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
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


‘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.


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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Sons of Bill Arrive with “Love and Logic”

AWP-2014_SonsOfBill-5388James Wilson, one of the three brothers in Charlottesville’s Sons of Bill, thinks the band’s fourth disc, “Love and Logic,” marks their arrival as a group. Wilson, along with brothers Sam and Abe, hooked up with former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer in Nashville as producer for the effort, which is one of the best deep listens of the year, an album that moves easily from acoustic Americana to ’80’s alt rock.

After a decade together, the band, which comes to The Parlor on Granby Street on Dec. 11, has matured and found its footing by being willing to take chances and follow their instincts. While they cross genres, the new record has the feeling of the original alt country bands of the 1990s who were steeped in a roosty foundation, but not constrained by boundaries. As Wilson says, it’s ok to like Merle Haggard and The Cure, John Prine and Pink Floyd. They owe those deep country roots to their father and the band’s namesake, Bill Wilson, a longtime associate professor of philosophical theology at the University of Virginia, who played music in town at clubs and even a local pizza parlor.  James Wilson, one of his three oldest sons who formed the band about a decade ago, recently took time to discuss the album and the group’s trajectory.

This is your fourth record. Was the process different for this one?

It was different. I think when we made (the third record) “Sirens” we were kind of in a weird personal and professional situation. There was just a lot of self-imposed pressure and nervous energy. I’m still proud of the record, but I think you can hear that — or, at least, I can. It sounds like a band a little bit unsure of itself.

The record came out and we parted ways with management and our agency. We were just kind of lone gunmen. We weren’t really sure how we were going to make a record really, whether we were going to be able to do it, who was going to do it. 

Ken (Coomer of Wilco) heard a song on a 45 on vinyl we put out for Record Store Day. He just said come down for a weekend and let’s make a record, let’s see how it feels. We knew the songs were different and we knew we wanted to get do a different place so working with him — you know, Wilco one of these bands that changes a lot record to record, always honing in, trying to explore new influences. We knew we wanted to do that with this record and he really helped us find our path.

How did he come across the 45?

We were talking with folks in Nashville about management and labels. We were free agents with nobody behind us and one of his friends thought he would like it.

We went down and we cut “Brand New Paradigm” from top to bottom on a Saturday. It was a song we’d struggled with. We’d tried to produce it on our own (at a studio) in Richmond, but we kept kind of running into these walls. Band disagreements. We could not get to where we wanted to go. We knew there was one coherent sound. We just needed to start being musical again, to play music again like when nobody ‘s watching, what makes you want to play music in the first place. You always reach the most people when you do it for yourself. Not trying so hard. Not worrying about radio. Not worrying about labels. All that bullshit. We just sat down and made something. We had the songs. We made a record the six of us can be proud of.

What did he bring to the process that was different or new?

The main thing was just the mentality. He’s like don’t worry about your previous records. We have an amazing dedicated fan base, but he was like don’t even think about what they expect from you. When you hit these walls, these exciting walls, it’s a big unknown where this is going so let’s not think about radio, not think about fan bases or labels or the contemporary sound. Let’s get back to the basics. Why do you all want to be in a band in the first place? Let’s get back to that. That’s what we did in Wilco when we did “Summerteeth.” We weren’t think about anything else.

I was thinking that album is analogous to your album in its diversity.

It was definitely that kind of mentality. It’s, ok, you like Merle Haggard and The Cure. Or Pink Floyd and John Prine. Let’s let all these things have life on this record. Let’s just make something beautiful that we love.

Also on a technical level (with Coomer) we got into an old studio and tracked to tape, but we also went from mic to mix on each song before moving on. On “Sirens” we did the more traditional. We trackedAWP-2014_SonsOfBill-5831-cropped all the drums, then we tracked all the bass, then all the guitars which can kind of lead to a more monotonous sound. Whereas on this one we said we’re going to spend the next three days on this song and we’re not going to move on until the song is done which makes you think more creatively. Do you need drums on this song? Can Sam play guitar? Can Sam play piano? Sam played piano on a lot of the record. Abe played guitar on a lot of the record.

You’re worried, then, is the record going to hang together. I think it does. It’s very honestly us the whole way through. There’s bigger productions like “Brand New Paradigm” and then there’s songs like “Fishing Song,” for which Abe and I went into a room, sat across from each other, and sang. That’s one take.

Ken had the mentality that you guys are a career band. You’re kind of misfits in the Americana world and that’s ok. You don’t need to sound like The Avett Bros. You don’t need to sound like fucking Lumineers. So be true to yourself record after record and it’s going to work out. What he’s saying proved to be true the last three months. The record is reaching people it needs to reach.

How does the writing work? Do you each write and bring songs to the band?

