Jason Isbell: Stories for Listeners

jasonisbell4 I used to think that this was my town
What a stupid thing to think
I hear you’re fighting off a breakdown
I myself am on the brink


I used to want to be a real man
I don’t know what that even means
Now I just want you in my arms again
And we can search each other’s dreams

— Jason Isbell, “Hope the High Road”

On the day after the 2016 election, Jason Isbell was at home outside Nashville caring for his baby daughter, Mercy Rose, then a few months past her first birthday. His wife, Amanda Shires, was on tour in Salt Lake City that night behind her album, “My Piece of Land.”

The presidential election results, he admits, blindsided him. He knew the choices were tough, especially for the working class folks he grew up with in rural Alabama.

So he did what he does. He wrote. He wrote to unpack his feelings, to confront and explain those things that seem unexplainable or intolerable. He thought he knew America. On Nov. 8, he realized he did not.

He was thinking about family, about what the election of a bigot and a misogynist meant for his far-away wife and his so-near daughter.

“As hard as it was for me to see those results,” he says, “I could only imagine what it was like for a wife and later on a daughter to have to explain.”
Out of that came “Hope the High Road,” the first single off his forthcoming album, “The Nashville Sound.”

I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
Uninspired
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again
To a world you want to live in
To a world you want to live in

“After growing up in rural Alabama in a town without a red light or a post office and traveling the word for 17 years, I thought I had a pretty good handle on America,” he says. “It turned out I was not right at all.”

 

His father works maintenance in a hospital. His mom has an office job. “My parents still work hard every day,” he says. “I’ve not made enough money to tell them they can retire. Hopefully, we’ll have some huge hits and everybody can move on up sometime soon.”

His father, he says, stood in line to vote torn by his decision. He’s been paying way too much from health care since the Affordable Care Act was passed. But he also didn’t believe he could vote for somebody like Trump, Isbell says.

 

“I hear both sides of the story,” he says. “My main concern was I feel like a lot of people who have been under represented had to ignore a lot of shitty things in order to vote in what they felt might be their own best interest. That’s what really bothers me. I can see middle class or poor working class Americans wanting somebody who is not a career politician. I can see them wanting somebody who speaks plainly and in a way that’s not coded the way political language often is. But I can’t really understand overlooking the bigotry and the misogyny.”

“So I felt like after all that went down,” he adds, “I didn

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‘t know people as well as I thought I did. That was a big awakening for me.”

Isbell, who opens the season at the Portsmouth Pavilion on April 26, understands what he calls the “Springsteen conundrum:” “How do you sing about working class people when it’s obvious what kind of money you’re making?”

He’s not near that level. He doesn’t think he’s all that far removed from his roots. He lives outside Nashville, about 80 miles from his hometown of Green Hills. “The differences between how I grew up and how I live now and the similarities between those two are of great interest to me,” he says.

Isbell famously was fired by the Southern rock band, Drive-By Truckers for his drinking. Ryan Adams, Shires and his manager got him into a rehab that likely saved his life. He’s sober — a battle he talks about freely — and out in the country now, surrounded by a few musicians and a lot of working class folks, similar to the ones of his childhood and his days in school.

“So I have a lot of concern for the issues of working class people,” he says. “I think you can empathy without living like that. To deny a successful songwriter the option of writing about people who are not having success is really to deny that empathy works as a concept.”

I ask him about the line, “I used to want to be a real man; I don’t know what that even means.”

“As I got older, I stopped using phrases like “I want to be a man” or “Man up.” Look at what you’re saying. It’s pretty insulting to women,” he says. “I just started saying, ‘Try to be grown. Try to be an adult.’ Insulting to children,” he adds, laughing.

He explores working class characters and their stories on his forthcoming album, “The Nashville Sound” that gives co-credit for the first time in years to his band, The 400 Unit. Shires adds fiddle and vocals. Dave Cobb is once again handling the knobs as producer.

It’s the third in a line of stellar albums from Isbell, after 2013’s “Southeastern,” the 2014 Grammy winner for best Americana album, and 2015’s “Something More than Free,” the 2016 Grammy winner for best Americana album.

In a suite of songs on “The Nashville Sound:” “Cumberland Gap,” a rocker, “Tupelo,” a mellow reflection, and “White Man’s World,” he explores the walls closing in on working class men.

I thought about moving away, but what would my momma say?
I’m all that she has left and I’m with her every day.
Soon as the sun goes down, find my way to the Mustang Lounge.
If you don’t sit facing the window, you could be in any town.
– “Cumberland Gap”

“Cumberland Gap” is one of Isbell’s many short stories in song. “You start building a character,” he says, “and that’s how the characters behave naturally. There are people I know who have had very similar experiences and they wound up being the primary inspiration. I take three or four people I know and try to build a character. It’s not different than going about writing a novel or a short story.”

That begs the question of what Isbell was reading while writing the album. He finished in January, writing the dark “If We Were Vampires,” days before entering Nashville’s legendary RCA Studio B, the birthplace of albums by Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison and Gillian Welch, among others.

He says he read an advance copy of George Saunders “Lincoln in the Bardo” and others. He’s been a passionate about reading since sobering up, dipping into everything from Gabriel García Márquez’s “100 Years of Solitude,” Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries” to Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.”

“It’s difficult,” he says. “I try not to show my influences too obviously. I don’t want to let those find their way into too much of my material.”

Isbell named the album, “The Nashville Sound,” partly as an homage to the studio, managed for so many years by Chet Atkins, and as a way to stake his claim to the type of music made there.

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Our talk is on the day after The Academy of Country Music Awards. Isbell has no tolerance for the music showcased there. “It’s obvious from last night’s awards show how much out of touch the pop country music world is,” he says.

