Review: Megan Palmer’s “What She’s Got to Give”

by Paul T. Mueller

Megan PalmerWhat She’s Got to Give marks a real step forward for East Nashville-based singer-songwriter Megan Palmer. Palmer’s earlier recordings, including 2012’s Waycross, showed promise, but this one delivers on that promise, offering thoughtful lyrics, interesting arrangements and excellent playing and vocals.

Romantic difficulty lies at the heart of several of these songs. The oddly titled “The Only Trumpet” is an angry blast at a disappointing lover, while the bouncy tone of “Knifetwister” contrasts with its dark narrative about a bad girl behaving badly. Similarly, the sweet melody and gentle playing on the title track are at odds with its bittersweet theme – loneliness and the high price of trying to avoid it. “No one’s listening to what she says she wants,” Palmer sings plaintively, accompanied by intertwined guitar and piano lines. “They’re just taking all they can, and she knows that’s what she’s got to give… She knows that it’s never-ending.”

The album’s only cover is a nice rendition of John Hartford’s “In Tall Buildings,” which deals with growing up and accepting the drudgery of the 9-to-5 life. Again, the subject matter isn’t all that pleasant, but the song is enlivened by some sweet harmony from vocalists including Emma Berkey, Ariel Bui, Nellie Clay and Dylan Lee Johnston (Amy Speace contributed vocals on other tracks). The album closes with an uncredited final track, the bluegrassy “Tomorrow’s Gonna Make Up for Yesterday,” which showcases Palmer’s fine fiddle.

That fiddle is what Megan Palmer is probably best known for, but she’s also credited here with guitar, piano, organ and harmonium, as well as vocals. Other players include Tim Easton on guitar, mandolin and harmonica, Larry Cook and Tony Scherr on bass, and Jon Radford on drums. Patrick Damphier gets credit for clean production and interesting arrangements, as well as guitar and vocals.

Palmer, who’s dealing with a serious medical issue, was the beneficiary of a July 13 happy hour at Nashville’s 5 Spot. Hosted by Rod Picott, the event featured performances by Wild Ponies (Doug and Telisha Williams), Tim Easton, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Amy Speace, Allen Thompson and “surprise guest” Steve Poltz. A GoFundMe campaign to help Palmer with her medical bills has been set up at

Review: “Dreamer” celebrates Kent Finlay

By Paul T. Mueller

finlay_cover_400“I love my songwriters,” Kent Finlay is reported to have said, moments before he took his last breath. Clearly the feeling was mutual.

James Kent Finlay was the owner of Cheatham Street Warehouse, a small music venue in San Marcos, Texas, that helped launch the careers of many Texas musicians – including, among others, George Strait, Todd Snider, Slaid Cleaves and James McMurtry. Finlay died last year at 77 (on March 2, Texas Independence Day), but his spirit lives on in this 14-track tribute, consisting of songs written or co-written by Finlay and performed by some of the artists who spent time at Cheatham Street. For those not familiar with his work, it’s impressive proof that in addition to his nurturing of other artists, he was a fine songwriter in his own right.

Most of the musicians on the album are probably better known around Texas than nationally, but they all deliver polished performances that do credit to Finlay’s songs. Terri Hendrix opens with “I’ll Sing You a Story,” which Finlay used to perform himself at the beginning of songwriters’ night each Wednesday at Cheatham Street. Walt Wilkins covers “Bright Lights of Brady,” a nostalgic look back at youthful yearnings. James McMurtry’s weathered voice is a fine match for the grim outlaw ballad “Comfort’s Just a Rifle Shot Away,” and Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay give an excellent reading of “Yesterday’s Oatmeal,” a sad story of faded love and domestic disappointment.

From Finlay’s younger daughter, HalleyAnna, we get “I’ve Written Some Life,” which could be the autobiography of a lot of songwriters. Adam Carroll provides a nice rendition of “Be Nice to ’Em Son,” a cautionary tale about the fleeting nature of fame and fortune, while Jon Dee Graham’s gruff persona is well suited to the hard-living ballad “Taken Better Care of Myself.”

Houston-based singer-songwriter Matt Harlan, who used to drive to San Marcos most Wednesday nights to play at Cheatham Street, does a fine job on “The Songwriter,” which neatly sums up Finlay’s philosophy: “Yesterday is all we have that’s sure to last forever/Today will end in darkness, there’s no doubt/But you can never make him stop believing in tomorrow/Tomorrow’s all today is all about.”

The album’s last credited track is “Hill Country,” Finlay’s lament for the Central Texas region he loved, sung by Jamie Wilson of The Trishas. Its two final choruses feature the Hill Country Choir, a large cast of “fans and friends, songwriters and song lovers” recruited through social media to a Wednesday night recording session. Leigh and McKay return to close Dreamer with an uncredited rendition of “Saturday Night,” a nice story of a cross-border, cross-cultural love affair.

The CD – much of it recorded in San Marcos just after Finlay’s death – was ably produced by Jenni Finlay, Kent Finlay’s firstborn daughter, and Brian T. Atkinson. The two are the authors of the recently published Kent Finlay, Dreamer, which details the history of Cheatham Street Warehouse and includes first-person recollections from dozens of artists.


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New releases: Tommy Womack, Michael Fracasso

By Ken Paulson

namasteTommy Womack NamasteTommy Womack is back and we’re grateful. One of the smartest, and simultaneously sweet and subversive songwriters in Nashville, Womack has recovered from a life-threatening 2015 car crash and released Namaste, an album with a front cover that conveys his gratitude for recovery.

