Wednesday, December 31, 2008

JAMEY JOHNSON - High Cost Of Livin'

Check out this video and you will see what I am talking about. This guy is the real thing. The band is awesome as well.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Monday, December 29, 2008

That Lonesome Song by Jamey Johnson

Stop the presses. I have found the country album of the year. It is That Lonesome Song by Jamey Johnson. As much as I hate to admit that anything good could come out of Nashville, this album has and it is the real deal.

I first heard the song, Between Jennings and Jones, from this album on Outlaw Country, but it got lost in my mental shuffle. Last week, I saw That Lonesome Song on a best of 2008 list and decided to check it out. After a two days of constant play, I can say with conviction that this is the best country album of 2008.

Johnson is originally from Montgomery, Alabama. Since moving to Nashville in 2000, he has become a successful songwriter. He co-wrote Give It Away which was a number one hit for George Strait in 2006.  He also co-wrote several songs for Trace Adkins, including two that made the charts in 2007.

The album shows off his strong songwriting ability. These songs are dark, but they are good. Original songs like High Cost of Living, Mary Go Round, That Lonesome Song and In Color tell stories about real people, which is a contrast to what passes for songwriting in Nashville today. These songs are heartfelt and express emotions that are missing from most of Nashville's current product. Taylor Swift and Rascal Flatts listen hard. This is real country. 

Johnson obviously has great respect for Waylon Jennings. Both of his Waylon covers, especially a superb version of Dreaming My Dreams, which comes from the Jennings' album of the same name, are on the mark. In fact, he sounds a lot like Waylon on these two and that's a good thing. Mary Go Round has a nice Merle Haggard feel to it. Women reminds me of a song by country swing master, Dale Watson.

I don't know anything about the band on the album, but they sound great. There is a lot of steel guitar on the record. All of the backing fits behind these great songs.

If you like country music, you have to own this album. Available on iTunes and from Amazon.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Robert Earl Keen


I saw Robert Earl Keen and his band last night. They played their annual Christmas show in Corpus Christi to a sold out crowd at Brewster Street Ice House. Robert was in fine voice and the band was cooking. My Christmas wouldn't be complete without hearing Merry Christmas to the Family live.

Last night, I was particularly impressed with the playing of Marty Muse on steel guitar. I don't know if it was the sound from the exclusive VIP seating at the venue, but the steel was up front in the mix and it added a lot on many of the songs. Marty's playing is always tasty, but he seemed particularly inspired last night

Highlights of the show included Robert's version of Flyin' Shoes, which is one of my favorite Townes Van Zandt songs. Robert covered  Snowin' On Raton, another Townes' classic, on his album Gravitational Forces. I think he has a real feel for Van Zandt material and should consider recording Flyin' Shoes as well.

Robert also played his great interpretation of Tangled Up In Blue. I know the band likes Bob and I always like to hear them play this song. The crowd responded enthusiastically to this Dylan classic.

In addition to many of his well known songs, Robert also played a couple of his new songs, which were well received by the crowd. I am looking forward to hearing them on the new album soon.

Robert is playing several dates before the end of the year. If you have the chance, you should catch a show:
  1. House of Blues Houston        Dec 28
  2. House of Blues Dallas        Dec 29
  3. Bass Hall         Ft Worth        Dec 30
  4. Gruene Hall New Braunfels     Dec 31

Friday, December 26, 2008

Good Year For The Roses by Elvis Costello

A great video of my favorite cut on Almost Blue. Not sure aboue those little kids. What's that all about???

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

ALMOST BLUE by ELVIS COSTELLO

I have written in the past about the history of American music fans learning about our own music through the recordings of English artists. This certainly was the case for me in the '60's with a lot of blues and roots music. Later, Elvis Costello and Almost Blue was a bridge to a bigger interest in country music.

In the fall of 1982, I had just moved to Hebbronville. At that time, I was listening to two albums that reflected my usual taste in music. They were Trap Door by T-Bone Burnett and Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen.

Although we listened to some country music at Floyd's Hotel and The Den, I wasn't a big fan yet. Anything I knew about country music came from wearing out a copy of Hank Williams' 40 Greatest Hits. I read that Dylan was a fan of Williams, so it seemed like a good idea to check Hank out. 40 Greatest Hits was worth owning for the picture on the cover of Hank in that Nudie Suit.

Living in deep South Texas, I was starting to play more country music. I first got into Hank Jr. Next, I discovered the great album, Poncho and Lefty, which was the beginning of a long love affair with the music of Van Zandt, Haggard and Nelson. 

 The other album that was featured in my regular rotation at the ranch was Almost Blue. I had been a huge Costello fan since the release of his first album My Aim is True in 1978. To my ear, he was the best thing to come out of the English punk/new wave movement of the 1970's. I am particularly fond of his anthem to everything Motown: Get Happy! It still sounds terrific today.

Costello recorded Almost Blue in Nashville under the direction of legendary producer Billy Sherrill. At the time, there was some criticism of a English punk rocker coming to Nashville to cover these classic country songs. I disagree. Although Costello's versions may not be any better than the originals, his singing is good and the band plays well.

 The best thing about this album for me was that it opened the door to the music of all these great country artists. Hearing these cover songs, I immediately got intrigued with searching out the original versions.

 I started listening to George Jones (A Good Year for the Roses), Merle Haggard (Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down), Patsy Cline (Sweet Dreams) and Gram Parsons (I'm Your Toy). This album was like a big Christmas present waiting to be unwrapped. If you are looking for an introduction to country music, Almost Blue is a good start.

It is available on iTunes and from Amazon.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector

Since most popular Christmas songs were written about a hundred years ago, it stands to reason that there are very few good rock and roll Christmas songs. Nevertheless, there are a few rockers worth including in your holiday playlist. 

