Song Musings

What you always wanted to know about that tune

Welcome to another installment of song musings where I take a look at great tunes I’ve only mentioned in passing or even better not covered at all. Today, I have a true gem by American country and folk singer-songwriter John Prine, an artist I’ve yet to explore in greater detail.

Hello In There is a beautiful story-telling tune from Prine’s eponymous debut album, which appeared in October 1971. It was not released as a single. In fact, very few of his songs were. The record peaked at no. 55 in the U.S. on the Billboard 200, making it one of his better chart performers.

Most of Prine’s 18 albums he released over his 50-year career didn’t make the top 100. His highest-charting record on the Billboard 200 was his final, The Tree of Forgiveness, which came out in April 2018 and peaked at no. 5. It also became his only album to top the U.S. Folk Charts.

But overall lack of chart performance didn’t prevent John Prine from becoming one of the most influential and celebrated singer-songwriters of his generation, whose songs were covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson and Paul Westerberg. He also mentored many younger artists, such as Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price.

Prine who in 2018 needed to undergo major surgery for neck cancer passed away in April 2020 from complications of COVID. In 2020, he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He also won two Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 1991 and 2005, as well as two post-mortem Grammys for Best Roots Performance and Best American Roots Song in 2021.

Following is some additional background on Hello In There from Songfacts:

Folk singer-songwriter John Prine explained in a Performing Songwriter interview how this track was sparked from a John Lennon tune and evolved into a poignant song about growing old:

“I heard the John Lennon song ‘Across The Universe,’ and he had a lot of reverb on his voice. I was thinking about hollering into a hollow log, trying to get through to somebody – ‘Hello in there.’ That was the beginning thought, then it went to old people.

I’ve always had an affinity for old people. I used to help a buddy with his newspaper route, and I delivered to a Baptist old peoples home where we’d have to go room-to-room. And some of the patients would kind of pretend that you were a grandchild or nephew that had come to visit, instead of the guy delivering papers. That always stuck in my head.

It was all that stuff together, along with that pretty melody. I don’t think I’ve done a show without singing ‘Hello in There.’ Nothing in it wears on me.”

Prine on choosing the name Loretta for the song’s aging wife (as told to Bruce Pollock): “The names mean a lot. You know, like Loretta in ‘Hello In There.’ I wanted to pick a name that could be an old person’s name, but I didn’t want it to stick out so much. People go through phases one year where a lot of them will name their kids the same… and I was just thinking that it was very possible that the kind of person I had in mind could be called Loretta. And it’s not so strange that it puts her in a complete time period.”

As for the name of old factory friend Rudy, Prine explains: “We used to live in this three-room flat and across the street there was this dog who would never come in and the dog’s name was Rudy. And the lady used to come out at five o’clock every night and go ‘Ru-dee! Ru-dee!’ And I was sitting there writing and suddenly I go ‘Rudy! Yeah! I got that.'”

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

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Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Welcome to another Best of What’s New, my weekly revue of newly released music. This time, my picks include some alternative, rock, country and prog rock from a stalwart of the genre. All featured tunes except for the last one are on albums that came out yesterday (October 8).

Scott Hirsch/Big Passenger

Kicking off this week’s post is new music by Scott Hirsch, a producer and singer-songwriter I first featured in a Sunday Six installment last month with a tune of his then-upcoming new album Windless Day. Borrowing again from his Facebook pageYou’ve heard the sound of Scott Hirsch. You might not know it, but his audio production has lurked deep in the cut of many admired recordings from the late 1990s to the present. A founding member of Hiss Golden Messenger, he was integral to the band’s formative years in the studio and on the road. His sonic imprint remains on their productions; most recently mixing the forthcoming album Quietly Blowing It. He recorded and mixed a Grammy nominated record by the legendary folk-singer Alice Gerrard and has produced and played on records by William Tyler, Mikael Jorgensen, Orpheo McCord and Daniel Rossen. Here’s Big Passenger, another track from Hirsch’s above noted new album. To me it’s got a J.J. Cale vibe with an updated contemporary sound. Check it out!

The Wild Feathers/Side Street Shakedown

Here’s another group I first encountered in the context of Best of What’s New: The Wild Feathers, which I first featured in this installment from last December. According to a bio on AllMusic, they prefer the term “American” over Americana when describing their sound, which falls somewhere between the earnest, neo-Southern rock of the Black Crowes, the bluesy swagger of the Black Keys, and the wide-open-road country-rock of the Eagles. Founded in 2010 in Nashville, Tenn., the band’s current lineup features founding members Ricky Young (guitar, vocals), Taylor Burns (guitar, vocals) and Joel King (bass, vocals), as well as Ben Dumas (drums). The Wild Feathers began touring frequently in 2013, playing with artists like Bob DylanWillie Nelson and ZZ Ward. Their eponymous debut album appeared in August 2013. Side Street Shakedown is a track from the band’s fifth and new album Alvarado. This nice rocker was co-written by King, Young and Burns.

