It’s Wednesday again and, as such, time to take a closer look at another tune I haven’t covered or only mentioned in passing. This week, I decided to dig into the catalog of Jackson Browne. Since the singer-songwriter entered my radar screen with Running On Empty many moons ago, I’ve enjoyed listening to him on and off over the decades.
Rock Me On the Water is a great tune from Browne’s eponymous debut album, which came out in January 1972. Penned by him like the remaining nine tracks, the song also became the record’s and Browne’s second single in July of the same year. Like his debut single Doctor, My Eyes, it made the U.S. charts, reaching no. 48 on the Billboard Hot 100, not as high as its predecessor that peaked at an impressive no. 8.
Like on the album overall, Browne had impressive guests. In the case of Rock Me On the Water, David Crosby and Graham Nash provided backing vocals. Among others, the recording also featured top-notch session musicians Craig Doerge (piano), Leland Sklar (bass) and Russ Kunkel (drums), who would play on many other Browne albums as well. They were all part of The Section, the de facto house band of record label Asylum, whose members collectively or individually played on countless records by artists, such as Carole King, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell and Warren Zevon.
Jackson Browne is the first of 15 studio albums issued to date by Browne who continues to go strong 50 years into his recording career. His most recent album Downhill From Everywhere, released in July 2021, earned a 2022 Grammy Award nomination in the Best Americana Album category. Los Lobos’s Native Sons, a great album I reviewed here, ended up winning the category – certainly a worthy winner!
Following are some additional tidbits from Songfacts:
Jackson Browne uses biblical imagery in this song, where he makes a point that salvation can be attained outside the church.
“It’s got an apocalyptic theme running through it and it’s meant to be kind of a gospel song,” he said in a radio interview. “I employ this gospel language: ‘stand before the father,’ ‘sisters of the sun.’ But it’s turning that around 180 degrees so it’s not about religion, it’s about society.”
“You have to have an idea in a gospel song,” he added, “and if it’s not going to be Jesus, it has to at least be salvation. It’s a way of lovingly, and in a friendly way, refuting the traditional and conventional messages of redemption having to do with the straight and narrow. I staked a lot on that song because it was that combination of social awareness and paying attention to what’s going on around you with that inner search for spiritual meaning.”
Browne wrote this song around 1970, before he started work on his debut album. He was well known as a songwriter at this point, with songs recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Byrds, and Nico. “Rock Me On The Water” was first recorded in 1971 by Johnny Rivers, then later that year by Brewer & Shipley.
Linda Ronstadt released this song on her self-titled third album early in 1972, around the same time the song appeared on Browne’s album. Her version was the first released as a single, and it went to #85 in March, making it the first song written by Jackson Browne to reach the Hot 100.
The other day, I found myself listening to Redneck Friend, a great early rocker by Jackson Browne. This prompted me to pull up For Everyman, Browne’s sophomore album that came out in October 1973. While he’s one of my favorite singer-songwriters and I’ve listened to him for 40 years, for the most part, I really didn’t know this record. Just like for many other artists I dig, I’m mostly familiar with certain songs and perhaps a handful of albums. It didn’t take me long to recognize what a gem For Everyman is, and I decided then and there to blog about it once I would get a chance.
As I started reading up on the album, one of the things that struck me first is the impressive cast of guests. David Crosby, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Elton John, Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt are among Browne’s songwriter peers. In addition, you have top notch session musicians like David Lindley, Jim Keltner, Russ Kunkel, David Paich and Leland Sklar. Kunkel and Sklar were part of The Section, a group of top-notch musicians who together or individually backed the likes of Carole King, James Taylor, Warren Zevon and, well, Jackson Browne.
While I completely realize that having high-caliber guests on an album doesn’t automatically guarantee high quality, a good rule of thumb is that great artists play with other great artists. These guys knew what they had in Jackson Browne. Yes, he already had released his well received eponymous debut album in January 1972. And, yes, he had written songs since the mid-’60s and given the Eagles their first single and top 40 U.S. hit with Take It Easy. Still, I find it impressive how well established the then-25-year-old artist already was at this early stage in his own recording career.
Let’s get to some music. Here’s Browne’s version of the aforementioned Take It Easy, the album’s opener. Originally, Browne began work on the song in 1971 and wanted to include it on his debut album. But he couldn’t finish it at the time. When he played the unfinished tune to his friend Glenn Frey, who lived in the same building, Frey completed the song and received a co-writing credit. At first, I preferred the Eagles’ version but over time, I’ve increasingly come to like Browne’s recording and now dig it at least as much as the rendition by the Eagles. That sweet pedal steel guitar was provided by Sneaky PeteKleinow, an original member of The Flying Burrito Brothers.