In Philadelphia, all the FM radio stations celebrate Christmas by playing Bruce Springsteen's version of Santa Claus is Comin' to Town about a million times. Starting right after Thanksgiving, you will hear those sleigh bells and that rocking version of this tune from the mighty E Street Band. In that part of the world, it isn't Christmas without the Boss and Clarence Clemons (The Big Man)  doing their Yuletide musical thing.

 Robert Earl Keen's Merry Christmas from the Family is the South Texas holiday standardPresenting the ultimate musical description of trailer trash Christmas rituals, it is a song that is remarkable for the inclusion of the word Tampax as well as REK's rhyming boy friend with Mexican. A great holiday tune that showcases Robert's sly wit.

Besides these two, the best collection of rocking Christmas songs can be found on this album from Phil Spector. Using his classic Wall of Sound along with his stable of girl groups and singers like Darleen Love, The Ronettes, The Crystals, and Bob B. Soxx, Spector has recorded the ultimate Christmas album. The album has a huge sound and these tunes really rock.

 Check out these versions of Christmas classics like White Christmas (Darleen Love),  Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (The Crystals), and Frosty the Snowman (The Ronettes). Put these on and you will be rocking around the Christmas tree.

  All are available on iTunes and from Amazon. Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 19, 2008

ROY BUCHANAN

A good friend from Dallas was at the ranch last week. We were comparing notes on live shows we saw in the good old days. He mentioned seeing Roy Buchanan in Washington DC back in the '70's.

This conversation made me realize that I had completely lost track of the music of one of the best and most underrated guitarist to ever play the blues. Although Roy Buchanan, his 1972 debut album on Polydor, was in the regular rotation on the turntable  at Floyd's Hotel in the early '70's, I never owned it since vinyl. After downloading it from iTunes this week, I have been blown away by how good it sounds today.

In the 70's, Roy had all the good  buzz. A "musician's musician", his playing was admired by John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Merle Haggard and Jeff Beck to name a few. It is part of his legend that he was invited to join the Rolling Stones, but turned them down. His great playing built up a loyal following, but not widespread fame or recognition.

Buchanan was born in California in 1939. He initially played steel guitar, but switched to guitar in the 1950's. In 1960, he joined Ronnie Hawkins as his lead guitar. He was later replaced in the band by that mathematical guitar genius, Robbie Robertson, who may have learned a lot from Roy.

Buchanan is known for the distinctive tone he was able to coax out of his trademark 1953 Telecaster. His talent is on full display on this album. It opens with his gorgeous take on Sweet Dreams. His guitar soars like no other on this beautiful instrumental version of a country classic. It is followed by Haggard's I Am a Lonesome Fugitive, which was my first taste of Merle's music. When Buchanan gets to the break on this song, it is some of the best guitar you will ever hear. The album also includes his masterpiece The Messiah Will Come Again. His guitar soars again on this instrumental work out. Every song on this album is great.

Like many musician of that era, his appetite for alcohol and drugs began taking it's toll. In August of 1988, Buchanan was arrested for public intoxication. Later that night he was found hanging in his cell at the Fairfax County jail. His death was ruled a suicide. A brilliant career cut short.

If you like guitar, this album is a must for your playlist. Available on iTunes and from Amazon.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas Suggestions 2008

Blues:   My favorite music released in 2008:
  1. Asking For Flowers by Kathleen Edwards. As mentioned in my post from May 21, Kathleen is a very talented singer songwriter from Canada. Asking for Flowers is her third album and it is a good one. Anyone on your list who likes Lucinda Williams would enjoy this CD.
  2. Just Us Kids by James McMurtry. As covered in my post of May 30, this is a terrific new album from one of the best songwriters working today. On this new disk, McMurtry spins his unusual tales of modern life with a quick wit and a cynical eye. A good choice for any rock and roll fan on your list. Another idea is his 2002 masterpiece Saint Mary of the Woods, which includes the high spot, Choctaw Bingo. It is sweet tune about family and vacations.
  3. The Unreleased Recordings Hank Williams. I just got my hands on this recently and it is incredible. For anyone who has gotten confused by today's Nashville, this is wha real country music sounds like. The words are honest and the backing is great. Somebody please send a copy to Rascal Flatts.
  4. Pretty World by Sam Baker. Although this was actually released in 2007, I only started listening to it this year. A remarkable effort from an under rated Austin musician. See my post from September 9 for more details.

Booze:     I have been drinking a lot of good wine lately. What else are you going to do while watching the sky fall? Much of what I drink comes from Karen Williams and Davis Stevens at Acme Fine Wines in St Hellena California. As I mentioned in my post on April 27, they have a real talent for finding great California wines that are made in small quantities. I have never been disappointed by any of their recomendations. Check them out at acmefinewines.com.

Books:    I have read a lot of fiction this year as usual. Most of it has been good entertainment, but not remarkable. Here are a few exceptions:
  1. A Most Wanted Man by John le Carre. As reported in my post on November 11, this is another great effort from the master of the spy genre, Le Carre. It is excellent.
  2. The Garden of Last Days by Andre Dubus. When I wrote about this book in a post on June 12, I took a lot of heat from some of my readers. I guess a book about strippers and terrorists doesn't have universal appeal. I stand by my recommendation. It is a very intriguing novel.
  3. The Finder by Colin Harrison. Harrison has written several novels in the last 10 years that I have enjoyed very much. He has a good eye for descriptions and his characters are well turned out. I still think that Afterburn, which was released published in 2000, is his best effort, but The Finder is quite good as well. 
  4. Lush Life by Richard Price. Although it is a little hard to follow at first, Lush Life has some great moments. Price is certainly one of our best American authors writing today.

