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American Songwriter - May June 2018

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May | June 2018
Vol. 33, No. 4
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AMERICAN SONGWRITER
VOLUME 33, NUMBER 4
John Prine
+
COVER STORY
+
JOHN PRINE: THE GUY YOU HOPE HE IS
The always humble icon says he has no idea how songwriting works.
FEATURES
Cover photo by Danny Clinch
The Voidz
+
+
THE VOIDZ: CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN
Julian Casablancas and co. seek the musical unknown on new album Virtue.
+
ASHLEY MONROE: HER MOTHER’S DAUGHTER
The country singer-songwriter mines the depths of her childhood on her latest effort.
+
NATHANIEL RATELIFF & THE NIGHT SWEATS: THE MORNING AFTER
The Denver-based soul and roots band find a new groove after their breakout success.
CHVRCHES
+
+
+
+
+
+
+
CHVRCHES
Things Have Changed
FRANK TURNER
A Simple Plea
BROTHERS OSBORNE
Embrace The Unknown
JOSHUA HEDLEY
Weird Thought Thinker
departments
+ EDITOR’S NOTE
THE HIGH FIVE
+ “Favorite Music Videos”
+ LYRIC CONTEST
WINNERS
GEARING UP
+ JD McPherson test drives Fender’s American Original series
+
WRITER’S ROOM
Ry Cooder
DEL MCCOURY: ENJOYING THE RIDE
Bluegrass’s elder statesman is clearly a man who loves his job.
REVIEWS
MAY JUNE 2018
PORTRAITS
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PAT PATTISON
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MEASURE FOR
MEASURE +
SONGWRITER U
Roadmaps: Matching Lyric and Melodic Phrases
NEW RELEASES
Dr. Dog, Willie Nelson, Parker Millsap, Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks, Jack White, Okkervil River, Old Crow Medicine Show, Lindi Ortega
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anySTORY
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The Hunger
Writing Songs About Current Events
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MATT ANDERSEN
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Live At Olympic Hall
Matt at his best… LIVE, with a big
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CD | 2LP | Digital
Available May 25, 2018
DAVID FRANCEY
THE ONCE
The Broken Heart of Everything
Time Enough
Marks the 12th collection of timeless
and beautifully crafted songs from
David Francey.
NFLD’s award winning folk trio
explore new sounds after their
world tour supporting Passenger.
Available Now
Available May 11, 2018
GRAMMY-Nominated, Award-Winning Songwriter Duo BROTHERS OSBORNE
releases Port Saint Joe featuring ten tracks co-written by John and TJ Osborne
ASCAP Song of the Year • ACM Vocal Duo of the Year • CMA Vocal Duo of the Year
EDITOR’S NOTE
FUNDAMENTAL AND HUMAN
AMERICAN SONGWRITER
Volume 33, No. 4
Publisher
Albie Del Favero
Editor-in-Chief
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OPERATIONS Director
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Assistant EDITOR
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T
he first week I arrived in Nashville, back
in the spring of 2009, I went to eat at
Arnold’s Country Kitchen on Eighth Avenue. Nashville was not yet the boomtown it is
today, so there was little wait time outside. This is
not the case now – on most days, lines of tourists
snake out the door.
As I made my way through the buffet line I
noticed two men sitting in the corner conversing
over lunch. One was Cowboy Jack Clement. The
other was John Prine. “That’s not something you
see every day,” I thought to myself. The patrons
gave them their space and I didn’t notice any requests for a photo or an autograph.
These were the days before Nashville’s culture
had begun its precipitous transformation into an
entirely new reality. The nearby Gulch neighborhood was still in its relative infancy and the spread
of this new Gulchure, with its nouveau-riche and
tourist kitsch, articulated through gaudy condos,
karaoke bars, pedal taverns and bachelorette parties, had yet to take root, stamping out from the
city all but the last vestiges of the bohemian and
the offbeat. The culture of the old guard still had
a foothold.
The kind of scenes I saw at Arnold’s that day
are fewer and further between as more of the old
timers, like Cowboy Jack, leave this world for the
great beyond, and more of the old haunts close up
shop or change beyond recognition. I don’t know
what Prine and Cowboy Jack were talking about
that day, but I bet it wasn’t real estate.
Prine has always been a man who loafs and invites his soul in the best possible way. He is the
Buddha of folk music. He is fond of saying he
would rather go out and grab a hot dog than write
a song. In our cover story written by Peter Cooper,
Prine says he basically had to be forced to finish the
album by his wife/manager Fiona and his stepson
Jody.
Prine’s debut album, a collection of songs that
still stands as one of the greatest debuts in American music, arrived so perfectly formed one wonders
if its creation was a case of direct channeling. I saw
him play that album in sequence in 2016 at the
Station Inn, the little dingy bluegrass club in the
heart of the Gulch. It was a special evening. Jason
Isbell and Amanda Shires watched on in rapt awe,
and yet, Prine is a hero who doesn’t try to act like
one. His aw-shucks persona is natural and unaffected and a breath of fresh air in a town dominated
by narcissism and attention-seekers and constant
Instagram feeds.
The man who wrote “Angel From Montgomery”
in his early 20s says he has no idea how songwriting works. At this magazine, we talk a lot about
craft, but the great works of the imagination often
seem to spring from someplace else, a mysterious
and sometimes dark wellspring that offers its delights when it wants to. You can’t teach someone
to write, “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all
the money goes.” We now have robots writing poetry and music through AI algorithms, and nothing against robots, but I don’t think one could ever
write, “Funny how an old broken bottle/ looks just
like a diamond ring.” Or perhaps more aptly, ever
would.
Country singer-songwriter Ashley Monroe, who
just recorded a new album with Dave Cobb and is
featured in these pages, says she doesn’t know how
it works either. Some of the songs from the new
record come from the more difficult chapters of
her childhood and attempt to reconcile those dark
days.
“I’m not in control of it at all,” she tells Geoffrey Himes. “I get a feeling, and suddenly I have all
these ideas I didn’t have three seconds before. I had
got back from four days of intense therapy, grieving
for my dad, which I had never done properly, and
forgiving my mom … things were stirred up … so
the songs came pouring out.”
The country group Brothers Osborne, whose
new album Port St. Joe came out this spring, insist
on maintaining an open mind when it comes to
the creative process. “The more you try to create
some sort of formula for songwriting, the harder it
becomes, and the more disingenuous your songs
become,” says John, the band’s guitarist.
To close this issue, we check in with Ry Cooder
as he prepares to release his new album The Prodigal Son. The guitar maestro talks with Paul Zollo
about working with his son Joachim and laments
the death of sophisticated artistry in so much of the
music he hears today. The instant, on-demand digital culture discourages deep and thoughtful listening, Cooder suggests. “Music is fundamental and
human,” he says, “but will people lose their ability
to appreciate a Beethoven quartet so that Beethoven becomes irrelevant … time well tell.”
It’s a thought worth considering. But there are
still music lovers giving Prine deep and thoughtful consideration, and hanging on every relevant
word.
Caine O’Rear
Editor-in-Chief
American Songwriter is published bi-monthly by ForASong Media, LLC, P.O. Box 330249, Nashville TN 37203​. Phone: 615.321.6096 Fax: 615.321.6097. Cover Price is $6.99 per copy. Subscription rates in the U.S. are $24.95 for one year, $34.95
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dollars only.) Send subscription inquiries to American Songwriter, P.O. Box 90187 Long Beach CA 90809​. Or reach us by phone M-F 8AM - 5PM PST at 1-888-881-5861 or send us an email at americansongwriter@pfsmag.com. Reproduction in whole or part without express written consent of the publisher is prohibited. Copyright 2018 by ForASong Media, LLC. Opinions expressed by contributing writers do not necessarily reflect the views of American Songwriter. Song
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PORTRAITS
CHVRCHES
THINGS HAVE CHANGED
BY EMILY MAXWELL
CHVRCHES. (Left to r) Martin Doherty, Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook
I
f you’re even slightly aware of the world
around you these days, there’s a universal truth that can’t be ignored: things have
changed. Drastically. From the way we interact with baristas at our local coffee shop to how
we treat our closest loved ones, the digital age
has pushed us forward into uncharted territory
in terms of the interpersonal relationships that
make life worth living. It’s this complicated
truth that Chvrches tries to untangle on Love Is
Dead, the latest album from the Scottish synthpop trio.
Simultaneously a concept album and a page
ripped from singer Lauren Mayberry’s personal
diary, the album navigates the “death” of true
connection and how we can move forward in
the aftermath of it. With such a stark
title, the band knew the album’s true
message may not come through on
face value alone, but they were cool
with that. “It makes sense in the
modern times we’re living in with
the way people demand attention,”
says multi-instrumentalist Iain
Cook. “Ninety percent of articles
come with some sort of clickbait image on them. You’re gonna piss some
people off, and that’s okay because
you provoked a reaction out of them.”
Mayberry agrees, but is hopeful fans will look
past the boldness of the title and dig into the
album’s multi-faceted look at love and what it’s
turning into. “It’s quite jarring, but I like that it
can be read in so many different ways. On the
face of it, it could mean straight up romantic
love, but that’s not what it means to me necessarily. I like that it’s more of a conversation
starter. Sometimes we talk about it like there’s
a question mark on the end. It’s a prompt to go
forward and listen to the album with those ideas
in mind.”
Unlike most artists who begin writing concept albums with the concept itself, Chvrches
started with the music and came up with the
lyrical content much later, as they settled into
the sounds of the songs and decided how the
tracks made them feel. The band started working on the album in January 2017 at a studio
in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood — a
room “not much bigger than a shoebox,” says
multi-instrumentalist Martin Doherty — and
wrote about 40 tracks, eventually paring the list
down to the 13 brilliant, hook-filled songs that
make up the final album.
In Mayberry’s mind, the theme of
the record is right on time. “I turned
30 just as we were finishing the record and I was 24-ish when we started the band, and I feel like the way
you look at the world and at people
changes a lot in that time,” she says.
“I still see myself as a quite hopeful
person, but I’m not as much of an
optimist or idealist as I used to be
and I think there’s a lot of that on
the record — of kind of figuring out
that the world that you live in and the people
in it aren’t as ideal as you thought they were.”
Despite the inherent darkness to it all, confronting those ideas doesn’t necessarily mean
the outcomes are all negative. “I think it’s a
particularly hopeful record,” says Cook. “It’s
like, ‘Love is dead, but is it?’ Over the course
of the record Lauren grapples with that and
tries to go through her own cathartic process
of understanding where we’re at right now,
The album
navigates
the “death”
of true
connection.
where she’s at, where the world is at, and you
can take little slices of that for yourself.”
And Mayberry does, indeed; each track on
the album offers a different perspective from
the eye of the same storm. “Never Say Die”
calls out someone whose promises to change
always fall short, while “Wonderland” addresses the narrator’s personal failures and takes accountability. Lead single “Get Out” questions
whether we’ll ever be able to move past our
current state of affairs, acknowledging the fact
that it will take real action to force change
(“Good intentions never good enough”). Album highlight “My Enemy” features guest
vocals from The National’s Matt Berninger,
whose naturally morose timbre falls right into
place on a song about a relationship too fractured to repair.
Things come to a head on “Deliverance,”
a biting look at righteousness and the band’s
collective favorite track, which set the stage
for the concept of the album during the writing process. “That song is responsible for a lot
of the imagery on the record, so without that
one, I don’t know if we would have gotten
there,” says Mayberry.
Despite its intelligent dissection of the issue
at hand, Love Is Dead leaves listeners with a
lot to unpack and, ultimately, more questions
than answers. What advice would the band
have for fans who, like the band themselves,
are struggling with finding their place in an
increasingly detached society? “It’s okay to not
have things figured out,” says Mayberry. “It’s
okay to be confused and frustrated and really
fucking sad and pissed off and not know how
to fix things. The figuring it out and the trying
to get there is part of the battle.”
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PORTRAITS
FRANK
TURNER
A SIMPLE PLEA
BY JIM BEVIGLIA
B
ritish singer-songwriter Frank Turner was
always planning to mix things up for his follow-up project to a pair of acclaimed albums
that pegged him as a broken-hearted troubadour. What he didn’t know was that the turmoil
of 2016 would force him to change the changeup on the fly.
Turner had begun writing an album of songs
inspired by forgotten women in history. He
still plans to finish that up, but events such as
the Brexit vote and the contentious American
presidential election made it clear he had other
things he needed to get off his chest. “These are
tumultuous world historical events,” Turner told
American Songwriter. “And they started tweaking
my writing mode. Suddenly I felt very inspired
to write about stuff and it felt like that had to
come first.”
What emerged was Be More Kind, an album
that both addresses the topics of the day and
makes an overarching, heartfelt plea for unity.
Turner insists that the change in subject matter
shouldn’t surprise those who have been paying
close attention. “Music fans sometimes have
a bit of a goldfish memory,” he laughs. “I wrote
my fourth album about England (2011’s England
Keep My Bones.) And then when my fifth album
came out and it didn’t have any songs about England on it, it was like, ‘It’s a radical departure.’
You know, it’s one record, dude.”
Turner, having embarked upon a happy romance, found himself with less need to look inward, and, the times being what they were, he
couldn’t help but look outward. Yet he didn’t
want to only write songs that were laundry lists
of social and political issues, citing what he calls
“The Phil Ochs Paradox.”
“If you look at the 1960s in the Civil Rights era,
you’ve got Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, both writing
songs,” he explains. “And everybody remembers
Dylan and not many remember Phil Ochs. The
reason for that is that Phil Ochs’ songs were way
too contextually specific. He wrote songs about
what was happening at that time. And Dylan,
whether through craftiness or whether through
artistic inspiration, wrote songs that had
much more of a timelessness to them. In
2018, you can listen to ‘The Times They
Are A-Changin’ and it’s just as relevant
as it ever was.”
To achieve this, Turner mixed up the
medicine. For every fast-talking rant,
like “1933” and “21st Century Survival Blues” on the album, there are also
songs like “The Lifeboat,” filled with
wistful metaphors, or “Little Changes,”
with its bounding optimism, that balance them out.
He also decided early on in the process that the album would not be full of
acoustic dirges, citing instead the postpunk of the ’80s as an inspiration on the album’s
bright, hooky sound. “It struck me that, if I have
a message that I wish to share and deliver with
these songs, in a way the most subversive thing to
do was to make a pop album,” Turner says.
The song that will likely turn the most heads,
based on its title alone, is “Make America Great
Again,” which turns the slogan on its ear. “My
aspiration for that song is that even people
who I disagree with politically will at least give
it the due attention that it’s not an anti-American song,” Turner says of his intent. “Since I
first came to America in the mid-2000s, I fell
in love with it instantly. What I find distressing
about this populist movement is that it seems to
have misidentified what’s great about America.
The song mentions Ellis Island, but there were
so many other things I could have mentioned,
these incredible gestures of nobility and generosity on the part of the country. I wish there was a
movement in America to celebrate those things.
I would be so on board with it.”
In sharp contrast to that is the gorgeous title track, which was partly inspired by lines from the British poet
Clive James. It’s a song that stands out
for the simple wisdom of its message.
“In a way, it’s easier to bury yourself in
complex imagery and vocabulary,” he
says. “Writing something like ‘Lean
On Me’ by Bill Withers is not only
much braver, but it’s also much harder. To say something bold and simple
takes more courage and more skill.
Whether or not I have that skill is not
really for me to say, but certainly that
has been a theme in the last decade of
my musical life.”
Turner doesn’t claim to have the answers. “I
claim zero moral, political high ground about
anything,” he says. But he hopes the message that
people listening to Be More Kind might take away
is that the nature of your argument isn’t nearly as
important as the way you conduct it. “The young
and the angry, myself included, can be reminded
that, when all the dust is settled, nobody is going
to remember the vagaries of the specific issues
you were arguing about 20 years from now,” he
says. “But they’ll remember whether you treated
the people around you with decency.”
“To say
something
bold and
simple
takes more
courage
and more
skill.”
