Here’s a clip of songwriting savant Ron Sexsmith and former Rheostatic and first string sessioner and touring musician Don Kerr. It’s the rootsy and close harmony-inclined ‘Listen’ as taken from the duo’s 2005 collaborative album Destination Unknown, a record geared toward their penchant for the music of the brothers Everly and Stanley.
By the end of Sexsmith’s writing, and touring, his Retriever album, he had a number of songs leftover that suggested a different tone than those on that record. One of the musicians accompanying Sexsmith on that tour was Don Kerr, former drummer of The Rheostatics, and a cellist and second guitarist to boot while in Sexsmith’s band.
Among his other talents as a multi-instrumentalist, Kerr’s tenor voice was a welcome blend when it came to harmony vocals. And thus was this project born; a collection of accoustically arranged folk-pop songs with country and baroque overtones – Destination Unknown. Besides the deliberate folksy approach with countrified close harmonies, and back porch feel, the tone of the songs are still in line with Sexsmith’s general outlook and approach when it comes to songwriting.
With this tune, ‘Listen’, actually the record’s opener, the song is about choosing a positive path, while acknowledging the sometimes-unfriendly nature of existence. The key line here is ‘to condemn life or rejoice; I think I’ll choose rejoicing’, a firm answer to the Shakespearean ‘to be or not to be’ angst faced by all of us, and dealt with with varying degrees of success by modern songwriters.
And once again, we see Sexsmith’s genius; an ability to write a positive song without simplifying or trivializing the reasons why suffering is such a burden to human experience. Well, that and an ability to effortlessly write songs that stick in your head. This is a prime example of Blake’s idea of innocence and experience, not as two duelling poles, but as two points of view that co-exist as we wander our path through life. Sometimes, we are informed more by one than we are by the other. But, in the best of times, we can acknowledge both, when we listen.
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 song, a slice of primal, primordial blues echoing down from the ages and from across continents. It’s late-blooming recording artist, and well-traveled bluesman Junior Kimbrough’s “I Cried Last Night” as taken from his 1998 record God Knows I Tried.
David ‘Junior’ Kimbrough hailed from North Mississippi, part of a veritable hotbed of high-profile blues talent that came out of the 1990s such as The North Mississippi All-Stars, and R.L Burnside. Kimbrough had a long regional career in the area, with good many of his previous recordings being singles, recorded sparingly in the 60s. Besides this limited time in recording studios, there weren’t many opportunities to build momentum as a consistent recording artist. In the 70s and 80s, he toured local juke joints, but had yet to lay down a full-length album.
It wasn’t until he was discovered in the late 80s by critic, producer and impresario Robert Palmer. His first album was recorded on the Fat Possum label in 1992. His music gained attention of rock bands as well as blues fans, with British band Gomez recording Kimbrough’s ‘Meet Me In the City’ on their 2004 Split the Difference album. “I Cried Last Night” (borrowing a riff from from Willie Cobb’s “You Don’t Love Me”), and the record it is featured on, was his last hurrah, before dying of a heart attack the year it came out, not before recording six albums. He was 68.
Like John Lee Hooker, Kimbrough’s music shows a clear and shining path back to places like Mali, where the blues was arguably first conceived, if not christened. And like the best of the blues, it is evocative and otherworldly, evoking a sort of mythical shorthand for emotional connectedness that is attached to the darker corners of the human psyche. But, this is what the blues does best. It’s encapsulates raw emotions, viscerally, and without artifice, crossing cultural barriers with ease.
Like a lot of African music, Kimbrough’s approach to the blues puts emphasis on the drone, with the guitars winding hypnotically in and out of the steady, interlocking rhythm. Kimbrough’s voice is muddy, indecipherable in places. It might as well be in another language. And perhaps in some way it is.
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.
Here’s a clip of roots music archivist, film composer, world music ambassador, and slide-guitar superhero Ry Cooder with a 1987 performance of Billy ‘the Kid’ Emerson’s “Crazy ‘Bout an Automobile” in Santa Cruz, California, a town which Cooder incorporates cleverly into the narrative for this particular performance. The studio version of this song can be found on his 1980 album Borderline.