Bobs:     I have been wanting to write a post about Dylan's Tell Tale Signs, but I haven't gotten to it yet. Naturally, any new look into Bob's unreleased catalogue is a joyful occasion for all of the faithful BobCats. This might be a tricky Christmas gift, because any real fan will have a copy already. It would be a good present for some one who should be a bigger fan. It contains some great outtakes from his recent albums.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

How Will the Wolf Survive? by Los Lobos

The 1980's were tough times for roots music. Can you remember the music on the radio in those years? Here are some of the big hits from 1980-1984: Call Me (Debbie Harry), Bette Davis Eyes (Kim Carnes), Jessie's Girl (Rick Springfield), Maniac (Michael Sembello), Karma Chameleon (Boy George). Not exactly a list of enduring hits that you will be playing for your children.

Even Bob Dylan was in a bit of a creative funk at the time. After releasing Infidels in 1983, he went into the worst slump of his career when he released Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove. Those two frisbees  made Self Portrait look good. It would be 1989 before Bob rebounded with the excellent Oh Mercy. 

In 1984, I had been living in Hebbronville for two years. As part of my transition to life in South Texas, I was listening to a lot of country music. After falling in love with his duet with Willie Nelson on Poncho and Lefty, I began digging deeper into Merle Haggard's catalogue. I had also discovered Hank Jr and was listening to a lot of his music.

 There was one new album released in 1984 that really fit my ear. It was How Will the Wolf Survive? by Los Lobos. Combining tradition Mexican music and a modern Tex-Mex sound with good old rock and roll, this album was unlike anything on the radio. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, it was the major label debut of the band from Los Angeles that has gone on to recorded many fine albums.

Listening to this album today, I can't believe how good it sounds. The first cut, Don't Worry Baby, sounds like Howlin Wolf backed by the Doug Sahm's old band. It's blues. It's Tex-Mex. It's good. The album also contains several sweet gentle tracks like A Matter of Time, a brilliant song about immigration and it's effect on families, and the short instrumental, Lil' King of Everything. The band really rocks on The Breakdown and I Got Loaded. My favorite cut is Will the Wolf Survive. It captures the sound and talent of the band perfectly.

In December of 1990, I was lucky to see Los Lobos play in Houston at the Tower Theatre. They were the opening act for Steve Earl. Earle, who was also a favorite of mine at the time, was battling demons that night and he was terrible.  Los Lobos were really on fire and they blew Earle's drug and booze fueled bullshit away. It was a memorable set that really showed the talent of the players in the band.

I can remember leaving the concert being astounded by the playing of David Hidalgo. He played all kinds of guitars and also had great stage presence. I said that night: "That guy is the Mexican Eric Clapton."

How Will the Wolf Survive should be on your playlist. It is available on iTunes and from Amazon.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Atlantic City- Levon Helm- Merlefest 2008

Not as good as the version with The Band, but it still is a nice cut. Glad Levon is still out there playing.

Atlantic City by The Band


Yesterday morning when I jumped in my sled, the first song on the radio was The Band covering Springsteen's Atlantic City. Anyone who is following this blog knows that I am a huge fan of The Band. Nevertheless, this song fell through the cracks for me.

 Once Robbie left The Band and poor Richard died, I lost interest in their music. I think I was so depressed about Richard's tragic end that I didn't want to listen to their new music without him in the band.  In fact, I never bought Jericho when it was released.

Yesterday, I got very excited when I heard Levon singing this song. You might think that Levon's country vocal style wouldn't be up to the task on Bruce's story from New Jersey. Not at all. His vocal absolutely nails it and his mandolin playing is a tasty addition to the sound. All the best parts of The Band come together on this cut.

Although I am not quite as enthusiastic about the rest of the album, this song is worth owning. You can buy the whole album from iTunes or in these uncertain financial times, you can buy this cut for 99 cents. If you don't buy the whole album, you might also want to pick up the cover of Bob's Blind Willie McTell for another 99 cents. It is excellent as well.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

2008 American Music Awards


My brothers and I were at the ranch last Sunday night. While waiting for Entourage and some other decent shows to come on the tube, we watched part of the American Music Awards. As soon as it started, Peter said: "I bet none of these people are on your iPod." Boy, was he right. 

I know I sound like a dinosaur, but these acts don't have any connection to the music in my life. The American public needs to get an upgrade in the taste department if this is what they think is good music. It appears to me that American Idol has brainwashed the voters.

I don't have much of  an opinion about most of the award winners, because I just don't listen to that kind of music. In fact, I had never heard of Chris Brown before watching the show. Alicia Keys and Rihanna......can't even tell them apart.

I do have an opinion about the country music winners. In the words of my old friend Bob "Trash" Coffin: "I hate shit like that." This music is not country. It is something that Nashville and American Idol have cooked up and served to the American public.

 Taylor Swift wins favorite female country artist. If this is the best Nashville has to offer, I quit. Her music is prefab, high school, American Idol crap. If you want to hear two female singers that have real talent, check out Kathleen Edwards or Kelly Willis.

Carrie Underwood's Carnival Ride is the favorite country album of the year. What is that all about? Another American Idol mannequin wins!

Rascal Flatts wins favorite band. I like what Mojo Nixon has to say about them on his show. It involves them sucking a certain part of a donkey's anatomy. He won't play them on Outlaw Country for a reason. They don't play real country music. Listen to Merle Haggard if you want to hear the real thing.

What's with Kayne West? What has he ever done besides look good? Oh yea, produce some rap acts. He says he wants to be remembered like the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix or Elvis. Those people had real talent. They wrote great songs and played music that will be remembered 100 years from now. Kayne will be lucky to be a footnote in a few years. Let me write about some of Kayne's big hits..... What are they again?

You know it is a bad night when Brad Paisley, who wins favorite male artist, is the best thing on the show. He can actually play some pretty decent guitar Having said that, I just saw his music video of Start a Band with Keith Urban. It has a live part where they stand together and finger each other's guitar. Guys, that is so GAY. I am embarrassed for both of you.

Well, there you have it.

