The Year That Was – Part 1 of 2

My six favorite albums of 2021

After feeling a bit lukewarm initially about the thought of looking back at 2021, a year I’d rather forget in many regards, I’m glad I decided to proceed. After all, there was lots of great new music – music that undoubtedly helped me cope with challenges this tiresome pandemic presented.

This review is split into two parts. Part 1 revisits my favorite 2021 albums I covered during the past year. Part 2 presents highlights from Best of What’s New, my weekly recurring feature looking at newly released songs. While it would have been easy to feature some of the same artists in both parts, I deliberately avoided overlap.

Altogether, I reviewed more than 20 albums over the past 12 months. After excluding archives releases, such as Neil Young’s Carnegie Hall 1970 and Young Shakespeare, and reissues like Tom Petty’s Angel Dream (Songs and Music from the Motion Picture “She’s the One”), I narrowed the list to 17 albums. Following are six I like in particular.

Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band/Dance Songs for Hard Times

Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band is an unusual country blues trio, and it’s not only because of their funny name. The group, which has been around since 2003, consists of Josh “The Reverend” Peyton (guitar, lead vocals), his wife  “Washboard” Breezy Peyton (washboard) and Max Senteney (drums). Notably, they don’t have a bassist. Peyton, a great guitarist, compensates with skillful fingerstyle playing that includes the prominent use of his thumb to play bass lines. Dance Songs for Hard Times, the trio’s 10th full-length album, was released on April 9. You can read more about it here. To get an idea, check out the amazing Too Cool to Dance and tell me this doesn’t rock!

John Hiatt with The Jerry Douglas Band/Leftover Feelings

One of my big “discoveries” this year is John Hiatt, an artist whose name I’ve known for 30-plus years but had not started to explore until earlier this year – well, better late than never! On May 21, Hiatt released a great collaboration album with Dobro resonator guitar master Jerry Douglas. They were backed by Jerry Douglas Band members Mike Seal (acoustic and electric guitar), Daniel Kimbro (bass, string arrangements) and Christian Sedelmyer (fiddle). You can read more about Leftover Feelings here, which was recorded at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio B during the Covid shutdown. Here’s a little sample: Mississippi Phone Booth, written by Hiatt.

Southern Avenue/Be the Love You Want

Southern Avenue, a five-piece from Memphis, Tenn., are one of my favorite contemporary groups, blending blues and soul with contemporary R&B. Founded in 2015, this great band features Ori Naftaly (guitar), Tierinii Jackson (lead vocals), her sister Tikyra Jackson (drums, backing vocals), Jeremy Powell (keyboards) and Evan Sarver (bass). On August 27, their third album Be the Love You Want came out. While it feels like a bigger and more contemporary production compared to the band’s first two records and there’s a guest appearance by pop artist Jason Mraz, at its core, this still sounds very much like Southern Avenue’s music I’ve come to love: A tasty blend of blues, soul, funk and gospel, combined with elements of modern R&B. You can read more about it here. And here’s Push Now.

The Wild Feathers/Alvarado

The Wild Feathers, formed in Nashville, Tenn. in 2010, combine elements of country rock, southern rock, classic rock, blues and folk with multi-part harmony singing – a quite attractive combination! The group’s current lineup includes founding members Taylor Burns (guitar, vocals), Ricky Young (guitar, vocals), Brett Moore (guitar, mandolin) and Joel King (bass, vocals), together with Ben Dumas (drums). On October 8, they released their fifth studio album Alvarado. According to an exclusive preview by American SongwriterThe Wild Feathers wrote and recorded the album in a small cabin located an hour northwest of Nashville, the same place in which they conceived predecessor Medium Rarities. You can read more about Alvarado here. To get an idea, I give you Side Street Shakedown, a great rocker co-written by King, Young and Burns.

