Archive for September, 2008

My Dog & Me… On the Road

Posted in John Hiatt, Rob McNurlin, The Steeldrivers on September 30, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

The creature you see pictured above is my dog, Deacon. My wife is out of town this week… so right now it’s just my dog and me here at home.

John Hiatt: My Dog and Me (Buy Album)

This weekend, Deacon and I will hit the road to take in the glorious fall tradition that is the Kentucky Apple Festival in Paintsville, KY. The Apple Festival is your typical small town festival complete with parades, carnivals, crafts tents, food vendors, and concerts. Here, all the concerts take place on the steps of the courthouse building and are free to the public. Usually the performers have some sort of connection to the city or the region. Last year, Paintsville native Crystal Gayle was the headliner, and she brought her sister, Loretta Lynn, along as well. To my knowledge, it was Loretta’s first public performance in her hometown in my lifetime.

This year… the Friday night headliners are none other than The Steeldrivers! Songwriter/guitarist/vocalist Chris Stapleton is a Paintsville native, and I’m pretty sure this will be his very first appearance in his hometown with his new band. Chris and I were in the same graduating class in high school, and I’m sure old friends will be out in droves for the show, which could amount to a high school reunion of sorts. I’m looking forward to seeing some old classmates that I haven’t seen in a decade or more.

On top of that… The Steeldrivers could very well be The Award Winning Steeldrivers by the time they come to town. The group is nominated for three awards at this year’s International Bluegrass Music Awards (Album, Song, and Emerging Artist of the Year) that are being held Thursday in Nashville. Hopefully they will fare better there than they did at the Americana Awards (Mike Farris? I mean… I like him, but… c’mon).

Either way, I’m looking forward to a great hometown show. Here’s some live Steeldrivers music to get you in the mood. The album these songs come from is only available at live shows… the buy links will direct you to their self-titled debut.

The Steeldrivers: Peacemaker (Buy Album)

The Steeldrivers: You Put the Hurt on Me (Buy Album)

I’m also looking forward to seeing another old friend this weekend. Rob McNurlin (pictured above) is a musician from Ashland, KY who specializes in his own distinct brand of “Beatink Cowboy Country.” He’s worked with artists such as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Jorma Koukonen, and Marty Stuart and draws influences from artists such as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan to form a mix of folk, country, hillbilly blues, and gospel.

Rob was always a good friend of ours at Morehead State Public radio where I worked before moving to Knoxville. He could always be counted on as an in-studio guest during our fund drive weeks. I really came to love Rob’s music during those late-night, on-air jam sessions at the MSPR studios. I haven’t heard him play in a few years… and I’m really looking forward to hearing his unique voice again.

Rob McNurlin: Lotta Good Men (Buy Album)

Rob McNurlin: Best Black Western Suit (Buy Album)

Friday Top 5: Alejandro Escovedo

Posted in Alejandro Escovedo, Top 5 on September 26, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

This week on the Friday Top 5, we’re taking a look at the music of one of my very favorite artists… Alejandro Escovedo. I wrote a bit about Alejandro before in one of my very first posts here.

Of course, one of the things I love most about his music is how many styles and influences go into his sound. Escovedo draws from pop, country, punk, folk, border radio, and just about any other musical form you can imagine. He then manages to blend all of those disparate sounds into something new that is warm and familiar while also being totally unique to him and him alone. I think the five songs I’ve chosen here (from five different albums) do a good job of showcasing the wide range of his influences and talents.

The first tune comes from Escovedo’s debut solo disc, 1992’s Gravity. “Five Hearts Breaking” is one of the first Escovedo tunes I ever heard and one that certainly made me want to hear more. Acoustic and electric guitars, strings, organ, piano, and percussion all swirl together to create that sound that is totally his.

Next is “Put You Down” from 1996’s With These Hands. This song is simply obsession set to a loping bass line and building to a crashing, guitar fueled, chorus.

My favorite Escovedo song, “Castanets,” comes from my favorite Escovedo album (2001’s A Man Under the Influence), and is one of my favorite songs of all time… period. The guitar lick on this song sets the track on fire and refuses to be extinguished for the next 3:27. This is, in my opinion, one of the great barroom rock songs ever recorded, and I will not be happy until everyone knows this tune.