On this record, we did more co-writing than ever. In the past, the records were predominantly my songs, but this one is all over the place. The brothers share writing pretty much equally. We just trusted each other to write together, just taking the songs and seeing where we could go with it, taking a lot of time with the writing. We sat on “Brand New Paradigm” and “Lost in the Cosmos” for a long time. We really paid a lot of attention to the lyrics. It felt like by far the most cohesive.

Which is why we didn’t want other players. We were in Nashville. We could have brought in other players. It was like, no, I’d rather have Sam play the piano and pedal steel and Abe play guitar.

It’s a rock and roll cliché, but it (“Love and Logic”) really does feel like an arrival point. It really does. As one writer put it: with “Sirens” we were saying here we are, look at us. With “Love and Logic” it’s quietly saying this is really what we want to say.

Three brothers in a band that’s been going on for a while now. Any sibling rivalries?

My brothers are my best friends. I’m in a band with them because I respect them so much musically.

When bands are getting ripped apart, brother bands, that only happens when the music isn’t your primary focus, when other things start to matter more. If it’s more about partying or money. We just want it to sound great at the end of the day. Abe wrote “Lost in the Cosmos” and he let met sing it because he cared about the music being as good as it can be. That’s something that takes a lot of trust and you have to have guys on the same page.

It’s also me saying maybe I’m not just the front man in the band and me letting my brothers take more of a role and seeing how great they are at it. I’m proud to be in a band like that. I wouldn’t want it to change. We do get along remarkably well, considering the potential for some kind of Credence Clearwater experience.

What about Nashville vs. Charlottesville?

I’m splitting time there. I like it that way. Nashville is a great city, but it’s also a very industry-focused city. It’s good to have an escape valve in both ways. I love my hometown. I love Charlottesville. We’re a Virginia band. You can hear it. You can see it. We always will be. But it’s also good to spend time in Nashville. And bring in a new sound. We’re not writing songs the way they’re writing songs in Nashville, certainly not in the country world or the rock and indie worlds as well. We have our own sound. I like being a Virginian in Nashville.

Tell me about some of the songs on the album: “Brand New Paradigm.”

Abe wrote it. I really admire Abe as a writer. Half the time I don’t know what he’s talking about so I don’t ask him. His songs really affect me emotionally. I think he’s a real poet. That is a song he wrote on piano. It kind of has a Bealtes-y/Pink Floyd piano ballad feel. I just thought it was beautiful. Abe is always one of those guys who operates on instinct. I think the song is about letting go in some broad way, letting yourself go to the forces at work in the universe instead of spending every breath fighting the tide. It is a song that might not make sense on a previous Sons of Bill record, but I think it makes sense on this record. It’s certainly one of my favorite songs on the album. When I asked him what it was about, he said it was about drugs and I said ok.

“Bad Dancer” opens with a banjo line and then becomes a rock song.

That was Ken just going crazy. He was like, man, you guys are from Virginia. Anyone play the banjo? Let’s put a banjo on this song. We love bluegrass and we love New Wave. Why not? It’s a song. It was that kind of mentality that we did the whole record with.

“Lost in the Cosmos” makes a reference to a Chris Bell solo disc from way back.

Big Star, one of those bands from the South. We kind of discovered them through the back end, through REM and The Replacements. Abe and I were just really struck by Chris Bell’s story. As much as the song is about Chris Bell, I think it could really be about any artist that is struggling to find his place in the world or any artist who is maybe too sensitive to handle reality.
What Abe always says is Alex Chilton got his song (The Replacement’s “Alex Chilton”). Why not write a song for Chris Bell? “Number One Record,” that first Big Star record, is really Chris Bell’s record.

Some of those songs on the Eye of the Cosmos record are beautiful. “Better Save Yourself” is horrifying beautiful. It sounds like southern Alice in Chains. Where is this guy coming from? It’s so haunting, the chord changes, the melody. It’s a beautiful album that not enough people know. But obviously the fire burned too hot.

SoB-9-24-10-@-Jefferson-16The obligatory background question. Tell me how the band got together.

We were all in different bands in different parts of the country. We’d never been in a band together. We grew up singing in church. My dad played bluegrass and country and we took classical piano lessons. Sam was playing jazz in New York. I was out West doing my country folkie writing. Abe was outside of D.C. in a couple of rock bands, but also working on an architecture degree.

We all found ourselves coming back to Virginia. Sam and I were both kind of disillusioned with the groups we were in and the music we were playing. We kind of got back to what made us want to make music in the first place. There’s so much posturing in rock and roll, especially now in this Spotify world where the industry is scared. It’s a broken model. It’s such an easy time to give in to those trends and the posturing. This band has always been about not losing what made us want to do it when we were kids. That’s the story behind the name. It felt right. It’s grown and changed but that was the original impetus.

Your dad played bluegrass and country. Was there a lot of music played in the house?

