My Playlist: Emmylou Harris

While I had known her name for decades, it really wasn’t until July 2017 that I started paying closer attention to Emmylou Harris when seeing her in Philadelphia as part of a concert headlined by John Mellencamp. There was something special about this lady with her all-white hair who recently had turned 70. Now 73, Harris has been active for more than 50 years, released dozens of solo and collaborative albums, scored 20 top 10 hits on the Billboard country charts and collected numerous Grammy and other awards. This playlist is an attempt to shine a light on her long and impressive career.

Harris was born on April 2, 1947 in Birmingham, Ala. Her dad, Walter Harris, was a Marine Corps officer, while her mom Eugenia was a wartime military wife. After high school graduation in Woodbridge, Va., Harris went to the School of Music, Theater and Dance at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro on a drama scholarship. It was there where she started to learn songs by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez on guitar and develop her musical aspirations. Harris dropped out, moved to New York City during the second half of the ’60s, and started performing on the folk circle in Greenwich Village while waiting tables.

In 1969, Harris married fellow songwriter Tom Slocum who wrote the title track for her debut album Gliding Bird. The folk record also included five songs written by Harris. The label Jubilee Records went under shortly after the release, so all distribution and promotion was ceased. Subsequently, Harris disowned the record. She regards her second release Pieces of the Sky from February 1975 as her official debut.

In 1971, after he had seen her perform, Flying Burrito Brothers co-founder Chris Hillman introduced Harris to his music partner Gram Parsons who became a key figure in her early career. Harris worked with Parsons on his solo debut GP from January 1973 and toured as a member of his band the Fallen Angels. Later that year, she also worked with Parsons on his second and final solo album Grievous Angel, which was released in January 1974, following his death from an accidental overdose of drugs and alcohol in September 1973.

In February 1975, the aforementioned Pieces of the Sky appeared. It’s the album that launched Harris’ career as a country artist and established what she became mainly known, i.e., covering songs written by other artists. The album also coincided with the formation of The Hot Band, Harris’ high-profile backing band until 1991. The initial lineup included James Burton (guitar), Glen Hardin (piano), Hank DeVito (pedal steel guitar), Emory Gordy, Jr. (bass) and John Ware (drums).

To date, Harris has released 21 solo studio albums, three live records and a dozen compilations. Additionally, her impressive catalog includes seven collaboration albums with artists like Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Rodney Crowell. Harris also has worked as a guest with numerous other artists, including The Band, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Guy Clark, Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow and Steve Earle, among others. Let’s get to some music!

While perhaps not as representative of Harris as her other records, I’d like to kick off this playlist with a tune from 1969’s Gliding Bird, which was written by her: Black Gypsy.

If I Could Only Win Your Love from her second album Pieces of the Sky became Harris’ first hit single, climbing to no. 4 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 1975. Co-written by Charlie Louvin and Ira Louvin who formed the country and gospel duo The Louvin Brothers, it also marked the first of only a handful of Harris singles that charted on the Billboard Hot 100, in this case at no. 58. Linda Ronstadt sang backing vocals on the album.

While Emmylou Harris is best known as a country artist, her song choices can be eclectic. Here’s an example from her third studio album Elite Hotel released in December 1975: A beautiful cover of The Beatles tune Here, There and Everywhere. Credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the McCartney ballad originally appeared on the Revolver album from August 1996.

Harris’ next album Luxury Liner from December 1976 included the first cover of Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty, which subsequently became the revered singer-songwriter’s best known composition. The tune has also been covered by other artists, most notably Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, who recorded it as the title track of their collaboration album that came out in January 1983.

Roses in the Snow, Harris’ first ’80s album, appeared in May 1980. Unlike her preceding country and country rock records, this album was more bluegrass-oriented. Here’s a great rendition of the Paul Simon tune The Boxer, featuring beautiful harmony singing by Cheryl White and her sister Sharon White. The Boxer first appeared on Simon & Garfunkel’s final studio album Bridge Over Troubled Water from January 1970.

In February 1985, Harris released The Ballad of Sally Rose, a concept album loosely based on her relationship with Gram Parsons. The record also stood out for another reason. Like her debut 16 years earlier, it illustrates Harris is more than just a cover artist. All songs were co-written by her, mostly together with her then-second husband Paul Kennerley, an English singer-songwriter, musician and record producer, who also produced this record. Here’s White Line, one of the record’s two singles.

Next, I’d like to jump to the ’90s and Wrecking Ball, Harris’ 18th studio album. The record became her first since Pieces of the Sky that did not make the country charts. Perhaps that wasn’t too surprising, given the music moved away from her traditional acoustic to a more edgy and atmospheric sound. Producer Daniel Lanois who produced and co-produced various U2 albums like The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby undoubtedly had something to do with it. Here’s the title track written by Neil Young who also provided harmony vocals. Young had first recorded the tune for his 1989 studio album Freedom. And, coming back to U2, Larry Mullen, Jr. played drums on most of the album’s songs including this one.

