Shovels and Rope’s “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.

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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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Jack Clement’s “For Once and For All”

Jack Clement 150x150 Jack Clements For Once and For All By Ken Paulson

I spent my day Friday interviewing nine members of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame as part of an archival project and one name came up again and again: Cowboy Jack Clement.

The producer, songwriter and occasional artist had a knack for identifying talented young songwriters and artists and nurturing them. In Memphis at Sun Records, in Beaumont, Texas, and finally in Nashville, Clement made friends, helped build careers and made great records.

That’s why it’s no surprise to see so many remarkable guests on For Once and For All, the final Clement album , released 11 months after his death in August 2013.  Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Emmylou Harris, Bobby Bare, Duane Eddy, Dickie Lee, T- Bone Burnett, Buddy Miller, Dan Auerbach, Leon Russell, Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, Shawn Camp, John Prine, Dierks Bentley, Jim Rooney, Jim Lauderdale and Will Oldham are all on hand for this farewell album.

For Once and For All revisits 12 of Clement’s songs, a number of which were first recorded by Charley Pride. Clement and Pride broke down racial barriers in country music, and made some great records in the process. “Just Between You and Me,” “Got Leaving On Her Mind,” “Baby is Gone” and “I Know One” are among Pride’s best.

“Jesus Don’t Give Up on Me,’ with guitar by Duane Eddy, is the closest thing to a religious song on the record, but Peter Cooper sets the record straight in his liner notes: “Jack was about as religious as a corn cob, but he was a spiritual guy.”

“The Air Conditioner Song” is a reminder that keeping our windows sealed may make us more comfortable, but there’s beauty through an open window. Gill and Camp contribute background vocals and Joey Miskulin is on accordion.

It’s all quite an informal affair, with gentle instrumentation and Clement’s relaxed vocals.

I knew Jack just well enough to say hello, but I treasured every meeting. For Once and For All truly captures his spirit. Buy it for the joy.


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Reissue: Spanky & Our Gang’s “Complete Singles”

Spanky 150x150 Reissue: Spanky & Our Gangs Complete SinglesBy Ken Paulson
Spanky and Our Gang, a harmony-driven group whose best moments rivaled the Mamas and Papas, are celebrated in The Complete Mercury Singles, a new collection from Real Gone Music.
Lead singer “Spanky McFarlane” and the group had eclectic musical tastes, but their singles were often transcendent pop, beginning with the 1967 hit “Sunday Will Never Be the Same.”
In a two-year span, Spanky and Our Gang had four more Top 40 singles: “Making Every Minute Count,” “Lazy Day,” “Sunday’ Mornin’” and “Like to Get to Know You.”
There are some revelations here, including a spirited cover of the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “Echoes,” an early recording of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” later a hit for Nilsson.
Their socially conscious “Give a Damn” stalled at #43, in part because radio programmers were startled by the use of a four-letter word. It was a call to action and a thought-provoking record that deserved a better fate.
The group never regained its commercial momentum and member Malcolm Hale died from pneumonia at the age of 27. The group disbanded before the end of the ‘60s.
It was a short, but often brilliant run of pop music. The Complete Mercury Singles truly captures the best of Spanky and our Gang.

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Concert review: Wheatfield four decades on

By Paul T. Mueller

Most bands that started more than 40 years ago are no longer playing together, much less still creating good new material. One happy exception is Wheatfield, which began as a trio in Houston in 1973 and is now a quartet that plays a mostly acoustic brand of folk-rock, flavored with country, bluegrass and jazz. On Aug. 1, the group returned to its city of origin for a sold-out show at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck – part of a six-date tour in support of its long-awaited new CD, Big Texas Sky.

Wheatfield’s current lineup consists of original members Connie Mims (vocals, guitar and percussion), Craig Calvert (vocals, guitar, mandolin and flute) and Ezra Idlet (vocals, guitar and banjo), plus Keith Grimwood (vocals and bass), who joined in 1976. The four take turns on lead vocals and contribute to the harmonies that have always been a hallmark of the band’s sound.

wheatfield 350x233 Concert review: Wheatfield four decades on

Wheatfield: Ezra Idlet, Connie Mims, Keith Grimwood and Craig Calvert

A bit of history: The first phase of Wheatfield’s career ended in 1979. The band (then known as Saint Elmo’s Fire, following a dispute with another band that claimed rights to the Wheatfield name), was unable to break through to a national audience, despite a sizable fan base and musical achievements that included an Austin City Limits appearance in 1976. The members went their separate ways – Grimwood and Idlet teamed up as Trout Fishing in America, best known for its imaginative children’s music, while Mims and Calvert moved on to other musical pursuits. But the four stayed in touch, and about a decade ago, having reclaimed the Wheatfield name, started reuniting periodically for short tours.

