. Paris called. After a few weeks in Paris, however, relaxation turned to inspiration. Tift rented a flat with a piano and called her friends and family to tell them she would not be home for a while. Three months later, she had formed the collection of songs that would become her third solo album, Another Country.

Released in February on Fantasy Records, Another Country finds a sort of middle ground between the easy country ballads of Bramble Rose and the fiery Memphis soul of Tambourine. Drakoulias returned behind the mixing board. This time, he brought with him guitarists Charlie Sexton (Bob Dylan) and Doug Pettibone (Lucinda Williams). It’s nice to have such ringers in the studio, but these songs stand on their own as well. Tift debuted several of the tunes from Another Country in a solo show at the Mercy Lounge in Nashville during last year’s Americana Music Conference. The show was just Tift and her guitar (sometimes piano). Playing without a band and without a net, she held an audience made up primarily of radio promoters, programmers, and djs captive with her songs. Even Buddy Miller, who joined her on stage to sing harmony on the album’s title track, left impressed. The new album was a hit, and it was still five months from release.

Tift Merritt: Morning is My Destination (Buy Album)
Tift Merritt: My Heart is Free (Buy Album)

Tift Merritt is playing in Knoxville tonight at a place called The Pilot Light in the Old City. I’ve had the chance to see Tift perform a handfull of times in the past, and have always left the shows with a smile. On stage, she is a blur of energy… switching from guitar to keys to tambourine to harmonica and back. She has a command of the stage and the audience. If you’re in Knoxville Friday night, check it out.

The Steeldrivers on Conan O’Brien Tomorrow: 7/18/08

Posted in The Steeldrivers on July 17, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

I’ll post more on this band later when I have a little more time, but I want everyone to know that The Steeldrivers will be on the Conan O’Brien Show this Friday night.

The Steeldrivers are a fairly new band on the Bluegrass/Americana circuit who have created quite a buzz with their signature blend of Bluegrass and Blues. They are nominated for “Best New/Emerging Artist” at this year’s Americana Music Awards, and have been turning heads at festivals around the country.

The lead singer and co-songwriter also just happens to be a good friend of mine by the name of Chris Stapleton. Chris and I graduated from high school together in Kentucky, and I absolutely could not be happier for him in his success.

The Steeldrivers’ debut album is a self-titled release from Rounder Records. Give it a shot and check out The Steeldrivers on Conan Friday night.

The Steeldrivers: If it Hadn’t Been for Love (Buy Album)

The Dixie Chicks and Americana: It’s Time

Posted in Dixie Chicks on July 16, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

OK. Here we go. Time to stir up the pot a little bit. I know most of us can agree on John Hiatt and Alejandro Escovedo, but I’m going to try to spark some debate with this one. Ready?

I like the Dixie Chicks. I said it.

I think they’re talented, and they’ve proven they can be successful with a wide variety of sounds and source materials. I also think it’s time the Chicks were embraced by the Americana Community and accepted full scale on Americana Radio.

Before you run away without reading this, hear me out. Yes, the Chicks were once one of the most popular acts on commercial country radio. Yes, commercial country radio is typically a vast wasteland with no tangible redeeming qualities. Yes, the song that is arguably their biggest hit, “Goodbye Earl,” is one of those mainstream Nashville songs that contributed to my current low opinion of said commercial country radio. I know all the arguments against them. I used those same arguments for a long time myself.

Then something changed. In 2002, the Dixie Chicks released the album Home. My music director gave me the album to listen to, and I kind of rolled my eyes. The Dixie Chicks were mainstream… we were Americana. What was going on here? Then I read the liner notes and found that the Chicks wrote some of their own material, but also recorded songs written or co-written by Darrell Scott, Tim O’Brien, Marty Stuart, Bruce Robison, and Patty Griffin. I later found out that this wasn’t the first time the Chicks had used Americana songwriters on one of their albums. Scott, Griffin, Bonnie Raitt, Maria McKee, Buddy Miller, and Jim Lauderdale had all contributed to previous albums. Maybe there really was something here.

I put the disc in and was greeted with Scott’s “Long Time Gone,” a song about having fond memories of growing up in a small town, but having to leave when life calls you elsewhere. The lyrics were paired with a warm and inviting sound created by acoustic instruments… banjos, fiddles, and guitars. The lyrics even included a jab at the mianstream radio machine that had helped the Chicks to create their rabid fanbase and become the hottest act in country music.

