25th Tin Pan South Songwriters Festival

By Ken Paulson

Tin Pan South, an extraordinary songwriters festival set in Nashville, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year with a full slate events scheduled from March 28 through April 1.

The Tin Pan South festival features small groups of successful songwriters, typically playing in the the round (or in a row.) Some songwriters are more polished performers than others, but it’s a treat to hear the original versions of now-classic songs.

Among the Tin Pan South highlights:

  • Bruce “Hey Baby” Channel, Gary Nicholson, “Sonny “I Fought the Law” Curtis and Sonny Throckmorton at 6 p.m. on March 28 at the Bluebird Café.
  • Mac Davis, Neil Thrasher, Wendell Mobley and Lee Thomas Miller at 6 p.m. on March 29 at the Bluebird Café.
  • Jessi Alexander, Deric Ruttan, Jimmy Yeary and JT Harding at the Hard Rock Café at 9 p.m. on March 29.
  • Keb’ Mo’, Desmond Child and Victoria Shaw at the Listening Room at 6 p.m. on March 30.
  • Gary Burr, Georgia Middleman, Paul Overstreet and Scotty Emerick at the Hard Rock Café at 6 p.m. on March 30.
  • James Otto, Mark McGuinn, Myler Reeve, Treat Landon at The Country at 6 p.m on March 30.
  • Bob Morrison, Dickey Lee, Pat Alger and Wayland Holyfield at the Bluebird Café at 6:30 p.m. on March 31.
  • Emily West, Jamie O’Neal, KS Rhoads and Stephony Smith at the Listening Room at 9:30 p.m. on March 31.
  • Bobby Braddock, Marc D. Sanders, Matraca Berg, Roger Cook at 3rd and Lindsley at 6:30 p.m. on April 1.
  • Bekka Bramlett, Billy Burnette, Bruce Gaistch and Dennis Morgan at 9:30 p.m. at Douglas Corner on April 1.

That just scratches the surface. You’ll find a full schedule on the Tin Pan South site.


Townes Van Zandt remembered at 20th annual “wake”

By Paul T. Mueller

There were few tears but plenty of laughter and good fellowship at the 20th annual Townes Van Zandt wake, held Jan. 1 at the Old Quarter Acoustic Café in Galveston, Texas. The event takes place every year on the anniversary of the 1997 death of the revered singer-songwriter from Texas. Free to the public and open to anyone who wants to get onstage and play, it’s one of the signature events at the iconic dive bar in downtown Galveston. The club is the successor to the Houston venue where Townes Van Zandt recorded one of his best-known albums, 1973’s Live at the Old Quarter; it was founded and, until recently, owned by musician and former Van Zandt bandmate Rex Bell, who goes by “Wrecks.”

The Townes Van Zandt wake at the Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe

The wake, which this year also honored Guy Clark and Leonard Cohen, started about 6:30 p.m. and ran until a little after 2 a.m. Scores of music fans packed the tiny club, at times almost certainly exceeding its legal capacity. Over the course of the evening, something like 25 performers, both professional and amateur, performed nearly 30 of Van Zandt’s songs (some were covered by more than one artist), sometimes assisted by the audience. The only rule (and it was broken once or twice) was that the songs had to be ones written by Van Zandt, Clark and Cohen. Fifteen different Clark songs were performed, along with four of Cohen’s.

The line between amateur and professional seemed a bit blurry at times, but those performing included Bell and his wife, Janet; singer-songwriters Joanna Gibson, Matt Harlan, Marina Rocks, Tommy Lewis, Robert Cline Jr., Chuck Hawthorne, Drew Landry, Charlie Harrison, Cody Austin, Lazarus Nichols, Smith & Turner, and Libby Koch. Most performers were from Texas, but some came from beyond the borders of the Lone Star State, including one from Virginia and Dutch musician Jacques Mees, touring Texas for the first time with vocalist Jolanda Haanskorf.