John Mayall Roxanne

Not sure what happened to his shirt? The clip gives a feel for Mayall at the end of the '60's.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

John Mayall's The Turning Point

In the fall of 1969 while I was wearing out my copy of The Band's second album (See my last post), I was also listening to this classic album by English blues legend John Mayall. Most of Mayall's early fame revolves around his work with Eric Clapton and the Blues Breakers album recorded in 1966 (See my post of August 30). That album is very representative of the music that Mayall was making at the time. It was guitar based Chicago blues as interpreted by a band of English players.

  Mayall's band was a training ground for many of  the best English musicians of that day. In addition to Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, Peter Green, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood and Jack Bruce were members of the band for varying amounts of time. When Mick Taylor left for the Rolling Stones to replace Brian Jones in 1968, Mayall moved on from that electric guitar blues format to something new.

The Turning Point is the product of that change of direction. Recorded at the Fillmore East on July 12, 1969, the album featured a band that may be the most unusual in Mayall's long history. Besides Mayall on vocals, harmonica and guitar, the band included Steve Thompson on bass, Johnny Almond on sax and flute, and Jon Mark on acoustic finger-style guitar. No drums or lead guitar created a very different sound. The music is a folk, blues and jazz fusion that must have been a surprise to the fans at the Fillmore that night. It is no surprise today that the music still sounds great almost 40 years later. It reflects the taste and the genius of one of England premier blues men.

 The album kicks off with The Laws Must Change and Mayall's tasty harmonica. On So Hard To Share and California, Mayall's vocals and Almond's sax wind around each other with beautiful result. Mayall wrote every song on the disk so the band is perfectly suited for the material. The original albums ends with the energetic workout of Room To Move, which may be Mayall's most recognizable song.

 A new expanded version of the original album includes three more tracks from the same night. This is an album you need to have on your playlist. It is available on iTunes and from Amazon.



Monday, November 17, 2008

Sunday, November 16, 2008

ROBBIE ROBERTSON


Bob Dylan once called Robbie Robertson "the only mathematical guitar genius I've ever run into who doesn't offend my intestinal nervousness with his rearguard sound." I'm not exactly sure what that means, but I have been a big fan of Robbie's guitar playing since I first heard him on tapes from Dylan's 66 world tour.

His stinging guitar on that tour, which can be heard on countless bootleg recordings, has been discussed and praised for years by BobCats and critics across the world. I agree with every accolade that has been written about his playing. 

His slash and burn licks on Tell Me, Momma and One Too Many Mornings propel the sound of the band along and add to the force of these classic Dylan songs. The extent of his rock and roll eduction from the Ronnie Hawkins days is clearly exhibited on these tracks. Can you imagine how loud and aggressive his guitar sounded to the audience in 1966?

That said, my favorite guitar work from Robbie is on The Band's second album. This is an album that I played to death when it was released in September of 1969. I had just moved back into my parent's house and I listened to it every morning for months. Every day my father would say: "Turn off that damn Bob Dylan."

 Robbie is brilliant on the entire disk, but the highlight for me has always been his work on King Harvest Must Surely Come. Coming at the end of the album, it is a song that combines all the best elements of The Band: Richard's plaintive voice and piano, Garth's sweeping organ, Levon's subtle drumming, and Robbie's guitar. The pure tone of his guitar and his interaction with the piano and organ on the track is masterful. The guitar solo that Robbie lets go at the end of the song is some of the finest playing you will ever hear. This is the music of The Band at it's best.  

You should have this on your iPod already. Dial it up and enjoy. If you don't own it already, the entire album is worth adding to your collection.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

MITCH MITCHELL




One of the mileposts of getting older is living through the death of a family member, a friend or a public figure. I was very sad this morning to hear that Mitch Mitchell had died. All day, I have been thinking about the way he figured into some of my early musical experiences.


 Seeing The Jimi Hendrix Experience was my first real concert. Before that, the only live music I had ever heard was "Guitar" Johnny Nicholas or Duke Robillard playing at the Watch Hill Yacht Club. Seeing Jimi live was a big step forward in my musical education.

 March 31, 1968 was only a few days after my 16th birthday. I was on spring break from the Pottstown Penitentiary when I went with a couple of friends to see The Jimi Hendrix Experience at the Arena Theatre in Philadelphia. We took the P&W to 69th street (no one in the group had a license) which was a scary thing to do at the time. That was indian country for little kids from the suburbs.

Before Jimi and the band took the stage, I can remember the eclectic look of the crowd, the smell of marijuana in the theatre, and the light show of  The Soft Machine, the opening act.
When The Experience began to play, I will never forget the wild look of the band and Jimi's flamboyant guitar playing. He was jumping around that stage humping his guitar and suddenly I knew there was a big world out there that Mom and Dad hadn't told me about.

The next time I saw The Experience was April 12, 1969. Neil Ayer, Dick Hammond, Harry Commons and I escaped Pottstown and went to the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Somehow seeing Hendrix in a hockey arena was not as exotic as the first time. Nevertheless, it was a good show, even though the band was on a revolving stage in the middle of the arena. I did manage to take some great photographs that night.   Above, you can see one of those photos which shows the band with Mitch at his kit. 

 Mitch Mitchell was a big part of the sound of The Experience. It's sad to think that the whole band is now gone. Listen to The Jimi Hendrix Experience tonight and play it loud.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carre

I have been a little hesitant to jump back into the "books" part of this blog after I got such a good response from my first book review (see post from June 12)......NOT! It seems that a lot of my audience did not share my enthusiasm for a book about terrorists and strippers. Imagine that?


I just finished reading the new John Le Carre novel: A Most Wanted Man. I doubt a review of this book will create the same amount of controversy as that other post. I have been fan of Le Carre since the mid-70's. In fact, I have read all of his books and own them in first edition in my collection. He is one of our best living authors. 

