Review: Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett in concert

By Paul T. Mueller

A recent show at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands, just north of Houston, marked a kind of homecoming for a pair of celebrated Texas singer-songwriters. The Sept. 11 gig featured Robert Earl Keen opening for friend and former college classmate Lyle Lovett, who was winding down his usual summer tour with his Large Band. Both are from the area – Keen grew up in southwest Houston, while Lovett is from the town of Klein, just northwest of the city. Plenty of friends, family members and longtime fans were in attendance on what turned out to be a mild late-summer evening at the open-air venue.

Backed by his longtime band, Keen started off with “Corpus Christi Bay,” an anthem to brotherly love and good times. Next came his tribute to the late Levon Helm of The Band, “The Man Behind the Drums.” More favorites followed over the next hour and a half – a solemn rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s “Flying Shoes”; a lively take on “Ready for Confetti”; the jazzy “Dreadful Selfish Crime,” featuring nice keyboards by Marty Muse, better known as a pedal-steel player; “Gringo Honeymoon,” with nice acoustic guitar work by Rich Brotherton, and “Shades of Gray,” Keen’s tale of small-time crime and mistaken identity, fueled by an excellent guitar duel between Brotherton and Muse.

 Of course the set included two of the biggest hits of all: “Merry Christmas from the Family,” which Keen proclaimed as the official kickoff of the holiday season, and the closer, a hard-rocking treatment of the crime-love-and-betrayal ballad “The Road Goes on Forever.” Called back to the stage, Keen briefly quieted the crowd by saying he wanted to talk about “something a little bit serious” – but that turned out to be an announcement of the impending sale of “Robert Earl Keen beer” by a local grocery chain. The band finished with “I Gotta Go,” featuring Brotherton’s acoustic guitar and Muse’s resonator.

 After a short intermission, Lovett’s Large Band took the stage with its usual instrumental intro. Lovett, accompanied by the legendary Francine Reed, came out and launched into the classic “Stand By Your Man.” A few songs later, the 14-piece ensemble took a jazzy turn on “Penguins,” featuring some quasi-line dance footwork by Lovett and others near the front of the stage, including Reed, fiddler Luke Bulla and guitarists Keith Sewell and Ray Herndon.

Lovett called Keen back to the stage for a beautiful rendition of “This Old Porch,” which the two wrote together during their college days at Texas A&M. “Robert and I are real friends, not just show-business friends,” Lovett noted at one point. A rousing version of “My Baby Don’t Tolerate” was followed by an extended take on “What I Don’t Know” in which almost every band member got to take a short solo – all of which Lovett observed with obvious appreciation.

 After several more well-received numbers, including “That’s Right (You’re Not from Texas),” “God Will” and “L.A. County,” Lovett turned the stage over to Bulla and Sewell, each of whom performed one of his own songs. Then came the crowd-pleasing “If I Had a Boat,” featuring nice cello work by John Hagen, and Lovett’s always-entertaining duet with Reed, “What Do You Do?” Then Reed got her turn in the spotlight, with excellent, high-energy performances of her signature tunes “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show” and “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues.”

Keen returned to join the choir for “Church,” whose joyful mood was only barely nicked by a rare vocal glitch on Lovett’s part. After more effusive thanks to the audience, Lovett left the stage, returning a few minutes later to close with a rocking rendition of Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues.”

 Contributing throughout was the excellent Large Band horn section, consisting of Harvey Thompson on tenor sax, Brad Leali on alto sax, Charles Rose on trombone and Chad Willis on trumpet. Also in fine form were the rhythm section – pianist Matt Rollings, drummer Russ Kunkel, conga player James Gilmer and bassist Viktor Krauss – and pedal-steel man Buck Reid.

