Happy Birthday Woody Guthrie

Today would have been Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday. I have gone on record as saying that I think direct political commentary in music cheapens it. Inevitably someone plays the Guthrie card to prove that politics and music can result in greatness. I say Guthrie is the proverbial exception that proves the rule. His songs and life, like Martin Luther King’s life and speeches and the Parables of Jesus, are the property of no political party. They transcend politics to speak to the plight and dignity of humanity. No political party has a monopoly on that.

I have collected some cover’s of Guthrie’s song from some current disciples. I hope you enjoy them.

Here’s to teh greatness of music that matters, and to a true American original.

Lucinda Williams – “I Ain’t Got No Home”

Steve Earle – “This Land is Your Land”

Uncle Tupelo – Do Re Mi

Willie Nelson, Arlo Guthrie, Neil Young – “This Land is Your Land” (segment)

Arlo Guthrie and Emmylou Harrris – Deportees

The Band & Bob Dylan – I Ain’t Got No Home

Music Review: Hiss Golden Messenger – Poor Moon [Tompkins Square Records]

Poor Moon could have easily been lost to obscurity. After it’s initial label shuttered the album was left without production, distribution, and chief singer/ songwriter MC Taylor was left near bankruptcy. Thankfully the album was seen to be worthy of rescue by the small North Carolina label Paradise of Bachelors and was set to be their second in-house release. If you snatched up one of those quickly sold-out, 500 hand-numbered vinyl editions you were in possession of 13 songs of spare,  skewed country soul.

The next step in the Poor Moon saga is Tompkins Square Records. The The California/New York label  is no stranger to uncovering and promoting great-but obscure performances and must have seen a kindered spirit in the beleaguered album as they have reissued it on CD and online, giving the album a deserved wider distribution and an opportunity to gain a wider audience.

We are all luckier for the opportunity. Durham North Carolina-based MC Taylor and Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist Scott Hirsch, make up the core of Hiss Golden Messenger. The duo are joined by an impressive list of guests including members of D. Charles Speer and The Helix, Black Twig Pickers, Brightblack Morning Light, and member’s of their old band The Court and Spark.

Salvation is rarely as ecstatic as depicted in fiction and mythology. Dark and light work within the mundane boundaries of the everyday and M.C. Taylor’s songs well chronicles these illusive interiors. The poet William Cowper wrote “God moves in a mysterious way” in his Hymn “”Light Shining out of Darkness” and the holy ghost certainly takes enigmatic forms in Poor Moon. Whether an agent of abdication as assassin (Jesus Shot Me in the Head) or as a devoted companion in hardship’s throes (Balthazar’s Song) the forms are elusive and not always certain, like faith itself.

Taylor is a believer that question’s his belief existence (or more precisely, his ability to recognize real-world manifestations of his faith.)  He metaphorically skirts heathen’s path while keeping just within the confines of the apostle. He appears to be aman with no clear answers and takes comfort, reveling even, in the ambiguity.

“Poor Moon” is a deceptively straightforward album that surrenders it’s subtle beauty through repeated listening (preferably with headphones.)  Hiss Golden Messenger travels the road forged by the recently departed, Levon Helm and The Band by melding country, folk and soul and creating approachable music that sound timeless as well as surprising. the road is well traveled and in this case, golden.

Levon Helm in ‘Final Stages’ of Battle With Cancer.

I was tipped off to the bad news of Levon Helms’ (71) turn for the worse by a tweet from Jason Isbell that read “I don’t know what to say.” and then had a link to levonhelm.com. I knew that the drummer of The Band and successful solo artist and man behind the “Ramble” had been battling throat cancer a few years back and it took him a lonh while to recover his voice, so I feared the worst. The message on his site confirmed my fears;

“Dear Friends,
Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer. Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey.

Thank you fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration… he has loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat, and make the people dance! He did it every time he took the stage…

We appreciate all the love and support and concern.
From his daughter Amy, and wife Sandy”

Hope and prayers are given from this fan to this rock/Americana music legend and fine man. I hope he finds comfort in this difficult time.


Panning for Gold – Elton John – Tumbleweed Connection

Before he became the modern equivalent of Liberace and creator of Disney Soundtracks (1994’s The Lion King with Tim Rice) Sir Elton John (Reginald Dwight to his mum) was the reigning king of 70’s adult pop. Odds were if you tuned into an FM rock or pop station  (often they were the same station as genre segmentation was less rigid back then) within 5 minutes you’d hear one of his omnipresent truckload of singles.