The Brandy Alexanders/The Brandy Alexanders

The Brandy Alexanders are a psychedelic pop-rock band from Canada, which was formed in 2016. The members include brothers Alex Dick (lead vocals, guitar) and Daniel Dick (keyboards), along with Sean Shepherd (lead guitar), Zack Vivier (bass) and Robbie Cervi (drums). They were discovered in 2019 by Renan Yildizdogan, the founder of independent label Gypsy Soul Records, who saw the group at a local performance venue in Toronto and subsequently signed them. On December 10, The Brandy Alexanders released their eponymous debut album. For more on that, click here. And here’s the great-sounding opener Ceiling Fan, Man

Neil Young & Crazy Horse/Barn

Neil Young has been on a roll this year. In addition to the aforementioned solo releases from his archives, he put out Way Down in the Rust Bucket, another excellent archives release of a 1990 live concert with Crazy Horse. Speaking of Young’s longtime backing band, there was a record with new songs, Barn, his 41st studio release and 14th album with Crazy Horse. It appeared on December 10 as well. Recorded in a converted barn high in the Rocky Mountains, Barn sounds charmingly ragged, relaxed and spontaneous – like classic Crazy Horse! Click here for my album review and check out Heading West!

Additional 2021 albums I’d like to at least briefly acknowledge include Exit Wounds (The Wallflowers), Many a Mile (Blue Rodeo), Long Lost (Lord Huron), Dirty Honey (Dirty Honey) and The Battle at Garden’s Gate (Greta Van Fleet). Stay tuned for Part 2 of this year-in-review feature, which will include songs from these artists.

Sources: Wikipedia; American Songwriter; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: John Hiatt/Perfectly Good Guitar

John Hiatt is a great artist I’ve been aware of for many years. I’m glad his excellent recent collaboration album with Jerry Douglas, Leftover Feelings, brought the acclaimed singer-songwriter back on my radar screen. It finally made me start exploring some of Hiatt’s other albums in their entirety, including Perfectly Good Guitar, his 11th studio release that appeared in September 1993. I’m sure Hiatt aficionados are well aware of it; if you’re not and dig heartland and roots-oriented rock, you’re in for a treat.

Hiatt who was born in Indianapolis had a difficult childhood. After the death of his older brother and his father, he used watching IndyCar races and listening to music by the likes of Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and blues artists as escape mechanisms. At the age of 11, Hiatt learned to play guitar and started his music career as a teenager in Indianapolis, playing local venues with the a variety of bands.

When he was 18, Hiatt moved to Nashville, Tenn. where he landed a job as a songwriter for the Tree-Music Publishing Company. He also continued local performances, both solo and with a band called White Duck. Hiatt got his break in June 1974 when Three Dog Night turned his song Sure As I’m Sitting Here into a top 40 hit. His original version he had released as a single in February that year had gone nowhere.

In July 1973, Hiatt recorded his debut album Hangin Around The Observatory, which came out the following year. While it received favorable reviews, the album was a commercial failure. When the same thing happened with his sophomore release Overcoats, his label Epic Records was quick to drop him. Meanwhile, other artists kept covering Hiatt’s songs. Unfortunately, the story pretty much kept repeating itself until Bring the Family from May 1987, finally giving Hiatt his first album to make the Billboard 200, reaching no. 107.

Bring the Family featured the gems Thing Called Love and Have a Little Faith in Me, which became hits for Bonnie Raitt and Joe Cocker, respectively. Hiatt’s songs have also been covered by an impressive and diverse array of other artists like B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Buddy Guy, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Willy DeVille, and the list goes on and on.

To date, Hiatt has released 28 albums, including two live records and two compilations. In 1991, he also formed the short-lived group Little Village together with Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. Previously, Hiatt had worked with each of the three artists on Bring the Family. After issuing a self-titled album in February 1992 and a short supporting tour the group disbanded.

Let’s get to some music from Perfectly Good Guitar. Here’s the great opener Something Wild. Like all other tracks except one, the tune was solely written by Hiatt. I dig the nice driving drum part by Brian McLeod. With the recent death of Charlie Watts, perhaps it’s not surprising that Satisfaction came to mind right away!