Given the significance of collaboration albums in Harris’ catalog, I’d like to at least acknowledge one: Trio II from February 1999, the second album she did together with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. All tracks had actually been recorded in 1994, but label disputes and conflicting schedules had prevented the release at the time. While I’ve featured it on the blog before, I just couldn’t resist including the ladies’ angelic rendition of After The Gold Rush, the title track of Neil Young’s third studio album from September 1970. Interestingly, while the remake did not chart when it was released as a single from Trio II, it won the 2000 Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. The intensity of this version is just killing me. This is why I dig vocals!

In September 2003, Harris released Stumble into Grace, her second album of the current century. Like some of her previous records, it includes a significant number of her own compositions. She also co-wrote most of the remaining tracks. Here’s the opener Here I Am, one of her tunes.

I’d like to wrap up this playlist with a track from what is Harris’ most recent solo album, Hard Bargain, released in April 2011. Her two latest records are collaborations with Rodney Crowell from February 2013 and March 2015. There’s also the Complete Trio Collection, a compilation of the Trio I and Trio II collaborative albums with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, which came out in September 2016. Given the enormous role of Gram Parsons, it felt right to highlight opener The Road, a tune Harris penned about her musical mentor – the first to focus on his death since Boulder to Colorado, a song from Pieces of the Sky. It’s also noteworthy that Hard Bargain became Harris’ highest chart entry since the above Roses in the Snow from 1980, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Top Country Albums. It also hit no. 18 on the Billboard 200, her highest mainstream chart success since 1977’s Luxury Liner, a remarkable late-stage career success.

Emmylou Harris has sold 75 million records in the U.S. alone. She has won 14 Grammy awards out of 48 for which she had been nominated. She has also won numerous country, bluegrass and Americana awards, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in February 2008.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Neil Young’s Long Shelved “Homegrown” Finally Sees Light of Day

It’s been a long time coming. Some 45 years. But it was worth the wait. Today, Neil Young officially released Homegrown, an album he initially had planned to put out in 1975. But written in the wake of the breakup of his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress, it felt too personal to him, so he decided to shelf it.

According to Apple Music, Young also had an entire second album written: Tonight’s the Night. In fact, he already had recorded it in August and September 1973, but had not released it. After deciding to stash away Homegrown in the drawer, he put out Tonight’s the Night.

Back to Homegrown. While these songs were written during what arguably was Young’s most creative period, I think it’s fair to say we’re not looking at another Harvest or Harvest Moon, to name two of my favorite Young albums. Still, this is a fine record, which takes Neil Young fans on what I think is a fascinating time travel journey back to the mid-’70s.

All of the 12 tracks on Homegrown were written by Young. Five of the tunes previously found their way on other Young records: Love Is a Rose (Decade, 1977), Homegrown (American Stars ‘n Bars, 1977), White Line (Ragged Glory, 1990), Little Wing (Hawks & Doves, 1980) and Star of Bethlehem (American Stars ‘n Bars). Additionally, Young had performed other songs like Separate Ways or Try live but not officially released on a record.

I’d like to start with the opener Separate Ways, a tune directly addressed at Snodgrass: …Though we go our separate ways/Lookin’ for better days/Sharin’ our little boy/Who grew from joy back then…The little boy is Zeke, who was born in September 1972. According to this New York Times Magazine story from September 2012, Zeke has a very mild case of cerebral palsy and works at Home Depot. Young’s second son Ben who he had with his second wide Pegi Young (née Morton) is quadriplegic with cerebral palsy and non-verbal. Young also has a daughter, Amber Jean Young, his second child with Pegi, who is a visual artist. To me, Tim Drummond’s melodic bass line and the pedal steel fill-ins by Ben Keith are the song’s musical highlights. BTW, none other than Levon Helms manned the drums on this track.

As previously noted, Homegrown first appeared on Young’s eighth studio album American Stars ‘n Bars from May 1977. While the two versions are similar, the original take feels “less produced,” starting out with some studio banter. Karl Himmel played drums on this recording.

We Don’t Smoke It No More is a nice, largely instrumental blues tune. Unlike the title may suggest, it actually does smoke quite a bit. Ben Keith, who also provided backing vocals and produced the track, did a nice job on slide guitar. And Young proofed that when it come to the harmonica he also some blues chops.

White Line is one of the album’s gems. The original acoustic country-oriented version we hear here sounds significantly different from Young’s previously released grungy take on Ragged Glory. I also feel it’s superior. In addition to Young on vocals, guitar and harmonica, this recording featured Robbie Robertson on guitar. According to Wikipedia, Young also recorded White Line for Chrome Dreams, yet another album that wasn’t released at the time – gee, I don’t believe I’m aware of any other music artists who creates entire only to shelf them! In October 2007, Young released Chrome Dreams II, but other than being an obvious reference to the shelved record, I don’t believe the two have anything in common.

