Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Nashville Unlimited 2014

Nashville Unlimited Christmas is a tradition that has evolved over the last 15 years and one I've latched onto over the last six or seven of them.

Dave Pomeroy is a long-time, in-high-demand, Nashville session bass player. If you've listened to country music recorded in Nashville over the last 30 years or so, there is a good chance you heard Pomeroy's work on the recording. He also toured for years as a member of Don Williams' band.

While looking for a charity in 1993 to donate money generated by his Christmas concerts and recordings, Pomeroy became aware of Room In The Inn. Two decades later, he openly states his life has been changed for the better and has developed a much greater awareness of the moral and social issues addressed by Room In The Inn. I can state unequivocally I feel the same way - though the slap to my head came about 5 years after it did for Dave.

Each December since 2000, Pomeroy has hosted the “Nashville Unlimited Christmas” concert at Christ Church Cathedral. The production comes across as professional yet informal - though I'm sure the behind-the-scenes logistics may drive one to pull out their hair. Pomeroy calls in an amazing and diverse array of musicians and singers to volunteer a few minutes for a great cause and incredible evening of music. Though many think of Music City as just a country town, Nashville Unlimited has proven to all that the scene is far richer than that. Country is played certainly - but jazz, R&B, big band, rockabilly, instrumentals, a capella songs, etc. are often heard the same evening.

The show isn't heavily promoted, and no tickets are sold. Folks are welcome into the church, and donations are collected. The only reserved, VIP seats are in the first few rows of pews. In those pews sit many of the individuals helped by Room In The Inn's support programs.

Through this simple approach, Pomeroy's efforts have raised in excess of $250,000 to help Room In The Inn and their outreach efforts to the homeless and marginalized of Nashville.

After missing the 2013 concert, I was pleased to attend again this year on December 9th. Pomeroy opened the show with only his bass and vocals. He opened with the traditional O Little Town Of Bethlehem followed his original and fun I Wish It Could Always Be Christmas.

Lorianna Matera (Facebook)was then introduced to sing Willie Nelson's Pretty Paper.

I wasn't familiar with the next performer, songwriter Alan Rhody (web). He performed two of his own songs - White Water and Christmas to Christmas. I learned the latter has been recorded by Lee Greenwood and Toby Keith - ehh, not really two of my faves though hopefully the periodic royalty check is good for Rhody. The song was also recorded, however, by Tanya Tucker. OK, now we may be getting somewhere.

Danny Flowers (Facebook), who wrote the classic Tulsa Time and toured with Pomeroy and Don Williams, then played two songs that were just stunningly powerful - All I Want Is Jesus and I Am Free Of That Today.

Pete Huttlinger (web | Twitter), former guitar player in John Denver's band, then played his original First Light - a guitar instrumental with brushes-on-a-snare accompaniment. He followed it up with an instrumental version of the traditional Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.

Pomeroy then brought out Doug Seegers (Twitter)- an artist whose story I knew a bit about but whose music I'd not yet heard. The short story is that Long Island native Seegers found himself as a busking Nashville street musician. He was noticed by a Swedish media team visiting Nashville, was video'd performing one of his songs, captured a fan base in Sweden which led to a Swedish recording contract and is now a touring performer in the US and abroad.

His story was picked up by several media outlets including Peter Cooper from The Tennessean and Rolling Stone. His Swedish album has now been released in the US on Rounder Records. With part of the audience currently living a life that has more in common with Seegers' past than my past, present or future (hopefully), his songs really hit home.

Seegers opened his trio of songs with his sad but Christmas-influenced song, Daddy's Still Around.

He then played Down To The River, the same song he first played for his new friends from Sweden. The closer for the set was a new, yet-to-be released song titled Walking On The Edge Of The World written about a close friend who committed suicide.

Soul singer Charles "Wigg" Walker (web | Twitter) then took us to church. He absolutely stunned the crowd with his version of O Holy Night. and closed with a grooving version of I'll Be Home For Christmas.

Country icon Brenda Lee then took the stage as the show headed for its conclusion. She started with the classic Jingle Bell Rock.  She then asked for volunteer singers - and ended up with about a dozen of them on stage - to help her with Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. She closed with two of her big hits from decades ago - I'm Sorry and Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree.