We all got into rock and roll very early. A lot of bands were influenced by the rock their parents had. That wasn’t the case with us. My dad had like two boxed CDs, a Gregorian chant CD and then he played the country music he loved. We were introduced to songs through my dad more than anything. I didn’t know who wrote “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” (by Merle Haggard), but I knew all the words to it in fourth grade. It was what my dad thought was beautiful and tragic and worth singing. Those are the kinds of songs worth building on. “Hobo’s Lullaby” or “Long Black Veil.” My brothers and I are very different. We like a lot of very different music. But my dad sort of showed us what makes a song timeless and worth singing and standing alone as a beautiful American artifact, something that’s stuck with us.”

You have a new agent and the album is on a new label, Thirty Tigers.

We’ve got a new manager now and people who really believe in this record. It’s all part of the family now. We’re touring Europe. The record comes out there. That looks like it’s going to be great. It’s been really good. We’re just finally comfortable in our own skin, professionally and artistically. We don’t need to be any other band or what anybody else or what radio wants to play. It just feels so good to be ourselves. We’re nerdy guys from the South who love rock and roll. That’s ok. It doesn’t need to make any marketable sense. I’d rather be in that band than try to be somebody else, no matter what happens.

Life isn’t going to work out. It’s going to end one way. So how you spend your life and what you have to say while you’re here — you’ve got to be honest with yourself and the people you’re singing for instead of chasing some white whale and ending up at the fucking bottom of the ocean.

Sons of Bill with the Will Overman Band at The Parlor on Granby, Thursday, Dec. 11. Tickets are $10 in advance. http://www.theparlorongranby.com/

Shovels & Rope Dive into the Swimmin’ Hole


For Cary Ann Hearst of the dark and raucous duo, Shovels & Rope, the first sign she and now husband Michael Trent created powerful music together was a cover of a Ramones tune.

“For me, there’s a recording of us singing “Judy is a Punk,” a Ramones song in, like, trucker country style. We showed it to all our friends. Check this out, man,’ she says.

If you’ve heard Shovels & Rope’s intense and critically-acclaimed debut, “O’ Be Joyful,” where they tread the winding path from Johnny and June to Jack and Meg, that’s not a shock.

The disc made them the big winners, along with Emmylou Harris, at the Americana Music Awards. They won for best emerging artist and also beat labelmates, The Lumineers, for Song of the Year with “Birmingham,“ the semi-autobiographical story of how they became Shovels & Rope after successful careers solo and with other bands, agreeing to marry their artistic pursuits during a three-hour ride from Nashville to Birmingham.

The song propelled their album onto many best-of lists and earned them opening slots for Hayes Carll, Butch Walker, The Felice Brothers, and Justin Townes Earle. Now, they’ll be headlining theaters this fall supporting their superb sophomore effort, “Swimmin’ Time,” released this week. They play at Town Point Park on the evening of Sept. 13 as part of the ETC Festival.

Getting together – and deciding to play as a duo, abandoning their solo careers, wasn’t easy. “It was a series of circumstances,” Trent says. “We had both been working on our own personal things for so long that at the very beginning it seemed scary to throw those things in the garbage and start from scratch,” Trent says. “It takes a long time to get something going even though we were getting real opportunities to tour with other acts. But if we were trying to do that individually, we would never see each other and that would be a drag.”

Trent jokes that joining together doubled the time they could play because each brought their solo catalog. “If we were trying to do this individually, we would never see each other and that would be a drag,” he adds.

One way to chart their success is to track their transportation. For a long time, for hundreds of performances, it was just the two of them and their dog, Townes van Zandt, traveling the country in a van, often sleeping on the queen mattress in back, parked in a strip lot or at a park. They moved up to an RV, which they’re now selling, and most recently to a tour bus. The van, though, remains at home, the “engine light always on,” Trent cracks, their home, no matter what, something they’ll keep just in case.

Yes, they’re successful, but it took them a long time to embrace it. Before our interview, they were at Utah’s Lake Powell, wakeboarding and hiking Hole in the Rock in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. “Five days in the Utah desert,” Hearst says. “No phone. No Internet. Lots of sunburn.”

Kicking back got her to thinking things may be looking up for them. “It only occurred to me yesterday that this was working out really great,” she says, laughing. “I think this thing is going do to ok. We’ll see.”

On “Birmingham” they outlined their minimalist plan:

 When the road got rough and the wheels all broke

Couldn’t take more then we could tow

Making something out of nothing with a scratch and a hope

With two old guitars like a shovel and a rope

 They have always made music as a duo and success won’t change that. Hearst says it’s been challenging working up some of the studio songs as a duo (they trade off on guitars and a beat-up, salvaged drum kit with keys attached).

The first single off “Swimmin’ Time’ is “The Devil Is All Around,” a redemption song about making changes in your life that’s surprisingly uplifting. “It’s the idea you can redeem yourself at any particular time,” she adds. Their voices merge for the verses, singing:

I’m going down the long road, maybe it’s the wrong road

Either way I’ve got to find my way back home again

And it’s too late to turn back now, gotta get the lead on out

Gotta find some way to make it right, oh

Another song of overcoming, “After the Storm,” is a slow burn worthy of Patsy Cline before Cary breaks the quiet with passionate wail of “Won’t you help me to get through it? I’ve been flailing like a child.”