“The Nashville Sound” reflects the kind of music still made in Nashville. While there are a few more rockers on this disc, Isbell says he never sets out to make one kind of record or another.

“Really the only thing that matters to me outside of documenting a point in time is trying to get the best songs I possibly can. That’s my guiding light.”

“The way I’ve gotten through the world and made myself happy and gotten more than I could have ever asked is early on I found something I wanted to do when I didn’t have to do anything else,” he adds. “It’s still that way. I’m very lucky.”

He’s worked at Wal Mart, in a fireworks warehouse and waiting tables. But since he started performing professionally he hasn’t had to do anything else other than play and write songs.

Among those songs are “Anxiety,” a dark tune about dealing with that fear written with Shires, and “If We Were Vampires,” a serious song with a funny title about mortality. “Maybe time running out is a gift,” he sings. “I’ll work hard ‘til the end of my shift. Give you every second I can find and hope it isn’t me who’s left behind.”

“That one caught me by surprise,” he says. “I wrote that the last day before we went into the studio. I was really proud of it. It’s really heavy and it took me a while to get through and be able to sing it without emotion.”jason77

“When you’re a kid you think something’s in the closet until you work up the courage to get out of bed and look for yourself,” Isbell told me in another interview last year. “You can spend a lot of years hollering for your dad to come do it or you can get out of bed at five years old, open the door, and when there’s nothing in there, go to sleep.

“That’s really the reason I started to write songs, to confront those things,” he adds.

“Things about my upbringing or the places that I’m from. About society in general. About personal relations. Things that were very terrifying to me until I looked them in the face and explained them to myself. They don’t scare me so much anymore.”

That’s not surprising. Jason Isbell albums are therapy, time to sit and think and ponder the big questions. He understands no radio station today is going to play songs like “If We Were Vampires” or “Anxiety” and he’s just fine with that.

“I’ve just always been somebody who listened to music directly. It wasn’t’ really a background thing. That’s what my whole life has been based on. I know a lot of people who aren’t musicians who are that way. They don’t just have music playing while they’re having a party or washing dishes or something.

“I think I kind of write songs for those people, people who like to sit down and listen to songs.”
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Singalong: Sea Level Festival Showcases First Families of Tune

Is musical talent hereditary?

The Sea Level Singer/Songwriter Festival this year is proof — proof, I tell you – there is a music gene somewhere in the recesses of our DNA. Consider the evidence for yourself when the first families of music in the area perform over two nights to benefit the Tidewater Arts Outreach.

TAO is evidence of the healing powers of music, probably something also deep in those ancestral strands. The nonprofit arranges for local artists to perform at assisted living facilities, skilled nursing facilities, residential programs, homeless shelters and other organizations – more than 250 artists for more than 5,000 people in 2015.

Those performances are a balm to residents. Research increasingly shows the benefits to mental as well as physical health for those sitting and listening or clapping and singing along.

It Runs in the Family starts with a free show at Norfolk’s O’Connor Brewing Company at 5 p.m. on Friday, March 31. Skye Zentz and her father, folk legend, Bob Zentz and his wife, Jeanne McDougall, join Zach and Megan Moats of Dharma Initiative and their father, Roy.

On Saturday, hear how far afield that gene ranges, from the blues to folk to bluegrass, at The Attucks Theatre. Show time is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance (it’s $4.50 more with Ticketmaster fees online) and $28.50 at the door.

The Saturday lineup is:

Bill and Pam Gurley with daughter, Macon, and guest bassist Jimmy Masters.

Bobby and Joy “Blackhat” Walters with their children, Akeylah, Maya, Shayna and possibly Ellie with special guest guitarist Tom Euler.

Lewis McGehee with his daughter, Kayce

Keith Stainback with his son, Seth, joined by Larry Berwald and Stephen Lazar.

I asked them four questions about their first performance together, about their favorite song written by the other, about their memories of singing together for the first time and a song the other likes they don’t need to ever hear again.



   Skye Zentz says she doesn’t recall the first song she heard her father, a longtime legendary folk singer, but there was a constant stream of sounds and songs from her earliest days. “There’s a very early memory I have of my Dad carrying me around on his shoulders singing the Woody Woodpecker theme song,” she says. She has old cassettes of the two of them on the front porch, singing together, making up lyrics when she was a four-year-old while he played the accordion. “Those early tapes taught me a lot about being a mindful accompanist,” she says. “It takes a lot of attention and rhythm to back up a spontaneous toddler.”

She is fond of her dad’s “He Was Just Some Old Jukebox.” “He wrote those words about Ramblin’ Conrad, but they also remind me of my Dad, himself- he knows so many songs,” she adds. She does not admit to disliking any of his tunes, but jokes that the drone from him tuning his hurdy gurdy haunts her in her sleep.


On Saturday, the Bobby “Blackhat” Walters clan takes the stage at the Attucks. The first performance by the kids, then ages 7 to 13, came at a school talent show when they sang “Lean on Me” acapella, creating rhythms with hand clapping, knee slapping and stomping. As kids they sang and acted out musicals including Disney’s “The Jungle Book,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Pocahontas,” “Aladdin”, and the High School Musicals. The family sang together from the time the kids were babies and then at religious ceremonies. The children have played various musical instruments including piano, guitar, drums, bass, ukulele, saxophone, bongos, clarinet, flute, mandolin, recorder, and violin.  Bobby is the only harp player.

The kids remember mom singing “All Night All Day” at bedtime and dad singing “Let My People Go” at the top of his lungs “for god knows why.”

Ellie also remembers her dad’s worst moment. “Most annoying song is “Too Legit To Quit” by MC Hammer,” Ellie says. “The only time I think I was embarrassed by my dad was him singing that dang song in his parachute pants walking through the mall torturing me at 15.”

