Lotte Mullan Sings “Would You Be So Kind?”

Here’s a clip of roots ‘n’ country siren from Suffolk, England, Lotte Mullan. It’s “Would You Be So Kind” as taken from her debut record Plain Jane. For fans of Emmylou Harris circa Wrecking Ball, this song may be right up your alley, with Mullan’s delicate vocal against echoey guitar, and shimmering Lanois-esque production.

Lotte Mullan embraced her own natural singing voice after an experimental period emulating the textures of Tom Waits’ gravelly voice of experience. Yet, Mullan is no stranger to the harsh realities of being a singer-songwriter in a cut-throat industry in her own right, putting herself forward as an opening act while acting as a tour manager, and gleaning an important base of knowledge of the recording industry while in a Work Experience program.

Reviewed extensively in Britain by MOJO magazine, Q Magazine, the Guardian newspaper, and beyond, Mullan is ready to bring her debut album, and her brand of singer-songwriterly prowess, to North America, the spiritual home of her sound.

I chatted with Lotte via email on the subjects of rural and urban states of mind, of the split between British and North American cultures and how it affects songwriting, and about what it takes to be an artist and a label owner all at the same time.

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Johnny Cash Sings “Cocaine Blues” At Folsom Prison

Johnny Cash At Folsom PrisonListen to this track by the original outlaw and country-rockabilly badass Man-in-Black Johnny Cash with the live version of his take on T.J “Red” Arnall’s “Cocaine Blues” as taken from his titanic  1968 At Folsom Prison album.  This is a monumental track from an historic record that mixes two warring ingredients that drove Cash up until then, and arguably continued to drive him; violence and spirituality.

Here’s a tale of the former, the story of wife-killer and cokehead Willy Lee, who shoots his other half and high-tails it, too slow as it turns out, to Juarez Mexico, only to be picked up by the Law. The song is barked out by Cash, who is hoarse and enthusiastic as the narrator of this tale of outlawry, delivering it to a roomful of men who may well have been guilty of some of the same things as the ill-fated Willy Lee.

But, what is happening with the performance of this tale of drug abuse and murder is actually the exact opposite of that side of human activity: this is ministry.

Thus, the song represents both sides of Cash’s coin, just by the sheer audacity he had by singing it to the prisoners of Folsom Prison. Performing this tale of murder and desperation becomes an act of empathy, and compassion.

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Emma Hill and Her Gentlemen Callers Play ‘Meet Me At The Moon’

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.

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The Good Lovelies Perform ‘Lie Down’

Here’s a clip of roots music sirens, and close-harmony Canadian trio The Good Lovelies.  It’s “Lie Down”, a cut off of their self-titled Juno-winning record (for best traditional album) The Good Lovelies.  If you’re looking for roots music that has the subtle sophistication of pop music, without all of the banality that the term ‘pop’ unfortunately seems to imply these days, you may just have found your band in the Good Lovelies.

And yet, it’s important to remember that at one time, music played on acoustic instruments and sung in clear, unfiltered voices by real singers once defined what pop music was. This is what this band reminds us of.

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Little Miss Higgins Sings “Middle of Nowhere”

Here’s a clip of modern-day proto-electric rural blues stylist  Little Miss Higgins (sometimes known as Jolene Higgins when not on stage), hailing proudly from the heart of the Canadian Praries – Nokomis, Saskatchewan to be exact.  It’s a rendition of her affectionate ode to her surroundings, “Middle of Nowhere” originally to be found on her 2007 album Junction City, as well as on the live document, Little Miss Higgins Live Two Nights in March.

A lot of great music has come out of the supposed backwaters of the world.  The Canadian Prairies is such a place; geographically isolated perhaps when compared to urban settings.   Yet it’s in place like this where tight-knit communities are found to treasure that unique simplicity of living. In the more desolate places, celebrating the joys to be found in simple things is part and parcel toward defining what ‘home’ means.  And  perhaps the end result leads to a greater attachment, and a deeper sense of belonging.

This is one of the appeals of Little Miss Higgins’ “Middle of Nowhere”.  This song is all about defining what ‘home’ means.  The place in this song may be a featureless place on the surface, but it is ultimately full of singular character.  This makes the song a concentrated shot of the culture and attitude out of the place from which it comes. This can be said for her entire oeuvre, love letters to her home as it is.