Photo by Alyssa Gafkjen
PORTRAITS
BROTHERS
OSBORNE
EMBRACE THE UNKNOWN
BY JONATHAN BERNSTEIN
J
ohn and TJ Osborne have no idea how they
write songs, and they prefer it that way. “The
more you try to create some sort of formula
for songwriting, the harder it becomes, and
the more disingenuous your songs become,” says
John, the guitarist in Brothers Osborne, who over
the past five years have become one of the most
unsuspecting and quietly subversive successes in
mainstream country, delivering country radio a
series of unfettered melodic rock singles, the only
gimmicks being John’s unrivaled guitar chops and
TJ’s yearning vocals.
“There are so many different ways to go about
creating and recording a song,” says TJ, John’s
younger brother and the group’s lead vocalist.
“Some days it’s a cold rainy day and you think,
‘We’re gonna write a cold, rainy day song,’ but it’s
the complete opposite.”
The duo adhered to this philosophy during the
drawn-out writing period for Pawn Shop, their
2016 debut album that spawned four Top 40
charting singles, including the Top Five hit “Stay
A Little Longer.” TJ wrote one of the album’s
darkest, most intense songs, the post-breakup
jealousy meditation “Heart Shaped Locket,” on
a gorgeous summer day at a lake-house while his
friends were out on boats.
After spending several years in and out of slick
Nashville studios, the guitar-slinging duo wanted
to further shake up their formula when the time
came to record their follow-up. They decamped to
producer Jay Joyce’s Florida beach house, where
they set up shop for two weeks and recorded the entirety of their adventurous, multi-varied second LP.
The unconventional setting had such a large
impact on the record that the band decided that
its name should simply be where it was recorded:
Port Saint Joe.
The group interspersed those two weeks of record making with drinking, hanging at the beach
and listening to Bowie, Santana and Miles Davis.
Instrumentalists crowded in the living room
alongside Joyce, who would occasionally jam on
a clavinet, with Jay’s brother cooking burgers in
the next room over. To listen to playback of their
rough mixes, Joyce wired the monitors to the
speakers on the back deck, where TJ and John
hung out at night and listened to their work-inprogress under the stars.
“It never felt like we had even started making a
record,” says John. “We just started playing music
and by the end of two weeks, that was it.”
The resulting album stretches out the sonic
parameters and sensibilities of the band’s debut.
Slow-burning mid-tempo ballads like “I Don’t Remember Me,” “Tequila Again” and “Pushing Up
Daisies” showcase TJ’s impeccable phrasing, while
roadhouse raves like “Drank Like Hank” and the
lead single “Shoot Me Straight” shine the spotlight on John’s guitar chops.
TJ and John help balance each other out by
playing large roles in the composing and crafting
of each other’s roles. TJ writes many of the riffs,
and John is regularly coming up with vocal melodies and lyrics.
Both brothers go about their craft with a great
deal of thoughtfulness. “As a baritone singer, it
can be challenging to have dynamic, so for me, I
always like variation,” says TJ. “I want the songs
that have more of those yearning, whole-notes
like ‘Stay A Little Longer’ to feel like a moment.
Same thing with when I go low, like on ‘Slow
Your Roll.’ I want it to be a moment.”
John approaches his guitar playing with
similar intentionality. “As a guitar player, you
should approach your playing as if you’re writing
a song, whether you’re playing a four-bar solo,
an eight-bar solo or a four-minute solo,” he says.
“I love improvising and getting all jammy on
blues songs, but when it comes down to it, you
need to service the song and make a solo a little
mini snapshot of a song.”
All of this attention to craft has caused some
fans and critics to emphasize Brothers Osborne’s
“retro country” bona fides, a label the duo
doesn’t reject or resent so much as they simply
disagree with it.
“We’re not traditional or throwback country,
and I can say that because I’m a huge fan of traditional country and I know what it sounds like
and what it entails,” says John. “Country music
has definitely been sitting at the same dinner
table for a long time. You can root everything
back to the blues: rock and country music have
the same ancestry, right? They sit very close together, so it’s hard not to mix the two. So that’s
how I hear it: we’re a rock band but we also
speak that language.”
As the group continues to explore new influences, they wouldn’t discount the possibility of
any future left-field turns. “I never want to go
into a writing room telling someone we’ve got
to write an up-tempo song, because then I’ve
eliminated the possibility of writing one of the
best ballads that’s ever been written,” says TJ.
For Brothers Osborne, the best type of songwriting and creativity comes from embracing
the unknown, the unplanned, and even the incorrect.
“When it comes to art,” adds John, “perfection isn’t always improvement.”
SONGS OF
AND
B ERNIE TAUP IN
BY CO U N T R Y M U S I C ’ S BI G G E S T S TA R S
C H RI S STA PL ETON
L I T T L E B I G TOWN
K A CE Y MUSG RAV ES
B ROT H ERS OSB ORN E
AND MAN Y MO R E
Photo by Jamie Goodsell
PORTRAITS
JOSHUA
HEDLEY
WEIRD THOUGHT THINKER
BY SEAN L. MALONEY
“I
’m just a singer who has a small ability to
write a very niche category of songs.”
Joshua Hedley, singer, fiddler, sideman
and occasional, begrudging songwriter is
on the phone. It’s late winter and Hedley is preparing for the spring release of his Third Man
Records debut, Mr. Jukebox. Despite having a
whirlwind of buzz about the release, Hedley is as
humble as ever, the same dude American Songwriter has seen for years sweating out four-hour
sets in the honky tonks of Lower Broadway, Music City.
“It all derives from listening to country music
for so long. It’s just a thing I know how to do.”
A honky-tonk lifer at just 33, Hedley started
playing bars when he was ten years old. He is a
musician’s musician and beloved by bartenders
citywide. His sets at Robert’s Western World
are the go-to after work entertainment for the
people that keep the machinery of Music City
lubricated. His work ethic and artistic aesthetic
are inextricably intertwined, the agony and ecstasy of a life drenched in neon light informing
every weary moment on Mr. Jukebox.
“If you want to get down to it, I started writing songs a long time ago, but I didn’t start writing listenable songs until fairly recently,” Hedley says. “I was 28, maybe, and I wrote a couple
songs. I was playing with Jonny [Fritz] at the
time and he would let me sing those songs at his
shows, you know, he’d hand me the guitar and
let me sing a couple songs there in his set, and I
found out that people liked them. And I kind of
liked them too, you know?
“I was singing those songs and people seemed
to respond to them and like them, and I was
like, ‘Well shit, maybe I should write some
more.’ But I was so fucking drunk all the time
that I never did it, I never wrote any. I didn’t
write shit for years. And then I got sober at 31
and something happened, something clicked,
and I just started writing. That fog lifted or
whatever, I had a lot more free time, I wasn’t
sleeping until 5:00 p.m. every day and I just
started writing. Man, I probably wrote 20 songs
in three months.”
That cascade of tunes would form the majority of Mr. Jukebox, an album of classic sounds that
connects with Nashville’s pre-outlaw peak that, for all of its vintage
details and studied sonics, doesn’t
sound like an album stuck in amber.
Hedley’s encyclopedic knowledge of
Golden Era country — a by-product
of a career/life playing cover songs —
opens up a world of possibilities, giving the decidedly retro forms a fresh
and modern feel, creating a synthesis
of the mid-century’s best ideas.
Hedley manages to carve out his
own space while still being clearly
indebted to the legends of the artform. It is a balancing act that few
could execute, especially without
the pop-culture references and brand endorsements that have become essential in Music Row
writer’s rooms.
Songs like “Let’s Take A Vacation,” with its
laconic vibraphone and romantic croon, have
more in common with Glen Campbell at Goldstar studios than “Margaritaville” and iHeartRadio, while still sounding essentially Nashville.
“Don’t be against co-writing,” Hedley says.
“There’s a lot of songs I have that I wouldn’t
have gotten written if I didn’t ask for some help
with them. I know co-writing in Nashville gets
a bad rap because you’ve got all these new country songs that have, like, eight writers on them,
but if you’ve got a song that you think is good
and you can’t think of the second verse, ask
your buddy to write a second verse for it.
“That came from [Jonny] Fritz. And that
came to Fritz from Guy Clark. Jonny asked
him about co-writing — Jonny wasn’t really a big fan of co-writing — and [Clark] was
just like, ‘Is that song gonna get
written if you don’t co-write?’
And Jonny was like, ‘Well, no,’”
Hedley explains. “Not everybody’s Roger Miller, not everybody is Willie Nelson … Those
guys didn’t really co-write, but
I’m not Willie Nelson, that’s for
damn sure.”
It’s that same humility that
fuels tracks like the self-effacing road-waltz “Weird Thought
Thinker,” with its romantic
strings and contrabass harmonies, the buoyant and bashful
“Let Them Wonder,” and title
track “Mr. Jukebox.” Hedley’s big voice and
brilliant band craft intimate, romantic love
letters to the audience and artform. They are
love letters to the genre — its history and its
future. Hedley may be mining “a very niche
category” but he manages to find the universal within it all.
“But that’s why I don’t really consider myself as much a songwriter as just a singer who
can write songs sometimes.”
“I got sober
at 31 and
something
happened,
something
clicked, and
I just started
writing.”
THE VOIDZ
Climb Every Mountain
BY JEFF TERICH | PHOTO BY JERAMY GRITTER
The Voidz (left to r): Alex Carapetis, Jake Bercovici, Amir Yaghmai, Jeff Kite, Julian Casablancas, Beardo
F
OR BETTER OR FOR
WORSE, Julian Casablancas
will probably forever be associated with a specific time
and place: New York City
in the early 2000s. In 2001, his band The
Strokes released their debut Is This It, an
album celebrated for its feelgood, no-nonsense, hook-filled rock and roll, with impeccable reference points ranging from
the likes of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed to Tom
Petty and the Heartbreakers. They became
one of the first big rock success stories of the
still-young millennium — along with The
White Stripes, who had also released their
album White Blood Cells that year — which
led to a hyperbolic response from critics that
rock was perhaps entering a new Golden
Age.
The Strokes were emblematic of an era
of excess and a kind of now-quaint idea of
sex, drugs and rock and roll. In fact, one of
their song titles ended up being repurposed
for Meet Me In The Bathroom, a salacious
tome released last year that documented
the hedonism and indulgence of the early
’00s rock scene. Casablancas, a few months
shy of his 40th birthday, isn’t nostalgic for
those days. In fact, he’s in a very different
place now, psychologically, physically and
geographically. In conversation, he’s low- dom in each other for the first record,” he
key and thoughtful, a photo negative of the says. “To have partners that were all so
wailing rock star his music projects. And in excited about these kinds of directions. I
recent years, he’s taken up residence in up- think in all our previous collaborations,
state New York, disillusioned by the rapidly we worked with people who wanted to do
gentrifying city once synonymous with his more standard stuff. So I think we were very
music.
encouraged about not doing that. We have
“The whole beauty of New York to me — total freedom.”
the different neighborhoods and 24 hours
If anything, Virtue unfolds over an even
of Manhattan — it’s not like that anymore,” wider expanse of sounds than its predeceshe says. “It wasn’t hard for me to leave. But sor, finding the band venturing into previI still live close, so it’s the best of all worlds.” ously unexplored terrain throughout their
These days, Julian Casablancas is 100 per- sophomore effort. “Leave It In My Dreams,”
cent invested in his latest creative project, one of the first singles from the album, is a
The Voidz. Formed in 2013, following the reasonably straightforward new wave pop
release of The Strokes’ last album Come- track that showcases Casablancas’ knack
down Machine, The Voidz have opened for melody and hooks, while “QYURRYUS”
up a new world of creative possibilities for incorporates elements of Middle Eastern
Casablancas and his bandmates. On their pop music through a heavy layer of fuzz, Au2014 debut Tyranny, The Voidz took an ev- to-Tuned bleating and pulsing disco beats.
erything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to “Pointlessness” is a strange dirge steeped in
their songwriting, leaping from style to style big synthesizer sounds and curious, gothfrom one song to the next, balancing lo-fi ic flourishes. “All Words Are Made Up”
indie rock with psychedelia, and even Con- scarcely even resembles a rock song at all,
golese-inspired polyrhythmic electronics. instead showcasing a heavy electronic presThat openness and exploratory approach ence as well as elements of Nigerian highhas carried over on Virtue, the band’s sec- life and Afrobeat.
ond album, released in March via CasablanTo a degree, Virtue is a response of sorts to
cas’ label, Cult.
Tyranny. The name, as he explains, is how
“I think we found kind of this wild free- Casablancas defines the opposite of tyran-
ny. Yet on a musical level, it’s a deeper dive, sal joke,” Carapetis says. “If you want to undo
if one with a more explicit aim to maintain anything you’re doing: 12-bar blues.”
some kind of cohesion amid the sonic diversity,
“It’s like the Chernobyl of music,” Bercovici
which some of the band’s critics didn’t find as adds. “Don’t build a new house on that.”
endearing the first time.
Loose boundaries aside, what the members of
“Some people loved it and felt validated the band all agree on is the thrill that making
on some level, and some people just thought, new music brings. When the six of them are in
‘Oh, they’re being weird on purpose,’” he says. the studio together, that’s when The Voidz are
“That wasn’t the case, we were just doing stuff at their strongest, firing on all cylinders.
we thought was cool. I think this time we had
“Just putting out work is so important for anythat in mind, but not trying to overreact too one with any sort of art project,” Gritter says.
much. We stayed true to what we wanted, but “Any sort of creative thing is that way. If you
maybe cut to the chase a little more and stuck could put us in a vacuum and we didn’t have
with what worked and didn’t go on wild LSD to worry about money, we’d all just be working
on records.”
adventures in every song.”
The Voidz are realistic about being professional musicians, meaning that the part of be*****
The eclectic, often unpredictable nature of ing in a band they consider the most fun — the
The Voidz’s music is reflected in its personali- actual process of songwriting and recording —
ties. Keyboardist Jeff Kite and drummer Alex has to take a backseat to the long, hard slog of
Carapetis both played in Casablancas’ Sick Six being on the road for several weeks at a time.
band in support of his solo debut Phrazes For Yaghmai refers to the touring life as “80 perThe Young in 2009. But the rest of the band — cent grind, 20 percent glory,” which Carapetis
guitarists Amir Yaghmai and Jeramy Gritter concurs is a pretty succinct way to put it. Still,
and bassist Jacob Bercovici — came together as much as it might mean cycling through the
just before the recording of Tyranny, building same material over and over again to the point
up a sense of camaraderie while figuring out the it’s lost its flavor, they also acknowledge that
particulars of their own musical chemistry as there’s still a lot of value in the less glamorous
parts of being performers.
they embarked on their earliest tour dates.
“I’ve walked by empty bars where someone is
Four years later, that bond has only strengthened to the point where they all seem to speak playing an acoustic guitar cover of a Bee Gees
the same language — even if trying to decipher song or something, and I think genuinely he’s
it from the outside can be a tricky thing. In an having more fun sometimes than when I’m
afternoon chat with the group, things veer off playing a song I’ve played 2,000 times,” Cartopic quickly, from Yaghmai asking if they’ll be apetis says. “And he probably figured it out a
talking about the L.A. Lakers and sci-fi film week ago. That’s why I like playing new songs
Annihilation to Carapetis’ breakdown of the live. But the more you play a song the better
group’s influences to the tune of “The Fresh you play it. Maybe you’re bored at times, but
Prince Of Bel-Air” (“Amir likes classical, Jake that’s the moment the crowd enjoys the most.
likes jazz …”). One gets the sense they’re easily But there are moments where the vibe and
distracted, which speaks to the breadth of their sound are great, and those are the moments
creativity. For while they might speak each oth- you strive for.”
er’s language, they’re seeking to build outward
on that creative vocabulary.
*****
“There are some people who prefer to speak Julian Casablancas has undergone a great deal
within the language, and some people who are of change in the 17 years since his early success
drawn to expanding the language,” Bercovici with The Strokes. For one, he’s more outsposays. “And I think we all have interests or cu- ken in terms of his political beliefs. Is This It’s
riosity about the outer reaches — being on the “New York City Cops,” with its refrain “they
edge of stuff instead of retreading paths that ain’t too bright,” was as topical as his previous
are super enjoyable and danceable and making lyrics ever got — though that track did cause
music that infants and grandmas can dance to a bit of controversy, being removed from the
and sing-along together. That stuff’s great, but album’s U.S. tracklist (along with the risque
it’s not why we get up in the morning. We want Smell The Glove album artwork). But today,
to see what’s weird and inspiring and unusual when asked about how his music is received,
and unique.”