“Evil,” Trent says, is the song of two misunderstood people. “Stono River Blues” makes a sideways reference to the 1739 Stono slave rebellion in the midst of some wailing Neil Young guitar work. For comic relief, there’s “Fish Assassin,” a Louisiana stomp about a day on the river. “Mary Ann and One-Eyed Dan” is a meandering narrative of two meandering souls finding a life together done, of course, with their trademark wink and smile.

They recorded most of the album at home on St. John’s Island in Charleston, just the two of them with a friend supplying some horn parts. Trent handled the producer’s chores. “We feel like we can get the end result without having another person in the room,” he adds. “Sometimes that can dilute what you’re doing. With just us, we’re free to be as creative as we want and make the record however we want. We don’t have somebody standing over our shoulders telling us to change anything. I feel like it’s the most honest way to make a record for us.”

The duo opened for Old Crow Medicine Show during late August. They will be back on the road themselves in September, playing the new record to new and old fans. Hearst admits she found herself falling for the disc when she got a promotional copy this summer.

“We lived with it so intimately we kind of put it to bed for awhile,” she says of “Swimmin’ Time.” “I got the first promotional copy of it and I was driving around listening to it as if it wasn’t mine and just taking it for a ride and I really enjoyed it.

“I was raised you don’t listen to your own records and you don’t rest on your laurels. You should never think anything you’ve recorded is the greatest damn thing in the world. That’s the way our mind works,” she adds, “But you have to give yourself credit. I really think our songs have this wonderful spectrum on this record. The tough stuff is really tough. The dark stuff is really dark. But the hopeful places are really shining through with hope. It’s excitable in that it’s primitive.”


My Favorite Music of 2013

jasonisbellThere was a time when I spent hours thinking of clever ways to describe the music of the past year. There’s not much need now. A brief description and a video and you can make up your mind whether my taste has soured or not.

So here’s what I listened to the most this year, a year that I thought was the best for new music in a long, long time.

Jason Isbell – Southeastern. This is the sound of a life falling apart and nearly ending and then trying to figure a way back from the darkness. Isbell’s disc is by far the album I listened to the most this year. “Traveling Alone” is simply stunning. “Stockholm” isn’t exactly subtle, speaking of a man trapped and entranced by his captors, whether people or addictions, looking to go home. “Cover Me Up” is the bluntest of confessions and a statement of resolve. “Elephant” will rip out your heart.

Aoife O’Donovan – Fossils. Languid, mellow and so entrancing. O’Donovan sings beautifully and plays with great taste, but don’t ignore the lyrical depth here. Check out the lyrics on “Beekeeper.”

Caitlin Rose – The Stand-In. This is why algorithms will never replace people. I learned about this album from Barry Friedman at Birdland Records when I walked in there one afternoon and he declared I had to have it. As usual, he was right. Rose moves easily from country rock to lounge crooner with a sexy swagger that’s irresistible.

Black Lillies – Runaway Freeway Blues. Last year, it was Shovels and Rope. This year it is the Black Lillies, simply a great alt-country band. Superb stories, the ability to be quiet and rocking. Listen to “The Fall” and try to tell me otherwise.

Kim Richey – Thorn in My Heart.Kim has traveled a lot of ground, geographically and sonically, moving from Nashville to London and back again. This brings her back to the beginnings, the great country songs that got her start in Nashville (we met in the 1990s when she was the centerpiece of a story on songwriters). There’s plenty of heartache here and that’s mighty fine. Check out the duet with Jason Isbell on “Break Away Speed.”

Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward. Robbie is in trad country mode here and he pulls it off with deep, reflective grace. He writes about place, about memory, about everyday things. “That’s Where I’m From” is brilliant.

Bill Callahan – Dream River. Callahan is best known as Smog. I didn’t know him until a PR person sent me this dark, stunning, occasionally baffling album. Think of Leonard Cohen meets Tom Waits. At times, Callahan uses his baritone as much to convey sounds and feelings as he does words. Listen to him sing “barroom, barroom” in “Seagull” or “Beer. Thank you” in the opener, “The Sing.”

Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.She started out as an alt country chanteuse and now Case’s songs and vocals have become increasingly complex and unpredictable. But this album may also be her most beautiful.

Holly Williams – The Highway. Yes, she has a famous daddy and a famous granddaddy, but this is the third strong solo album from the haunting Holly. She sings of love, of life on the road, and of life’s realizations on this quiet, reflective record.

Chic Gamine – Closer. Four women with incredible voices, one percussionist. For the most part, that’s it on this album which merges doo wop, soul, and girl group pop. I dare you not to love the title cut.

Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison – “Cheater’s Game.” Robison and Willis, partners in life, finally release a duo disc. Great choice of covers, superb harmonies, rough and smooth.

Garland Jeffreys – Truth Serum. Garland, another North Shore Point House Concerts alum, has typically been a slow writer, leaving years between albums, but he has been on a roll. This is another strong effort, typically mixing rock, pop, reggae, and blues along with social commentary.

Slaid Cleaves – Still Fighting the War.His best album in a list of good ones, affecting, honest.

The Lone Bellow – The Lone Bellow.I played this once and set it aside only to revisit it months later. This is catchy Americana with stunning harmonies — from a Brooklyn group.

Tim Easton – Not Cool.Easton comes back strong with a retro Sun Records sound.

Greg Trooper – Incident on Willow Street. The man can sing with such emotion. Soulful Americana. He’s been one of my favorite songwriters for a long time.

One of the songs I played a ton wasn’t released in 2013. It was Amanda Shires “When You Need a Train.” It’s darkly brilliant.

Martin Sexton Fishes For Harmony

sexton For Martin Sexton, the songs just weren’t coming. So he invited one of his writing buddies, Crit Harmon, up to his summer place in New York’s Adirondacks not far from Lake Placid to go fishing.

Sexton needed the distraction. So they cast for northern pike, bass, and perch and Sexton indulged in barbecuing, another passion of his, smoking ribs, pork, and other caveman specialties. The songs started to emerge, like fish rising to the bait.
“We kind of dovetailed fishing into our songwriting,” Sexton says by phone from his home in western Massachusetts. “It’s actually a good technique to provide that little bit of distraction that I need. When I focus too hard on something, it just doesn’t flow.”

On tour recently, he had a day off and visited the Grand Canyon. People expected him to come away inspired. “But it’s the opposite for me,” he says. “I probably have a touch of what we now call ADD. If I’m too stimulated with beauty around me, I can’t focus. Rainy days or late at night is when I do my best writing. That’s the work part of my job, the writing is the hard part.”

The easy part is getting up on stage and playing a couple of hours, something he’ll be doing solo January 11 at The Attucks Theatre in Norfolk. But he likes having written a song. “I’m a very blessed individual,” he says. “I get to do things that I like. I get to smoke meat while I’m writing songs. At the end of the day, we’ve got this piece of art I can turn into money. It’s a beautiful thing. I can take music and turn it into gold. Thank you, god. Thank you, universe.”

During the fishing and smoking days upstate, .Sexton came up with an EP’s worth of songs that typically moves from the personal — an anniversary thank-you to his wife — to the political — tunes calling for unity and championing the joys of disconnecting and enjoying the world. The title track, “Fall Like Rain,” explores how plugged in you can become by unplugging.

I wanna feel, I wanna fall like rain
With no shelter so I can feel which way the wind is blowing today
I wanna love, I wanna see the world
Gonna tell the truth and feel the sun come shining down on my face

“We were trying to write a song about what it would be like to not have all the trappings of modern life – cellphones, earbuds, cash in your pocket, drugs, alcohol, to just be completely wide open for life’s terms and that song came out,” he says.

That’s Sexton, pushing for something beyond, something a little deeper. He won’t be doing any guest spots on “The Voice.”

The disc features Sexton’s jazzy rendering of the Buffalo Springfield classic, “For What It’s Worth.” Rather than wait until he had enough songs to make a full album, he decided to release the EP this spring. The Occupy movement was still strong in his memory. He had sentiments he wanted to broadcast. “I had these songs I thought were pertinent now,” he says. “They had to to with unity and I wanted to get them out pretty immediately.”

Recently, someone told him that he’s becoming more political. He doesn’t buy it. Sexton says that edge has always been there. On the demo cassette that he sold 20,000 copies out of his guitar case playing the streets of Boston, he had “My Faith Is Gone,” a song about being shut down by the cops in Cambridge as a street singer that also references endless wars. The tune is two decades old. “I’ve recently brought it back into my live repertoire,” he says, “because it’s totally poignant now.”

Sexton sees himself as a someone who enables the discussion as much as shouts from the rooftops. “I’ve always been introspective and political in my own way, writing about what I see that becomes what people call political,” he adds. “I’d like to think of myself as a bit of a lightning rod, or a weather van. I’m up here singing about what I’m seeing. Ina way, I’m a messenger. I don’t necessarily have any dogs in the fight. I want to use my art. I want to do more than entertain you with a nice pop song.

He’s been touring behind the record all year and is heartened by the reaction in these tough times. One thing he says is if anyone is out of work and can’t afford the $5 disc, his merchandise person will give it away. “Every single night, in a wonderful testament to human generosity, at least a couple of people give the guy a $10 bill and say here, this is for the guy who comes to the merchandise stand to get the record for free,” he says. “So they’re paying it forward. It’s a wonderful example of how good people truly are.”

