Americana music, blog

Friday, January 15, 2021

Tribute to Greg "Troop" Trooper


Greg Trooper, one our best singer/songwriter’s passed away January 15, 2017 at 61. Armed with his trademark Martin guitar and pork-pie hat, he left behind an impressive catalogue of songs and legions of fans in Europe and here in the states. Several artists, Vince Gill and Steve Earle among them recorded his songs. In one of his last performances, he opened for John Prine and joined him onstage for Prine’s “Paradise.” 

He died on this date three years and is greatly missed. I first heard Greg Trooper in 2003. Sugar Hill released his Floating record to rave reviews. I am one of the many fortunate fans who got to know “Troop,” through a mutual friend who booked him for a few gigs. He was fond of talking music, enjoying a glass of wine, and sharing all his great songs. He was also willing to discuss his inspiration and his admiration of other artists.

A native of New Jersey, “Troop” formed The Greg Trooper Band in New Your in the 90s, which featured Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan). He eventually moved to Nashville where he continued to release critically acclaimed records. These included Noises in the Hallway, produced by E Street Band bassist, Garry Tallent, and Popular Demons, produced by Buddy Miller. After moving from label to label, he released two more stellar recordings for the Sugar Hill label. He moved back to New York in 2009 and continued to tour, write and release records. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and tragically passed away in 2017.

Like any road warrior, he had plenty of stories.I once asked him about his popularity in The Netherlands. I had noticed he toured there at least once a year. He told a story about being invited to headline a festival. He brought a band and played the prime slot on the Saturday night of the festival. “It was one of those dream gigs. We just nailed it! And ever since I’ve had a steady audience there.”

Even a casual music fan would recognize that “Troop” deserved a much wider audience. Greg Trooper’s music is still readily available on all streaming platforms. Give him a listen. RIP Troop.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Best Recordings of 2020 - Lauren Mascitti God Made a Woman


It takes but a few seconds into God Made a Woman to know this is country music. Acoustic guitars, piano and a soft pedal steel humming in the background frame the introduction as Lauren Mascitti’s vocal draws you in.

Too many artists try to be too many things to too many people, so It’s refreshing to hear a “new” artist embrace the sounds of classic country music.  I say “new” because she has been releasing music for several years, but this release has gained her the attention and critical accolades she deserves.

Produced by Nashville veteran songwriter Shawn Camp, this release (along with appearances on American Idol), places Mascitti as one of the most engaging and talented performers in country music.

Mascitti is not a newcomer to the Nashville scene, but this is her most fully realized recording to date. Besides being a talented singer/songwriter, Mascitti works a night shift as a nurse and financed the recording herself. Its independence guarantees its disregard for any commercial trends in popular country music. She is joined on this record by Ricky Skaggs, pedal steel master Paul Franklin, guitarists Guthrie Trapp and Camp among others.

Her connection to the songs are obvious as her emotional yet restrained vocals add just the right touch to put these stories across. The title track has gained her a wider audience since she performed it on Idol. Another standout is “I Wanna Show You My Town.” Anyone who has taken a drive to show a loved their hometown or the old neighborhood will appreciate the details of the song. “Hello Sad Eyes” is inspired by her work as a nurse. She sings every cut with feeling and never over reaches for cheap sentiment.

Above all these are great songs, tastefully produced and sung by an artist embraces that is good about country music.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Best Recordings of 2020: Lori McKenna - The Balladeer


Lori McKenna has progressed from singing open mics in her hometown of Stoughton, Massachusetts, to writing hits songs for Tim McGraw (“Humble and Kind”), Little Big Town (“Girl Crush”), and others. Her success has pushed her to the top of sought after songwriters. Meanwhile, she has released her own recordings that have improved with each release. In 2020 she released her best record thus far with The Balladeer (CN Records).

These songs explore the experience of middle age with reflection and appreciation of what has been and what it is still to come. She writes from a refreshing point of view, that of a middle-aged woman who lost her mother at an early age, has been married to her childhood sweetheart for thirty years, and watched her own children grow into adulthood. This is not the usual subject for the often inane topics of commercial country music. Her music falls more into the singer/songwriter genre than country. There are no wailing pedal steel guitars or fiddles on The Balladeer. Acoustic guitars and piano lead the way, allowing the songs themselves to be the center of attention. Dave Cobb, celebrated Nashville producer, has kept the arrangements simple but appropriate to each selection. McKenna has an understated, empathetic tone to her voice that perfectly suits these songs.

There are many well-known songs that have dealt with friendship, “Lean On Me,” “You’ve Got a Friend, and countless others. It’s a challenge for any writer to deal with a well-worn subject, but she adds her own spin to “Uphill.” 

“Marie” is a touching song inspired by her sister, and “When You’re My Age” is a heartbreaking look at a mother worrying about her children in an ever changing world. Her voice soars in the chorus of “Two Birds” and finds the right touch of tenderness in “The Dream.” Lori McKenna has achieved a near perfect album with The Balladeer.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Best Recordings of 2020: Ray Wylie Hubbard "Co-Starring"


Ray Wylie Hubbard was destined to be remembered as the author of “Redneck Mother” that appeared on the late Jerry Jeff Walker’s best-selling Viva Terlingua. But somewhere  along the way he reinvented himself by embracing the blues influenced finger picking guitar style of legends such as Sam “Lightnin’ Hopkins. He subsequently produced several impressive recordings, The Grifter’s Hymnal and The Ruffian’s Misfortune’s among them. His 2020 release Co-Starring is his first release for Big Machine Records and is one of the finest releases of 2020.