What can I say about Colors of the Sun other than it’s a beautiful singer-songwriter type song. In addition to singing lead, Brown played piano on this track. Don Henley provided harmony vocals. It’s simply a great tune – no need to over-analyze. The neat acoustic guitar fill-ins were provided by David Lindley, an incredible musician who bears a significant degree of responsibility for the album’s great sound.
The last track on side one is These Days, a song Browne wrote as a 16-year-old. German singer-songwriter Nico was the first of many artists to record the tune. It was included on her debut album Chelsea Girl from October 1967. Another great version appeared in October 1973 on Gregg Allman’s first solo album Laid Back. Until Allman’s final studio album Southern Blood came out in September 2017, which features Browne as a guest on Allman’s cover of Brown’s Song for Adam, I had no idea these seemingly very different artists had great appreciation of each other and had been good friends. The beautiful harmony vocals on Browne’s original were provided by Doug Haywood who also played a great bass line. Once again Lindley shined, this time on slide guitar.
One to side two and the first track there, Redneck Friend, the tune that prompted my deep exploration of this album. This is one seductive melodic rocker featuring a killer cast of guests: Lindley (slide guitar), Elton John (piano) and Frey (backing vocals), along with Haywood (bass) and Keltner (drums). In addition to lead vocals, Browne provided rhythm guitar. Redneck Friend was also released separately as a single. While it spent 10 weeks on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, it only peaked at no. 85, significantly lower than Browne’s previous two singles Rock Me On the Water (no. 48) and Doctor, My Eyes (no. 8).
Next up: The Times You’ve Come. In addition to the track’s great melody, the standout to me is the melodic bass part by Leland Sklar – absolutely beautiful! I also want to call out Bonnie Raitt who sang harmony and Lindley’s acoustic guitar work.
This brings me to the title track, which is the album’s closer. The idea of the song came to Browne while he was temporarily living with David Crosby on his boat in the San Francisco Bay and met two of Crosby’s neighbors who also owned boats. All three boat owners shared the vision to escape on their boats and create a new civilization elsewhere – essentially the same theme Crosby, Stills & Nash had voiced on their 1969 single Wooden Ships. For Everyone featured Crosby on harmony vocals. Sklar (bass) and Lindley (acoustic and electric guitar) once again were among Browne’s backing musicians.
For Everyman was produced by Jackson Browne. Just like his eponymous debut album, For Everyman made the U.S. and Australian mainstream album charts, reaching no. 43 and no. 48, respectively. It was ranked at no. 450 in Rolling Stone’s 2012 edition of the list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The album didn’t make the most recent revision from September 2020. While Browne’s Mount Rushmore Running on Empty was still four years away, For Everyman is a great early album by a singer-songwriter who after a close to 50-year recording career as a solo artist is still going strong.
A selection of newly released music that caught my attention
This latest installment of the recurring new music feature must acknowledge two albums that dropped today by two of the most influential music artists of our time: Bob Dylan and Neil Young. I already covered Young’s record in my previous post, so I’m skipping him here. There is also a new band of veteran session musicians who recently released their first single in the U.S., a great rock tune by an Australian band and a song from a German blues singer-songwriter and guitarist.
Bob Dylan/Goodbye Jimmy Reed
Goodbye Jimmy Reed is a tune from Rough and Rowdy Ways, the new and widely anticipated album by Bob Dylan. It’s his 39th studio record and the first with original material since Tempest from September 2012. In-between, the great music poet put out three cover albums with standards from the American Songbook. I was going to add all that’s missing is a Christmas collection when I just noticed Dylan already checked off that box in October 2009 with Christmas in the Heart. If you’re frequent visitor of the blog, you probably know my sentiments about Dylan range from outstanding to less than brilliant and everything in-between. Regardless, there’s no doubt Dylan is one of the most important singer-songwriters of our time. I also give him huge credit that age 79 instead of releasing yet another cover album, he dropped a collection with brand new songs. Goodbye Jimmy Reed is a tribute to the American electric blues guitarist who influenced Elvis Presley, Hank Williams Jr., The Rolling Stones and many other artists who I have no doubt include Dylan.