 

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Jason Isbell wins big at Americana Music awards

 

Isbell 350x262 Jason Isbell wins big at Americana Music awards

Jason Isbell performs at the Americana Music Festival Honors and Awards show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

By Ken Paulson

It’s the rare music awards show that peaks ten minutes in, but that was the case tonight at the Ryman Auditorium for the 13th Annual Americana Music Association Honors and Awards Show. That was when Loretta Lynn, winner of a lifetime achievement award as a songwriter, took the stage and performed “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” It was thrilling and historic at the same time.

Jason Isbell made a bit of history himself, dominating the awards with wins for artist of the year, album of the year and song of the year.

Sturgill Simpson won the emerging artist of the year award and the Milk Carton Kids (very funny tonight while stalling for time) won as the duo of the year.

The least surprising win of this year or any other: Buddy Miller was named instrumentalist of the year.

The full list of honorees:

Album of the Year: “Southeastern,” Jason Isbell, produced by  Dave Cobb

Artist of the Year: Jason Isbell

Duo or Group of the Year: The Milk Carton Kids

Song of the Year: “Cover Me Up” by  Jason Isbell

Emerging Artist of the Year: Sturgill Simpson

Instrumentalist of the year: Buddy Miller

Free Speech in Music Award presented by the Americana Music Association and the First Amendment Center: Jackson Browne

Lifetime Achievement for Instrumentalist: Flaco Jimenez

Lifetime Achievement for Performance: Taj Mahal

Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriter: Loretta Lynn

President’s Award: Jimmie Rodgers

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What’s Americana music? Answer spans decades

By Rich Gordon

What’s Americana music?

Is it “American roots music based on the traditions of country”? That’s how the Americana Music Association defined Americana in 2003.

Or “music that honors and is derived from the traditions of American roots music”? That was the association’s definition in 2007.

Or “contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues”? That’s the core of the definition today on the association’s website.

The definition keeps getting longer, and the emphasis on country music keeps being diluted. Instead of being recognized as the key ancestral homeland for Americana music, country is now listed as one of five different genres “incorporated” into Americana music. I think this is a mistake.

On the eve of the Americana Music Festival in Nashville, why does this matter to me? I’m a member of a Chicago-based band (Twangdogs) that plays country-rock music — cover songs, mostly. When someone asks me what kind of music my band plays and I say, “Americana,” the overwhelming response is “What’s that?”

Maybe part of the problem is that the “official” definition keeps changing.

When you think of a kind of music — say, “country” or “classic rock” or “hip hop” — what comes to mind? A few possibilities: radio station formats, music-festival motifs, the musical genres associated with certain concert venues, the answer to the question “What kind of music do you like?” And, of course, the type of music that a cover band plays.

“Americana” music, as a term, was born in 1995 when the Gavin Report made used the name for the 12th radio format the publication was tracking — meaning, what songs were being played on what stations. At the time, Americana referred to a blend of two different musical strains:

Americana never really caught on as a radio format — there were 90 reporting radio stations, mostly operated by colleges, non-profits and public radio stations — before Gavin shut down its Americana chart in 2000. By that time, the Americana Music Association had been formed, and it now oversees the official Americana radio chart.

Because the association is tightly linked to the music industry — record labels, promoters, radio station programmers — it understandably emphasizes “contemporary” music. But in an article for NoDepression.com earlier this month, I argued that in expanding beyond country-music influences, the association has diluted the focus for “Americana.”

Instead, I argued that Americana should encompass country-rock music over a longer span of time: “country rock generations,” taking in all of the periods when country music intersected, influenced and blended with rock music. That can encompass everything from:

  • “Rockabilly” like Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and early Elvis Presley
  • 1960s-70s country-rock, from Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” to the Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” to Creedence Clearwater Revival, New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Eagles and Jackson Browne.
  • 1970s Southern rock like the Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker Band.
  • 1970s-80s country-punk like the Blasters, X and Lone Justice.
  • 1980s-90s alt-country (aka “insurgent country,” “No Depression,” etc.) such as Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Son Volt and Whiskeytown.
  • Country-influenced acts on the “jam band” circuit, including old names (Allman Brothers and Little Feat) and newer ones like Old Crow Medicine Show and the Black Crowes.
  • Veteran but still vibrant country-centered performers like Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash and Jim Lauderdale.
  • Country artists who have revived their careers — and created compelling contemporary sounds — through inter-generational collaborations (Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin, Loretta Lynn and Jack White, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant).
  • The kinds of young performers who now show up prominently on the Americana chart: Shovels and Rope, Justin Townes Earle, Jamestown Revival, Sturgill Simpson and of course, the Avett Brothers.
twangdogs 350x270 Whats Americana music?  Answer spans decades