Major labels don’t sign too many 74-year-old artists, especially someone who has never had a hit record. One might assume that teaming Hubbard with several well-known artists was a scheme hatched by the record company to gain a wider audience for a deserving artist. Regardless of whose idea it was or its motivation - it works. 

Ringo Starr, Joe Walsh, Ronnie Dunn, Chris Robinson, and several more well-known musicians lend their talent. The results are impressive. This recording touches on several musical styles, including the rock and rolling “Bad Trick” featuring Ringo on drums and Joe Walsh on slide guitar. Ray Wylie will never be accused of taking himself too seriously, as evidenced by the honky-tonk classic “Drink ‘Till I See Double,” a duet with Elizabeth Cook with additional vocals by Paul Nelson. He also pays homage to a late blues legend with the gospel influenced “Mississippi John Hurt.” Ray Wylie Hubbard is included on the list of those labeled “Outlaw Country” and “Outlaw Blood” is a good example. He’s joined on the track by Ashly McBryde, another artist who possesses the ability to produce quality music and achieve commercial success.

Ray Wylie Hubbard is an Americana artist, blues, country, soul, and rock-and-roll to think about, to laugh and to dance along with. Co-Starring in a highlight of 2020.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Dion - "I Got Nothin'" featuring Van Morrison & Joe Louis Walker - Offic...


As we head into the last months of 2020 and look back at the year in music, several of the year’s best releases were from artists who reached their commercial peak decades ago. And while they may not sell millions of records anymore, many have put out the year’s best music. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen produced widely heralded new music in 2020. But one artist whose career dates back to the early years of rock-and-roll made one of  2020s very best recordings. Dion DiMucci, the Wanderer himself, released Blues with Friends (KTBA) a collaboration with many top blues and rock musicians including Springsteen, Jeff Beck, Sonny Landreth, Van Morrison, Billy Gibbons (Z.Z. Top), Brian Setzer, and many more. 

When an artist releases an album full of guest stars, it’s often an attempt to add commercial appeal and move some units. It can lead to a mishmash of songs that don’t add up to a cohesive recording. That is not the case with Blues with Friends

Dion co-wrote every song here and the results reveal a songwriter who perhaps hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves. Produced by blues guitar slinger Joe Bonamassa, this record has been in regular rotation since its release in June. There are traditional sounding blues numbers here along with a couple of gorgeous ballads, notably “Can’t Start Over Again” with Jeff Beck adding an appropriate bluesy lead guitar. In addition, Dion who always stood out from the crowd for his gifted voice sounds fantastic in this set.

Van Morrison, an old friend, lends a vocal to “I Got Nothin’” and sounds right at home trading verses with Dion while Joe Louis Walker provides lead guitar. Paul Simon, fellow New Yorker, adds harmonies to “Song For Sam Cooke (Here in America), a definite highlight. 

Dion’s career has included his initial success as a leader of Dion and the Belmonts, dozens of solo hits in the early 1960s including “Runaround Sue,” and “The Wanderer.” After the British invasion changed the landscape of popular music, he struggled to find his place in a changing marketplace. He revived his career in 1968 with “Abraham, Martin and John.” He released several albums of singer/songwriter material but never regained commercial success. 

Recent years have seen the release of several blues based recordings, but he has reached new heights with “Blues with Friends.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Best Recordings of 2020 - Jamie Wyatt Neon Cross


As 2020 mercifully staggers to an end, it’s time to decide the best releases of the last year. Marred by a global pandemic and the loss of several musical icons, including Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver and John Prine, great music continued to be released by emerging artists. I listened to Jamie Wyatt’s Neon Cross (New West), constantly since its release on May 29. Never heard of her? Neither had I prior to this release. Produced by Shooter Jennings, son of Outlaw country music legend, Waylon Jennings, this is her second full length recording and it’s stunning.

It’s dominated by Wyatt’s unique voice and a healthy dose of pedal steel guitar. At times this is reminiscent of Tammy Wynette and old school "heart on your sleeve" country music. The quality Wyatt’s singing and songwriting sets it apart and rises above the rest.

Despite being her first release for New West records, she doesn’t play it safe. The up tempo title song would have made a great opening track, instead she opens with the gorgeous ballad, "Sweet Mess.” That’s followed by the intense and galloping beat of the title cut. Every song here is memorable and includes a duet with producer Jennings’ mother, Jessi Colter on “Just a Woman."

Great country music has always included an element of pain and struggle, and Jamie Wyatt bares it all. Addiction and even jail time are further evidence she has paid her dues. The rasp and pain in her voice makes it plain she that has lived these songs. Listen to the moaning pedal steel guitar that accompanies the heartbreakingly desperate plea in “Mercy.” Like any survivor, there is plenty of hope and even humor sprinkled through the eleven songs on Neon Cross.

Shooter Jennings does an excellent job of directing the songs and adding his vocal to “Hurt So Bad.” This a recording that will be remembered as one of 2020’s musical high points.[

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Best Recordings of 2020: Arlo McKinley - Die Midwestern

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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.