The last track I’d like to call out is Star Of Bethlehem. While this recording is pretty much identical to the version Young previously included on American Stars ‘n Bars, it’s another highlight and as such simply too good to skip. Undoubtedly, that’s largely because of the beautiful harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris. Ben Keith also provided backing vocals, as well as dobro, but it’s really Harris who makes the song shine.

Like most of Young’s records since 1989, Homegrown appears on Reprise. The album was co-produced by him, Elliot Mazer, Ben Keith and Tim Mulligan. Apart from the above mentioned, additional musicians include Stan Szelest (piano) and Sandy Mazzeo (backing vocals.)

The final word here shall belong to Young. If you’ve read my previous posts related to this record, these words probably sound familiar. “This album should have been there for you a couple of years after Harvest, Young wrote on his website. It’s the sad side of a love affair. The damage done. The heartache. I just couldn’t listen to it. I wanted to move on. So I kept it to myself, hidden away in the vault, on the shelf, in the back of my mind….but I should have shared it. It’s actually beautiful. That’s why I made it in the first place. Sometimes life hurts. You know what I mean.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; New York Times Magazine; Neil Young website; YouTube

Larkin Poe Largely Stick to Their Great Old Guns on New Album

“Self Made Man” mostly features sister act’s familiar brand of roots-oriented blues rock

While breaking new ground can be exciting, sometimes it makes sense to stick to your old guns, especially if your fire power is as mighty as the raw and high-energy roots-oriented blues rock by Larkin Poe. And that’s pretty much what sisters Megan Lovell and Rebecca Lovell have decided to do on their fifth full-length studio album Self Made Man, which appeared today.

I really dig Larkin Poe, so if you’ve visited the blog in recent weeks, chances are you’ve seen some of my previous posts. If you’re new to this band, which at its core is the Lovell sisters, and would like some background, you can find it here. Without further ado, let’s get to some music.

The album kicks off with what essentially is the title track: She’s a Self Made Man. Co-written by the sisters, this tasty blues rocker nicely sets the stage for the record. Typically, Rebecca takes the role of the front woman, providing lead vocals and guitar, while her 2-year-older sister Megan plays smoking lap steel fill-ins and sings backing vocals. Here’s the official video.

I’m going to skip the next three tunes – Holy Ghost Fire, Keep Diggin’ and Back Down South – since I already previously covered them here, here and here. Together with the title track, each of these songs already appeared as singles leading up to the release of the album. Instead, here’s Tears of Blue to Gold, another co-write by the sisters, which illustrates Larkin Poe isn’t a pure breed southern blues rock one-trick pony but also blends in other music styles – in this case country rock.

Every Bird That Flies introduces some keyboards, which I understand are played by Rebecca as well. This adds some welcome variety to the soundscape. The other standout to me here is Megan’s lap steel work. The sisters co-wrote this tune with singer-songwriter Pat McLaughlin, who like them is based in Nashville, Tenn. It’s got a cool vibe.

Next up: Scorpion written by Rebecca. This tune has a great riff and a nice driving beat. Check it out!

The last track I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer Easy Street. Co-written by Rebecca and Megan with Tony Esterly, another Nashville-based singer-songwriter, the tune is an interesting mix of gospel, country and blues. It’s also a nice illustration that Megan and Rebecca sound great harmonizing together.

According to this review by Glide Magazine, other musicians on the album include Tarka Layman (bass on three tunes) and Kevin McGowan (percussion). In addition, blues rock artist Tyler Bryant plays lead guitar on Back Down South.

Like Larkin Poe’s predecessor Venom & Faith from November 2018, which by the way topped the Billboard Blues Albums chart and received a 2020 Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album, Self Made Man is self-produced by the sisters and appears on the band’s own label Tricki-Woo Records. While I think it’s fair to say the latter may explain the relatively basic sound quality, it does give the album a bare bones character that I find charming.

I’m going to leave you with another nice clip of a recent Behind the Mic live streaming performance presented by American Songwriter. It gives you a great idea about these two engaging ladies and their infectious energy together.

Sources: Wikipedia; Glide Magazine; American Songwriter; You Tube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

There’s a good deal of recently released new music I came across today for this 10th and latest installment of the recurring feature. Two longtime acts, Alice Cooper and Scorpions, join four artists who are entirely new to me. From shock rock to bluegrass to blues rock, it’s all here. That kind of variety is exactly how I envisaged these posts to be when I started the series. Let’s get to it!

Alice Cooper/Don’t Give Up

While I don’t listen frequently to Mr. Shock Rock, I dig classics like School’s Out and No More Mr. Nice Guy. Alice Cooper’s latest single Don’t Give Up, which was released on May 15, certainly isn’t comparable to these aforementioned tunes, but I still find it sufficiently enjoyable. “”Don’t Give Up” is a song about what we’ve all been going through right now and about keeping our heads up and fighting back together,” Cooper stated on his website. This video wouldn’t have been possible without you – and who knows, you might be in it!And whatever you do – “Don’t Give Up”” – okey dokey!

