Listen to this track by Americana and alt-country rock outliers The Long Ryders. It’s “Looking For Lewis And Clark”, a high point in their 1985 album The State Of Our Union. That album had the band on a major label and seeking a wider audience for their unique brand of punked-up Americana tinged with the brown-sound Woodstock vibe of their influences.
In this, they were ahead of their time, anticipating the alt-country movement that would gain in popularity by the mid-nineties and a full decade after they’d laid this record down. Despite the musical wells they were drawing from that tied them to the songwriting traditions of the past and the sound they foresaw that we’d see as a movement by the next decade, The Long Ryders had a lot to say about the political trajectory of America in the present. They weren’t kidding around with that album title.
There’s a real sense of betrayal to be found on this album and certainly on this song, with the direction of the American narrative taking a turn for the worst. We can all relate to that by now. But this was a particularly heinous thing to this particular band of musicians and songwriters given how important mythic visions of America were to them.
Listen to this track by original country music outlaw, singer-songwriter, and everyone’s favourite Americana octogenarian Willie Nelson. It’s “I Never Cared For You”, a song dating back to his days as a Nashville hitslinger in the 1960s, here re-imagined as a single as taken from 1998’s Teatro.
The song appeared on an early live album in 1966 (Live Country Music Concert) and again in 1982 as a part of a joint double album with Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, and Brenda Lee called The Winning Hand. But, on the Daniel Lanois-produced Teatro, it shines as a high-point in his career during a time when country music artists of his vintage and calibre were taking an opportunity to simplify their approaches in the wake of younger artists garnering all of the attention of the country music establishment. Part of what this meant was going back to the things that made them singular artists in the first place, unshackling themselves from the demands of that same establishment that had written them off as being outdated.
But Nelson had made a point of making a nuisance of himself where this fickle establishment was concerned from the very beginning in any case. And how so?
Listen to this track by redheaded guitar slinger and roots and blues ingenue turned American music matriarch Bonnie Raitt. It’s “Love Me Like a Man” as taken from her second album Give It Up, released to the world in the summer of 1972, when she was a fresh-faced 22 year old.
Bonnie Riatt is known today particularly for the work she created in the late ’80s and into the ’90s. Albums like Nick Of Time and Luck of the Draw, plus songs like “Something To Talk About”, and “I Can’t Make You Love Me” led to armfuls of Grammies. They also reveal Raitt’s superior command of emotional tone, arrangement, and great chops, even if they were created with a polished, adult contemporary sound in mind. But, her career began well before that work was created, upon a sturdy foundation of the blues.
The idea of “contemporary blues” is off-putting to some. It’s a bit of a red flag for me, if I’m honest. But, this song is certainly one that can be called contemporary although maybe in a different way then one might expect.
Listen to this track by Canadian-American modern roots music architects The Band, here featuring the impossibly funky drummer-singer Levon Helm. It’s “Don’t Do It” as taken from the landmark 1972 live album Rock of Ages, a Holland-Dozier-Holland composition originally recorded by Marvin Gaye in 1964, but utterly redefined here by Helm and his bandmates.
This version of the song was released as a single, scoring #34 on the Billboard top 100. More importantly, it would become a live staple for the group into the 1970s, featuring most prominently in the milestone farewell concert The Last Waltz as a closing number, and an opening number to Martin Scorcese’s film of the same name.
But, what makes the Band’s take on the song so special is largely down to Helm, on one of his most distinct vocal spotlights, weaving in and out with Rick Danko’s burbling bassline, Richard Manuel‘s ‘rhythm piano’, Garth Hudson’s organic sonic colours, Robbie Robertson’s tearaway guitar stabs, and of course the horns, arranged by Allen Toussaint.
Among other things of course is that this song is one of the key documents that proves not only how potent the Band were as a live unit, and about their uniqueness in general. It also demonstrates something about Levon Helm as a musician. Read more
Listen to this track by Canadian singer-songwriting force of nature Neil Young. It’s “Look Out For My Love”, from 1978’s Comes a Time, a record that represented a then-recent return to Young’s musical base sound (or one of them) that brought him to prominence. This is a song about returning home after a sojourn abroad, and to a relationship that has meanwhile moved on.