His mastery of the spy-thriller genre is well known. Although I love the James Bond books and Ian Fleming did create a franchise, when it comes to the writing itself, Fleming isn't good enough to be Le Carre's paperboy.

Like all of his previous 20 novels, A Most Wanted Man is a densely written literary thriller. Short on action and sex, it is filled with great dialogue and subtle character development. It is not an easy beach read like most bestsellers these days. You have to pay attention and work hard to catch the subtle brush work of his prose. If you have the attention span and the patience, the reward is huge.

Even at 77 years old, Le Carre can still write a great novel. With his recent books, he has updated the spy-thriller genre, which he mastered years ago. George Smiley may be long gone, but Le Carre's ability to craft a great story is not. He understands and describes the modern spy game as well as any author writing today.

While I'm on Le Carre, if you haven't read The Constant Gardener, you should. Not only is it a great book, it is one of the best movies I have seen in the last few years. It combines beautiful cinematography with a great cast, that includes Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz and Danny Houston. Fortunately, the movie is very faithful to the book. Both are highly recommended and available from Amazon.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

JOHNNY HORTON

 I have now had over 10,000 hits on this blog since I started keeping track in June. Thanks to everyone who has been reading and supporting my work. It makes all the effort worthwhile knowing that people are tuning in.



Driving to the ranch today, I was listening to outlaw country on my Sirius Radio. My favorite DJ, Mojo Nixon, was doing his afternoon show. If you haven't heard him, you are missing the best thing on radio. He always plays great music and his commentary......you need to hear it to believe it.

He played a song by Johnny Horton and it immediately took me back to my childhood. In the days before the Beatles, radio was in pretty sad shape. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I was listening to The Kingston Trio, Bobby Darin and whatever was on AM radio. My musical education had yet to begin. This was before even Guitar Johnny was cool.

 One of the few good songs I can remember from this time was North to Alaska by Johnny Horton. This song goes back to the very beginning for me, because I was 8 years old when it was released in 1960. It is amazing that I can remember it.

Johnny Horton was a country singer who wrote and recorded the classic country song Honky-Tonk Man. This great song was a hit for him in 1956 and later was a hit for Dwight Yoakum in 1986. Although a lot of Horton's music leaned towards rockabilly, he is best known for his "historical ballads" like Sink the Bismark, Battle of New Orleans, and North To Alaska that were all charted hits in 1959 and 1960. These songs are still popular today and are often sung by drunken members of the rat pack over Derby weekend.

Horton's career was cut short when he was killed on November 5, 1960 in a car crash with a drunk Texas A&M student (Damn Aggies). It has been written that Horton was haunted by premonitions of his own death. In a strange coincidence, Horton, who was married to Hank William's widow, Billie Jean, at the time, was killed driving home after playing the Skyline Club in Austin, Texas. Hank Williams played his last gig at the Skyline Club before dying in the back of his Cadillac on New Year's Day in 1953.

Obviously, Horton's music is tied to my childhood, but it still sounds good today. You might want to add him to your playlist. Available on iTunes and from Amazon.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

MOSE ALLISON

Like a lot of people who grew up in the 1960's listening to rock and roll, I didn't know a thing about jazz. In fact, you could have put what I knew about jazz at that time in a thimble. Besides the rock and roll that was on the radio, I knew a little about the blues (and a few other things) thanks to my tutoring by Johnny "Guitar" Nicholas, but not much about any kind of jazz music.

By 1970, I did own the ultimate prep school jazz album, Swiss Movement by Les McCann and Eddie Harris, which wasn't a bad place to start. I have it on my iPod today and it still sounds great. As a starter jazz album, it was definitely a little easier to get into than Miles Davis or Coltrane. 

When I got to Tufts and Floyd's Hotel was up and running, there was one exception to the usual suspects on our turntable. It was The Best of Mose Allison. I'm not sure how we originally got on to this album. It probably came from the influence of frequent hotel guest, Mike Martenek, aka, The Maniac.

Floyd and I knew a funny little guy named Spike McFee who worked somewhere he could pick up albums with an employee discount. He was always willing to trade albums with the hotel staff. I can remember getting The Best of Mose Allison from him.

Mose Allison was born in Tippo, Mississippi in 1927. He played piano and trumpet as a child. After going to college at The University of Mississippi and Louisiana State and a stint in the U.S. Army, he began playing in New York City in 1956. His songs are known for their literary lyrics. He has influenced many other musicians including John Mayall, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison and The Who, who recorded his song Young Man Blues. His songs have also been recorded by Bonnie Raitt and Leon Russell among others.

 Mose combines fine piano playing with the witty lyrics of his original compositions. His best songs like Your Mind is On Vacation (But Your Mouth Is Working Overtime), I Love the Life I Live, Your Molecular Structure have a hipster's sensibility and outlook on the world. His piano and the backing of his trio is tasteful and the songs are witty and hip. Check out these lyrics from Your Mind Is On Vacation:

You're quoting figures, you're dropping names
You're telling stories, you're playing games
You laugh when things ain't funny
You try to sound like you don't need money
If talk was criminal, you'd lead a life of crime
Cause you're mind is on vacation and your mouth is working overtime

I was lucky to see Mose in Austin at the Continental Club in October of 1999. It was a great show. When I tried to chat Mose up at the bar afterwards, he was quite uninterested in this author and humble fan. Maybe it was my aftershave?

If you are not familiar with his work, be sure to pick up this CD for your playlist. It is available on iTunes and from Amazon.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

BOOKER T. & The M.G.'s

Anyone who has been reading this blog can tell that the focus of my interest in a song is usually the lyrics. Often, the words are my way into a song more the the music. Notice the subjects of these posts: Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Warren Zevon, and Robert Earl Keen. All are songwriters who write songs with great words. Trust me, it is not the melody of Poncho and Lefty that brings the tears to my eyes.