For Sexton, one of the pleasures of releasing albums on his own label, something he’s done for a decade, is he gets to say what he wants, when he wants. “No one is telling me we’re going to pull your funding if you give interviews saying you think the New World Order is not what they say it is,” he says. “It’s freedom. It’s liberty. That is golden.”

It’s also profitable for Sexton, who says nothing but good things about this two-record deal with Atlantic (his debut, “Black Sheep,” came out in 1996 on Koch). A live record in 2001 launched his independent career, a career inspired by Ani DiFranco’s example. He’s grasped the new technologies and new outlets for his work. His songs can be heard in many feature films and television including NBC’s Scrubs, Parenthood and Showtime’s hit series Brotherhood..

“Since then new avenues have arisen with social media and satellite, outlets kind of replacing traditional means of transmission via commercial radio,” he says. ” I’ve sold more more records as an independent artist than I did on a major label. It’s been a wonderful time. We’re really thrived without that backing of multi-national corporate dollars.”

Sexton is the tenth of 12 children. There was, he says, some wrestling for the needle on the turntable. He listened to Zeppelin and Hendrix. One brother favored Streisand and Reddy, while another was into Frampton and Fleetwood Mac. “I would sneak into the attic to listen to their records,” he says. “Man, I remember putting “Frampton Comes Alive” on and putting on headphones and howling to the crowd and the opening lick of “Do You Feel Like We Do.” That was the kindling that lit my fire.”

The fire went out of control thanks to The Beatles. Many artists are said to defy labels, but Sexton truly is one of them. He rocks. He sings literate folk. He jumps into jazzy phrasing. He credits The Beatles for that adventuring.

“I just lived and breathed Beatles through my adolescence,” he says. “If you listen to their records, it’s like a cross country (musical) trip. The white album has everything from “Blackbird,” a folk song with a guy and a guitar, to “Helter Skelter,” which is acid rock, to “Revolution No. 9,” which is a freak-out. Then there’s a boogie-woogie song like “Honey Pie.” Every genre of music is on that record and a lot of other Beatles records as well.”
Sexton’s show at The Attucks will be solo. He goes on stage without a set list and just plays what feels right, including taking requests shouted from the audience.

“I get people singing four part harmony, Republicans, Democrats, gays, straights, black, white, old young,” he says. “All singing in harmony. That’s what music is for, I think, to bring people together. It’s a very powerful force. It moves people. It changes the world.”

My Favorite Albums of 2011

For me, it was a good year for music. I listened to more and liked more than I have in several years.

Here are the albums I listened to and enjoyed the most.

Garland Jeffreys – “The King of In Between”

Jeffreys’ first album in 13 years features his strongest material since 1991’s “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat,” one of the signature discs of that decade. Jeffreys typically moves easily through rock and roll, reggae, and folk blues as the melodic foundation for his mix of personal history and social commentary.

J.D. Souther – “Natural History”

Souther takes his considerable back catalog, notably songs like “New Kid in Town,” “Sad Cafe,” and “Best of My Love” that were hits for The Eagles, and strips them down to their basics. showcasing his silky voice.

Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers — “Starlight Hotel.”

What a revelation. Muth comes out of Seattle, but does country the old fashioned way, backed by pedal steel and telecaster. The songs are smart, funny, and sad. She’s an authentic new voice not to miss.

Tara Nevins – “Wood and Stone”

Nevins’s second solo effort is a stellar collection that moves easily from fiddle music to contemporary folk rock to Cajun. It’s an album that sounds familiar, yet new, not an easy feat. Nevins is joined by a few guests, notably Levon Helm, who pounds the skin on three cuts, Jim Lauderdale, who lends harmonies on the back porch sound of “Snowbird,” and Allison Moorer. Larry Campbell, the multi-instrumentalist genius who has played extensively with Bob Dylan in recent years, produces and lends his string talents all over the place.

The Low Anthem — “Smart Flesh”

The Low Anthem’s (http://www.thelowanthem.com) first major label effort is a haunting masterpiece, a new generation’s “Music From the Big Pink.” Like the mystical alchemy The Band conjured in a West Saugerties, New York, house, the four members of the Low Anthem have created a new sound, turning our expectations of Americana (or Alt Americana, if you will) on its head, partly by using the sonics of the place.

Greg Trooper – “Upside-Down World”

When the Hammond B-3 kicks in to start this album, trailed by Trooper’s resonant, soulful, alt-country vibrato, it’s clear one of America’s best (and underappreciated) songwriters is taking us along for another enchanting ride through a life of bruised relationships, guarded hopes, and interesting characters.

