Up-And-Comer Myron Elkins Shines On Debut Album

Young singer-songwriter from Michigan small town sounds like an old soul who has seen and done it all

Welcome to my second full-album review of 2023. Not only is it music by another contemporary artist, but it’s also brand new – a promising start of the year, which makes me very happy!

When I first came across Myron Elkins last Friday while doing research for my most recent Best of What’s New installment, I simply couldn’t believe I was listening to a 21-year-old artist. Based on his sound and especially his gritty vocals, you could picture this young singer-songwriter from Otsego, Mich. jam with the likes of The Allman Brothers Band, ZZ Top and Tom Petty back in the ’70s!

Photo: Jimmy Fontaine via Sacks & Co

Before getting to some music from Elkins’ debut album Factories, Farms & Amphetamines, released on January 13, I’d like to touch on his background story. According to his website, while being exposed to music as a kid, taught by his grandfather how to play guitar and starting to write his own songs at 14 or 15, Elkins did not set out to become a professional singer-songwriter. Instead, after high school graduation, the then-17-year-old became a welder in a local factory. Then his trajectory changed.

Three years ago, a relative signed Elkins up for a local battle of the bands competition, even though his music performance experience had been limited to the church and a few gigs at local bars. Elkins also had no band at the time, so he quickly gathered three cousins and a friend to join him. They had three weeks to rehearse. While Elkins’ band “only” came in second, the experience started to change his path.

Photo: Anna Sink

For the next three years, Elkins and his band members continued to practice nearly every day while working regular jobs. Recording in a studio was a big step forward for the nascent group, according to his website. Luckily, Elkins and his band were already fans of [producer] Dave Cobb’s live-band production style before signing with Elektra/Low Country Sound, and so they relished the chance to record with him at his studio, Nashville RCA Studio A. Cobb has worked with the likes of Chris StapletonBrandi CarlileJohn PrineSturgill SimpsonJason IsbellThe Highwomen and Rival Sons.

Time for some music. Here’s the album’s opener Sugartooth. To me, it sounds a bit like Tom Petty channeling Chuck Berry’s Memphis Tennessee. Check this out!

Since I highlighted the album’s title track in my aforementioned Best of What’s New installment, I’m skipping it here to go right to Hands To Myself. The groovy and soulful tune addresses the touchy subject of domestic use…You can hope you can pray that maybe someday/Someone will love someone will help and put you on some kind of shelf/Oh I swear ill never learn to keep my hands to myself…“I’m writing about where I come from,” Elkins explains on his website. “Things I’ve seen and things I’ve heard. I had only been out of Michigan one time—to Graceland—before I started the band, so that little part of Michigan is all I really knew when writing this album.”

Wrong Side Of The River has a country rock flavor. Elkins’ website notes the tune encourages embracing where you’re from, because a supportive home life can make all the difference even if you’re not living on the so-called right side of town.

On Nashville Money, a nice bluesy rocker, Elkins muses about life as a professional music artist…With that Nashville money/gonna take care of my hopes and dreams/With that Nashville money/Gonna make a big star out of me

Let’s take a look at one more tune: Machine, a funky rock tune with a cool bass line.

As briefly noted above, Factories, Farms & Amphetamines was recorded live in studio at the storied RCA Studio A in Nashville. In early 2016, Dave Cobb took over the historic landmark for his Low Country Sound record label imprint. Apart from Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell, some of the other artists who worked there include The Beach Boys, Joe Cocker, Waylon Jennings, B.B. King, Loretta Lynn, The Monkees, Dolly Parton, Leon Russell and George Strait.

In addition to Elkins (guitar, vocals), the album also features the members of his touring band: Caleb Stamphler (guitar), Avery Whitaker (guitar), Nathan Johnson (bass) and Jake Bartlett (drums). Here’s a Spotify link to the entire album:

Reflecting on working with producer Dave Cobb, Elkins states on his website: “I came in with probably 30 songs that we had widdled down from 50-60. Dave would just sit down with us and say ‘ok, let’s hear what you got.’ He knew pretty quickly which ones he wanted to dive into, and from there, it was just kind of a Dave Cobb crash course. We’d only been in the studio one time before that, so there might have been a thing or two that we needed to learn.”

Encouraged by the experience, apparently, Elkins is already looking forward to recording more music. “Now when I’m writing songs, I have all these Dave-isms in my head—like, ‘Oh, yeah, there we go. All right, throw this here.’”, he notes. “Before we recorded Factories, Farms & Amphetamines, I thought maybe you had to be a superhero to make a record. Next time, it’s going be a little easier.”

Elkins is off to a great start as a recording artist, and he’s only 21 years old. I think we can look forward to more great music from this talented young artist.

