Shelby Lynne Performs “Leaving”

Here’s a clip of Alabama-born country-soul songstress Shelby Lynne with her 2001 song “Leaving” as taken from her critically-hailed album I Am Shelby Lynne.  Apart from being a knock-out song, it shows that the lines between country and soul music are pretty blurry.  Radio station and big box record store conglomerates take note: music is bigger than your categories.

Shelby Lynne
The album ‘I Am Shelby Lynne’ was a triumph for its creator in many ways. For one, it was the first album she put out over which she had full creative control, pulling in something of a more soulful spirit apart from the expectations of the country music establishment. Second, it won her a series of industry kudos, which included a 2001 Grammy for ‘best new artist’ who had ironically just put out her sixth record. And third, it proved to be a hit with the burgeoning Americana audience which had been building steadily when the record was released.

The first time I heard this, I’d been reading about Shelby Lynne and her record in a number of music publications. At the time, it had made a big splash in the press as a record that bent the rules of country, and dared to bring in outside influences like soul, adult pop, and even a touch of jazz.  In hearing this I wondered if this was an Aretha Franklin song that someone else was tackling.  This to me owes a huge debt to soul music and R&B, yet something in Lynne’s delivery makes it a country song too.  But,  I can definitely hear late-60s Aretha all over this. In short, this tune sold me.  It matched everything I was reading about in the music papers – a rare thing indeed! After hearing this tune, I went out and bought the album that very week.

There’s something so universal in the story being told, and Lynne’s weary-voiced narrator is both tired yet strong at the same time.  It packs a punch too, in that it represents such a complex web of emotion – sadness, anger, steadfast resolve and more.  As a great example of songs about break-ups, this one is something of a treasure, a gem among lesser songs that make the reality of breaking up a black and white issue, when most times it is anything but.

I must admit, it’s taken me a long time to come around to the charms of country music.  Most of the reasons for that might be because country can be such an uptight genre, trying to rebuff any attempts at messing with its formula.  It tends to be placed in a musical ghetto, with country music radio stations enforcing the rules.  But, in hearing this, I was reminded that most of the genres I appreciate – rock ‘n’ roll,  soul, blues, and even jazz – were pioneered and crafted by musicians living or hailing from the same places that country music comes from, the American South.

And it’s a great trend more recently, that many musicians are going forward with this in mind.  And by this, I don’t mean “hat” country artists (you know they’re country because they wear cowboy hats all the time…) who are making bland pop music and putting a pedal steel  and dobro on top of it and calling it a country record.  No.  I mean artists like Shelby Lynne, Norah Jones, Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Rodney Crowell, The Dixie Chicks, Steve Earle, and others  who recognize that country music is a part of a continuum, influencing and being influenced by many other musical forms, yet still being a part of its own tradition too.  Notice that most of those acts I just mentioned don’t wear cowboy hats?

They don’t have to.

For more information about Shelby Lynne, check out

And check out Lynne’s latest record, Just A Little Lovin, which is something of a tribute to another creatively bold and genre-defying artist, Dusty Springfield.


Ryan Adams sings “Everybody Knows”

Here’s a clip of Americana whirlwind songwriter and former Whiskeytown linchpin Ryan Adams with his 2007 track “Everybody Knows”.  The song is taken from his record Easy Tiger, his ninth solo album in seven years.

Ryan Adams is a songwriting dynamo, ramping up an incredible output since the dissolution of his band Whiskeytown and his critically-acclaimed debut Heartbreaker in 2000.  The follow-up to that album, 2001’s Gold, cemented his reputation as a songwriter who bears the torch of classic rock, 70s singer-songwriter, and country rock, namely the Stones, The Band, Neil Young, and even Billy Joel (Adams’ “Goodnight Hollywood Boulevard” featured on Gold is classic pre-Stranger Joel…).