Gary Reagan, Joanna Gibson, Janet Bell and Wrecks Bell

Gary Reagan, an accomplished acoustic guitarist and longtime wake attendee, backed many performers with beautiful picking and slide work as well as harmony vocals. “Playing ‘Rex’s Blues’ with the Rex for almost 20 years is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” he noted.

During his time onstage, and in the course of introducing other performers, Bell offered stories about and memories of his old friend, describing him as “a beautiful, beautiful man” who, despite his demons, never took out his frustrations on anyone else. Bell, who recently sold the Old Quarter and plans to relocate to Arkansas, noted that he had suffered a stroke last July 4, but “I’m making a great comeback.” During one of his mini-sets he sang “Rex’s Blues,” which Townes Van Zandt wrote about him decades ago. “I hated that song,” Bell said, but eventually reconciled himself to it. Two other artists also performed the song, despite what one said was an “unwritten rule” that it not be played. Other songs that got multiple readings included the lovely “If I Needed You,” sweetly done by Bell and Gibson, and the dark and nihilistic “Nothin’.” Marina Rocks’ solo rendition of the latter was suffused with a scary intensity worthy of Townes himself; it was one of the standout performances of the evening.

The assembled cast celebrates Townes Van Zandt

Other notable performances included a heartfelt, if somewhat halting, version of “Tecumseh Valley” by a man who gave his name as Robert and said he’d traveled from Virginia; a suitably sad rendition of “Marie” by Bobby Hoskins, whose gruff delivery on that song and two by Clark left the sometimes chatty audience in churchlike silence, and a cheerful take on Clark’s “Stuff That Works” by a colorfully dressed lady who introduced herself as “Jackie Sue, the next big thing” and told the audience, “I believe the Old Quarter is stuff that works!”

Gracing a small table onstage, and available to anyone in need of a bit of liquid courage, were a party-size bottle of vodka and a two-liter bottle of Diet Orange Crush – reportedly the ingredients of Townes’ cocktail of choice. Several performers, amateur and professional alike, partook of these libations over the course of the evening.

Gibson, the evening’s first performer, said she had attended every Townes wake since the event’s founding. “What a great way to start the new year,” she noted. Gibson was one of the few to take on Cohen’s catalog, leading off with nice renditions of “If It Be Your Will” and “Suzanne.” Other Cohen interpreters included Nichols, with a hoarse but heartfelt “Dance Me to the End of Love,” and Galveston’s own Billy Marabella, whose rendition of “Suzanne” included a recounting of his personal history with the song.

The wake ended with a fine rendition of Van Zandt’s “Snowin’ on Raton,” with Matt Harlan, Libby Koch, Chuck Hawthorne, Tommy Lewis and Charlie Harrison taking turns on vocals. As the last few audience members dispersed into the foggy streets of Galveston, performers and club staff gathered onstage with Wrecks and Janet for a group photo.

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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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.”

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

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.

Don Henry: Good cause, great artist in Murfreesboro

Don HenryAmericana Music News — There’s a scene in an episode of Nashville in which Deacon decides he’s going to perform his new material in Murfreesboro, TN  so he can be sure that no one will see him.
On Feb. 18, Grammy-winning songwriter Don Henry will defy that stereotype with a benefit show at 6:30 p.m. at MTSU’s Miller Coliseum in Murfreesboro, raising money for scholarships.
Henry, whose “All Kinds of Kinds” was a recent hit for Miranda Lambert, has written for Ray Charles, Blake Shelton, Kathy Mattea, Lonestar, Patti Page, Conway Twitty and many others.
And in a town full of fine singer-songwriters, Henry is one of the best performers, regularly engaging audiences with energetic, warm and funny performances at the Bluebird Cafe. Tickets are available here.

Paul McCartney: The Esquire interview

Robert Ellis in concert at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck

 By Paul T. Mueller

We should have a new album from singer-songwriter Robert Ellis in a few months, and if the shows he’s playing in the meantime are any indication, that album should be excellent. At his October 8 gig at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck in Houston, Ellis showcased five new tunes – a quarter of the 20-song set – and all sounded worthy of what he calls his best album yet.