Womack has been a member of Government Cheese, the Bis-Quits and Daddy (the latter two with Will Kimbrough), but his solo albums are always the most personal and reflective.

“Angel” opens the album with a melodic and gentle expression of hope, and then Womack throws open the doors to tackle everything from his balding (“Comb-Over Blues”) to the essence of Christian faith “God Part III.” That’s quite a range.

Nashvillians will recognize their changing city in the blistering and funny spoken-word “Nashville.”

“Darling Let Your Freebird Fly” revisits the headlines of pop music and throws an elbow in the direction of Geraldo Rivera and Chevy Chase. On “I Almost Died,” Womack’s account of his first near-death experience in 2007 will give you chills,

Namaste, produced by Brad Jones, is powerful, irreverent and distinctly different.

FrancassoMichael FracassoHere Come the Savages – Blue Door Records – This new album from Austin-based artist Michael Fracasso combines solid originals with intepretations of classic pop songs, including Brian Wilson’s “Caroline No” and the Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure,” both delivered with the sad, slow delivery that the lyrics call for.  Fracasso’s buoyant take on the Kinks’ “Better Things” is a highlight.

Steve Dawson – Solid States and Loose Ends – Black Hen Music – Steve Dawson’s bluesy new album draws on some of Nashville’s most talented musicians, including Jim Hoke, Fats Kaplin and Regina and Ann McCrary.

Urban PioneersFeast or Famine – This hillbilly music/string band is set to tour Texas, beginning with a June 17 date at Badlands in Austin.

Thomas HineSome Notion or Novelty – Folk singer-songwriter from Colorado issues his follow-up to 2013’s “Forgive My Future.”


Celebrating Sun Records: Margo Price, JD McPherson

margo priceBy Ken Paulson

We lost Sam Phillips in 2003, but his spirit filled the CMA Theater at the Country Music Hall of Fame on Saturday. Margo Price, J.D. McPherson, Webb Wilder and the Planet Rockers showcased the Sun Records sound with songs from the label and some original tunes that were clearly inspired by Phillips’ work.

Webb Wilder opened the show with two tracks from his pivotal “It Came From Nashville” LP and a raucous cover of “Ubangi Stomp.”

JD McPherson offered up some Junior Parker and Charlie Rich, closing with his Sun-fueled ‘North Side Gal.”

Jerry Phillips

Jerry Phillips

Margo Price, who recorded her current album at Sun Studios, sang Johnny Cash’s “Big River” and bent the “rules” a bit by doing a Billy Swan-inspired cover of “Don’t Be Cruel,” Elvis’ first RCA single after leaving Sun.

The afternoon’s biggest surprise was a guest appearance by Sam Phillips’ son Jerry, all decked out in a red sportcoat and a rockabilly attitude. His “Never Too Short to Rock” was great fun.

Backing up most of the artists and offering up a spirited set of their own were the Planet Rockers. The energetic afternoon closed with all of the artists returning to the stage for a finale of Carl Perkins’ “Boppin’ the Blues.”

It was an extraordinary 90 minutes and a testament to the power and passion of Sam Phillips. The Hall of Fame’s exhibit “Flying Saucers Rock & Roll: The Cosmic Genius of Sam Phillips” closes on June 12. Highly recommended.

Review: Hayes Carll’s “Lovers and Leavers”

By Paul T. Mueller

carll_ll_160Texas singer-songwriter Hayes Carll made a splash with his last album, 2011’s KMAG YOYO, which featured such raucous fare as “Stomp and Holler,” “Another Like You” and the title track. On Lovers and Leavers, he turns inward, focusing on such themes as love, loss and struggle. The subject matter reflects Carll’s challenges during the intervening years – divorce, vocal problems and new love, among others – but Lovers and Leavers is more than a collection of sob stories. The songs are full of insightful (and sometimes painful) observations that illuminate wider truths, and they’re marked by fine playing, singing and production. With the help of a distinguished group of collaborators, Hayes Carll has succeeded at turning personal travail into good art.

Each of the 10 tracks is a co-write, with such illustrious names as Darrell Scott, Will Hoge, Scott Nolan, Jim Lauderdale and J.D. Souther, among others. From Carll and Scott we get “Sake of the Song,” a concise overview of the musician’s life and those who live it; “Love Don’t Let Me Down,” about hope and fear at the outset of a new romance, and “The Magic Kid,” a touching tribute to Carll’s young son (an aspiring magician who’s been known to open shows for his dad) that touches on the larger themes of courage and truth. Hoge contributed to “Good While It Lasted,” a clear-eyed look at the emotions, good and bad, that come with the fading of good times. “Nothing lasts forever and time knows that it’s true,” Carll sings. “Sometimes a little while’s the best we can do.”

Carll teamed with Jack Ingram and Allison Moorer on the sad but beautiful “The Love That We Need,” a cautionary tale about settling for less than we should and finally facing up to that truth. “We lie down together/but our hearts never touch,” Carll sings, later adding in the chorus, “We got the life that we wanted/but not the love that we need.” A better side of love features in “Love Is So Easy,” written with Ruston Kelly: “I’ve always had a hurt that I can’t name/but it all feels better when you call my name.”

The album closes with the lovely “Jealous Moon,” written with J.D. Souther. Maybe no one else would have thought to lament the plight of Earth’s lonely satellite, doomed to watch over the pageant of life without ever getting to participate. Carll and Souther did, and Carll – his voice apparently recovered from the problems of the past few years – does a fine job telling the story.