In recording and touring like a man possessed, Adams became known as a somewhat unpredictable live act.  It has been purported that at one time his on-stage behaviour was influenced by bouts of heavy drinking. His famous on stage hissy fit when a heckler called out a mock request for the Summer of 69 is the stuff of live music legend.
In recording and touring like a man possessed, Adams became known as a somewhat unpredictable live act. Purportedly at one time his erratic on-stage behaviour was influenced by bouts of heavy drinking. His famous on stage hissy fit when a heckler called out a mock request for "the Summer of '69" is the stuff of live music legend.

But his output in more recent years has suffered mixed reviews, possibly due to a glut of product released in too quick a succession.  Releasing two or three albums was pretty standard for many acts  in 1963.  The Beach Boys released three records that year, for instance, and kept up the pace every year until the creation of their masterpiece Pet Sounds in 1966.   But, those days are gone.   When Adams released three records in 2005 (two solo records, and one with his band, the Cardinals) it placed him as something of a curiosity rather than an artist vying for a lasting body of work.

Easy Tiger changes all of that, drawing together his strengths as a writer, and as an artist who is able to boil down his influences into something that transcends pastiche.  This record is the proof needed  to show that he is in the same league with those artists from whom he draws strength, simply because he comes the closest to finding his own voice on it, a goal which had eluded him on some of his previous releases.  It helps too that the Cardinals join him on this one, and give this song, and many others on it the added push that they deserve.  It also helps that Adams shows great maturity and self-awareness as a writer.

I think this is what I like about this song.  The narrator is in a state of confusion and sorrow within his relationship where he describes “you and I together/but only one of us in love”.  Yet, this is not a victim’s lament.  He knows he is at least partially to blame when he sings

“I’m always in need and it’s hard to be reciprocating/The fabric of our life gets torn/And everything’s changing so how i am to know/How i’m going to hold on to you when i’m spinning out of control”

In many ways this song is one of many on the record which are songs about confronting one’s own shortcomings, which is an excercise many of us avoid.  This is an album by a flawed man which is a perfect soundtrack for other flawed men, and for the people who love them.

For more information about Ryan Adams and more music, check out the Ryan Adams MySpace page.


The Gourds Play Snoop Dogg’s “Gin & Juice”

Here’s a clip of bluegrass homeboys The Gourds with their take on Snoop Dogg’s slice of life snapshot of Compton track “Gin & Juice”. This cover is taken from the band’s 2001 disc Shinebox.

This is easily one of my favourite cover versions of all-time, and certainly more then just a novelty tune.  Among other things it’s a great party tune in it’s own right, and proves that even the most seemingly cover-proof tune is coverable by the talented and the determined.

Not actually from Compton
The Gourds: Not actually from Compton

The Gourds hail from Austin Texas, calling themselves something of an alternative country band, even if stylistically they’re pretty traditional.  Even so, it’s hard to argue with the fact that these guys aren’t treading a predictable path.  In addition to this cover version, they’ve also covered Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” side by side with originals and traditional material.  But, this is the song which gained them attention on college radio stations, most likely for the same reasons I shook my head in wonderment the first time I heard it.

There was a spate of ironic cover versions which seemed to crop up around the same time as this tune, some better than others.  And this is certainly not meant to be taken too seriously, so much as it’s meant to get people dancing.  Yet, one thing that stands out for me is how the incongruity of it seems to point out just how far removed white culture still remains to be from black culture in the minds of many,  while at the same time pointing out how the differences between people aren’t really significant in any meaningful way.  The result comes off as being extremely funny, as the subversion of expectations tends to be.  Yet, I think there’s more there.

What I mean is that it is downright odd to hear a white, southern voice singing hip hop lyrics in the context of an Anglo-celtic musical form like bluegrass.  Yet, when you really boil it down, the events which take place – partying with friends who may indeed be of the fairweather variety – are pretty universal, barring some of the rock star excess elements, maybe. Despite the cartoon ‘bitches and whores’ in this song, to me this tune is really about the value of friendship, even when surrounded by those who wouldn’t know what real friendship is.

Luckily along with what could be considered some serious subject matter, the song rocks like a bastard as well as being interesting on a sociological level.  And it’s probably this that the band has intended things to be.

For more music and information, check out the Gourds MySpace page.

And also, investigate the official Gourds website too.


