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

What I’ve Been Listening to: Niedeckens BAP/Live & Deutlich

I guess this is another post you can put in the one-thing-leads-to-another category. The latest installment of my Best of What’s New recurring feature included a new song by Niedeckens BAP, Ruhe Vor’m Sturm, which will be on the German rock band’s next album scheduled for September. After listening to that tune, I felt hungry for more music by what has been my favorite rock band singing in German for close to 40 years. When I checked my streaming music provider, Live & Deutlich (live & clear) popped up, a live double CD capturing a concert at Circus Krone in Munich, Germany on June 6, 2018, conducted as part of the band’s 2018 Live & Deutlich tour.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I think it’s a great album – otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing about it! Plus, as a longtime fan, I’m not unbiased here. Of course, I realize a rock band that not only sings in German but more specifically in Kölsch, a regional dialect spoken in the area of Cologne, may be a tough proposition to most of the blog’s readers who it’s safe to assume don’t speak German. That doesn’t discourage me. It’s also not the first time I’m writing about the band. I hope to those who don’t understand the lyrics – and trust me, not all people in Germany understand Kölsch either – the music, which I feel is an international language, will be enjoyable.

BAP

According to this review by Sounds & Books, Live & Deutlich marked the band’s first-ever tour that featured a full-blown horn section, including saxophone (Axel Müller), trombone (Franz Johannes Goltz) and trumpet (Christoph Moschberger). “That was a lot of fun for us, since the three horn players opened up new possibilities for the band,” commented Wolfgang Niedecken, who has led the band since it was founded in 1976 in Cologne and is the only remaining original member. “We had a ball on stage and enjoyed having songs in the set we had not played in a long time and playing other tunes for the first time with real horns.”

The 30 tracks feature a nice variety of songs spanning much of the band’s 40-plus-year catalog. There are classics, such as Verdamp lang her (it’s been a long time), Kristalnaach (night of broken glass), Du kanns zaubere (you can do magic) and Anna, as well as deeper cuts like Nem mich met (take me with you), Psycho-Rodeo and Ruut-wieß-blau querjestriefte Frau (red-white-blue horizontal striped lady). There is also a cover version of Bob Dylan’s You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere. Many of the tunes were rearranged, in part because of the horn section. Time to get to some music!

Let’s kick it off with Drei Wünsch frei (three free wishes), which is a nice introduction to the horn section. As usual for original tunes, the lyrics are written by Wolfgang Niedecken. The song first appeared on Zwesche Salzjebäck un Bier (between salt pretzels and beer) from May 1984, the fifth studio album by the band that between 1982 and 2014 was simply called BAP. On that record, the music was credited to the entire band.

Psycho-Rodeo has a cool Stonesy sound. I dig the slide guitar (I assume it’s played by lead guitarist Ulrich Rode) and again, the horn work is great. The band recorded this tune for their 11th studio album Comics & Pin-ups that appeared in January 1999. The song was co-written by Klaus Heuser, BAP’s guitarist from 1980 until 1999, and Niedecken. In fact, the two of them wrote most of the band’s songs during that time period.

Diss Naach ess alles drin (tonight, anything is possible) is another track from the aforementioned Zwesche Salzjebäck un Bier album. I had not heard that song in many years and feel it sounds really fresh. The horn work is a standout.

Time to slow it down. Here’s a beautiful ballad called Jupp, which is a male name. Originally, it appeared on BAP’s national breakthrough album Für usszeschnigge! (to cut out) from October 1981. The acoustic guitar part combined with the beautiful violin played by Anne de Wolff is the song’s highlight. The tune, another Heuser-Niedecken co-write, also has a nice build turning from an acoustic-focused to an electric power ballad.

After four German songs, I thought it might be a good idea to throw in an English tune, the aforementioned Dylan cover – well, sort of, it’s half English, half German, but, hey, at least it’s got some English! 🙂 Dylan wrote You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere in 1967 in Woodstock, N.Y. during his self-imposed exile from public appearances following his motorcycle accident earlier that year. The tune was first released in November 1971 on his second compilation Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II. For this version, the band is joined by two Bavarian artists, Werner Schmidbauer (guitar, backing vocals) und Hannes Ringlstetter (guitar, backing vocals). I just love this cover – dare I say it, even more so than the original! The Bavarian artists with their local dialect provide character. I also dig the warm rootsy sound of the music, which almost has a John Mellencamp flair to it.

Over the decades, Wolfgang Niedecken has repeatedly written songs with political themes. A recurring topic has been discrimination against immigrants. Here is one of his best, included on BAP’s fourth studio album Vun drinne noh drusse (from the inside to the outside) from August 1982, the above noted Kristallnaach (night of broken glass), another co-write with Heuser.

After such a serious song, I think it’s time for some reggae happiness. Aff un zo (every now and then) is the title track from BAP’s 13th studio album, released in June 2001. The song was co-written by Niedecken and Helmut Krumminga, who succeeded Heuser as lead guitarist in 1999 and was with the band until 2014. Just like Heuser, he became Niedecken’s key songwriting collaborator.