The closer was Nashville Mandolin Ensemble - the one group I look forward to hearing more than any other each year. The music of the multi-member mandolin "orchestra" is not what one may think it might sound like. NME isn't bluegrass. It's truly orchestral music with songs ranging from The Beatles to Bach to mandolin renditions of other world music.

While they generally play the same set of songs at each annual concert, I can close my eyes and enjoy them as if I'm hearing each for the first time. The list of bad Christmas albums by many performers is a mile or more long. But the one by NME is not in that list. Gifts is excellent - yet sadly and ironically is out of print. I often encourage folks to seek it out on ebay or the like.

Pomeroy and NME then asked the crowd to join them in singing Silent Night to close the 2-1/2 hour show.

For the last couple of years, I've kept a badge at the top right of this blog for Room In The Inn. The graphic includes a simple link to their website, and I hope a few folks have been intrigued enough to follow the link. If you live in the middle Tennessee area and are reading this post, I encourage you to visit the site, learn about what RITI does, and consider making a donation at the Support link.

If you live outside of Nashville, I'm sure they'd RITI would appreciate your support. But perhaps consider finding a similar organization where you live and give to that group. A gift as simple and calendar-relevant as $20.14 would definitely be appreciated - especially as the temperatures continue to drop over the next few winter months.


Monday, November 24, 2014

Ken Wenzel - Beneath Potomac Skies

I frequently become myopic by allowing myself to focus on new music created in East Nashville because (1) it's often great and (2) much of it is available for live listening nearby.

Yet, I believe I do a pretty good job of pulling up and keeping my eyes on the horizon for new music from all over the place. In 2014, one place from which I've gleaned a good bit of new music is our nation's capital: Washington DC.

Ken Wenzel (web | Twitter) is part of that contingent and recently released his first, full-length album ...Beneath Potomac Skies

Like many Federal government processes in DC, Wenzel has had a bit of convoluted trek to end up in the District as his current home.

He grew up a Midwestern kid from Illinois playing saxophone from middle through high school. He then went to Las Vegas to major in jazz studies. The next decade took him all over the place as a hired-gun sax player. After being typecast a bit, he broke his own mold so to speak. He took up guitar, expanded his professional music offerings and relo'd to the beltway.

As someone who wanted to break from the stereotype of what a saxophonist is expected to sound like, he accomplished that goal with a lot of diversity in his compositions on the album. A few songs have a pop feel. Others with fiddle and pedal steel guitar fit nicely within the Americana genre. Another one or two could just as easily been recorded on 16th Avenue in Nashville rather than in a DC 'burb. Across the 12 tracks, the album is an impressive debut - a debut by someone who has been performing professionally for about 15 years!

A few highlights from the album include...

Red Letter Days - Wenzel recaps what it's like to attempt a relationship reconciliation after months away playing gigs and tending bar - in this case aboard a cruise ship.

To watch you turn and walk away
It's like watching sunlight fade away
We'll be together one day
After all this ends
We can live the red letter days again

(Let's See) What Happens on the Highway - Road Trip! As recorded, this song has almost a contemporary country feel to it with a nice blend of fiddle, bass, drums and guitar.

Fire it up and drop the top
Point in west and never stop
The whole wide world is waiting girl
Let's see it our way 
No more pressure, no more work
Forget the boss man, he's a jerk
We'll leave all that stuff behind us in the driveway
There's magic in the backwoods and the byways
Let's see what happens on the highway

The Wisdom of Flowers - Perhaps my favorite track of the album. The previous song, Caving In, is a quick-paced one with contrasting references to a picture-perfect sunlit day, some morning regrets of the night before, and an acceptance of the 'new norm' as a DC resident. As it ends, The Wisdom of Flowers then begins with a completely different sound and dark vibe. Wenzel's newer-found guitar picking skills opens the track followed soon by the haunting sounds of pedal steel guitar and rhythmic brushes on a snare.

There's no need to argue now
There's no need to talk about our faults
And there's no need to talk about the vines outside my window choking off
Choking off the daylight
Like I'm slowly choking on my own resolve

Come Read My Heart - This uptempo song opens with some great dobro and banjo work. Wenzel's lyrics are based on the book Ten Sisters: A True Story. The book (and the song) tells the remarkable story of 10 sisters separated as kids in 1942 but who found one another decades later.