Following a nearly fatal battle with Hepatitis C, Escovedo released The Boxing Mirror in 2006, his first album in over four years. “Arizona” is a song about his brush with the disease (Escovedo collapsed and nearly died shortly after a performance in Tempe in 2003.) and his time spent recuperating in the Arizona desert. This is a deeply personal song dealing with sobriety and mortality.

Finally, I give you “Always a Friend” from Escovedo’s latest masterpiece, Real Animal. This is the song that Peter Blackstock of No Depression calls the best “single” he has ever recorded. It’s hard to argue with him… probably my favorite song of 2008 so far.

Alejandro Escovedo: Five Hearts Breaking (Buy Album)
Alejandro Escovedo: Put You Down (Buy Album)
Alejandro Escovedo: Castanets (Buy Album)
Alejandro Escovedo: Arizona (Buy Album)
Alejandro Escovedo: Always a Friend (Buy Album)

Bonus track: Above is the studio version of “Put You Down” from the album, With These Hands. The bonus track is a live recording of the same song from a double album called Room of Songs. This recording features Alejandro Escovedo’s string quintet and highlights yet another facet of his sound.

Alejandro Escovedo String Quintet: Put You Down (Buy Album)

Fountains of Wayne Hotline

Posted in Fountains of Wayne, Robbie Fulks on September 23, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

Earlier this week, I posted a Robbie Fulks song over at Star Maker Machine. In the comments of that post, I was reminded about another Robbie Fulks song that I hadn’t listened to in a while… “Fountains of Wayne Hotline.”

Robbie Fulks: Fountains of Wayne Hotline (Buy Single)

This week’s theme at Star Maker Machine is “The Music Biz,” and this song certainly deals with one aspect of the biz… how to write a hit. In this song, Fulks plays a struggling songwriter who must call on the help of experienced professionals to pen his first hit. When he runs into trouble, he calls on the Fountains of Wayne Hotline.

Fountains of Wayne is a power-pop band from New York with a penchant for putting together the perfect pop song. I’ll admit to being largely unfamiliar with their work. My wife, however, had one of their albums on our itunes. After listening to the Robbie Fulks song offered above, I decided to give their album a shot to see if Mr. Fulks was accurate in his assessment of their style.

What I heard was a lot of hooks and some damn catchy pop songs. It seems that Fountains of Wayne have found a formula… and it works. Why mess with that?

Here is a track from Fountains of Wayne’s 2003 album Welcome Interstate Managers that shows off the dynamic shifts and slightly distorted melodic guitar solos that helped the band make their name. You’ll notice that Robbie Fulks referenced this exact song in “Fountains of Wayne Hotline.”

Fountains of Wayne: Mexican Wine (Buy Album)

Brett Ratliff: Cold Icy Mountain

Posted in Brett Ratliff on September 22, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

Johnson County Kentucky is the birthplace of some of the greats of Country Music. Bluegrass pioneer Hylo Brown and Country superstars Crystal Gayle and Loretta Lynn all hail from Johnson County. Recently, singer and songwriter, Chris Stapleton, has also emerged from Johnson County to make a splash with rising bluegrass supergroup, The Steeldrivers.

Now, another Johnson Countian, Brett Ratliff has released his debut album, Cold Icy Mountain, on June Appal Records. Like Stapleton, Ratliff was a schoolmate of mine at Johnson Central High School in Paintsville, Ky. Brett was actually a year behind me in school, so I didn’t really become familiar with him and his music until college when we both wound up at Morehead State University. I have been listening to him for quite a while now, though, and I think you should hear him too.

Ratliff is a true student of the roots and history of traditional mountain music. Much like Moe Asch of Folkways Records, Ratliff has spent time traveling through the Appalachian Mountains making field recordings of old time musicians to preserve their music and stories for future generations. He also made sure to study these old time players, learning their styles and their songs as he worked to preserve their sound. Ratliff has worked at times with both The Kentucky Center for Traditional Music as well as Appalshop… two organizations that are dedicated to preserving the music, heritage, and traditions of the Appalachian region.