Casablancas says earnestly, without a hint of
Given how many varied sounds and influ- irony, that he hopes listeners take away the
ences they pull from, and how eclectic the re- idea that “they can change the world for the
sultant set of songs, one wonders if anything is better.”
off limits to the sextet.
It seems safe to say he’s an idealist, if not
“Twelve-bar blues is pretty much the univer- necessarily an optimist. Virtue finds Casablan-
cas taking on a more cynical view of the powers that be, lamenting on “Pyramid Of Bones,”
“Truth is complex, lies are simple/ Murder in
the name of national security.” He repeats that
“lies are simple, truth complex” mantra in “Permanent High School,” only later on to ponder,
“When did my dreams tear at the seam?” And
on “Horse To Water,” he takes bad corporate
actors to task, singing, “And they said that
mother nature couldn’t give us what we need
… and that explains the factories and pollution
in the stream.”
That’s not the only change Casablancas has
undergone. He’s also living a lot more healthfully than he used to. He stopped drinking alcohol, which he referred to in a 2014 Rolling
Stone interview as “asshole serum.” Yet the
consequence of getting sober was growing
more confident in his own abilities.
“I drank, maybe, to make up for lack of experience and things I wanted to learn,” he says.
“It was almost like a false confidence thing. I
think I gained that confidence over time and I
don’t need to drink to feel that. I’m a little bit
more in control. And that feels nice, I guess,
because I’ve made it.”
Part of that confidence is being honest about
what he wants out of his music. Casablancas
hasn’t released new music with The Strokes in
five years, though their next could possibly arrive sometime next year. Still, he’s come to acknowledge The Strokes as being just one shade
on his palette. He speaks of his work with The
Strokes affectionately, while realizing there’s
so much more he aims to do. The Voidz, for
Casablancas, is exactly the outlet he needed.
“You’re always grateful with what you have …
and it’s not that you’re not satisfied. Like, we
got to that point and it’s great, but it felt like
the mountain I wanted to climb was a higher
mountain, I suppose,” he says. “And it’s not
that I was dissatisfied with what we were doing,
it was just phase one. The ultimate goal was to
support myself doing music, so it was kind of
like these goals and dreams were realized. On
the one hand I was very happy, and then on
another I think I had a longer term ambition,
and I don’t know if that really carried through
to the other guys so much.
“In terms of the musical journey I see myself
on, I feel like now it might intersect and go
back and forth,” he adds. “My goal was to focus on vocals and words, and every person in
the band would be the best drummer and best
guitarist, not just technically but live and everything. I used to kind of write all that stuff in
The Strokes, but I didn’t want to, long term. I
think the way things evolved did not evolve
the way I specifically envisioned it, which
is fine. But I think this situation is what my
dream was.”
Photo by Abby Ross
“MY GOAL WAS
TO FOCUS ON
VOCALS AND
WORDS, AND
EVERY PERSON
IN THE BAND
WOULD BE THE
BEST DRUMMER
AND BEST
GUITARIST,
NOT JUST
TECHNICALLY
BUT LIVE AND
EVERYTHING.”
— Julian Casablancas
Ashley
Monroe
Her Mother’s Daughter
By Geoffrey Himes | Photo by Hannah Burton
A
SHLEY MONROE had ley felt as if she were on her own. She
been visiting her relatives found the refuge she needed in singing
and childhood stomp- and songwriting. And here was a musical
ing grounds in Knoxville hook that brought that feeling back.
in the East Tennessee
“I had that melody months before I had
mountains in 2016. As she drove back to any words,” Monroe recalls. “It gave me
Nashville with her husband, ex-Chica- chills, because it felt the way I felt as a
go White Sox pitcher John Danks, they girl. I grabbed my guitar and recorded it
came down off the Cumberland Plateau instantly. One morning before I had a
and saw the exit for Rockwood. See- writing appointment with Gordie Samping that sign, she flashed back 17 years son and Paul Moak, I woke up with this
to when she was a 13-year-old girl and melody strong in my head, and I knew I
her mom had had a nervous breakdown wanted to work on it that day. I’m unsure
at the very same exit. In her mind, she of who said what, but someone said the
started singing to her mother, and the word ‘orphan.’ That seemed right, and
more she sang the more she realized that when Paul hit that chord for the chorus,
she had become her mother’s daughter.
it all melded together.”
Ashley was now a married woman with
Monroe hadn’t been an actual orphan,
a thriving career, and by the time she got but she’d felt like one for a while, and
around to recording the song “Mother’s now she was using the fictional devices
Daughter” for her new album, Sparrow, of songwriting to get at a greater truth.
she would be three months pregnant The new album begins with a cello playwith her first child, the now-10-month- ing a somber melody over stark piano
old boy Dalton. For all that, however, chords, and Monroe’s soprano, easy and
she still carried her mom’s vulnerability, tender even in its higher range, ponders,
a temptation to flee from problems. She “How does a sparrow know more than us?
had long shied away from those traumat- When a mother is gone, it learns how
ic events of her adolescence, but now to fly.” As a string section swells over a
it was time to face them. The exit sign muscular electric bass, she shifts to the
had triggered something, and she started chorus: “Nobody told me what I should
scribbling down lyrics as fast as she could. do when the world [started] to rumble
“Songwriting is a gift,” Monroe declares. and shake.”
“I’m not in control of it at all. I get a feelIt was instinct, the song implies, that
ing, and suddenly I have all these ideas I led the 14-year-old Monroe to turn to
didn’t have three seconds before. I had music as a way to get through her teengot back from four days of intense thera- age crisis, and it was instinct that led
py, grieving for my dad, which I had nev- her to the songs on her new album. She
er done properly, and forgiving my mom, co-wrote all dozen of the songs, but each
which I had never done properly. Things song began with a melodic hook or a lyrwere stirred up, a lot of acknowledging ic catchphrase that came to her and respast pain, so the songs came pouring out.” onated with some feeling that was hard
The first thing that had emerged, even to talk about — whether it was the combefore “Mother’s Daughter,” was not a plicated give-and-take between parents
lyric but a melody that captured all the and children or the mysterious stirrings
loneliness she’d felt back then. Her fa- of physical desire.
ther had died from cancer when Ashley
“All the songs on this record started
was 13, and her mother, now left single with an idea of mine,” Monroe explains,
with two teenage children, was thrown “because I had so many. I was so excitfor a loop. The older woman eventually ed. I’d have this melody pulsing in my
recovered, but for a few years there, Ash- brain, and I’d call Waylon Payne, Bren-
dan Benson or Jon Randall to come over
right away so we could turn it into a song.
I’ve been in this town for so long that
I’ve found the writers who are just magic,
people who aren’t afraid to be crazy and
say anything whether it follows any rules
or not. With them, there’s an energy in
the room that just feels different.”
Monroe and Randall co-wrote “Hands
On You,” the album’s first single, while
she was pregnant. Nonetheless, it’s a
steamy confession of regret that she
hadn’t seduced a particular man when
she had the chance. Over the spiky
strings and choppy guitar of vintage
R&B, Monroe purrs, “I wish I would’ve
pushed you against a wall, locked the
bathroom stall … I wish I was still half
drunk, still tangled up.” Monroe, Payne
and Benson co-wrote the similar “Wild
Love,” another throbbing R&B reverie
that describes sexual arousal as, “Under
my skin, fire is risen, dangerous kind.”
Ironically, marriage and childbirth have
made Monroe more willing to explore
carnal desire.
“I don’t know why those songs are coming out now,” she says, “especially at this
time in life, but I’m more comfortable
singing about things like that. I feel more
like a woman, because I have a child and
a husband, so I can sing about every aspect of being a woman now. I went to the
airport, and this lady, a TSA agent my
mom’s age, ran after me and said, ‘I love
your song ‘Hands On You.’ A lot of women have told me that; they’re just happy
to hear women sing about those things.”
When she had about 20 songs ready,
she was ready to go into the studio.
She wanted to record with Dave Cobb,
Nashville’s omnipresent producer who’s
worked with Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Lori McKenna. Monroe barely
knew him, but she knew the records he’d
made.
“I loved his records,” she says. “They’re
all different, but they all had this classic
undertone. We went to dinner one night,
and everything seemed so easy. He loves
music like I do; that’s why we do what we could, and she started getting cuts from the
do. He feels it and gets excited in the stu- likes of Carrie Underwood, Jason Aldean,
dio; I love that. He’s Southern like me, so and Miranda Lambert. One of her frequent
the communication was so easy.”
co-writers was Vince Gill, who’d been imIt was during pre-production meetings pressed by her even before she signed with
that Monroe and Cobb settled on the Sony. He helped her get a new contract
sound of the record. She wanted that sultry with Warner Bros. by agreeing to co-progroove of Shelby Lynne, who comes out of duce her next two albums: 2013’s Like a
country music but spices it with a strong Rose and 2015’s The Blade.
“Vince has kept a watchful eye over me
R&B flavor. Monroe was especially fond of
Lynne’s I Am Shelby Lynne, the album that since he first heard me when I was 15,”
was her declaration of independence from Monroe says. “He’d always been one of
Music Row, and Just A Little Lovin’, Lynne’s my musical heroes, and then he became a
tribute to Dusty Springfield. Cobb readily friend. He always saw something in me that
agreed and suggested they reinforce that he believed in. When I made those two records with him, I finally felt I could breathe.
sound with live strings.
“We were listening to a lot of records,” He made my voice sound better than anyMonroe remembers, “Glenn Campbell’s one. He’d play me an Emmylou record and
‘Witchita Lineman,’ Elton John’s ‘Take say, ‘Listen, she doesn’t do a lick on every
Me To The Pilot’ and Waylon Jennings’ line; sometimes she just holds the note.’
‘MacArthur Park,’ and when the strings Things like that helped me become the
came in and it was ‘Bam!’ ‘Wow!’ Dave artist I am; he whittled me into this shape.”
Two more of Monroe’s co-writers during
suggested we use strings like that, because
they pull so much emotion out of the songs. that 2006-2013 period between albums
When they were doing the strings on ‘Or- were the equally obscure Angaleena Presphan,’ I had to hold onto the console be- ley and the blossoming superstar Miranda
cause it was so intense.”
Lambert. The three women soon found
The result is a masterful work of adult that the give-and-take of co-writing was
emotions, a far cry from the dewy-eyed, very different from that with their male
round-faced 15-year-old Monroe who con- collaborators. The three women gave each
vinced her mom to move to Nashville in other permission to write things that women had always wanted
2001. She was home-schooled
to say but were discourin the mornings, and she visited clubs in the afternoon, askaged from singing in
ing the bands if she could sing
public. That license led
a song with them. Her perto songs such as “Takin’
sistence paid off, and by 2005,
Pills,” “Being Pretty
she’d signed a publishing/reAin’t Pretty” and “I Feel
cording deal with Sony Music.
A Sin Comin’ On.”
The title track from her
“I’ve been friends
debut album, Satisfied, was rewith Ashley for seven
leased in early 2006, but it only made it years when we were both on Sony,” Lamto #43 on the country charts. A follow-up bert told me in 2011. “She said, ‘You have
duet with Ronnie Dunn, “I Don’t Want to meet this girl Angaleena; we’ve written
To,” only made it to #37, and Columbia a great song.’ They played it for me and it
decided not to release the album. When was great. Before long we were singing toit was finally released as a digital-only al- gether. I said, ‘Why don’t we turn this into
bum in 2009, the impressive collection not a group.’ The feeling just came over me;
only included spirited remakes of songs as- the music was too good to not take it to the
sociated with Lucinda Williams and Kasey world. Fortunately, I have a manager that
Chambers and a duet with Dwight Yoakam, when I say, ‘This is a priority for me,’ she
but also seven co-writes by Monroe in the says, ‘Then it is for me too.’”
same spirit.
“When you get around other gals,” MonMonroe dealt with the non-release of roe says now, “you can be honest. We’d say,
her debut album by throwing herself into ‘You feel that? I feel that too! Maybe other
songwriting. She wrote with everyone she women want to hear that.’ Everyone’s ob-
“Songwriting
is a gift. I’m
not in control
of it at all.”
sessed with being perfect — pretty, smart
and strong — and they forget what’s real.
The thing about the Annies is how crazy
it is that people can feel something individually from each of us but also something
that none of us have alone. When we come
together, it becomes something stronger.”
“It’s so awesome that this slumber-party
project turned into a record that came out
and went to number one,” Lambert added
in 2011. “It gets lonely on the bus when
you’re the only girl with all these guys for
years. I was so happy when the Pistol Annies got on the bus too; not only are they
girls but they’re amazing songwriters and
singers. We’ll literally be on the bus painting our nails, talking about what girls talk
about, and a line will pop out. We’ll say,
‘That might be a song,’ and we’ll grab our
guitars.”
The Pistol Annies released Hell On
Heels in 2011 and Annie Up in 2013, but
the increasingly busy solo careers of all
three delayed a third album till this year.
The three Annies are now writing for the
next album, which they hope to record
this summer and release later in the year.
“We’re all ready to make another record
as the Pistol Annies,” Monroe confirms.
“We hadn’t done it in so long, so when
we got together we wondered if we still
had the magic. We did, and we wrote four
songs at our first get-together, one after
the other. We’re still in the writing stage
right now, but we’re not too far away from
booking some studio time and some dates.
Angaleena is a mom now, so she’s my mom
friend as well and my wild artist friend.”
In the meantime, Monroe has a new
solo album to be proud of. After years of
shying away from the fall-out from her father’s death and her mother’s breakdown,
she is confronting them head on. She addresses her feelings of abandonment on
“Orphan” and her bittersweet inheritance
as her “Mother’s Daughter.” But she celebrates the joys of motherhood on “She
Wakes Me Up,” and ends the album with
two songs, “Daddy I Told You” and “Keys
To The Kingdom,” that thank her parents for encouraging her interest in music, which proved her salvation in difficult
times.
“I was handed keys to the kingdom,” she
sings. “I was given a haunted guitar. It
made me sing every song it ever wrote.”
Nathaniel Rateliff
& TheTheNight
Sweats
Morning After
By Jonathan Bernstein | Photos by Brantley Gutierrez
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. (L to R) Luke Mossman, Joseph Pope III, Jeff Dazey, Scott Frock, Nathaniel Rateliff, Mark Shusterman, Patrick Meese, Andreas Wild
T
HE FIRST TIME Joseph
Pope realized his life might
be about to change, he was
in a recording studio in Belgium trying to figure out how
to cover The Beatles. After performing with
his musical partner Nathaniel Rateliff on
and off for the better part of 15 years in a series of bands and side-projects that remained
largely unrecognized outside of their native
Denver, the duo’s latest iteration — a rootsrock meets R&B revue dance band called
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats —
was in a recording studio for the first time
testing out what it felt like to record music
together in a room.
The Night Sweats had already released
their debut album, but that record had been
recorded primarily by Rateliff and drummer
Patrick Meese, with the rest of the group
adding their parts later.
The band, which first formed in 2013,
was still in its relative infancy, with Rateliff
serving as the group’s burly, emotive frontman, when they were asked to record a track
for a tribute album celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ Revolver.
When the band began toying around
with a rendition of “Got To Get You Into
My Life,” Pope immediately noticed a spark.
“Something happened this time around
where Nathaniel was really able to lean on
the band in a way that I had never seen him
be able to do,” he says. “We went in there
and Nathaniel just said, ‘Go for it.’ He’s
never been that hands off before.”
“Got To Get You Into My Life” — a
fast-tempo, hard-chugging rock song that
relies heavily on horns — would end up
being a fitting genesis of sorts for Rateliff’s
Night Sweats, who perform a blend of rock
and soul that Rateliff most often describes
as a mix of The Band and Sam & Dave.