The album closes with a song titled Unbroken. Appropriately, Wenzel returns to his roots with an extended saxophone solo - though within a musical arrangement likely different than he played with others over a 10-year span. But that's just a generalization on my part - didn't mean to stereotype anyone there.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Sharing a Six Pack with Charlie Harrison

I continue to be amazed by the professional talent I glean from Couch By Couchwest each March. During that 8-day span:
  • I slack, 
  • I eat tacos.
  • I celebrate French Toast Friday. 
  • I drink beer.
  • I tweet.
Meanwhile, most of the folks who provide music videos for CXCW have fun with it and use it as a legit platform (as they should) to intro folks to their music.

Charlie Harrison (web | Twitter) fits in that category. He has performed as a band member and as a solo artist. His latest venture is with a new band named Charlie And The Regrets. The band has just released its debut four-song EP titled New Night (iTunes).

Harrison and his bandmates packed their debut with a couple of upbeat cuts - one rowdy and one with a bit of biting commentary about The Man - and a couple of genuine, country ballads. The band's "sound" is best experienced live in a small Texas bar. Capturing that sound is a tough recording challenge. The band recorded the four cuts in a room above Harrison's garage on a Sunday afternoon. When the session was completed, all seemed to be satisfied with a result that is comparable to what one might hear in their live show.

I had the opportunity to share a six pack ... of questions ... with Harrison that went a little something like this.

TMC: Country music - especially out of Nashville - seems to be constantly fluid with many flavors-of-the-month acts having a polarizing effect. Hat acts, bro country, gals bordering on pop, etc. Folks either truly love these folks or have a passionate dislike for them. Yet, Texas-style country has seemed very consistent over the years. I'm not sure if you agree with that generalization. But if so, what influences your songwriting and performing - particularly when you and the band intend to sell music and perform outside of Texas and even the US?
CH: When I turn on the radio, I wonder if anyone will remember any of what they will be playing in 15 years. This used to bother me, but I have gotten a little more zen about it. It's not music that does anything for me, but if it makes someone else feel something then great. I’m glad they have it.

That said, I think that you are right about the consistency in Texas music tastes. A lot of that comes from Texas culture which says “I don’t really give a damn about what people are doing in places that aren't Texas”. So we still have radio stations that play Texas music, and people hold onto the really great heritage we have here. One benefit of being a little self-obsessed is that we keep our musical legacy as part of our identity and won’t swap it out for the hottest new thing. People here still speak of Guy and Townes with reverence.

As far as the band, we do have big plans. And while it can be discouraging to try to figure out how we might fit in with what is popular today, I am inspired by bands/artists such as Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, Hayes Carll, Ray LaMontagne, etc. who are continuing to make the quality of music we aspire to and play to large audiences across the country and around the world without much attention from radio, etc.

Lastly, I think tastes ebb and flow. People loved Waylon Jennings and the other outlaws because they were doing something different from mainstream artists of their day. Today Willie, Waylon and the boys are still relevant whereas some of more fluid acts of their time are not. At some point, I think people will begin to gravitate back to rawer country music when they have had their fill of the other stuff.

Just in case, I am working on a song about going to the lake in my truck with a rap breakdown.
TMC: All four songs on the EP have a 'full' band sound. This makes sense with the EP being a Charlie And The Regrets release. What are some things you've learned about going from an individual performer to a member of a band?
CH: When I was playing as an individual performer, I wrote the songs and put together the arrangements. When we put together band shows, I would book musicians and tell them the parts I wanted them to play.

I got some experience working collaboratively with a band I played with in Virginia (Charlie and The Contraband), but that project came to an end right about when we were finding our footing.

As we put together The Regrets, all of a sudden there were multiple ideas about how we play and what we should do. It was hard and great.

On Start a Company we spent hours arguing about two little breaks in the solo section that most listeners probably won’t pick up on. At the time it was frustrating, but it is awesome to be a part of something that Gregg [Daildeda, drums], Mitch [Burman, bass] and Willy feel passionately enough about to fight for.

The other cool thing that has happened is that as we continue writing, the other guys are bringing in more musical ideas that would not have occurred to me. So what I might have written as a three-chord song gets taken somewhere else new and cool.
The video for the band's first single Baytown was recorded by Harrison's brother at Houston's The Rose Garden, a 60 year-old beer joint near his house.