Carll is credited with all the guitar (all acoustic) on the album. Other musicians include Jay Bellerose on drums and percussion, Tyler Chester on keyboards, Eric Heywood on pedal steel and David Piltch on bass, all ably produced by Joe Henry.

This just in: Americana Music nominees

The Americana Music Association has just released its list of nominations for the  15th Annual Honors & Awards:
Album of the Year
Something More Than Free, Jason Isbell, Produced by Dave Cobb
The Ghosts of Highway 20, Lucinda Williams, Produced by Greg Leisz, Tom Overby and Lucinda Williams
The Very Last Day, Parker Millsap, Produced by Parker Millsap and Gary Paczosa
Traveller, Chris Stapleton, Produced by Dave Cobb and Chris Stapleton

Artist of the Year
Jason Isbell
Bonnie Raitt
Chris Stapleton
Lucinda Williams

Duo/Group of the Year
Alabama Shakes
Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
Lake Street Dive
The Milk Carton Kids
Tedeschi Trucks Band
Emerging Artist of the Year
Leon Bridges
John Moreland
Margo Price
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats
Song of the Year
“24 Frames” Jason Isbell
“Dime Store Cowgirl” Kacey Musgraves
“Hands Of Time” Margo Price
“S.O.B.” Nathaniel Rateliff & The Nightsweats

Instrumentalist of the Year
Cindy Cashdollar
Stuart Duncan
Jedd Hughes
Sara Watkins

New releases: Darrell Scott, Cyndi Lauper, Honeycutters

New and recent releases from Darrell Scott, Cyndi Lauper, Jeremy Nail, David Newbould, the Honeycutters, Mike Eldred Trio and Robert Rex Weller, Jr.:

CouchvilleDarrell Scott The Couchville Sessions – It’s a measure of Darrell Scott’s depth as an artist and songwriter that he could record an album’s worth of material 15 years ago and then put it on the shelf. The Couchville Sessions was worth the wait, highlighted by the haunting “Waiting for the Clothes to Get Clean” and covers of Johnny Cash’s “Big River” and James Taylor’s “Another Grey Morning.”

 Cyndi LauperDetour – Sire Records – We suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by Cyndi Lauper’s collection of country covers recorded in Nashville. After all, her Memphis Blues was recorded just down the interstate not long ago. We assume a celebration of Knoxville is next. It’s a fun release with guests galore, including Emmylou Harris on “Detour,” Vince Gill on “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly” and Allison Krauss on “Hard Candy Christmas.”

 Mike Eldred TrioBaptist Town – Great Western Recording Co. – The new Mike Eldred Trio album was recorded in Sun Studio in Memphis and features guest turns from Robert Cray, John Mayer and David Hidalgo.

 Jeremy NailMy Mountain – Open Nine Music – Jeremy Nail’s new album was produced by Alejandro Escovedo with a band that included Chris Masterson, Eleanor Whitmore, Bobby Daniel and Chris Searles. Our favorite track: ”Dreams.”

honeycutters The HoneycuttersOn the Ropes – Organic Records – Rich new album from the Honeycutters is their fourth. The title track sets the tone with equal measures of defiance and resignation:
“ I paid a lot to feel this bad.”

 David NewbouldThe Devil is his Name – Coming May 20, the new David Newbould EP follows up his strong Tennessee release. Helping out are stalwarts Michael Webb and Jefferson Crow.

Robert Rex Weller, Jr. – Western Seeds Record Company – Robert Rex Weller tackles a wide array of covers, ranging from Willie Nelson to the Hollies and the Doors.

In concert: Kelley Mickwee

By Paul T. Mueller

Kelley Mickwee

Kelley Mickwee

Austin-based singer-songwriter Kelley Mickwee brought a kind of career retrospective to the Fulshear House Concerts series on April 30. The show, in the Houston suburb of Fulshear, featured Mickwee performing songs from her early days as half of the Americana duo Jed and Kelley; from her days as a member of vocal quartet The Trishas, and from her more recent solo career.

Mickwee was born in Birmingham, Ala., and grew up in Memphis, Tenn., which helps explain the bluesy, soulful tone that colors her singing. She has a powerful, expressive voice, which she uses effectively to convey the emotions in her lyrics, exploring such topics as love, loneliness and temptations of various kinds. “I’m a singer first and foremost,” she told the audience of about 30. “It’s what I really love to do.” She accompanied herself capably on acoustic guitar and harmonica, plus a little foot-stomping percussion when needed.

The 15-song show was more or less chronological, starting with one of Mickwee’s earlier songs, “Strangers,” a look at what happens when lovers grow apart. She noted that she started writing the song before her marriage to (and eventual divorce from) Jed Zimmerman, who was also her musical partner in Jed and Kelley. “I didn’t know what I was talking about,” she noted with a laugh.

Mickwee performed several other songs that were recorded by The Trishas during the roughly four years the group was actively touring and performing (other members included fellow singer-songwriters Jamie Lin Wilson, Savannah Welch and Liz Foster, plus guitarist Brandy Zdan). These included the funny-but true romantic lament “Liars & Fools” and “Rainin’ Inside,” co-written with singer-songwriter Kevin Welch (Savannah’s father). She also sang a couple of songs that effectively showcased her strong, clear voice – “Drive,” a ballad about getting away, and “Take Me Home,” about loneliness and homesickness.