It is no surprise then, that Ratliff’s debut album is a collection of traditional mountain music with many of the songs seemingly as old as the hills themselves. On this set, Ratliff plays the banjo and, at times, is joined by his friends and bandmates in the Clack Mountain String Band. This is a fun collection of old-time foot stompers, miner’s laments, and cautionary tales for those who would run afoul of a Higher Power. These songs are more than just banjo and vocals. They are the stories of a generation of people and a way of life that has passed, and though Ratliff is still a young man, he does the songs and their stories justice.

Fans of “new-time” string bands such as The Old Crow Medicine Show and The Hackensaw Boys should give this a listen to hear what the “old-time” sound is really all about.

I’m featuring two tracks here. The first is “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow” featuring the Clack Mountain String Band (Jesse Wells on fiddle, Karly Higgins on guitar and vocal, and JT Cure on bass). The second is an instrumental banjo tune called “Forked Deer.” The percussion you hear on this track is actually credited as a foot-slappin’ “flat-foot dance” performed by Juile Shepherd.

You can find out more about Brett Ratliff here, read the liner notes from the album here, listen to some more music here, and order the album here.

Brett Ratliff: Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow (Buy Album)
Brett Ratliff: Forked Deer (Buy Album)

Friday Top 5: R.E.M.

Posted in R.E.M., Top 5 on September 19, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

A few weeks ago, when I did the first installment of the Friday Top 5, I mentioned how hard it would be for me to actually compile a list of my top five R.E.M. songs. This week, however, I was inspired by a wonderful post over at Pretty Goes with Pretty and the continued brilliance over at Pop Songs 08 to actually give it a try.

The problem with doing this is that there are so many R.E.M. songs to choose from (over 300 on my i-pod) that it’s nearly impossible to narrow the list down to just five. There are two or three that stand out as no-doubters, and then fifty or sixty fighting it out for the last couple of spots.

We’ll start with the no-doubters.

First is “Country Feedback” from 1991’s Out of Time. This has been my favorite R.E.M. song for some time, and Michael Stipe has mentioned it as being one of his favorites as well. The song is named for what it is… a country dirge with lots of feedback. Stipe’s lyric is an especially bitter one about the ending of a relationship in which both parties have tried to hold things together, but are now giving up. Stipe will typically perform this song with his back turned to the audience.

“E-Bow the Letter” from 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi is similar to “Country Feedback” in that the two songs share a similar sound. This song also retains its working title… Peter Buck used an E-Bow for his guitar parts, and the lyrics came primarily from a late night letter Stipe wrote but never sent. Hence, “E-Bow the Letter.” Stipe’s idol, and fellow Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, Patty Smith provides vocals as well.

Time to go old-school now with “So. Central Rain” from R.E.M.’s sophomore album, 1984’s Reckoning. The song made its national debut in October of 1983 when the band appeared on Late Night with David Letterman to promote their debut album, Murmur. After playing “Radio Free Europe” from that album, Letterman asked to guys to do a second song. Instead of playing something else from the album, they debuted “So. Central Rain”… a song so new, it didn’t even have a title at the time.

“I Believe” comes from 1986’s Life’s Rich Pageant and is my favorite song from my favorite R.E.M. album. Peter Buck kick starts the proceedings with a short banjo riff before Bill Berry’s snare signals a sharp change of pace. Buck drops the banjo and returns to his Rickenbacker for the song proper. This song is also one of my Top 5 Mike Mills sing-along songs. I love to try to match the high harmonies Mills provides in the chorus and a few other places.

We’ll end things with “It’s the End of the World as We Know it (And I Feel Fine),” one of R.E.M.’s signature songs from 1987’s Document. One of my fondest concert memories is wailing along with this song at my first R.E.M. show at Rupp Arena. The first time I made it through without the help of a lyric sheet was like a rite of passage for me. This song sounds like throwing a party at the apocalypse. An obvious choice… but there isn’t another song in their catalogue that inspires me to dance around and sing like an idiot as much as this one.

R.E.M.: Country Feedback (Buy Album)
R.E.M.: E-Bow the Letter (Buy Album)
R.E.M.: So. Central Rain (Buy Album)
R.E.M.: I Believe (Buy Album)
R.E.M.: It’s the End of the World as We Know it (And I Feel Fine) (Buy Album)

Emmylou Harris: Boulder to Birmingham

Posted in Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons on September 18, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

Tomorrow is the 35th Anniversary of the death of Gram Parsons. He died September 19, 1973 in Joshua Tree, CA.