The Immediate Family/Cruel Twist
The Immediate Family is what you could call a super group featuring five veteran session musicians: Danny Kortchmar (guitar), Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Leland Sklar (bass), Russ Kunkel (drums) and Steve Postell (guitar). Between them, they have worked individually and together with artists like Jackson Browne, Carole King, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Nicks, Keith Richards, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Joe Walsh – and the list goes on and on. It’s yet another illustration that great musicians like to play with great musicians. But throwing together a group of top-notch musicians doesn’t automatically guarantee the outcome is as great as their skills. In this case I have to say I really like what I’m hearing! Cruel Twist is the group’s first U.S. single released on June 12. As reported by Rolling Stone, an EP is planned for October, followed by a full-length album next year.
According to their website, Datura4 are a Western Australian band combining full-tilt boogie, heavy psychedelia, blues and classic rock’n’roll for a sound heavy on riffage and mind-bending wig-outs – okey dokey. Founded in 2009, the band includes Dom Mariani (guitar), Bob Patient (keyboards), Stu Loasby (bass) and Warren “Wazza” Hall (drums). They released their debut album Demon Blues in 2015, followed by sophomore Hairy Mountain in 2016. Give is a great rocker from Datura4’s most recent album West Coast Highway Cosmic, which appeared on April 17. I dig the harmony guitar playing and the keyboard work. These guys are cooking – check it out!
Michael van Merwyk/We’re Human
Michael van Merwyk is a blues singer-songwriter and guitarist from Germany. According to this biography, he has become famous as one of only a few lap steel guitar players in the blues business. Michael performs and entertains fans at large festivals and also smaller clubs throughout Europe, either together in an acoustic duo with a blues harp player and singer Gerd Gorge as Delta Boys or his own band called Bluesoul. The (German) website of Bluesoul also notes van Merwyk started playing guitar at the age of 15 and has been an active musician for almost 35 years. I had never heard of him before. We’re Human is from what appears to be his most recent CD The Bear released on May 8. According to Discogs, the CD was recorded live in studio in December 2019 and January 2020.
Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; Last.fm; Bluesoul; YouTube
A tribute to the amazing voice and versatility of Linda Ronstadt
The other night, I caught the great documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice on CNN. While I had been well aware of Linda Ronstadt’s amazing vocals, I had not fully appreciated her musical versatility. I’d like to focus this post on the latter, since it’s safe to assume her biography has been covered a million times.
Yes, Ronstadt “only” performed music written by others, which perhaps in part explains why it took me so long to write about her. But it would be a serious mistake to underappreciate her. You don’t need to take it from me.
Let’s start with a few comments from other artists I dig, who are featured in the documentary. “Linda could literally sing anything” (Dolly Parton). “Linda was the queen. She was what Beyoncé is right now” (Bonnie Raitt). “Linda was a very determined woman” (Don Henley). “There’s just no one that will have a voice like Linda’s” (Emmylou Harris). “Try following Linda Ronstadt every night” (Jackson Browne).
And then there’s Ronstadt’s sheer success. The documentary noted she “was the only female artist with five platinum albums in a row:” Heart Like a Wheel (November 1974), Prisoner in Disguise (September 1975), Hasten Down the Wind (August 1976), Simple Dreams (September 1977) and Living in the USA (September 1978). I assume that statement refers to the ’70s only. According to Wikipedia, Mad Love from February 1980 also hit platinum, which would actually make it six such albums in a row. Plus, there’s another series of five platinum records in a row Ronstadt released between September 1983 and October 1989.
Let’s get to some music. I’d like to kick things off with Rescue Me, from Ronstadt’s eponymous album, released January 1973, her third record. Co-written by Raynard Miner and Carl Smith, this nice rocker was recorded live at The Troubador in Los Angeles. In addition to Ronstadt’s great vocals, I’d like to call out her impressive backing band: Glenn Frey (guitar, backing vocals), Don Henley (drums, backing vocals) and Randy Meisner (backing vocals), along with Sneaky Pete Kleinow (pedal steel guitar), Moon Martin (guitar), Michael Bowden (bass). Among the album’s many other guests was Bernie Leadon. Following the record’s release and with Ronstadt’s approval Frey, Henley, Leadon and Meisner formed that other band called the Eagles.