By the time the Night Sweats were finished recording the McCartney song, they
were ecstatic. “We were really happy with
the way it went,” says Pope. “I just remember being so excited and thinking, ‘Oh my
god, I can’t wait to go record a record with
this band.’”
A year and a half or so later, the collective
would record their first full album together,
Tearing At The Seams, which the group released earlier this spring to great acclaim.
Little more than a few years after convening in Belgium, Nathaniel Rateliff & The
Night Sweats have emerged as one of the
most unlikely success stories in contempo-
rary roots rock. The group’s self-titled debut,
released in August 2015, would become a
sleeper hit, spawning revival cult-anthems
like “I Need Never Get Old” and the viral
hit “S.O.B.,” a jubilant soul-party anthem
that nonetheless chronicles Rateliff’s struggles with sobriety.
The latter song, which has accumulated
nearly 40 million YouTube views to date,
would catapult the band into a several
years-long tour of sold-out theaters around
the world and even resulted in Rateliff jamming with digitized hamsters in a high-profile Kia commercial.
“The last three years are such a blur in so
many ways,” says Pope.
Speaking with the band on the verge of
releasing their highly-anticipated second
album, Rateliff & The Night Sweats are
both enthusiastic about the several years of
touring that are sure to follow and acutely
cognizant of the demands of their newfound
semi-stardom.
Calling during some rare
downtime at the Los Angeles airport earlier this year,
Rateliff sounded tired, if not
vaguely wary of his newfound attention.
“I like to actually sit by
myself and write words, so
there’s a lot I want to do,”
he says when asked if he’s
found it difficult to write on
the road over the past few
years, “but I’ve pretty much
given all my time away to
everyone, so it’s just hard
to do.”
The band’s new album
encompasses a more adventurous, expansive vision of what Rateliff
and co. are capable of musically than its
predecessor. On Tearing At The Seams,
Rateliff’s anxious meditations on love, faith
and commitment are set to a mix of feelgood ’70s R&B that’s now mixed with darkedge modern rock on several tracks. The
album, once again, was tastefully arranged
by producer Richard Swift, who infuses the
band’s sound with a series of breakbeats and
rhythm tracks inspired by ’90s hip-hop.
The group’s lead single, “You Worry Me”
offers a contemporary rock anthem in the
vein of the Black Keys that only vaguely
resembles the template the Night Sweats
established on their debut, so much so, in
fact, that Rateliff was hesitant to release the
song as a single.
“I was reluctant,” he says. “I questioned
whether or not that should be the first single, but I think the idea was for that to attract different listeners other than the ones
we have now.”
The gambit paid off: less than two
months after it was released, “You Worry
Me” became the group’s second Number
One single on Triple A radio, one of the
most important industry benchmarks in independent rock.
“You Worry Me” was just one of several
dozen songs the band brought to Cottage
Grove, Oregon to the home-studio of producer Richard Swift. But before recording,
the group had spent an extensive amount of
time collaborating and composing their latest batch of songs, a luxury not afforded to
the ragtag eight-piece the first time around.
To try to make Tearing At The Seams more
genuinely collaborative, Rateliff convened
the group in New Mexico
for a writing retreat.
“I wanted to have everybody around while I
collected all these ideas:
voice memos, journal entries, that kind of shit,” says
Rateliff. “This record was
the first time where I really
wanted the whole band to
write with me in the process, something where I
can talk to the band about
where different chord progressions should go and
that sort of thing. That
really helped, and freed me
up to do different stuff.”
“This was definitely a
much larger team effort,” says Swift, who
has produced records for Valerie June,
Damien Jurado and The Shins. The band,
staying at a rental home near Swift’s house,
would come over in the morning, record a
couple songs each day, then take the night
off to go swimming or walk downtown for
patty melts at the local bowling alley.
But according to Swift, the reasons for
implementing such a structured daily routine were also personal. “Both Nathaniel
and I, well, actually a lot of us in the band,
were going through a lot of extra personal
stuff at the time,” he says. “I’m not sure if
it informed the record but it did cause us
to focus a little bit more. There was a lot
more emphasis, and this sounds somewhat
“This record
was the first
time where I
really wanted
the whole
band to write
with me in the
process.”
embarrassing, but there was way more focus an of the Denver music scene when he first & the Night Sweats release music under
on sobriety, on just kind of showing up to began touring with his new band the Night the Stax label) have become an omnipreswork. It was still a very emotive process, but Sweats in 2015. It was his latest musical it- ent production style across genres ranging
eration after more than a decade of gigging from Top 40 pop to mainstream country to
you still do have to clock in.”
As was the case with their debut album, locally and low budget touring as a journey- Americana. “I’m not actually too hip on pop
the often-euphoric arrangements and care- man singer-songwriter. The singer first began culture,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is
free retro sing-alongs that comprise a good playing music with Pope in their blues-rock not necessarily trendy.”
portion of Tearing At The Seams mask pained band called Born in the Flood in the early
Rateliff’s disinterest in situating his group
confessional lyrics from Rateliff, who has re- ’00s, before eventually focusing on more con- within a larger soul revival hints at a more
cently said he’s presently in the process of templative, downcast material as Nathaniel general, and perhaps more troubling, indifgoing through a divorce.
Rateliff And The Wheel until roughly 2014. ference when it comes to engaging with the
“I really feel like every record I made was
During that dozen-year span, Rateliff racial and social histories of the music his
about the same thing,” Rateliff told Billboard released a handful of records that received band plays. Both Rateliff and Pope make a
in March, “and I just finally had the balls to occasionally glowing reviews, but the singer curious point of referring to soul and R&B
say goodbye.”
found a newfound grace as a singer, perform- as “working class” music, a seemingly pointSeveral songs on his new album chroni- er and songwriter when he began working ed rhetorical gesture that absolves the group
cle personal relationships in various states of with the expanded Night Sweats lineup in of any need to engage with the bundle of
decay and disrepair. “Ya baby, we could set 2015.
thorny questions raised by a group of eight
the whole thing on fire,” Rateliff sings with
“When Nathaniel first wrote the demos white men performing an explicitly black art
heartbreaking casualness on the opening for the first [Night
form.
line to “Still Out There Running,” a song Sweats] record, he
Asked last year if anyone has ever raised the
that in the span of five minutes chronicles sent them to me,”
question of cultural apthe full disintegration of a once-sturdy part- says Pope. “I told him,
nership. “You see the fire has fully surround- ‘Dude, this is the most
propriation with the band,
ed us,” he sings by the time he’s arrived at natural thing I’ve ever
Rateliff deflected. “I’m
the story’s conclusion. “I’m choking upon heard you do.’”
not even sure I’ve heard
the ashes of the friends and the love I used
that phrase before,” he
When the Night
to know.”
told a British newspaper.
Sweats first brought
One song later, Rateliff takes a step back their exuberant rock
“I’ve heard the term ‘blueon the meditative title track. “The heart, if and soul dance party to
eyed soul’ before, but I
not to feel, is a wandering waste,” he sings, Europe, where Rateliff
don’t know … if you look
before documenting a barren landscape of had developed small
at Stax Records or Booker
communal despair where “they have half of followings for his somT and the MGs, it’s not
ber folk music in counus tied and half of us in chains.”
‘race music.’”
“That song was me trying to change the tries like Germany and
For his part, Pope believes that one of the
words from being personal to trying to talk Amsterdam, some fans
Night Sweats’ most radabout what we see going on nowadays in this were confused. “There
ical functions can be
was always somebody
country,” says Rateliff.
serving as a conduit for
In the past few years, Rateliff and his band standing in front, not
young fans to get turned
have begun to find ways to use their new- moving, arms at his elfound success for social good. During our bow just staring at us like, ‘What have you on to artists like Marvin Gaye and Aretha
recent interview, Rateliff is never more an- done?’” says Pope.
Franklin. “Those people were really speakimated than when he begins discussing his
Since then, Rateliff And The Night ing about the world in a real way,” he says,
band’s recent efforts to help support home- Sweats have come to represent, alongside before offering up his best attempt at an
less veterans in his hometown of Denver.
Leon Bridges and St. Paul and the Broken earnest explanation of the message he and
“We’re trying to find out what they really Bones, one of the most successful acts who Rateliff ultimately hope to communicate
need and the best way to give it to them, so have revived and reworked Southern soul with Night Sweats on-stage.
that it’s not just our vision but we’re actually from the ’60s and ’70s for young, Spoti“Considering the polarization in the States
connecting with the people we’re trying to fy-listening audiences. The group, however, and across the world, if we can just get peohelp and we’re making sure we’re hearing doesn’t quite see it that way. “I don’t real- ple as people, if we can get them into the
them out,” he says. “It’s a funny thing to ly feel like that’s what we’re doing,” says same room to have this shared experience,
live in such a patriotic, nationalistic society Rateliff. “I feel like we’ve taken the influ- it chips away a little bit at the sense of othwhere the veterans are out to keep our free- ences and then started to do our own thing.” erness that’s being perpetuated so much in
dom, but yet the government takes advanGenerally speaking, Rateliff pleads ig- our culture. Soul music has a great ability to
tage of them so easily.”
norance, or at least apathy, to the ways in do that. There’s something about being in a
which his group is situated in a contempo- sweaty room with a band playing their ass
*****
rary moment in which the sonic styles and off that is unlike anything I’ve ever experiNathaniel Rateliff was a 36-year-old veter- rhythms of Muscle Shoals and Stax (Rateliff enced.”
“I like to actually
sit by myself and
write words, so
there’s a lot I want
to do, but I’ve
pretty much given
all my time away
to everyone, so it’s
just hard to do.”
JOHN PRINE
THE GUY YOU HOPE HE IS
The always humble icon says he has
no idea how songwriting works.
BY PETER COOPER | PHOTOS BY DANNY CLINCH
F
OUR GUITARS, 10 boxes
of unfinished lyrics, and one
heralded songwriter holed up
last year at the Omni Hotel in
downtown Nashville.
“The house detective was probably keeping an eye on me,” says the songwriter, John
Prine, who was attempting to complete his
first album of original material since Taylor
Swift was 15 years old.
One of those lyric sheets had a cryptic
second verse ... something about a wooden
crutch talking to a busted tooth. Prine is
big on personification — in one of his latest songs, the Vulcan statue in Birmingham
pines for his lost love while being flustered
into indifference by the bumblebees that
swarm his head — but this crutch/tooth
thing wasn’t working.
“I used to think I knew what I was doing,
40 years ago, but now I have no idea how
it works,” he thought, pondering a writing process that has brought him Grammy
trophies, a PEN Songwriter Award, four
Cadillacs in the driveway, and respect and
admiration from Bob Dylan, Jason Isbell,
Stephen King, Bonnie Raitt, Roger Waters,
and most anyone else with two ears and a
cracked heart. At the moment, though, that
writing process was stuck in stick and molar
mode.
That’s when the answer came.
“Sometimes my old heart is like a washing machine/ It bounces around ‘til my soul
comes clean,” is what came into his head.
Most mortals would have stopped there. But
a “Yes, and ...” impulse came to him like a
package from John Prine Central.
“And when my soul gets clean, and hung
out to dry/ I’m gonna make you laugh, until
you cry,” is the next thing he wrote.
Prine writes the funniest sad songs in the
world. With few exceptions, the joke isn’t
the point. The joke is there to make us put
down our guard, to lower our defenses for
the staggering left hook that is coming to
deliver the knockout.
And sometimes the chuckle and the
punch wallop at once: “There’s a hole in
daddy’s arm, where all the money goes,”
for instance. Or the line in “Far From Me”
where he asks, “‘Will you still see me tomorrow?’” The answer comes back, “‘No, I have
too much to do,‚” and then Prine offers the
bruised commentary: “Well a question ain’t
really a question, if you know the answer,
too.”
*****
Bill Prine, John’s dad, was from western Kentucky. He headed to Maywood, Illinois, to work
his ass off in a factory and to raise a family with
his wife, Verna.
“He rented the same damn house for 38 years,”
John says. “He could have paid for it three times.
He always thought he’d make enough money to
go back to Kentucky.”
Hank Williams was Bill Prine’s hero. Bill
would put a radio in the window, always facing
the south, to pull in WSM-AM from Nashville
or WJJD in Chicago. And he’d
drink beer by the quart. And
he’d often offer up advice and
philosophy to his three sons.
“Don’t bullshit a bullshitter,”
was prime advice.
Not a believer in reincarnation or heavenly reward, he
was also fond of saying, “When
you’re dead, you’re a dead
peckerhead.”
“I wanted to impress my dad,”
Prine says. “So I started writing
songs, because I wanted him to
know that I could.”
By July of 1971, John Prine
had written songs that had propelled him to a recording contract with Atlantic, and he had
completed one of the greatest
debut albums in the history
of American music. Decades
later, songs like “Sam Stone,”
“Hello In There,” “Angel From
Montgomery,” and “Paradise”
are masterpieces that are a part of every Prine
concert. Prine put his father into the chorus of
“Paradise”: “Daddy, won’t you take me back to
Muhlenberg County, down by the Green River,
where Paradise lay/ I’m sorry my son, but you’re
too late in asking, Mr. Peabody’s coal train has
hauled it away.”
That summer, Prine borrowed a tape recorder,
brought a three-quarter inch tape home to Maywood, and set the recorder up in the living room.
The tape held his debut record. He played it for
Bill, who got up and walked to the darkened dining room when “Paradise” came on. Bill didn’t
return to the living room for several minutes, but
when he did, John asked him why he’d left.
“He said, ‘I wanted to pretend it was on the
jukebox,’” John says. “He loved jukeboxes. It
wasn’t until later on that I realized he didn’t want
me to see him get emotional. I was writing songs
just to get his attention. If he’d been into ballet,
I’d have been Nureyev.”
A month later, Bill Prine died. He was never
sick. He just had a massive heart attack one day, on the front porch in
Maywood.
“My father died on the porch outside on an August afternoon,” Prine
wrote in “Mexican Home.” “I sipped
bourbon and cried with a friend by
the light of the moon/ So it’s hurry,
hurry, step right up, it’s a matter of
life or death/ The sun is going down,
and the moon is just holding its
breath.”
Many years later, Prine’s older
brother, Doug, had a near-death experience. In the aftermath of that,
John and Doug were listening to
George Jones and talking about life’s
fragility and wonder. Doug said that
when he flat-lined, he saw Bill, Verna, and the rest of the family, waiting
by the river.
“I said, ‘Dad was in heaven?’” John
remembers. “He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said,
‘How do you get to heaven, believing when you’re dead you’re a dead
peckerhead?’”
“I USED TO
THINK I KNEW
WHAT I WAS
DOING, 40
YEARS AGO, BUT
NOW I HAVE
NO IDEA HOW
SONGWRITING
WORKS.”
*****
John Prine’s songwriting path is inspirational
and laudable, but not always instructive. That’s
because, unlike the rest of us, John Prine has access to John Prine’s brain. It’s like his own private
fishing pond, though he’s happy to give us whatever fish he hauls in. There are no songwriters
out there being called “The next John Prine,” be-
cause any attempt at writing like Prine inevitably results in dull mimicry at best.
“I live down deep inside my head, where
long ago I made my bed,” he sings in “The
Lonesome Friends Of Science,” one of the 10
gems that make up The Tree Of Forgiveness,
the new album that everyone but Prine figured was long overdue.
Prine is the most natural of
natural songwriters, but he is easily and willingly distracted from
a blank page: Thus, his wife and
manager Fiona Prine’s insistence
that he take a room at the Omni
to finish the album.
At the hotel, at least there was
an elevator between his room and
a good long walk, and a valet line
between John and his car.
“This was the first week of July,
and I was booked to go into the
studio with Dave Cobb the 15th
of July,” he says. “I didn’t have but
about four songs. I started going
through boxes of lyrics, drinking
Handsome Johnny’s (that’s vodka and diet ginger ale, with lemon or lime),
looking at these songs and going, ‘No wonder
I didn’t finish this fucker.’ I was waiting and
waiting until the song knocked at my door,
but I had to put some sort of effort into it, finally. You’ve got to get in there at some point
and pull the tooth out.”
el, down to western Kentucky, where my parSo, that’s instruction: Pull the tooth out.