Ellis, who grew up in Lake Jackson, not far from Houston, drew a near-capacity crowd, a notable achievement for a 9:30 show on a weeknight. He rewarded them with a solid two-hour performance that included not just his distinctive singing and masterful work on guitar and keyboard, but also healthy doses of personality and showmanship. After politely declining a beer offered by an audience member, he revealed that he had quit drinking several weeks ago. If this show was any indication, sobriety agrees with him. He filled the breaks between songs with cheerful back-and-forth with the audience, explanations of his music (and of his clothes), an enthusiastic endorsement of his new capo, and other such ramblings, frequently profane but always good-natured.

Standouts among the new songs included “You’re Not the One,” detailing the struggle to exorcise the memories of a love gone bad; “Drivin’,” a country-ish look at the aimlessness that can derail a productive life, and “Perfect Strangers,” a poppy song about love and loss that brought to mind, in its lyrics and its setting (New York), one of Ellis’ songwriting heroes, Paul Simon.

Kudos to Ellis for his choice of cover material as well. He performed a soulful rendition of Simon’s doleful “Hearts and Bones” – which, along with the album of the same name, was released five years before Ellis was born – and an excellent take on Tony Rice’s “Church Street Blues,” featuring some frenetic bluegrass picking.

The rest of the set consisted of older Ellis material, including “Bamboo,” a song based on his childhood; the uplifting “I’ll Never Give Up on You”; the straight country anthem “Coming Home”; “Bottle of Wine,” a rueful exploration of the dangers of self-medication; the cheerful “Couple Skate,” which he dedicated to a schoolboy crush, and the crowd-pleasing “Houston,” an ode to the city he once called home. Despite numerous requests, he didn’t sing “Chemical Plant,” the centerpiece of last year’s The Lights from the Chemical Plant, opting instead for several other songs from that album. He closed with an intense rendition of “Sing Along,” an angry blast at religion that he described as a reaction to having grown up in a very religious household.

Ellis, who was nominated for several Americana Music Association awards last year on the strength of Lights, told the Mucky Duck audience that his new album is now being mixed and should be released next spring.

New and in harmony: Applewood Road

By Ken Paulson

Every Americana Music Festival reveals an invigorating
musical surprise or two, and ours came Thursday night at the Tin Roof in Nashville. In addition to the many festival showcases around, you’ll find artists performing at the many informal receptions around the city.

Applewood Road in Nashville

Applewood Road in Nashville

That’s where we found Applewood Road, a new trio made up of Amy Speace, Emily Barker and Amber Rubart, performing together for just the third time. A raucous bar hushed as they harmonized beautifully. We’ve known and admired Amy’s work for years; the three are a potent combination.

The group’s origins came in a songwriting session in 2014 in East Nashville, where they wrote the song with the title that became the band name.

Their debut album, due later this year, was recorded live  at Welcome to 1979, an analog-only studio in Nashville.




Review: Gretchen Peters and Barry Walsh in Houston

Gretchen Peters and Barry Walsh

Gretchen Peters and Barry Walsh

By Paul T. Mueller

At her Aug. 30 show in Houston, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters seemed a bit surprised but very pleased to be playing to a near-capacity audience on a Sunday evening. She and Barry Walsh, her husband and musical partner, rewarded the crowd at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck with an excellent performance that drew heavily from her most recent album, Blackbirds, but also included older material, a few covers and even a solo turn by Walsh.

Acknowledging that much of Blackbirds deals with heavy subjects, notably death, Peters promised to get the dark material out of the way early. And so she did, leading off with “When All You Got Is a Hammer,” a tale of domestic discord; the murder-ballad title track; the angst-ridden “Pretty Things,” and “Black Ribbons,” an elegy for the oil-fouled Gulf Coast after the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The mood lightened – a bit – with renditions of Tom Russell’s “Guadalupe” and “My Dark Angel,” a sweet if unconventional love song. Nashville veteran Walsh took the spotlight for “Belgian Afternoon” from his 2014 album Silencio, before an interlude of squeezebox jokes as Peters retuned her guitar (Walsh alternated between electric piano and what Peters described as “a $200 Craigslist accordion” throughout the show). Responding to a request, Peters reached back nearly two decades for the title track of her debut album, The Secret of Life. The rest of the show included a couple of covers – Jimmy LaFave’s “Revival” and David Mead’s “Nashville” – as well as several songs from Peters’ 2012 album Hello Cruel World and a couple more from Blackbirds.