I’d like to highlight one more track, another ballad called Jraaduss (straight shooter). This tune is also from the previously mentioned album Für usszeschnigge! Yet another Heuser-Niedecken co-write, it’s one of my favorite BAP tunes, in part because of the lyrics. An excerpt: Stay where you are/hold on to something/and stay like you used to be/a straight shooter. 

“I’ve always liked live albums,” wrote Niedecken on the band’s website. “Because they authentically capture the sound of a band and are a time capsule. In the ideal case, live recordings document how a band sounds at a particular moment in time.” Speaking of the band, I’d like to acknowledge the other core members I haven’t mentioned yet: Marius Goldhammer (bass), Sönke Reich (drums) and Michael Nass (keyboards). I think I agree with Sounds & Books, which called Live & Deutlich “perhaps the best BAP live album with the most variety since Bess demnähx (see you soon).”

Sources: Wikipedia; Sounds & Books; Discogs; BAP website; YouTube

Best of “Bobfest”

Sometimes one beautiful thing leads to another. In my previous post, I wrote about Tom Petty’s affection for The Byrds and how he covered some of their tunes. One of the clips I included was a performance of Mr. Tambourine Man, the Bob Dylan tune popularized by The Byrds with their beautiful jingle-jangle version in the mid-’60s. The footage came from a concert that celebrated the 30th anniversary of Dylan’s eponymous debut album. This prompted me to further check out that tribute show and boy, do I love what I found!

The four-hour concert took place at Madison Square Garden in New York City on October 16, 1992. Regardless of what you think of Dylan, the fact that he is revered by so many top-notch artists speaks for itself. It was certainly reflected in the concert’s line-up, which featured John Mellencamp, Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Johnny Winter, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Roger McGuinn, among others.

The house band for the show included Booker T. Jones (organ) and other former members of the MG’s Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass) and Steve Cropper (guitar), along with Anton Fig and Jim Keltner (each on drums). And there were countless other musicians in different capacities I haven’t even mentioned. This was possibly a one-of-a-kind concert!

Let’s kick off the music with Like a Rolling Stone performed by John Mellencamp and special guest Al Kooper on the organ – great way to open the night! Dylan first recorded the classic tune for his sixth studio album Highway 61 Revisited from August 1965.

Among the show’s true gems was Stevie Wonder’s performance of Blowin’ in the Wind. One of the defining protest songs of the ’60s, it was the opener to Dylan’s sophomore album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan released in May 1963. As Wonder eloquently said, it’s a tune that “will always be relevant to something that is going on in this world of ours.” I’m afraid his words still ring true today.

Next up: Tracy Chapman and her beautiful version of The Times They Are A-Changin’. Recently, I’ve gained new appreciation of the singer-songwriter thanks to badfinger20, who covered Chapman the other day on his great PowerPop blog. The Times They Are A-Changin’ is the title track of Dylan’s third studio album that appeared in January 1964.

Ready for some hardcore blues? Enter Johnny Winter and his scorching version of Highway 61 Revisited, the title track of the above-noted album from August 1965. Ohhh, wham bam thank you man, to borrow creatively from David Bowie. Unfortunately, I could only find the audio version, but I think you can still picture it.

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues is yet another tune from the Highway 61 Revisited album. If I would have to name my favorite Dylan record, I think this would be it. Of course, the caveat is I haven’t listened to all of his records, not even close! The artist who got to perform the tune during the concert was Neil Young, who did a great job. BTW, he dubbed the concert “Bobfest,” according to Wikipedia.

Here’s a great cover of I Shall Be Released by Chrissie Hynde. The first officially released version of the song was on the July 1968 debut album by The Band, Music From Big Pink. Dylan’s first recording occurred during the so-called Basement Tapes sessions with The Band in 1967, which was released on The Bootleg Series 1-3 in 1991. In 1971, Dylan recorded a second version that appeared on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II from November that year.

Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right is one of my favorite Dylan tunes, so I faithfully followed his advice and didn’t hesitate to call it out. It’s another song from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Eric Clapton did a beautiful job making it his own. Don’t think twice, check it out!

George Harrison’s appearance at the show was remarkable. It marked his first U.S. concert performance in 18 years. Sadly, it would also be his last time performing in public, as Rolling Stone noted in a January 2014 story previewing the March 2014 super deluxe reissue of the concert. Harrison covered Absolutely Sweet Marie, a tune from Blonde on Blonde, Dylan’s seventh studio album from June 1966.

Of course, I couldn’t write about the bloody concert without including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who performed Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, another track from Blonde on Blonde. Love it!

For the final clip in this post, it’s about time to get to the man himself and My Back Pages. He first recorded the tune for his fourth studio album Another Side of Bob Dylan, which appeared in August 1964. For his rendition at the show, he got a little help from his friends Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and George Harrison. That’s what friends are for, and they did a great job!

The last word shall belong to guitarist and the show’s musical director G.E. Smith, who is quoted in the above Rolling Stone story: “That gig was one of the highlights of my career… There aren’t a lot of people that can attract a lineup like that, and everyone was on their best behavior. Lou Reed and Neil Young can be prickly, but not in the three days we were prepping that show. I also got to talk to Johnny Cash. What’s cooler than that?”

