Clips & Pix: Johnny Cash/I’ve Been Everywhere

Can you sing 20-plus North American cities and other locations at break-neck speed in one song verse? Some artists did. Johnny Cash was one of them. I was reminded of The Man In Black, when I saw a post earlier today from fellow music blogger hotfox63 about the tune Jackson.

Written by Australian county singer Geoff Mack in 1959, I’ve Been Everywhere was made popular in 1962 by Leslie Morrison, professionally known as Lucky Star, another artist from Down Under. The original version included Australian towns and was later adapted by Canadian country artist Hank Snow for North America.

Cash recorded his version of the tune for the 1996 album Unchained, the 86th record in his catalog! Although country music generally is not my first preference, I think there was something special about Cash with his deep bass-baritone voice. I also dig this particular song, which is a nice country-rockabilly cross-over.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

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What I’ve Been Listening To: Neil Young/American Stars ‘N Bars

Young’s eighth studio album is best known for the epic rocker “Like A Hurricane”

Why American Stars ‘N Bars? And why now? To start with, it includes Like A Hurricane, one of my all-time favorite Neil Young rock tunes – well, make that ’70s rock songs! And second, because of that, I grabbed the record yesterday on vinyl in a great small store close to my house, which buys and sells used vinyl records and vintage stereo equipment, a place in which I could get lost, but that’s another story! Since other than Like A Hurricane I didn’t know any of the other tracks, yes, it was at least in part an impulse purchase!

When spinning the record for the first time, I noticed two things. I was reminded how short vinyl records used to be. Side one clocks in at less than 18 minutes. With just over 20 minutes, side two isn’t much longer. The second thing I realized is that most of the songs on the album are country and folk-oriented – of course, Young has always done acoustic music, and I consider many of these tunes to be among his best work. Still, I guess because of Like A Hurricane, I expected more such rockers.

Neil Young American Stars 'N Bars Record Sleeve

Looking for background and some inspiration, I started reading up on American Stars ‘N Bars, Young’s eighth studio album, which was released in May 1977. Most reviews characterized the record as a hodgepodge and highlighted Like A Hurricane as the standout. One exception was a take by the Observer, which revisited the record in late May this year on the occasion of its 40th anniversary, calling it “in many ways…the quintessential Neil Young album.” I think they made a good point.

Throughout his career, Young has been known for making impulsive decisions. This has not always exactly endeared him to others. As an Ultimate Classic Rock story notes, in the mid-’70s, he recorded various albums that were ready to release but at the last minute changed his mind. For example, Young aborted Homegrown and instead decided to pursue and release Tonight’s The Night. American Stars ‘N And Bars is another example of Young’s unpredictability. Instead of this record, the retrospective collection Decade had been slated for release. Unlike Homegrown, which never appeared, Decade was delayed and came out in October 1977, five months after American Stars ‘N Bars.

The notion that American Stars ‘N Bars is a hodgepodge is not entirely unfounded. In fact, Young himself was very transparent about it by indicating the dates of the four different recording sessions on the album’s sleeve: November 1974, November 1975, May 1976 and April 1977. Side one lists Young, his long-time band Crazy Horse and The Bullets as the performers. The latter was a spontaneous name and included pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith, violinist Carole Mayedo, as well as vocalists Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson. Side two indicates Young and Crazy Horse as the performing artists. All tracks were written by Young, except Saddle Up The Palomino, which he co-wrote with bassist Tim Drummond and singer-songwriter Bob Charles.

Neil Young_American Stars 'N Bars Side 1

All tracks on side 1 were recorded in April 1977. The opener The Old Country Waltz is a traditional country tune that features fiddle and pedal steel guitar, along with Ronstadt and Larson on backing vocals. The lyrics describe how Young received the news that his first wife actress Carrie Snodgress was leaving him. The topics of love, loss and lust also prominently feature on other tracks.

This is followed by a more upbeat sounding Saddle Up The Palomino. According to the above Observer story, Carmelina, the woman mentioned in the song, supposedly was the wife of his neighbor. The tune features more pedal steel guitar, fiddle and backing vocals by Ronstadt and Larson. Apparently, the giggle at the beginning of the song is from Larson, who would later become Young’s next girlfriend.

Neil Young_American Stars 'N Bars Side 2

Side 2 kicks off with Star Of Bethlehem, which was recorded in November 1974 and initially had been slated for Young’s never released Homegrown album. It’s a typical Young acoustic track, which could have appeared on an album like Harvest. The song prominently features him on acoustic guitar and harmonica. Country artist Emmylou Harris provides beautiful harmony vocals.