That said, here's a departure for me: Green Onions by Booker T. & The M.G.'s. I can remember hearing this song on the radio when it was released in 1962. A lady who worked for my family in those days was really into soul music. She turned me on to some great music including this song and Hit The Road Jack by Ray Charles.

For anyone who has been living under a musical rock for the last 40 years, Booker T. & The M.G.'s was the house band at Stax Records in Memphis during the 60's. The band consisted of Booker T. Jones on keyboards, Steve Cropper on guitar, Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass, and Steve Potts on drums. Isaac Hayes was on keyboards at times. They played on all of the best records by Stax artists like Otis Redding, Albert King, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, and Eddie Floyd. Some of the hits included Try a Little Tenderness, I've Been Loving You Too Long, Walking the Dog, Hold On (I'm Coming), Soul Man and many more.

 In 1962, Booker T., Cropper, bass player Lewie Steinberg, and drummer Al Jackson Jr were in the studio backing a Stax artist. In an free moment, they began fooling around with an organ filled blues riff. When Stax president, Jim Stewart, heard what they were playing, he hit the record button. The rest is history. The song called Green Onions was released in October of 1962 and was an immediate hit. It went to number 1 on the R&B charts and number 3 on the Pop charts. It is one of the most recognizable instrumentals of all time.

After the success of the single, the band recorded this album which was released in October of 1962. It went to 33 on the Pop charts. The album is filled with the band's soulful take on some great songs.

Booker T. & The M.G.'s has had a long and successful career. Green Onions sounds as good today as it did in 1962. If you don't own it already, add it to your playlist. Available on iTunes and from Amazon.

Friday, October 24, 2008

ALBERT KING

I have just come back from a wonderful week in the English countryside. When not listening to 60's compilation CDs and playing "name that tune" with my good wife and a charming Englishman named Ned, I was working through some forgotten corners of my iPod. While doing this, I reconnected with a great blues album by Albert King.

Albert King was born in Indianola, Mississippi on April 24, 1923. He sang in a gospel choir as a child and taught himself to play a homemade guitar. He played drums behind Jimmy Reed before been signed to Bobbin Records by Little Milton. His first hit was Don't Throw Your Love on Me So Strong, which got to number 14 on the R&B chart in 1961. After that he signed with Stax Records.

Born Under a Bad Sign was recorded in 1966 and 1967 and was released on Stax Records in 1967. Backed by the Stax house band that included Steve Cropper on guitar, Booker T. Jones on piano, Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass, Al Jackson Jr on drums, Isaac Hayes on piano, and the Memphis Horns, Albert made one of the classic straight ahead blues albums of all time. Each song is a concise expression of the blues that showcases King's music and guitar technique. There is no filler or fluff on this disk.

Although B.B. King is probably the best known of the Three Kings (B.B., Albert and Freddy), Albert's guitar influenced many important players including Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, Jimi Hendrix and later Stevie Ray Vaughan. His technique was unusual because he was left-handed but played a right-handed guitar upside down.

The album kicks off with the blues classic and King signature tune, Born Under a Bad Sign. Listen to King's guitar and you can immediately hear his influence on Eric Clapton's playing from that period. In fact, Clapton has mentioned King as a major influence on his work with Cream. They covered the song along with many others including Paul Butterfield Band, Jack Bruce, Booker T. & the M.G.'s among others.

The next song up is Crosscut Saw, which has always been one of my favorite blues tunes. It is what what the blues is all about. Listen to King growl :

I'm a crosscut saw
Baby, drag me across your log
I'm a crosscut saw
I cut your wood so easy for you
You can't help but say Hot Dog

King gives a nice reading to the Leiber and Stoller classic Kansas City with help from the Memphis Horns. He also excels on the clever Personal Manager. In fact, there is not a bad cut on the album.

I was lucky to see Albert play in Boston in the late '80's. I was visiting Bob Cat Numero Uno who was living there at the time. We went to the show and liked it so much we went back again the next night. (Even having Ronald McD in tow couldn't spoil the experience) I will never forget the size of the man (Large!) or his work with the trademark Gibson Flying V guitar that he called Lucy. I feel fortunate to have seen this legend before he died at the age of 67 in 1992.

If you like the blues, this is a must album for your playlist. Available on iTunes and from Amazon.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

JOHN PRINE

I totally missed on this album when it was released in 1971. I'm not sure what we were listening to in those early days at Floyd's Hotel. My guess is Dylan, The Band, Traffic and The Stones and any blues albums the Maniac brought over on one of his visits. It's funny that I didn't pick up on this album, because at the time Prine was being called the "Next Bob Dylan". That should have put him on my radar.

I only recently got excited about Prine's music after I bought Fair and Square which was released in 2005. That great album made me curious about his earlier work, which led me to his debut album.

Prine was living in Chicago and was part of the folk scene there with friend Steve Goodman in the late 60's. He was discovered at that time by Kris Kristofferson (I guess he returned the call), who helped him get a recording contract. Produced by Arif Mardin, the album was recorded in Memphis with the great studio musicians at the American Recording Studio. Although it wasn't a commercial success, the album contains some amazing songs for a deput effort.

 Prine was one of the few "Next Bob Dylans" who actually lived up to the hype when it came to songwriting. It is mind bending that these songs were written by a 24 year old. What an old soul he was at the time. These songs represent 70's songwriting at it's best.

My favorite track is Angel From Montgomery. It is a beautiful song that was a hit for Bonnie Raitt off her 1974 album Streetlights and has been covered by many other artists. It begins with one of the great images in any song:

I am an old woman named after my mother
My old man is another child that's grown old
If dreams were lightning thunder desire
This old house would have burnt down a long time ago

 The album also contains Paradise, which is a touching song about the horrors of strip mining and the distruction of our land. I first heard it sung by the great Larry Redmon, who is the country poet of the Blue Grass. This is the chorus:

And Daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away


These are only a few of the great songs on the album. If it isn't on your playlist, you need to add it today. Available from Amazon and on iTunes.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

JESSE WINCHESTER

I bought this first album by Jesse Winchester when it was released in 1970. Since I was a huge fan of The Band, any album produced by Robbie Robertson easily caught my attention. Albert Grossman was managing Jesse at the time, so the album was released on the Bearsville Label. While writing this post, I have been listening to the album a lot. I had forgotten just how good  it is.