TMC: On Baytown, I sense hints of John Anderson and Hayes Carll. And if I heard Start A Company on a Todd Snider record, I might make the mistake of thinking he'd written it. Are those fair comparisons? Who are some singers and artists who influence your songwriting?
CH: I didn’t mean to be so transparent, but you nailed them. My buddy Taylor (Western Youth) introduced me to Near Truths and Hotel Rooms when we were playing bars together in Austin, and I have loved Todd Snider ever since. I sort of stalk him. I grabbed Elvis (his road manager) at a show in Virginia and gave him a demo. Then to make sure, I figured out Todd’s address in Nashville and sent one to his house. I don’t know what I thought he would do with them, but for some reason I felt compelled to have him listen to my songs.

Hayes Carll got a similar treatment at a show in Washington, DC. He was very nice about it, but even if he hadn't been I would still be a big fan. Trouble In Mind is on the turntable right now.

Hayes and Todd really inspire me with the way they have connected with fairly broad audiences while singing about whatever was on their minds including everything from love to war and being Mike Tyson's Main Man.

I listen to those guys all the time so I suppose it makes sense that they bleed through to what I write.

I am also influenced by the usual suspects of Texas music: Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Robert Earl Keen, etc. Max Stalling and Bruce Robison’s last few records play a lot in my house.

TMC: You told me New Night, the EP's title track, is the band's favorite. What is it about the song that has put it at the head of the pack for the four of you (other than the high probability you'll have some nice tight jeans slow dancing in front of you)?
CH: New Night was one of those songs that seemed to be birthed more than written. It came together quickly and felt right. It's pretty simple musically and lyrically, but nothing feels forced or artificial to us. As we were putting it together, I was imagining one of my heroes singing it on a record in the 70’s, and I like to think it would fit in then. It is a crowd favorite now.

Also, we recorded all of New Night live with the exception of Willy’s vocal, which we would have recorded live if I had more than eight channels in the home studio (I am working on that). I really like the vibe that we captured and the fact that what you hear is honest to what we do.

TMC: Willy T, the band's lap steel guitarist, is an amazing talent with a unique sound - particularly on Start A Company. Did you work with him on his arrangements to closely match the song's lyrics and pace? I'm curious if y'all just turned him loose during the recording sessions with rough recordings in his headphones.
CH: Willy T is great. He plays with a few bands in the area (The Broken Spokes, Sean Reefer and others), and I am glad he decided to be part of this. We have been playing a lot together over the last year so we had ideas about what we would track. We tracked New Night and Ease Away live, but we did go back and spend a lot time on the lap steel part on Start a Company.

The idea was to get some interaction between the vocals and the lap steel, and I hope we did that. We spent more time over at his house recording this part than we did tracking anything else (so I am glad you noticed it). Going forward we want to continue to bring out Willy so that the lap steel is more part of the frame of the song.

TMC: I'm sure you'll be out supporting the EP in various joints, and you've got solo material to add to a set list as well. But what else would folks expect to hear when they seek out a Charlie and the Regrets show?
CH: We play Regrets material (including tracks that we didn’t cut for the EP) as well as few of the solo tunes with a bit of a different flavor. I think that we sort of walk a country/rock line with a few of the tunes, a la Drive By Truckers etc. Recently we have been fortunate to be joined by a great guitarist Blake Thames on some shows which allows us to expand on what we had been doing in our own songs.

We are having fun with some long road house gigs where we are playing for 3 hours. So we have added a few covers into the library including stuff like “Feel Alright” (Steve Earle) and our version of “Gotta Get Drunk”. For the most part, we try to stay away from the stuff everyone has heard a million times. At the end of the day though, I know a reference point can be helpful to somebody in the audience.

TMC: Wait! How 'bout one more for the road! Have y'all played behind chicken wire yet? Or is that a complete Texas urban ... err, rural legend?
CH: So far I have played at venues with the following: mechanical bulls (many), club owners pimping out of the club office (offered the band a discount), club owners dealing out of the club (no discount offered), real rodeo arena, and a semi-truck cab as a sound booth - but no chicken wire yet. I hear there is a place outside of Austin where the chicken wire is still up, but I think the roughnecks and cowboys raising hell in the 70’s and 80’s have kids and a 401(k) now.

One of Willy’s other bands has a big biker following, and they play private parties for motorcycle enthusiast social organizations. He has told me about some crazy stuff at those parties, but they mainly happen off some back road somewhere which is probably best for everybody.