Lori McKenna – “Lorraine”

The image of Lori  McKenna is that of a blue collar housewife sitting at her kitchen table penning songs that somehow find their way onto the albums of country superstars (Faith Hill, Keith Urban). But that doesn’t do justice to the depth, subtlety and honesty of her songs, stripped down to their essence on her largely acoustic solo albums (although this one has strings in just the right places and background vocals from Kim Carnes).  She is the girl who married her high school sweetheart and quickly had babies — five in all. McKenna does the difficult — writing about life, real life, with an unerring eye. It’s all here, the shadowing doubts, the gentle joys, the people we recognize from our lives. McKenna is a staple of the Boston folk scene, but her voice is more heartland than right coast, more open spaces than urban races.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – “Here We Rest.”

Isbell transports us to his native Alabama with all the ups and downs through his stories. This one puts him into the same discussion as Steve Earle and other masterful storytellers.

Lucinda Williams – “Blessed”

For me, this was a return to form for Williams, a record with aching ballads, hard rockers and without the self consciousness of the last few.

Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter – “Marble Son.”

Feedback-drenched psychedelia opens this disc, a harder shot of rock than her last one. Think of it as Americana meets Zeppelin in places. The lyrics are smart and mystical. And then there’s her voice, as alluring, as distinctive as any in music today.

The Civil Wars – “Barton Hollow”

Perhaps the surprise of the year, a quiet, intense, and beautiful melding of voices and talents. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.

Wilco – “The Whole Love.”

A return to their ecclectic roots, with the expected twists and turns.

Danny Schmidt — “Man of Many Moons”

This is a smart working-man’s album, poetic and affecting, framed by Schmidt’s singing.

The Smithereens – “2011”

These guys, makers of such great rock and roll in the 1990s, hook up again with producer Don Dixon and lightning strikes twice. It’s all you’d expect from a Smithereens album.

Magic Moments: A Decade of House Concerts

It was the nightmare I’d feared for over a decade of hosting 60 house concerts: a rogue storm, threatening almost from the time Tara Nevins and Carol Elizabeth Jones took the stage, finally unleashed a torrent about an hour into the show.

Oh, it had rained before on nights I’d hosted shows at my series, North Shore Point House Concerts, but we always either had rented a tent or put the performers in the spacious wood garage. Hours earlier, my sound man and I, coddled by the clear forecast, had decided to set up outside under blue skies.

By the time the sheet of water descended, we’d covered the stage with one canopy and the sound board with another. People raced to shelter onstage, in the garage, and in the house. “We should go inside and just play acoustic,” Tara said, huddling onstage as people retrieved garbage bags to cover the instruments.

Fans with umbrellas and garbage bags ferried others inside during the deluge. There was food. There was drink. I shared bottles of Woodford Reserve and Knob Creek that I’d stashed away for the after-show. The air conditioning couldn’t keep pace; makeshift fans were fashioned.

Tara and Carol Elizabeth fixed themselves a fresh drink and sat in front of the living room fireplace. Furniture was pushed to the walls and people crowded in, many settling on the floor at their feet, a new fashioned bluegrass sit-in. Others crammed the entryway and the nearby dining room, some talking, others jockeying for a spot closer.

Tara and Carol Elizabeth played, and played, and then, when they wanted to finish, the crowd begged for one more, an old fiddle tune. A couple who attends nearly every show sat cross-legged right in front, fanning them as the music got hotter and hotter. A Donna the Buffalo fan, at his first North Shore Point show, swayed against the rear wall, occasionally singing along, encouraged by the Woodford Reserve and the moment. A daughter, up from Durham with her father, mouthed the lyrics to every song (Here is a link to their review of the evening).

They played everything they knew, outlasting the storm. With every song, every laugh or bit of applause, every shared nod, the evening became symbolic of the magic that’s happened time and again on these nights.

House concerts are many things. They’re about exploration, the thrill of discovery, of finding a new voice worth hearing. They’re about intimacy, a chance to break down the barrier between artist and audience. They’re often the only chance to get a coveted songwriter to play in this town (or many other towns, apparently; we’ve had fans travel from Nashville, Durham, D.C. and other far-flung locales for shows).

They’re about becoming a part of a community, meeting people with a shared interest in music — and maybe beer and wine and conversation. No doubt, dozens of those connections have been made at my house over the past decade. They’re about people like Bill, Mary, Mike, Wendy, Marc, Lou, Minnie, Gail, Sid, Ron, Gayle, Pat, Kelly, Russ, Barry, Charlie, Lisa, Ray, Sound Man Jim, and others who attend show after show, probably almost as much for the community as the music.
To me, house concerts, at least, my house concerts, ultimately are about these shared moments, moments created by the performer, but enabled by the setting and the community.

In the early days, artists and particularly their agents had to be convinced to book a house concert. Because of our attendance — we’ve had up 205 people at a show although a usual crowd is 80 to 100 — I’ve been able to make guarantees that made them easier to convince. Now, there are hundreds of house concert series, large and small, regularly and irregularly scheduled, across the country. They’re a part of the business plan for songwriters new and old. For every show we host, I could book five more.