The Twangdogs

This definition is certainly broad enough to stock a festival — and in fact, this year’s AmericanaFest (put on by the Americana Music Association) is presenting a mix of music that’s consistent with this approach. Jackson Browne and Loretta Lynn are receiving lifetime achievement awards, the Avett Brothers are headlining the Saturday night outdoor concert, and the festival features performers from multiple generations — from Lee Ann Womack to Jim Lauderdale to Rodney Crowell to Angaleena Presley to Cale Tyson.

The “country-rock generations” model also makes for a great setlist for a cover band — one that can appeal to many generations of music fans. As I wrote for NoDepression.com,

A 1970s Eagles or Jackson Browne fan would like the Avett Brothers or Jamestown Revival.  Fans of Old Crow Medicine Show would appreciate Buddy Holly. All of them might enjoy Whiskeytown or Uncle Tupelo.  And music from these performers — and many others — can fit together nicely on a setlist or a playlist.

To demonstrate the power of a “country-rock generations” model, let me use as an example the working setlist for Twangdogs’ upcoming show on Saturday afternoon (Sept. 20) at the 12th and Porter club in Nashville. We’ll be playing songs that cover 57 years of country-rock history, including examples from six decades of music. Here they are listed in chronological order based on their first release:

  • “Oh Boy” (Buddy Holly, 1957) – also recorded or performed by many others, including the Everly Brtohers, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Grateful Dead.
  • “Gone Gone Gone” (Everly Brothers, 1964) – also released in 2007 by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.
  • “Dead Flowers” (Rolling Stones, 1971) — from the period when the Stones were hanging out with Gram Parsons, also recorded by Townes Van Zandt, New Riders of the Purple Sage and played live by Steve Earle and Jerry Lee Lewis.
  • “I Know You Rider” — our version of this old blues song is modeled after the Grateful Dead’s 1972 recording, but the song has been recorded by many others, including Janis Joplin, the Seldom Scene and the Byrds.
  • “Best of My Love” (Eagles, 1974)
  • “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” (Warren Zevon, 1976; Linda Ronstadt, 1977) – also recorded by country star Terri Clark (1996)
  • “Running on Empty” (Jackson Browne, 1977)
  • “Wall of Death” (Richard and Linda Thompson, 1982)
  • “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet” (the Canadian band Blue Rodeo, 1993)
  • “You’re Still Standing There” (Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, 1996)
  • “Your Life is Now” (John Mellencamp, 1998)
  • “The Captain” (Kasey Chambers, 1999)
  • “Wagon Wheel” (Old Crow Medicine Show, 2004)
  • “In State” (Kathleen Edwards, 2005)
  • “I’m With the Band” (Little Big Town, 2007)
  • “Down by the Water” (Decemberists, 2011)
  • “Hell on Heels” (Pistol Annies, 2011)
  • “Ho Hey” (Lumineers, 2012)
  • “California (Cast Iron Soul)” (Jamestown Revival, 2014)

These songs will be packaged into a set we’re calling “Love, Americana Style: A Song Cycle of Romance, Relationships and the Road.” Based on our experience playing songs like these in the Midwest — and in Scotland, where we played the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year — there’s something in the set to appeal to every different musical generation. Which is exactly what a cover band needs to play.

Rich Gordon is a college journalism professor, long-time country-rock fan, subscriber to the late, lamented No Depression magazine — and member of Twangdogs, a Chicago country-rock cover band.