When Will I Be Loved is one of the gems on Ronstadt’s breakthrough album Heart Like a Wheel from November 1974. The Phil Everly tune nicely illustrates her ability to select great songs and make them her own. I dig the original by The Everly Brothers, but Ronstadt took it to another level. Apart from beautiful harmony singing, it’s the guitar work by Andrew Gold that stands out to me. Similar to her eponymous album, Heart Like a Wheel features an impressive array of guests, including Frey, Henley, J.D. Souther, Timothy B. Schmidt, Russ Kunkel, David Lindley and Emmylou Harris, among others. Once again, it goes to show great artists like to play with other great artists.
In September 1977, Ronstadt released her eighth studio album Simple Dreams, which became one of the most successful records of her entire career. Among others, it includes Blue Bayou, one of her best-known songs. And then there’s this fantastic version of Rolling Stones classic Tumbling Dice. Check out that great slide guitar solo by Waddy Wachtel, who in addition to electric also played acoustic guitar and provided backing vocals, together with Kenny Edwards. According to It Came With The Frame, Ronstadt at the time had a fling with Mick Jagger who helped her overcome challenges in mastering the song’s lyrics. That little help from her friend came to end when Bianca Jagger flew straight to California to confront her husband. Apparently, she actually liked Ronstadt as long as she didn’t get too cozy with Mick!
After having become one of the biggest female music artists on the planet and having firmly established herself in the country, pop and rock genres, Ronstadt took the gutsy decision to turn to Broadway in the summer of 1980. She became the lead in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Gilbert and Sullivan’sThe Pirates of Penzance, alongside actor and vocalist Kevin Kline. While people in the music industry tried to talk her out of it, saying it would be the end of her career, it all made perfect sense to Ronstadt. Her grandfather Fred Ronstadt had once created a musical arrangement of The Pirates of Penzance. Ronstadt also co-starred in the 1983 film version of the operetta, for which she won several Tony Awards and earned a Golden Globe nomination. Here’s Poor Wandering One.
During her Broadway and operetta phase and beyond, Ronstadt continued to release studio albums and took excursions into new musical territory.First up: An album of pop standards, ironically titled What’s New and featuring songs by the likes of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Sammy Kahn. It was the first in a trilogy of jazz-oriented albums. Again, Ronstadt’s record company Asylum and her manager Peter Asher were quite reluctant to produce such a record. But Don Henley didn’t call her “a very determined woman” for nothing, and in the end, the record label and Asher knew they couldn’t talk Ronstadt out of it. The album actually turned out to be a success, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard 200 and spending 81 weeks on the chart. Here’s Ronstadt’s take of I’ve Got a Crush On You, co-written by George Gershwin and his older brother Ira Gershwin.
In 1987, Ronstadt took yet another musical turn. Inspired by her Mexican heritage (her father Gilbert Ronstadt was of German, English and Mexican ancestry) and her exposure to Mexican music, which was sung by her family throughout her childhood, she recorded Canciones De Mi Padre, an album of traditional Mariachi music. Released in November 1987, it became the first of four Spanish language albums Ronstadt released. It also remains the biggest-selling non-English language album in American record history, with 2.5 million copies sold in the U.S. and nearly 10 million worldwide as of 2012. According to Wikipedia, it also is the only recording production that used the three best Mariachi bands in the world: Mariachi Vargas, Mariachi Los Camperos and Mariachi Los Galleros de Pedro Rey. Ronstadt simply didn’t do anything half-ass! Here’s Tú Sólo Tú.
If you’re new to Linda Ronstadt, I suppose by now, nothing would really surprise you. Plus country isn’t perhaps as big a leap as operetta and Mariachi music. Here’s a tune from Trio II, the second country collaboration album Ronstadt recorded with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris: Neil Young’sAfter the Gold Rush. The album appeared in February 1999. I have to say I’ve rarely heard such beautiful harmony vocals. It’s like angels singing. And dare I add it as a huge Neil Young fan, I like Ronstadt’s take better than the original, which is one of my favorite Young tunes.
I’d like to wrap things up with one more song: Back in the U.S.A. Ronstadt’s cover of the Chuck Berry tune was the opener of Living in the USA, released in September 1978, her third and last record to peak the Billboard 200. Back in the U.S.A. also became the album’s lead single in August of the same year. Dan Dugmore and Waddy Wachtel on guitar and Don Grolnick on the piano do a beautiful job. Russ Kunkel (drums), Kenny Edwards (bass, backing vocals) and Peter Asher (backing vocals) round out the backing musicians.