At our series, all the donations at the door go to the artist. We front the money for sound, lights, chairs, when necessary, and a small stage when necessary. We do shows in three formats, outside, inside our spacious old garage, and in our living room, depending on the season and the demand for seats. Only a couple of times has the door failed to meet my guarantees and the one time the shortfall was serious happened to be the night a couple of regulars decided (not knowing) that they’d make a huge donation to help cover our costs. So, yes, each show is a nervy game of “will I cover the guarantee?,” but as host it’s my job to get the artists a decent payday.

The reward, of course, is being the maestro of those magic moments, so many over roughly 60 shows. We had a successful free trial run with Michael Lille, a superb songwriter native to Nofolk. The first show we booked asking for a donation came six months later and featured Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, a duo I’d heard on NPR. True to the shows that would follow, the informal setting encouraged them to try a song so new that Tracy read the lyrics from a notebook page. What I called the “dark womb” song appeared years later after Dave’s tragically early death on Tracy’s solo album as “Mother, I Climbed,” a haunting meditation on faith.

Indulge me looking back over a decade of the moments since that first show. Garland Jeffreys saying he didn’t need an introduction, then walking among the milling crowd, singing “Moonshine in the Cornfield” a cappella winding his way to the stage. Greg Trooper, master storyteller, mesmerizing on a chilly October night with a tale about a guy in a bar in Oklahoma, who during the break, told him he sounded just like one of his favorite songwriters, Greg Trooper.

Jeff Black bringing men to tears closing his first set with “Sunday Best” and “Gold Heart Locket. ” Jim Lauderdale saying the house had a “great vibe,” writing a song between sound check and the show, and then enduring an evening during which the electricity flickered during the first set until we realized the line into the house was literally burning out and ran extension cords to the side with good juice. Eliza Gilkyson‘s delight at returning — and then returning again. Kim Richey enchanted by her first house concert such that she sang until her voice surrendered (and then enchanted my children the next morning). She wasn’t the only first-timer. Garland Jeffreys, Dave Alvin, Steve Forbert, Marshall Crenshaw, Tom Russell, Tara Nevins, and others were house concert virgins who left converts.

There was Jason Ringenberg swinging his guitar and narrowly missing decapitating a front row fan and stomping the hardwood so hard with his boot heel that people checked for dents during halftime. Jimmy LaFave and band (a rare band show) coming into the garage on a threatening night and openly wondering if it could hold 90 people (including some outside space) and whether it was a good idea, then blowing the roof off during a summer shower and raving about the vibe and the community after the show. Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell and band hitting on all cylinders on a raucous and sweltering night. Don Dixon and Marti Jones, together again, leading the audience singing “Praying Mantis” as a round. Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion’s very young daughter singing on stage for the first time. Sam Baker showing up with John Fullbright and Natalia Zukerman, two artists I didn’t know well, and deciding it would be cool to sit in the round with Kevin Welch and play songs all night, which the four of them made memorable. Amy Rigby making some of the men in attendance noticeably uncomfortable with songs like “Balls,” “Cynically Yours,” and “Beer and Kisses.”

The guys in Jimmy LaFave’s band lingered after the show to talk with fans. “You’ve got a special thing going on here,” one veteran of the road said. We hear that a lot, and, like hearing a regular has discovered a new favorite artist, it never gets old.

There are the before show dinners, at their best a respite for good food and conversation (at their worst, when musicians are late, a rushed feast as fans file in). Peter Case remembered the seared salmon with champagne vinegar potato sauce and requested it the next time. Mary Gauthier, once a chef, offered a bow to the honey gingered pork tenderloin. Eliza Gilkyson gobbled up the black bean and rice salad. Madison Violet squirreled away the leftovers for the long, after-show road trip to Toronto.

After the show, there’s often bourbon and BS. Welch, Baker, and Fullbright sipping bourbon and discussing an artist’s responsibility to his audience. David Olney debating racism in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” firing bourbon-laced ice at his antagonist. Trooper telling tales about Dan Penn, finishing songs for Aretha by writing in a studio closet. Martin Stephenson and his dobro player sitting out back, joining with a few regulars with guitar to play until 3 a.m. 

Performers often suggest artists to book. Welch and Richey recommended David Olney, a songwriter I didn’t know Months later at the show, a regular sitting in the back stopped me to whisper: “This guy is **&^* incredible. Where did you find him?”

Those moments are why I’m still excited before every show, why I’ve already booked shows into 2012 with artists like Steve Forbert, Garland Jeffreys, Kim Richey who’ve been here before, and artists new to North Shore like Nora Jane Struthers, Danny Schmidt and Carrie Elkin, Peter Cooper and Eric Brace and the legendary folk/blues master, Eric Andersen.

So I’m pouring two fingers of Knob Creek and raising a toast, not to the past,  but to the future and another decade of magic moments.