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; YouTube

Revisiting My Favorite German Rock Band: BAP

If you have followed my blog for some time, you may recall seeing the name BAP. The group around singer-songwriter Wolfgang Niedecken was founded in the West German city of Cologne in 1976. They entered my radar screen in 1981 after their national breakthrough with their third studio album Für Usszeschnigge! (translation: to cut out). BAP remain my favorite German rock band, which I realized once again the other day when listening to some of their music. This triggered my decision to do another post on them. And it may not by my last!

One of BAP’s defining features is that Niedecken performs their songs in Kölsch, the regional dialect spoken in the area of Cologne. While I think they are on par with many English singing bands, undoubtedly this has largely limited their appeal to Germany, though they have ventured out to neighboring countries and even once to China. BAP have seen many line-up changes over the decades, and Niedecken remains the only original member. Since September 2014 after the departure of two longtime members, Niedecken announced that going forward the band would perform under the name Niedeckens BAP and no longer have a standing line-up.

BAP in 2016
Current members of BAP (from left): Wolfgang Niedecken (guitar, vocals), Werner Kopal (bass), Anne De Wolff (multi-instrumentalist), Ulrich Rode (lead guitar), Michael Nass (keyboards) and Sönke Reich (drums)

Niedecken has been BAP’s driving creative force. His key influences are Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, The  Kinks and The Rolling Stones. Niedecken has a friendly relationship with Springsteen. In fact, I previously read that whenever the Boss performs in Germany and Niedecken is around, he likes to invite him on stage to play a song together – to me this sounds like something Springsteen would do. BAP have released 17 studio albums, eight live recordings and three compilations to date – more than enough fodder for another playlist, so let’s get to it. Unlike the first chronological playlist I published here, this time, I’m going randomly.

Let’s kick it off with a nice blues rocker called Diego Paz Wohr Nüngzehn (Diego Paz was 19). Co-written by then-guitarist Helmut Krumminga and Niedecken, the tune has a cool ZZ Top La Grange vibe. It appeared on BAP’s 15th studio album Radio Pandora from May 2008.

The next song takes us all the way back to 1980 and Affjetaut (defrosted), BAP’s sophomore release. Here’s the opener Ne schöne Jrooß (greetings) co-written by Niedecken and Klaus Heuser, who had joined the band as their lead guitarist prior to the recording sessions and would become Niedecken’s key musical partner until his departure in 1999. While perhaps not surprisingly the sound is a bit dated, I still dig that tune.

In August 1996, BAP released their 10th studio album Amerika (America), one of my favorites. Here’s the great opener Nix Wie Bessher (nothing like it used to be), another Niedecken-Heuser co-write. As you can hear, BAP’s sound had significantly matured by then.

Time Is Cash, Time Is Money, a humorous take on organized vacation travel, appeared on the band’s sixth studio record Ahl Männer, Aalglatt (old slick guys). The song was co-written by Niedecken and producer Reinhold Mack. Mack had produced, co-produced and sound-engineered for Queen, Billy Squier and E.L.O. According to Wikipedia, it was the first time BAP relied on a “professional” producer – I assume by this they mean somebody who had worked with international acts.

Next up: Do Kanns Zaubere (you can do magic), one of my favorite BAP ballads, and yet another co-write by Niedecken and Heuser. The tune is from their fourth studio album Vun Drinne Noh Drusse (from the inside to the outside) released in August 1982.

Over their long history, BAP have released a number of songs addressing social and political issues, including racism/hostility against foreigners and nationalism – sadly topics I never thought would remain as relevant as they are today in the 21st Century. Here’s Denn Mer Sinn Widder Wer (Coz we’re great again – sound fucking familiar?) The track appeared on BAP’s eighth studio album X Für ‘e U (an “x” for a “u”) released in October 1990 in the wake of Germany’s reunification. And, yes, in case you wondered, Niedecken and Heuser teamed up for this tune as well. The clip I found is not an official video but was put together by the guy who uploaded it YouTube.

How ’bout Shoeshine? Ask and you shall receive. This great song, written by Niedecken, is from BAP’s 13th studio album Aff Un Zo (every now and then) from June 2001. It was an important record for the band after the departure of longtime members Heuser and keyboarder Alexander Büchel. The only YouTube clip of the tune I could find is this version from the 2014 unplugged live album Das Märchen Vom Gezogenen SteckerLive (the tale of the pulled plug – live). While it’s a bit different from the studio recording, I think it’s actually pretty cool.

A BAP playlist without a tune from their aforementioned breakthrough album would be incomplete. Since I previously featured what is perhaps their best-known song Verdamp Lang Her (such a long time ago), I’m going with the road tune Frau, Ich Freu Mich (Can’t wait to see you, baby). Given this record appeared in 1981, guess who co-wrote the rocker? Yep, Niedecken and Heuser had done it again!