Prine, by the way, hates pulling the tooth ents were born/ There’s a backwards old town
that’s often remembered, so many times that
out.
“I’m scared of writing,” he says, an admis- my memories are worn.”
sion akin to Michael Jordan copping to a fear
Or “Sam Stone came home to his wife and
of dunking. But hanging your soul out to dry family after serving in the conflict overseas/
can be a bitch.
And the time that he served had shattered
“You’re having to go into your all his nerves, and left a little shrapnel in his
psyche, and dig up things that knee.”
aren’t pleasant,” he says. “It
Or “We had an apartment in the city/ Me
scares me, because I don’t know and Loretta liked living there.”
what’s in there. I don’t know if I
He wrote these things when he was wearwant to lie down on the couch ing a U.S. Postal Service uniform, delivering
and tell that story. But if you mail in Maywood. He was also working on his
do lie down on the couch and guitar chops at Chicago’s Old Town School
tell that story, you may come of Folk Music, and most weeks he’d join Old
up with some common human Town school teachers and students at an
truth, so you know you’re not open-mic held at a Chicago club called The
Fifth Peg.
bullshitting the bullshitter.”
One night in 1970, he and several beers
worked up the nerve to express displeasure
*****
Everybody else has a slow and at the other open-mic songs. Goaded by his
treacherous learning curve. Not friends, he ambled to the stage to sing “Hello
In There” (then called “Old Folks”), “ParaPrine.
When he started writing dise,” and “Sam Stone” (then called “Great
songs as a kid, he wrote a few Society Conflict Veteran’s Blues”). After that,
cute songs inspired by Roger Miller. But then the Fifth Peg’s owner offered him a weekly gig.
he began writing John Prine songs, ones that He was 23, and he soon became a superstar
stand to this day as marvels. They all begin to the dozens of listeners who heard him, first
with opening lines that are wholly conver- at the Fifth Peg and then at the Earl of Old
sational but that are open invitations to the Town.
story that Prine intends to tell.
“The hardest thing was to accept the com“When I was a child, my family would trav- pliments, to go from nothing to ‘You’re a ge-
“THE HARDEST
THING WAS TO
ACCEPT THE
COMPLIMENTS,
TO GO FROM
NOTHING TO
‘YOU’RE A
GENIUS.’”
nius,’” he says. “I was playing with an erector sense, Prine was already there, having penned ... then wins multiple Grammy awards ... then
set and invented the atom bomb by mistake.” songs that would tickle and trouble listeners moves from the “respected veteran” category
Prine says that without chesty self-regard. for the next five decades. But Kristofferson to “hero of American music” status ... then
He was as shocked by the developments as couldn’t have figured that Prine would con- beats cancer, and then beats cancer again ...
anyone else. He’d quickly gone from outsider tinue to write at that level over a lifetime, or then faces the death of his grand friend and
to local hero, and the whole thing felt odd that the reward for unabashed and unmistak- manager Al Bunetta ... then restructures his
able idiosyncrasy could be communal adula- independent label, with his own family at the
and irregular.
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Roger Ebert tion.
helpful helm.
“I feel like I’ve gotten away with something,”
wrote a story in October of 1970 that proAnyway, there’s a lot to the story.
claimed Prine as a “stunning power” who “ap- Prine says. “Like I committed the crime and
And it all leads up to John Prine, holed up
pears on stage with such modesty he almost outlived the statute of limitations.”
at the Omni Hotel in downtown Nashville,
seems to be backing into the spotlight.”
working through unfinished lyrics and writing,
Forty-seven years later, Country Music
*****
“Sometimes my old heart is like a washing maHall of Fame member Tom T. Hall would I hadn’t met John Prine yet, but I knew his chine/ It bounces around until my soul comes
echo that: “John is a humble man who has bass player, Dave Jacques. Dave and I were clean.” And then the thing about hanging his
nothing to be humble about,” Hall says.
on a plane together, bound for somewhere or soul out to dry, and making you laugh until
In late spring of 1971, Prine was the ben- another, and I asked Dave what John was like. you cry.
eficiary of the single most selfless act in the
After he wrote that, he recorded it on The
“Everybody asks me that,” Dave said, not
history of singer-songwriterdom. Prine’s bud- unpleasantly.
Tree Of Forgiveness, along with nine other
dy Steve Goodman was opening a series of
songs, including “When I Get To Heaven,” a
“Yeah, well, what do you tell them?”
concerts at the Quiet Knight for Kris Krist“I tell them that he is exactly the guy that rollicking rumination on the afterlife.
offerson, who was ascending to superstardom. you think and hope he is,” Dave said.
“I’m gonna get a cocktail,” he sings, while
Kristofferson was taken by Goodman’s songs
Dave didn’t mean that in some kind of kazoos make kazoo sounds and friends sing
(including the then-new/now-classic “City “Hey, I don’t want to spoil your idolatry with along. “Vodka and ginger ale/ I’m gonna
Of New Orleans”), his singing, and his deft the cold, hard truth” way. He meant what he smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long.”
guitar-playing, and after shows he was telling said: John Prine is exactly the guy you think
After finishing the album, Prine went a
Goodman that he wanted to shine a light on and hope he is. There is no separation be- while before hearing it. But he found himself
him and help him to a major label recording tween this artist and this art. There is no way in Memphis, and Matt Ross-Spang, who enthat Prine could write those songs and not be gineered The Tree Of Forgiveness, is the chief
contract.
Every time Kristofferson would gush over the true blue elevated embodiment of empa- engineer at Sun Records in Memphis, where
Elvis Presley changed American culture by
Goodman, Goodman would say something thy, humor, and honesty.
You don’t write “Sally used to play with recording “That’s All Right, Mama” on July
along the lines of “If you think I’m good,
her hula hoops, now she tells her problems 5, 1954.
you’ve gotta hear my friend, John.”
Prine wanted to hear the album through
Keep in mind that Kristofferson was offer- to therapy groups” without laughing hard and
ing the key to the kingdom into which Good- loving Sally.
studio speakers, and so he and seven others
man desperately sought entry. The natural
You don’t write “Broken hearts and dirty converged on Sun.
reaction to such attention is a hearty thank windows make life difficult to see/ That’s why
They listened, and Prine realized in the
you and a conversation about how to make last night and this morning always look the moment that this album was much more perthis fame and fortune thing happen.
same to me” without an innate understanding sonal than he’d thought it was when writing
it. They got to the final song, “When I Get To
But, no: “You’ve gotta hear my friend, John.” of scuffling loss.
Kristofferson didn’t want to hear anybody
You don’t write “You know that old trees Heaven,” and they all roared at the line about
else, but, after a week of pestering, he agreed just grow stronger, and old rivers get wilder drinking Handsome Johnny’s in Heaven, and
to go with Goodman, actress Samantha Eggar, every day/ Old people just grow lonesome, resuming Prine’s old smoking habits. And the
and singer Paul Anka to go listen to Prine at waiting for someone to say ‘Hello in there.’” kazoos were a hoot, too.
Then playback reached the song’s last verse,
the Earl of Old Town. Prine was done and the You don’t write that, because you can’t, and
place was empty by the time the group got he did. And he did it when he was in his ear- about reuniting with family: Good old broththere, but the owner pulled chairs from tables, ly 20s, when such an awareness should have er Doug, cousin Jackie, and Prine’s mother’s
sisters down in western Kentucky. And mom
Goodman beamed, Eggar yawned, and Krist- been impossible.
offerson and Anka looked to the stage with
You can’t fake being John Prine.
and dad.
“Whaddaya got, kid?” countenances.
If you could, lots of people would be work“And I always will remember these words
And a sheepish John Prine blew them away. ing that gig right now.
my daddy said,” Prine says at the end of the
“By the end of the first line we knew we were
verse. “He said, ‘Buddy, when you’re dead ...
*****
hearing something else,” Kristofferson wrote
you’re a dead peckerhead!’”
in the liner notes of Prine’s first album, an There’s no space here for the whole story, in
Everybody roared, like they were watching
album made possible by his championing of which John Prine writes extraordinary song a Richard Pryor routine.
the young song-poet. “Twenty-four years old after extraordinary song, forms his own in“I hope to prove him wrong.”
and writes like he’s two-hundred and twenty. I dependent record label at a time when such
Eight people doubled over in laugher.
don’t know where he comes from, but I’ve got things just weren’t done, wonders if he’ll forAnd then they wept.
ever be a cult favorite, then records a 1991 ala good idea where he’s going.”
Out back, where Elvis used to park his CaKristofferson likely both over- and un- bum called The Missing Years that brings him dillac, John Prine’s soul hung on the line, dryder-estimated where Prine was going. In a to the forefront of popular music discussions ing in the hot Memphis breeze.
DELEnjoying
McCOURY
The Ride
By Rick Moore | Photo by Brennan Wesley
T
HE SUMMER MUSIC FES- of people gravitate towards this music, you
TIVAL SEASON gets into full know, and we have the same fans that we’ve
swing around Memorial Day, with had for years and years,” he says by phone
events like Sasquatch, Bottlerock from his home in suburban Nashville. “And
Napa Valley and Bonnaroo attracting hun- I’ll tell you what, when I get on stage, I don’t
dreds of thousands of concertgoers. Some of really have a set list. When we get up there
the performers will be tired from the road, we just do the requests, what the audience
in need of showers and performing in the wants. The first thing I do is ask for requests.
same clothes they slept in the night before I introduce everybody in the band and they
in a van. Meanwhile, though, at a festival a do whatever they do, they play an instrufew hours northwest of Washington, D.C., a mental or sing something or whatever it is.
white-haired septuagenarian will be fronting Then I think, ‘There’s probably something
a band of crisp, stylish, suit-wearing blue- I’d like to do, but why don’t I do something
grass pickers — including his two sons — as the people want to hear? They paid to get in
they headline an event called DelFest.
here, I didn’t!’ Then we don’t have to worry
In other words, if it’s May in rural Mary- about writing up a set list, don’t have to worland, it’s time for the Del McCoury Band ry about what we’re gonna do. I play what
and friends.
the people want us to play, you know?”
Del McCoury, the namesake of DelFest, is
“Of course,” he adds, laughing, “I’m forthe patriarch of said band, whose members tunate that they request my songs! Because
have collectively received well over two when they start requesting other people’s
songs I’m in deep troudozen International Bluegrass
ble.”
Music Association awards.
Studio-wise, Del McMcCoury himself accounts for
Coury Band albums genmany of those awards, including both Vocalist of the Year
erally consist of songs
and Entertainer of the Year,
from mostly outside writers, with an occasional
and his sons, mandolinist Ronnie and banjo player Rob, have
Del original thrown in,
a few awards themselves. There
along with an instrumental written by Ronare also a couple Grammys in
nie. The names of artist/
the mix.
writers like Willie NelTo many, Del McCoury is
son, George Jones, and
known as the bluegrass artist
Jim Lauderdale have apwho has bridged generations,
peared in those writing
never shying away from shar— bassist Todd Phillips
ing the bill and the stage with
credits, as have more
younger musicians of various
rock-oriented names like
genres. Those artists have inTom Petty, Delbert Mccluded Phish, Dierks Bentley, Steve Earle, Clinton, and Richard Thompson.
the Punch Brothers and others, and he’s also
McCoury’s new more-or-less solo album,
not afraid to perform songs like U2’s “Pride Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass, draws its
(In The Name Of Love),” while other blue- title from his 1968 album, Del McCoury
grass artists are busy playing “Blue Moon Of Sings Bluegrass. The new recording features
Kentucky” or “Pretty Polly.” Not that there’s the other members of the Del McCoury
anything wrong with that, of course. Because Band, as well as a third-generation picker in
McCoury, at his core, is still as traditional as the form of his grandson, Heaven McCoury,
it gets. His roots run deep into the center of who plays electric lead guitar on the album’s
bluegrass, growing from a stint in the early opening track, “Hotwired.” And the new
1960s with the father of bluegrass himself, self-titled album by his sons and company,
Bill Monroe. While McCoury had primarily the offshoot Travelin’ McCourys, features
been a banjo picker, Monroe tapped him to grassier versions of tunes originally cut by
play guitar and develop his now-trademark Nick Lowe, Waylon Jennings and the Gratehigh tenor, and he was on his way to becom- ful Dead. So there could be an abundance of
ing a bluegrass legend.
new McCoury material at DelFest this year.
Some artists don’t like having the word
Renowned bassist Todd Phillips, who cur“entertainer” associated with their names, rently works with Chicago-based alt-country
but the outgoing and affable McCoury isn’t artist Robbie Fulks, was the Grammy-winone of them. He seems to believe that blue- ning producer of 1997’s True Life Blues – The
grass is as much about the audience as it is Songs of Bill Monroe, the tribute album that
the music. “I don’t know what it is, but a lot featured a who’s who of the bluegrass world,
“Del is the
sweetest guy
on earth, and
when he meets
anyone he is
100 percent
authentic.”
including McCoury. In Phillips’ estimation,
McCoury is the real deal both professionally
and personally. “Del is authentic! He’s one
of the few original creators of bluegrass music still with us,” he says. “His connection
to new generations is partially through his
kids, Ronnie and Robbie, but I think that
connection was there anyway. He’s not your
stereotypical bluegrass musician of his generation. Del is the sweetest guy on earth,
and when he meets anyone he is 100 percent
authentic, open, honest, and really goes out
of his way to help another interested musician.”
Phillips said that McCoury’s appeal goes
far beyond his personality though. Over six
decades of playing and singing have made
him a musician’s musician. “I think everyone knows how great Del’s voice is and
what a great rhythm guitar player he is. But
also for me — especially when I get to play
with him — it’s his natural understanding
of the dynamics in any style band that is
so rare. Many younger bands don’t get the
dynamics. By that I mean not playing full
on all the time, not crowding your mic all
the time. Del leaves air in the music, space,
room to breathe, and then puts exciting and
strong punctuation in just the right places.
It may be from experience or maybe just a
great natural sense of what works, but his dynamic sense is special. That, and he’s a cool
guy comfortable with himself and his skills.
Makes for good music.”
Because of his accomplishments using primarily Martin guitars, McCoury is a “Martin
Ambassador,” an artist who has had not one,
but two Martin D-28s designed with him in
mind and named for him, along with such
artists as country blues legend Rory Block
and the late rocker Chris Cornell. While
so many people McCoury’s age — 79 — are
retired, he keeps a touring and recording
schedule that many younger artists would
be hard-pressed to maintain. Dates with the
Del McCoury Band, shows with his mandolinist buddy David Grisman as Del & Dawg,
a decade of DelFests, studio time, and more,
would test the mettle of a performer half his
age.
McCoury said when he finally calls it a
day, he hopes he will have left an impression of himself as a decent guy and a good
musician. “I just want to be remembered as
somebody that tried to sing the best they
could, and played the best they could, and
entertained the folks the best way they knew
how. When I’m onstage I like to entertain
the people, like to talk to the people about
the songs or whatever. I just really enjoy all
them people.”
DR. DOG
WILLIE NELSON
(WE BUY GOLD RECORDS)
(SONY/LEGACY)
CRITICAL EQUATION
HE PRE-RELEASE PRESS for Critical Equation suggests that the record rep-
resents a kind of rededication by Dr. Dog. Sometimes that kind of thing
can signal a radical departure, but luckily no such event is in the cards.
Great harmonies, ebullient on the rockers, sighing on the slow ones;
psych-rock melodic colors; locked-in rhythms; and hooks, plenty of
hooks. This band does what it does very well, so no real change was
necessary.
Still, there is no doubt that Critical Equation pops and darts with the
energy of a brand new band. Producer Gus Seyffert deserves some of the
catalytic credit, but his main job seems to have been focusing Dr. Dog on
their strengths. On the creative side, songwriters Scott McMicken and
Toby Leaman are responsible for a strong set of originals that occasionally
strive for philosophical profundity but are at their best when they’re at
their loosest.