This tune is a quintessential rock ‘n’ roll song, full of sexual vigour, and with a touch of Tex-Mex and Zydeco flavouring heating things up even more. The band here is stellar, including stalwart session drummer Jim Keltner, Van Dyke Parks on keyboards, Flaco Jimenez on accordion, among others. The calibre of the playing certainly helps to attain a funky groove about being horny and being down and out without wheels at the same time. This is ripe subject matter for rock ‘n’ roll, drawing a distinct correlation between the two.
Ry Cooder himself is a fascinating musical figure, being something of a boy-genius when it came to the guitar and many other stringed instruments when he started out. Before the 1960s had concluded he’d worked with Jackie DeShannon, Taj Mahal, and the Rolling Stones. By the 1970s, Cooder built a career as a gatherer of R&B, folk, and pop gems from decades past, and re-positioning them in new contexts. His slide playing became his trademark, as did his ability to repurpose old songs, many of them minor hits and forgotten treasures into a succession of celebrated albums, like Boomer’s Story and (my favourite) Paradise and Lunch. His 1979 Bop ‘Til You Drop LP was the first major label album ever to be recorded digitally.
Yet this would be merely a stage in his career. His 1980s work eventually turned to scoring films, the most high profile being the evocative and impressionistic score for the film Paris, Texas starring Harry Dean Stanton who also sings on the soundtrack, and with contributions from fellow stringed-instrument mage David Lindley. He would also score the film Crossroads, a film which also concerned itself with blues folklore, making Cooder something of a logical choice as film composer.
Apart from his work with John Hiatt, Jim Keltner, and Nick Lowe as the short-lived Little Village, Cooder would have a third phase of his career by the 1990s with world music albums featuring Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure, and later with a group of Cuban musicians later to be known as the Buena Vista Social Club. This latter project would make stars out of all participants, with a smash hit album and a celebrated film by Wim Wenders, profiling the story of how Cooder discovered a group of masterclass, and very elderly, Cuban musicians and brought them into the limelight at Carnegie Hall in 1998.
But overall, Cooder is a phenomenal guitarist and arranger, incorporating an incredible stew of influences to take old material and make it shine in a new context while not betraying the original spirit out of which it was born. That’s a skill that isn’t to be underestimated, and in this Cooder is one of the best at wielding it.
Here’s a clip of former Pixies belter Frank Black (aka Black Francis, kids) with a track from his 2005Honeycomb album. It’s “I Burn Today”, a song which betrays Black’s love for mid-60s Bob Dylan. In fact, Black followed His Bobness’ path to Nashville, recording this album and song in a like manner to 1966’s Blonde on Blonde.
Frank Black has been positioned as one of the fathers of grunge, inspiring Kurt Cobain among other grunge icons, and modeling a key sonic ingredient of that scene – the quiet verse with loud chorus. Yet, despite Black’s pedigree as a shouty, indie rock god, he was as interested in roots rock. And this album, his eleventh and recorded within a span of days, certainly puts that passion for soul and folk music on display. This particular tune is deeply in Dylan country, although perhaps it’s more Nashville Skyline Bob, than Blonde on Blonde.
While in Nashville, Black recorded with luminary musicians that included Spooner Oldham, Steve Cropper, Dan Penn, and Chester Thompson, among others. And in addition to the originals he laid down, he also took time to record unexpected cover versions of the James Carr classic ‘the Dark End of the Street’, ‘Song of the Shrimp’ an Elvis Presley movie tune as recorded by Townes Van Zandt, and Doug Sahm’s ‘Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day’, possibly to culturally orientate himself to his Southern surroundings. Nashville is a rock ‘n’ roll and country Mecca, afterall, a cultural hub from which springs all manner of strains of popular song.
Yet, Black would show himself to be a formidable songwriting talent in this context as well as any other. And what a song this is, full of sadness and pathos, and a far cry from the feral wail of his Pixies days. Perhaps a part of it is that he had so many musicians to impress in a short time period. But on this song and the rest of the album, it’s as if Black had always been a roots musician, evident from the tender, acoustic lines of this song. And in addition to being heartfelt, I think what comes through in “I Burn Today” is Black’s ability to write any type of song, father of grunge or not.
That this is a break-up song is suggested in tone and also in the lines
“She said have fun/its time has come/hold my heart strings/and have yourself a strum/no, nevermore this song will we play/I burn today.”
Yet Black and then-wife Jean were going through a divorce, despite her presence on another track “Strange Goodbye”. And perhaps Black’s sojourn to the heart of American music was more than a stylistic one. Perhaps it was one of the soul, too.