Neil Young’s statement about his arguably most famous album, Harvest, more specifically about his song “Heart of Gold” was that it was the song that put him in the middle of the road, after which he “aimed for the ditch”. And it’s true that much of his output afterwards focused on a more abrasive hard rock sound on albums Tonight’s the Night, On the Beach, and Zuma.
But, another style that still kept Neil Young interested was country-folk music,with orchestral pop flavouring. It certainly was a mainstay on Harvest, and now again six years later on Comes a Time, and “Look Out For My Love”. But, how does this stylistic choice play into what’s going on in the song? Read more
Here’s a clip of Alaskan, and current Portland Oregon singer-songwriter Emma Hill along with band Her Gentlemen Callers with their newest single, “Meet Me At the Moon”. The song is the lead track from her upcoming record Meet Me At the Moon, set for release in 2011. Hill is an example of American roots music flourishing in every corner of the North American continent (and beyond), and at an age that belies her supremely affecting voice – age 22. But is this the debut of an ingenue? No. It will be her third album, after 2009’s Clumsy Seduction.
Hill’s music is rooted in current and established Anglo-Celtic forms that have produced folk, bluegrass, and modern country music. Her focus is on tight ensemble playing based around strong songwriting, with a background in folk music, singing in a duo while in Alaska. Later, she found herself on her own later as a solo artist in Portland, writing songs from a more personal standpoint.
What can be picked up from this song is how closely knit the musicians are, with each instrument in balance, yet with a casual looseness too, and with a hint of humour (note the quotation of Van Halen’s ‘Jump’ just as the band is warming up as played on the pedal steel guitar). Of course the most obvious highlight is Emma Hill’s pure, effortless voice.
I talked to Emma via email, and asked her about the video, songwriting, the importance of geography, and how someone’s age doesn’t necessarily determine how self-aware they are when it comes to affairs of the heart.
Listen to this track from pioneering recording artist, country music deity, and famed coal miner’s daughter Loretta Lynn. It’s her self-penned “Miss Being Mrs.”, a tune that typifies Lynn’s genius – an ability to speak to her own situation, and to those of her audience at the same time. The song is taken from her 2004 career renaissance album Van Lear Rose, another Grammy-winning release after a 45-year recording career, and produced by guitarist, songwriter, and Loretta Lynn fan Jack White who plays on all of the tracks as well.
Loretta Lynn was a trailblazer in country music, and in the field of singer-songewriters when such a role for women was a rarity. From her coal mining centered childhood in Kentucky, to the Grand Ol’ Opry, to the top of the country music charts for decades after, Lynn had to create her own template for success, along with her husband Doo who served as her manager and promoter. The couple were married when Loretta was in her mid-teens, and they stayed together for 50 years and 6 children, despite alleged rockiness of the relationship. Doo died in 1996.
Her relationship and her personal experiences in general informed a lot of her songwriting. The extreme ups and downs in her songs are tied together by one commonality; that they were autobiographical, yet infused with empathy too, empathy for other women in her same situation. She was able to build an audience on this basis, with an honest and emotional core to her music that resonated with her listeners. Most songwriters try for their whole careers to attain this without sounding as if they’re trying too hard. Loretta Lynn does it as a matter of course.
And 8 years after the death of her husband, and at age 69, her ability to write songs with this thread in place is just as strong, as you can tell. This one is about Loretta Lynn missing her husband, and missing that sense of identity as a wife. But it’s also about all women who share in that situation. That is her genius.
For more information about Loretta Lynn, be sure to stop by LorettaLynn.com.
Listen to this track by Americana architects The Band, featuring “rhythm pianist”, vocalist, and sometime songwriter Richard Manuel singing lead. It’s “Whispering Pines”, his song that he co-wrote with guitarist Robbie Robertson as featured on the Band’s 1969 self-titled album The Band, sometimes called The Brown Album.