Between songs, Mickwee related details of her personal history and how it shaped her songwriting and singing. She accompanied a nice rendition of Eliza Gilkyson’s “Dark Side of Town,” a ballad about a talented musician whose hedonistic habits become his downfall, with the story of how she first met her father when she was 21 and had only a few years with him before similar lifestyle choices led to his demise. She took a similar approach with an excellent version of Emmylou Harris’ “Boulder to Birmingham,” noting that her relatively late start as a songwriter paralleled that of the Americana icon.

Mickwee ended the show with “Closer,” a plea for intimacy that she has yet to record. The song is in a key that’s outside her usual vocal range, she said, but added that pushing one’s limits is the path to artistic growth, and that the song has become her new favorite to sing.

Mickwee’s most recent solo CD, You Used to Live Here, came out in 2014. “It’s time for another one,” she said in an interview before the show, noting that she has several songs ready to record, but plans to wait until she has more before going into the studio, possibly by the end of the year. “I’m not in a rush,” she said. “I want to make sure I have 10 really great songs.”



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Review: Mary Gauthier, Gretchen Peters and Eliza Gilkyson

By Paul T. Mueller

The tour is billed as “Three Women and the Truth,” and that’s, well, the truth. There is a whole lot of truth in the songs of Mary Gauthier, Gretchen Peters and Eliza Gilkyson, and the trio presented it straight up to a capacity audience at the first of two April 23 shows at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck in Houston. The format couldn’t have been much simpler – three women, each with an acoustic guitar. But the writing and performing skill on display were anything but simple.

The trio took turns, each performing five songs, with occasional vocal and/or instrumental support from the others. The subject matter included such themes as death (Peters’ “Hello Cruel World”), romantic difficulty (Gilkyson’s “Think About You”) and social inequity (Gauthier’s “Sugar Cane”).

But while the tone was a bit dark, the performances were dazzling. Particularly affecting were Peters’ “The Matador,” an ambivalent love story full of rich imagery; Gilkyson’s “Easy Rider,” a touching tribute to her father, folksinger and songwriter Terry Gilkyson, one of whose groups was The Easy Riders; and Gauthier’s classic “Mercy Now,” which earned one of the set’s most enthusiastic responses.

Accompanying the music was a generous sprinkling of between-songs banter covering such topics as the sometimes alarming honesty of Dutch audiences, Gilkyson’s skills with onstage electronics (when something went wrong, she was able to make a quick repair), and

Gauthier’s prowess at parallel-parking large vehicles (she got a big laugh when she referred to that skill as “kind of a lesbian pride thing”).

After what seemed like a much-too-short set, the trio took a bow, conferred briefly and sat down again to alternate verses on a beautiful rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.”

Review: Caleb Caudle’s “Carolina Ghost”

 By Paul T. Mueller

caudle2_160Caleb Caudle is a fine singer and a better-than-average songwriter, but his latest album, Carolina Ghost, doesn’t quite do justice to his gifts.

The pieces are there – tasteful guitar picking, twangy steel guitar, a solid rhythm section, some keyboards for flavor. But what it adds up to is a pleasant and not-very-challenging sound that’s reminiscent of the country pop of the Seventies.

Technically, it’s hard to fault the precise playing and the clean production by Caudle and Jon Ashley. But the album doesn’t capture the full sound and spirit Caudle and his musicians are capable of when performing live. Carolina Ghost is a good effort that would have benefited from a little more grit.


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New releases: Charlie Faye, Hartford and Forrester

New and upcoming releases:

FAYETTESCharlie Faye and the Fayettes –  Charlie Faye teams up with Betty Soo and Akina Adderley to form a girl group on her new album “Charlie Faye and the Fayettes.” It melds a ’60 sound with 2016 attitude, exemplifed by the sexual invitations on “Green Light.” The Chiffons would have been appalled. Classic influences abound, from the Ronettes intro to “Coming Around the Bend” to “Breakaway”-era Jackie DeShannon on “Delayed Reaction.” It’s all fresh and fun.

Cornflower BluesInvincible – Reflective third  album from Ontario band, due June 1.

homemadesugarJohn Hartford  and Howdy ForresterHome Made Sugar and a Puncheon Floor – Spring Fed Records( The Center for Popular Music at Middle Tenessee State University) – Historic home recordings from John Hartford and fiddler Howdy Forrester. The album offers an informal performance and conversation focusing on  songs Forrester learned as a boy from his Great Uncle Bob Cates.

Town MountainSouthern Crescent – Spirited  new bluegrass album, due April 1.

Bobcat-cover-for-webstore-280x251[1]Kyle TuttleBobcat – Debut album of Nashville-based banjo player Kyle Tuttle features his own compositions.

Steve DawsonSolid States and Loose Ends – Canadian artist Steve Dawson, now based in Nashville, releases his seventh solo album.

Mary Ann CasaleRestless Heart – Blues, folk and jazz from Northern New York artist.

speed of the plowMatt Brown and Greg ReishSpeed of the Plow –Fiddler Matt Brown and guitarist Greg Reish play old-time American instrumentals.

Lizanne Knott Excellent Day – Bluesy, intimate new album due April 8.

Tin Toy Cars – Debut album from Las Vegas-based Tin Toy Cars.

Celebration of songwriting at Tin Pan South

By Ken Paulson

Wayland Holyfield and Dickey Lee

Wayland Holyfield and Dickey Lee

The Tin Pan South songwriters festival in Nashville this week offered up five nights of remarkable performances by some of the country’s best songwriters, but an early show on Thursday at the Station Inn featuring three veteran performers and writers was among the most memorable.