Sources: Wikipedia; Myron Elkins website; YouTube; Spotify

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Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Hard to believe it’s Saturday and another week just flew by. This also means it’s time again to take a fresh look at new music releases. All featured tunes appear on albums that were released yesterday (January 13).

Margo Price/Been to the Mountain

Kicking off this new music revue is Nashville-based country singer-songwriter Margo Price. While growing up in the small town of Aledo, Ill., Price picked up the piano and sang in the church choir. She later started studying dance and theater at Northern Illinois University but decided to drop out at the age of 20 and moved to Nashville. While doing various odd jobs there, Price began developing a music career. After meeting her future husband, bassist Jeremy Ivy, they formed the group Buffalo Clover and subsequently Margo and the Pricetags. In March 2016, Price released her debut studio album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. It was very well-received by music critics, topped the UK country charts and climbed to no. 10 on the U.S. country charts. Been to the Mountain is the opener of Price’s fourth and latest studio album Strays. Written by Price, the tune first appeared as the lead single in August 2022. I dig her rock-oriented sound, not what you may typically associate with country music!

Blessing Offor/Won’t Be Long Now

Blessing Offor is a Nigerian-born singer-songwriter who blends pop, R&B, gospel and soul. From his AllMusic bio: The youngest of six siblings, Offor was born with congenital glaucoma, which caused blindness in one eye. Sent by his parents to the United States with his uncle to receive medical care, he later lost sight in his other eye after injuring his retina in an accident involving a powerful water gun. He spent his formative years in Connecticut listening to Motown, jazz, and pop and began playing piano at the age of nine. As a teenager, Offor started writing his own songs, and he honed those skills further at Belmont University in Nashville. While Music City afforded him plenty of opportunities, his soulful pop style was an outlier, so he relocated to New York City. In 2014 he appeared on season seven of The Voice…He moved back to Nashville the following year with plenty of wind in his sails…In February 2022, Offor released his debut EP Brighter Days. Now he’s out with his first full-length album My Tribe. Here’s the soulful Won’t Be Long Now, co-written by Offor, Hank Bentley and Jessie Parker-Early. This beautiful tune first appeared on December 9.

Belle and Sebastian/So in the Moment

Scottish indie pop group Belle and Sebastian started out as a project in Glasgow in 1994 by Stuart Murdoch (vocals, guitar, keyboards) and Stuart David (bass). They had both enrolled in a program for unemployed musicians at Stow College where together with their music professor they recorded some demos. This resulted in the release of their first full-length album Tigermilk on the college’s label Electric Honey. The album’s positive reception led Murdoch and David to recruit additional musicians and turn Belle and Sebastian into a full-time band. In August 1996, they signed with Jeepster Records and released their sophomore album If You’re Feeling Sinister in November of the same year. Today, the group consists of Murdoch, Stevie Jackson (guitar, vocals, piano), Sarah Martin (vocals, violin, guitar, flute, keyboards, recorder, percussion), Chris Geddes (keyboards, piano, percussion), Bobby Kildea (guitar, bass), Dave McGowan (bass, keyboards, guitar) and Richard Colburn (drums, percussion). So in the Moment, credited to all members of the group, is a track from their twelfth and new album Late Developers – a pleasant pop song!

Myron Elkins/Factories, Farms & Amphetamines

My final pick for this week is Myron Elkins, a compelling 21-year-old singer-songwriter from Otsego, Mich., whose music combines elements of classic rock, country and blues. According to his web bio, Elkins started working as a welder at the age of 17 after high school graduation and never intended to become a professional musician. His trajectory changed when a relative signed him up for a local battle of the bands competition. Even though Elkins had very limited live experience and put together a group only three weeks prior to the event, they came in second. More importantly, it made him realize music is what he wanted to do. Fast-forward four years to Elkins’ debut album Factories, Farms & Amphetamines. It was produced by Dave Cobb who has worked with the likes of Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile, John Prine, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, The Highwomen and Rival Sons. Let’s check out the impressive title track. Unless you knew, you’d never guess you’re listening to a 21-year-old artist. He sounds like an “old soul” you could picture in the ’70s!

Last but not least, here’s a Spotify list of the above and a few additional tunes by each featured artist.

Sources: Wikipedia; AllMusic; Myron Elkins website; YouTube

Song Musings

What you always wanted to know about that tune

Welcome to another installment of song musings where I take a look at great tunes I’ve only mentioned in passing or even better not covered at all. Today, I have a true gem by American country and folk singer-songwriter John Prine, an artist I’ve yet to explore in greater detail.

