What I’ve Been Listening to: The Marcus King Band/Carolina Confessions

I first came across Marcus King in March 2020 when working on a post about the multinational music project Playing for Change and was immediately impressed. Taking a subsequent look at his solo debut album El Dorado in April that year confirmed my initial positive impression of the then-24-year-old guitarist and singer-songwriter from Greenville, S.C. And just last Friday, I was reminded of King who plays on a tune from John Mayall’s upcoming new album, which I included in my Best of What’s New installment that day. So I decided to explore more of his music.

According to King’s website, Marcus started learning guitar at age three or four. He has played professionally since he was 11 and always knew he wanted to make music his life. A fourth-generation musician, Marcus has followed in his family’s footsteps. His grandfather was a country guitarist, and his father continues to perform live. [His father is Marvin King, a well-known blues guitarist in South Carolina – CMM]

The Marcus King Band founded in Greenville, South Carolina in 2013, is his tight knit group. Drummer Jack Ryan, bass player Stephen Campbell, trumpeter/trombonist Justin Johnson, sax/steel guitarist Dean Mitchell along with Marcus—bring an irreplaceable combination of commitment, craft and soul to their work and are one of the hardest working bands today.

In 2015, The Marcus King Band released their debut album Soul Insight, which reached an impressive no. 8 on the Billboard Blues Albums chart. King was only 19 years at the time! Their eponymous sophomore release from 2016 did even better, climbing all the way to no. 2 on the blues chart. Carolina Confessions is the band’s third full-length LP that came in August 2018. Let’s take a closer look! Unless noted otherwise, all tunes were written by King.

Here’s the opener Where I’m Headed. All it takes is to listen to the first few bars to make two observations: The music is warm and rich, and King’s vocals sound very soulful – not what you’d expect from a then-22-year-old! The horns further boost the music’s soul vibe. This is so good!

Homesick is a great bluesy and funky tune. Again, the horns give this track a soulful vibe. Here’s a neat lyric video, in which you can see King and the band in action. He looks so young, and yet he sounds so mature!

Here’s How Long, another funky tune. It’s the only track that included other writers: Dan Auerbach, who produced King’s solo debut album, and Pat McLaughlin, a Nashville, Tenn.-based singer-songwriter whose tunes have been recorded by Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal and Al Kooper, among others.

Let’s do one more: Confessions, a slow-burning, blues-oriented rocker. I don’t mean to sound stereotypical here, but I just find it mind-boggling how a white artist in his early 20s can channel so much soulfulness in his singing. I mean, holy cow, check this out!

Carolina Confessions was recorded at the renowned RCA Studio A in Nashville, originally known as RCA Victor Nashville Sound Studios. The Beach Boys, B.B. King, Loretta Lynn and Leon Russell are among the many artists who have recorded at the storied studio.

The album was produced and mixed by Dave Cobb who has worked with the likes of Rival Sons, The Highway Women, Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell and John Prine. Like its predecessor, Carolina Confessions climbed to no. 2 on the Billboard Blues Albums chart. It also reached no. 2 on the Heatseekers Albums. I feel Marcus King has a bright future and look forward to hearing more music from this talented young artist.

Sources: Wikipedia; Marcus King Band website; YouTube; Spotify

What I’ve Been Listening to: Yola/Walk Through Fire

When I included the latest single by Yola in my last Best of What’s New installment, I noticed her first full-length solo album Walk Through Fire received many accolades. Since the strong voice of the English singer-songwriter immediately grabbed me, I checked it out and have to say it’s a true gem, both musically and in terms of her vocal performance.

Getting to that point wasn’t exactly an easy path for Yola who was born as Yolanda Quartey in 1983 in Bristol, England. According to this review in Popmatters, Yola had a tough childhood characterized by poverty and a parent who didn’t care for her and banned music. Later she lived homeless in London for some time before establishing herself as a session singer and touring with acts like DJ collective Bugz in the Attic and electronic music outfit Massive Attack.

Yola Carter

In 2005, she co-founded country-soul band Phantom Limb and recorded two studio albums and a live record with them. But ultimately, as her artist profile in Apple Music notes, Yola felt the need to strike out on her own. Over the next few years, she started writing her own songs that were influenced by Muscle Shoals era country-soul, R&B and classic singer-songwriter style. In 2016, she released her debut EP Orphan Offering under the name of Yola Carter.

Eventually, Yola went to Nashville where she met Dan Auerbach after he had seen a video of her. Apparently, Auerbach was immediately impressed by her. “Her spirit fills the room, just like her voice,” he reportedly said. “She has the ability to sing in a full roar or barely a whisper and that is a true gift.” Auerbach teamed up with Yola to co-write songs, together with other writers, including Bobby Wood, Pat McLaughlin and Dan Penn.

Yola and Dan Auerbach

Auerbach also assembled an impressive group of seasoned studio musicians, including Dave Roe (bass), who played with Johnny Cash and John Mellencamp, among others; harmonica player Charlie McCoy (credits include Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, etc.) and drummer Gene Crisman, who together with Bobby Wood was a member of the Memphis Boys. They were the house band of American Sound Studio in Memphis, Tenn. where artists like Elvis, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield recorded. Auerbach also produced Walk Through Fire, which appeared in February 2019 on his Easy Eye Sound label.

With all of the above, it’s not surprising the album has a retro late ’60s sound. This is also matched by the cover. And yet, to me, Walk Through Fire feels like an album that will hold up well over time. It simply is a work of beauty. Let’s get to some music.

Here’s the opener Faraway Look. The track was co-written by Auerbach, McLaughin and Yola. BTW, McLaughlin’s compositions have been performed by artists like Bonnie Raitt, Alan Jackson, Taj Mahal and Al Kooper, among others. Sure, the production might be a bit on the lush side, but this is just a beautiful tune.

Ride Out in the Country is another great track. The song was co-written by Auerbach, Yola and Joe Allen. Allen is a county songwriter and bassist who since the early ’70s has worked with the likes of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash.

Next up is the title track, which according to Wikipedia references both a fire that damaged Yola’s home and an abusive relationship from which she escaped. The tune was co-written by Auerbach, Yola and Dan Penn. Penn has co-written many soul hits of the ’60s, including The Dark End of the Street and Do Right Woman, Do Right Man and Cry Like a Baby.

Rock Me Gently is my current favorite on the album. It’s another Auerbach-Allen-Yola co-write.

Let’s do one more: Love All Night (Work All Day), co-credited to Wood, Auerbach and Yola.

As noted above, Walk Through Fire was very well received. The album also generated three Grammy nominations: Best Americana Album, Best American Roots Song (Faraway Look) and Best New Artist. Walk Through Fire was also nominated for Album of the Year at the Americana Music Honors & Awards. And, yes, the album also did score a win: UK Album of the Year at the UK Americana Awards.

At age 37, Yola still is relatively young. I look forward to much more great music from this talented songwriter and vocalist.

Sources: Wikipedia; Popmatters; Apple Music; YouTube