Listen to this track by Indiana-born and bred heartland troubadour John Mellancamp, aka Johnny Cougar, aka John Cougar, aka John Cougar Mellencamp (whew!). It’s “Jack and Diane”, his enormous 1982 number one hit single as taken from the album American Fool, his fifth.
The song had enormous impact not only on the charts, but on pop culture during a time when music was becoming more and more stylistically ghettoized. As popular as it was, and is, there’s just something about this one that set it apart, seeming to have a cinematic quality that very few songs at the time contained. By 1982, “Jack and Diane” sounded like a progression for Mellencamp, who was then gathering momentum for a classic run of singles during the eighties and into the early nineties.
“Jack and Diane” concerns itself with two American kids growing up in the heartland and unsure of their places in the world. And yet, as with so many records that help define the times in which they’re released, there is an ocean of meaning underneath the scant story presented here. And ironically, much of it only comes to light as one gets older. Read more
Listen to this track by East L.A rock ‘n’ roll and Tex-Mex paragons Los Lobos. It’s “Don’t Worry Baby”, a blues-steeped workout that is featured on their 1984 album How Will The Wolf Survive?
Given that their name has a definite lupine association, that question was certainly pertinent to a group of otherwise regular guys playing music during the height of the MTV era. In the meantime, they had just scraped enough together after their EP … And A Time To Dance to buy a van and do a proper tour of the United States on their own steam after opening for Public Image, Ltd in the early eighties. The gambit seemed to pay off, with the band gaining traction and industry attention to record this, their first major label full-length record in the summer of 1984, with the help of the meticulous production ear of T-Bone Burnett, who also co-wrote this song.
This tune is infused with several musical streams the band were exposed to before forming in East L.A in the early 1970s as high school kids. The overall effect is a sort of bluesy rockabilly feel that not many in the mainstream were putting forward on top forty radio by 1984. Even the title of the song seems to be self-reflexive of their situation, being a singular group with no proven template for success to follow outside of their own identity as a band. So, how indeed would the wolf survive? Read more
Listen to this track by Hamiltonian singer-songwriter and guitarist Terra Lightfoot. It’s “Never Will”, a storming track as taken from her second record Every Time My Mind Runs Wild. Nurtured by a pile of classic rock and pop records, and by roots heroes that may account for a distinct R&B meets folk- influenced swagger you can hear on this song, this tune is a concoction of indie rock approach meeting blues-stomp cajones.
Terra Lightfoot, who is in fact not related to one of Canada’s most famous Gordons, has honed her craft while on stages shared with that particular Gordon, along with others like Ron Sexsmith, Sloan, Arkells, and Daniel Lanois among many others. Taking her craft very seriously, the songs on this new record were written and heavily re-written, partially with thanks to the lessons laid down by those others as represented by that aforementioned pile of classic rock records.
The musical DNA of a those albums that served as examples to Lightfoot’s craft can’t be traced with any real precision here. But, the raw power that created them sure can be. Read more
Listen to this track by former Whiskytown principle turned 21st century roots-rock poster boy Ryan Adams. It’s “New York, New York”, a stormingly anthemic single as taken from his smash 2001 record Gold his second album as a solo artist.
Apart from the ambitious scope of the record that touches on a number of classic rock textures that reference Dylan, Van Morrison, The Band, and late ’60s Rolling Stones, it had time on its side, too. Released only a couple of weeks after New York made the news in a shocking and tragic manner during the events of September 11, 2001 , this song became a love song to a city during a very troubled and heartbreaking time.
The madness of these times was palpable, and this was an anathema, like a balm during a time that felt like the end of one era, and the beginning of a much darker one. The song won him a Grammy for best male rock vocal, and raised his profile among peers, critics, and record buyers. Yet, that darkness followed this song, impossible to separate from how celebratory it sounds due to that timing which could not be forseen. Amazingly, the video for this song was shot four days before the skyline of the city to which the song became a tribute would change forever.
Here’s a clip of radio-friendly singer-songwriter and Hoosier roots rock hero formerly known as ‘Cougar’ John Mellencamp with his 1991 hit that out-Stoneses the Stones. It’s “Get A Leg Up” as taken from Mellencamp’s Whenever We Wanted. This album is his first not to feature the ‘Cougar’ moniker, as given to him without his permission by the record company when his first album came out.
R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, and pop music is rife with stage named artists from Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters, to Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Elton John, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Sting, Flea, Lady Gaga, and on and on. These artists created and wore their names to suit their music, and their personas on stage. Mellencamp would spend the rest of his career fighting for his name. And here, he claims it, with a knock-it-out-of-the-park rock ‘n’ roll tune that brings it all back home.
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.
For more information about Lucinda Williams, you’d best catch her at the official Lucinda Williams website.