Scorpions/Sign of Hope

I’ve been meaning to write again about the German rock/pop metal band and guess I was looking for an occasion. Now I got one: Don’t Give Up, a new single that came out on May 14. Scorpions first entered my radar screen in 1984 with their ninth studio album Love at First Sting. Various songs from that record received heavy radio play in Germany, especially Rock You Like a Hurricane, Big City Nights and Still Loving You. While I don’t listen much to metal, what I always liked about Scorpions is how they blended heavy guitar rock with pop and catchy melodies. “We are working on lot’s of Hard‘n Heavy Rockers for our new album these days,” reads a short statement from the band on their website. “…but because of the dramatic Covid-19 pandemic, we want to give you a little Sign of Hope that came straight from the heart in troubled times … stay healthy and safe … we love you … Scorpions.”

Margo Price/Twinkle Twinkle

This 37-year-old country singer-songwriter from Nashville is new to me. Based on Wikipedia, Margo Price grew up in Aledo, Ill. and moved to Nashville at age 20 in 2003 after dropping out of school. Her debut studio album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter appeared in March 2016. Twinkle Twinkle, a nice scorching rocker, is the second single from Price’s upcoming third album That’s How Rumors Get Started, produced by Sturgill Simpson. The song appeared on March 11. The release of the new album has been pushed back to July 10 due to COVID-19.

Brian Fallon/When You’re Ready

Brian Fallon is a 40-year-old singer-songwriter from Red Bank, N.J. While that’s only 30 miles from my house, I had never heard of this artist before either. It looks like he has been active since 1997 and released three studio albums and one EP to date. When You’re Ready is a pretty, soothing tune from his most recent album Local Honey released on March 27. Are you ready? 🙂

Watkins Family Hour/Miles of Desert Sand

According to Wikipedia, Watkins Family Hour is a bluegrass musical collaborative led by Sara and Sean Watkins. The group began in 2002 as a monthly, informal musical  variety show with the Watkins siblings and their friends in the Los Angeles nightclub Largo. Their eponymous debut album, which consists entirely of covers, was released on July 24, 2015…and was produced by Sheldon Gomberg. Among others, Gomberg has worked with Charlie Musselwhite, Rickie Lee Jones, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jackson Browne and Steve Forbert– quite impressive credentials! Miles of Desert Sand is from their most recent album Brother Sister from April 10, which based on Discogs appears to be their sophomore album. I really dig the warm sound of the fiddle and the harmony singing. Check it out!

Shawn Pittman/There Will Be a Day

Let’s end this post with some funky blues. There Will Be a Day is a hot groovy tune from Make It Right!, which according to Wikipedia is the 13th album by blues rock singer-songwriter Shawn Pittman, another artist I don’t believe I had heard of before. But I can tell you one thing: Based on the few songs I’ve sampled from that album, I’m ready for more! Pittman who was born and grew up in Oklahoma moved to Dallas at age 17. He had picked up the guitar in his early teens and got involved in the music scene at Schooners, a Dallas local club. In 1996 as a 22-year-old, Pittman self-recorded his debut album Blues From Texas, which was retitled Burnin’ Up for his national debut in 1997. Pittman has worked with musicians from Double Trouble, the former backing band of Stevie Ray Vaughan, as well as Kim Wilson, Gary Clark Jr. and Susan Tedeschi, to name a few others. Make It Right! was released on April 10. Pittman certainly embraced the title!

Sources: Wikipedia; Alice Cooper website; Scorpions website; Discogs; YouTube

Neil Young to Release Long-Lost Album “Homegrown”

Next month will see the release of new albums by two of the most influential singer-songwriters of our time: Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Both are scheduled for June 19, which I assume is a coincidence. I’ve previously written about Dylan’s new work Rough and Rowdy Ways, most recently here. Young recently announced the release date for Homegrown, an album that originally was supposed to come out in 1975. But the end of Young’s 5-year relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress caused him too much pain, so the songs ended up in the vault.

As reported by Relix, Homegrown includes 12 tracks and features guests like The Band’s Levon Helm (drums) and Robbie Robertson (guitar), as well as Emmylou Harris (backing vocals). Other musicians include Ben Keith (steel and slide guitar), Tim Drummond (bass) and Stan Szelest (piano).

The title song and tunes like Love Is a Rose, White Line, Little Wing and Star of Bethlehem already found their way on other Young records over the years. The remaining tracks will be released for the very first time. Here’s one of them called Try, a country tune you could easily picture on the Harvest album. It sounds like Harris is singing backing vocals on this song.

Relix also published a statement by Young: I apologize. This album Homegrown should have been there for you a couple of years after Harvest. It’s the sad side of a love affair. The damage done. The heartache. I just couldn’t listen to it. I wanted to move on. So I kept it to myself, hidden away in the vault, on the shelf, in the back of my mind….but I should have shared it. It’s actually beautiful. That’s why I made it in the first place. Sometimes life hurts. You know what I mean. This is the one that got away. Recorded in analog in 1974 and early 1975 from the original master tapes and restored with love and care by John Hanlon. Levon Helm is drumming on some tracks, Karl T Himmel on others, Emmylou Harris singing on one. Homegrown contains a narration, several acoustic solo songs never even published or heard until this release and some great songs played with a great band of my friends, including Ben Keith – steel and slide – Tim Drummond – bass and Stan Szelest – piano.  Anyway, it’s coming your way in 2020, the first release from our archive in the new decade. Come with us into 2020 as we bring the past.