The album is bookended by a pair of songs (“Listening In” and “Coming Out Of The Darkness”) whose fussy atmospherics keep them at arm’s
length. By contrast, when the band just lets it roll on one of McMicken’s
and Leaman’s sturdy melodies, the results are irresistible. “True Love” is
a ridiculously catchy rockabilly stomp, while “Heart Killer” romps along
like a lost Cheap Trick classic. Dr. Dog also possesses a knack for just the
right curve-ball touch on their songs, such as when the dreamy acoustic
track “Night” is adorned by UFO synths.
The standout is “Under The Wheels,” which settles into a pop-blues
groove of which Steve Miller would be proud. On that track, McMicken
sings, “’Cause I tried so hard to make sense of it all/ And I’ll be damned if
I do it again.” When Critical Equation isn’t trying too hard to solve those
mysteries lyrically or complicate matters musically, it’s prime Dr. Dog.
And that’s more than enough. — JIM BEVIGLIA
LAST MAN STANDING
“AIN’T IT FUNNY, HOW TIME SLIPS AWAY,” wrote Willie Nelson in 1960
when he was in his late 20s. Now at 85 he’s still singing about time,
albeit from a slightly different perspective. “One thing I’ve learned about
running the road/ Is forever don’t apply to life,” he intones on this album’s title track. It’s just one of the instances on this 11-song set of new
originals where Nelson faces up to the inevitable with honesty, humility
and a refreshing dose of humor.
That lighter self-deprecating attitude was also apparent on 2016’s
God’s Problem Child when he sang, “Don’t bury me, I’ve got a show
to play,” on “Still Not Dead.” It appears here both lyrically (“… bad
breath is better than no breath at all”) and in the generally easygoing,
upbeat musical approach. Nelson’s notorious eclectic palette remains
in full flower on this, his 73rd studio album: a bit of blues, jaunty Texas swing (“Ready To Roar”), Chuck Berry-styled rocking (“Don’t Tell
Noah”), good time honky-tonk (“I Ain’t Got Nothin’”), and swampy
broken-hearted ballads (“Very Far To Crawl”), combined with Nelson’s
distinctive, timeless, nasal drawl and jazz-inflected phrasing.
Willie’s in remarkable voice throughout. Like his peer Loretta Lynn,
his vocals are clear, confident and sound decades younger than his birth
certificate indicates. Producer Buddy Cannon, who co-wrote the tunes,
keeps the sound full and clean, yet open. He perfectly balances twang,
strum and crackling rhythms that feel as frisky as Nelson sounds on
songs like “She Made My Day,” where he wittily laments, “She made
my day, but it ruined my life.”
Last Man Standing isn’t just a terrific album made by a living legend
with nothing left to prove: it’s one of the most joyous, insightful and
understated sets from Willie Nelson, a guy who acts like his best years
are still ahead and refuses to slow down now. — HAL HOROWITZ
REVIEWS
PARKER MILLSAP
STEPHEN MALKMUS AND THE JICKS
(THIRTY TIGERS)
(MATADOR)
OTHER ARRANGEMENTS
FOR THE LAST SIX YEARS, Parker Millsap has emerged as a consistent voice
of Heartland roots fusion, delivering sturdy collections of originals that
blend brooding folk with gospel-infused country every two years.
On his fourth album, Other Arrangements, the Oklahoma singer-songwriter offers perhaps his most accomplished set of songs to date, a collection of urgent, high-energy rock and roll that finds Millsap alternating
between paralyzed yearning, determined resolution and high-stakes restlessness. Millsap spends the first half of the record setting the stakes in
his warm Oklahoma rasp, laying bare his helpless lust as he channels the
early ’60s soul balladry of William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water”
on the slow-burning “Your Water.” Three songs later, Millsap switches
gears, offering up a plea for optimism in dark times set to an anxious,
pulsing riff that recalls Wilco’s “Bull Black Nova.”
Millsap doesn’t fully hit his stride until side two, which opens with the
album highlight “Gotta Get To You,” a charging statement of purpose
that finds Millsap “cutting through the chatter” as he drives down the
highway. “I’ve been awake all night/ I’m gonna sleep when they kill me,”
Millsap sings as he zeroes in on his task at hand: driving to get to his girl.
Millsap spends much of the second half of Other Arrangements impatiently driving around the country searching for purpose, a storytelling
setting he makes great use of. On “Some People,” he turns run-of-themill road-rage into an impassioned statement on the state of mankind.
When he does stop to get out of the car, he spins a moving tale of momentary bliss on “Good Night.”
On his latest album, Millsap continuously plays with the tension between motion and stability, and the result is a rewarding, weighty LP that
will surely serve as a trusty emotional roadmap for years to come.
— JONATHAN BERNSTEIN
SPARKLE HARD
STEPHEN MALKMUS HASN’T changed much in the past 25 years. The sing-
er-songwriter and former Pavement frontman has a set of specific sonic
signifiers that make his style unmistakable at first listen. His music is
often rich with layered guitars, overflowing with melodic hooks and featuring the occasional off-key vocal affectation, a signature of Malkmus’
approach since first going for college-rock gold. Those guitars sometimes
extend into Dead-style jams these days, and his voice has smoothed out,
but by and large, you know Malkmus when you hear him.
Sparkle Hard comfortably fits in alongside any of the other entries in
his oeuvre, but it also feels like a more mature release. He’s mostly let
go of the overt references to The Fall and Dadaist poetry that defined
Pavement’s early material. Instead, he delivers the prettiest album of his
recent career, one that still rocks but does so in a relaxed, contemplative
manner.
“Middle America,” the album’s first single, directly addresses Malkmus’ own introspection on aging. “I will not disappear … time gets to
me and I/ Wonder how to simplify.” It’s a breezy song about Big Ideas,
and Malkmus defiantly declares, “I will not be one of the watchers.” He
makes good on that promise, taking the listener on a tour through some
of his best music in years, with styles ranging from intricate, time-signature-shifting guitar pop on “Future Suite,” ’70s-style piano pop on “Cast
Off,” fuzzy glam rock on “Bike Lane,” and a hard-rocking stadium anthem on “Shiggy.”
In the opening lines of “Brethren,” Malkmus becomes reflective,
“Such a fine life, relenting and good for the most part up to now/ Though
you know it all could fall apart.” If it sounds like Malkmus is counting
his blessings, he probably is. Though he’s made it this far on his talent,
which remains as strong as ever this far down the line. — JEFF TERICH
JACK WHITE
OKKERVIL RIVER
(THIRD MAN/COLUMBIA)
(ATO)
BOARDING HOUSE REACH
“HELLO, WELCOME TO everything you’ve ever learned,” sings Jack White
on his first new album in nearly four years. And he’s not kidding. Listening to it is like watching a twisty, multi-part Netflix series; you don’t
know where it’s going but you’re transfixed nonetheless.
Of course, the eclectic, unpredictable White has typically eluded artistic roadmaps. Still, the abrupt, often startling changes in direction on
this 13-track opus will give White’s most ardent fans a thrill ride and
whiplash those less attuned to his whims.
From the opening throbbing synth bass lines of the bluesy, widescreen
single “Connected By Love,” to the Zeppelin guitar riff that’s here then
gone, supported by a drum loop on the gonzo “Respect Commander,” the
spoken-word electro-funk of “Get In The Mind Shaft,” and the country
duet ballad “What’s Done Is Done,” White revels in avoiding expectations. And that’s before the melancholy, stripped-down closer “Humoresque” that White heard through a musical manuscript from Al Capone.
About the only thread connecting these tunes is his voice, and even that
shapeshifts as it hopscotches between selections.
The temptation is to accuse White of throwing everything — including jazz/hip-hop/funk on “Ice Station Zebra” — at the wall to see what
sticks. But he’s too smart, interesting, curious and compelling of an artist
to be dismissed with that cliché. Rather, songs such as the head-spinning
“Hypermisophoniac” (as crazed and obtuse as its title) grab your ears and
won’t let go. When he rocks out with White Stripes abandon on the aggressive riff-driven “Over And Over Again,” Zappa-styled backing vocals
with percolating percussion take us someplace we aren’t expecting.
In many ways, this is as radical, experimental and mind-expanding of
a pop album as you’re likely to hear anytime soon, let alone by a festival
headlining artist.
“Who’s with me?” he asks on “Corporation.” We are.
— HAL HOROWITZ
IN THE RAINBOW RAIN
OKKERVIL RIVER has made the transition from post-millennial indie buzz
band to consistent veterans with relative smoothness, even as their lineup has been extremely fluid. The constants are frontman Will Sheff and
his uniquely affecting songwriting style, which blends off-kilter lyrics
full of surprising references with music that climbs ever-steadily to moments of earned grandiosity.
OR’s latest, In The Rainbow Rain, skews toward slow-building singalongs and loose-limbed rhythms. You’d be hard-pressed to find moments in the band’s catalog as free-flowing and gently funky as songs
like “Don’t Move Back To LA” and “Shelter Song.” Sheff and company
also churn their way effortlessly to anthemic highs on “The Dream And
The Light” and “Pulled Up The Ribbon,” and the melodies are plenty
accessible even when the meaning of the lyrics are elusive.
As for those lyrics, Sheff seems to be striving for inclusiveness and
togetherness in a world designed to separate and isolate. “Family Song”
finds room even for enemies within his clan, while on “How It Is,” he
sings, “You gotta let the outcast into the fold.” But he still loves to tackle left-field topics, such as on opening track “Famous Tracheotomies,”
which is about exactly what the title says.
Although it’s hard to say that Sheff’s stories and ideas on the album
are cozy enough for easy summation, the lovely closing track “Human
Being Song” tries to tidily wrap up In The Rainbow Rain anyway. The
songwriter doesn’t pretend to have easy answers for these troubled times
(“I hardly see beyond my nose”), but he leaves a closing message to his
listeners anyway: “And I’ve got no idea of/ What you’ve been through/
Or had to do/ Or rose above/ But, brother, I believe in love.” What a
nice thought to finish up another solid effort from Will Sheff’s resilient
collective. — JIM BEVIGLIA
REVIEWS
OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW
VOLUNTEER
(COLUMBIA RECORDS NASHVILLE)
ON THEIR FIRST ALBUM of original material since signing with a major
label, Old Crow Medicine Show return with Volunteer, an 11-song collection that mixes the string band’s penchant for rousing fiddle-tune
showstoppers with their role as traditional storytellers.
The band still delivers the former seemingly effortlessly, anchoring their
latest with songs like “Shout Mountain Music” and “Flicker & Shine”
that are sure to become new live centerpieces. On the traditional “Elzick’s
Farewell,” the septet remains as grounded as ever in old-time music.
When the band slows down and front-man Ketch Secor settles into the
role of singer-songwriter, the results are more unpredictable, and perhaps
uneven. Songs like “Whirlwind” and “Homecoming Party” are poignant,
sharp snapshots, the latter a particularly affecting depiction of returning to
a house full of strangers after being on tour.
But the most puzzling part of the album comes early, when the band leans
into a two-song riff on the iconic minstrel tune “I Wish I Was In Dixie.”
Both “Dixie Avenue,” sung by multi-instrumentalist Critter Fuqua, and
“Look Away” dance around the Confederate anthem but ultimately refuse
to comment on its complications so much as simply reaffirm them.
“Cold buttermilk and honey/ mean more than a pocketful of money,”
sings Secor, a platitude passed off as profundity that doesn’t hold nearly
enough weight to grapple with the loaded history the group is attempting
to engage with on “Look Away.”
Far more engaging is “Old Hickory,” a railroad epic that showcases Secor
and Fuqua’s overlooked narrative sensibilities. “It was Gainsboro at the Glow
Worm Bar, we were passing around the jug and the guitar,” Secor sings on the
song. “Virgil picked it like an Opry star, I mean the boy was on fire.”
Despite a few missteps, Volunteer is a worthy next chapter for a group
that continues do its best work when finding new ways to tell old stories.
— JONATHAN BERNSTEIN
LINDI ORTEGA
LIBERTY
(SHADOWBOX/SOUNDLY MUSIC)
THE FIRST indication that this album takes a different approach to Lindi Or-
tega’s existing work is the credits; they read like a movie presentation. Liberty “stars” Ortega “with” Steelism, “featuring” players from veteran Charlie
McCoy to Skylar Wilson and “introducing” the Liberty Choir. Push play
and you even get a 90-second introductory instrumental with music clearly
influenced by Ennio Morricone, taking us directly into the Western scenario that serves as the backdrop for these songs.
Ortega’s fifth effort is divided into three parts (“Into The Dust Parts l,
ll, and lll”) and yes it’s a concept set, something she’s proud to declare.
But don’t let the somewhat pretentious connotations of “concept” deter
you — hey, Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger also slotted into that description — as these dozen selections and a handful of shorter connecting
instrumental passages unfold with filmic intent.
Ortega could hardly have found better musicians to realize her vision.
She’s primarily backed by Steelism’s Spencer Cullum Jr. on pedal steel and
guitarist Jeremy Fetzer, a Nashville-based duo whose own predominantly
instrumental work gravitates to a widescreen style. Musically, this leans to a
windswept, dusty, Spaghetti Western vibe, weighty on an atmosphere that
reflects Ortega’s fondness for Quentin Tarantino flicks. It’s heavy on ballads
but with just enough dark, reverbed twang and occasional trumpet and Latin strumming to keep things from getting stuck in a Mexican B-movie rut.
Lyrically, it helps to have Ortega’s track-by-track notes to understand
and follow the story. But it’s a compelling, often hypnotic listen and a
huge leap forward for Ortega whose previous Americana work, as impressive as it was, just didn’t have the scope or imagination found in Liberty.