Don't get me wrong, we still have rowdy audiences. A guy tried to fight me for not playing a Keith Whitley song, But I am guessing that the really crazy stuff is in today’s boom towns up in North Dakota or somewhere. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Mac Whiseman Loves His Mama

Growing up, my dad listened to a healthy dose of traditional and cutting edge country artists such as Roger Miller, Johnny Cash, Charlie Pride, Tanya Tucker, Buck Owens, The Statler Brothers, Ray Stevens, Ronnie Milsap, Johnny Horton, Freddy Fender, Jim Reeves, etc.

College life introduced me to Bochephus, Merle and The Hag. I was also introduced to bluegrass a bit by my dorm floor brethren with the likes of Seldom Scene, Doc Watson, Bill Monroe and Tony Rice.

So when I heard Robert Earl Keen's Bluegrass Widow for the first time in the early 90s, I was at least familiar with many of the names he rattled off during the funny - yet reflective - spoken word part of the song. It was in that song I heard the name Mac Wiseman for the first time.

I don't ever recall Wiseman's name or music ever surfacing at home or during those dorm floor Rook games and Jim Beam tasting sessions. Truthfully and perhaps regrettably I haven't listened to much of Wiseman's music - yet I've heard so many talk ABOUT his greatness as a person, an artist and a contributor to the music industry.

Six or seven years ago, I did get and listen to Mac's duet record with John Prine - Standard Songs for Average People. And I loved Wiseman's contribution's on Eric Brace and Peter Cooper's cover of Tom T. Hall's Mad. So slowly I'm beginning to introduce myself to his fine voice.

Several weeks ago, I learned Wiseman was releasing a new album on Wrinkled Records ... at age 89!

Many of my musical interests today have been substantially shaped by the types of music my folks had. I think this is the case for many. For Wiseman's new album, he chose songs based on what he heard on the radio as a child.

Specifically, the songs represent favorites of his mother - Ruth Wiseman - as she heard them on the radio in the 1920s. She listened intently and neatly journaled the lyrics of her favorite ones in composition notebooks. Seldom could she document all the lyrics during one listen. She wrote what she could, put the pen and paper down, and waited for another day when the song would again be played. Remarkably, Wiseman still has his mother's notebooks - all 13 of them.

Produced by Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz, the album is truly a wonderful collection of songs. Even at his advanced age, Wiseman's tenor voice is strong. Also, the choice of songs - first chosen by his mother as her favorites about eight decades ago - sound contemporary as traditional country songs.

The album is best experienced rather than described song-by-song by me. I will say, however, one song in particular that grabbed me at first listen was I Heard My Mother Call My Name In Prayer. Though recorded my many, Wiseman's steady, articulate voice on his version really resonated - particularly so since my mother also has been very open about praying for her children - often and individually.

After years of being ignorant to Mac's music, I was excited to see him live for the first - and likely my final - time at Franklin Theater on October 21. Wiseman noted he stopped touring regularly age 82. He performed a few songs a week or two earlier at Music City Roots in Franklin. The concert at the theater billed as Songs And Stories, however, was apparently his first full one in about seven years.

Over the course of about 90 minutes, Wiseman played many songs from the new release as well as a couple of staples from his seven decades as a performing artist. Though he seems to be most often associated with bluegrass, the songs he performed fit more in a country, gospel or a simple ballad genre.

Cooper gave a brief bio and introduction of Mac's varied accomplishments over his life. Growing up in rural Virginia in the 1920s and 30s, he eventually made his way to college and a brief stint in radio. After learning guitar, he eventually found himself performing with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and as an original member of Bill Monroe's band The Bluegrass Boys.

Jutz sat near Wiseman to play guitar and to give him the lyrics sheet for each song. As Mac made sure he had the right sheet, he quipped "Give me just a moment. I went to night school in the day time."

One song he played to my delight was Old Rattler about an ol' blind dog who seemingly got his sight back 'round dinner time - one of my favorites from the new album. Of course, I'm a sucker for any good song about a dog.

After each round of five or six songs, Peter Cooper took a few moments to interview Mac and have him share some memories from over the years.Though the polio he suffered as a child has now forced Wiseman to a wheelchair, his voice, wit and memory has seemingly been untouched. He used lyric sheets to sing the songs, but all of his stories were told free-form, with detail and full of laughter.