“Listen to the radio to hear what’s cookin’,
But the music ain’t got no soul.
Now they sound tired, but they don’t sound Haggard.
They got money, but they don’t have Cash.
They got Junior, but they don’t have Hank.”

This was something that I could get behind. I didn’t care that the song rose to #2 on the Hot Country Singles Billboard Chart or that the video was in constant rotation on CMT. I played “Long Time Gone” on my Americana show. I played it a lot.

I played other songs too. Patty Griffin’s “Truth No. 2” was originally recorded for her album Silver Bell, but Patty’s label folded, and the album never got released. The Chicks, who had already had a hit with Griffin’s “Let Him Fly,” dove back into Griffin’s catalogue and recorded their version of “Truth” as an acoustic, almost bluegrass, number with soaring harmonies and prominent fiddle and banjo riffs.

The album was doing well in country circles. The second single, a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” went to number one. The third single, Robison’s “Traveling Soldier” was the stirring tale of a soldier who died on foreign soil told from the perspective of someone he left behind. The song struck a chord with fans during the early days of the United States’ war in Iraq. It rose to number one on the country charts where it sat as of March 10th, 2003 when Dixie Chicks’ lead vocalist Natalie Maines made her now infamous remarks about President George W. Bush. The very next week “Traveling Soldier” was off the charts completely. It was the fastest falling single in Billboard history.

Maines’ comments were seen as a lack of support for the U.S. military and its Commander in Chief, and a public betrayal of the right wing values of most of the people who make up country music’s core audience. The backlash that followed is well chronicled in the documentary Shut Up and Sing. The Chicks were banned from many radio stations, public CD burnings and bulldozings were held, concerts were cancelled due to slow ticket sales, and Maines began receiving death threats.

By the time the Chicks released the follow up to Home, 2006’s Taking the Long Way, they had fallen out of favor with many country music fans, industry supporters, and radio programmers. The first single, “Not Ready to Make Nice,” garnered some cursory play on country radio but quickly went away. Part of the lack of airplay had to do with a conscious decision byt the Chicks to ignore the demands of country radio and make an album that was based more in rock and adult alternative sounds. The ladies teamed with veteran producer Rick Rubin, former Jayhawk Gary Louris, and former Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson to forge a sound that made itself easily accessible to fans of other genres while still keeping a small hold on their country roots.

The album was mostly a critical success, but found a hard time gaining more than a minor hold on Country, AAA, and Americana charts. The Chicks’ music had no home.

This is where I think Americana Radio can come into play. Americana Radio is still a relatively new format that is still struggling to spread awareness of its existence and gain wider appeal. The format has been looking for a face… an artist it can get behind to boost listenership and get the word out that an alternative to corporate radio does exist. The format openly embraces the freedom of expression that the Dixie Chicks embody to the point that the Americana Music Association hands out a “Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award” every year at their awards show. The shoe seems to fit.

So I’m putting it out there to Americana Radio and Americana fans. Give the Chicks a Chance. You might be surprised. Here are the two tracks I highlighted from Home as well as two tracks from Taking the Long Way. You decide.

Dixie Chicks: Long Time Gone (Buy Album)
Dixie Chicks: Truth No. 2 (Buy Album)
Dixie Chicks: The Long Way Around (Buy Album)
Dixie Chicks: Lubbock or Leave it (Buy Album)

John Hiatt @ The Shed: Maryville, TN 7/12/08

Posted in Doug Lancio, John Hiatt on July 14, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

John Hiatt reminisces about days gone by on his new CD Same Old Man

“Old Days are coming back to me.
I don’t know what was so great about ’em.
I played practically free,
But I had nothing to live up to
And everywhere to be.
Old Days are coming back to me.”

These days, Hiatt has plenty to live up to. Hiatt is one of the most successful and respected songwriters of his generation. “Angel Eyes” from the Jeff Healey Band, “Drive South” from Suzy Bogguss, “The Way We Make a Broken Heart” from Rosanne Cash, “Sure as I’m Sittin’ Here” from Three Dog Night, and “Thing Called Love” from Bonnie Raitt, to name a few, all came from Hiatt’s pen. This September, he will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting from the Americana Music Association at their annual awards show in Nashville. This very week, Same Old Man sits in the top spot on the Americana Album Airplay Chart.

Saturday night, John Hiatt played The Shed in Maryville, TN with his current touring band The Ageless Beauties. Hiatt was on his game as he mixed in several old favorites with a good sampling of tunes from the new album.