While I like the album’s acoustic tunes, the clear crown jewel to me remains Like A Hurricane. Frankly, if it hadn’t been for this epic tune, I wouldn’t have bought the record. Recorded in November 1975, Young initially had in mind to put this track on Chrome Dreams, yet another unreleased album. Referring to Young’s biography Shakey by Jimmy McDonough, Songfacts explains that while recovering from vocal cord surgery and unable to talk, Young went to a bar with some friends. One of them, Taylor Phelps, said: “Neil, Jim Russell, David Cline and I went to Venturi’s in La Honda. We were really f–ked up. Neil had this amazing intense attraction to this particular woman named Gail – it didn’t happen, he didn’t go home with her. We go back to the ranch and Neil started playing. Young was completely possessed, pacing around the room, hunched over a Stringman keyboard pounding out the song.”

The last track I’d like to call out is the record’s closer Homegrown. Originally, it was supposed to become the title track to Young’s above abandoned album. While not as hard-charging as Like A Hurricane, the tune still has a rock feel to it thanks to Young’s distorted electric guitar. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was recorded at the same time as Like A Hurricane.

American Stars N’ Bars reached no. 21 on the U.S. Billboard 200, and was certified Gold in October 1977 by the Recording Industry Association of America. Undoubtedly, the album’s performance was largely fueled by Like A Hurricane. The track was also released separately as a single and became one of Young’s best-known songs and a staple of his live shows. In a 2011 Rolling Stone readers poll, it was ranked no. 4 among the top 10 Young songs.

Sources: Wikipedia, Observer, Ultimate Classic Rock, Songfacts, Rolling Stone, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Muddy Magnolias/Broken People

Muddy Magnolias is one of the most exciting acts I came across last year when I read about them in Rolling Stone. I was reminded of this powerful urban-R&B-meets-country-and-delta-blues duo when listening to Memphis soul and blues act Southern Avenue, which I’ve done quite extensively over the past few days. I’m not saying the two sound the same, but there are some similarities.

Broken People is the title track from Muddy Magnolias’ excellent full-length debut album, which was released on Third Generation Records in October last year. It was produced by Rick Beato, with support from Mario Marchetti and Butch Walker, and recorded in Atlanta and Nashville in late spring 2016. Last Friday, the album’s latest single Shine On! appeared.

Muddy Magnolias was formed in Nashville in 2014 by two singer-songwriters: Brooklyn, New York native Jessy Wilson, who has an R&B background and is a protegee of John Legend, and Kallie North, who grew up in West Texas, listening to country and folk music. After their performance at CMA Music Festival in August that year, Rolling Stone called them the best unsigned duo, comparing their blend of styles to The Rolling Stones inhabiting Indigo Girls. Looking forward to more music from this act.

Sources: Wikipedia, Muddy Magnolias web site, Rolling Stone, YouTube

John Mellencamp Continues Stripped Down, Acoustic Approach On New Album

For “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies,” Mellencamp teamed up with Carlene Carter to create an album full of warm, stripped down roots music.

Initially, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies was supposed to be a collection of spiritual country duets with Carlene Carter, the daughter of June Carter and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash. While prominently featuring Cash on duet vocals for five of the 13 songs, John Mellencamp’s 23rd studio album only includes one tune the two artists wrote together.

Sad Clowns & Hillbillies wasn’t their first trip to the rodeo. They started working together in 2012 in connection with Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a musical for which Mellencamp collaborated with author Stephen King and veteran producer T-Bone Burnett. He subsequently invited Cash to sing a song he had written as part of the music score for Ithaca, a drama motion picture released in Oct 2015 and directed by his then-girlfriend Meg Ryan. “That was when we became friends, when I went to Indiana and recorded with him and the guys this really cool song called Sugar Hill Mountain that’s in the movie,” Carter told Songfacts.

Carlene Carter

Carter also joined Mellencamp as the opening act on his extensive 2015-2016 tour in support of his previous album Plain Spoken. It was during that tour when the initial idea for Sad Clowns & Hillbillies was conceived. “It started out like ‘Look, lets go back and do an old country religious record,” Mellencamp said during an interview with Yahoo! News’ Katie Couric. “‘We’ll try to write songs that sound like those songs, but they’ll be new.’ And then it just kept evolving and evolving and evolving, and the songs that she was bringing and the songs that I was bringing – they weren’t so religious. I write a lot of sad songs, so it’s like Sad Clowns & Hillbillies – that’s where it came from.”