On the flip side, “Help Me” is her favorite song sung by Bobby. “I got to see that wonderful in love look between my parents that I saw since I was a kid. That flirty big eye attitude lovey look that my mom has only for my daddy when he would sing it on stage,” she says.

For Maya, it’s “Honey Biscuit,” “the sweetest, most precious love song ever written (by my dad).”


Kayce McGehee, who performs under the name Kayce Laine, now lives in Nashville, where she is building a solo career playing indie electro pop music.  Her father is one of the deans of local acoustic players.

She remembers her father recording “Distant Voices” just after she was born in 1988. “A lot of the tracking was done at our home studio so some of my earliest memories of life are of him singing and playing those songs. “Looking at the Headlights,” “Walking Away”….all of the songs on that record bring me back,” she says. He remembers her singing Disney tunes and realizing she had talent.

Let Kayce explain the favorite that her father penned: “I would probably have to say “Growing of Grass” for a number of reasons: 1. I think the song itself is brilliant from the lyrics to the chord changes 2. It’s a song that I have performed with him and also covered of his for over a decade now 3. All of my sisters have, at one point, wanted to get the lyrics tattooed on our bodies (none of us have actually done this…yet!) and 4. We just got done recording it in Nashville a few weeks ago and will finally have an incredible version to share with everyone in just a few more weeks.”


   For Lewis, his favorite Kayce song is “5 AM Light,” a synth-heavy electronic pop song from her debut EP, “Lucid.” “I think it showcases her multiple talents of songwriting, singing, piano playing and production,” he says.

Their first public performance together, Kayce says, was when she was still a child. “The first gig we did together was me singing an Alabama song, “Angels Among Us,” with him for some sort of convention or fundraiser when I was 7 or 8. For whatever reason, I didn’t like the spotlight when I was young so I usually got ice cream or some sort of treat for getting up and singing with him. Now I ask for money :),” she recalls.

Lewis remembers that day. “Kayce was singing it around the house and I thought “She sounds waaay better than me doing this” so I drafted her to join me.”

There is one song her father favors that Kayce has heard enough. “Dad has taught every single guitar student “Good Riddance” by Green Day since it came out in 1997 so I’ve probably heard him play and sing that song thousands of times,” she says. “Now, I definitely wouldn’t say that he loves this song, but he loves TEACHING this song and I can safely say, I would be totally fine if I never heard it again.”


Keith Stainback, the father of blues rocker Seth Stainback of Roosterfoot, remembers his son singing around the house and at church from the time he was a toddler. But one day stands out. “I don’t remember the first song I heard Seth sing, there were so many. He would sing around the house from the time was a toddler. Mostly songs from church, or songs he’d hear his mom sing,” he says. “I do remember one day I was sitting on the deck when we lived in South Carolina. Seth was around 16 years old. He walked up with his guitar and said he had just finished writing a song and would I like to hear it. Now I knew that he could sing and was already a good guitarist, but after he played me the new song, I realized he also had a gift for songwriting.”

His favorite is “Earth & Worm,” the title cut off the band’s full-length album. “I’ve always loved “Earth & Worm.” It’s a great song and it’s about family,” he adds. “Now, the song “Reckless” off the new Roosterfoot EP gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. Again, there are so many good ones, it’s hard to choose a favorite.”

They started playing together down below and eventually made it to higher ground. “Seth and I spent many, many hours jamming in the basement at home,” Keith says. “I’m pretty sure the first time we played in public together would have been with the band at church. We played a show together at his high school, which would have also been one of the first public times.”

While their tastes are the same, Keith admits that those prog rock days are probably not his son’s favorite.

“Seth probably has a few songs he doesn’t want to hear again. Songs that I would get him listen to when he was younger. Mostly progressive rock from bands like Yes, early Genesis, stuff like that. Even though recently he has shown an interest in experimenting with time signatures other than basic 4/4 and 6/8. I like to think that old stuff I made him listen to just might be coming out,” Keith says. “We will see.”

 

 

–end—-

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The Zombies’ Odyssey 50 Years On

For Rod Argent and The Zombies, deciding to play their final album as a band, the pop psychedelic masterpiece, “Odessey and the Oracle,” live for the first time required more than getting together a group that had not performed in decades.

It required a Victorian-era pump organ.

When Argent and Chris White, the two writers in the short-lived Sixties British band committed to doing the album live, they decided not to compromise. After all, the band never had a chance to play “Odessey and Oracle” following its release in 1967. They broke up before the album was released (delayed in the U.S. until Al Kooper convinced Clive Davis to issue it. More on that later).

So they decided to replicate its 12 tunes note for note. That meant finding a pump organ for “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914),” a Pink Floyd meets The Beatles deep track about the horrors of war.

Luckily for them, they found one not 15 miles from Argent’s home in Bedfordshire, “one of the very few Victorian pump organs around for sale in the whole country,” Argent says. It had to be stripped of a century of dust, cleaned and put back together.

The organ and the album debuted live during a 2008 London concert. A one-night stand turned into three. “All sorts of people turned up,” Argent says by phone. “Robert Plant. Paul Weller, who was there all three nights. Snow Patrol. I can’t remember everyone who was there. It was hugely successful.”

Now, 50 years after they released the enduring classic, “Odessey and Oracle” (the title was misspelled by the cover artist), they are on a tour of the United States with a sprawling band recreating the album that contains their biggest hit, “Time of the Season.” (Plenty of Americans saw groups named The Zombies playing that tune in 1968, but they were imposters. More on that later).

They come to Virginia Beach’s Sandler Center for Performing Arts on March 21.

The genesis of the tour was a few gigs in 2000 when Argent got together with White. At first, they didn’t play Zombies tunes. “Very, very gradually we started to realize there was a whole bunch of (Zombies) material we’d never played live and we started including it for fun and very gradually became more serious about putting something more prominent together,” he says.