He chuckled his way through a story about the Tennessee Three. Johnny Cash and his band were staying in New York City at the famed Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant went to the train station to pick up a package they were expecting. While there, they heard one of the freight guys fretting over a box of live chicks someone had failed to pick up. Perkins and Grant asked how much the guy was owed, smirked, paid the asked amount and headed back to their hotel with package and box in hand. Once at the hotel, Perkins let the chicks loose in the lobby of the Waldorf. The further into the story Mac got, the more he laughed as he recalled the scene.

The closing song on the album - Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown - was performed a bit more than halfway through his show. Wiseman not only paid tribute as a son to his mother but also touchingly acknowledged his mother's role as a daughter to her mother-in-law. He noted his grandmother often stayed with his family. As Ruth helped her mother get settled for bed at night, Mac's grandmother would often request "Ruthy, sing me my song."

Wiseman vividly described another story - one of a road trip aboard a Trailways bus. A 'package' tour of Hank Williams and Bill Monroe toured the country aboard the bus. It wasn't a customized coach - just a regular bus where the headliners and their band members all rode together. One evening as the bus rolled along a 2-lane Federal highway, the only three still awake were Mac, Bill and Luke The Drifter. Hank mentioned he had a few lines to a song he was trying to write. The other two read over the lines and pitched in a few of their own. By morning, the three of them had written I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry.

He closed the memorable evening with his signature song Tis Sweet To Be Remembered. Though a only a recent fan, I was struck by the irony of the song. Recorded decades ago and not one on the new release, I got a lump to my throat hearing the 89 year-old legend sing it. And with his having recorded an album of songs favored by his mother, I couldn't help but think of her smiling each time she hears him sing it.

Mac Wiseman was a co-founder of the Country Music Association and is the last living member of the original board of directors. The Country Music Hall of Fame which was founded by the CMA inducted Wiseman as one of its newest members on Sunday, October 26, 2014.

An amazing life indeed - and one that continues to unfold.

I've heard Verlon Thompson say "Guy Clark said you won't get to heaven if you don't write a song about your mama." Though Mac Wiseman didn't write the songs on his latest album, he indeed paid sweet reverence to her with his selections and singing of them.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Lauren Calve - Between The Creek and the Tracks

One of my favorite aspects of enjoying music is learning about 'hops' from one artist or band to another - an example of Six Degrees of Separation if you will. Musicians, producers, singers, opening acts, headliners, etc. - anything that might link me from one's music to another.

Another more recent aspect I enjoy about music and mentioned here on multiple occasions is Couch By Couchwest. CXCW has been a great way to learn about new music, and I've formed some new friendships as a result of it.

Both of these aspects have come into play with some new music from songwriter Lauren Calve (Facebook | Twitter). I first learned of Miss Shevaughn & Yuma Wray through CXCW. Through them, I met their drummer Ben Tufts, a current resident of Washington DC. I've since learned Ben joined Calve's band as her drummer.

Credit: Roxplosion Facebook page
 In November, Calve will release her debut album - a 4-song EP titled Between The Creek And The Tracks.

Lauren, a native Virginian, is now like Tufts a resident of  WDC. Though she has dabbled with music and singing for several years, she buckled down to truly begin composing her own songs in early 2013.

Calve, her band, and their producer set-up shop in a barn in Fairfax, VA. A conscious, collective decision was made to embrace and retain the authentic sounds of the recording 'studio' which leads to interesting sounds on this folksy, bluesy album.

With Tufts on drums, the rest of the band includes DC musicians:
  • Colin Thompson on guitar
  • Bobby Thompson on guitar
  • Michael Calve on bass
  • Jesse Hooper on keys 
Looking For The Water - The quartet of songs opens strong. Calve's confident vocals are backed by a single 4/4 percussive thump for the first 16 seconds - with an electric slide guitar, organ and bass joining them for the next four minutes. The song's lyrics are simple ... yet complex. They include some repeating couplets. A line may repeat - but the message is deep. As I've learned several times in life, you often have to tell someone 3 or 4 times before they get it.

Been in the desert for forty days
Tried and tempted along the way
Looking for the water to cleanse my soul
My soul, my soul

Heaven help me now 
Lend a ladder to climb on out
Heaven help me now 
Lend a ladder to climb on out

Sweep - The second song is the polar opposite of the opener. Calve's vocals and her guitar open this wonderfully rich song for about the first minute. Then Tuft's subtle drumming, resonator guitar, lap slide, and bass join in ascending order to complete the song. While the video below is a great representation of the song (and filmed in a very cool locale!), it doesn't reveal the fullness of the song as recorded on her EP.