For the next tune, let’s jump all the way forward to BAP’s most recent studio release, Lebenslänglich (for a lifetime), which appeared in early 2016: Et Ess Lang Her (long ago). The song was co-written by Niedecken and keyboarder Michael Nass. I dig the beautiful acoustic roots sound, which reminds me a bit of John Mellencamp.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is from Halv Su Wild (not a big deal) another of my favorite BAP albums. It is from their 16th and the last studio record to date released under the name BAP. It also marked the final album with longtime drummer Jürgen Zöller (1987-2014) and Helmut Krumminga, who had been the band’s lead guitarist from 1999 until 2014. Here’s a live version of Et Levve Ess En Autobahn (life is a highway), which apparently was captured during an open-air gig in Germany in 2012. Written by Niedecken, it’s an autobiographic song about the band’s long history.

During an interview with Swiss newspaper Tagblatt, Niedecken confirmed BAP are working on a new studio album that will likely appear sometime this year, followed by a tour in 2021. Mentioning his most recent solo effort Das Familienalbum (the family album), which was recorded in New Orleans and came out in 2017, Niedecken also hinted the band’s next record is going to feature some of the same U.S. horn players. For a long-time BAP fan like myself, this does sound intriguing.

Sources: Wikipedia; Tagblatt; YouTube

Phil Ochs, Brilliant Yet Widely Obscure Troubador

What do Robert Allen Zimmerman and Philip David Ochs have in common? Both wrote brilliant protest songs in the ’60s. The difference? Robert changed his name to Bob Dylan and became one of the most famous music artists of our time. Philip chose to perform as Phil Ochs and remained largely obscure outside singer-songwriter circles.

Until recently, I had never heard of Phil Ochs myself. Then I saw somebody ranting on Facebook that Bob Dylan undeservedly gets all the credit for being this brilliant protest singer when the recognition should really go to Ochs. The truth is while both artists at some point were important protest singer-songwriters, none of them invented the genre. According to Wikipedia, the tradition of protest songs in the U.S. long predates the births of Dylan and Ochs – in fact going all the way back to the 18th century.

One of the important forerunners to the 1950s and 1960s protest singer-singwriters were the Hutchinson Family Singers, who starting from 1839 became well known for singing about social issues, such as abolition, war and women’s suffrage. And let’s not forget Woody Guthrie, who was born in 1912 and started learning folk and blues songs during his early teens. Over a 26-year-period as an active music artist, Guthrie wrote hundreds of political, folk and children’s songs. He was a major influence on numerous other songwriters who in addition to Dylan and Ochs included Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Harry Chapin, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and many other former and contemporary artists.

Hutchinson Family Singers
Hutchinson Family Singers in 1845 painting by an unkown artist

‘I get it,’ you might think, ‘but who the hell is Phil Ochs?’ Sadly, it’s a pretty rough story, and it doesn’t have a Hollywood happy ending.

Ochs was born on December 19, 1940 in El Paso, Texas. His dad Jakob “Jack” Ochs was a physician from New York, and his mom Gertrude Finn Ochs hailed from Scotland. The two met there and got married in Edinburgh where Jack was attending medical school at the time. After their wedding, they moved to the U.S. Jack joined the army as a doctor and was sent overseas close to the end of World War II. He returned as a sick man with bipolar disorder and depression.

Jack’s health conditions prevented him from establishing a successful medical practice. Instead, he ended up working at a series of hospitals around the country and frequently moving his family. As a result, Phil Ochs grew up in different places, along with an older sister (Sonia, known as Sonny) and a younger brother (Michael). His father was distant from the family, eventually got hospitalized for depression, and passed away from a brain bleeding in April 1963. Phil’s mother died in March 1994.

Phil Ochs as teen with clarinet
Phil Ochs as a teenager playing the clarinet

During his teenage years, Ochs became a talented clarinet player. Prior to the age of 16, he was principal soloist with the orchestra at the Capital University Conservatory of Music in Columbus, Ohio. Although Ochs had become an accomplished classical instrumentalist, he soon discovered the radio and started listening to the likes of Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

Initially, Ochs wanted to become a journalist. Well, he of sort did, combining his interest in writing about politics with music. During his journalism studies at Ohio State University, he met fellow student, activist and future folk singer Jim Glover in the fall of 1960, who introduced him to the music of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and The Weavers, and taught him how to play guitar. It wouldn’t take long before Ochs merged his interest of politics and music and started writing his own songs. He preferred to characterize himself as a topical rather than a protest singer.

Glover and Ochs started performing as a duo called The Singing Socialists and later The Sundowners but broke up before their first professional gig. Glover went to New York, while Ochs started performing professionally at a local fok club in Cleveland. In 1962, he went to the Big Apple as well and soon established himself in the Greenwich Village folk music scence. Ochs described himself as a “singing journalist,” explaining his songs were inspired by stories he saw in Newsweek. By the summer of 1963, he had developed a sufficiently high profile and was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, along the likes of Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary.

Ochs’ debut album All The News That’s Fit To Sing, an allusion to The New York Times‘ slogan “All the news that’s fit to print,” appeared in 1964. Here is Ballad of William Worthy. The tune tells the story about an American journalist who traveled to Cuba despite the U.S. embargo and was forbidden to return to the U.S. Check out the brilliant lyrics of this tune – safe to assume Ochs’ words didn’t endear him to the Johnson Administration.

In 1965, Ochs’ sophomore album I Ain’t Marching Anymore came out. Here’s the excellent satirical anti-war tune Draft Dodger Rag, which quickly became an anthem of the anti-Vietnam war movement.