Natalie Hemby/It Takes One To Know One

Natalie Hemby is a country singer-songwriter who is also based in Nashville. According to her Apple Music profile, she first gained notice as a hit songwriter for Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town, and Toby Keith, penning the hits “White Liar,” “Only Prettier,” and “Automatic” (all recorded by Lambert), “Pontoon” and “Tornado” (two hits by Little Big Town), and “Drinks After Work” (Keith). After establishing this résumé, Hemby struck out as a recording artist, releasing her debut, Puxico, early in 2017. She became a Billboard 200 Top Ten-charting artist as a member of the Highwomen (Hemby, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires), who topped the country chart with their self-titled debut in 2019. Here’s It Takes One To Know One, a tune from Hemby’s new sophomore album Pins and Needles.

Yes/Minus the Man

I’d like to conclude this post with new music by progressive rock stalwarts Yes, who I trust don’t need an introduction. They are among a handful of bands I warmed to in prog rock, a genre I haven’t fully embraced. Since they were formed in 1968 by Jon Anderson (vocals), Peter Banks (guitar), Tony Kaye (keyboards), Chris Squire (bass) and Bill Bruford (drums), Yes have seen numerous line-up changes. The group’s last original member Squire passed away in 2015. The current line-up includes Jon Davison (vocals), Steve Howe (guitar), Geoff Downes (keyboards), Billy Sherwood (bass) and Alan White (drums). Howe, White and Downes are longtime members who first joined in 1970, 1972 and 1980, respectively. Last Friday (October 1), Yes released their 22nd studio album The Quest, their first with new music in seven years. “Much of the music was written in late 2019 with the rest in 2020,” Howe who produced the album said in a statement. “We commissioned several orchestrations to augment and enhance the overall sound of these fresh new recordings, hoping that our emphasis on melody, coupled with some expansive instrumental solo breaks, keeps up the momentum for our listeners.” Let’s check out Minus the Man, which was co-written by Davison and Sherwood. Davison’s vocals sound remarkably similar to Jon Anderson, even more so on some of the other tunes I’ve sampled thus far.

Sources: Wikipedia; Scott Hirsch Facebook page; Apple Music; Yes website; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

Welcome to another installment of The Sunday Six. To those who follow my blog I no longer need to explain the idea behind the weekly recurring feature. For first time visitors, basically, these posts celebrate music in many different flavors from different periods of time, spanning the past 60 to 70 years or so. Ready?

Fleetwood Mac/Albatross

Let’s start off our little musical excursion with one of the most beautiful guitar-driven instrumentals I know: Albatross by Fleetwood Mac. This track goes all the way back to the Mac’s beginning when they were a blues rock band led by amazing British guitarist, vocalist and co-founder Peter Green who also wrote Albatross. At the time this dreamy track was released as a non-album single in November 1968, Fleetwood Mac also featured co-founders Jeremy Spencer (guitar, backing vocals), Mick Fleetwood (drums) and John McVie (bass), as well as Danny Kirwan (guitar, vocals) who had just joined two months earlier. In fact, it was Kirwan who helped Green complete Albatross, which was recorded without Spencer. The tune was subsequently included on the U.S. and British compilation albums English Rose (January 1969) and The Pious Bird of Good Omen (August 1969), respectively. Green’s guitar tone is just unbelievable.

Supertramp/Take the Long Way Home

The other day, I found myself listening to Breakfast in America, the sixth studio album by English prog-rock-turned-pop band Supertramp. I got it on vinyl shortly after its release in March 1979 and own that copy to this day. While I played the record over and over again at the time, it’s still in fairly good shape. It also turns out I continue to enjoy the songs – something I certainly cannot say for a good deal of other music I listened to back then as a 13-year-old in Germany. Breakfast in America, which spawned various hit singles, was hugely popular in Germany where it topped the charts, just like in many other countries in Europe and beyond. Take the Long Way Home remains one of my favorite tracks from the album. Written by the band’s co-frontman and principal songwriter Roger Hodgson, the tune also became the record’s fourth single in October 1979. BTW, you also gotta love the cover art, which won the 1980 Grammy Award for Best Recording Package.

John Prine/Angel From Montgomery

I still know very little about John Prine, who is widely viewed as one of the most influential singer-songwriters of his generation. But I’ve finally started listening to his music. According to Wikipedia, Prine has been called the “Mark Twain of songwriting.” The likes of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Roger Waters have called out Prine. He mentored younger artists, such as Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile and Margo Price. In fact, I first listened to at least one John Prine song a long time before I even knew his name: Bonnie Raitt’s great cover of Angel From Montgomery, which she recorded for her fourth studio album Streetlights that appeared in September 1974. Here’s the original from John Prine’s eponymous debut album released in 1971. I’m starting to like it as much as Raitt’s rendition.