Musically speaking, there is of course a heavy debt to the rural blues and country music of the pre-war period. This is a good fit when it comes to LMH’s subject matter, which is about collecting little snapshots of a place that, perhaps in the minds of many who’ve never been there, exists in 1930s sepia-tones.  And even to those who are from there, the sense of community bound by common experience isn’t crowded out by slick arrangements.

In short, the music is entirely appropriate to its subject matter, and packed to the brim with unbridled affection and charming self-deprecation.

Rural Saskatchewan: a place so flat you can watch your dog run away from home for a week. But, look at that BIG SKY!

I had the extreme pleasure of seeing Little Miss Higgins perform with her musical colleague Foy Taylor (also featured in the above clip) perform at the Burnaby Blues and Roots Festival this year.  The performance was charming, raw, hilarious, and just plain warm.  LMH was like an ambassador from the rural Prairies, making ‘the middle of nowhere’ sound like a vital, and welcoming somewhere, even for us city-folk.

For another wonderful clip of Little Miss Higgins, check out this blog post from my friend Emme Rogers, which features a clip of LMH’s performing another tune of hers – “Me and My Gin”

And for more information still, including news about the new Across the Plains album, check out the Little Miss Higgins website.


Loretta Lynn Sings “Miss Being Mrs.”

loretta-lynn-van-lear-rose-albumListen 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


Emmylou Harris Sings “Where Will I Be?”

harriswreckingListen 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.

For more information about Emmylou Harris, check out


Tony Joe White Performs ‘Polk Salad Annie’

Tony Joe White Black and WhiteListen to this track, a prime cut of classic swamp rock from one of the pioneers of the form, Tony Joe White.  It’s ‘Polk Salad Annie’, a favourite set staple of Elvis Presley  during his early Vegas period, and a crowning achievement for American R&B in general.  The song is taken from White’s 1969  Black and White album.  If there was ever any doubt about the dubious division between country music and soul, then surely this song, and White’s output in general are certainly exhibits A and B.

Where Credence Clearwater Revival certainly helped to establish a mythical American southland in their music, particularly in the Bayous of Louisiana, then Tony Joe White was singing from experience.  He was born in Louisiana, and absorbed music traditions there directly.  And even if he is able to inject just as much visceral punch into this song as John Fogarty did with Credence,  fewer music fans know White’s music.  That’s showbiz!

Still, his most famous song in ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ made famous by country-soul singer Brook Benton, established him as a gifted songwriter by any measure.  And it showed that he was able to capture slices of life as set in the American south better than most. His material would be covered by a great many artists besides Presley and Benton, including Dusty Springfield, Tina Turner, and Tom Jones.

Still,  despite his gift for storytelling in song, “Polk Salad Annie” would be White’s sole top ten radio hit as a solo act, a story of a Southern girl left to fend for her family by getting by anyway she could – by being a mean, vicious, straight razor-toting woman who lived on what she could gather.  This song has tons going for it, not the least of which is White’s low growl of a baritone voice that is attractively framed by his lazy drawl, and by his almost sexual grunts that punctuate his vocals.  And there’s the predatory guitar stabs that suggest the funkiness of soul, while evoking the deftness of country playing too.

This song was recorded in an American music mecca, Muscle Shoals Alabama, where many soul sides on the Atlantic and Fame labels were cut.  Tony Joe White was on the Monument label, who didn’t initially back the single, until demand in local markets made it undeniable.  It in fact has been classified as representative of a subgenere of its own, mixing country, R&B, and Cajun folk music – swamp rock, a sound for which White would come to be known.  And because White grew up in the very area that he describes in the song, it’s easy to believe that this song is at least partially autobiographical, if not wholly.

Tony Joe White would craft material for many over the years, although he would not become a household name himself.  Still, his list of admirers included some prominent musicians, some of whom he would duet with on his 2004 The Heroines album, on which White sings with luminary performers such as Shelby Lynne, Lucinda Williams, and Emmylou Harris, among others.

To learn more about Tony Joe White, take a stroll on down to the official Tony Joe White site.