I recently finished reading Million Dollar Bash, by Sid Griffin, the story of how the band became the Band out of the ashes of the R&B backing band for Ronnie Hawkins and then Bob Dylan that they once were. It was during a 1967-68 recording stint , when four, and later all five, members of the Hawks rented a house and rehearsal space they named Big Pink in rural upstate New York. It was here that they delved into the folk music of decades and centuries past, with Bob Dylan on hand to serve as a catalyst, while also rehearsing new songs by Dylan, fresh off of Bob’s typewriter in the very house and in the very hour that they were being recorded. They in turn kept Bob on the straight and narrow in how to play in a band, after years of his playing solo.
Soon, the set-up at Big Pink (and at Dylan’s house, and later Rick Danko’s house) came to represent an alternate way of making music that eschewed the constraints of the studio. This is a practice which is now commonplace, even if Dylan and the Hawks were pioneering spirits in its development. From The Cowboy Junkies recording their Trinity Sessions album at Holy Trinity Church in Toronto, to Bruce Springsteen releasing his 1982 Nebraska album based on homemade demo tapes, to Bon Iver recording a debut album in a hunting shed, the approach can be laid at the feet of the group which would eventually emerge two years later as The Band.
And this approach was how this song, and the others that accompanied it, were ushered into the world, this time in a rented guesthouse as owned by Sammy Davis, Jr. of all people. The clubhouse approach brought out possibilities for this group that, arguably, might not have been accessible while under normal studio-bound conditions. For instance, the melody lines in “Whispering Pines” suggest a choral piece more so than a rock n’ roll ballad, helped along by Manuel’s gospel-tinged lead, and organist Garth Hudson’s churchy sonic colour palette. This is clearly a mix that would have taken time and the right environment to render properly. And Manuel, a troubled soul with what bandmate Robbie Robertson described as having a ‘hurt in his voice’, is in a league of his own at being able to achieve the subtleties.
Manuel as a vocalist was compared to Ray Charles even by his own bandmates, and later by many others. Indeed, Manuel was a huge Ray Charles fan, and his ability to hit a similar soulful chord in everything he sang was an element that got him hired into the Hawks to begin with. And Manuel’s ability to bring this into what the Band was creating, that is, a musical stew that was far removed from the trends of the times, was considered to be his untouchable strength.
Manuel had a number of personal problems which sprung from his prodigious intake of alcohol and drugs. While the Band was a growing concern from the late 60s to the mid-70s, it was this which stunted his ambitions as a songwriter, and even later as a vocalist. The hints of spiritual turbulence to be found here in “Whispering Pines” is something of a window into Manuel’s soul. Like many , perhaps if he’d been born at a later time, when these kinds of problems were more recognized as such, he might have overcome.
But, sadly even after the Band reformed without Robertson in 1983 and when Manuel seemed to be making progress away from his own destruction, the darkness which seemed to plague him overtook him in March of 1986. Richard Manuel hung himself in his Florida hotel room while on tour with his old bandmates.
One of his many professional and personal admirers was Eric Clapton, who had this to say about Manuel:
“I was madly in love with Richard… At the time,  we had the same troubles. I felt insecure and he was clearly insecure, and yet he was so incredibly gifted….For me he [Richard] was the true light of the Band. The other guys were fantastic talents, of course, but there was something of the holy madman about Richard. He was raw. When he sang in that high falsetto the hair on my neck would stand on end. Not many people can do that.”
Listen to this track by Americana figurehead and country music maven Emmylou Harris. It’s the Daniel Lanois-penned “Where Will I Be?”, the lead track off of her 1995 album Wrecking Ball, also produced by Lanois, and featuring songs by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Jimi Hendrix, among others.
By the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, the country music establishment began to abandon its pioneering elders, no longer supporting the old guard on the radio in favour of the new blood that had begun to shift units on par with rock and pop musicians – New Country, as they called it. And it seemed that country had become just as much a young person’s game as rock and pop were. That is, at least where radio was concerned.
But, that was just the trend in the market. It had nothing to do with good work being made by artists who had always had a greater imagination and range than was supported, or arguably expected, by that very establishment that now shunned any new work from them. As such, being left for dead commercially speaking meant that these artists could make any record they wanted to make.
George Jones sang “I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair”. Johnny Cash worked with Rick Rubin on his now renowned American Recordings series. Dolly Parton cut The Grass is Blue. And Emmylou Harris recorded Wrecking Ball, a stylistically bold folk-rock record that touches on country, but goes beyond it. Creatively, it seemed that being cut lose from the establishment was not such a bad thing after all.
Emmylou Harris had always operated outside of traditional country sources, having first been a folk-pop singer-songwriter, and then a protegé of country-rock founding father Gram Parsons. Parsons was yet another country artist with a foot in the rock world, having been a member of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers before striking out on his own as a proponent of ‘cosmic American music’ that relied heavily on traditional country. In being a support player in Parsons’ musical journey, Harris’ own approach was consolidated. But, in working with Daniel Lanois who had by this time produced Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, and U2, she had taken an even bigger and riskier stride across the stylistic divide.
Even though Lanois’ trademark echoey production and delayed effects are all over this track, and largely characterizes the rest of the album too, it’s Emmylou Harris’ voice that makes this a country record. This is her album – all about her voice and her ability with phrasing that established her as a giant in her field when she first began. The balance struck on this track, sung by Harris and played entirely by Lanois on all the instruments (with jazz drummer Brian Blade bringing up the rear), makes this a country-folk song that sounds veritably apocalyptic in its execution.
Because of this record and the stylistic departures it represents, Emmylou Harris escaped the bounds of the country music pigeonhole, allowing her not only to expand her sound, but also to come into her own as a writer on 2000’s Red Dirt Girl, 2003’s Stumble Into Grace, and the even more recent All I Intended To Be from 2008.
Listen to this track by a member of New Orleans royalty, singer, songwriter, producer, piano player, arranger, and all-around cool customer Allen Toussaint. It’s ‘Sweet Touch of Love’, a supremely joyous slice of funky R&B from Down South as taken from his 1970 sophomore LP From A Whisper to A Scream. You might recognize this song from the recent Axe deodorant TV commercial.
Before putting out albums under his own name, Toussaint was a mover and shaker in the crafting of the New Orleans soul sound starting in the 1960s, with hits by Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe, The Neville Brothers, and Lee Dorsey, among many others. Among many others, his song ‘Fortune Teller’, was widely covered by non-New Orleans acts from the Rolling Stones, to the Who, to Robert Plant & Alison Krauss. He also wrote ‘Pain in My Heart’ under his pen name Naomi Neville, a tune made famous by Otis Redding.
Toussaint was a force to be reckoned with as a writer, but also as a bandleader. He surrounded himself with players like Mac Rebennack (AKA Dr. John), and singers Merry Clayton and Venetta Fields, both of whom were to become highly sought after as backing singers to rock bands. Allen Toussaint himself would work with the Band on their live Rock of Ages shows, arranging the horn parts that make that recording such a standout.
His work with the Meters was instrumental in the development of New Orleans funk. Writing of crossover hit ‘Southern Nights’, a big success for Glen Campbell by the mid-70s, and producing Patti Labelle’s ‘Lady Marmalade’ around the same time showed Toussaint’s range, and really underscores his understanding of how various traditions in American music often are best showcased when they intertwine.
This is really only a fraction of Toussaint’s activities. You might think that he wouldn’t have time for a solo career. Yet, listening to this track which just bounces with sexiness and positivity, you can tell he focused all of his considerable skills on it. Toussaint’s lead vocal is as cool as a cucumber, with his barrelhouse piano providing a second voice in counterpoint. And I love the backing vocals that root this tune into a gospel tradition, even as the rhythm section funks it up into a frenzy, and brings a wonderful stylistic tension to it.
Toussaint’s influence would go beyond his own mastery of R&B, pop, and funk, when his material began to be sampled by the 90s. His link to New Orleans is indisputable both musically, and as a member of the community. When the area was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Toussaint weathered the storm while still in the city, leaving for New York City and settling there, only until his house is rebuilt. Apparently, it takes more than a deadly weather system to break Toussaint, a musical and cultural force of nature if there ever was one.