White broached the idea of playing the resurrected classic. “He said do you realize in 40 years we’ve never played “Odessey and Oracle” live on stage in its entirety? Why don’t we do it?” Argent recalls. “I said, ‘How do we do it?’ ”
The answer was to take their current touring band, add the rest of the living members of The Zombies including Colin Blunstone and drummer Hugh Grundy and a secret weapon, Darian Sahanaja, an arranger for Brian Wilson and member of The Wondermints who could play the Mellotron parts. The final piece was Chris White’s wife, Vivian Boucherat, who adds the high harmonies.

“We decided if we were going to do it at all, we were going to do it by reproducing every single note on the original, ” adds Argent, who went on to form the group, Argent, after the Zombies and have hits with “Hold Your Head Up” and “God Gave Rock and Roll to You.” “We needed all those musical lines and the extra harmonies we’d overdubbed to really make some of the tracks come alive.”

That the album was made in the first place is another story. By 1967, The Zombies had not had a hit in Great Britain for too long. Live gigs in those days, Argent notes, were paid based on your chart position. They’d scored a hit with “She’s Not There” at home, literally the third song Argent wrote in his life. But that was it.

“In those days, we were very much more based out of the country of origin,” he says. “We had done some States tours, but we were very much based in the UK. We found out later that we usually had a hit somewhere in the world, but we didn’t know this at the time. “

White and Argent, the writers, had a steady stream of income from publishers, but the three other guys in the band were struggling. “We were lucky enough to have very honest publishers. We didn’t have to search around for money. We were pretty well off, actually,” Argent says. “But the rest of the band didn’t have a penny to dress themselves with by the time we broke up.”

They also weren’t happy with the sound of their records. They wanted a fuller sound, no doubt influenced by The Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” and the experimentation of The Beatles at the time. Argent’s roots go deep into classical music growing up. Then he discovered rock, especially Elvis Presley, introduced to him by Jim Rodford, a neighbor down the street who would go on to play with The Kinks. Rock and roll got him into R&B and then a long exploration into the jazz of Miles Davis, Bill Evans and John Coltrane. He says he was “very knocked out” when Pat Metheny mentioned his admiration for “She’s Not There.”

With their popularity waning, CBS in the UK offered them only 1,000 pounds to record the album. They walked into Abbey Road Studios just after The Beatles walked out following the recording of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Fresh in Argent’s mind were the bass lines of “Pet Sounds,” and the singles “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” “Sgt. Pepper” would not be released until they’d finished.

“Lennon left his Mellotron lying around and we pounced on that,” Argent says. “We had a ball recording that album. We had a very limited budget so over several months it was basically one session of three hours or two sessions of three hours at most to create each track.”

The last song they recorded, their last song in the studio, was “Time of the Season.” Argent got the inspiration for the title because he misheard the lyrics to Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears” as “it’s the time of the season to trace the tracks of my tears,” which he blames on scratchy AM radio. Most of the song was written in a day. He finished the final words in the studio as the rest of the band chilled in a pub waiting to record.

When they returned, he wanted Blunstone to sing lead. It took more than a few takes and some verbal sparring before he nailed the phrasing Argent wanted. “I remember saying to Chris White I think this could be a big hit, but no one else shared my feeling,” he recalls.

For the first time on “Odessey,” they used multi-tracking, which allowed for overdubs of piano, Mellotron, guitar or harmonies. “We were very proud of the album when we finished. We thought it was the best thing we could do,” he adds. “It was how we wanted to sound.”

It was released in the UK to an ignoring audience.

Al Kooper, the keyboardist and member of Blood, Sweat and Tears, was a house producer for CBS in America at the time. He heard the album on a trip to Britain and bought 200 copies to take back to New York. Kooper told Davis he had to find out who had the rights, secure them and release the album in the U.S.

The rights weren’t a problem, Davis said. CBS in the U.S. owned them. But he’d already passed on the album. Kooper persisted, the album was released in the U.S. and became a hit — eventually (more on that s

oon). “We certainly keep in touch with Al,” Argent says laughing. “Our gratitude is unbounded.”

The first two singles flopped. Then came “Time of the Season.” “Nobody played it, but one DJ in Boise, Idaho, picked up on it,” he says. Over six months, the song slowly rippled out from there, rising on the charts to become a number one in nearly every country — except the UK, Argent notes.

The Zombies were offered a million dollars to tour. But Argent was moving forward with his own band with White as producer. Blunstone became a solo act. Guitarist Paul Atkinson became an A&R man. Grundy eventually left music all together.

The band that was no more had a hit. Crafty promoters solved that problem, creating fake Zombies who met the demand for “Time of the Season.” Years later, Argent learned one of those groups, born in Texas, featured a couple of guys named Dusty Hill and Frank Beard. They’d later go on to be two-thirds of a little band named ZZ Top.

The album struggled along, not earning many sales or much acclaim until years later when it became a cult disc that’s a staple of record stores, especially on vinyl. “To my complete astonishment, it has had a long life and is sells more every year than when it first came out,” Argent says.

The Zombies are on one last tour, a tour of the U.S. playing “Odessey” based on the success of those UK shows. There was just one problem. The pump organ, that huge pump organ, could not go on the road.

So they went looking for another one, one that was portable. They found a World War I era pump organ that was used to play for the troops, a perfect ending.

“That’s even more appropriate because the song we use it for is Chris White’s “Butcher’s Tale,” based on the world war,” Argent says.

For The Zombies, the odyssey had a happy ending. It just took time.

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One Soulful Assembly: Four Friends on Stage

luther2Luther Dickinson says there’s no telling what will happen on stage with the Southern Soul Assembly, the intimate gang of buddies Anders Osborne, Marc Broussard, JJ Grey and himself.