Whether you absorb it in bite-size pieces or jump into the 51-minute
deep end of the pool while reading the lyrics, this superb and challenging
album can be appreciated and enjoyed on a variety of levels. Now, where’s
the movie? — HAL HOROWITZ
LYRIC cONtEST
1st PLACE 2nd
PLACE
“Gone For Good”
“Country Boy Gospel”
Colten Lyke
Bradenton, Florida
My religion is an
Ozark John-boat sunset
And morning mist
on neon braided line
Fishing with the friends
I’ve caught in love’s net
Keeping faith with those
who take the time
We sit out on the lake
and let the truth in
Thankful for the gifts
that God provides
Every single day we take communion
Sharing all the blessings in our lives
‘Round here
We don’t walk on water
And the book of John
Is the boat of my father
Everyone I know
Is an old Apostle
Fishing for my soul
A country boy gospel
There’s Sunday morning
mass on silver water
As crickets join
the bullfrogs in the choir
All around is glory, love and honor
A golden light arising so inspired
I tie a hook and fix a big old bobber
Dip into the bucket full of shiners
Wet a line and think about my father
Crack a smile
and catch my heart’s desire
‘Round here
We don’t walk on water
And the book of John
Is the boat of my father
Everyone I know
Is an old Apostle
Fishing for my soul
A country boy gospel
When I was just a little boy
No more than five or six
Watched daddy fill with joy
As Pawpaw fought a mighty fish
I felt their beating hearts
The love of Christ arise
We caught the light
and time was ours
‘Cause all of life was on the line
‘Round here
We don’t walk on water
And the book of John
Is the boat of my father
Everyone I know
Is an old Apostle
Fishing for my soul
A country boy gospel
americansongwriter.com/contests
TO ENTER THE JULY/AUGUST 2018 CONTEST
Mike Guiney
Gananoque, Ontario, Canada
Ghosts appear out of sympathy
I guess that’s lonesome as it gets
Still, nothing really haunts him
Except her pictures and his regrets
But, livin’ in the past he says
is better than not livin’ at all
And friends know what to expect,
when they come to call
Chorus:
It’s not that she went away
he knew one day she would
No, it’s not so much that she’s gone
it’s that she’s gone for good
Everyone said he’d hit the bottle
But he hasn’t touched a drop
His thirst is strong,
But weaker than, the memories he’s got
He breaks them open every morning
And nurses them ‘til dark
When they’re not holding him together
They’re tearin’ him apart
Chorus
He’s still writing songs for her
But they just play inside his head
He sold that old Gibson
And bought a telescope instead
He’s taken with the stars now
Because the stars are always there
And every time one burns out
Another one appears
Yes, every time one burns out
Another one appears
3Rd PLACE
“Hard Work And Easy Chairs”
John Bungard
Antioch, Tennessee
In a chemical plant
by the riverside
He worked
30 long years of his life
To provide for
his family and wife
I never once
heard him complain
He was someone
I could trust
I’ve seen him smile,
heard him cuss
He was always there
no matter what
Through the
pleasure and pain
he couldn’t fix
With blood
and a 7/16 wrench
Carried a pocketknife
and common sense
Both sharp enough to cut
He taught me shooting
pool was basic math
There was pride in a
straight and narrow path
Bend your knees
you won’t break your back
And strong is
more than tough
God bless my dad
and dads everywhere
For all the love they share
Between hard work and
easy chairs
He liked coffee black and
the morning paper
Always helping
out a neighbor
Or if a friend
needed a favor
He’s the one they’d call
I went from the kid
holding the flashlight
To the man there
by his bedside
All the days in between
I will keep inside
They’ll never go away
His favorite smell was
homemade bread
Saw both sides
with a level head
I often think
of the things he said
Every time I fall
He was a great dad,
husband,
brother and friend
I’ll miss his comforting
hugs and loyal hand
He never told us
how to be a good man
He just showed us
every day
God bless my dad
and dads everywhere
For all the love they share
Between hard work and
easy chairs
There wasn’t nothing
God bless my dad
and dads everywhere
For all the love they share
Between hard work and
easy chairs
maY
JUNE
4th PLACE
“I Fall For The Dreamer”
Lisa Scarborough
Jacksonville Beach, Florida
You know I hate to see the summer go,
hate the thought of the falling snow
I know that highway is calling out your name
I can see your walls are closing in,
I can see your days are wearing thin
you know I used to be exactly the same
That’s why I fall for the dreamer
the up-and-leave-the-scener
come-and-go-in-betweener
yeah, I always fall for the dreamer
I have been around this great, big land,
Niagara Falls to the Rio Grande
I have caused a few heartaches in my time
I have run some trouble down,
from the Florida Keys up to Morgantown
searching for something, anything true and fine
That’s why I fall for the dreamer
the up-and-leave-the-scener
the come-and-go-in-betweener
yeah, I always fall for the dreamer
So go on down that highway,
maybe I’ll see you back my way
if you think about me, why don’t you drop me a
line
when your glass is empty,
when you’re down to your last twenty
when you ain’t got nothing,
ain’t got nothing but time
I always fall for the dreamer
the up-and-leave-the-scener
come-and-go-in-betweener
yeah, I always fall for the dreamer
I always fall, I always fall for the dreamer
wINNERS
HONORABLE
mENTION
“It Falls Apart”
Nephi Henry
Provo, Utah
“When It Rains I Pour”
Matthew Soileau
Spring, Texas
“When Love Hits You”
Montana Modderman
Bradenton, Florida
“The Circumstances Of My
Romance With You”
Artie Mayer
N. Chesterfield, Virginia
“Let It Slide”
Kevin J. Burdick
Virginia Beach, Virginia
“Yourself”
Francesco Mosaico
Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada
“Porch Life”
Matthew Soileau
Spring, Texas
“Help Me Find My Home”
Jay Moore
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
“The Battle”
Gretchen Keskeys
Sacramento, California
“New Home”
Steven Dorand
Detrehan, Louisiana
AmERICAN SONGwRITER
LyRIC CoNTESt Q&A
“Country Boy Gospel”
Written by Colten Lyke
Interview by Caine O’Rear
How did the song “Country Boy Gospel” come
about?
I’ve actually had the chorus on ice for a few years
now. The original verse didn’t really do much to
flesh out the idea, so it was largely forgotten until
recently when, during a writing session, a moment
of fishing nostalgia triggered a search into some old
lyric notes. Once I had retrieved the outline, the
song sort of flowed out of nowhere and came together rather quickly. I’ve never been a participant
in the organized side of religion; however, having
grown up in the country, I’ve always found the natural world, placid bodies of water in particular, to be
a great source of connection. “Country Boy Gospel”
is a reflection of that personal relationship with the
simpler side of mysticism through the lens of something as everyday as fishing.
How long have you been writing songs? Do you
have a tried and true writing process you typically
follow?
I’ve been writing with some regularity for about a
decade. As far as process, I tend to angle for a hook
first and let the rest of the song build around it.
Once I’ve got a central idea laid down, I tend to
just follow an inner metronome and then see what
bubbles up, but I can’t say that I track any consistent
method for tempting the muse. I tend to presume
that it’s an act of grace. That way each song has the
sense of being a gift.
Do you typically write in the country genre?
I would say that the bulk of what I’ve written falls
into the country genre, but I’ve by no means limited
myself to it. I’ve always appreciated country music
for its simple approach to storytelling. When it’s
done well it tends to reach beyond itself, and the
best songs always manage to net a fanbase that transcends the genre.
You mentioned that you do not perform and play
music. Have you collaborated
with anyone who’s provided the
melody?
I’ve had a few demos made in the
past when I was just getting started writing, but I’ve never been in
the room with anyone working on
a collaboration. I simply sent the
lyrics off and hoped for the best.
Now I just work it out in my head
the best I can and gather feedback
from contests like this.
Is there a line from the song
you’re particularly proud of?
I think I’d have to say, “I felt their
beating hearts/ the love of Christ
arise/ we caught the light and time
was ours/ ‘cause all of life was on
the line.” For me, it really touches upon the intimate connection
between life and death through
lineage.
Who are some of your favorite songwriters, and
why? I’ve always been a fan of Travis Tritt. He embodied
that outlaw country sound without ever being afraid
of drawing from a deeper well of sensitivity to find a
masterful song. It’s the same reason that I find myself
having a great respect for both Chris Stapleton and
Sturgill Simpson in this modern era of music. Finally, I’ve always placed Warren Haynes at the top of
my list as the “High Priest of Songwriting.” Warren’s
contributions are innumerable, but I’d say where
others have plumbed the depths, he’s managed to
tap into something seemingly bottomless, always redefining himself like a true master.
What are the goals for your songwriting? To be honest, I haven’t spent much time defining
a set of goals for my songwriting, but I can say that
it would bring me great pleasure to someday hear a
song I helped create playing on the radio. I’m sure
there’s a streak of vanity in that, but there’s also a
sense that it would bring a humbling joy to be able
to share in that experience. Other than that, I suppose I’ll just have to see what happens.
Taylor Goldsmith
Allison Pierce
Cory Branan
Lera Lynn
Britta Phillips
Grant Lee-Phillips
Peter Bradley Adams
Lance Carpenter
Allison Moorer
Cale Dodds
Jim White
Yola Carter
Slaid Cleaves
Joe Pug
Charlie Mars
Matthew Ryan
Pierce Pettis
Charlie Worsham
Caine O’Rear
“I’m on a CD with Amy Winehouse
Because I Joined TAXI.”
Anj Granieri – TAXI Member
www.anjmusiconline.com
M
y name is Anj and I’m 26
years old. Thanks to TAXI, I’ve
recently signed a 5-year contract to
compose for a publisher that
supplies music for the #1 highestrated daytime talk show in American
television history.
Myth: Living in N.Y.
or L.A. is a Must
I moved to NYC when I was 23
to “make it big” in the music
business. I ended up living in a
shoebox-sized apartment with
broken windows and cockroaches
all over the place. Not quite as
glamorous as the movies make it out
to be. I was frustrated and deflated.
That’s when a friend told me
about TAXI. She said it would
provide me with the ability to make
valuable connections that would
advance my career. I was so
intrigued that I called and signed
up that day.
the song a trusted source sent, or
one from the pile of unsolicited stuff
from people you don’t know?
I used to spend countless hours
trying to make connections, let
alone the right connections! With
TAXI, when my music is on-target
and great, it’s placed in the hands of
people who need exactly what I
have to offer. The results have been
nothing short of amazing.
My music has been sent to more
than 15 major record labels by
TAXI, and my single, Former
Stranger was released on a
Universal Records compilation with
Amy Winehouse and Duffy in
Europe and Asia. It’s also been
placed in a prominent publishing
catalog that features music on the
CW network. All because I joined
TAXI.
Myth: All Music Executives
Are Cutthroat
My biggest success yet came
from TAXI’s annual free, membersonly convention, the Road Rally. I
met the decision-maker from a
prominent publishing company that
provides music for the #1 highest
rated, day-time talk show on the air.
I performed for him at TAXI’s openmic and he signed me on the spot.
The Road Rally is loaded with
insightful seminars and the nicest
executives you could ever meet. It’s
the only convention I’ve ever been
to with a true “family feel.”
Reality: Dreams Can Come True!
There are two types of people in
the world: those who dream of what
could be, and those who make what
could be into their reality! So which
are you? Call TAXI and do
something with your music!
Myth: Cold Calls Work
Imagine that you’re a busy music
executive. Are you going to listen to
The Worldʼs Leading Independent A&R Company
1-800-458-2111
www.taxi.com
GEARING UP
PROMO
JD
Pherson
MOncFender’s
American
Original Series
by Rick Moore
From the time that Leo Fender’s first solid body
guitar, the Esquire, rolled off the bench in 1950,
Fender electric guitars have played virtually every type of music and have helped launch countless careers. Now, in a nod to the groundbreaking
Fender electric guitars and basses of the 1950s,
’60s and ’70s, the company has introduced its
American Original Series, a line inspired by the
guitars of those decades, but with updated features of today’s instruments.
The American Original Series includes 11
models of ’50s and ’60s Telecasters, Stratocasters
and Precision basses, ’60s Jaguars and Jazzmasters,
and ’60s and ’70s Jazz basses, in a variety of colors
with some left-handed models available. The guitars take their cues from the classic era of electric
guitar design, marrying the timeless Fender vibe
with some modern touches. With period-accurate pickups and era-specific neck profiles, this
new series is designed for working musicians and
lovers of vintage-style instruments alike.
The versatile Telecaster
has defined many careers and
popular music trends, used by
players like country innovator
Don Rich, rock legend Keith
Richards, blues icon Albert
Collins, and even jazz player
Mike Stern. The sounds that
can be realized exploring the
qualities and subtleties of the
neck and bridge pickups has
proven to be just what the
doctor ordered in terms of
traveling any sonic highway.
Fender artist JD McPherson,
who was influenced by rockabilly and early rock
and roll in his native Oklahoma, plays a variety of
guitars, but has worked with Telecasters for much
of his career. He’s a proud player of the new ’60s
American Original Series Tele, which has a rosewood fretboard, as compared to the maple fretboard of the ’50s model.
“My first Tele was a Squier that I got in a
trade for something,” the frontman/writer/gui-
tar slinger says by phone from his new home
base in Nashville. “But this is the first rosewood
[fingerboard] Tele I’ve ever had. Everything else
has been maple. I really couldn’t see myself ever
having a Telecaster that wasn’t maple, because
of the [’50s] artists I grew up really liking. But I
love this guitar. It’s like a different animal for me,
like a makeover of an old friend.” Aesthetically,
the ’60s Tele is also noted for its body’s double
binding, à la guitar wizard John 5’s prized ’67 instrument.
“I’ve been learning more about
what this series is, what they’ve adopted across the board,” McPherson
continues. “What I like about Telecasters is that you kinda have to fight
‘em. The older instruments, I think,
didn’t play as easy as today’s, weren’t
as comfortable. This ’60s American Original Tele is the best of both
worlds, as the [9.5”] neck radius is
real easy to play, though this one still
fights like a Telecaster. It’s just an easier fight.”
“The Telecasters I had over the
years, I would change out the pickups because I was always looking for
something darker,” he says. “But with
this ’60s Tele, I’m not changing a thing. It’s got
that sharp single-coil sound, but it’s a good jangle that I’m kind of new to. It’s been really fun to
have around the house to play different kinds of
things. You know how they say that a guitar has a
song in it? I actually feel like this guitar has a song
in it, like it’s gonna help me write a song.”
The Stratocaster, which McPherson has also
Photo courtesy Fender
“What I like
about Fender
instruments
isn’t just the
sound, it’s the
iconography
of who played
them.”
been known to use, became a favorite of both
professional and aspiring players who saw Buddy
Holly playing a Strat on The Ed Sullivan Show in
1957. George Harrison and John Lennon bought
matching blue 1961 models (in 1965), and Jimi
Hendrix changed rock music when he used the
Strat’s tremolo bar in a way that Leo Fender probably didn’t quite envision. The Strats of the new
American Original line contain the best of all
the features that made this guitar an iconic instrument. For instance, the American Original
’60s Strat has the mint green pickguard, three
Pure Vintage ’65 single-coil Strat pickups, and
a rosewood fingerboard, with the ’60s c-shaped
neck profile for ease of playing.
The new American Original Jaguars and Jazzmasters are also great representatives of the line,
with their cool looks and great-sounding pickups
that made them a favorite of everyone from ’60s
surf bands to young garage rockers. The Beach
Boys’ Carl Wilson used a Jag on some big records
before session players took over, and a lot of today’s guitarists, like singer-songwriter Neko Case,
are still trying to figure out how to make the kind
of statement that Roebuck “Pops” Staples made
with his Jazzmaster.
“What I like about Fender instruments isn’t
just the sound, it’s the iconography of who played
them,” McPherson says. “Why they played them,
what a Telecaster means versus what a Stratocaster means, like symbiotics or something. And
I have to say that, with the folks at Fender, we are
completely simpatico with what we think is cool.
I’m just really excited that Fender would ask me
to do anything with them, but also that it’s for a
guitar I really like.”
Spend 4 days on the California coast writing songs with Rodney Crowell and friends!
Dreamcatcher Events + American Songwriter Present
ing bliss
4 days
and nights of songwrit
Featuring
Lisa Loeb, Joe Henry, Allen Shamblin,
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With Very Special Guests
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+ Benmont Tench
July 16th - 20th, 2018
Asilomar Conference Grounds, Carmel, CA
Register at rodneycrowelladventuresinsong.com
ROADMAPS
Matching Lyric And Melodic Phrases
BY PAT PATTISON
S
o you’ve been invited to visit Aunt
Edna and Uncle Ed for Thanksgiving
dinner. Not that you want to go, but
after all, they’re family, Aunt Edna is
a fabulous cook, and it isn’t too long
a drive up to Maine. Uncle Ed emails you directions. Of course, Aunt Edna, Luddite that she is,
sends a long letter, complete with a hand-drawn
map. She wants you to have a nice, scenic trip.
Without paying too much attention, you toss
both your printout of Uncle Ed’s directions and
Aunt Edna’s map on the front seat. You know
what the first part of the trip is anyway. It’ll be
a chance to see what’s on the radio these days.
Toss a backpack in the car and you’re on your
way.
Which exit from the Maine Turnpike? Uncle
Ed says to take exit 4. Aunt Edna wants you to
take Exit 2 and head up route 1A. “Pretty drive,”
she says. You pull over and look at both sets of
directions, side by side. Hmmm. They sure are
different. They have you taking such different
routes on the way to the same place. One (Uncle Ed) gets you there quickly, and of course,
Aunt Edna wants you to try the lobster at that
little place tucked away off route 1A. You can’t
follow them both. What to do … ?
In the lead song from Lady Antebellum’s
self-titled hit album, “Love Don’t Live Here,”
they invite us to take a journey. (Go ahead, listen to the song before you continue.) The song
contains roadmaps, telling us how to proceed,
where to go next, what connects to what, when
to pause for a rest, when and where to stop.
Let’s look at the first verse:
Photo by Eric Ray Davidson
Well this heart of mine/ has been hardened like a stone
It might take some time/ to get back what has gone
But I’m moving on/ and you don’t hold my dreams
Like you did before/ and I will curse your name
Look at the first two lines of verse one, the beginning of our trip:
Well this heart of mine/ has been hardened like a stone
It might take some time/ to get back what has gone
Let’s focus on the lyric and its roadmap. How
does it divide its own ideas?
The first line of verse one is a complete idea:
Well this heart of mine/ has been hardened like a stone
(The “/” indicates that melodically, the line subdivides into 2 phrases.)
The second line is also a complete idea:
It might take some time/ to get back what has gone
Line 2 repeats the melody of line 1, again subdividing into 2 phrases. Thus, the melodies of
lines 1 and 2 set up a roadmap: they repeat the
same melody, indicating that there are two separate, independent musical ideas.