The title track perfectly captures my sentiments when I see footage of Pete Townshend trashing his guitar at the end of a Who gig; or Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire for that matter. Oh, it breaks my heart to see those stars/ Smashing a perfectly good guitar/I don’t know who they think they are/Smashing a perfectly good guitar…Yes, of course, it was all for show and I believe Townshend at least glued some of his smashed guitars back together. And while I certainly don’t support jail sentences for guitar-smashing, destroying instruments still rubs me the wrong way! Instead, make some kid happy and give it to them! Who knows, you might even change their trajectory!

Another nice track is Buffalo River Home. I really like the guitar work on that tune.

Another track that got my attention, primarily because of the drum part, is Blue Telescope. McLeod’s drum work reminds me a bit of Steve Gadd’s action on Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. I have no idea whether Gadd’s unique drum part served as an inspiration here. Regardless, it sure as heck sounds cool to me!

The last track I’d like to call out is Old Habits, which has a great bluesy vibe. It’s the one song on the album Hiatt co-wrote with somebody else: Female singer-songwriter Marshall Chapman. Similar to Hiatt, it appears her songs have been covered by many other artists, such as Joe Cocker, Jimmy Buffett, Emmylou Harris, Irma Thomas and Ronnie Milsap.

Before wrapping up this post, I’d to acknowledge the other fine musicians on this great album. In addition to Hiatt (guitar, vocals, piano, organ) and MacLeod (drums, percussion), they include Michael Ward (guitar), Ravi Oli (electric sitar; Ravi Oli is a pseudonym of David Immerglück), Dennis Locorriere (harmony vocals) and John Pierce (bass guitar).

Perfectly Good Guitar was Hiatt’s last studio album with A&M Records. Once again, another great record failed to meet the commercial expectations of the label, though ironically, it became Hiatt’s most successful record on the U.S. mainstream charts to date, peaking at no. 47 on the Billboard 200. Hiatt subsequently signed with Capitol Records, which released his next two studio albums, including the Grammy-nominated Walk On from October 1995.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

John Hiatt’s New Collaboration Album with Jerry Douglas is a Blues-Oriented Americana Gem

In late March, I spotted and covered Mississippi Phone Booth, a tune from John Hiatt’s then-upcoming new collaboration album with Dobro resonator guitar master Jerry Douglas. Leftover Feelings since came out last Friday, May 21. While based on my still relatively limited knowledge of Hiatt’s previous catalog he doesn’t break new ground, I love the sound and high-quality handcrafted feel of the music, and feel confident enough to say if you dig Hiatt you’ll like this album!

As I noted in my previous post, while Hiatt and Douglas had known each other for years, the album marked the first time they recorded music together. Initially, Leftover Feelings was supposed to be released in April of last year. Like in so many other cases, COVID-19 threw a monkey wrench into everything. But there was one upside.

Hiatt and Douglas recorded the album at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio B during the shutdown, which they otherwise couldn’t have done. Usually, the space is used by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for public tours. The cool thing is the storied studio is the very same place where they likes of Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers and Waylon Jennings once recorded.

From left: Jerry Douglas, Daniel Kimbro & John Hiatt

“The room’s just got a feel to it,” Hiatt told Paste. “My mind started pedaling back to when I was a little boy hearing ‘Blue Christmas’ every Christmas and ‘Love Me Tender,’ and all of the great songs recorded there just kinda blew my mind.”

“The whole time you’re there, when you’re not playing, you’re thinking about who has been in that room and played,” added Douglas. “All these great music producers and musicians walked in and out through that room, and it was their playhouse.” One can only imagine what a thrill it must have been to record in this famous place!

This brings me to the musicians playing on the album. Apart from Hiatt (vocals, acoustic guitar) and Douglas (Dobro, lap steel guitar, backing vocals), they include Jerry Douglas Band members Mike Seal (acoustic and electric guitar), Daniel Kimbro (bass, string arrangements) and Christian Sedelmyer (fiddle). In addition, there’s Carmella Ramsey (backing vocals). ‘So who’s playing the drums?’ you might ask yourself. Well, nobody – frankly, there’s no drummer needed in this case!