After Ochs’ first three albums with Electra Records had gone nowhere commercially speaking, he signed with A&M Records and in October 1967 released his fourth studio record Pleasures Of The Harbor. Unlike his first three folk music-oriented records, the album went beyond folk, featuring elements of classical, rock & roll, Dixieland and even experiental synthesized music. Apparently, the idea was to produce a folk-pop crossover. While the album included great tunes, it’s safe to say it didn’t bring Ochs commercial success. Here is Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends, which became one of Ochs’ most popular songs. The tune was inspired by the case of a 28-old woman who was stabbed to death in front of her home in Queens, New York, while dozens of her neighbors reportedly ignored her cries for help.

Tape From California is Ochs’ fifth album. Released in July 1968 on A&M Records, it continued his shift away from straight folk-oriented protest songwriting, though he was far from abandoning topical songs. The War Is Over is a tune that was inspired by poet Allen Ginsberg who in 1966 declared the Vietnam war was over. Ochs decided to adopt the idea and organize an anti-war rally in Los Angeles, for which he wrote the song.

Phil Ochs’ final studio album came out in February 1970. Weirdly, it was called Greatest Hits, even though it was not a compilation but a collection of 10 new tracks. Most of the record was produced by Van Dyke Parks, who previously had appeared on Tape From California, contributing piano and keyboards to the title track. Greatest Hits featured an impressive array of guest artists, including Clarence White and Gene Parsons, both from The Byrds; Ry Cooder; Jim Glover; and members of Elvis Presley’s backing band, among others. The album cover was an homage to Elvis, showing Ochs in a gold lamé suit reminiscent of the outfit Elvis wore for the cover of his 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong greatest hits compilation. Here is Jim Dean Of Indiana, a tune about the actor James Dean, who like Elvis was one of Ochs’ idols.

Greatest Hits was Ochs’ final attempt to connect with average Americans, who he was convinced weren’t listening to topical songs. Disillusioned by key events of 1968, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the police riot in Chicago around the Democratic National Convention and the election of Richard Nixon, Ochs felt he needed to be “part Elvis Presley and part Che Guevara,” as Wikipedia puts it. Ochs supported the album with a tour, performing in the Elivs-like suit and being backed by a rock band, singing his own songs, along with tunes by Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Merle Haggard. But his fans weren’t sure what to make of the “new Phil Ochs.”

Pretty much from there, things went downhill for Ochs. He developed writer’s block and slipped into depression and alcoholism. He did not release any additional records. On April 9, 1976, Ochs committed suicide by hanging himself in the home of his sister Sonny. He was only 35 years old.

I’d like to conclude this post with a few quotes I found on Life of a Rebel, a blog dedicated to Ochs. “As a lyricist, there was nobody like Phil before and there has not been anybody since,” said fellow folk singer Dave Van Ronk. “He had a touch that was so distinctive that it just could not be anybody else. He had been a journalism student before he became a singer, and he would never sacrifice what he felt to be the truth for a good line.” In a note to Ochs in 1963, Pete Seeger wrote, “I wish I had one tenth your talent as a songwriter.” And what did the mighty Bob Dylan tell Broadside magazine in 1964? “I just can’t keep up with Phil. And he’s getting better and better and better.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Life of a Rebel; YouTube

Jersey Singer-Songwriter Rick Barth Releases Acoustic Roots-Oriented Sophomore Album

I met Rick Barth in June 2018 and at the time wrote about his 2015 debut album Hand Me Down Soul. Now the singer-songwriter from Budd Lake, N.J. is out with his second record titled Fade. It’s a nice continuation of his acoustic-oriented rock, singer-songwriter ballads, as well as country and roots-oriented music.

While Barth has been performing on the New Jersey music scene as a solo artist and a member of various bands and duos for about three decades, he only decided to start writing his own music less than 10 years ago. His named influences include Butch Walker, Ryan Adams, John Lennon, Ryan Bingham, Tom Petty, Michael Trent, Jason Isbel and Parker Milsap. I can also hear traces of John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle.

Let’s get to some music. I’d like to kick things off with the opener We Had Fun (Didn’t We?). Like all other tunes on the album, the song was written by Barth.

Next up is the title track featuring nice pedal steel guitar accents.

A vocal highlight on the album is Shine, in my opinion, where Barth’s voice beautifully blends with backing vocalist Louise Trezza.

Here is another tune I like: Stranger Things. Check out the nice dobro work!

The last track I’d like to call out is Change, a country song that to me is perhaps the musical highlight of the record. I dig the beautiful violin playing and the pedal steel guitar, which sound great together. This is perhaps somewhat ironical coming from a guy who used to say he doesn’t like country. Oh well, it just goes to show again that genres don’t need to define great music.

Apart from lead vocals, Barth handles guitars, bass and mandolin. In addition to Louise Trezza (backing vocals), other musicians on the album include Keith Dunham (bass), Wayne Wilson (pedal steel), Jim Reeber (keyboards), Rick Krueger (lap steel, dobro), Ralph Heiss (bass), Dawn Patrick (violin) and Rob Ot (percussion).