But look at the last two lines of verse one:
But I’m moving on and you don’t hold my dreams
Like you did before and I will curse your name
Line 4 repeats the melody of line 3, again subdividing into 2 phrases. Thus, the melodies of
lines 3 and 4 set up a roadmap: they repeat the
same melody, indicating that there are two separate, independent musical ideas.
In these lines, the melody and lyrics are at
odds. They want you to get off at different exits.
While the melody still defines a 2-idea group,
the lyric ideas are arranged either as
But I’m moving on and you don’t hold my dreams like
you did before
and I will curse your name
or perhaps as
But I’m moving on
and you don’t hold my dreams like you did before
and I will curse your name
Either way, the melody and the lyric create different roadmaps, and the result is confusion.
Which map are you supposed to follow? It’s
harder to pay attention to what’s being said.
In general, there are two strategies for solving
these mis-matches:
1. Change the music to match the lyric’s roadmap.
2. Change the lyric to match the melodic
roadmap.
Let’s work on the last two lines of the first verse:
But I’m moving on/ and you don’t hold my dreams
Like you did before/ and I will curse your name
In this case, let’s try changing the lyric to match
the melodic roadmap:
But I’m moving on/ and you don’t hold my dreams
Though you did before/ now I curse your name
This seems to be a pretty straightforward solution. Now the melodic and lyrical roadmaps
support each other. Each one defines a complete
idea. They take us on the same road.
But there’s also a little trick for you to file
away for future travelling, a third technique: try
repeating something from the first line at the beginning of the next line:
But I’m moving on/ and you don’t hold my dreams
Hold ‘em like you did before/ and I will curse your
name
It’s a pretty cool way of bridging the gap in the
melody by referring back to the last idea, connecting the lyric phrases with a little reminder
of where it’s come from.
Let’s add it to our two strategies:
1. Change the music to match the lyric’s roadmap
2. Change the lyric to match the melodic roadmap
3. Repeat a word from the first line at the beginning of the next line.
If you try to follow both maps, you’ll end up not
knowing where you are. Your listener, in the
presence of conflicting sets of directions, will
be thinking about something other than what
you’re saying, and may never get to taste Aunt
Edna’s special recipe for cranberry stuffing.
Your choice.
Pat Pattison is a professor at Berklee College of Music, where he teaches lyric writing and poetry.
BY DAVID ALZOFON
MEASURE FOR
MEASURE
The Hunger
I
see you found it — my sorry little shotgun shack down in Tupelo. Not much
to look at from the outside, I admit, but
come on up — don’t trip over the cat
now — and you’ll see it’s bigger on the inside.
A lot bigger. And the sound system? One of the
best this side of Muscle Shoals. So please, make
yourself at home. Pour yourself a drink, and I’ll
queue up some songs for you.
Now this is what you might call a kind of a
quiz. Just listen to these tunes and see if you
can tell what they have in common. Here’s a
hint: It’s not that they’re hits. That’s a given.
So listen close:
1) “Maybellene,” Chuck Berry, 1955
2) “Heartbreak Hotel,” Elvis, 1956
3) “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” The Beatles, 1964
4) “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” The Rolling Stones, 1965
5) “Light My Fire,” The Doors, 1965
6) “Solitary Man,” Neil Diamond, 1966
7) “The Sound Of Silence,” Simon &
Garfunkel, 1966
8) “Sunshine Superman,” Donovan, 1966
9) “Purple Haze,” Jimi Hendrix, 1967
10) “Fire And Rain,” James Taylor, 1970
11) “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” Kris
Kristofferson, 1970
12) “Passionate Kisses,” Lucinda Williams, 1988
13) “Wicked Game,” Chris Isaak, 1990
14) “What’s Up?” 4 Non Blondes, 1993
15) “Stay (I Missed You),” Lisa Loeb, 1994
16) “Who Will Save Your Soul,” Jewel, 1995
17) “Criminal,” Fiona Apple, 1996
18) “Kerosene,” Miranda Lambert, 2005
19) “The Story,” Brandi Carlile, 2007
20) “S.O.B.” Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night
Sweats, 2015
Spoiler alert: Answer below.
All of these titles are breakthrough songs. Before them, the artist might have been moderately successful or unknown. Afterward, they were
stars, or well on the way. This suggests that if we
could find some common traits, we might distill
something useful — the elixir of songwriting
success, perhaps?
Unfortunately, the task seems daunting.
Beyond hit status and clear evidence of crafts-
manship, the songs diverge in
multiple directions, including
male and female viewpoints,
wildly different vocal styles,
and multiple genres: rock,
rock and roll, hard rock,
country, alternative country,
torch song — you name it.
Freshness sells, and some
artists broke new ground
with a major synthesis of the
styles that preceded them.
Chuck Berry melded rockabilly, twitchy boogie-woogie, and
twangy guitar and launched
rock and roll. Jimi Hendrix
blended blues, psychedelia,
sound effects, and thundering
volume to inspire hard rock
players forever after. Donovan
stood on unique and idiosyncratic ground, with Celtic,
folk, and Eastern influences.
Other artists toed the line
written when the artist was down, desperate, or, in
in their genre, but captured
the hearts and minds of audiences with lyrics a word, hungry. “When you get fat and lose your
that broke boundaries or explored taboo areas. hunger — that is when you know the sellout
But breakout songs range from humorous to mo- has happened,” says Bruce Springsteen. There is
rose and everything in between. Chris Isaak and something transformational about a last-ditch,
James Taylor touch Hamlet-like depths of intro- do-or-die effort. It brings out honesty, sincerity,
spection, while Chuck Berry tools on down the and humility, combining it with a willingness to
risk all.
road, motivatin’ ‘bout Maybellene.
At the same time, a last-ditch effort summons
We are left with a collection of traits, all of
which are desirable, but none of them strong all the resources of craftsmanship you have built
up over the years. “Measure for
enough to predict that a
Measure” has always stressed
song will carry an artist to
craftsmanship, but “the hunger”
stardom. Is there any rhyme
turns the equation upside down.
or reason to this? Actually,
The hunger is what keeps a song
it was “S.O.B.”, by featured
from becoming a well-crafted,
artist Nathaniel Rateliff that
empty shell. The hunger is the
put me on the track of an
elixir.
answer, because it possesses
Creative challenge: A commost of the hallmarks of a
mon theme in many of the listbreakout song in one neat
ed songs is “confession.” Truth
package:
craftsmanship,
resonates, as it does so well in
breaking boundaries, and
“S.O.B.,” but we spend our lives
deftly combining influences,
denying the truth. Hunger can
such as folk, soul, gospel, and
— Bruce Springsteen
expose it. Hunger is something
R&B. Subtract all these, and
physical, so it might help to clap
you may find the answer, the
along with “S.O.B.” and keep on clapping and
common trait. But what is it?
It was a note in passing that drew my eye: moving after it’s over, till the sweat runs down
According to Randy Lewis of the LA Times, your brow, and confess, confess until it hurts.
Rateliff’s breakthrough album was “a last-ditch And when it hurts, you may have something to
effort before throwing in the towel on his music sing about.
career.”
Surely, some breakthrough songs come about
as a product of hard work, timing, and good luck, DAVID ALZOFON is a former editor for Guitar Player magazine and
the author of two books, most recently, Compose Yourself!: Songbut sorting through the stories behind the songs writing And Creative Musicianship in Four Easy Lessons. He teaches
on the list, I saw a pattern emerging: They were guitar in San Diego, California.
“When you
get fat and lose
your hunger
— that is when
you know the
sellout has
happened.”
WRITING
PROTEST SONGS
“N
obody wants to be preached to,” said
Paul Simon, in regard to writing what
are considered “protest songs.” Though
people certainly love songs of substance, and those that relate directly to modern times, any message deemed too pointedly
political or sanctimonious can diminish the
power of the song. Since the goal is to create
something timeless, how to do that with timely content remains a significant challenge. But
one which songwriters have approached with
a singular tool: song craft. Message alone does
not make a song great. Even with perfect lyrics,
songs need compelling melodies.
Woody Guthrie’s belief in the power of song
to effect change was exemplified in the sign he
attached to his guitar: “This machine kills Fascists.” He’d famously page through the newspaper every morning and immediately write
songs based on the news. His greatest songs
are the ones which succeeded in transforming
those timely specifics into universal song. “This
Land Is Your Land” expressed a message fundamental to Woody and the American spirit,
that all people are equal: “This land is made
for you and me.” It’s the same message, and
one which remains relevant to this day, in his that doesn’t speak down to the listener, but insong “Deportees,” which decries the injustice of vites them instead to participate.
allowing undocumented workers to come over
Bob Dylan, who became known as the greatour border to work in farms and orchards, only est of all protest songwriters, also followed in
to ultimately deport them. It’s an issue which Woody’s footprints. To focus on the irony of
rings true now more than ever, and the song has justifying war for humanitarian reasons, in
risen to prominence again.
“With God On Our Side,” he also wed a loveBut the fact remains both of these songs ly ¾ time melody with lyrics that do not comshare an important ingredient: great song craft. ment on the irony as much as present it for
Each has a lovely melody. Woody knew that the listener to judge. Addressing the genocide
without a strong tune, nobody
of Native Americans, he sings, “The
will remember your song. For
cavalry charged/ The Indians died/ Oh
“Deportees,” instead of writing
the country was young/ With God on
a new tune, he adapted a beauits side.”
tiful waltz-time melody by MarIt’s a method employed by many
tin Hoffman. To this he wed
since who have written what can be
words of simplicity and poetry,
considered protest songs. Present your
and hung the whole song on the
point with a good catchy tune and lyrtitle, thus focusing on the inics that allow the listener to get the
herent injustice of its meaning:
message without hammering it too
“But you won’t have a name
— P.F. Sloan
bluntly. Subtlety and irony go farther
when you ride the big airplane/
in song than anything too overt.
All they will call you will be
Springsteen used the same tactic, most fa‘Deportees.’” mously, in “Born In The USA.” In the voice
Woody solved the preaching problem not by of a man broken by battle, rather than tell us
pontificating on why this is wrong, but simply this story, he goes right inside it. The anthemic
by presenting the sad irony to the listener, and chorus drives home the words of the title only,
allowing them to make their own judgment. “born in the USA,” with an intensity bordering
That tactic, in accord with an appealing melo- on desperation, like a drowning man clinging
dy gracing rhymed lines in meter, creates a song to the one thing that can save him.
Photo public domain
“Even
protest
songs
are love
songs.”
Famously, that irony was missed entirely by
Ronald Reagan, who heard it as a perfect theme
song for his 1980 presidential campaign. Yet
its message was hardly cloaked. From a “dead
man’s town,” in the first verse, he describes
himself ”like a dog that’s been beat too much,”
and leads us through the horror of Vietnam,
ending with a shadow of a man, unemployed,
abandoned and broken by virtue of being born
in this country.
That Reagan heard only the words of the
chorus, and none of the story spelled out in the
verses, points to the fact that Springsteen did a
good job. The song is not intended as parody.
It’s the character’s authentic expression, which
points to despair beyond words. Springsteen
created that chorus to reveal the depth and intensity of that despair.
In all of these examples, and other famous
ones such as Neil Young’s “Ohio,” Stephen
Stills’ “For What It’s Worth,” and Dylan’s
“Hurricane,” each song shares the same quality that enriches all songs and gives them sustaining power. That is great song craft, merging
lyrics that show rather than tell the story, with
melodies as beautiful as the greatest songs. P.F.
Sloan, who wrote “Eve Of Destruction,” always
said that specific melody was as romantic as the
melody for a love song. Even protest songs, he
said, are love songs. Love songs for humanity.
Writer’s Room
RY COODER
W
ith Joachim, his son, drummer and
chief collaborator, Ry Cooder has spent
the last year recording his first album
in six years, The Prodigal Son. Building
on Joachim’s evocative instrumental
tracks, on top of which he layered a rich bounty
of guitars and more, Ry merged timeless American spirituals with three originals. The result is
a poignantly heartfelt song cycle about America
at this moment. He took some time on his 71st
birthday to talk about this album, starting with
his song “Jesus And Woody.”
Your guitar solos always reflect that unknown,
intuitive dynamic. How do you get there?
It takes a certain mindset. I have to calm myself
down. If I don’t, I’ll overplay
and it won’t be there. You just
have to let it happen. Don’t
be distracted. Get into it. Feel
it. If you don’t feel it, don’t
do it. Do something else. Run
around the block or get a sandwich. But if you feel it, it will
be your expression. Of course,
if you don’t have the inner
resources, it won’t matter so
much.
Listen to gospel or country music. Those people are not faking it. That’s real. They’re living
those songs, not just performing them.
take you.
The American song is unique in the world.
The invention of verse-chorus came from here.
Prior to that, there were refrains, but not a chorus. Dance music could go on indefinitely. The
studio was the laboratory of songwriting, because
people said, “Your whole statement’s got to happen in three minutes.”
When Ralph Peer (of Victor Records) heard
Jimmie Rodgers, he said, “I like when you go
to the chorus.” Peer was smart. He
knew what to say. A.P. Carter didn’t
know how to write a song until
Ralph told him how. A.P. started
marching through the hills of Appalachia writing down the poems
off of tombstones. “Will You Miss
Me When I’m Gone” came off of a
tombstone. That’s songwriting.
He came back and played, and
Peer said, “You don’t have a chorus.
You need one. Don’t delay. Get to
the hook as fast as you can.”
If it hadn’t been for Ralph Peer and his recording machine, none of this would have happened.
Of course, now it’s all being thrown away like
trash. But, man, by 1960? It had all been said.
I also revere Flatt & Scruggs, and Ralph Stanley and Carter Stanley, and Harlan Howard.
Also Willie Nelson, who wrote “Hello Walls,”
“Crazy,” and “How Time Slips Away” all one
night in a car! Or so the story goes. I hope it’s
true.
“Music is
fundamental
and it is
human.
That’s what
it is.”
These melodies are so poignant. Any idea what
makes a melody strong?
That’s the question of the ages. When you hear
a good one, you know it, such as “Over The
Rainbow.” You’re there. You’re instantly taken
or transported to wherever that song is going to
Flatt and Scruggs wrote “Reunion In Heaven,” my favorite American song of all time.
You started playing guitar at four. Did you
write songs back then too?
No. Never occurred to me. I thought I should
learn the old style. You have to learn the language if you’re going to be authentic. And if
you’re a white kid from Santa Monica, how are
you supposed to do that? I didn’t have hillbilly
uncles who talked that way. Nobody in Santa
Monica talked that way.
Do you think songs will always matter?
I’m not so sure. The trend now is to minimize
the idea of what a song is. To knock it down to
two notes. This kind of weird banality. There’s
so much reduction, nothing’s left in the pot, you
boiled it all out. Where’s the melody? Where’s
the poetry? Is it the fault of the digital world?
Maybe because everything happens too fast, you
don’t build artistry in yourself. You don’t listen.
If you don’t listen to music, how can you play?
It’s like a child learning to talk without having
heard people speaking. What are you gonna do,
speak in abbreviations like texting? I think that
is what’s happening with music.
Music is fundamental and it is human. That’s
what it is. But will people lose their ability to
appreciate a Beethoven quartet so that Beethoven becomes irrelevant? Can Bach become irrelevant? Can Jimmy Van Heusen? Will Picasso?
We’ll see about that. Time will tell.
Photo by Joachim Cooder
Tell me about the song “Jesus And Woody.”
What inspired that track?
Woody Guthrie was a dreamer. He was optimistic and believed democracy and freedom would
triumph. How could he have known that this
land isn’t your land anymore? Woody didn’t see
that coming.
I thought it could be interesting if Jesus in
heaven were to say to him, “You and I were both
dreamers. We had hope.” I thought that puts a
nice spin on the Woody concept.
I had words, but no music. A guitar phrase
came into my mind, so I started there. It was one
take and I didn’t try to fix it. If I start thinking
too hard about it, that mysterious, unknown
quality is gone pretty quickly, and we don’t want
that. We want a statement of pure intuition.
Music
unaltered.
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