Peter Frampton/Avalon

If you read my Best of What’s New installment from a week ago, you probably recall it featured a great instrumental cover of George Harrison’s Isn’t It a Pity from Peter Frampton’s new album Peter Frampton Forgets the Words. Since my recent “discovery” of the all-instrumental record, I’ve enjoyed listening to it. Here’s another beautiful track that’s perfect for a Sunday morning: Avalon, the title song of the eighth and final studio album by English outfit Roxy Music, released in May 1982. Written by frontman Bryan Ferry, the tune also became the album’s second single in June 1982. I was a bit surprised to see it “only” reached no. 13 in England, while it didn’t chart at all in the U.S. – unlike the record that topped the charts in the UK and climbed to no. 53 in the U.S. and became Roxy Music’s best-selling album. In 1983, Ferry dissolved the band to focus on his solo career. In 2001, Roxy Music reformed for a 30th anniversary tour and was active on and off until they disbanded for good in 2011. Check out this great clip of Frampton and his band. Not only does he sound great, but you can clearly see how he and his fellow musicians enjoyed recording the tune. I don’t think you can fake this!

Traffic/Dear Mr. Fantasy

Time for some more ’60s music, don’t you agree? While I hate traffic when I’m in my car, I love it when it refers to the British rock band. Undoubtedly, much of my affection has to do with Steve Winwood, one of my long-time favorite artists. I get excited to this day when I hear the man sing and play his growling Hammond B-3. But amid all my love for Winwood, let’s not ignore excellent fellow musicians Jim Capaldi (drums, vocals), Dave Mason (guitar, bass, multiple other instruments, vocals) and Chris Wood (flute, saxophone, Hammond, percussion, vocals), who founded Traffic with Winwood in April 1967. It’s quite amazing that at that time, 18-year-old Winwood already had had a successful four-year career under his belly with The Spencer Davis Group. Dear Mr. Fantasy, co-written by Capaldi, Winwood and Wood, is from Traffic’s debut album Mr. Fantasy released in December 1967. When I saw Winwood live in March 2018, he played guitar on that tune, demonstrating his impressive fretboard chops.

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band/Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out

For the last tune in this Sunday Six installment, let’s have a true rock and soul party. In this context, I can’t think of anything better than this live clip of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, captured in June 2000 at New York City’s Madison Square Garden at the end of the band’s triumphant 1999-2000 reunion tour. In this 19-minute-plus version of Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, the Boss is literally taking his audience to rock & soul church. Yes, it’s long and perhaps somewhat over the top, but I believe Springsteen was authentic when at some point he noted, “I’m not bull-shittin’ back here.” Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, written by Springsteen and first appearing on his legendary breakthrough album Born to Run from August 1975, tells the story about the band’s formation. Watching this amazing footage, I get a bit emotional when seeing the big man Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, who sadly passed away in 2011 and 2008, respectively. Though at the end of the day, it’s a beautiful celebration of their lives. If you haven’t seen this, I encourage you to watch it. And even if it’s not your first time, it’s worthwhile watching again. Live music doesn’t get much better!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Singer-Songwriter Jason Isbell Releases New Album

“Reunions” may have been his most challenging record to make so far

While I had heard of Jason Isbell before and listened to some of his past music, I had not taken a closer look at the singer-songwriter from Green Hill, Ala., who at age 41 has experienced both remarkable success and full-blown addiction to alcohol and cocaine in his late ’20s. Both sides of his story provide important context for Reunions, Isbell’s new album, which he recorded with his backing band The 400 Unit. It was broadly released yesterday, May 15.

Apparently, Isbell grew up in a musical family. His grandfather and uncle showed him how to play various instruments. As a 6-year-old, he learned the mandolin, and in high school, he played the trumpet and French horn. Somewhere along the way, he picked up the guitar and started playing in a garage band and a country cover band. Eventually, he met session bassist David Horn, whose son Patterson Hood was a co-founder of alternative country and Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers. When he was 21, Isbell got a publishing deal with FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., where he worked until he joined Drive-By-Truckers the following year during their supporting tour for their third studio album Southern Rock Opera.

Isbell stayed for six years and recorded three studio albums with the band, contributing guitar and vocals, and writing some of their songs. During these years with Drive-By Truckers, Isbell developed his alcohol and cocaine addiction. Apparently, it did not slow him down much. Following his departure from the band in April 2007, Isbell wasted no time to launch a solo career and released his solo debut Sirens of the Ditch in July that year.