Fade was produced by Barth and Dunham and recorded at Rifftide Studio in Ledgewood, N.J. Dunham also served as recording engineer. The album is available on streaming platforms and since yesterday on CD through Barth’s website. By the way, the picture on the cover shows the former Bethlehem Steel plant in Bethlehem, Pa., which during its heyday was one of the world’s largest steel producers.

Sources: Rick Barth website, ReverbNation, BandMix.com, GigMasters, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: The Jersey Angels/Roots

For those who are old enough to remember, first, there were Charlie’s Angels, now there are The Jersey Angels. While Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith became well-known actresses, I don’t believe their talents included singing. And if they did, I doubt it was anywhere as close as the angelic harmony singing of The Jersey Angels, a pop-oriented country duo I saw Friday night when they performed backing vocals for an excellent Neil Young tribute band.

According to their website, The Jersey Angels are Annie and Gianna. Both grew up in the Garden State and are childhood friends. They got together in 2015 and have performed live since November that year. In addition to their impressive vocals, each is also a musician. Annie is playing the violin while Gianna is a guitarist. As a (mostly former) hobby guitarist and bassist, that’s something I like. The ladies also write their own songs. And, as Annie confirmed to me, they’re doing all of this while having “full-time jobs and tons of other obligations.”

annie & gianna
The Jersey Angels (from left): Annie & Gianna

Roots is The Jersey Angels’ debut album, which appeared in March 2018. Frequent visitors of the blog may be surprised that I’m writing about a country duo when my core wheelhouse is ’60s and ’70s classic rock and blues. While that hasn’t changed, my music taste is more eclectic than it may seem. At the end of the day, what I truly care about is whether music speaks to me, not the genre. And these two ladies simply sound great to me! Time for some music.

Let’s kick it off with the opener Hick At Heart.

Next up: The album’s title track.

Appropriately, the record also has a tune called Jersey Girls. And why not? After all, Tom Waits wrote a song about a Jersey Girl in 1980, though his delivery was slightly less angelic. And let’s not forget about another music artist from the Garden State, who did a great cover of that song. His name? Of course, you probably already knew: Bruce Springsteen.

The last tune I’d like to call out is a beautiful picker-upper called Albatross.

Roots is available on Amazon and iTunes. As I was listening to the album, I could picture Cheryl Crow singing some of the songs. And, call me crazy, the combination of acoustic guitar and violin also reminded me a bit of John Mellencamp, though similar to Tom Waits it would be a quite a different vocal sound.

Sources: The Jersey Girls website, YouTube

My Busy 2018 Music Journey Part 2: New Music & 2019 Preview

Part 1 of this 2-part series looked back on the concerts I was fortunate to catch this year. Another significant aspect of my 2018 journey was listening to music, both familiar and new. While most of the music that’s coming out these days isn’t my cup of tea, I still ended up reviewing 24 new releases this year. About half (13) are studio albums, while the remainder is a mix of reissues, vault type releases and live records. Even if you only consider the new studio releases, 13 albums over the course of one year, or an average of approximately one per month, isn’t so bad for somebody who almost entirely lives in the past when it comes to music.

From the above studio albums, I’d like to call out the following: John Mellencamp, Other People’s Stuff, Dec 7 (review); Greta Van Fleet, Anthem Of The Peaceful Army, Oct 19 (review); Paul McCartney, Egypt Station, Sep 7 (review); Buddy Guy, The Blues Is Alive And Well, Jun 15 (review); Roger Daltrey, As Long As I Have You, June 1 (review); and Sting & Shaggy, 44/876, Apr 20 (review). Following are some clips.

Teardrops Will Fall, a ’60s tune co-written by Gerry Granaham and Marion Smith, was first recorded by John Mellencamp for his June 2003 album Trouble No More. But it actually sounds he could have taken the tune from his 1987 gem The Lonesome Jubilee, Mellencamp’s first record where he moved away from straight rock toward a more roots-oriented sound.

While Greta Van Fleet will probably need to find a more original style to ensure their longevity, selfishly, I can’t deny getting a kick out of their Led Zeppelin-style rock. The Cold Wind from their new album is a great example. I don’t know of any other band that sounds like the mighty early Zep. One thing is for sure: Robert Plant can no longer deliver vocals with this degree of intensity.

Egypt Station is Paul McCartney’s 17th solo study album. Here’s I Don’t Know, a classic McCartney piano-driven pop song. Yes, Macca’s voice has noticeably changed since New from October 2013, but I actually think it goes pretty well with his latest songs. Based on YouTube clips I’ve watched, I’m less sure about Beatles tunes. Many are in high keys and as such tough to sing, so Macca may have to make some adjustments.

Moving on to Buddy Guy, who at age 82 shows no signs of slowing down. One of the highlights of his latest record is Cognac, where he trades guitar licks with Jeff Beck and Keith Richards. If you’re a guitarist with basic blues skills, you just feel like grabbing your instrument and joining in!

As Long As I Have You is Roger Daltrey’s first solo album in close to 26 years. Here’s the excellent title track, a cover of a tune that initially was recorded by soul singer Garnet Mimms in 1964. The Who also played it in their early days.