Let’s get to some music. Here’s opener Long Black Electric Cadillac. Like all of the 10 other tracks, the song was written by Hiatt. As this review by The Associated Press cleverly observed, the tune introduces “a new musical form — the 12-bar blues gone green.” A little excerpt from the lyrics helps illustrate the point: I got a long black electric Cadillac/She goes a thousand miles on a charge/I got a long black electric Cadillac/She goes a thousand miles on a charge/I’m runnin’ subterranean air conditioning/And a full electron photo array in my backyard…

While Mississippi Phone Booth is one of my early favorite tunes, I’m skipping it here, given I covered it before and go right to All the Lilacs in Ohio. It’s an acoustic stripped back version of a song Hiatt previously recorded for The Tiki Bar is Open, a studio album released on September 11, 2001.

I’m in Ashville is “a song about a guy who’s left his lover in all but his mind and heart,” Hiatt told Relix. “Jerry’s aching steel guitar floating above the rolling fiddle and the pulse of the bass and rhythm just expands on the dubious decision this fellow has made.” I love this tune. The warm sound is just beautiful!

On Little Goodnight things become slightly more electric, which is good for sound variety. It’s another tune Hiatt had released previously, in this case on his 2012 compilation Collected.

Let’s do one additional track: Keen Rambler. The above AP review characterizes the song as “spirited” (agree), comparing it to “a Chuck Berry car song, but it’s about walking.” Less sure about that. What I do know is I like the tune and that’s good enough for me to highlight it in this post.

Leftover Feelings is Hiatt’s 26th album and follows The Eclipse Sessions, his second live album from 2018. It was produced by Douglas and mastered by engineer Paul Blakemore. The album appears on New West Records, Hiatt’s eighth release on that label based in Nashville, Tenn. and Athens, Ga.

Sources: Wikipedia; Paste; Associated Press; Relix; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

This week’s Best of What’s New installment brings another nice mix of great new music. From country to blues to soul to singer-songwriter style, it’s all there. Or how about a Boston-based band with a very unique sound they describe as Americana funk? Or a neo soul collaboration’s beautiful cover of a well-known Tracy Chapman tune? I hope I’ve sufficiently whetted your appetite to read on!

Ray Wylie Hubbard/Bad Trick (featuring Ringo Starr, Don Was, Joe Walsh & Chris Robinson)

While Ray Wylie Hubbard has been active for more than 50 years, I don’t believe I had heard of him before, but I simply couldn’t skip a tune featuring Ringo Starr and Joe Walsh among the guests! Hubbard’s online bio states he is the secret handshake amongst those who know, which to me suggests he may not exactly be a household name. Hubbard was born in Soper, OK on November 13, 1946. Beginning in 1965, during semester breaks from his studies at the University of North Texas, he spent the summers in Red River, N.M., where he started playing music in a folk trio called Three Faces West. During that time period, he wrote a tune with the lovely title Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother, which was first recorded by country artist Jerry Jeff Walker in 1973. It helped Hubbard sign with Warner Bros. Records and release his debut Ray Wylie Hubbard and the Cowboy Twinkies in 1976. Seventeen additional country, folk and blues-oriented albums have since appeared. This includes Co-Starring, which came out on July 10 and features the above tune, which was co-written by Hubbard and his wife Judy. Hubbard told Apple Music he had met Ringo about five or six years ago. When Ringo learned about Hubbard’s new album, not only did he offer to play drums on Bad Trick but also ask his brother-in-law Joe Walsh and Don Was to join on guitar and bass, respectively. The fourth guest is Black Crowes co-founder and lead vocalist Chris Robinson. Check out the fun video!

