Category Archives: Songwriting

Steve Young Remembered, from ‘Montgomery in the Rain’ to ‘Seven Bridges Road’

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.

Continue reading Steve Young Remembered, from ‘Montgomery in the Rain’ to ‘Seven Bridges Road’

‘America for Me’ – Alex Ebert’s Song from the Film ‘A Most Violent Year’

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.

Continue reading ‘America for Me’ – Alex Ebert’s Song from the Film ‘A Most Violent Year’

John Grant to release followup to ‘Queen of Denmark’

Three years ago I had never heard the name John Grant. But that year, Mojo named his debut solo album Queen of Denmark their favorite of the year. And like a lot of people who read that review, I was at first puzzled. Then I listened, and based on the deeply personal songs, his haunting vocals, and the warm arrangements (he was backed on the album by the band Midlake), I understood. It’s been a favorite album in regular rotation for me ever since.

It’s great news, then, that Grant finally has a followup album. Called Pale Green Ghosts, it’s already out in the U.K. and is due in stores in the U.S. on May 14.

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The Songwriters: Gene Crysler

The other day I posted the album cover for Freddie Hart’s The Neon and the Rain. The title track is credited to Gene Crysler, whom I knew little about.

Doing some digging, though, turns out he wrote some cool and unusual songs. Like this one, “I Didn’t Jump the Fence,” which has been cut by the likes of Red Sovine and Cal Smith:

On the surface it’s an oddball song about a guy who admits to eating the “fruit” from his neighbor’s “tree,” but says he wasn’t “stealing” because it just “fell” into his yard. It’s not hard, of course, to read between the lines of what he’s really talking about.

Another Crysler song was “Don’t Make Me Go To School,” cut by Tammy Wynette.

And I always loved this Crysler song cut by Billie Jo Spears, about a small-town Kansas woman who gets a big-city job as a secretary in New York, but who quickly gets fed up with the old boys’ club.

Spears’ version of the song–the title track from her second album–peaked at No. 4 on the country charts in 1969.

Spears just comes off so damn down-to-earth appealing in this video, the kind of honest country artist we could use more of these days. Sadly, she passed away in 2011.

Leonard Cohen Talks Songwriting with Jarvis Cocker

photo from Consequence of Sound

Leonard Cohen was recently interviewed by Jarvis Cocker, in advance of the release of Cohen’s first album in many years. And the finely dressed master had some great quotes regarding his music, and the art of songwriting.

For instance, how does he do it? Even Jarvis can’t help but dig for hints of Cohen’s writing inspiration. Cohen, however–craftily, and probably wisely–deflected such direct questions.

“We’ve got to be very careful analysing these sacred mechanics because somebody will throw a monkey wrench into the thing and we’ll never write a line again.” He added that “now and then something invites you to animate it, which you try and do with grace and illumination.”
Continue reading Leonard Cohen Talks Songwriting with Jarvis Cocker

Mermaid Parade

One of the bands that’s been slowly burning its way into my consciousness the past few years is Phosphorescent. It started with their head-turning 2009 album To Willie, which contained all Willie Nelson songs redone with a laid-back approach that both pays tribute to Nelson’s own songwriting and arrangements, but also brings the music inside the circle of 21st century indie-rock. Meaning, Phosphorescent does a fantastic job reinterpreting Nelson’s music with arrangements and voice born from the alt-country side of the tracks, and makes the classic songs like “Too Sick To Pray” and “Pick Up The Tempo” feel fresh all over again.

Listen to the lead track, “Reasons to Quit”–a Nelson song that may have not grabbed your attention before; in the hands of Matthew Houck, however (he’s the main force in Phosphorescent)–with his gently raspy voice that sounds on the verge of breakdown–it’s a clear standout, capturing a moment in time where the characters are teetering on the edge between too much and not enough.

OK, not teetering anymore, they’re slipping into darkness.

Reasons To Quit