I’ve just finished reading The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, a book by John Seabrook that documents how today’s songs are engineered rather than created. There’s a new hook every few seconds because the formula demands it. Every generation complains that “all these new songs sound the same.” This time they’re right.

That’s why the performance at the Station Inn was so special. Buzz Cason, Dickey Lee and Wayland Holyfield have had hits spanning five decades, fueled by inspiration, happenstance and creativity.

Buzz Cason

Buzz Cason

Cason’s “Soldier of love” was covered by the Beatles during the BBC sessions and his “Everlasting Love” has become a pop standard. But he explained that his professional breakthrough came just by mimicking the goofy doo-wop vocals of Jan and Dean, and then submitting the songs to the duo. The result: “Tennessee” and the Top 25 single “Popsicle.”

 Dickey Lee had a successful career as a recording artist and performed “I Saw Linda Yesterday,” his hit from 1963.  But the emotional stakes of that song were trumped by his biggest hit, “She Thinks I Still Care,” a classic in the hands of George Jones. Lee said the song was inspired by a girl who broke his heart.

Holyfield played “Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer,” his first hit as a songwriter and a big record for Johnny Russell. But the highlight of  his performance was “You’re My Best Friend,” a Don Williams hit that Holyfield dedicated to his wife.

And so it goes. The hits of the past were inspired by lost love. Found love. And an impulse to get Jan and Dean to record your songs.

No algorithms. No product. Just art, creativity and fun.

CTM writers at Tin Pan South

Review: Parker Millsap’s “The Very Last Day”

 By Paul T. Mueller

MillsapIs April too early to start talking about contenders for best album of the year? Probably, but chances are Parker Millsap’s The Very Last Day is going to be on a lot of people’s Top 10 lists come December. It’s no stretch to call the Oklahoma singer-songwriter’s third album one of the best of the year so far. Millsap starts with conventional musical forms, including blues, folk, bluegrass and a bit of jazz, and puts an unconventional spin on them. He ends up with a sound that’s all his own, and a collection of slightly offbeat songs marked by excellent writing, exuberant singing and accomplished playing.

A lot of the buzz around The Very Last Day is going to center on “Heaven Sent,” in which a gay son seeks acceptance from his minister father. It is a brilliant piece of songwriting, heart-wrenching and affirming at the same time. “You say that it’s a sin/ but it’s how I’ve always been,” Millsap sings, his tormented voice dramatically underscored by guitar and violin. “Did you love me when/he was just my friend?” It’s a powerful message, combining anguish and defiance, and Millsap has the emotional range to get it across convincingly.

The title track deals with an unusual subject – nuclear apocalypse – in an unexpected way. Instead of dread, there’s a kind of gleeful resignation. “You know there ain’t no reason being so afraid/Yeah, you can try to hide, but it’s gonna get you anyway,” Millsap sings. “When I see that cloud, gonna sing out loud/Lift my head and say/Praise the Lord, it’s the very, very, very last day.”

There’s plenty more – “Pining,” a sweet love song; “Hades Pleads,” in which the lord of the underworld seeks companionship; “Morning Sun,” a gentle, bluesy song about love and loneliness; “Hands Up,” a rocking first-person narrative by a reluctant gas-station robber. The album closes with “Tribulation Hymn,” a beautiful and cryptic meditation on spirituality and sin.

Of the 11 tracks, all are Millsap compositions except for the classic blues-gospel song “You Gotta Move,” which here gets an excellent acoustic treatment. A staple of Millsap’s live shows, it’s fueled by his almost unearthly vocals and the powerful, yet somehow playful, violin of Daniel Foulks.

Other players include the third member of Millsap’s touring band, bassist Michael Rose, playing both acoustically and electrically; Patrick Ryan on drums and percussion, and Tim Laver on accordion and keyboards. Backing vocals are courtesy of Erika Attwater, Sara Jarosz, Aiofe O’Donovan, Caitlyn O’Doyle and Sara Watkins.


Song Suffragettes at Tin Pan South


Opening night at Tin Pan South

Tin Pan South 2016 preview

By Ken Paulson

Mac Davis and Bobby Braddock at Tin Pain South 2011

Mac Davis and Bobby Braddock at Tin Pan South 2011

Tin Pan South, one of Nashville’s best -and most economical – music festivals begins Tuesday, April 9, the first of  five nights of songwriter showcases.

This annual event brings together songwriting legends (Bobby Bare, Mac Davis, Bill Anderson) and songwriters dominating the charts today (Luke Laird, Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby, Lori McKenna, Jessi Alexander.) It features legacy artists (Dickie Lee, Buzz Cason) and current stars (Will Hoge, Kacey Musgraves.)

The songwriters rounds encompass a wide range of themes – “A Little Chick on Pick Action” anyone? – but the overall quality is always high. Some shows that we found particularly intriguing:

Tuesday, April 5, 6pm | $20 Bluebird Cafe
Bill Anderson, Bobby Bare, Buddy Cannon, special guests

Tuesday, April 5, 6pm | $20 The Country

Jessi Alexander, Cary Barlowe, Jonathan Singleton, Josh Thompson

Tuesday, April 5, 9pm | $15 Whiskey Rhythm Saloon
Keith Burns, Jim Peterik, Collin Raye, Joie Scott, special guest

Wednesday, April 6, 9pm | $15 Station Inn
Chuck CannonLari WhiteLee Roy Parnell

Wednesday, April 6, 9pm | $20 Bluebird Cafe
Mac Davis, Scotty Emerick, Leslie Satcher, Special Guest