Jason Isbell

The 400 Unit, weirdly named after a colloquial name for the psychiatric ward of a local hospital in Florence, Ala., came together for Isbell’s sophomore album Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit released in February 2009. Two years later, Isbell agreed to enter a rehab program at a Nashville facility. He managed to overcome his addiction and has been sober since. In February 2013, Isbell married singer-songwriter and violinist Amanda Shires. Since 2011, she had been a guest on his albums and eventually became a member of The 400 Unit. In parallel, Shires continued to pursue her solo career. In 2019, she also formed country band The Highwomen. Isbell played guitar on their eponymous debut album, which appeared last September.

Since Isbell got out of drug rehab, he won many accolades for his music, which among others include four Grammy awards and various Americana Music Honors & Awards. They turned out to be a mixed blessing when making his new album. “For some reason, I felt really pressured,” Isbell told The New York Times. “You think, ‘If I make a record that’s not great, everybody’s going to dismiss me entirely. If I [expletive] up my relationship, everybody’s going to be so shocked that they’ll write me off completely.’ All those things, when you say them out loud sound ridiculous, but they stay in there and gnaw at you.”

Jasom Isbell & Amanda Shires
Jason Isbell with Amanda Shires

The pressure took a toll on his marriage and at some point prompted Shires to move to a motel, since she felt belittled. “I want him to make the best art he can but not at the expense of making me feel less,” she noted to The New York Times. “I needed space because lines were getting crossed.” So with all the drama surrounding the album, how did it turn out? Pretty good, in my opinion, though one hopes this outcome happened despite the aforementioned challenges, not because of them. Let’s get to some music!

Here is the opener What’ve I Done to Help. Like all of the remaining nine tracks on the album, the tune was written by Isbell. “It seems like this song set the right mood for the record,” Isbell told Apple Music. “It’s a little bit indicting of myself, but I think it’s also a positive message: Most of what I’m talking about on this album is trying to be aware as possible and not just get lost in your own selfish bubble, because sometimes the hardest thing to do is to be honest with yourself.” BTW, none other than David Crosby provides harmony vocals on the tune!

In Overseas, Isbell was trying to write a song that’s about multiple things at once, which he views as a big challenge. “On the one hand, you have an expatriate who had just had enough of the country they’re living in and moved on and left a family behind,” he explained to Apple Music. “And the other is more about my own personal story, where I was home with our daughter when my wife was on tour for a few months.” Apparently, the song was inspired by Eric Clapton, who once said in an interview he didn’t feel he would ever be a great songwriter since he wasn’t able to write allegorically. “I was probably 12 or 13 when I read that,” Isbell said, “and it stuck with me.”

Running With Your Eyes Closed has a little bit of a Mark Knopfler guitar vibe, which is definitely part of the reason it speaks to me. According to Isbell, “It’s a love song, but I really try hard to look at relationships from different angles, because songs of the initial spark of a relationship – that territory has been covered so many times before and so well that I don’t know that I would have anything new to bring.” I really dig the sound of this track. Check it out!

One of the most personal tracks on the album is It Gets Better. “I was awake until four in the morning, just sort of laying there, not terribly concerned or worried about anything,” Isbell explained. “And there was a time where I thought, ‘Well, if I was just drunk, I could go to sleep’. But then I also thought, ‘Well, yeah, but I would wake up a couple hours later when the liquor wore off.’ I think it’s important for me to remember how it felt to be handicapped by this disease and how my days actually went. I’ve finally gotten to the point now where I don’t really hate that guy anymore, and I think that’s even helped me because I can go back and actually revisit emotions and memories from those times without having to wear a suit of armor.”

Let’s do one more. Here’s the closer Letting You Go, a tune Isbell wrote for his four-year-old daughter, recalling her as a baby and fast-forwarding to picture her getting married and leaving the house. Well, that certainly looks like a big jump into the future; then again, time flies, as I can attest when it comes to my own son who is 18 now – how did that happen so quickly? “Once, when my daughter was very little, my wife said, ‘Every day, they get a little bit farther away from you’,” Isbell reflected. “And that’s the truth of it: It’s a long letting-go process.” He clearly is very attached to the little girl.

Reunions is Isbell’s fourth straight album produced by Dave Cobb, who has also produced for Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and John Prine, among others. In addition to Shires (fiddle, backing vocals), The 400 Unit features Sadler Vaden (guitar, backing vocals), Jimbo Hart (bass, backing vocals), Derry DeBorja (keyboard, accordion, backing vocals) and Chad Gamble (drums, backing vocals).

So what does David Crosby think about Isbell? “Jason has become one of the best writers in the country,” he commented to The New York Times. “And my idea of really good writers is Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan. His singing is emotional. It’s honest. He’s really trying to tell you the story.” Hopefully, Crosby’s praise won’t put additional pressure on Isbell when comes to making his next record. As strange as it sounds, it might actually be a good thing for Isbell if he doesn’t get a ton of accolades for Reunions!

Sources: Wikipedia; The New York Times; Apple Music; YouTube