Review: Tim Easton’s “American Fork”

By Paul T. Mueller

tim eastonTim Easton has some advice for you: Stop wasting time. Put down your smartphones. Talk to each other.

Any folksinger worthy of the title throws some messages in with the music, and Easton, a singer-songwriter based in East Nashville, is no exception. But on his new album, American Fork, he does it in an entertaining way instead of preaching. His earnestness is wrapped in excellent musicianship, which happily results in his best album in a while, and one of his best ever.

Fittingly, he wastes no time in getting to one of his big themes, leading off with a polite diatribe on wasted time. “Every minute that you stare at that stupid screen,” he sings in “Right Before Your Own Eyes,” “and read all the chatter that you think you should read/is another minute sooner that your young old mind is dying.” That’s a serious point, passionately made, but the delivery is good-natured and it’s backed by some terrific instrumentation that includes saxophone and steel guitar.

“Killing Time” explores a similar theme in a slightly different way, incorporating a concept – “What do you live for?” – that Tim Easton has used in a series of social-media mini-interviews with people he’s met during his travels in the past few years. “Don’t hang there like a broken door,” he sings. “Find out what you’re living for/There has to be something more than just killing time.” Again, strong advice, but the tone is gentle and encouraging, not hectoring.

Easton takes a tougher tone on “Gatekeeper,” an angry blast at the powers that be – maybe in the music industry, maybe on a bigger scale. “Then you knocked me off my feet as you pinned me to the ground,” Easton sings, accompanied by sinister-sounding slide guitar and ghostly background vocals. “But I called you as you walked away/but you never turned around/Gatekeeper, go count your money.”

Easton shows his lighter side on “Elmore James,” a lively tribute to the pioneering slide guitarist, and the rollicking “Alaskan Bars, Part 1,” which recounts a series of nightlife anecdotes that one suspects might be based on actual experiences.

Another reality of the troubadour life – one Easton is no doubt familiar with – is its transient nature. In the album’s closer, “On My Way,” he sums it up: “Like the trucks out on the highway/like the seasons and the days/like the river that passes through your town/I really must be on my way.” The quiet tone and understated playing hark back to Easton’s sound on earlier works such as The Truth About Us and Break Your Mother’s Heart.

The full-band production on this album is a big jump from the minimalist approach of Easton’s previous outing, 2013’s Not Cool. Here he and co-producer Patrick Damphier use a broad spectrum of instrumentation. Jon Radford’s drums and Michael Rinne’s bass provide the foundation, while Easton handles the guitars with his usual formidable skill. Further color and texture come from talented Robbie Crowell on keyboards and horns, Russ Pahl on pedal steel and Alissa Maestro on cello. Backing vocals are nicely done by Maestro and fellow singer-songwriters Megan Palmer, Ariel Bui and Emma Berkey.

Tim Easton has spent a lot of years on the road and he’s learned a lot about life and music along the way. We get the benefit of some of that hard-won knowledge on American Fork, in a way that’s both thought-provoking and pleasing to the ear.

New releases: Bobby Rush, Kiefer Sutherland

New and recent releases from Bobby Rush, Kiefer Sutherland and Woodland West –

Bobby RushBobby Rush – Porcupine MeatRounder Records -We should all aspire to be just like Bobby Rush when we’re 82 years old. Granted, it’s a big leap for most of us to become a seasoned bluesman at that age, but the vibrancy Rush exhibits on his new album is truly inspiring. Due September 16 is his new album on Rounder Records called Porcupine Meat. It features guest artists Dave Alvin, Joe Bonamassa and Keb‘ Mo’. it’s all decidedly old-school (in a good way,) right down to the jealousy-fueled “Dress Too Short” and “I Don’t Want Nobody Hangin’ Round,” in which Rush declares “milkman, don’t bring me no milk” and sings that he would rather have his house burn down than have a fireman near his girlfriend when he’s away.

Kiefer SutherlandKiefer SutherlandDown in a Hole – About the best compliment an actor-turned-singer can expect from music writers is that he’s “actually not bad.” “And he’s not. It’s refreshing when someone like Kiefer Sutherland can deliver an album like Down in a Hole, a collection of hardscrabble songs written and performed with Jude Cole. Sutherland has some gravel to his voice and is well-suited to these often dark and dispirited themes.

 

 Woodland WestWoodland WestDevil to Pay – Set for release on August 19 is the first album from Woodland West, an adventurous Americana and bluegrass band from Seattle. You have to love the album cover, depicting harred parents and a clearly unhappy baby. The band is scheduled to tour the West Coast Sept. from Spet. 16 through Oct. 2.  Among other new releases: Blues artist Johnny Nicholas’ Fresh Air, Ron DiLego’s Magnificent Ram A, John “Papa” Gros’ second solo album River’s on Fire and Dear Country, the debut album from Mark Lynn and Arrica Rose, due August 26.

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Review: Quirky, intense “Robert Ellis”

By Paul T. Mueller

RobertEllis“You are the only person who truly knows what is supposed to happen with your art,” Robert Ellis writes in the booklet that accompanies his self-titled latest CD. The Texas-born singer-songwriter takes those words to heart, having moved on from his earlier country-folk sound. There’s still plenty of Texas in his voice, but from the lyrics and arrangements on Robert Ellis, he seems to have more in common these days with the likes of Paul Simon (whose songs he’s covered both live and on record) than with most of his Lone Star State contemporaries.

You don’t have to dig too hard to get to the truths Ellis is trying to put across. They’re pretty much right on the surface. The opening track, “Perfect Strangers,” describes, with unflinching directness, the progression of a romance from giddy beginnings to eventual disillusionment. “Perfect strangers moving further with each heartbeat,” Ellis sings, “in directions that may not meet up again.” The same kind of quiet desperation informs “California,” whose narrator is trying to make plans out of the ashes of a relationship, and “Drivin’,” a story of boredom and hopelessness that was co-written by Angaleena Presley.

Grim stuff, it would seem, but Ellis’ bouncy melodies and imaginative arrangements form an interesting counterpart to the depressing words. More contrast can be found between the backwoods twang of Ellis’ voice and the sophistication of his arrangements and playing. He’s equally at home and equally skilled on keyboards and guitar, and gets plenty of room to demonstrate his virtuosity on both.

Ellis’ penchant for drama shows in the crashing chords of “How I Love You”; the soft/loud dynamics of “You’re Not the One,” about the disturbing suspicion that one has ended up with the wrong person, and the discordant playing on the album’s closer, the forbidden-love anthem “It’s Not OK.”

There aren’t a lot of happy tunes in this collection; the only one that really merits that label is “Couples Skate,” a lively rocker about young love at the skating rink, and the hope that it may turn into something longer-lasting. “Please don’t move too fast, make it last,” Ellis sings. “The music is slow, I never wanna let go.”

There’s only one name on the cover, but Robert Ellis is very much a band effort. Guitarist Kelly Doyle, bassist Geoff Muller, steel-guitar player Will Van Horn and drummer Michael (Tank) Lisenbe have been together for a while and they’re good. Ellis produced the album, with help from Doyle.

Thematic darkness aside, Robert Ellis is a fine artistic achievement. It’s quirky, intense and most likely exactly what Robert Ellis wanted it to be.

 

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 https://www.gofundme.com/meganpalmer

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.

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