Peters and Walsh have been at this for a while; they’re seasoned performers, at ease with the audience and well versed in the mechanics and dynamics of live performance. Despite Peters’ claim of being “loopy from the road,” her singing, and the intricate interplay between her acoustic guitar and Walsh’s powerful piano, showed no trace of sloppiness. They wound down the set with the quiet drama of “Five Minutes” before rocking out on the exuberant “Woman on the Wheel.”

Abandoning the overdone cliché of leaving the stage after the 90-minute set (at the Duck, this requires an awkward walk through the audience and back), Peters and Walsh finished with the lost-love ballad “On a Bus to St. Cloud” and a rousing duet on John Prine’s “In Spite of Ourselves.”

Early Nashville rock: Ronnie and the Daytonas

By Ken Paulson

daytonasMuch is made these days of Kings of Leon and Jack White living in Nashville, but rock has long thrived in Music City.

The new Real Gone Music release of Ronny and the Daytonas’ The Complete Recordings reminds us of the Top 10 success of this Nashville band 51 years ago. Their debut single “GTO” echoed the Beach Boys’ car songs, but had a vitality all its own.

The hit was written by “Ronny” – John “Bucky” Wilkin – the son of legendary Nashville songwriter Marijohn Wilkin. She was a very big deal. She wrote country classics “Long Black Veil” and “Waterloo,” the inspirational “One Day at a Time” and even the Eddie Cochran (and Rod Stewart) track “Cut Across Shorty.” The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame calls her one of the three most successful female songwriters in country music history, along with Dolly Parton and Patsy Walker.

There must have been something in the DNA. While the younger Wilkin only had two Top 40 hits with the Daytonas, he wrote both, along with about half the band’s output.

The Complete Recordings is a fascinating two-CD set. Much of the first disc is formulaic car and surf music of widely varying quality, but just as Brian Wilson moved past those genres to a more sophisticated sound, so did Wilkin.

The turning point was “Sandy,” a 1965 hit single co-written with Buzz Cason, another young Nashville rocker who went on to write “Everlasting Love.” This was Wilkin’s “Please Let Me Wonder” and a huge leap beyond the early material.

From “Sandy” on, the songs became more adventurous and the arrangements more ambitious. But there were no more big hits.

By 1968, Wilkin was a solo artist with RCA and released a single about the day in the life of a solder in Vietnam, co-written with his mom and Kris Kristofferson. (Yes, you read that right.) It failed, despite the intervention and support of Chet Atkins. Yet it’s somehow the perfect bookend to a recording career that began four years earlier with “G.T.O. “ The sixties moved just that quickly.

The Complete Recordings include four unreleased songs, for an astounding total of 48 tracks from a band whose work went largely unacknowledged for decades. The new collection is an important historical document – and a lot of fun.

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

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.

Follow Sun209 on Twitter at @Sun209com.

A little Poco at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville

By Ken Paulson

It was a good week for Poco fans in the Nashville area.

Richie Furay

Richie Furay

On Tuesday, Richie Furay joined Vince Gill and an emerging duo called Striking Matches as part of the new SoundExchange Influencer series at the club.  The premise is that musicians build on the influences of others, so Gill talked about how Furay influenced him and Striking Matches cited both men as musical heroes.  Furay did a lot of newer material,  but did perform a spirited “Pick Up the Pieces” and closed with “Kind Woman,” the song that essentially led to the birth of Poco.

Rusty Young was on that Buffalo Springfield session and ended up being the longest-standing member of Poco. On Saturday night. Young appeared at the Bluebird Cafe along with Bill Lloyd, Craig Fuller of Pure Prairie League and Little Feat and Robert Ellis Orrall.