Neko Case Sings “Hold On Hold On”

Here’s a clip of Americana darling and sometimes power-pop pin-up Neko Case with her song “Hold on Hold On” as taken from her quite superb Fox Confessor Brings the Flood album from 2006.

Case-ing the joint: In addition to a solo career, Neko Case also lends her vocal and writing talents to power-pop collective The New Pornographers, based right here in Vancouver although members live all across North America.

The arrangement here really brings out the country flavour in the song, which is hinted at on the album.  But, there’s something about this song, and the album as a whole which stops me from calling it a country record.  Perhaps more significantly, there’s something which keeps me from calling it an alt-country record too.

To my ears, it just kind of a ‘voice’ album, if that can be its own genre.  I think this is the crux of it; Case’s voice is centre stage, and the style of what she’s singing is entirely secondary.

This is not to say that you can’t taste what’s in the sauce.  There is country to be found here, yet also 60s folk- pop (the Mamas and the Papas spring to mind in places…), which explains maybe where Case is coming from as a writer.  Yet, for me her voice makes this song, and the album what it is, with melodies which seem to pour out of her in the moment instead of having been written beforehand.  And on this one, you kind of hope that the song will go on and on.  But, it leaves you with an impression of a feeling, making you wonder why that feeling seems so familiar.  That to me is great writing.

The Sadies are owed a debt on this, having co-written it and played on it on the album.  Among other artists who appear on Case’s record include Calexico, Howie Gelb of giant sand, and one of my heroes Garth Hudson, the keyboard savant of the Band.

For more Neko Case, check out the Neko Case MySpace Page.


Golden Smog Perform ‘Looking Forward to Seeing You’

Here’s a clip of Mid-West Americana supergroup Golden Smog, made up of members from the Jayhawks, Wilco, Soul Asylum, Big Star, The Replacements, and other bands from the Minneapolis area, with a track originally appearing on their 1998 third album Weird Tales“Looking Forward to Seeing You”.  On this particular ocasion, the band are performing at a Barack Obama rally in February of this year.

The word ‘Supergroup’ tends to be a bit of a tricky term.  It’s a term which can often imply a war of egos that produces something of a novel listening experience, but ultimately not a very deep one.  Or, it can mean that the members of said supergroup are so self-conscious about their not sounding like a war of egos that the music doesn’t end up with any kind of personality.

With this band, neither case applies.  What does come across is the sound of a few guys playing music just for the hell of it, even if the guys in question are extremely good songwriters. On the Weird Tales album and on this song “Looking Forward to Seeing You”, there’s a loose atmosphere and an earthy approach to the production that gives the record loads of personality, and imbue the performances with a refreshing, casual feel.  The album has a real ‘recorded it in the front room after dinner and a few glasses of red wine’ vibe, with the Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Neil Young being some of the main musical reference points.

The connections between the musician stem from their involvement in the mid-Western Americana scene, with the respective full-time bands and the pressures of success in the background of this, their hobby band, their fun band.  Members of Golden Smog (named after Fred Flintstone’s on stage jazz singer moniker in the Flintstones TV show, while he sings with jazz musician Hotlips Hannigan‘s band…) are many, as the group tends to be a bit of a revolving door in terms of personnel, although Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and Gary Louris of the Jayhawks are two frequent contributors.

The band started off in 1989 as a covers band, playing entire sets dedicated to the Eagles, or to top forty radio hits. From here, the group became a vehicle for songwriting of members who came and went, some of those writers being secondary writers in their full-time groups. Since ’89, five albums and a ‘greatest hits’ has been recorded under the Golden Smog name, with an active band website and frequent live appearances.

For more information, check out the Golden Smog MySpace page.

Also, check out the Golden Smog artist page on their label, Lost Highway.


Blue Rodeo Perform ‘Trust Yourself’

Here’s a clip of Canadian alt-country pioneers and songwriting giants Blue Rodeo with their 1990 hit “Trust Yourself”, taken from their album Casino.

Blue Rodeo Casino
Blue Rodeo started on the club scene on Queen Street West in Toronto, building on 60s folk rock and developing their own niche as superlative original songwriters intially during a time of synth-oriented pop in the mid-1980s.