Jesse Winchester was born in Bossier City, LA, but was raised in Memphis. After graduating from Williams College in 1966, he received his draft notice and moved to Canada to escape the draft. He met Robertson and Grossman while living and playing in Montreal in 1969.

In the photo on the cover of the album, Jesse looks like the sixth member of The Band. On many of these songs, he sounds like he is just that. With both Robertson and Levon Helm contributing on the album, the backing is like a stripped down version of The Band. Some of these songs are not far removed from The Basement Tapes.

Jesse's songwriting reflects the contrast between his southern upbringing and his northern life mandated by his flight to Canada to escape the draft. His lyrics are well written and playful at times, although some of the songs like Black Dog address darker themes.

The album starts with Payday which is a joyful, bluesy romp. The playing of that "mathematical guitar genius" is immediately recognizable. Robbie also has a co-writing credit on Snow which is kicked along by crisp drumming that sounds like Levon to my ear.

Yankee Lady, one of his best songs, describes the plight of a man torn between the love of a woman and a need to travel back to his southern roots. This theme of wanderlust and escape figures prominently in many of his songs. Note the tasteful mandolin from Levon on the cut.

Jesse's inability to tour the United States until after Jimmy Carter's draft amnesty in 1977 may have affected his career. When he was able to gain more exposure by touring, the singer songwriter era of the '70's was passing. He has never gotten the recognition that his music deserves.

This has left Jesse with a loyal following and the designation as a musician's musician, because of the impressive list of artists who have covered his songs. These include Jimmy Buffett, Elvis Costello, Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Garcia, and Reba McEntire.

If you don't have this album on your playlist, you should add it immediately. It is available on iTunes and from Amazon. Other recommended titles include:

  1. Gentleman of Leisure (1999)
  2. Live From at Bijou Cafe (2006)

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Songwriting of Robert Earl Keen

Robert Earl Keen is one of the most popular Texas singer songwriters working today. His biggest hits like The Road Goes on Forever, Merry Christmas from the Family, Copenhagen, and That Buckin' Song showcase his twisted sense of humor, clever songwriting and good taste in music. His loyal fans love these songs. Go to a live show and you will see the nightly sing along. It is very entertaining.


Most of his fans look like Aggie frat boys or slightly aged frat boys. They all dress like Scott F*g*n on a typical day at the office: Roper boots, pressed khakis, button down oxford shirt with tee shirt underneath, and a ball cap. These fans come to the show to hear the music, drink beer, and sing along to Robert's biggest hits. Todd Snider's song Beer Run captures this scene very accurately. If you haven't heard it, you should add it to your play list. It is a very funny song from a very talented artist.

The first time I saw Robert play in Hebbronville in the winter of 1999, I was impressed with his live show and his connection with the audience. Afterwards when I listened more closely to his CDs, I began to appreciate the depth of his songwriting talent. If you look beyond his crowd-pleasers, this man has written some songs that put him in a league with any of the best modern songwriters Texas has ever produced. These writers include Townes Van Zandt, Billy Joe Shaver, and Guy Clark, to name a few.

With that thought in mind, I would like to point out a few of his best written songs. Although the frat boys may not know all these words by heart, I think they represent the high spots of Robert's writing talent. 

Paint the Town Beige   From the album Bigger Piece of Sky, this song was the final track on the original sequencing. With a mellow backing that starts with a few chords, the lyrics are the finest in his songbook. This song can always bring a tear to my eye and that puts it in rare company. My guess is that the basis for this song is Robert's move from Austin to the Hill Country. He has written it from the heart and it shows in the words. I love the image of the "bigger piece of sky":

             I gave up the fast lane for a blacktop county road
Just burned out on all that talk about the motherlode
I traded for a songbird and a bigger piece of sky
When I miss the good old days
I can't remember why

Still I get restless and drive into town
I cruise once down Main Street and turn back around
It's crazy but God knows I don't act my age
Like an old desperado who paints the town beige


Crazy Cowboy Dream.    Also from the album Bigger Piece of Sky. This has a little more of a traditional country sound than most REK compositions. I love the steel guitar and the fiddle together. Good lyrics with great descriptive writing. I love the juxtaposition of the silver spurs and gold tequila on the chorus. I also like the image of the saddle and the cowboy dream. Very subtle and well written:

Silver spurs and gold tequila
                 You know they keep me hanging on
 pretty girls and old cantinas
Give me shelter from the storm
The miles that I have traveled 
The places that I have seen
Just won't let me put a saddle 
On this crazy cowboy dream



Runnin' with the Night    From the album Picnic, this song has a great beat and I'm not sure why Robert doesn't play it in the live shows. The words are clever when they repeat with slight variation on each chorus:

                           I've never been no daytime guy
Love the neon light
I'm a saxophone, flash of chrome
Runnin' with the night

I've never been no daytime guy
Love the neon light
I'm a swinging door, a meteor
Runnin' with the night

I'm a secret plan, a highwayman
Runnin' with the night

I'm an amber eye, a coyote's cry
I'm a wall of fire, an angel choir


Let the Music Play     From his very underrated album Farm Fresh Onions, it is a dark tale of disappointment and trickery in the modern world which is described using images from the old west. I really like the Hank Williams references in Luke the Drifter and cheating heart with the steel guitar accents from the great Marty Muse:

              He was nothing but a drifter
And he came to play the part
Disguised as Luke the Drifter
Talk about a cheating heart