The album pretty much picks up where Mellencamp’s previous 2014 studio release Plain Spoken left off, featuring mostly acoustic, stripped down, front porch type roots music. This record is not for the multi-tasking generation; instead, it’s an invitation to sit down and listen. The album is also very different from Mellencamp’s ’80s rockers like Hurts So Good, Jack & Diane, Pink Houses and R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A., which I dearly love and which attracted me to him in the first place. Of course, his departure from the straight rock sound these songs represent started a long time ago. It was 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee that for the first time introduced more traditional folk and country music instruments like accordion and fiddle to Mellencamp’s songs.

Martina McBride & John Mellencamp

The one exception that sounds more like vintage Mellencamp is Grandview, the album’s second and current single, for which Martina McBride is joining him on vocals. You could easily picture the tune on 1985’s Scarecrow or 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee. That’s not a surprise – Mellencamp co-wrote it with his cousin Bobby Clark in the 1990s. He told the Indianapolis Star the current version “includes some vocals he recorded in the ’90s and some recorded this century.” The song also features Guns N’ Roses’ co-founder and former rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin and Stan Lynch, the original drummer for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I’m not gonna deny it – I wouldn’t have minded, if Mellencamp had included one or more rockers like this one!

The opener Mobile Blue pretty much sets the tone for the album. The combination of violin (Miriam Sturm), Hammond-like keyboards (Troye Kinnett) and of course acoustic guitars, some mandolin-like, creates a beautiful, warm and rich sound. Written by American country singer-songwriter Mickey Newbury, the song is one of the two covers on the album. The other one is Early Bird Cafe, a folk song from Lane Tietgen, which was first recorded by the Jerry Hahn Brotherhood in 1970. Mellencamp saw that band in the early ’70s, has liked the song ever since, and has performed it solo on acoustic guitar on various occasions throughout his career.

John Mellencamp & Carlene Carter

Indigo Sunset is only tune co-written by both artists. Carter and Mellencamp alternate lead vocals. Her traditional country voice and his rougher instrument that briefly join toward the end of the song are a perfect match. Together with the great Hammond-like keyboard (not sure whether it’s an actual Hammond!) and the seductive violin sound, this makes the tune another standout on the album. Damascus Road is the only song Carter penned all by herself. With biblical-like references throughout the lyrics, it’s evident the tune reflects the record’s original idea.

The closer Easy Target presents Mellencamp with his most raspy voice – one review I can no longer find compared it to Tom Waits after he had cleared his throat! Mellencamp’s gravelly singing certainly fits the dark lyrics of the song, which addresses racism and income equality and was initially released on the eve of President Trump’s inauguration – certainly not a coincidence. An excerpt:

Here’s an easy target/With just one quiet pop/Shot to hell anyway/No reason to stop/In the streets and the gutters/The cotton fields in this land/Here’s an easy target/With a trigger in your hand/

So, Black lives matter/Who we tryin’ to kid/Here’s an easy target/Don’t matter, never did/Crosses burning/Such a long time ago/400 years and we still don’t let it go.

John Mellencamp

Unlike his previous three studio albums Plain Spoken (2014), No Better Than This (2010) and Life, Death, Love and Freedom (2008), which were produced T-Bone Burnett, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies was produced by Mellencamp. The album was recorded at his studio in Belmont Mall – funnily, as an NPR story pointed out, that studio is located in Nashville, except it’s Nashville, Ind., not Nashville, Tenn. The art work on the album’s front cover is from Mellencamp, who is also a painter. It was taken from Twelve Dreams, a painting he created in 2005.

Painting has become a very important aspect in Mellencamp’s life, which also impacts his songwriting. In the current print issue of Rolling Stone, he explained how songs come to him while being all by himself and painting in his Indiana compound. “A voice in my head will go, ‘OK, put your brush down and write these words down’…And I’ll be like, No, I don’t want to write a fucking song.’ Then the voice will go, ‘You better write it down, you idiot.’ Then I forget about it, and I find it and I go, ‘When did I write this?’ It’s a wonderful way of writing songs.”

For more on Grandview, Easy Target and Mellencamp’s upcoming tour in support of the album, see my previous post. And, of course, I couldn’t help myself – here’s a great clip of Carter and Mellencamp perfoming Indigo Sunset together live.

Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, Yahoo! News, Indianapolis Star, NPR, Rolling Stone, YouTube