Black Pumas/Fast Car

Based on sampling a few tunes, Black Puma sound like a really cool, relatively new band. According to Apple Music, it’s a collaboration between producer and multi-instrumentalist Adrian Quesada and singer-songwriter Eric Burton, who fuse cinematic neo-soul, light psychedelia, and a touch of urban grit. No matter how you characterize their music, it simply sounds great. Quesada and Burton joined forces in 2018 and released their eponymous debut album in June 2019. Their latest single Fast Car is a cover of the Tracy Chapman tune that appeared on her eponymous debut record in April 1988. I’ve loved that tune from the very first time I heard it when it came out. Things around Chapman seem to have been quiet for a long time. Perhaps this great remake will help bring her back on the radar screens of folks who dig but have forgotten about her.

Twisted Pine/Don’t Come Over Tonight

Don’t Come Over Tonight is a track from Right Now, the forthcoming sophomore album by Twisted Pine, a Boston-based band with a unique sound that’s hard to describe. Here’s how a short bio from their web site puts it: Praised by NPR for their “upbeat, poppy vibe; energetic, driving rhythms; and virtuosic solos,” Twisted Pine will release their sophomore full-length Right Now on August 14, 2020 (Signature Sounds). Exploring a sound they call Americana funk, Twisted Pine takes traditional music in exhilarating directions. Bassist Chris Sartori writes, “This album is easier to feel than describe. We’re rooted in bluegrass, continually inspired by explorers like Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, and Sierra Hull. Right Now takes this heritage into a new dimension. Our bluegrass is jazzy, our indie folk is poppy, our grooves are funky.” Twisted Pine [Kathleen Parks, fiddle; Dan Bui, mandolin; Chris Sartori, bass; Anh Phung, flute] grooves with fearless improvisation and intricate arrangements. The band has been around since 2013. Their eponymous debut album appeared in July 2017, followed by the EP Dreams in January 2019. Don’t Come Over Tonight was written by Parks. It’s quite unusual, yet pretty cool, in my opinion. These guys are virtuoso musicians and great vocalists. Check it out!

Ruston Kelly/Rubber

Ruston Kelly is a 31-year-old singer-songwriter who was born in Georgetown, S.C. and grew up in Wyoming, Ohio. He got into music at a young age and, according to Wikipedia, had a full album in high school with songs like “Bluebird” and “I’m Leavin’”. After signing a publishing deal with BMG Nashville in 2013, he co-wrote the song Nashville Without You Tim McGraw recorded for his studio album Two Lanes of Freedom, which appeared in February that year. In 2017, Kelly released his debut EP Halloween. His first full-length album Dying Star came out the following year. Released on June 10, Rubber is a track from Kelly’s forthcoming sophomore album Shape & Destroy scheduled for August 28. In October 2017, he married singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves, who as reported by Rolling Stone also performs on the album. Apparently, they since filed for divorce.

Mick Hayes/Autumn Romance

Mick Hayes is another great sounding artist with relatively little publicly available information, even though the blues guitarist and vocalist has a website and a Facebook page – I just don’t get it! At least his website links to various reviews of his most recent album My Claim to Fame, which was recorded at the legendary FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala., appeared on May 29 and includes the above tune. According to American Blues Scene, Hayes’ love affair with Muscle Shoals began when he was a young man growing up in upstate New York, where he would browse record shops with wall to wall music from Ray Charles to Aretha Franklin to Duane Allman to Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke.  Rock and Blues Muse notes Hayes and his band have spent the last decade playing up to 200 festival and club gigs a year and have opened for Duke Robillard, Samantha Fish, and Delbert McClinton. AllMusic also lists a 2016 album, Segue, by Mick Hayes Band. The cool thing about My Claim to Fame is that not only did Hayes record it at FAME but, as American Blues Scene pointed out, he also worked with studio musicians who recorded with artists like Ray Charles, Etta James and B.B. King. Oh, and Hayes co-produced the record with John Gifford III, who assisted with engineering Gregg Allman’s final studio album Southern Blood – sounds like the stars truly aligned for Hayes!

Sources: Wikipedia; Ray Wylie Hubbard website; Twisted Pines website; Rolling Stone; American Blues Scene; Rock & Blues Muse; YouTube