The mid-1990s was the height of what was then called “alternative country” (a.k.a. alt country, twangcore, yalternative and a host of other somewhat unfortunate names). Thank god we’ve now settled on the more dignified Americana. Two of the biggest bands in the alt-country world were Uncle Tupelo and Whiskeytown, but Massachusetts group the Scud Mountain […]
So many complex emotions in a single song. This is a quality that set Merle Haggard apart. And a big reason why his songs resonate so strongly, even many decades past when they were written and first released.
My favorite Haggard album is Someday We’ll Look Back. His 14th studio album, he released it in 1971, just two years after the massive success of “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”
The songs here, however, are a lot more introspective and represent the wide range of material that Haggard wrote and recorded throughout his long career.
This week we lost of my all-time favorite country singer-songwriters, Steve Young. The writer of several classic songs made famous by some of the era’s biggest stars, Young was also a superb singer in his own right, and he has a string of excellent solo albums to prove it. On top of that, by many accounts (including my own experience) he was a wonderful man with a humble soul and a strong humanitarian streak. He also possessed lifelong ties to his Southern heritage that added richness and complexity to his songs.
Young died in Nashville, Tenn. on March 17, 2016 at the age of 73. He was in hospice at the time and under the close watch of his son, Jubal Lee Young.
“My father, Steve Young, passed peacefully tonight in Nashville,” Jubal wrote in a Facebook post. “While it is a sad occasion, he was also the last person who could be content to be trapped in a broken mind and body. He was far too independent and adventurous. I celebrate his freedom, as well, and I am grateful for the time we had. A true original.”
“I celebrate his freedom, and I am grateful for the time we had.”
Among Steve Young’s best-known songs is one of the most enduring anthems of the Outlaw era, “Lonesome On’ry And Mean,” a rambling-man song that Waylon Jennings covered in 1973. But that song was neither Young’s first composition nor the last anyone heard of him: his career stretches from the 1960s, when he cut the album Rock Salt & Nails (a record that featured Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman, and Gene Clark), all the way to the present, earning him accolades from critics (who have always loved his work) and his musical peers for his superb singing— a warm, dusty-edged baritone voice that can soar and sway— and guitar picking, which if anything has grown stronger over the years.
During all those years in-between, Young wrote and recorded a healthy number of knockout songs, among them “Seven Bridges Road” (covered by the Eagles and Eddy Arnold, among others), “Montgomery In The Rain,” and “Renegade Picker.” The last of the three is the title track of a 1975 album that showed Young itching with raw talent and standing on the precipice of greatness — something he achieved alone, despite the fact that he remained firmly on the outskirts of the country music mainstream.
Al and his band played an afternoon gig last Sunday at the Empty Bottle in Chicago, a monthly winter series dubbed Al Scorch’s’ Winter Slumber. It’s free, it’s fun and if you’re in the area, highly recommended.
Scorch’s music is bluegrass at its core, but driven by the energy of punk and the courage to mess around and see what works. Scorch dubs his ensemble as “country soul,” and that works, too—these days it’s tough to classify music. The point is, there was a tone of soul and spirit driving the show we saw on Sunday.
I just spent several hours going through a list of this year’s GRAMMY nominees, finding videos, for each nominated song, a task associated with my day job at Radio.com. It was at times tedious but also, in many cases, fun and eye-opening. There’s a lot of, shall we say, less-than-inspirational music on the list, especially among the categories that wind up on television. But dig deep and you’ll find some gems.
For instance, I knew nothing about Woodkid, a French singer-songwriter and director (real name Yoann Lemoine) who’s probably best known for the video work he’s done for artists like Katy Perry, Pharrell, Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift. Woodkid was nominated for Best Music Video for his song “The Golden Age” (featuring Max Richter).
Taken from Woodkid’s 2013 album of the same name, both the song and the black-and-white video are quiet, dreamy and melancholy, sharing nothing much at all with the pop of singers like Perry or Swift. Carve out a few minutes (OK, actually more like 11) and watch it below.
No question: A Most Violent Year is a powerful film, one of the best I’ve seen in the past year. I was a fan of director J.C. Chandor’s 2011 release Margin Call, and his new film takes a vastly different but equally compelling perspective on capitalism in America.
The story focuses on the expansion plans of a heating oil executive in New York City in 1981, which sounds potentially mundane yet is anything but. Again, this is New York in the early ’80s, ages before new regimes came in to ‘clean up’ the place.
The story is strong, the mood is tense, the cinematography is stunning and the acting is stunning, notably that of the two leads, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. Both truly disappear into the roles.
One final treat is the song that plays through the closing credits. Titled “America for Me,” it’s a sparse, loosely constructed song by Alex Ebert. Listen below.
Last night (Nov. 19) I was lucky enough to attend a special concert in Chicago celebrating the 75th birthday of Mavis Staples. Man, that was an experience—one that was unique to Chicago and showcased a huge range of American music from the past 50 or 60 years.
The show was being taped for a DVD release, so it had issues with flow and continuity—too many stops and starts to feel like a ‘real’ concert experience, which got a little frustrating after a while. It ran one ‘episode’ at a time, with a special guest (or two or four) taking the stage, usually backed by a crack 13-piece band that included stunning vocalists the McCrary Sisters and bassist/musical director Don Was.
But ultimately it was a spectacular experience.
With his new album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Sturgill Simpson has put out what’s currently my favorite album of the year. This is country music that is meaty and fun but also thoughtful and rich. It’s ‘metamodern,’ as he describes it — a play on the classic Ray Charles collection Modern Sounds in Country Music — but it’s also got boots on the ground, a sturdy honky-tonk sound by way of Merle Haggard and especially Waylon Jennings.
At the same time, the music is not that straightforward. Stop at Waylon and I’m often fine with that. But Sturgill has a wider scope here. After all, the lead single does bear the curious title “Turtles All the Way Down.” Watch the video:
Say what you will about the directions mainstream country is taking these days, but outside the Top 40 there’s plenty of honky tonk to go around. Top of the heap right now is Jason Eady, a Mississippi native (and Texas transplant) whose new album Daylight and Dark lays down some of the strongest country music I’ve heard all year.
Daylight and Dark in many ways picks up where Eady’s acclaimed previous album, AM Country Heaven, left off.
To call the music of Robert Ellis ‘country’ isn’t wrong, but it does miss the complexity of sounds and styles he regularly brings to his music.
The title track of his previous album Photographs stood out for its weepy melody and Ellis’s aching voice.
This year, though, Ellis has emerged with a new album — The Lights from the Chemical Plant — that’s every bit as strong, but shifts focus away from anything overtly honky tonk.