To many, alt-country was a beast born much later than 1990, when bands like Wilco, the Handsome Family, and The Jayhawks began to ignite scenes all over the States, particularly as evidenced in the No Depression sound.  But, Blue Rodeo were quietly making albums from the mid-to-late 80s in Canada, with singer-songwriters Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor musically navigating between classicist country-rock crooning, and acidic rootsy bile respectively. Early gigs with k.d lang opened some doors for the group, and soon they had a loyal following of their own.

There were a lot of early critical parallels between Blue Rodeo and the Band, especially when keyboardist Bob Wiseman was in the group. But, to me their early sound was more stylistically akin to the Byrds, with twelve-string guitars and hazy, 60s-influenced folk-rock sounds infused into their songs.  A high point in their career for me was 1993’s Five Days in May album, when the band retreated to the Muskoka region, just north of Toronto – known to Ontarians as ‘cottage country’ – to jam, and to record. If there is a parallel with the Band, then maybe this album is the best example; a bunch of Canadians in the woods making music in a clubhouse, a la Big Pink. Otherwise, I think these guys have designed their own template.

I heard a snippet from the sessions while I was going to University, living in North York in a shared house with no TV.  Radio, particularly the CBC, was a regular thing for us.  Their song “Know Where You Go/Tell Me Your Dream” from that record grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and demanded I seek it out, which I dutifully did.  It remains to be one of my favourite albums.  And ‘Trust Yourself’ really made me think about how great country music could be even earlier on, even if it’s arguable that this tune isn’t exactly a country song per se.

I sometimes marvel at the level of talent in our country here, with our modest little population.  And I equally wonder why more of our artists aren’t world-renowned, particularly when songs like “Lost Together”, “Till I’m Myself Again”, “Diamond Mine”, and so many others are such tremendous songs.  Blue Rodeo are certainly a band I think everyone needs to have heard.

For more music, check out the Blue Rodeo official site.


Former Monkees Guitarist Michael Nesmith Performs ‘Joanne’

Michael Nesmith Magnetic SouthHere’s a clip of former pre-fab four guitarist and country-rock pioneer Michael Nesmith performing his 1970 solo tune ‘Joanne’ as taken from his critically-acclaimed, if not world-renowned Magnetic South album.

The idea to jump headlong into country music wasn’t necessarily a new idea for Nesmith, even when he was one of the Monkees.  Many of the songs he contributed to that group – “You Just May Be the One”, “Listen to the Band”, and others – gave away his love of country music pretty blatantly.  And he wasn’t the first guy to add country to a pop group’s repertoire either.  The Byrds, under the influence of Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman (who later formed the Flying Burrito Brothers), had established a precedent for country rock by recording what is, to my ears, a straight-ahead country album Sweetheart of the Rodeo.  Yet, it started a number of artists down the path of rootsy, country rock.

But,  country rock wasn’t yet a radio staple when this song was recorded.  Nesmith’s  album was released before the age of the Eagles allowed rock and pop musicians to explore country forms and enjoy crossover success too.   Also, there was the stigma of the Monkees to contend with, saddled as they were with the public perception that they were just a TV band, with no real songwriting or musical talent of their own, despite the fact that this wasn’t actually the case.  In some ways, Nesmith deciding to follow a solo career by 1970, and do it while writing in a nascent genre, might have been looked upon by many as a foolhardy move.   The artistic integrity of this decision alone is admirable, but Nesmith’s exemplary songwriting talent makes it only a curiosity.  I personally think that he was just pursuing his natural interest in roots music, which I think is why he succeeds.

Mike Nesmith: my favourite Monkee, and not just because of the hat.

Nesmith seemed to have an instinct for writing interesting lyrics that reflected his times, while at the same time making his songs sound like early country classics, or even old-timey folk-tunes from the mountain.  And his arrangements are both lush, and unobtrusive at the same time, which is certainly showcased well here in this tune.  And I think that this song shows off his vocal talents too, with a high yodel that reflects a classic approach true to the genre, and augments the subject matter of the song; remembrance of a love long gone.