Last but not least in the new studio album category is what at first sight may look like a somewhat odd pairing: Sting & Jamaican pop reggae fusion artist Shaggy. But they actually blend quite well, and here’s some pretty groovy evidence: Just One Lifetime.

This year also saw various great reissues and songs from the vault type albums. The two releases I’d like to highlight here are the reissue of The Beatles’ White Album (review) and Songs For Judy, an excellent Neil Young compilation of live solo performances from his November 1976 tour with Crazy Horse (review).

To me the true revelation of the Beatles’ reissue are the so-called Esher Demos, early and unplugged versions of most of the original album tracks, along with a few additional songs that didn’t make the White Album. They were all recorded at George Harrison’s bungalow in Esher located to the southwest of London. Here’s the Esher demo of Revolution.

The song I’d like to call out from Neil Young’s recent vault release is The Needle And The Damage Done. It remains one of my favorite tunes from Harvest, Young’s fourth studio album that came out in February 1972.

I also would like to acknowledge two Jimi Hendrix releases: The reissue of Electric Ladyland, the third and final studio album by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Both Sides Of The Sky, the third in a trilogy of posthumous albums after Valleys Of Neptune  (2010) and People, Hell and Angels (2013).

The last category of 2018 albums I’d like to touch on are live releases. I already noted Neil Young’s record. Three others that deserve to be called out are Bruce Springsteen’s Springsteen On Broadway (review), Sheryl Crow’s Live At The Capitol Theatre (review) and Soulfire Live (review) by Little Steven and The Disciples of SoulSpringsteen On Broadway is one of the best new albums I’ve heard this year. While Bruce Springsteen as a great music performer wasn’t any news to me, I had not fully appreciated his compelling verbal story-telling capabilities. There’s a bit of that on the Live/1975-1985 box set where Springsteen talks about how he was drafted for Vietnam and that his dad was happy they didn’t take him. Springsteen on Broadway takes his story-telling to another level. In fact, Springsteen’s monologues that precede his songs are almost more compelling than the music performances. Here’s part 1 of the introduction to My Hometown.

Next up: Sheryl CrowIf It Makes You Happy is one of my favorite Crow tunes from her eponymous second studio album released in September 1996. On the new live album, she starts off with another unidentified song I don’t recognize, before launching into Happy.

On to Little Steven. Soulfire Live captures his 2017 tour with The Disciples of Soul in support of his excellent Soulfire album, one of my favorite new records from that year. Among the live album’s highlights is a terrific cover of the Etta James tune Blues Is My Business. In addition to Steven demonstrating that he can be more than just a side-kick,  The Disciples of Soul prove what a terrific backing band they are.

So what’s in store for my music journey next year? On the concert front the only thing I can say for sure is I’m thrilled I got a ticket for The Rolling Stones on June 13 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. It will only be my second time to see the Stones. Three other artists who are currently on my radar screen are John Mellencamp, John Mayall  and Paul McCartney.

Mellencamp has a series of gigs in New Jersey and New York at the end of February. I’d definitely enjoy seeing him again! Mayall has started booking dates in Europe for February and March. I’ve never been to one of his shows and hope he’ll add a U.S. leg to the tour that includes at least one logistically feasible concert. As for McCartney, his current tour schedule shows U.S. gigs between late May and mid-June. Unfortunately, none of them are within reasonable reach, so hopefully there will be additional dates closer to my location.

To frequent visitors of the blog it won’t come as a shock that I have every intention to continue seeing tribute bands. In fact, I already have a ticket for Neil Young tribute Decade for January 11 in Asbury Park, N.J., where they are going to recreate Young’s MTV Unplugged concert from 1993 – should be pretty cool! On February 23, I’m hoping to see Good Stuff, a great new tribute to Steely Dan, Gino Vannelli, Sting and Stevie Wonder. I’m planning to do more about these guys in the near future. Assuming the above British Invasion and Rock The Farm festivals will happen again in 2019, I certainly want to return to both events. Undoubtedly, there will also be plenty of other tribute opportunities.

2019 Outlook

Before finally wrapping up this post, I also would like to take the opportunity to reflect on the current status of the blog. I’m generally pretty happy where things stand at this time. Sticking with it wasn’t necessarily a given when I started out in late June 2016. While I’ve always emphasized I’m doing this because of my passion about the subject of music, not to become “famous,” I cannot deny that getting recognition in the form of comments, likes and followers is encouraging. I’m happy traffic has multiplied from 2017 and to date includes visitors from more than 70 countries.

I’d like to thank all readers, especially those who keep returning and leave comments. Apart from learning new stuff about music, feedback can also help me gain new perspectives. Whether you’re a fist-time visitor or one of the regulars, I’d like to wish you a great and peaceful Holiday season. And if you’re a fellow music blogger, to borrow creatively from Neil Young, keep on rockin’ in the blogosphere!