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Americana Music Festival’s deep, diverse line-up

ama logo button red Americana Music Festivals deep, diverse line upThe Americana Music Association’s 2014 Conference and Festival in Nashville  begins this week. It’s a rich event with a diverse line-up. Here’s the list of performers: 
Amy Ray
Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay
Chuck Mead and His Grassy Knoll Boys
Danny & The Champions
Doug Seegers
The Duhks
Emily Barker & the Red Clay Halo
The Fairfield Four
The Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer
Howlin’ Brothers
J.D. Wilkes & the Dirt Daubers
Joe Purdy
Joshua James
Leo Welch
Marah Presents: Mountain Minstrelsy
Nathaniel Rateliff
Quebe Sisters Band
Sean Rowe
Todd Snider & Friends
Trigger Hippy (feat. Jackie Greene, Joan Osborne, Steve Gorman, Tom Bukovac & Nick Govrik)
Whiskey Shivers

Andrew Combs

Anthony D’Amato
Banditos
Bradford Lee Folk
Brooke Russell & the Mean Reds
Cale Tyson
Caleb Klauder Country Band
Cory Chisel’s “Soul Obscura”
The Danberrys
Ernie Hendrickson
Feufollet
Harlan Pepper
The Hot Nut Riveters
Ian McLagan
Jim Oblon
Leftover Salmon feat. Bill Payne of Little Feat
Matt Anderson
Matthew Perryman Jones
Mipso
NQ Arbuckle
Parsonsfield (formerly Poor Old Shine)
Promised Land Sound
Robby Hecht
Shinyribs
The Silks
Truth & Salvage Co.
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Paul Thorn’s “Too Blessed to be Stressed”

By Ken Paulson

thorn 150x150 Paul Thorns Too Blessed to be StressedPaul Thorn’s Too Blessed to Be Stressed is sort of a children’s album for adults.

Just as kids’ albums teach cooperation, manners and personal hygiene in song, Thorn offers a few life lessons of his own:

  • Remember that we’re “Too Blessed to Be Stressed.”
  • Keep the faith and know that “Everything’s Gonna Be All Right.”
  • Make friends because “Everybody Needs Somebody.”
  • Walk a different path and “Don’t Let Nobody Rob You of Your Joy”

While that may sound preachy, it’s anything but. This is largely joyous and affirming music, supplemented with the vocals of the McCrary Sisters.

“Mediocrity is King,” the album’s highlight, is considerably more cutting. This is a contemporary protest song, bemoaning an era in which the shallow are celebrated, family businesses are obsolete and Johnny Cash would never have made it. In just 18 words, Thorn explains why our democracy is in disarray “When you don’t expect much, you’re never let down; you get the kind of government we’ve got now.” This is smart and pointed songwriting and we need a lot more of it.

The album isn’t wall-to wall messages. “I Backslide on Fridays” is more familiar Thorn fare, explaining how good intentions disappear over the course of a week.

Thorn and co-writer Billy Maddox have crafted a fine album with hook-laden songs that actually say something about the world we live in, a surprisingly rare achievement. Too Blessed to be Stressed continues Thorn’s remarkable run.

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Reissues: Lulu and Cass Elliott from Real Gone Music

By Ken Paulson

Lulu 150x150 Reissues: Lulu and Cass Elliott from Real Gone MusicLulu and Cass Elliott, two of the sixties’ most prominent pop vocalists, found themselves at career crossroads at the close of that decade.

Lulu, known in the U.S. for “To Sir With Love” had left producer Mickie Most, hungering for a more substantive recording career. Mama Cass was pursuing a solo career following the dissolution of the Mamas and Papas. Both women had enjoyed success with their own television shows and saw themselves as entertainers rather than just pop singers.

Two Real Gone Music releases – Lulu’s Atco Sessions 1969-1972 and Elliot’s Don’t Call Me Mama Anymore - document the paths of both women in the early ‘70s.