Pitchfork revealed the album’s tracklist:

01 Separate Ways
02 Try
03 Mexico
04 Love Is a Rose
05 Homegrown
06 Florida
07 Kansas
08 We Don’t Smoke It No More
09 White Line
10 Vacancy
11 Little Wing
12 Star of Bethlehem

Looking forward to this one!

Sources: Relix; Pitchfork; 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

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

It’s very satisfying to me that since the introduction of this recurring feature two months ago, I’ve discovered newly released music each week that sufficiently intrigues me to write about it. This may sound arrogant, but the reality is most new music simply doesn’t speak to me, especially pretty much anything that’s in the current charts. So it’s been great to see there are exceptions.

This week’s installment includes nice variety, featuring rock, country, folk, Americana and soul. The majority of these artists are new to me, even though most have been around for more than 20 years. There are also two who have been active for 60 years, including one name I had not heard in a long time. Let’s get to it.

Jupiter Coyote/Hungry Ghost

According to AllMusic, Jupiter Coyote is a five-piece band blending bluegrass with traditional rock, which has been around since the early ’90s. Their debut album appears to be Cemeteries and Junkyards from November 1993. In total, AllMusic lists 12 records in the band’s discography, the most recent of which is The Interplanetary Yard Dog from February this year. Hungry Ghost is their latest single, which came out last Friday, May 8. It’s not on the aforementioned album. It was written by co-founding members and guitarist Matthew Mayes. I can hear some Hootie & the Blowfish in the tune, mostly because of the vocals that stylistically remind me a bit of Darius Rucker, though the music has a nice build toward a more edgy rock sound. It’s pretty cool – check it out!

John Frinzi/Used to These Blues

John Frinzi is a country singer-songwriter from Lakeland, Fla. According to his website, he was discovered by Doyle Grisham, the pedal steel guitarist of the Coral Reefer Band, Jimmy Buffett’s touring and recording group. Their working relationship led to Frinzi’s 2003 debut album Into the Dawn. On his second album Shoreline, he co-wrote many songs with Tom Corcoran, a Florida-based mystery novel author who has also been in Buffett’s circle. In 2017, Frinzi recorded Blue Sky View, an EP with songwriter and producer Aaron Scherz. Used to These Blues is Frinzi’s most recent single released on April 27. I like his vocals and the tune’s warm sound and pedal steel fill-ins. Nicely done!

Delbert McClinton/Still Rockin’

Unlike the title suggests, Still Rockin’ actually is a rather mellow ballad and the most recent single by Delbert McClinton, which appeared on March 31. McClinton, which Rolling Stone has called “Godfather of Americana Music”, has been around for more than 60 years. He released his debut album Delbert & Glen together with Glen Clark. While he has since released 29 additional albums, apparently, mainstream chart success has largely eluded him, though since the late 1990s, most of his records reached top positions on Billbord’s U.S. Blues chart. His most recent album Tall, Dark, and Handsome was well received and won the 2020 Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album. Based on the opener I just checked out, this definitely sounds like a record I should check out sooner than later! For now, back to Still Rockin’, which McClinton co-wrote with Bob Britt and Pat McLaughlin.

Gordon Lightfoot/Do You Walk, Do You Talk

Here’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time. Admittedly, other than If You Could Read My Mind, Sundown and The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which were all released in the ’70s and became hits in the U.S. and Canada, I don’t know Gordon Lightfoot’s music. What I do know is I like all of these tunes, as well as Do You Walk, Do You Talk, which is on the Canadian singer-songwriter’s new album Solo that appeared on March 20. According to a Rolling Stone story, it is his first album of newly released material in more than 15 years. Lightfoot who last November turned 81, discovered the material for the album in his home office. Initially, these tunes were recorded in late 2001 and early 2002. But before anything could be released, Lightfoot had an abdominal aortic aneurysm that nearly killed him. After unearthing the old recordings, he decided to re-record the tracks, using his guitar only.  “I thought my fans would be interested in hearing what songs sound like when first written,” Lightfoot stated. According to this fansite, Lightfoot vigorously toured throughout last year and as recently as February. His tour schedule also shows many dates between March and June, which have all been rescheduled to later in the year to due COVID-19. Lightfoot has been active since 1958 (that’s an incredible 62 years!) and released his eponymous debut album in January 1966. According to Wikipedia, Solo is his 21st. Here’s Do You Walk, Do You Talk. Lightfoot still sounds pretty compelling.