“The funny thing is, it’s truly an adventure, a gig where you may think you know what you’re going to play but what the cats before you play might completely be a game changer. Sometimes you got to keep the mood. Sometimes you got to break the mood. Sometimes themes develop where we’ll each do a song about our grandmothers or a song about our family or a song about death. It’s really fun. It’s an amazing group of fellows.”

Those fellows first got together in 2014 at the invitation of Grey. For Dickinson, it’s an opportunity he embraces.

He plays plenty of loud rock and roll as a self-professed psychedelic folk rocker and member of The North Mississippi Allstars. He says you can’t expect rock audiences to be quiet. At Southern Soul Assembly shows, that’s just what they do.

“It’s totally a dream come true for me,” he adds during a Friday afternoon call. “I love intimate, seated and acoustic performances. As a songwriter and folk musician, I just love it.”

The four friends bring their show to The Sandler Center for Performing Arts on Wednesday, March 15 as part of a month-long tour. For Dickinson, it’s a rare chance to hang out with other songwriters on the road. “A month in close quarters with three guys with similar experience is really inspiring and educational,” he says. “We talk about strategies and ideas and brainstorm.”

One night, you might hear Osborne debut a new song. You’ll certainly hear a few stories. With Osborne and Broussard you get two different sides of the New Orleans sound, bluesy and soulful. Dickinson brings that broad Memphis influence. And Grey lends his soul, funk, blues amalgam via Jacksonville, Florida.

They rehearse — at sound check. That’s it. “The shows are so unpredictable we usually never play what we rehearse,” he adds.

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The guys don’t just swap songs. They support each other. Grey will play some harmonica. Osborne lends his signature guitar parts. Dickinson might pick up a bass or mandolin.

He also admits that sometimes it’s a little intimidating. “There’s some really strong songwriting going on. Some really strong singing going on,” he says. “Sometimes I just have to resort to playing my guitar.”

Playing guitar is something he’s done since he was a child, first lending his tone playing on The Replacements “Pleased to Meet Me” as a 14-year-old.

He’s better known as the singer and guitarist in North Mississippi Allstars who grew up in Memphis and later in the hill country south of town as the son of legendary producer and pianist Jim Dickinson,

He and his brother, drummer Cody Dickinson, are part of North Mississippi Allstars. They grew up in the blues lands of Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. But they also were part of that Memphis rock sound of the 1960s.

Their father, who died in 2009, released solo records and played with bands backing Aretha Franklin, Dion, Sam & Dave, Jerry Jeff Walker and others. He famously played piano on The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and later produced artists as varied as Big Star, Toots and the Maytals, The Replacements, Willy DeVille and others.

Luther says his most recent album, the stripped-down “Blues & Ballads: A Folksinger’s Songbook: Volumes I & II,” and the fun of their original 2014 tour fed off each other. Since his father died, he notes that his solo career has largely focused on acoustic playing. Indeed, “Blues & Ballads,” one of last year’s best records, opens sounding like a couple of players sitting on a front porch and moves over time into a late-night blues groove. It’s intimate, a record that makes you want to lean in.

“That record and those performances teach me that the more humbly and more honestly things are recorded or presented, the more they move people,” he says. “We’re making roots music of one sort or another. Over production in the recording studio or live can be detrimental to the visceral, emotional response.”

That’s exactly opposite from the way his father made records. “He was an expert at colorful production, heavy-handed. Each song had its own identity,” Dickinson notes.

For Dickinson, things changed thanks to conversations with Buddy Miller, the Nashville songwriter and producer. Miller told him he did not overdub. “Get everybody in the room and record in the moment,” he told Dickinson. “If you need singers, call and wait. Tune up the banjo. Wait for the horns. Get everybody together. For the singer, that’s the commitment.”

He notes that recording budgets today are so tiny, you have to make records fast. “The market demands the records be honest and made quickly and the people who still like records seem to like that kind of recording,” he adds.

Dickinson calls himself a descendant of the second generation of Memphis, the rock and roll Memphis sound. “Rock and roll, that’s where I start,” he says, adding that he grew up on Delta Blues and Chicago blues.

Like his father, Dickinson has played with a wide array of artists including The Black Crowes, John Hiatt and The South Memphis String Band.

He demurs when asked how those experiences have shaped his sound. “The funny thing is I play different with Mavis (Staples who sings on his recent disc) than I play with (Charlie) Musselwhite than I play with Hiatt,” he says. “I’m all about supporting the vocals. I love playing guitar. I love playing rock and roll. You really need a transcendental vocalist to take it to another level. I love working with singers like that.”

Dickinson played with Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead last year and it left a lasting impression, one it sounds like he’ll bring to the Southern Soul Assembly shows.

“He is so in the moment. He just goes right to the vein. I think that’s what matters. It doesn’t matter what song you’re singing or where you are if you can just get inside the moment and ignite that spark, the room feels it. That’s what everybody really wants.”

 

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The Ever-Evolving Lucero Takes Another Turn

lucero2The story about alt country, alt soul, alt punk, alt genre Memphis band, Lucero, is that at the beginning it was the creation of an emo kid and a hardcore kid.

Singer, songwriter and guitarist Ben Nichols was the emo kid. Guitarist Brian Venable, who’d barely learned his instrument when the band started, was the hardcore kid.

In the nearly 19 years since, the band has built a following on the backs of its live show and an ever-changing sounds from southern rock to soul to country. They have added keyboards and piano and then horns (“because everything from Stax soul to Rocket from the Crypt that we grew up on had horns”), then stepped away from the horns on their latest album.
They started out as a quartet, grew to nine on stage, and are now back to a band of five who will be at Shaka’s Live with Esme Patterson on Feb. 6.

