Americana music, blog

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Best Recordings of 2020: Arlo McKinley - Die Midwestern

ArloMcKinley_DieMidwestern (2).jpg 

Everyone loves an underdog. So the chances of a 40 year old singer/songwriter from Cincinnati releasing one of the best recordings of 2020 should be a cause for celebration. Most musicians have given up any hope of a career in music at 40. Fortunately, Arlo McKinley persevered and became the last artist signed by John Prine to his Oh Boy label prior to his death. Die Midwestern is one of the finest collection of songs in 2020. If McKinley was around in the 1980s, he would fit right in with mainstream rock-and-roll artists like Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Tom Petty or Bob Seger. 

“Bag of Pills” has rightfully garnered attention as one of the standout tracks and was the song            that     convinced Prine to sign him. Selling pills so he can afford to take his girl out drinking is not the type of song you're going hear on commercial radio. This is old school, meat and potatoes music. These are not songs about driving a pickup to the beach. These are familiar subjects: love lost and found, pain and redemption, and the need to pick and leave in the hope of better things. But throughout is an underlying sense of hope and a search for something better. Die Midwestern immediately places Arlo McKinney among the more gifted songwriters on the Americana scene.


Saturday, October 24, 2020

Jerry Jeff

It must have been 1984. Rick was a friend from work who was a little on the crazy side. He was a couple years older, and we shared a fondness for beer and good music. He lived in a double-wide out where the Play Land Amusement Park used to stand. It was there on a Sunday afternoon we were draining a 12 pack when he put on Ridin’ High a Jerry Jeff Walker record. I’ve been a fan ever since.  He wasn’t a what you would call a gifted singer, but he had his own unique persona. He wrote “Mr. Bojangles” which has become a standard in the repertoire of folkies everywhere, and a hit for The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It fascinated me the more I learned about him and his story. Born Ronald Crosby in New York state he eventually moved to the Austin, Texas where he played a key role in the growing “Outlaw” country music scene. He was known as a man who rarely passed up a cold beverage, and his records were often wild affairs with songs that sounded like they were made up on the spot. Viva Terlingua is the best example of Jerry Jeff and The Lost Gonzo Band letting loose. In the middle of “Sangria Wine” his voice cracks while straining to reach the notes in the chorus, but records were not note perfect, but the spirit was there. He championed other talented songwriters by recording their songs. In the years since that Sunday afternoon, Jerry Jeff’s music has been a constant companion. Rick and I lost touch as friends sometimes do, and then I heard that he has passed away. I never found out why. And now Jerry Jeff has passed. But the music remains. 

My favorite Jerry Jeff story is told by fellow musician Todd Snyder. It’s on YouTube if want to track it down. Snyder had opened a show for Jerry Jeff. After closing a hotel bar, they were walking back to their hotel room at around 3:00am. Lo-and-behold, they heard someone on the deserted street playing “Mr. Bojangles.” They walked up and listened to the street performer while Todd Snyder debated on whether to tell this old man that the guy who wrote that song was standing right there. He decided not to. Jerry Jeff complemented the man and dropped a few bills into his guitar case.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Overlooked Gems: John Stewart's The Phoenix Concerts



 The Phoenix Concerts

I don’t remember when I noticed John Stewart, but I know I waited far too long. About ten years ago, I bought California Bloodlines and experienced an incredible sense of discovery. Some have credited Bloodlines with being the first Americana record. I’ll leave that subject to others; I just want to let people know that if you love brilliant songwriters, and you haven’t done so yet, then check out John Stewart. While Bloodlines is an acknowledged classic, The Phoenix Concerts is an outstanding example of his early solo career and contains selections from Bloodlines.

John Stewart was already a veteran of the folk scene when he replaced Dave Guard, in The Kingston Trio in 1961. He brought with him proficiency on guitar, banjo, and the group recorded several of his original songs,. As the Beatles arrived and changed the musical landscape, the popularity of folk groups such as The Kingston Trio declined, and Stewart worked as solo artist. It was during this time that he wrote “Daydream Believer,” which became a smash hit for The Monkees. Commercial success eluded him, and he recorded for several major labels. 