Nadia Reid/Oh Canada

Nadia Reid is a 28-year-old singer-songwriter from Port Chalmers, New Zealand. Somehow her name sounded familiar and I had an idea, so I checked Aphoristic Album Reviews, and surely enough Graham covered her before, among others in this post from last October titled The Ten Next Best Singer-Songwriters Ever. Oh Canada is from Reid’s third album Out of My Province that came out on March 6. She released her debut Listen to Formation, Look for the Signs in March 2015. Not quite sure what it is about this tune, but I like it. Reid’s vocals are definitely part of it. Check out the official video.

The James Hunter Six/I Can Change Your Mind

James Hunter is an English R&B and soul singer-songwriter who has been around for 30 years. According to his website, he’s worked on the railway, busked in the streets of London, provided backup vocals and guitar for Van Morrison, played clubs and theaters all over the world, written scores of original songs, and recorded some of the most original and honest rhythm & soul albums of the last two decades.  By 2006, Hunter was recognized with nominations for a GRAMMY® Award (“Best Traditional Blues Album” for People Gonna Talk (Rounder)) and an American Music Award (“Best New/Emerging Artist”). He and his band then hit the road for a decade of extensive touring and recorded critically-acclaimed studio albums— The Hard Way (Hear Music), Minute by Minute (Fantasy), Hold On! (Daptone), Whatever it Takes (Daptone).  By 2016, MOJO magazine had crowned him “The United Kingdom’s Greatest Soul Singer.” Somehow, I missed all of that, but I’m glad Hunter is now on my radar screen. I Can Change Your Mind sounds like beautiful old-fashioned soul. The vocals are pretty amazing. I can some Sam Cooke and Otis Redding in there. Check it out!

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; GordonLightfoot.com fansite; AllMusic; YouTube

Steve Forbert Releases New Album Early Morning Rain

Collection features 11 covers of singer-songwriter’s favorite tunes by Gordon Lightfoot, Elton John, Ray Davies, Leonard Cohen and other artists

While I’ve heard of Steve Forbert before, included one of his songs in my previous Best of What’s New installment and some fellow music bloggers I follow have covered him, I still feel I know next to nothing about this longtime American singer-songwriter. But here’s one thing I know for sure: I dig Early Morning Rain, Forbert’s first covers album in a 40-plus-year career, which came out today.

Forbert was born on December 13, 1954 in Meridian, Miss. He started writing songs as a 17-year-old and moved to New York City in 1976. He became a street performer in Greenwich Village and soon started playing CBGB and other local clubs. In 1978, Forbert got a record contract with Nemperor and later that year released his debut album Alive on Arrival. The record was well-received, and some critics were quick to call him “the new Dylan,” a label Forbert dismissed as a cliche.

His sophomore album Jackrabbit Slim from 1979 included Romeo’s Tune, which also was released separately as a single and became what essentially has been his only hit to date. In the U.S., the tune climbed to no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also charted in other countries, including Canada where it peaked at no. 8, as well as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. I don’t recall hearing the song on the radio in Germany back then.

Steve Forbert

Forbert’s songs have been covered by a wide range of artists, including Keith Urban, Rosanne Cash, Marty Stuart and John Popper. In 2004, his album Any Old Time, a tribute to Jimmy Rodgers, was nominated for a Grammy in the category of “Best Traditional Folk.” In 2006, Forbert was inducted into the Mississippi Music Hall of Fame, and just earlier this year, he received a 2020 Governor’s Arts Award for Excellence in Music from that state. But it seems to me all this recognition hasn’t translated much into chart or other commercial success for Forbert.

Early Morning Rain is Forbert’s 21st studio album. The tracks represent what he calls 11 of his favorite folk-rock songs. Artists he covers include Gordon Lightfoot, Richard Thompson and Linda Thompson, Elton John, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Ray Davies – quite an interesting group. Forbert told American Songwriter he made his choices from an initial list of 150 tracks. So why does this album speak to me? To start with, I love the warm sound. I also like how Forbert approached the songs and made them his own. While his voice is distinct and certainly not exactly opera quality, I think it greatly matches the song arrangements.

Let’s get to some music. Since on YouTube you currently cannot access clips unless you’re a premium subscriber, following are links to the album on Soundcloud and Spotify. Hope that at least one of these platforms will work for readers. If you have Apple Music, you also can get it there.

While I think it’s worthwhile listening to the entire album, I’d like to call out some of the tunes. The opener and title track Early Morning Rain was written by Gordon Lightfoot. It appeared on his debut album Lightfoot! from January 1966. The beautiful steel guitar fill-ins that according to the credits listed in this review by Americana Highways were provided by Marc Muller, particularly stand out to me in this tune.

Your Song is one of my favorite Elton John tunes. Composed by John with lyrics by longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, the track first appeared on John’s sophomore eponymous studio album released in April 1970. The backing vocals in Forbert’s version were provided by New Jersey singer-songwriter Emily Grove.