Now you're alone and barely breathing
Looking down from up above
Needing something to believe in
One lonely truth and love
And the storm is slowly dying
At the breaking of the day
All the steel guitars are crying
I'm rolling down that lost highway


Road to Nowhere      From Walking Distance, it is part of a song cycle that includes some of his sweetest lyrics. This song is from the third part of the story. All the lyrics in the three songs are very well realized with beautiful words. It is my favorite part of the album:

            I climbed the mountains and I swept the plains
I crossed the border and I broke my chains
I walked the back roads 'til my shoes wore through
I'm still without you.... without you

I thought I'd find
You would leave my mind
But my dreams they just don't know
They can't seem to let you go
I'm so sad I don't know what to do
             Without you


Broken End of Love    From the album What I Really Mean, this song has great words. I'm sure that nobody writing in Nashville today has worked the word metamorphosis into a country song:

                        Line of sight, speed of sound
Feel of flesh the long way down
Flash of light you look around it's over
You're OK, but I'm a mess
It's the way it goes I guess
I think I thought we would last forever

What am I gonna do about this
It ain't no metamorphosis
It's the cold and bitter broken end of love


As you can see from these songs, Robert is a very talented songwriter. You should add the following CDs to your playlist or library, if you don't have them already. All are available on iTunes or from Amazon.
  1. Bigger Piece of Sky
  2. Picnic
  3. Farm Fresh Onions (Whitney Vogt's favorite)
  4. What I Really Mean

Sunday, September 21, 2008

KELLY WILLIS

I was riding around at the ranch last week listening to AM country radio. After I got finished puking on my boots, I realized that my usual rant about the music that is played on country radio is still justified. Every song I heard had banal lyrics over bad rock/country backing. It was the typical name-checking of country themes and situations that passes for songwriting in Nashville these days. Hank Sr is twisting in his grave listening to this crap.

 I have been beating on Toby Keith, Taylor Swift, Big and Rich and Sugarland, but most of what I heard was even worse than what that motley crew turns out. It made me miss Outlaw Country on my Sirius radio and particularly Mojo Nixon. That guy plays real music, tells it like it is, and doesn't put up with any kind of musical bulls**t. 

Listening to this junk started me thinking about a good modern country album to recommend. One of the best country albums to be released in the last 10 years is What I Deserve by Kelly Willis. This is an album I can get excited about.

 Kelly lives in Austin, Texas and is married to Bruce Robison. Bruce is a great songwriter who has written several number 1 country hits including Travelin' Soldier, Angry All the Time and Wrapped. Bruce's brother is Charlie Robison, who is a fine musician as well. We call him the  human jukebox because he can play and sing the first verse of any classic country song you can name. It is an impressive family of musicians.


Kelly, who is very easy on the eyes, has a great voice and uses it well on this release. She picked some great songs, some of which she wrote or co-wrote. Bruce also contributed a few of his and she even covers a tune by Dan Penn (see post of  July 21). These are songs that have something to say and you will not get tired of listening to them. The backing is tasteful and shows off her vocals well.

 If you don't already own What I Deserve, pick it up today. Available on iTunes and from Amazon.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

DOC POMUS


I am going to let my satellite radio lead the way again. When I got in my sled this morning the first thing I heard was Bruce Springsteen singing Viva Las Vegas, written by the great Doc Pomus. I had been planning a post about him, so here it goes:



In the early 80's I was lucky to meet Pomus at the Knickerbocker Cafe in Westerly, RI. Big Joe Turner was playing that night with the Roomful of Blues and Pomus was there with Big Joe. By then, Turner was a little past his prime, but it was a memorable night of music anyway. I was honored to meet two legendary blues figures.

Jerome Felder was born in Brooklyn, NY on June 27, 1924. Born Jewish and with childhood polo, Pomus was an unlikely candidate to be a rhythm and blues singer. He did have a fairly successful career singing at blues clubs in the New York area. After 12 years, Pomus decided that song writing might be a better life for a newly married man. Hooking up with Mort Shuman, Pomus fell into the vibrant music scene at the Brill Building in New York.

Very quickly, Pomus and Shuman wrote some of the biggest hits of the day including: Love Roller Coaster, Save the Last Dance for Me, This Magic Moment, Suspicion, and Viva Las Vegas. Many of their songs were recorded by Atlantic Records artists who were produced by the great Jerry Wexler (see post on August 17). Wexler later said about Pomus: "If the music industry had a heart, it would be Doc Pomus."

The version of Save the Last Dance for Me by the Drifters has been one of my favorite songs since I heard it on AM radio as a child. Knowing now that it was written about Doc's own wedding where he watched from the sidelines as his new bride danced the night away only intensifies the emotion of the words. What seems to be a sweet love song actually has dark undercurrents of anxiety and jealousy in Ben E. King's soulful vocal:

             You can dance, go and carry on
                    Till the night is gone
                    And it is time to go
                    If he asks if you're all alone
                    Can he walk you home, you must tell him no
                    'Cause don't forget who's taking you home
                     And in whose arms you're gonna be
                     Save the last dance for me


In addition to his song writing, Doc Pomus lived a very colorful life. There are too many stories for this short post. Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely life & Times of Doc Pomus is a wonderful biography. I recommend it highly.

Essential Pomus music on iTunes includes the following:
  1. Love Roller Coaster                         Big Joe Turner
  2. Boogie Woogie Country Girl         Big Joe Turner
  3. Lonely Avenue                                   Ray Charles
  4. Save the Last Dance for Me The  Drifters
  5. This Magic Moment The Drifters
  6. Little Sister                                           Elvis Presley
  7. Young Boy Blues Ben E. King
  8. Suspicion  Elvis Presley

Till the Night is Gone: A Tribute To Doc Pomus is an album of his songs covered by modern artists. It is worth the money just to hear Bob Dylan's country-punk snarl on Boogie Woogie Country Girl. Priceless. Not on iTunes, but available from Amazon.