The Lulu collection is particularly impressive. Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler brought Lulu to Muscle Shoals to work with the region’s famed musicians, apparently hoping to capture the same kind of feel found on Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis. The resulting album New Routes, contained here, is smooth and souldful, , fueled by the playing of Eddie Hinton, Jimmy Johnson, Duane Allman, Barry Beckett, David Hood and Roger Hawkins. It yielded “Oh Me Oh My (I’m A Fool for You Baby), one of Lulu’s handful of U.S. Top 40 hits.

The follow-up Melody Fair, was recorded at Criteria Studios in Miami, and had more of a pop feel, opening with the Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine.” The title track was written by the Brothers Gibb (she was married to Maurice at the time) and she even covered Randy Newman’s “Vine Street.” The single “Hum A Song” (From Your Heart) stalled in the Hot 100, but deserved better.

The collection also includes a full disc of rarities, a number of which were presumably recorded for a third Atco release that would never come. Highlights include Lulu’s versions of Elton John’s “Come Down in Time” and Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song.”

The Atco Sessions find Lulu at the top of her game, accompanied by some of the finest studio players in history. Little wonder that New Routes and Melody Fair would be prove to be the two best LPs of her career.

cass 150x150 Reissues: Lulu and Cass Elliott from Real Gone MusicDon’t Call Me Mama Anymore is a live recording capturing Cass Eliott at Mr. Kelly’s nightclub in Chicago. It was an era in which pop and soul artists – most notably the Supremes and Temptations – would gravitate to high-end nightclubs in an effort to broaden their appeal beyond the Top 40 audience.

The album reveals a charming, determined-to-please performer that doesn’t just rely on her hits to entertain. There’s a torch song medley, a cover of Paul McCartney’s then-new “My Love” and a comical turn that implores people to stop calling her “Mama Cass.”

Bonus tracks include a medley of her solo hits and the previously unreleased “Don’t Make Me a Memory.”

Don’t Call Me Mama Anymore is a sweet souvenir.

 

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Jesse Winchester’s touching farewell

Jesse 150x150 Jesse Winchesters touching farewellBy Ken Paulson

I braced myself for the first listening to Jesse Winchester’s A Reasonable Amount of Trouble. After all, this was his final album, recorded while he was dying of cancer. And the cover image of his painting of a crying woman was anything but upbeat.

Who would have guessed such dour packaging would contain such a joyous album? With loving production from Mac McAnally, A Reasonable Amount of Trouble truly celebrates Winchester’s talent. Set for release on Sept. 16, the album features McAnally on guitar, Roscoe Beck on bass and Eric Darken on percussion, with guest turns by Jerry Douglas and Jim Horn.

Opener “All That We Have is Now” tells us to embrace the moment; it’s encouraging and lilting throughout. And then there’s the charming goofiness of “Never Forget to Boogie,” a bluesy shuffle and a pretty good way to live your life.

Winchester tapped into his childhood for three ‘60s-era hits, offering up sweet and fun covers of “Rhythm of the Rain,” “Devil or Angel” and “Whispering Bells.”

Closing out the album is “Just So Much,” a touching reflection on mortality and the most truthful song you’ll ever hear. Stunning.

 

 

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John Hiatt’s “Terms of My Surrender”

Hiatt terms 150x150 John Hiatts Terms of My Surrenderby Paul T. Mueller

John Hiatt’s latest album Terms of My Surrender finds the veteran singer-songwriter pretty much in “old dude looking back” mode. “I’ve sang these songs a thousand times, ever since I was young,” he sings in the first track, “Long Time Comin’.” And there’s this in the next track, “Face of God”: “My eyes are blind from crying/don’t know how many more tears I’ve got.”

Grim stuff, especially considering that Hiatt, who just turned 62, is not exactly ancient. Still, he’s been at this for a while, producing excellent work along the way – “Drive South,” “Thing Called Love,” “Crossing Muddy Waters,” “Have a Little Faith in Me,” “Slow Turning” – the list goes on. So he’s earned his aging-bluesman persona, and with his gravelly voice and still-worthy guitar chops, he’s pretty good at it.