Pretty much all of the tunes on the album are on the quieter side. One exception is Supersonic Rocketship. Interestingly, Forbert’s take sounds more rock-oriented than the relatively mellow original by The Kinks. Written by Ray Davies, the track was included on the band’s 11th studio album Everybody’s in Show-Biz, which appeared in August 1972. Again, Grove features on backing vocals and nicely blends with Forbert.

Someday Soon is a country & western song by Ian Tyson written in 1964. The Canadian singer-songwriter recorded with his wife Sylvia Tyson as part of their duo Ian & Sylvia. It appeared on their third studio album Northern Journey. For this cover, Forbert is supported on backing vocals by Anthony Crawford, a singer-songwriter from Birmingham, Ala.

The last tune I’d like to call out is Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, a song I’ve dug for many years. Suzanne was first published as a poem in 1966 before it was recorded as a song by Judy Collins later that year. Cohen included it on his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen from December 1967. It also appeared separately as the lead single to that record.

In addition to Muller, Grove and Crawford, I like to acknowledge the other musicians listed in the credits: George Naha (electric guitar), Rob Clores (keyboards), Aaron Comess (drums), and John Conte and Richard Hammond (both bass). The album was produced, mixed and engineered by Steve Greenwell. Based on AllMusic, Greenwell also produced Forbert’s previous albums The Magic Tree (2018) and Compromised (2015).

“I’ve never done a cover record, and after 40 years, that’s a lot of pent up thinking,” Forbert told American Songwriter. “The point was to be able to really make a contribution. It’s not that much different from making an album of my own material. I wanted to pick things that hopefully fit like a glove…I do have a style and so like I’m presenting my style instead of playing out my heart and soul with original material.”

Given the large initial list of songs, Forbert also didn’t rule out the possibility of a sequel. Some of the tunes he mentioned in this context include Dance the Night Away (Cream), I Should Have Known Better (The Beatles), North Country Blues (Bob Dylan), Are You Lonesome Tonight (Elvis Presley) and Lather (Jefferson Airplane). As a fan, I’m delighted to see a Beatles tune, but I’d be even more curious to hear Forbert’s take on Dance the Night Away.

I realize there is a certain degree of irony that Forbert’s first record I explored more closely and decided to write about is a covers album. But I suppose you got to start somewhere, and Early Morning Rain is a new album I happened to know was coming out today. Plus, I’m definitely encouraged and certainly curious to listen to more of Fobert’s music.

Sources: Wikipedia; Steve Forbert website; American Songwriter; Americana Highways; AllMusic; YouTube

23-Year-Old Southern Rock Guitarist Marcus King Shines On Soulful Solo Debut

Two weeks ago, I blogged about Playing For Change and that organization’s incredible videos produced with musicians from all over the world, covering well-known songs. One of the clips I highlighted was The Weight, featuring Robbie Robertson, Ringo Starr and professional musicians from eight other countries. The first thing I thought was, ‘how cool is it that Robertson and Starr are in the video. My second thought: ‘The young dude playing guitar and singing is killing it on vocals with his soulful voice. That guitarist was 23-year-old Marcus King. Earlier today, I listened to his solo debut album El Dorado and have to say I’m pretty blown away!

King who hails from Greenville, S.C. is not a newcomer. In fact, he has performed for a whopping 15 years! After beginning to play guitar at a very young age, already as an eight-year-old he started to be on stage with his father Marvin King, a professional blues guitarist. In 2013, as a 15-year-old, he formed the Marcus King Band. In October 2015, their debut album Soul Insight appeared. They have since released two additional records and two EPs. El Dorado, which came out on January 17 this year, was produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Let’s get to some music!

Here’s the beautiful opener Young Man’s Dream. Spill Magazine called it reminiscent of Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush era. With King’s high pitched vocals and the tune’s sound, I think that’s not too far-fetched. Co-written by King, Auerbach and Nashville singer-songwriter Pat McLaughlin, the track also has some early Rod Stewart feel. It’s just cool!

The Well, a nice blues rocker that’s right up my alley, was co-written by King, Auerbach and Ronnie Bowman, a bluegrass vocalist and songwriter. I dig the main guitar riff and sound of that tune. Check it out!

Next up is Wildflowers & Wine, another co-write by King, Auerbach and Bowman. I really find it impressive how much soul the 23-year-old has in his vocals. That’s three great songs in a row, which already make it worthwhile to listen to this album.

There’s more. How about some country? Ask and you shall receive. Here’s Sweet Mariona, yet another tune co-written by King, Auerbach and Bowman. Listen to that sweet-sounding pedal steel guitar!

Another soul gem with a dose of country flair is Beautiful Stranger. I also love the gospel type backing vocals. To write this song King and Auerbach teamed up with country singer-songwriter Paul Overstreet.

The last track I’d like to call out is Too Much Whiskey, another co-write by King, Auerbach and Overstreet. It’s a great mix of blues and country.