Linda Ronstadt has had an exceptional career. In addition to having released more than 30 studio albums, including three no. 1 records on the Billboard 200, she has appeared on approximately 120 albums by other artists. According to her former producer and manager Peter Asher, Ronstadt has sold over 45 million albums in the U.S. alone. She has also produced for other artists like David Lindley, Aaron Neville and Jimmy Webb. In April 2014, Ronstadt was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She also became a Kennedy Center Honoree last year.
In a February 2019 interview with CBS Sunday Morning, Ronstadt said that it was in 2000 when she started noticing something was wrong with her voice. “I would start to sing and it would start clamp up. It was like a cramp. It was like a freeze…It’s very slow-moving this disease, so it took a really long time to fully manifest.” After these first signs, Ronstadt recorded one more album, Hummin’ to Myself, released in November 2004. During an April 2011 interview with the Arizona Daily Star, she said, “I’m 100 percent retired and I’m not doing anything any more. I’m at the ripe old age of getting to be 65 and I find that I don’t have the power that I had and that’s not worth inviting people to spend their money.”
While Parkinson’s is a bad disease, especially for a vocalist, Ronstadt is very gracious about it. “You know, I’m grateful for the time I had,” she said in the documentary. “I got to live a lot of my dreams and I feel lucky about it…Another person with Parkinson’s said that life after death isn’t the question. It’s life before death. So how you gonna do it? How you gonna live?” BTW, in good old CNN fashion to repeat content, the documentary airs again tonight at 9:00 pm ET and tomorrow (January 5, 12:00-2:00 am ET). If you like Linda Ronstadt, I highly recommend it.
Sources: Wikipedia; It Came With The Frame; CBS Sunday Morning; Arizona Daily Star; YouTube
From the first to the last note Tapestry beautifully shines, truly making it a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.
Carole King’sTapestry set a new standard in the singer-songwriter category. The benchmark has yet to be surpassed, almost 46 years after the album’s release in February 1971.
Apart from its great music, I will always connect Tapestry with the time in the mid-70s when I started to get into music. My sister had the record and was playing it all the time. Recently, I got a vinyl copy of this gem as well. I had owned it on CD for many years, but nothing beats the vinyl experience!
While Tapestry brought Carole King on the map as a solo artist, at the time of its release she already had been a successful songwriter for other artists for more than a decade. Together with her lyricist and first husband Gerry Goffin, Carole had written a number of major hits during the 60s, such as The Loco-Motion (Little Eva), Take Good Care of My Baby (Bobby Vee), One Fine Day (The Chiffons), Pleasant Valley Sunday (The Monkees) and, not to forget, (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman (Aretha Franklin).
But back to Tapestry, which was Carole’s second studio release. Her debut, Writer, did not receive much initial attention, though that changed after Tapestry became popular. It’s one of those rare albums where I almost find it impossible to point out obvious highlights – each of its 12 tunes is simply outstanding, making it worthwhile to listen from the first song to the last song.
The opener I Feel The Earth Move is one of only a few up-tempo tunes on the album with a dose of rock and blues. Another great song in this category is Smackwater Jack. It is also one of three tunes from the ’60s Goffin-King songwriting era. The other two are the beautiful ballads Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? and Natural Woman.
If I would have to choose my favorite from Tapestry, it would be You’ve Got A Friend, both musically and in terms of its exceptionally beautiful lyrics. It is one of various tunes featuring James Taylor, whoalso recorded his own version, which became one of his signature songs.
Another tune I’m particularly fond of is Way Over Yonder. In addition to great lyrics, Carole’s singing and piano-playing are outstanding. But what’s really giving me the goose bumps is the background vocal (Merry Clayton) and the tenor sax solo (Curtis Amy).
Speaking of additional musicians, Tapestry features numerous of them, though most of the songs are dominated by Carole’s powerful voice and piano. Additional instrumentation is oftentimes in the background, especially for the ballads, which gives the songs great dynamic. Some of the fantastic musicians include Danny Kootch (acoustic and electric guitar), Russ Kunkel (drums) and Charles Larkey (bass), Carol’s second husband at the time. Oh, and there is Joni Mitchell, who shares background vocals with James Taylor on Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?
Tapestry has sold over 25 million copies worldwide, including more than 10 million in the U.S., making it one of the most successful albums of all time. It is No. 36 on Rolling Stone’s500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Here’s another gem: It’s Too Late.
This post was updated with images and clips on November 28, 2020.