It was on RCA he recorded The Phoenix Concerts. Live albums are hit and miss affairs. They rarely contain the best versions of an artist’s songs, but this is an exception. The applause is unobtrusive and the between songs patter is kept to a minimum. If this was the only recording John Stewart released, his reputation would have been etched in the pantheon of talented singers/songwriters. The sheer number of memorable songs is stunning. You’ll find no filler in this double album. The band is flawless, and the arrangements never get in the way or overwhelm the songs. 

And there are so many memorable songs. There are too many to go into detail here, but have a listen to “Runaway Fool of Love.” It rocks with an infectious opening guitar lick and rolls into a sing-a-long chorus. How wasn’t this a chart success? Others are the touching “Last Campaign Trilogy,” "The Oldest Living Son" and the stunning “Kansas.” Stewart passed away in 2008, but left a rich catalogue of great songs they deserve a wider audience. 



Sunday, October 11, 2020

Over Looked Gems: Great Songs That Deserve an Wider Audience


                                                  Tom Rush On Mountain Stage : NPR


Tom Rush began his career playing folk clubs in the Boston area in the mid-60s. He grew into an accomplished songwriter as well as an unusually gifted interpreter. He’s credited to be one of the first to record songs by unknown artists such as James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and Joni Mitchell. His landmark album The Circle Game, released in 1968 includes songs by all those aforementioned artists. In 1970, Rush released a self-titled record that included his stunning recording of David Wiffen’s “Lost My Driving Wheel.” The recording features David Bromberg on dobro and Paul Griffin's haunting organ. 

It’s been said that all stories lead back to The Bible or The Odyssey. “Driving Wheel” owes a nod to its Homeric narrative of a man desperate to be with the one he loves. As with many great songs, it leaves a lot of the details for the listener to fill in. But this track has a profound feeling of pain and loneliness. It uses every instrument to augment the narrator’s plight. Bromberg’s dobro is spare, but each phrase is necessary. This could be the hungover character from Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” facing another night of wondering why things lead to his painful plight. Rush’s vocal says so much yet manages to between being understated yet intense. A classic.


Friday, October 2, 2020

In Memory of John Prine


Last April a friend texted me the news that John Prine was dead. The Chicago area weather dawned gray, overcast, chilly morning. It has amused me in the past, at the grief expressed by members of the public, at a celebrity’s death. But this felt personal. I considered him a hero. He who grew up a few miles away. I bought every album, saw him live several times, and became frustrated at his lack of new material. He was admired by his peers who seemed more popular than ever. The Covid pandemic had brought the country to a standstill, I was frustrated by the new reality of working via Zoom, and outside the chilly winds of winter lingered, and John Prine was dead.

 Christmas, 1973, and I got what I had asked for - the new John Prine album, Sweet Revenge. My sister bought it for me, but not before she let me know how difficult it was to find. “Why couldn’t you have asked for the new Paul Simon album?” Why? Because everyone listens to Paul Simon. I wanted a John Prine record. I grew up on Chicago’s South side reading about the local folkies and singer/songwriters in the pages of the Sun-Times. Steve Goodman, Fred and Ed Holstein, Jim Post, and Bonnie Koloc were rising stars on the local scene. Then along came Prine.

I waited until everyone was in bed that Christmas night and huddled on the floor against the stereo console in our living room. I turned the balance all the way to one channel and listened to Sweet Revenge. And I listened and listened. While others my age were listening to Led Zeppelin, I set out to wear out the grooves of  Sweet Revenge. A Good Time was my favorite. There were so many..."Mexican Home," “Christmas in Prison,” “Please Don’t Bury Me.” I soon got hold of his first two records. I would play “Hello in There” just to hear those opening finger-picked chords. 

It’s been several months since his passing. Months filled with violence in the streets, leaders who have failed us, and the growing acceptance that our daily life will never quite be the same. More than ever, the world could use a little John Prine.