In addition to King (lead vocals, guitar) and Auerbach (bass, guitar, backing vocals), other musicians on El Dorado include Gene Chrisman (drums), Matt Combs (strings), Paul Franklin (steel guitar), Chris St. Hillaire (percussion), Russ Pahl (guitar), Ray Jacildo (Glockenspiel, keyboards), Dave Roe (bass), Mike Rojas (keyboards), Billy Sanford (guitar), Bobby Woods (keyboards), as well as backing vocalists Ashley Wilcoxson and Leisa Hans.

Deservedly, El Dorado has received great reviews. Rolling Stone called it “excellent” and King “one of the most exciting guitarists to break through in years.” NPR’s rock critic Ken Tucker characterized the record as “a real beauty — and a turning-point for King.” Last but not least, Spill Magazine opined the album is a “musical masterpiece.”

King seems to be happy with the result as well, as he should be. “I’m really proud of it,” he told Rolling Stone. And what did Auerbach, who has produced for other artists like Dr. John, Ray LaMontagne and The Pretenders, have to add? “It’s staggering how good he is, how crazy-good his vocals are, how he can go anywhere on guitar.” I think that nicely sums up my sentiments.

Sources: Wikipedia; Spill Magazine; Rolling Stone; NPR; AllMusic; YouTube

Performing Live From Their Homes

A selection of artists who don’t allow the coronavirus to stop the music

By now it’s safe to assume everybody is getting tired to read about COVID-19, so I’ll keep it light. Obviously, one of the many industries that have been hit hard by the coronavirus is the concert business. Painfully but rightly, shows are being canceled or rescheduled all over the place. It simply would be irresponsible to do anything else. The good news is this doesn’t mean live performances have come to a standstill.

For example, if you follow the “right” pages on Facebook, you can receive plenty of notifications about live gigs streamed online. Sure, in nearly all cases, these performances are low key and improvised, and the majority of artists who pop up aren’t necessarily well-known. Still, there is plenty of great live music you can enjoy over the internet these days. I would also argue that low tech and improvised gigs have their own charm.

Following are some recent performances captured by Rolling Stone as part of their In My Room series. I realize these gigs are not 100 percent comparable to concerts that are live-streamed. It’s also safe to assume there was some post-production done to these clips, but the footage still conveys a good deal of spontaneity to me. It’s all about the spirit to keep the music going but doing so in a responsible way, so let’s get to some of it!

Graham Nash/Our House, 4+20 & Teach Your Children

I simply love everything about this clip. To start, Graham Nash remains a compelling artist. Let’s not forget the man is 78 years old. I also like how he is weaving in public service announcements throughout this little concert performed at his home. To me, he comes across as very genuine. All of the tunes are from Déjà Vu, the sophomore album by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Undoubtedly, it’s one of the greatest albums that have ever been recorded. Our House and Teach Your Children are Nash compositions, while 4+20 was written by Stephen Stills. Obviously, much of CSNY’s magic was in their incredible harmony vocals, which is impossible for Nash to replicate, but none of this really matters. Just watching the man perform makes me happy. You can see his passion. That’s what it’s all about!

John Fogerty/Have You Ever Seen the Rain, Bad Moon Rising & Long As I Can See the Light

John Fogerty is another rock & roll hero in my book. If I recall it correctly, Have You Ever Seen the Rain was the first Creedence Clearwater Revival song I ever heard as a young kid back my sister. My sister had that tune on vinyl as a 45 single. I’ve loved Fogerty and this band ever since! Have You Ever Seen the Rain, Bad Moon Rising and Long As I Can See the Light were all written by Fogerty. They appeared on CCR’s Pendulum, Green River and Cosmo’s Factory studio albums from December 1970, August 1969 and July 1970, respectively. My personal highlight in the above series is Fogerty’s performance of the third tune on the piano.

Angélique Kidjo/Gimme Shelter, The Overload & Move On Up

‘Damn, damn and damn’ is all I can say watching Angélique Kidjo, a Beninese singer-songwriter, actress, and activist of Nigerian descent, sing the above tunes. Have you ever heard such a funky rendition of The Rolling Stones’ 1969 classic Gimme Shelter? Or how ’bout Move On Up, one my favorite songs by Curtis Mayfield from his 1970 solo debut album, which she turns into some African liberation song? Her version of The Overload, a tune by Talking Heads from their fourth studio album Remain in Light from October 1980, is almost more haunting than the original. This is some really cool stuff – check it out!

Yola and Birds of Chicago/At Last, It Ain’t Easier & Second Cousin

Let’s do one more and keep the best for last. I had neither been aware of English musician and singer-songwriter Yola nor Birds of Chicago, an Americana/folk band from the Windy City led by husband and wife JT Nero and Allison Russell. But after I had watched that clip, I was simply blown away – passionate and all-out beautiful singing simply doesn’t get much better. And the songs they selected are terrific! At Last, co-written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren, was the title of the debut album by Etta James, released in November 1960. This a capella version of the tune is the highlight of the series. It Ain’t Easier was written by Yola and appeared on her debut album Walk Through Fire from February 2019. Last but not least is Second Cousin, which appears to be a tune by Birds of Chicago.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; YouTube