The Mucky Duck show – 21 songs, 90 minutes – included most of Big Texas Sky’s 12 tracks, plus some classics from the band’s early days and a few selections from in between. The show opened with Sky’s title track, a seemingly autobiographical Mims composition about leaving home (she, Calvert and Idlet began performing together in high school, and legend has it that the already graduated Calvert and Idlet were in the cheap seats at Mims’ graduation in 1973, ready to launch Wheatfield’s professional career without further delay). Other highlights included “The Very Best Thing,” a sweet love song written by Idlet; “Where’s Your Mama,” a Grimwood-Idlet tune about a different kind of pickup line; “Grace of the Rio Grande,” Mims’ tribute to her grandfather, and “How Many Times a Fool,” a breakup song by Grimwood and Idlet with a bitter theme, but high-energy playing.

Longtime fans were rewarded with several familiar songs. “Cruzan Time,” a funny recollection of one of Wheatfield’s early gigs – a six-week residency at a hotel on the Caribbean island of St. Croix – benefited from Calvert’s fine mandolin. Calvert also got to demonstrate his flute skills on “This Year” and the jazzy instrumental “Roll Over Dave Brubeck.” The latter featured what has become something of a Wheatfield show tradition: Mims’ minimal contribution – striking a triangle at several points – earned her an enthusiastic ovation each time.

Wheatfield/Saint Elmo’s Fire always had an ear for well-chosen covers as well, and the Mucky Duck show included two excellent examples – Steve Young’s “Seven Bridges Road” and Buffalo Springfield’s “Rock and Roll Woman,” both fueled by brilliant harmonies.

After closing with Mims’ “Anywhere My Heart Goes,” featuring some nice guitar work by Calvert, the band returned for an encore consisting of Joni Mitchell’s “Conversation,” a showcase for Mims’ singing and Idlet’s banjo, and Stephen Stills’ “Find the Cost of Freedom,” with harmonies every bit as beautiful and chill-inducing as those in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s version.


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Stone Mountain Station’s “Electric Silence”


by Paul T. Mueller

In its publicity material, Brooklyn-based band Stone Mountain Station lists influences ranging from the Beatles to AC/DC to Wilco. That’s a pretty wide range, maybe a bit too wide. The band’s first full-length release, Electric Silence, shows a lot of potential but comes off as somewhat unfocused.

The basic sound is high-energy pop, with a little blues and rock thrown in. All of it is built around the voice of lead vocalist Gina Tolentino, which is a bit reminiscent of Natalie Merchant’s. Unfortunately, in the album’s pre-release form, Tolentino’s voice sometimes seems a bit lost in the mix. It’s hoped the final product will show her efforts to better advantage.

Capable instrumental support comes from keyboardist Mark Ciani, who also wrote most of the songs and co-produced the album; electric guitarist/co-producer Alvaro Kapaz; acoustic guitarist Dan Sussman, who wrote two songs; bassist Ryan Gleason, and drummer/percussionist Matt Musty.

Best bets: “He Only Loves Me Too,” with its nice mix of jangly guitar and keyboards; “Sum of It,” a country-ish kiss-off song; and “Never Within Reach,” with exuberant organ riffs and chunky guitar riffs that recall Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

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Free speech honor for Jackson Browne

links ama1 Free speech honor for Jackson Browne Americana Music News – Jackson Browne has been named the 2014 recipient of the “Spirit of Americana” award for free speech in music, presented by  the  Americana Music Association and the Newseum Institute’s  First Amendment Center.

The annual award, which recognizes artists who have used their music to raise awareness and make a difference, has been presented to a wide range of performers, including Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels,  Stephen Stills, Kris Kristofferson, Joan Baez, Mavis Staples, Judy Collins and Mary Chapin Carpenter.