Mike Nesmith continued his solo career through the 1970s, taking time off in the 80s to explore filmmaking and TV production with his company Pacific Arts including the movie Elephant Parts,  which was a pop-experimental film of comedic and musical vignettes which carried on the traditions of the movie he’d made in the 60s with the Monkees, Head. Both of those films are often cited as major influences on the development of music videos during the 80s and onward.  He continues to record today, with sporadic revisits to the Monkees camp, yet still on the same path he took at the end of the 60s, when the shackles of a TV pop image were traded in for his role as proto-alt country innovator.


Gillian Welch Sings ‘Time (The Revelator)’

Here’s a clip of singer-songwriter and darling of Americana Gillian Welch with her 2001 title track from the album Time (The Revelator).

When this record came out, I was living in England where Americana was enjoying something of a renaissance in the music papers. Music magazines like Uncut praised this one to the skies. At the time, there was so much music coming at me that I didn’t actually get around to hearing this until much later. By then, Gillian Welch and her collaborator David Rawlings had recorded another album, Soul Journey, which was gaining similar praise. But, in hearing the Time… album, I finally found out what all the fuss was about.

There are musicians and songwriters who do good jobs at presenting songs. But there are others who somehow manage to conjure whole worlds with their material and their performances. The Band is probably the gold standard in this particular department. And I think Gillian Welch is of their school, conjuring up the same sort of misty, sepia-toned world that The Band once did. Her fascination and love for early twentieth century folk music of the Appalachians pours out of every bar of this song, and the rest of the album too. Yet this is not academic music, nor is it about trying to reproduce the style of another artist. There is as much heart here as there is attention to detail.

Gillian Welch David Rawlings Levon Helm
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings with Americana influencer and drummer/singer/mandolinist Levon Helm in 2007

Among other projects Welch and Rawlings have been involved in is their work with T-Bone Burnette. It was he who discovered the two, and helped them get their record deal. He would subsequently produce their albums Revival and Hell Among the Yearlings. Since the release of those albums, Welch and Rawlings would attract admirers from all corners of the musical landscape looking to collaborate with them, from off-the-wall post-punk songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, to legendary King of Rock n’ Soul Solomon Burke.

Some their most important work with Burnette was their contributions to the very successful O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which brought “old time music” to the mainstream. Along with people like Alison Krauss, and later the Dixie Chicks, Gillian Welch helped many rediscover traditional music and the roots of modern country music, simply by exemplifying the vitality of the music so completely in her own work.

For more information about Gillian Welch and to hear more music, check out the Gillian Welch MySpace page.

And for more fan goodies and news, be sure to sit a spell at the Gillan Welch official website.


Emmylou Harris Interview

Here’s a link to an in-depth interview with Emmylou Harris, alt-country godmother, roots music interpreter, and sought-after musical collaborator. Thanks once again to Clash Magazine for such a great interview!

Emmylou HarrisDiscovered by the Byrds, inspired by the Band, and mentored by Gram Parsons, Harris struck out on her own by the mid-70s, cutting albums which are in a country vein. But she didn’t limit the possibilities of the genre by sticking to the rules. She included material from the folk, pop, and rock worlds as well, which brought her skills as an interpretive artist to light across the entire musical spectrum.

Along with her ensuing output as a solo artist through the 70s and into the 80s and 90s, her work on two albums with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt – Trio, and Trio II overtly bridged the gap between traditional country and Californian country rock, among many other pop influences that extended to a version of Phil Spectre’s “To Know Him Is To Love Him”, originally recorded by late 50s pop vocal group The Teddy Bears. And her landmark 1995 album Wrecking Ball, produced by Daniel Lanois, showcased her take on songs from Steve Earle to Jimi Hendrix.

Today, she’s enjoying the attention of new audiences, has begun to put increased efforts into her own songwriting along with her continuing development as an interpreter. Harris has maintained an exemplary reputation in strong supporting roles as a backing vocalist, appearing on record and in concert with artists like Neil Young, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, and Ryan Adams, among many others.

Her newest album, All I Intended to Be, is out now.

Enjoy the interview!