Listen to this song by virtuoso stringed instrument-collecting savant David Lindley. It’s ‘Tijuana’ a flamenco-styled folk tale, only one of many styles at which Lindley is skilled.
David Lindley’s chops have been utilized while playing with musicians as varied as Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, The Bottle Rockets, and the Bangles, among many others. This doesn’t include his work with Ry Cooder as well, a fellow slide guitar player and folk music archivist. His best known song, ‘Mercury Blues’ is in many ways only a fraction of his musical interests. Where that song holds the banner of blues rock pretty high, Lindley’s mastery of the blues is really only an extension of his interest in folk music all over the world.
It helps of course that Lindley is exceptionally skilled at a variety of stringed instruments from the lap steel guitar to the bouzouki. This allows him access to all manner of textures when putting across his material. In seeing him recently at the Burnaby Blues and Roots Festival, I was taken on an excursion of North Africa, Greece, the Appalachians, and the Mississippi Delta during the course of a single number.
In this, Lindley’s musical patch is about making a connection between cultures, and a hint that the blues and other Western folk music, however you think of these musical forms, are far older and more widespread across cultural lines than you previously may have suspected. When listening to Lindley’s set at the festival, it was like being lifted up to a high place where I could see that the lines dividing musical traditions are purely illusory. It was like the realization that the world beneath me was one land, one nation, one musical world.
For information on tour dates, and a tour of Lindley’s collection of exotic musical instruments, check out davidlindley.com.
Listen to this song by Canadian blues-roots-world music purveyor Harry Manx. It’s his arrangement of B.B King’s “The Thrill is Gone” fused with his own Indian folk style raga “The Gist of Madhuvanti”. The piece is taken from Manx’s 2005 album Road Ragas Live.
How do you get from traditional Indian raga music to early 70s electrified blues in one move? This song of course was a major hit for B.B King, full of biting Gibson electric guitar, thanks to B.B’s Lucille. And Manx takes the lush minor chords and attaches seamlessly to a raga. Manx is an adept guitarist, and 5-string banjo player. And Manx plays an instrument on this which you may not have heard of, too.
Manx has a few tricks up his sleeve that makes the transition from Indian music to blues seem easy. Part of it is his interest, and his background in playing the blues in its purer form. Another is his extensive five year training in India, and the study of an instrument he discovered there – the mohan veena, which is a cross between a six string guitar and a sitar. It is a twenty-stringed instrument, with some of the strings not being played so much as accompanying the player by droning when other strings are played.
One of the great things about the blues is that it can often fool you into thinking that it’s pretty one dimensional. But, what the blues does best, aside from evoking some pretty primal musical impulses in audiences and players, is to create a framework for other stylistic possibilities too. After all, that how R&B developed, and in turn how rock ‘n’ roll was born too. Manx extends this potential here, not only by taking it to another style, but also to other musical notation systems.
Manx isn’t the first artist to explore this mostly uncharted sonic region. Legendary British guitarist Davy Graham commonly turned to Indian music, and music from many other parts of the world and fused it with Western folk music, most notably in his “Blue Raga”, which marries Big Bill Broonzy with Indian classical music. Yet, Manx brings his own personality to this, a certain warmth and affection for two traditions, and to music itself. This is what shines through, and makes this music more than just an academic exercise or a simple novelty.
Listen to this song by alt-country and singer-songwriterly roots-rock maven Lucinda Williams with her 2007 track ‘Mama You Sweet’ as taken from her album West.
I love the way this song builds and builds, starting off pretty unassuming, and yet becoming something of a deluge of imagery. There is a sense of the overwhelming in the lyrics, of being overcome by feelings which are not easily articulated. And yet because Williams builds momentum, and with an astounding sense of how to pace the song, we as listeners are bound to every word.
This is not even to mention how beautifully lived-in Williams’ voice is, a study in how to explore and utilize the boundaries of an instrument. This is so much more interesting, so much more connected to humanity than an American Idol-approved idea of what a ‘good voice’ is. This is an old horse to flog, maybe. But, it’s still an important point to make.
For me, the best word to describe this tune is elemental. There are images of the ocean, which stands out the most for me as a means of capturing something that is both beautiful and frighteningly all-encompassing all at the same time. And if that’s not a great way to describe love, I don’t know what is.