Shawn Colvin Sings ‘These Four Walls’

Listen to this song by country-folk maven Shawn Colvin.  It’s “These Four Walls” as taken from her 2006 album of the same name, These Four Walls .

The middle of the 1980s was mostly about producing hits off of the back of a certain type of digitalized sound, rather than solid material.  At the end of the decade, even mainstream audiences were looking for songwriters of substance, shifting the focus away from how records sounded, and more about what was actually being said. As such, there was something of a demand for singer-songwriters again, which helped along the careers of people like Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman, both of whom had monster hits around that time in “Luka” and “Fast Car” respectively.

And among this new crop of songwriters was Shawn Colvin, who had done the rounds in rock bands well before this new folk boom that supported the possibilities for a solo career.    For me personally, a lot of the material out of this trend had blanded out by the 90s.  And worst of all, the “girl-with-guitar” vibe became something of a cliche, as female singer-songwriters were becoming ghettoized, rather patronizingly, as a sort of subgenre.

This is a shame, since all the while Shawn Colvin was building upon her  already considerable chops as a songwriter, coupled with her writing partner Jon Leventhal.  By 2006, and with the release of this song and the album off of which it comes, her material shines, as does her voice which is a sultry, smoky instrument that evokes experience out of innocence.  This quality is certainly on display here on this song of isolation and regret.

I think some of the best singer-songwriters are the ones that are able to climb inside their material, not only putting words and music together, but able to reveal the emotional core that comes out of the process.  I don’t think as many singer-songwriters are able to do this as well as they think.  But  Shawn Colvin, particularly on this song, proves herself to be  in a league of her own.

For more information about Shawn Colvin, check out the the Shawn Colvin MySpace page.


Goodbye, Les Paul

Here’s a clip of the Thomas Edison of modern recording, Les Paul with his former wife and musical partner Mary Ford.  It’s the duo’s take on “World is Waiting For A Sunrise”, recorded in 1949.  Les Paul passed on today, aged 94.

When you think of guitar gods, you possibly don’t think of this unassuming guy with short, Brylcreamed hair in a suit, and hailing from Wisconsin.  But, Les Paul certainly was a guitar god, although perhaps less Zeus or Apollo and more like Hephaestus, the blacksmith of the gods.  For in addition to being as superlative guitarist, songwriter, and arranger, Les Paul was also a tinkerer, a recording innovator, a game-changing inventor.

And where to start with this guy?  In no particular order, he invented the solid body guitar – the Les Paul, no less – which was marketed by Gibson guitars.  The design of that guitar remains virtually unchanged today, and has been used by musicians from country picker Chet Atkins, to jazz guitar icon Al Di Meola, to top-hatted Gun (or is it Rose?) Slash, and beyond.

He also invented the multitrack recording process, which is completely taken for granted today, but was a major, major, innovation by the end of the 1940s.  Before then, songs were recorded in one room, and around a single microphone.  The listener got what came out of that set-up.

But, with the help of Bing Crosby, and the Ampex Corporation (the company would later market the recorders commercially by the mid-1950s) Les Paul devised a way where he could record himself playing multiple guitar parts, record his wife Mary Ford singing in a choir of Mary Fords, and get 16 top ten hits (including this one) before the middle of the 1950s.  And at the same time, modern recording would never be the same again.

And speaking of Bing Crosby, who owed his career to microphone technology since he was a crooner and not a shouter, Les Paul also popularized a technique where singers could cozy up to mic, and get a warm and more intimate sound – close miking.  This involved the singer being mere inches from the mic, instead of a few feet.   It was this technique which allowed Mary Ford to get her warm and bright delivery, and once again completely taken as a given today.

So, it’s easy to conclude that Les Paul is a titan, maybe one of the greatest figures of the 20th Century recorded sound.  And so, you might think that well into his 70s, he might have eased off a little in terms of being a professional musician. But, he didn’t.  Well into his 90s, Les Paul played guitar for local crowds on a regular basis at the Iridium theatre in New York City on Monday nights, even if he stopped touring the world.  And by all accounts, he was a down-to-earth, sweet guy, despite his towering achievements.

Goodbye, Les.  It’s hard to know how to say thanks.

Enjoy the clip, good people!