Thursday, April 7, 6pm | $20 Listening Room
Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird, Lori McKenna, Special Guest

Thursday, April 7, 6pm | $10 Station Inn
Buzz Cason, Wayland Holyfield, Dickey Lee

Thursday, April 7, 9pm | $15 Douglas Corner
Bekka Bramlett, Billy Burnette, Bruce Gaitsch, Dennis Morgan

Thursday, April 7, 6pm | $15 Bluebird Cafe

Pat Alger, Don Henry, Livingston Taylor, Jon Vezner

Friday, April 8, 6:30pm | $20 3rd and Lindsley
Granville Automatic (Elizabeth Elkins & Vanessa Olivarez),
Travis Meadows, Angaleena Presley

Friday, April 8, 6:30pm | $15 Listening Room
Jeff Cohen, James T. Slater, Kim Richey

Saturday, April 9, 6:30pm | $15 Station Inn
Marti Dodson, Will Hoge, Tony Lane, Jason Mizelle, Special Guest

Saturday, April 9, 6:30pm | $20 3rd and Lindsley
A Benefit for Bonaparte’s Retreat
Clare Bowen, Chris Carmack, Colin Linden, Brandon Young, special guest, hosted by Emmylou Harris

Saturday, April 9, 9:30pm | $25 3rd and Lindsley
Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves, Josh Osborne

The full schedule can be found on the Nashville Songwriters Association website.

Review: Jason Wilber’s “Echoes”

By Paul T. Mueller
wilberJason Wilber is best known to many as the nattily dressed guy who stands to the right of the great John Prine on stage, playing guitar and mandolin and singing harmony. Wilber also happens to be a singer-songwriter in his own right, with nine solo albums to his credit.

The newest, Echoes, finds him performing songs by other writers. He’s covering a lot of ground here – Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” the Rolling Stones’ “As Tears Go By,” Pink Floyd’s “Echoes,” Joni Mitchell’s “Edith and the Kingpin,” David Bowie’s “Oh You Pretty Things” and Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed” are among the 11 tracks. Of course Wilber’s boss gets his due, with a solemn reading of “Paradise,” Prine’s lament about the despoiled coal country of Kentucky.

Echoes follows several years’ serious effort by Wilber to improve his singing voice, and while he will probably always be more noted as a guitarist than as a singer, his vocals do justice to the essence of these songs. The album benefits from spare but clean production by Paul Mahern, who also handled percussion duties, with help on a couple of tracks from Devon Ashley. The rest of it – guitars, bass and vocals – is all Wilber.



New releases: Paul Burch on the life of Jimmie Rodgers

New and recent releases:

Paul BurchMeridian RisingPaul Burch – Plowboy Records  The new Paul Burch album is an extraordinarily ambitious project, the “imagined autobiography” of the legendary Jimmie Rodgers.  Often cited as the father of country music, Rodgers was a transformative figure whose tragically short career influenced all who followed. Burch, perhaps best known as a member of WPA BallClub, uses Rodgers’ life story as a foundation for his own musical explorations. He’s joined by some great players – from Nashville and elsewhere-  including  Fats Kaplin, Tim O’Brien, Garry Tallent, Jen Gunderman, Jon Langford and William Tyler. Nashville Scene Editor Jim Ridley captured the essence of the album (and Burch’s career) beautifully in a cover story for the Nashville Scene. You’ll find it here.

Dynamite!Tami Neilson – Outside – Raucous honky tonk from an award-winning New Zealand artist who will bring Wanda Jackson to mind.

Good and DirtySarah Borges – Hard-rocking EP from Sarah Borges, produced by Eric Ambel. She’s opening in March for Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin

Crow River RambleJason Paulson – Minneapolis-based songwriter releases his third album on March 25.



Review: Cayamo 2016 a magical musical tour

By Paul T. Mueller

Cayamo 2016 is in the books. The latest edition of the singer-songwriter-focused cruise, aboard the Norwegian Pearl, arrived back in Miami early on Sunday, Feb. 7, after a week’s voyage through the Caribbean and stops at the islands of Tortola and Sint Maarten. More than 2,000 passengers disembarked on a brisk, sunny South Florida morning, most of them tired, happy and prepared to relive the experience on social media and at meet-ups around the country until the 10th Cayamo sets sail in 2017.

Cayamo 2016  provided plenty of highs and a few lows. Let’s dispense quickly with the lows – too-chilly air conditioning in some of the indoor venues; considerably higher prices for adult beverages than in years past; problems (real and/or perceived) with things like food quality and sound mixes at some shows; restrictions on photography during sets by at least one high-profile performer; the occasional plumbing problem in a stateroom. But these matters weren’t enough to harsh the mellow of a weeklong musical festival at sea.

The highs on Cayamo 2016 were much more numerous. As always, there were more great performances than anyone subject to the laws of time and space could hope to see, so missing some magical moments was a given. But here, in more or less chronological order, is a subjective look at some outstanding performances from each day, from among many that could have been included.

Sunday, Jan. 31 – embarkation day

Americana superstar Jason Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, took the pool-deck stage for the sailaway show as the Pearl left Miami. It’s hard to imagine a better choice, as the group ripped through a high-energy, 14-song set. Included were several tracks from Isbell’s most recent album, Something More than Free, along with older material such as “Decoration Day” and “Alabama Pines.” The set was capped by a rocking rendition of the Rolling Stones’ classic “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” with Isbell and lead guitarist Sadler Vaden trading licks in a more-than-passable echo of Keith Richards and Mick Taylor.