Hello In There is a beautiful story-telling tune from Prine’s eponymous debut album, which appeared in October 1971. It was not released as a single. In fact, very few of his songs were. The record peaked at no. 55 in the U.S. on the Billboard 200, making it one of his better chart performers.

Most of Prine’s 18 albums he released over his 50-year career didn’t make the top 100. His highest-charting record on the Billboard 200 was his final, The Tree of Forgiveness, which came out in April 2018 and peaked at no. 5. It also became his only album to top the U.S. Folk Charts.

But overall lack of chart performance didn’t prevent John Prine from becoming one of the most influential and celebrated singer-songwriters of his generation, whose songs were covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson and Paul Westerberg. He also mentored many younger artists, such as Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price.

Prine who in 2018 needed to undergo major surgery for neck cancer passed away in April 2020 from complications of COVID. In 2020, he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He also won two Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 1991 and 2005, as well as two post-mortem Grammys for Best Roots Performance and Best American Roots Song in 2021.

Following is some additional background on Hello In There from Songfacts:

Folk singer-songwriter John Prine explained in a Performing Songwriter interview how this track was sparked from a John Lennon tune and evolved into a poignant song about growing old:

“I heard the John Lennon song ‘Across The Universe,’ and he had a lot of reverb on his voice. I was thinking about hollering into a hollow log, trying to get through to somebody – ‘Hello in there.’ That was the beginning thought, then it went to old people.

I’ve always had an affinity for old people. I used to help a buddy with his newspaper route, and I delivered to a Baptist old peoples home where we’d have to go room-to-room. And some of the patients would kind of pretend that you were a grandchild or nephew that had come to visit, instead of the guy delivering papers. That always stuck in my head.

It was all that stuff together, along with that pretty melody. I don’t think I’ve done a show without singing ‘Hello in There.’ Nothing in it wears on me.”

Prine on choosing the name Loretta for the song’s aging wife (as told to Bruce Pollock): “The names mean a lot. You know, like Loretta in ‘Hello In There.’ I wanted to pick a name that could be an old person’s name, but I didn’t want it to stick out so much. People go through phases one year where a lot of them will name their kids the same… and I was just thinking that it was very possible that the kind of person I had in mind could be called Loretta. And it’s not so strange that it puts her in a complete time period.”

As for the name of old factory friend Rudy, Prine explains: “We used to live in this three-room flat and across the street there was this dog who would never come in and the dog’s name was Rudy. And the lady used to come out at five o’clock every night and go ‘Ru-dee! Ru-dee!’ And I was sitting there writing and suddenly I go ‘Rudy! Yeah! I got that.'”

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

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

Alice Cooper/Don’t Give Up

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

Scorpions/Sign of Hope

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

Margo Price/Twinkle Twinkle

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

Brian Fallon/When You’re Ready

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

Watkins Family Hour/Miles of Desert Sand

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

Shawn Pittman/There Will Be a Day

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

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

Singer-Songwriter Jason Isbell Releases New Album

“Reunions” may have been his most challenging record to make so far

While I had heard of Jason Isbell before and listened to some of his past music, I had not taken a closer look at the singer-songwriter from Green Hill, Ala., who at age 41 has experienced both remarkable success and full-blown addiction to alcohol and cocaine in his late ’20s. Both sides of his story provide important context for Reunions, Isbell’s new album, which he recorded with his backing band The 400 Unit. It was broadly released yesterday, May 15.

Apparently, Isbell grew up in a musical family. His grandfather and uncle showed him how to play various instruments. As a 6-year-old, he learned the mandolin, and in high school, he played the trumpet and French horn. Somewhere along the way, he picked up the guitar and started playing in a garage band and a country cover band. Eventually, he met session bassist David Horn, whose son Patterson Hood was a co-founder of alternative country and Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers. When he was 21, Isbell got a publishing deal with FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., where he worked until he joined Drive-By-Truckers the following year during their supporting tour for their third studio album Southern Rock Opera.

Isbell stayed for six years and recorded three studio albums with the band, contributing guitar and vocals, and writing some of their songs. During these years with Drive-By Truckers, Isbell developed his alcohol and cocaine addiction. Apparently, it did not slow him down much. Following his departure from the band in April 2007, Isbell wasted no time to launch a solo career and released his solo debut Sirens of the Ditch in July that year.

Jason Isbell

The 400 Unit, weirdly named after a colloquial name for the psychiatric ward of a local hospital in Florence, Ala., came together for Isbell’s sophomore album Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit released in February 2009. Two years later, Isbell agreed to enter a rehab program at a Nashville facility. He managed to overcome his addiction and has been sober since. In February 2013, Isbell married singer-songwriter and violinist Amanda Shires. Since 2011, she had been a guest on his albums and eventually became a member of The 400 Unit. In parallel, Shires continued to pursue her solo career. In 2019, she also formed country band The Highwomen. Isbell played guitar on their eponymous debut album, which appeared last September.