Riding a wave of success his self-titled album (Elton John) had brought him Elton, and his writing partner and primary lyricist Bernie Taupin, released Tumbleweed Connection in October 1970. Though neither Elton or Taupin had ever been to America many listeners believed that the album reflected thier travels there but was in reality a convincing work of Taupin‘s fascination with the American old west. Taupin was inspired by hearing The Band’s Music from Big Pink, Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, and The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, as well as numerous country songs such as Marty Robbins’ classic  El Paso (the song Taupin claims made him want to write songs) to create a somewhat thematically unified take on his own idea of the mythical American west. The sepia tinted album cover says it all. A picture of John on the front, and Taupin on the back, kicking back on an old western town’s boardwalk.

Tumbleweed Connection
was the first time a road band had been used in the studio, making it more the Elton John band rather than just Elton on his own, and the bigger sound comes to life immediately on the blues-rock opener Ballad of a well-known Gun, the story of a gunslinger reaching the end of the road (though I prefer the more country-rock version found on disc 2 of the Legacy edition of TC) and My Father’s Gun a moody study on a Southern son’s legacy of avenging his father’s Civil War death that builds to a dramatic finale’. Both songs feature the soaring backing vocals of Madeline Bell, Tony Burrows and blue-eyed soul diva Dusty Springfield.

Country Comfort is a bustling tune about John and Taupin’s love for the countryside complete with pedal steel, harmonica and fiddle. John re-released the song in 2001 as part of the ‘Earl Scruggs and Friends’ album released by Earl Scruggs. Earl Scruggs played banjo on the song. The song was also covered by Rod Stewart and Juice Newton.

Son of Your Father is a blues-country rouser featuring a rare appearance by UK folk duo Sue and Sunny. Where to now St. Peter? is a pleasant if somewhat goofily-psychedelic tune that seems oddly out of place on this except the narrative seems to be about a man lost in the world and struggling for direction, so I guess it sort of fits. Love Song is the only non-John/Taupin penned tune on the album. Leslie Duncan wrote and performs acoustic guitar and background vocals on this melancholy beauty.

Amoreena might be my favorite cut on this album brimming with great cuts. Taken from the name of John’s god-daughter, this great song about a young man yearning for his distant loved one is notable not only for John’s great piano riffs but also because he is accompanied for the first time by bass player Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, who would form the core of his rhythm section until their departure in 1975.

The album concludes with the Gospel-inspired slow-burner (pun intended) Burn Down the Mission. This simple, but vague, story of a poor and oppressed community that sees the narrator rising up to take action to deal out some personal justice. This is the most orchestrated and cinematic (thanks to a large measure to Paul Buckmaster’s string arrangements) of the songs contained here and John plays piano and sings with passion and fervor befitting its expanse.

For an album that spawned no singles Tumbleweed Connection stands as a testament to the musical greatness of John and Taupin, and is a heartfelt commendation of the mythical American west.  Guns N’ Roses singer Axl Rose reportedly once said he would love to own the publishing rights to Tumbleweed Connection as a work of art. I’d say this is probably the first time that Axl and my tastes are in sync.

Panning for Gold is a random celebration of classic alt.country/roots/Americana releases of the past.

Official Site | Amazon

Elton John – Burn Down the Mission


Review – 6 Day Bender – self-titled (self-released)

6 Day Bender began as a group of students in Charlottesville, VA playing a thing they call “Mountain Rock and Roll.” I figure there’s enough confusion with the current sub-genres already available so let’s settle with roots-rock with an emphasis on both.These neo-revivalists create, like their contemporaries Old Crow Medicine Show, The Hackensaw Boys and The Avett Brothers, a rousing blend of pre-World War II folk, bluegrass spiked with rock attitude. Imagine the O Brother where Art Thou soundtrack if it where covered by The Stooges.

Channeling the hell-raising forefathers that blazed the trail from Europe and into the American South the heat pulses off all 16 cuts. Best I Can and Devil Lets You Dance are furious, howling hillbilly speedball about love, life and happiness with no excuses. In the hands of the right person the banjo is a lethal thing and in the hands of Luke Nutting (banjo, guitar, vocals) it’s a doomsday machine.

Wartime is a jaunty little ditty on the existential view of life with boots on the ground. Hellbound is an American Beauty-style barroom recollection of a misspent life and Jail Blues is a mess of greasy swampbilly cut that sounds what the Doors might have sounded like if they had been from Mississippi instead of L.A.