Steve Earle took the stage of the Pearl’s large auditorium, the Stardust Theater, Sunday evening for his only solo show (he also played two sets with Shawn Colvin later in the week). After opening with “Devil’s Right Hand,” Earle noted that it’s been 30 years since the release of his stellar debut album, Guitar Town, and then launched into the title track, still fresh despite the decades. What followed was pretty much a string of greatest hits, as many as could be fitted into a one-hour set. He closed with a quiet, powerful rendition of his death-penalty ballad “Billy Austin” and an excellent reading of the classic “Copperhead Road.”

Also: British guitarist Martin Harley’s high-powered slide guitar on the pool deck during boarding; Jimmy Galloway’s masterful picking in the Atrium; Jim Lauderdale’s endearing mix of goofiness and country chops in the Spinnaker Lounge.

Monday, Feb. 1 – at sea

Angaleena Presley

Angaleena Presley on Cayamo 2016

Monday afternoon featured an excellent “Unlikely Trio” show with three Cayamo rookies – Angaleena Presley, Foy Vance and Paul Thorn – taking turns performing their own songs, sometimes with backup from the others. Irish singer Vance delivered his selections with a powerful, expressive voice and vigorous guitar playing. His words weren’t always easy to follow, but the emotions behind them were. Several of Presley’s songs were taken from her most recent album, the fine American Middle Class. A newer song, “Bless Your Heart,” was a hilarious but biting jab at hypocrisy, and its title was soon to become a buzzword around the boat. Thorn, a veteran of other music cruises but a newcomer to many Cayamoans, wasted no time endearing himself to the crowd by dedicating “I’m Still Here” to a cancer patient he had met. One of the more charming aspects of shows of this kind is watching artists’ reactions to the work of others with whom they might not be all that familiar. It’s often a combination of amusement and admiration, and Monday’s show did not disappoint.

Foy Vance

Foy Vance

Also: Promising pop from young singer Rainey Qualley in the Great Outdoors; harmony-driven country folk from The Novel Ideas; singer-songwriter excellence from John Prine and John Hiatt in the Stardust; Nashville brilliance from the past and the present from Buddy Miller in the Stardust.

Tuesday, Feb. 2 – at sea

Lucinda Williams’ band, Buick 6, has accompanied her on Cayamo previously, but this year was the first time the band got its own sets. The first came Tuesday night, before a Lucinda set, and consisted of about a half-hour of high-energy power trio rock, with a little funk and jazz thrown in. Most of it was instrumental, with occasional nonverbal vocals and whistling. For fans of the power-trio format, or of instrumental rock in general, it was an invigorating warmup for Williams’ show. The band’s members – guitarist Stuart Mathis, bassist David Sutton and drummer Butch Norton – are excellent musicians, and the title of their debut album, Plays Well With Others, was well chosen.

Williams also put on a terrific show, mixing older material (“Drunken Angel,” “Lake Charles,” “Can’t Let Go,” “Joy”) with newer songs, including several from her just-released The Ghosts of Highway 20 (the title track and “Dust,” based on a work by her late father, poet Miller Williams). Appearing relaxed and confident, Williams produced some nice work on acoustic and electric guitar to accompany her gritty lyrics of love and loss, spirituality and sensuality. She drew laughs with her description of the time and effort she put into getting her hair ready for the show, only to see her labors literally blown away on the windy pool deck.

Jim Lauderdale on Cayamo 2016

Jim Lauderdale on Cayamo 2016

Also: The history of American roots music, plus stellar guest performances, from David Bromberg in the Stardust; fine bluesy guitar from Martin Harley in the Great Outdoors; high-volume country rock from Chris Stapleton on the pool deck; the midnight Grateful Dead tribute show on the pool deck, backed by American Babies and featuring contributions from Miller, Lauderdale, Bromberg and many others.

Wednesday, Feb. 3 – Sint Maarten/St. Martin Passengers returning Wednesday from excursions on Sint Maarten/St. Martin were treated to a sailaway show by Hurray for the Riff Raff, led by singer-songwriter Alynda Segarra. The Cayamo newcomers showed plenty of rock ‘n’ roll attitude to back up Segarra’s thoughtful and sometimes disturbing lyrics, as in “The Body Electric,” a reimagining of the classic Southern murder ballad from a different angle. “Like an old sad song, you heard it all before,” she sang. “Well, Delia’s gone, but I’m settling the score.”

Newly anointed American superstar Chris Stapleton’s first indoor show packed the Stardust Wednesday night. Stapleton and his band were a little more subdued than in their rocking pool deck show the previous night, but the set was still almost as much rock ‘n’ roll spectacle as Americana, fueled by Stapleton’s guitar heroics and plenty of high-powered backup from his very capable band. Stapleton did seem a bit nonplussed by the quiet and attentive Cayamo crowd – at one point he noted that he could hear a pin drop on stage between songs, and then (apparently) dropped something to prove just that. But the show, consisting mostly of material from the hugely successful Traveller album, was not without its rowdy charms, and the audience certainly seemed to eat it up, even calling the band out for an encore of “Sometimes I Cry.”

Also: Full-band rock and blues with a funny twist from Paul Thorn on the pool deck; purebred Americana from Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams in the Spinnaker; high-energy, late-night jamming with American Babies in the Atrium.