I’m not going to go into a detailed post about the crazy events surrounding his death. That can be found here.

I’m also not going to launch into a treatise on how much I love Gram’s music, or his concept of Cosmic American Music, or how much he’s influenced some of the artists of today.

Today, I’m simply going to offer a song written by Gram’s friend and duet partner Emmylou Harris (with Bill Danoff) after Gram’s death. This is the sound of pure, simple, beautiful, heartache.

Emmylou Harris: Boulder to Birmingham (Buy Album)

Americana Music Awards: Past Album of the Year Winners

Posted in Americana Music Awards, Buddy and Julie Miller, Buddy Miller, James McMurtry, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Patty Griffin on September 17, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

If you’ve been reading this blog at all, then you know that the Americana Music Honors and Awards Show will be held tomorrow night in Nashville and will be broadcast live on XM Radio’s X-Country channel beginning at 8:oo Eastern Time. This is just one more post celebrating the event and its past winners. I’ve written about most of this year’s nominees over the past month or so. You can read those posts here… a few of the songs have expired, but most of them are still there.

Anyway… today we’ll take a look at the recordings that have been honored as Album of the Year at past awards shows.

2002:
Buddy & Julie Miller from Buddy & Julie Miler
Buddy & Julie Miller: The River’s Gonna Run (Buy Album)

Buddy Miller is the most nominated artist in the history of the awards, and this was his first win. This album is a fine collection of duets with his wife Julie Miller. In fact, it was Julie’s unique voices (both her singing and songwriting voices) that initially drew me in to this album, and it has become one of my favorites. The song I’m sharing here is the first song I heard from the album, and the first time I heard Julie’s voice.

2003:
American IV: The Man Comes Around from Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash: Give My Love to Rose (Buy Album)

Johnny Cash swept all the major awards this year, winning Artist, Album, and Song of the Year. Johnny’s late career collaborations with producer Rick Rubin are among some of my favorite Cash recordings, and he was well deserving of winning at the 2003 awards. This is a re-recording one of Cash’s classic songs.

2004:
Van Lear Rose from Loretta Lynn
Loretta Lynn: Portland, Oregon (Buy Album)

2004 was my first Americana Music Conference and the first time I got to attend the Awards Show. I was so excited because Loretta Lynn was nominated for three awards, and I just knew that she would be there and I would have the chance to meet her. She is from my hometown, but I’ve never had the chance to see her in person. Lynn won for Artist and Album of the Year, but accepted her awards via videotape… she was out on the road. Nevertheless… Van Lear Rose is an amazing album, that despite some new-school production from Jack White, is purely classic Loretta Lynn.

2005:
Universal United House of Prayer from Buddy Miller
Buddy Miller: With God on Our Side (Buy Album)

Buddy was the big winner in 2005… taking Album and Song of the Year honors. Universal United House of Prayer is a country-soul study on faith and religion that spoke directly to the souls of award voters. The album was released just as the 2004 Americana Conference was being held, and the highlight of the entire 2004 conference was Buddy’s performance of Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” at The Mercy Lounge. More than a few people were moved to tears listening to this thirty-year-old song that sounded as though it had been ripped from the headlines of the day.

2006:
Childish Things from James McMurtry
James McMurtry: Childish Things (Buy Album)

I still remember listening to this album for the first time and falling in love with it immediately. Above all else, James McMurtry is a storyteller… likely a trait he gets from his father, novelist Larry McMurtry. The stories on this album are about family vacations, young men preparing for war, a country losing its way, and just general tales about coming of age. The title track is one of those coming of age stories about the things we keep with us as we grow older, and the things we must leave behind. By the way, I think we all know someone like Aunt Clara from this song… I know I do.

2007:
Children Running Through from Patty Griffin
Patty Griffin: Heavenly Day (Buy Album)

I have seen it written that this album is Patty Griffin’s masterpiece. While I love each and every one of her albums and recommend each of them as “must own” records… it is hard to disagree with the previous statement. Children Running Through finds Patty equally at ease with the wisful folk ballad “Trapeze” as she is with the acoustic rocker “No Bad News.” There are even some hints of jazz and R&B in “Stay on the Ride.” The song I’ve offered up here, “Heavenly Day,” was nominated for Song of the Year. Patty says it’s a love song written to her dog.