Christian

Rocking Bitmoji

Sources: Wikipedia, Christian’s Music Musings, YouTube

John Mellencamp’s New Album Features His Now-Familiar Roots Sound With A Twist

“Other People’s Stuff” presents selection of covers from seminal albums, compilations, unearthed sessions and documentaries

John Mellencamp today released his new previously announced 24th studio album Other People’s Stuff. Fans of his transformation from straight rock to a roots-oriented sound, which has been gradual and begun with the excellent The Lonesome Jubilee from 1987, are going to dig what they hear – count me as one of them! Whether Other People’s Stuff will gain Mellencamp new fans is perhaps less certain. Something tells me the fiercely independent-minded Indiana rocker, who clearly is comfortable with the place to which his long musical journey has taken him, won’t be losing any sleep over it!

According to an announcement accompanying its release, Other People’s Stuff presents a collection of covers Mellencamp has recorded throughout his long career. It also includes a new version of Eyes On The Prize, a song he originally performed at The White House during a 2010 Obama Administration celebration of music from the civil rights movement, as I previously covered here. Yes, it still is hard to believe that not long ago America had a leader who truly cared about these issues – and the arts I might add. Eyes On The Prize also became the album’s lead single in early November, coinciding with the record’s initial announcement.

John Mellencamp 2019 Tour Poster

“Most, if not all, of the songs on Other People’s Stuff come from The Great American Songbook,” Mellencamp reiterated. “These are songs that have been recorded over the last 40 years of my career, but had never been put together as one piece of work. Now, they have.”

So there’s your little twist – rather than your traditional covers album an artist typically records at given time period, here you have recordings Mellencamp initially captured at different times during his career and subsequently put a collection of thesm on one record. The other commonality of all these tunes are lyrics that are clearly on the darker side – probably a reflection of Mellencamp’s sentiments about the current state of the country. Let’s get to some music.

Here’s Teardrops Will Fall, which Mellencamp first recorded for the Trouble No More album from June 2003. His great take, which prominently features accordion and violin, would have been a perfect fit for The Lonesome Jubilee. The song was co-written by singer and record producer Gerry Granaham and Marion Smith. Granaham had a string of charting singles in the late 1950s and early ’60s, performing as Dickey Doo & The Don’ts.

Next up: Stones In My Passway, a great Robert Johnson blues tune Mellencamp also first recorded for Trouble No More. It features some nice slide guitar-playing – I assume by multi-instrumentalist Andy York, who has been part of Mellencamp’s band for some 20 years.

Wreck Of The Old ’97 is a song Mellencamp initially recorded for a 2004 compilation album titled The Rose & The Briar: Death, Love And Liberty In The American Ballad. Credited to Fred Lewey, Henry Whitter and Charles Noell, the old country song was inspired by a bad rail accident in September 1903 when a Southern Railway mail train derailed near Danville, Va. The accident, which became known as the Wreck of the Old ’97, killed seven on-board personnel, injured seven others and destroyed a bridge as the train careened off the side of the structure.

The last track I’d like to highlight is I Don’t Know Why I Love You. Interestingly, it’s a Stevie Wonder tune from his ninth studio album For Once In My Life, which was released in December 1968. I didn’t think Wonder, one of my favorite artists, was on Mellencamp’s radar screen, so I was surprised about this pick. Mellencamp’s cover first appeared on a sampler from June 2003 called Conception – An Interpretation of Stevie Wonder’s Songs. The tribute to the soul legend also featured Eric Clapton, Mary J. Blige and Brian McKnight, among other artists.

Mellencamp will support his new album with The John Mellencamp Show (see tour poster above). Appropriately, the 2019 tour is scheduled to kick off on February 7 in South Bend, Ind. The dense 40-date schedule among others includes Cincinnati (Feb 10), Baltimore, Md. (Feb 20), New York (Feb 25-27), Kansas City, MO (Mar 14), Nashville, Tenn. (Mar 19-20) and Wichita (Apr 16), before it concludes on Apr 20 in Albuquerque, N.M.

One of the other stops is right in my backyard in New Brunswick, NJ (Feb 23) at a great theatre. The thought of seeing Mellencamp for what would be my third time is certainly appealing. I guess I just need to find another reason to justify buying a ticket – and hope by the time I do remaining seats will be reasonably affordable!

Sources: Wikipedia, John Mellencamp website, YouTube

Clips & Pix: John Mellencamp/Farewell Angelina

Earlier today when reading a post from hanspostcard about Under The Boardwalk, I was reminded of John Mellencamp and his 16th album Rough Harvest. Released in August 1999, it has become one of my favorite Mellencamp records over the years. One of the gems on that album, in my opinion, is the above cover of Farewell Angelina.

In addition to Mellencamp, the two standout artists on this tune are Miriam Sturm, who does a beautiful job on the violin, and backing vocalist Janas Hoyt. Like Mellencamp, Hoyt hails from Indiana and at the time fronted a band called The Mary Janes. While I found a website, I’m not sure the band is still active.

Farewell Angelina was written by Bob Dylan in 1965, who initially planned to include it on his fifth studio album Bringing It All Back Home. But the tune didn’t make the record and instead became the title track of Joan Baez’s fourth studio album from October 1965. In the U.K., the song was also simultaneously released as a single and from thereon was frequently included by Baez in her concerts. Dylan’s own recording of the track eventually was featured on his 1991 The Bootleg Series Volumes 103 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991, as well as on The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965-1966, which came out in November 2015.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube