Michael Nesmith Sings “Harmony Constant”

Listen to this track by one-time wool-hatted Monkee and recognized country-rock pioneer Michael Nesmith. It’s “Harmony Constant”, a deep cut taken from his tongue-in-cheekily titled 1972 album And The Hits Just Keep On Comin‘, his fifth as a solo artist.

That title was applied in a characteristically wry manner by Nesmith, a response to his record company. They had given him a mandate to put out another album quickly after his more experimental Tantamount to Treason, Vol. 1, this time preferably with a hit song or two included in there somewhere. Even if it didn’t set the charts on fire, the result was one of Nesmith’s most celebrated works as a solo artist. It also includes his version of an actual hit song he wrote for The Stone Poneys, “A Different Drum”. So in a sense, Nesmith kept his promise to his record company! Despite all that, a burgeoning number of country-rock songwriters by the early seventies would enjoy much greater chart success than Nesmith himself would, comparatively speaking.

Apart from any (ridiculous) snobbery around his association with a TV pop group, maybe this is down to Nesmith’s unconventional approach to writing country songs. In “Harmony Constant” specifically, there is a distinct contrast between how he presents an eminently hummable tune to lyrics that are high-minded, even touching on the metaphysical. There’s also a curious subtext to be found here that isn’t exactly run-of-the-mill for the standard love song, either. Read more

Blue Rodeo Play “Know Where You Go/Tell Me Your Dream”

Listen to this track by Canadian institution and alt-country pioneers Blue Rodeo. It’s “Know Where You Go/Tell Me Your Dream”, the closing section made up of two connected songs as taken from their 1993 record Five Days In July.

Blue Rodeo are celebrated on a grand scale here in Canada, having initially built their reputation on Toronto’s Queen Street scene from their first gig in 1985 at the famous Rivoli. They became a stalwart live act from there, reaching stratospheric heights by the end of the decade and into the nineties. By the time they recorded Five Days In July, they were widely regarded as one of the biggest acts in the country, having long since distinguished themselves via the work premier-level songwriters and band principals Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor.

With that history in place, the band were still interested in progressing their sound beyond their influences as they’d always sought to do, those influences being that Cosmic American sound popularized by The Byrds, Gram Parsons, and Harvest-era Neil Young. To do so, they did what another Band once had done; they retreated to the countryside for a while. Read more

The Handsome Family Play “So Much Wine”

Artist_THE_HANDSOME_FAMILY_album_IN_THE_AIRListen to this track by gothic Americana proponents The Handsome Family. It’s “So Much Wine”, a cut as taken off of their 2000 record, In The Air.  On this record, the band that is made up of husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks along with collaborators, continue their artistic path that evokes the darker corners of old-time and country music which had helped to lend perspective in the nineties, when glossy country-pop ruled the airwaves.

Country music and the folk musics out of which it came always had this darker edge to it, concerning itself with loss and loneliness, and not in a way that was so easily lampooned by outsiders and non-fans of the genre over the decades. Like the blues, country music was always about being at ground level, and very often a lot lower than that spiritually speaking. It dealt in being pulled in two directions; up into the light of divinely inspired well-being, and down into the depths of despair and hell.

That’s where The Handsome Family staked their territory when they began in the early nineties, and very much continue to do so on this tune. Read more

First Aid Kit Play “Silver Lining”

First Aid Kit Stay GoldListen to this track by Scandinavian country-folk-indie duo and close-harmony sirens First Aid Kit. It’s “Silver Lining”, a lead single as taken from this year’s album Stay Gold, their third.

Drawing from a love of acts ranging from Bright Eyes to the Carter Family, First Aid Kit is made up of sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg, both of Enskede, a borough of Stockholm. Their sound draws from traditions of early country music that’s pretty far removed from what listeners might expect from a couple of Swedes in their early twenties, having started performing together and even writing songs by the time they were in their early teens. And that’s another unexpected dimension to their music; they work within a tradition that values experience that comes with age, and manage to pull it off despite their tender years.

Basically, everything about this band is unexpected, which besides  their obvious natural talent may be why they’ve been able to get to work with luminaries like Patti Smith, Fleet Foxes, and Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes. So what does this song illustrate  in keeping with the traditions in which they’re hooking into, and the strengths of the band in general? Read more

Willie Nelson Plays “I Never Cared For You”

Willie Nelson TeatroListen 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?

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Nick Lowe Sings “The Beast In Me”

Nick LoweListen to this track by former Johnny Cash son-in-law and seasoned singer-songwriter Nick Lowe. It’s “The Beast In Me”, a highlight from his career-shifting 1994 record The Impossible Bird.

This record would represent something of a comeback for Lowe, at a time when he’d cut any hope of being a “pop star” loose, and embraced those influences that had inspired him to become a songwriter and musician in the first place instead. One such influence was Johnny Cash, who by the late 1970s had also become his father-in-law, since Nick had married Carlene Carter, Cash’s stepdaughter.

This song was written after the spark of an idea spurred its author to work on a new song well into the night, with the help of three bottles (or so) of wine. The results took a while to gestate, and not without a modicum of pain and embarassment first. Read more

The Civil Wars Play “The One That Got Away”

Listen to this track by Southern gothic, country-folk duo The Civil Wars. It’s “The One That Got Away”, the lead track and single off of their second album, this year’s self-titled The Civil Wars. The record comes on the heels of their initial effort, Barton Hollow in 2011.

The duo is made up of two songwriters; Joy Williams and John Paul White. The two began their collaboration after attending a songwriting camp in Nashville, with a mutual interest in pulling from older country music and folk traditions that explore the conflicted, and darker regions of that musical spectrum. Conflict is the thing with this band, thematically speaking, and reflected in their chosen name.

The Civil Wars
Photo: Robert Conrad Photography

This tune kicks off their newest record, a tale of love that is inescapable, and tragically so, even after it’s faded and become poisonous. It is spare and epic at the same time, full of darkness and pathos. It is weighty without being leaden, appropriate to the subject matter, down to a deft hand at writing a song that is accessible but complex, emotionally speaking.

In some ways, country music and Anglo-Celtic folk traditions in general have always dealt with the more tragic side of life. In more recent years in American country music, that sense of tragedy is perhaps less violent than the murder ballads of the early Twentieth Century, and a bit more soap-operatic, maybe.

The Civil Wars as a creative vehicle seems to be more about capturing the spirit of that older tradition, yet with all of the compositional instincts that bring that tradition into the Twenty-First Century. Maybe this is down to the success of the Cold Mountain soundtrack and, earlier, the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack that plumbed the depths of these earlier traditions have helped to reposition those “old-timey” sounds and feel  for up and coming songwriters. Of course, even without those cinematic influences, that music has always been there, waiting to be rediscovered.

Luckily, I think there’s a whole movement of this kind of musical direction happening right now, with this band being one of its brightest lights.

You can find out more about them at thecivilwars.com


Thanks to Sony Music Canada for sending along a copy of the record.

Dolly Parton Sings “Coat of Many Colors”

Dolly Parton Joshua & The Coat of Many ColorsListen to this track by Tennessean songwriter and true rags to riches tale in the flesh Dolly Parton. It’s “Coat of Many Colors” as taken from the 1971 album that references it, Joshua & the Coat of Many Colors. The story is a childhood tale, touching on a number of themes. But, one of the big ones is that of a mother’s love. On the week just before Mother’s Day here in North America (in Britain, it’s in March, friends), that’s a pretty top-of-mind theme for many.

The song was a standout on the record, and released as a single where it reached a #4 position on the country charts. It would later go on the be extensively covered by a variety of artists from Billy Connoly to Shania Twain, to Dolly Parton herself. It would become something of an anthem to the region out of which it came as well. It seems that there were a lot of hard-working mothers supporting families, which maybe why the themes of strong mothers carried this song to success.

But, this song touches on other themes besides, with the rare feat of doing justice to all of them.

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Townes Van Zandt Sings “Tower Song”

Listen to this track by outlaw country herald and transcendentally gifted, underexposed Texan singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. It’s “Tower Song”, first featured on his 1971 album Delta Momma Blues, with this particular version being re-positioned as an aged gem on the 1999 album Far Cry From Dead.

Townes Van Zandt
Source: Townes Van Zandt Central (townesvanzandt.com).

On this song, it’s the starkness on display that outlines the sheer magnitude of Van Zandt’s command of melody, lyrics, and the raw human experience that burns right through it all. It’s no wonder that his friend and musical disciple Steve Earle  would famously proclaim Townes Van Zandt as the “best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Perhaps Bob, after clearing up Earle’s bootprints, would agree, particularly in the light of this song, which is certainly one of my favourites.

This latter-day version was recorded under inauspicious circumstances, later to be added to a project that would prove to be something of a tribute to a career that had been troubled, and financially unfruitful for the artist at the center of it. This lack of career traction is contrasted with his artistic influence that made lasting waves in the careers of others, including Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris, both having recorded Van Zandt’s material.

Far Cry From Dead is effectively a compilation album of re-recorded work. It showcases a choice selection of songs over a twenty-five year career, after the artist had passed. And there is something in this new version of the  song that strikes a stronger chord, showing new dimension to an already first-tier talent that went largely uncelebrated while the man himself was still with us.

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Lyle Lovett Sings “Skinny Legs”

Listen to this track by quirky Texan country-folk singer-songwriter, ‘Large Band’ honcho, and sometime actor Lyle Lovett. It’s “Skinny Legs” a 1994 track from his album I Love Everybody.

Here’s a tale for the non-rock star if there ever was one, a grass-is-always-greener narrative that many guys find themselves in the middle of when comparing themselves unfavourably to others.  In some ways, Lovett is like a gentler, country-folk answer to Randy Newman‘s more abrasive sense of cynicism and irony. Where Newman laughs at the world and it’s absurdities, it’s easy to get the impression that Lovett laughs along while throwing himself in there with it.

That’s one of the things that makes this song so endearing; it has a softer side, a sense of innocence to it that provides an emollient to the spiky themes that it deals with so subtly; envy, self-hatred, and living in a culture that very often values appearances over substance. Being in Hollywood circles as an actor must have given Lovett some sense of this in very personal terms. Yet, that’s another ironic twist to be found in the background of this song, and the record off of which it comes. Read more