“Jackson Browne has long embraced the power of music to engage and inform,” said Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center. “From his founding of Musicians United for Safe Energy to his work on behalf of Amnesty International, Farm Aid and environmental causes, Browne has never hesitated to say – or sing – what he believes.”

The award will be presented at the  Americana Music 13th Annual Honors and Awards ceremony on Wednesday, September 17 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The show will be recorded for distribution to PBS stations and a special Austin City Limits presentation.


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Reissues: The 5th Dimension’s “Earthbound”

earthbound 150x150 Reissues: The 5th Dimensions EarthboundBy Ken Paulson

Real Gone Music continues to do justice to the recorded legacy of the 5th Dimension, a groundbreaking, yet underrated group of vocalists. First came re-issues of albums by Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, followed by a McCoo solo album.

Just released is Earthbound, the only 5th Dimension album never to make its way to CD. It was the final album for the original quintet and marked their reunion with Jimmy Webb as songwriter and producer. It was his “Up, Up and Away” that ignited their careers in 1967 and led to the stunning The Magic Garden album, recorded the same year.

Webb’s songs anchor the album – most notably “When Did I Lose Your Love” –  but the covers are unexpected and well done: George Harrison’s “Be Here Now,” the Beatles’ “I’ve Got a Feeling” and a lush take on the Rolling Stones’ “Moonlight Mile.”

The oddity is Webb’s cheery “Walk Your Feet in the Sunshine,” a primer on podiatric care and the perfect companion piece to the Beach Boys’ 1971 song “Take a Load Off Your Feet.”

Earthbound wasn’t a hit in 1973, but was both ambitious and adventurous. It’s good to have it back.

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Review: The Mastersons’ “Good Luck Charm”

Mastersons 150x150 Review: The Mastersons Good Luck CharmBy Ken Paulson

We first saw the Mastersons two years ago on a Cayamo cruise and were knocked out by their tight harmonies and penchant for great hooks.

Those traits show up in abundance on their second album Good Luck Charm on New West Records. Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore, also members of Steve Earle’s Dukes and Duchesses, make for an impressive duo and their new album is even more fully realized than their first, Birds Fly South.

While not overtly political, the title track and “Uniform” make their points in highly melodic settings. “Closer to You” is a reminder to break down the barriers that keep us apart, a serious message delivered in an upbeat vessel.

There are songs of love and lost love, all with the engaging hooks and harmonies that drew us to the Mastersons in the first place.

Masterson and Whitmore have clearly committed themselves to releasing great sounding songs that say something. Mission accomplished.


mastersons 350x234 Review: The Mastersons Good Luck Charm

Photo by Paul T. Mueller


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Review: Chris Smither’s “Still on the Levee”

Still on the Levee 150x150 Review: Chris Smithers Still on the LeveeBy Ken Paulson
It’s going to be a good year for fans of Chris Smither, the veteran folk-blues artist from New Orleans.
On July 22, his complete lyrics will be published in book form and in September, a tribute CD called Link of Chain is scheduled for release.
Most intriguing though is Still on the Levee: A 50 Year Retrospective, which finds Smither revisiting songs he’s written and recorded throughout his career, beginning with “Devil Got Your Man.” The handsome 2-CD package, with full lyrics in a beautifully illustrated booklet , is a compelling collection.
Smither is a skilled fingerpicker, who draws on both Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt for inspiration. He enjoyed early success when Bonnie Raitt covered his “Love You Like a Man  in 1972, but missteps left him largely under the radar. Still on the Levee shows us what we all missed.

The lyrics are painstakingly crafted and have the feel of truth. They chronicle both troubles and hope. Sobering songs like “Don’t It Drag On” are offset by lighter fare, most notably Smither’s duet with Loudon Wainwright III on “What They Say:” “They say the good die young, but it ain’t for certain/I been good all day, and I ain’t hurtin’.”
Allen Toussaint guests on “No Love Today” and the closing songs with Rusty Belle are among the collection’s best. Their performance with Smither on “Winsome Smile” is as close to rock as he gets and brings John Kay to mind.
Both discs close with different versions of “Leave the Light On” a telling take on mortality and a most appropriate way to close this decades-spanning collection.

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