Since Isbell got out of drug rehab, he won many accolades for his music, which among others include four Grammy awards and various Americana Music Honors & Awards. They turned out to be a mixed blessing when making his new album. “For some reason, I felt really pressured,” Isbell told The New York Times. “You think, ‘If I make a record that’s not great, everybody’s going to dismiss me entirely. If I [expletive] up my relationship, everybody’s going to be so shocked that they’ll write me off completely.’ All those things, when you say them out loud sound ridiculous, but they stay in there and gnaw at you.”

Jasom Isbell & Amanda Shires
Jason Isbell with Amanda Shires

The pressure took a toll on his marriage and at some point prompted Shires to move to a motel, since she felt belittled. “I want him to make the best art he can but not at the expense of making me feel less,” she noted to The New York Times. “I needed space because lines were getting crossed.” So with all the drama surrounding the album, how did it turn out? Pretty good, in my opinion, though one hopes this outcome happened despite the aforementioned challenges, not because of them. Let’s get to some music!

Here is the opener What’ve I Done to Help. Like all of the remaining nine tracks on the album, the tune was written by Isbell. “It seems like this song set the right mood for the record,” Isbell told Apple Music. “It’s a little bit indicting of myself, but I think it’s also a positive message: Most of what I’m talking about on this album is trying to be aware as possible and not just get lost in your own selfish bubble, because sometimes the hardest thing to do is to be honest with yourself.” BTW, none other than David Crosby provides harmony vocals on the tune!

In Overseas, Isbell was trying to write a song that’s about multiple things at once, which he views as a big challenge. “On the one hand, you have an expatriate who had just had enough of the country they’re living in and moved on and left a family behind,” he explained to Apple Music. “And the other is more about my own personal story, where I was home with our daughter when my wife was on tour for a few months.” Apparently, the song was inspired by Eric Clapton, who once said in an interview he didn’t feel he would ever be a great songwriter since he wasn’t able to write allegorically. “I was probably 12 or 13 when I read that,” Isbell said, “and it stuck with me.”

Running With Your Eyes Closed has a little bit of a Mark Knopfler guitar vibe, which is definitely part of the reason it speaks to me. According to Isbell, “It’s a love song, but I really try hard to look at relationships from different angles, because songs of the initial spark of a relationship – that territory has been covered so many times before and so well that I don’t know that I would have anything new to bring.” I really dig the sound of this track. Check it out!

One of the most personal tracks on the album is It Gets Better. “I was awake until four in the morning, just sort of laying there, not terribly concerned or worried about anything,” Isbell explained. “And there was a time where I thought, ‘Well, if I was just drunk, I could go to sleep’. But then I also thought, ‘Well, yeah, but I would wake up a couple hours later when the liquor wore off.’ I think it’s important for me to remember how it felt to be handicapped by this disease and how my days actually went. I’ve finally gotten to the point now where I don’t really hate that guy anymore, and I think that’s even helped me because I can go back and actually revisit emotions and memories from those times without having to wear a suit of armor.”

Let’s do one more. Here’s the closer Letting You Go, a tune Isbell wrote for his four-year-old daughter, recalling her as a baby and fast-forwarding to picture her getting married and leaving the house. Well, that certainly looks like a big jump into the future; then again, time flies, as I can attest when it comes to my own son who is 18 now – how did that happen so quickly? “Once, when my daughter was very little, my wife said, ‘Every day, they get a little bit farther away from you’,” Isbell reflected. “And that’s the truth of it: It’s a long letting-go process.” He clearly is very attached to the little girl.

Reunions is Isbell’s fourth straight album produced by Dave Cobb, who has also produced for Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and John Prine, among others. In addition to Shires (fiddle, backing vocals), The 400 Unit features Sadler Vaden (guitar, backing vocals), Jimbo Hart (bass, backing vocals), Derry DeBorja (keyboard, accordion, backing vocals) and Chad Gamble (drums, backing vocals).

So what does David Crosby think about Isbell? “Jason has become one of the best writers in the country,” he commented to The New York Times. “And my idea of really good writers is Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan. His singing is emotional. It’s honest. He’s really trying to tell you the story.” Hopefully, Crosby’s praise won’t put additional pressure on Isbell when comes to making his next record. As strange as it sounds, it might actually be a good thing for Isbell if he doesn’t get a ton of accolades for Reunions!

Sources: Wikipedia; The New York Times; Apple Music; YouTube