“We learned that all of our sad bastard country songs when you put horns on them become sad bastard soul songs,” Venable says by phone from home before the band heads out for its first tour after a paternity leave for Nichols. “Johnny Cash turns into Al Green if you put horns on it.”

“That’s the beauty. We can do whatever we want,” he adds. “Whatever we do sounds like Lucero.”

luceroHe grew up that hardcore kid listening to Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys but at some point he started to rediscover other music. Lynyrd Skynyrd was pretty good, a band he overlooked. That sent him towards Jimmie Rodgers and soon he was on to the Carter Family and bluegrass and Townes van Zandt. He and Nichols love The Smithereens, Tom Petty and Huey Lewis and the News. Yes, that 80’s guy. There’s no longer a need for only the cool references for them.

“I love the Pogues. I love The Replacements. In the same breath I can listen to Huey Lewis “Sports” with just as much excitement,” he adds. “But it doesn’t have as many cool points, maybe.”

Last year, he says he spent six months listening only to classical music.

“The fun one (to ponder) is who’s the emo kid and who’s the hardcore kid now,” he says.

Both kids will be back on the road after playing only about 80 dates last year, about a third of the gigs during the band’s most barnstorming days.

Nichols had a child over the summer so they took a break. This winter it was drummer Roy Berry’s turn. Venable was happy for the break with his son, who’s eight. “This has been like a vacation,” he adds, “a well-deserved vacation.”

They slipped into Sam Phillips Studios in Memphis in January to “see what we got” and maybe record a few songs, probably Nichols’s “Loving” from the movie of the same name directed by his younger brother, Jeff, about the interracial Virginia couple prosecuted for marrying. “It might be an EP. It might just be…We don’t know,” he says. “We’re just knocking the rust off.”

Venable says there’s no telling whether fatherhood will change their songwriter’s writing. Then he pauses and notes that Nichols got married before the last disc and promptly wrote a song about it. “Ben’s always been a pretty literal songwriter,” he adds.

“All A Man Should Do,” their latest, was recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis with Ted Hutt on the knobs, their third collaboration with him and the studio. Venable remembers walking past the brick building with no windows for four years when he worked in a deli, not realizing its importance. Now, he does. Now, the band embraces being part of the Memphis canon. Jody Stephens of Big Star sang harmonies on the band’s cover of “Fell in Love with the Girl” on the last album.

“The older you get, the more involved you are, the more you meet these people,” he says. “At some point, Memphis defines us. You realize the heritage and want to become a part of it.”

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Scott McCaughey Knows Everybody

scottmccaughy550bIn the early 1980s, Scott McCaughey caught Alejandro Escovedo’s trailblazing cowpunk band, Rank and File, at the Rainbow Tavern in Seattle.

Four years later, his fledgling alt rock band, Young Fresh Fellows, opened for Los Lobos and True Believers, another Alejandro Escovedo project, and then hung out all night with them.

“That’s the way it works out,” McCaughey says in a phone interview. “You start to be friends with people. You love their music. You see each other and gradually you might get a chance to make music together. I don’t know how I fell into it (making music). I could have been sitting around working in a record store buying everybody’s records. Somehow, I got to be on them.”

Rather than buy everybody’s records, it seems McCaughey plays on everybody’s records.

Everybody from REM, where he was a band member for 18 years, to The Minus 5, his project with Peter Buck of REM and members of The Posies, to Baseball Project, his sporty jaunt with Buck and Steve Wynn of The Dream Syndicate, to Tweedy, where he played with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and his son. Then there is his work with M Ward, the Venus 3 with Robyn Hitchcock, Tired Pony with Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol, and Filthy Friends with Buck and Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker, Bill Rieflin (REM, Swans, King Crimson) and Kurt Bloch, an old Fresh Fellows fellow.

What makes him slip so easily into bands whether as a sideman or a front man? “I just love music and I love being the guy who sings his own songs — or shouts them,” he says. “I love being that guy in a band with Young Fresh Fellows. I love doing my own thing in Minus 5. I love being in other bands and playing great music.”

He runs through a list of performers he admires who are also friends and collaborators from Hitchcock to Tweedy to Buck to Mike Mills, another REM mate. “That’s just a dream come true for a rock and roll geek like I am. It’s never an ego thing with me. I feel so lucky that I have a life where I get to play music.”

One of his latest projects — and with McCaughey there is never just one latest project — brings him to Shaka’s Live in Virginia Beach on Jan. 17 backing Alejandro Escovedo and his new album. “Burn Something Beautiful.”

It promises to be another memorable night following Escovedo’s stunning sold-out house concert in Norfolk last November, his 2013 duo show at the Sandler Performing Arts Center, and his withering band rock show at the old Jewish Mother in Virginia Beach a few years earlier.

McCaughey and Buck will open the night with The Minus 5, then back up Escovedo as his band. That’s not unusual. McCaughey cracks that there have been nights he’s played with three bands, all with the same members, who played three sets of different songs under the names of three different projects.

McCaughey and Escovedo crossed paths notably playing eight shows on a run of the Midwest with Buck a few years ago Escovedo originally was going to play as a duo, but booked rehearsal space before the tour’s opener so both bands could work up a couple of songs for the encore. They ended up working up an entire set. “The very first night Al was like , ‘Why don’t you guys just play the whole set with me?’ “

But then at a sold-out show in Portland, Escovedo had a sort of attack or seizure and couldn’t take the stage. The rest of the tour was canceled — at the insistence of Buck, who had watched REM drummer Bill Berry fall into his arms onstage suffering a stroke — and the performers went on to other projects.