Genre and time bending releases like 6 Day Bender’s feels like a rejection of canned PowerTools generated music and glib irony that pollutes so much of contemporary music. Dylan knew it, The Band knew it, Gram Parsons knew it, great bands like 6 Day Bender know it. There is emotional gold in mining history and heritage and grinding a modern edge to it.

Official Site |  MySpace |  Store

6 Day Bender – Devil Lets You Dance


The Bittersweets Readies “Goodnight, San Francisco,” Offers Free Download

  • Nashville Tennessee’s The Bittersweets – Chris Meyers (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Hannah Prater (vocals, guitar) and Steve Bowman (drums) – are offering a song “Wreck” from their upcoming release “Goodnight, San Francisco” ( 9/9/08)  produced by Lex Price, Mindy Smith. Personally I take the title of their new release as a good omen for my new home.

“Wreck” mp3

  • The Americana Music Association has announced that Austin City Limits producer Terry Lickona will be their recipient of their Lifetime Achievement Award.
  • Not sure how I feel about Johnny Cash Remixed (10/14.) If it’s anything like the Nina Simone or Blue Note remix releases it could be cool. Featuring Buck 65 and Moceon Worker and John Carter Cash involvement in the project makes me think it’s a step in the direction of very cool. Cash often jumped and defied genres his entire career so this release could make a certain amount of sense.
  • Right now I’m watching “The Last Waltz,” the Martin Scorsese’s film of the final concert of The Band, 1978, Thanksgiving Day in San Francisco. Featuring guest appearances by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers, Dr. John and many more. Can muisc ever be this essential again? I doubt it.

Bob Lefsetz Does Country

I usually hang on every acerbic and insightful post from music business gadfly Bob Lefsetz. He’s a no bullshit guy that sees the bloody writing on the wall for the big labels and pulls no punches. I hope this blog allows me to do 1/16th of what he’s been able to do in exposing the hypocrisy and crap in the music industry and also point the way to a great talents that are trying make a difference and do great work.

But recently Mr. Levitz was caught in L.A. Traffic and came across Sirius radio Channel 60, “New Country” who, by the blurb on their web site states they play ” Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney.”

Lefsetz writes that while listening to the station that:

“…every one of (the) words rang true and glowed like burnin’ coal, pourin’ off of every page like it was written from me to you, but I was not tangled up in blue, I was laughing, I was alive, I was ECSTATIC! This was a joy I hadn’t experienced in oh-so-long!

But I don’t know shit about country. Maybe this is the crap. Maybe this is the stuff those deep into it rail about. Then I realized, I was the target audience, I was fucking IGNORANT!”

I’m here to tell you Bob, you are listening to the crap, and allow me to school you.

You are a fucking genius savant when talking about rock and pop of the past, present and future, but when you stray into country music, I won’t say “fucking ignorant”, but I will say sadly naive.

What you were listening to was the country equivalent of listening to Beyoncé or Fallout Boy. Sad, shallow reproductions of artists that came before that did it not just do it better, but did it in a way that was breathtaking and dangerous. What you were listening to was formula, contrivances and confection.

You pine for the days of the Beatles, Stones and Hendrix. When the Velvet Underground and the Stooges were punching sonic holes in the cultural malaise of the 70’s. If you’re looking for the contemporary country equivalent of that, then you’re not going to find in on Channel 60, “New Country.”

The country equivalent to these ground-breaking artists, the giants that the current talent of country artists are standing on the shoulders of is Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. It’s the Allman Brothers and The Band. It’s Lynyrd Skynyrd, X, Jason and the Scorchers. Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam.

You’re more likely to find these artists on the Dallas area station Lone Star 92.5 that, despite being a Clear Channel station, is taking risks and plays artists that better represent the spirit you crave. Bands like The Drive By Truckers and the Bottle Rockets. Artists like Hank Williams III and Shooter Jennings. But Lone Star 92.5s are hard to find just as great rock stations are. The playlists are still the most common framework for commercial radio, and playlist are driven by sales.

Shooter Jenning’s band, the .357s comes closer to Led Zeppelin than the comparison you draw between Zeppelin and Tim McGraw. Tim McGraw is less Led Zeppelin and more Peter Frampton.

There is great country music out there and Bob Lefsetz, with a little counseling, is just the gauge that will recognize it. I for one would love for him to turn his laser eye on the Nashville money machine and the way it takes great talent and churns out dull, gray sausage.