The setlist:
The Tiki Bar is Open
Master of Disaster
Drive South
Let’s Give This Love a Try
Cherry Red
Cry Love (slow version)
Walk On
Old Days
On with You
Love You Again
Lift up Every Stone
Crossing Muddy Waters
Paper Thin
Slow Turning
Hurt My Baby
Riding with the King
~set break~
Tennessee Plates
Memphis in the Meantime

The highlight of the show for me was a slowed down version of “Cry Love” featuring beautiful atmospheric guitar work from Doug Lancio. The studio version of “Cry Love” has been my favorite Hiatt song for a while due mostly to a great arrangement built around a crisp chiming guitar riff, a sharp snare backbeat, and flourishes of mandolin. This new version, however, was hardly recognizable to me through most of its extended intro. My wife and I went through a few rounds of, “Is this ‘Cry Love?'” “No it can’t be.” “Wait… is it?” Just before the vocals came in, it became clear. It also became clear that Hiatt was taking a bit of chance by playing around with one of his fan favorite songs, but it paid off. Lancio (more on him later) was a big part of the success, replacing the crisp acoustic strums of the original with layers of swirling electric rhythms. I’d love to find a copy of this version.

In the encore, Hiatt played to the Tennessee crowd by dusting off two more of his classics that deal with the Volunteer State; “Tennessee Plates” and “Memphis in the Meantime.” The latter song included a sing along and some more fancy guitar work from Hiatt and Lancio. A solid end to a great show.

After the show my wife and I got to go backstage for a brief “Meet & Greet” with Hiatt. We got a handshake, an autograph, and a brief conversation. Hiatt was very gracious as he listened to my ramblings about how much I like the new album, the old albums, etc… We thought it was a great way to end the night…

Then, on the way out, we bumped into Doug Lancio. Lancio is a producer/musician who is probably best known for producing Patty Griffin’s 1,000 Kisses album and serving as her lead guitarist for the last several years. He’s also producing Scott Miller’s new project that’s scheduled to be released later this year. We caught Patty Griffin twice on her last tour and became especially impressed with Lancio’s live chops. It was a pleasant surprise to see him with Hiatt’s band Saturday night.

These days, John Hiatt may feel pressured to live up the reputation he has earned through his thirty-plus years in the music business. However, he continues to build on that reputation with each new release and each show he plays. Here are a couple tracks from the new album, Same Old Man and a couple of classics.

John Hiatt: Old Days (Buy the Album)
John Hiatt: On with You (Buy the Album)
John Hiatt: Cry Love (Buy the Album)
John Hiatt: Memphis in the Meantime (Buy the Album)

John Paul Keith and the One Four Fives

Posted in John Paul Keith on July 11, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

John Paul Keith was a founding member of Knoxville Roots Rock Heroes, The V-Roys. He recorded with Ryan Adams as part of the infamous and oft-bootlegged “Pink Heart Sessions.” Keith and his guitar even appear on a few tracks from Ryan’s 2002 CD Demolition. He currently plays guitar in a garage rock band with legendary producer Jim Dickenson.

Why then, have I not heard more about this singer/songwriter/axe man who is currently based in Memphis? I don’t know. I DO know that Keith was one of the first visitors to “AFCLAAWB” and, sensing a Knoxville connection, sent me a link to some music he’s been working on recently with his new project, John Paul Keith and the One Four Fives.

Musically, the One Four Fives put forth a rollicking rockabilly sound that is sure to have the good people of Memphis putting in their time on the dance floor. Keith’s lyrics touch on the classic topics of Rock & Roll excess and Honky Tonk heartache. “Looking for a Thrill” is a muscular guitar powered romp that warns of the bad things that can be found while looking for a good time. On “Otherwise” the protagonist puts on a brave face over top of some country twang while suffering through another broken heart.

“I got a great big hole in my chest where my heart was.
Otherwise I’m doing fine.
Every night I go to sleep to keep from crying.
Otherwise I’m doing fine.”

The One Four Fives don’t have a CD available just yet… but the 7″ vinyl single for “Looking for a Thrill” is available from Goner Records.

John Paul Keith and the One Four Fives: Looking for a Thrill (Buy the vinyl)
John Paul Keith and the One Four Fives: Otherwise (Buy the vinyl)

Alejandro Escovedo: Real Animal

Posted in Alejandro Escovedo on July 10, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

Alejandro Escovedo released his latest album, Real Animal, in June on Back Porch Records. It is another stunning addition to a catalogue of music that led No Depression magazine to name him as the “Artist of the Decade” for the 90’s long before that decade actually came to a close. It has been said that Escovedo invented a genre that is unique to himself by blending elements of punk, country, pop, and… with his string quintet… at times orchestral flares.