Thursday, Feb. 4 – Tortola

John Fullbright seemed to be embracing a bigger sound than on previous Cayamos, and this was much in evidence at his Thursday sailaway show on the pool deck. Fullbright and his band, with the help of guests including guitarist Davis Causey and keyboardist Daniel Walker, rocked out on signature tunes including “All the Time in the World” and “Fat Man.” But the emotional high point of the show might have been a powerful and dramatic rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee” – with a subtle lyrical twist that sounded a lot like a dig at anti-immigrant comments by a certain front-running Republican presidential candidate. Fullbright closed with a joyous, full-out take on the Box Tops classic “The Letter.”

Robert Ellis on Cayamo 2016

Robert Ellis on Cayamo 2016

Singer-songwriter Robert Ellis, who’d already played a solo set on the Pearl’s Great Outdoors stage and a couple of straight-up country tunes at Shawn Mullins’ Family Jam in Bar City, had a few surprises in store for his midnight Thursday show in the Stardust. A few songs in, backed by his nattily attired band, the Perfect Strangers, Ellis launched into a vigorous rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris,” on which he demonstrated his monster guitar skills. He followed with other selections from his most recent album, The Lights from the Chemical Plant, along with new material. Things took a left turn late in the show with an extended instrumental jam that owed more to free jazz than to Ellis’ more usual genres, country and folk. The chaos finally resolved into “Sing Along,” Ellis’ blistering indictment of organized religion. Despite his veteran status – he also sailed on Cayamo in 2013 – Ellis seemed to be many Cayamoans’ “find” this year.

Also: Guitar-fueled singer-songwriter brilliance from Jason Isbell and band, including wife Amanda Shires, in the Stardust; bouncy pop from Kate York and Joe Pisapia in the Spinnaker; “heavy mellow” from Sugar & the Hi-Lows in the Atrium; well-written singer-songwriter fare from Sam Lewis in the Spinnaker.

Friday, Feb. 5 – at sea

After several years on the cruise as lead guitarist and vocalist in John Prine’s band, Jason Wilber finally got a set of his own on Cayamo 2016 on Friday, and he made the most of it, to the delight of an attentive Atrium crowd. Wilber led off with a lovely, slow rendition of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” following with the unfortunately timely “Oh You Pretty Things” by David Bowie. He brought out drummer Kenneth Blevins, of John Hiatt’s band, The Combo, and elicited laughs with “Quakertown Optimist Club,” inspired by a newspaper story about down times for an upbeat organization. Much of the rest of the show consisted of tracks from his new album, Echoes, on which he covers a range of material by other writers (including an excellent take on Prine’s mournful “Paradise”). Also included was the original “Ghost Light,” a tribute to the old theaters in which he often plays when touring with Prine.

Knoxville-based roots-rock outfit The Black Lillies delighted a large pool deck crowd Friday afternoon with an energetic set drawn largely from its recent album Hard to Please. The band, fronted by Cruz Contreras on guitars, keyboards and vocals and singer-guitarist Trisha Gene Brady, was clearly buoyed by the outpouring of support it received in the aftermath of having its van and a trailer full of instruments and other belongings stolen after a gig just days before Cayamo. Playing with borrowed instruments, the Lillies turned in strong performances on such familiar tunes as “Two Hearts Down” and “Ruby,” and newer material including the quiet ballad “Born to Roam,” the rocking touring tale “40 Days,” and the soulful “Mercy.” The band got a boost on a few songs from the trumpet and saxophone players from Austin-based funk-rock outfit Mingo Fishtrap.

Also: Harmony-driven adult pop from Johnnyswim on the pool deck; slightly quirky, personal tunes from Amanda Shires, accompanied by Jason Isbell, in the Spinnaker; acoustic pop with a New Orleans vibe from the Andrew Duhon Trio in the Great Outdoors; excellent folk and country in a mostly requests show by Slaid Cleaves in the Great Outdoors; pop country with a hip-hop twist from Maren Morris in the Atrium.

Saturday, Feb 6 – at sea

The final 2016 show by Shawn Mullins, the only musician to have performed on all nine Cayamos, was mostly a parade of familiar hits – “Beautiful Wreck,” “Light You Up,” “Twin Rocks, Oregon,” and so on – not new, but delivered as always with passion and style. Mullins also threw in some newer material, including a couple of songs from his recent album My Stupid Heart – the title track and “Ferguson,” a co-write with Chuck Cannon that addresses racial matters. Guitarist Davis Causey earned a cake and a standing ovation in honor of his 67th birthday, and the show resumed with “House of the Rising Sun” and “Lullabye.” A final sweet moment ensued when the hundred or so Cayamoans who had sailed on all nine voyages came down the aisles, attired in white bathrobes, to sing along with Shawn on “Sunshine.”

The performances of Cayamo 2016 drew to a close late Saturday with the Moonlight Revival, a guitar pull featuring three rounds of three or four singer-songwriters each. The event started out on the pool deck, but wind and rain necessitated its being moved to the Atrium after only a few songs. Early-round highlights of the acoustic show included Steve Earle’s heartfelt “Jerusalem,” Angaleena Presley’s snarky “Bless Your Heart” and Foy Vance’s literary epic “Noam Chomsky Is a Soft Revolution.”

Also: A morning gospel show featuring chicken and waffles and contemplative tunes from Birds of Chicago, Sam Lewis, Langhorne Slim, Martin Harley and The Bros. Landreth on the pool deck; more funny songs with serious messages, brilliantly played, from Paul Thorn and his band in the Stardust.

Finally, despite my efforts, I wasn’t able to catch enough of Shawn Colvin, The Alternate Routes or Watkins Family Hour to offer an informed opinion. I can say that all had many fans on Cayamo and all were reported to have turned in fine performances.


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