Rusty Young

Rusty Young

Young opened the show with “Call It Love” and closed with “Crazy Love,” but may have received the biggest reaction for “Neil Young” off the recent All Fired Up Poco album, in which he entertainingly explains that Neil is not his brother.

Follow Sun209 on Twitter at @Sun209com.


Concert review: Eliza Gilkyson at St. Mark’s in Houston

By Paul T. Mueller

Austin-based singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson brought a light touch to sometimes dark material in her March 26 performance at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Houston. The show was the third of five in the church’s second annual “Songs of Lovin’ and Redemption” music series, presented by the church during the Lenten season.

The struggle between light and darkness is an appropriate theme for Lent, and it’s a theme that runs through a lot of Gilkyson’s work, especially on her recently released CD, The Nocturne Diaries. As she explained during the show, which included seven songs from the CD, much of Diaries was written in the middle of the night, when inspiration came at the cost of sleep. Images of night and darkness were featured in such songs as “Midnight Oil” (“Moonlight over the mountains/the midnight oil burns low”), “No Tomorrow” (“And I’ll hold on to you when the world fades to black/Like there’s no tomorrow/No tomorrow”) and “Touchstone” (“When shadows fall where you lie sleeping/In that dark hour before the dawn”).

But just as darkness gives way to light, so Gilkyson balances gloom and doom with hope and optimism. In “Emerald Street,” she sang, “Whole world’s goin’ up in smoke/Love still makes my world go round.” In “Eliza Jane,” a lively song she described as a sort of “doomsday square dance,” she held a kind of self-critical conversation with herself: “Oh Eliza, you try so hard you don’t see nothin’/Blue horizon and you’re expecting rain/Lift your eyes and you just might find/You see something good, Eliza.”

Gilkyson’s humor comes across in live performance in ways that aren’t always obvious in her recordings. She introduced “Beauty Way,” a song about the musician’s life, as “a medley of my hit,” noting that it got some play on an Austin radio station and was covered by Ray Wylie Hubbard. Before “Fast Freight,” which was written by her father, songwriter Terry Gilkyson, she described how he used to put on a suit and tie and commute to an office in Hollywood to write songs, in an attempt to convince her mother that he was just a regular guy. During “Emerald Street,” Gilkyson whistled the chorus and invited audience members to do the same, first congratulating their efforts and then taking her whistling to heights the audience couldn’t match, explaining that “y’all were getting a little cocky back there.” She also followed “The Party’s Over,” a caustic allegory on boom times and their aftermath from a few years ago, with a funny story about a fan at an earlier concert who, despite her enthusiasm, completely missed the point of the song.

Despite a reference or two to her own mortality, Gilkyson was in excellent form throughout the show, holding the church in rapt attention with her strong, clear voice and accompanying herself with skillfully picked acoustic guitar and a small stomp board for percussion.

After thanking the audience for their patience – she noted that some of her new songs were getting their first public performance – Gilkyson closed with “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” combining W.B. Yeats’ apocalyptic imagery (“What kind of beast comes slouching/Slouching towards Bethlehem?”) with the social activism that’s a frequent focus of her work (“You better stand with your shoulder to the wheel/You better band together at the top of the hill”).

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Tin Pan South: Cleveland, Lloyd, Ragsdale and Coleman

Ashley Cleveland performs during Tin Pan South

Ashley Cleveland performs during Tin Pan South

Ashley Cleveland, Bill Lloyd, Suzi Ragsdale and Dave Coleman were clearly enjoying themselves Friday night at Douglas Corner as part of the Tin Pan South songwriters festival in Nashville.

Unlike other rounds where songwriters might be teamed thematically or shows in which songwriters come out for a rare performance, these were all friends and active performers, eager to play off each other and to share new material.

Three-time Grammy Ashley Cleveland stood to deliver songs from her upcoming Beauty on the Curve, Coleman showcased songs from his band’s new Escalator, Ragsdale debuted “The Ending” from a musical in the works, and Lloyd shared “Happiness,” a cool pop song that channels Burt Bacharach.

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