There might not be anything on Terms that will get Hiatt much radio airplay (not that that seems to have been his goal – the album has a “because I want to” feel about it). But there’s good material here nonetheless, all original, well written and well performed.

“Wind Don’t Have to Hurry” is an eerie meditation on freedom and mortality, fueled by the spooky banjo of longtime collaborator Doug Lancio (who also contributes guitar and mandolin on various tracks). “Nobody Knew His Name” treads familiar ground – the mysterious stranger lamenting the long-ago loss of his true love – but Hiatt tells the story with his typical panache.

Hiatt knows his way around a funny song, and he’s not afraid to paint in broad strokes. “Old people are pushy,” he sings in “Old People,” before describing a list of dubious behaviors – cutting in line, arguing with the checkout lady, driving too slow. “They can seem like sweet little old people,” he sings of his newly embraced tribe, “but they’re not about to kiss your ass.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Hiatt album without a few sweet love songs. Romance meets the blues in “Nothin’ I Love,” in which the narrator recounts his various vices and concludes, “There ain’t nothin’ I love good for me but you.” He’s accompanied here by some excellent guitar by Lancio (other contributors include bassist Nathan Gehri, drummer Kenneth Blevins and keyboardist Jon Coleman, with Brandon Young on backing vocals).

The title track is a gentle love song with a jazzy arrangement. “I can be rough, sometimes I can be tender, but I can’t negotiate the terms of my surrender,” Hiatt sings. “I love you too much, babe, go on and have your way with me.” The album closes with the lively “Come Back Home,” in which the narrator pleads for the return of a departed lover. “I’d take back every song, all that I’ve done wrong/I wish that you’d come home to me.”

Terms of My Surrender benefits from fine production by Lancio, featuring clear, uncluttered arrangements that leave the focus on Hiatt’s words.

Shovels and Ropes’ “Swimmin’ Time”

shovels 2 150x150 Shovels and Ropes Swimmin TimeBy Ken Paulson

We loved the Shovels and Rope album O’ Be Joyful and have looked forward to the follow-up. The wait is over.

On August 25, Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent will release Swimmin’ Time, a comparably striking album that melds folk, country, blues and rock in a truly compelling style.  The album marries often rudimentary rhythms to fascinating narratives and compelling lyrics.

There’s a lot of water imagery here, including “Fish Assassin” possibly the most unsettling fishing song of all time.

“Mary Ann and One Eyed Dan” tells the saga of a waitress and a man who lost part of his eyelid in combat: “She said “Do you like the menu or do you need me to read it to you?’ Her question leaves him ” half way angry, half turned on and half confused.” It’s  lousy math, but good songwriting.

Those kinds of lines jump out at you throughout the album. “I got wasted and sat around the fire all day, see if I could find someone to make love to,” Hearst sings on the plaintive album opener “The Devil is All Around.”

The music is still direct and basic, and often ominous, no surprise with song titles like “Evil” and “Bridge of Fire.” It’s a worthy follow-up to their highly successful debut.

Follow Sun209 on Twitter at @Sun209com.

Holly Williams, BR5-49 added to festival

ama logo button red 150x150 Holly Williams, BR5 49 added to festivalThe Americana Music Association has announced a third wave of artists for its upcoming festival and conference in Nashville, including Aaron Lee Tasjan, BR5-49, Holly Williams, Joe Fletcher & the Wrong Reasons, Luther Dickinson, Michaela Anne, Paul Burch, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band.

BR5-49 has widely been credited as the musical catalyst that helped turn around Nashville’s once-decaying Lower Broadway in the ’90s, and paved the way for the city’s current vibrant music scene.

Holly Williams, another Nashville resident, is the granddaughter of Hank Williams and daughter of Hank Jr.

You’ll find the full schedule for the Sept. 17-21 festival here.

 

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