Escovedo recovered and cured the hepatitis C that nearly killed him with the new treatment following his last appearance in Norfolk. “He’s feeling better than he has in 20 years,” McCaughey says, “and he’s out there ready to play.”
On the day we talk, McCaughey is fresh from a taping of Austin City Limits with Escovedo and the band, which also includes Buck, Bloch, and John Moen of The Decemberists on drums.

While they played together, it wasn’t until the last year or so that they sat down to write together. Writing with others is not new for Escovedo. After decades doing little collaboration, he’s worked with partners in the last decade. His two previous albums were collaborations with Chuck Prophet.

But then Escovedo always has been something of a musical chameleon, successfully modeling one new skin after another. In liner notes to his 1993 album, “Gravity,” Joe Nick Patoski described him as cast in a number of roles: “wayward son of America’s first family of rhythm, nihilist San Francisco neo-bohemian, leather-clad New York punk rocker, denim-clad L.A. neo-cowboy, tough but sensitive captain of a guitar army from Texas, and, most recently, conductor of an ensemble large enough, eclectic enough, and professional enough to call itself an orchestra.”

When Buck, Escovedo, and McCaughey first got together to write, McCaughey wondered if it would work because he often writes alone. “I’m not really at that (writing together),” he says. “But I’m certainly willing to give it a try. I’m more of the guy who sits in the basement and comes up with depressing songs. I kind of clam up around other people in the creative process, but he really wanted to do it, so I said, ok, I’ll give it a try.”

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They did the lion’s work of the writing in Buck’s basement on the dozen cuts for the disc. “Every song was a little different,” McCaughey says. “There were some that just came out of nowhere. Al started playing a riff. Peter and I have notebooks lying around and we start singing something. There were some Al had completely shaped and we sort of helped tweak. And on a few songs Peter or I had something going already. All were in various shapes of creation or dishevelment. Some we each brought to the table. Others we created out of thin air. “

One song, originally titled “Who Am I” started with a riff and a few words from Escovedo before Buck and McCaughey added lines, a new verse and different chords. When Escovedo mentioned the line “suit of lights,” McCaughey said they had to get it on the song and the song took another turn. They continued writing right up until the recording when Hogan stepped in to sing the second verse for what became “Suit of Lights” on “Burn Something Beautiful.”
“I felt it was a real great three-way collaboration,” McCaughey says, “one of the first ones.”

A Buck tune, “I Don’t Ever Want to Play Guitar Again” had the music changed and lyrics added by McCaughey and Escovedo. “Redemption Blues” was something Escovedo had worked up in McCaughey’s basement. They wanted Mavis Staples to sing on it, but there wasn’t time.

“I think we got a good variety of sounds and types of songs on the record,” McCaughey says. “At first, I thought it was going to be a blazing rock album. It is to a degree, but a few more ballad-y type songs round it out pretty well.”
They booked studio time for ten days in April at Type Foundry, the Portland studio that McCaughey uses for band work. Moen joined them.

Hogan had been on tour with The Decemberists in Australia and heard about the project. “I love Al,” she told Moen. “If you need anybody to do vocals I’ll come on my own time.” They thought she’d be great on two or three songs. She sang on ten.

Tucker stopped by to play on a few songs. And Steve Berlin of Los Lobos scratched out time from his busy schedule to contribute to a couple. The guys who hung out together back that night in the mid-80s when Fresh Fellows played with True Believers and Los Lobos were making music together in the studio three decades later. As McCaughey says, you start a fan, become friends, and maybe one day make music together.

After his three-week run of dates with Escovedo, McCaughey will go on to play more shows with friends. He’ll join Buck, Wynn, and Wynn’s wife, Linda Pitmon, the drummer, in Japan for shows with the Baseball Project, the Minus 5 and with Buck and Mike Mills. Then it’s on to Norway. “We’re really lucky to have this whole community of people. We’re all best friends. It’s an amazing thing,” he says. “There’s never a shortage of ideas and projects we want to do next.”
When he writes, obviously the Baseball Project songs center around one subject. But what about the others? Does he begin with a band or collaborators in mind?

“Sometimes I do. For some, I know this is a Fellows song,” he says. “But lots of time I just write songs, a whole bunch of them.”

He pauses. Depending on the next project, he says he may steer some tunes to one group or another. The Minus 5 tends to get the rockers. The slow, dismal psychedelic folk songs find other homes. “Only one one every (Minus 5) record,” he says. “We like to rock.”

“The short answer,” he concludes, “is I write them and I don’t know where they’re going to to until I figure it out later.”
He confesses to being thrilled one of his co-writes, “Taste the Ceiling,” ended up on Wilco’s “Star Wars” disc. “Jeff (Tweedy) is one of my favorite people, one of my best friends. I’m a huge fan of his music as well. I love hanging out with Jeff and spending time in The Loft (Tweedy’s Chicago base). There’s everything there a guy like me could want. A recording studio. Every kind of guitar you could want. Every kind of keyboard. Cool books. It’s just such a fun place.”
He recalls playing in the area, but says it’s been a long time. “I played in Norfolk. I’ve been there a few times with the Fellows. I think we played…is it the Kings Head?”

He’s told the legendary club is long gone. But the memory remains, static in a concert shot he covets.

“I’ve got a poster we made,” he says, “a live shot of us playing at the Kings Head.”


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My Favorite Music of 2016

This was a terrible year for music with the deaths of so many icons. But the material coming out of studios was the best it’s been in years. My list of favorites is as varied as I can remember.

Here are the albums that enchanted me the most this year, a list longer than usual because so many were worthy.

“American Band” — Drive-by Truckers.
I was a little late to embrace this band, but I’ve gone back and rectified that. This outspoken political statement is my favorite work of these sons of the South. “What It Means” is the song of the year. The album brilliantly explores the rural/urban divide in America. It features one lyrical op-ed after another from “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn” through “Guns of Umpqua” and on to “Kinky Hypocrite.” An important album that will endure, especially over the next four years.