A quick listen to the lead track here… “Always a Friend”… reveals many of Escovedo’s influences. There are definate pop arrangements in the “oohs” and “ahhs” in the backing vocals and the bouncyness of the “Uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh” chorus. An electric violin kicks in near the end to add a progressive/alt-country flavor. The entire track is built around a punkish riff that kicks the album into high gear from the start. Peter Blackstock from No Depression has called this the strongest single of Escovedo’s career. It’s hard to disagree. We’ve been playing it quite heavily at WDVX.

Those who are familiar with Escovedo’s story know that, in recent years, he has been battling Hepititis C. The disease nearly claimed his life a few years ago, and it has certainly changed his life today. Gone are the booze filled nights and the Rock & Roll lifestyle. Those things have been replaced by an introspective clarity that was heavily showcased in his previous album The Boxing Mirror. That introspection shows up again here in the track “Golden Bear”

“There’s a creature in my body.
There’s a creature in my blood.
Don’t know how long he’s been there,
Or why he’s after us.”

Most of the songs on the album deal with events from Escovedo’s past in some way. “Nun’s Song” recounts the early days of his career with his first band, San Francisco punksters The Nuns. “Chip and Tony” refers to brothers Chip and Tony Kinman, leaders of another of Escovedo’s early groups Rank and File. This is an album by a musician at the top of his game who has seen his life pass before his eyes and wants to make sure those precious moments are captured and preserved.

Alejandro Escovedo: Always a Friend (Buy Album)
Alejandro Escovedo: Golden Bear (Buy Album)
Alejandro Escovedo: Smoke (Buy Album)

Essential Albums: Trace by Son Volt

Posted in Essential Albums, Jay Farrar, Son Volt on July 10, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

When I was first kicking around the idea of starting a blog I always thought my first post would be about this album. Post #3 still ain’t too shabby.

Trace was the first album released by Son Volt… the band Jay Farrar formed after the split of his previous band, Uncle Tupelo. While in Uncle Tupelo, Farrar and his band mates Jeff Tweedy and Mike Heidorn blended the heartfelt lyrics of Leadbelly and The Carter Family with the punk rock fury of Iggy Pop and The Minutemen. The group recorded four albums together before infighting between Farrar and Tweedy led to a split following the release of the band’s 1992 album Anodyne. Tweedy formed the band Wilco while Farrar, Heidorn, and brothers Jim and Dave Boquist rose from Uncle Tupelo’s ashes with a project called Son Volt in 1994.

In 1995, the band released Trace… a strong effort that perfectly blurred the lines between country and rock and still stands as the Masterpiece of the 90’s Alt-country movement.

The album begins with “Windfall.” An acoustic country number that transports the listener to a deserted stretch of road on a “trail spent with fear.” The narrator is alone on the highway with nothing but his troubles and his prayers for the wind to take them away. Somewhere in the night, he finds a radio station with a heavenly sound to keep him going to the next stop.

The last verse and chorus:

Switching it over to AM
Searching for a truer sound
Can’t recall the call letters
Steel guitar and settle down
Catching an all-night station somewhere in Louisiana
It sounds like 1963, but for now it sounds like heaven

May the wind take your troubles away
May the wind take your troubles away
Both feet on the floor, two hands on the wheel,
May the wind take your troubles away

Incidentally, the name of this blog would have been “Searching for a Truer Sound,” but it was already taken. I also heavily considered “Steel Guitar and Settle Down.”

After “Windfall,” the album alternates between fiery country rock and more sombre acoustic numbers before closing with “Mystifies Me”… a bluesy country cover that originally appeared on Ron Wood’s (Rolling Stones) 1974 solo album. The rockers all feature catchy guitar riffs and driving beats. Jim Boquist is usually ready with a nice harmony vocal as well.

I didn’t really discover Son Volt or Jay Farrar until sometime around 2003 when I downloaded the following two songs from a file-sharing network that I used at the time. Within a couple of weeks, I had bought almost everything Farrar had recorded to that point. These songs, and this album, had that much of an impact on me. Jay Farrar has the Real Ultimate Power.

Son Volt: Windfall (Buy Album)
Son Volt: Drown (Buy Album)