 

“Blues and Ballads (A Folksinger’s Songbook)” — Luther Dickinson.
Dickinson, a member of the North Mississippi All-Stars, steps out with his second solo disc that sounds like a long night on a wrap-around porch. It opens with a series of catchy folks songs then shifts midway through with the Mavis Staples duet, “Ain’t No Grave,” into after-a-few bourbon down and dirty blues.

 

“Undercurrent” — Sarah Jarosz.

Jarosz is a prodigy, a superb player whose songwriting seemed on the cusp with her first two releases. This, her third, is a breakthrough. Her writing finally matches her incredible playing and singing.

 

“Dori Freeman” — Dori Freeman.

This is the aching, seep-into-your soul stirrings of a daughter of Galax and Appalachia. Her story — sending a song to Teddy Thompson and him offering to produce this record — is a fairytale. The songs manage to be both vulnerable and strong. And that voice, oh, that voice.

 

“Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” — Margo Price.

What a disc. Passionate, smart, and traditional yet somehow modern. The writing is smart, observant and topped only by her singing. She’s Patsy Cline and Lucinda Williams and every great country singer in between. She’s a fine storyteller. Listen to “Hands of Time,” “Four Years of Chances,” and “Since You Put Me Down.” In the latter, she writes “I killed the angle on my shoulder with a fifth of Evan Williams when I found out you were never coming home.”

 

“My Woman” — Angel Olsen.
That voice. It whispers, wavers, cracks, howls and is unapologetically provocative. It’s Patti Smith, Nico, and Chrissie Hynde for a new day. “At your worst I still believe it’s worth the fight,” she sings on “Shut Up Kiss Me,” the album’s catchiest declaration.

 

“Cradle to the Grave” — Squeeze.
What a surprise. Tilbrook and Difford back together after so many years and as good as ever. From the title track on through these come close to the band at its ’80s best.

 

“Paging Mr. Proust” — The Jayhawks.
Speaking of bands returning to form with an altered lineup, “Paging Mr. Proust” both looks back to the best of The Jayhawks, but also pushes into new territory. “Quiet Corners and Empty Spaces,” with those marvelous harmonies, and “Lies in Back and White” could slide easily into any of their classic discs while the psychedelic groove of “Ace” is a different direction.

 

“This Is Where I Live” — William Bell.

William Bell was a supporting player in the Stax cast (“Never Like This Before” and “Born Under a Bad Sign,” which he wrote). Now, he returns at 77 with a classic soul album produced by John Leventhal, aka Mr. Rosanne Cash. From the opening “The Three of Me” on through “Walking on a Tightrope” to the Curtis Mayfield-inspired “People Want to Go Home” this is sweet soul music.

 

“Sea of Noise” — St. Paul and the Broken Bones

The lyrics take a serious turn, but the band’s playing is as tight and rambunctious as ever. Moreover, the disc moves them past the revivalist stage into new territory, both catchy and challenging.

 

“case, lang, veirs” — case, lang, veirs.
This super-group album of Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs is a mesmerizing mix of incredible harmonies (natch) and enchanting songwriting. It’s pretty, but also profound. There is not one standout track you think has to be on a mixtape, but the entire gentle experience is one where by album’s end you wonder where the time went.

 

“No Burden” — Lucy Dacus.
Her world-weary voice and insistent guitar strumming seep into your head listen after listen. In some cases, this reminds me of the best of ’90s indie rock (Liz Phair). But it’s her voice that carries the day, supple and engaging.

 

“Upland Stories” — Robbie Fulks.

With a couple of Grammy nominations for this record, Fulks, who has played North Shore Point House Concerts twice, finally gets well-deserved mainstream recognition. The album makes a hard nod to Appalachia. It’s full of great stories (no surprise there) like “Needed,” the teen love story turned serious, and “South Bend Soldiers On,” the reflections of an old man on loss and time. There’s a deeply rootsy production with tasty fiddle, banjo, and, of course, the superb guitar stylings of Robbie Gjersoe, Fulks’s longtime playing partner. Fulks has written lots of songs filled with yucks. These are filled with lumps in the throat and deep reflections. It may be the best of his superb catalog.

“Real Midnight” — Birds of Chicago.

This is one of those albums that ends up in a player and just stays there, thanks to partners Allison Russell (formerly of Po’ Girl), who does most of the singing, and her husband, J.T. Nero, who does most of the writing. The great Joe Henry produced and he highlights simple playing and Russell’s supple, emotional voice. While it’s a great surface listen, repeated plays reveal the existential depth of the disc. Go on, dive in.

“Look Park” — Look Park.
After years away, former Fountains of Wayne main man Chris Collingwood returns with the pop rock record of the year. That doesn’t mean it’s a lightweight offering. He’s tired of the jokes and it shows in the smart, thoughtful lyrics, including “Shout,” his brilliant attempt at a sort of new national anthem.

“The Very Last Day” — Parker Millsap.
Millsap released a fine debut disc a couple of years ago, but he steps it up with his sophomore outing, a harder-rocking, deeper probing effort. This one opens with “Hades Pleads,” a rollicking blues number fueled by slide and fiddles and then shifts into the acoustic catchiness of “Pining” before slipping to the slow, soulful “Morning Blues.” You get the idea. Millsap’s vocals, front and center, simply won’t let you do anything less than pay close attention.

Best Live Shows of 2016

1. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Virginia Beach Amphitheater
2. Squeeze at The NorVa
3. Gary Louris at North Shore Point House Concerts
4. Jason Isbell with Frank Turner at Chrysler Hall
5. The Mavericks at The Sandler Center