I feel I can hear hints of old school Alanis Morissette in Calve's voice, and the song could fit nicely nestled amongst other songs on a Dixie Chicks album. And listen carefully - you'll hear the nuances of the barn ... err, studio such as subtle vocal echoes and noises of the night including chirping crickets, perhaps a frog or two, and other critters.

Hard - The third song is similar in style to Sweep. Of the four tracks, I think Hard may be my favorite - perhaps because of the recording style. Rather than over-produce the song with micro-edits, Hard has a rough edge to it befitting its title and lyrical content. Guitar squeaks on the steel strings that come naturally with chord changes were left intact. Heavy use of the resonator but subtle use of brushes on a snare provide a neat yet complex element to the song. Calve wrote the song as a nod to a family legacy of working in a Pittsburgh steel mill.

It’s so hard, it’s so hard
It’s so hard, sure is hard
Days gettin’ longer, years wearin’ thin
And that pounding hammer 
Echoes in my bones

Annie - The closer - another one-word title - demonstrates perhaps how Calve chose to invest more time and effort in composing her lyrics vs. frettin' over lengthy titles. Ha. In this case, the one-word title is a tribute to a famous Annie. No, not the Woody Allen movie - Annie Oakley.

Like the opener, it opens with power - a slide on the resonator and joined almost immediately by guitars and Tufts' attacks on his snare and crash cymbals. The song quickly settles into a quick-paced groove.

Wild Bill won’t know me
No one ever will
Blaspheme my name round town
I’ll put a hole through your heart

No man can hold a flame
To this five foot lady frame
No sharper shot have I found
With a six-pound forty-four-caliber round

A lot is packed into Lauren Calve's strong debut. I look forward to hearing more from her in releases to follow... and a future appearance during CXCW (fingers crossed).


Friday, September 26, 2014

Sharing a Six Pack with Mark Kirkland

As has been mentioned frequently by me on Twitter and I suppose a bit less frequently here on this blog, I truly enjoy the simple but brilliant concept that is Couch By Couchwest. The week-long, on-line, music festival yields me a year's worth of laughs and solid music.

Another tangible benefit from CXCW is the opportunity to have a conversation with many of the artists - whether they be part-time songwriters or full-time, seasoned road dogs. For me, those conversations have taken place via Twitter, email, texts and - most rewarding - face-to-face.

Mark Kirkland (website | Twitter) from Tuscaloosa, Alabama is one of those artists with whom I've enjoyed trading messages the last couple of years. As a songwriter, Kirkland manages to be creative and maintain a wider view of life ... despite being a Crimson Tide fan!

He has released two albums filled with his own material:

Guided Spirit released in 2013...

...and For Your aMUSEment released in mid-2014.

Mark accepted my invitation to share a six pack of questions, and our conversation went a little somethin' like this.

TMC: What motivated you to begin composing songs and then taking the step to record them?
MK: I've been writing and composing songs since I was 15 years old. I had always had a writing partner until around 2002. At that point my then-writing partner, Denny Hays, was preparing to move to Charlotte. He challenged me to start playing guitar. At the end of the first week I had written & composed my first solo song. I continued to play drums as a fill-in for bands up until about 2010. I didn't really do anything musically again until the summer of 2012. I started writing and playing a little bit around that time. In the spring of 2013, I stumbled upon Couch By Couchwest. I was intrigued by this wonderful venue for artists to submit songs for the world to hear and decided to submit a song. I met some incredible people by doing this, and they encouraged me to share my music. I decided to do a solo EP as a gift to myself for my 50th birthday in June 2013. I wrote, recorded and mixed Guided Spirit in a two-week time frame. I was very surprised by how much people liked its the rawness. It is a very unpolished release, but I am extremely proud of it.

TMC: Your latest album For Your aMUSEment opens with trumpets on the first track "Last Night" and organ on the second cut "Feelin' LIke I Been Here Before". Both were unexpected treats in listening through the songs. Did you play both on the recording? If not, who did you enlist to help?
MK: I wanted to show some growth from Guided Spirit to the full length release For Your aMUSEment. The Trumpets on "Last Night" were a surprise. I had originally envisioned having trumpets on the track "Gone For Good". But as we started preparing songs after the original mix, my producer Mark Skelton suggested that we write a trumpet line for "Last Night". Mark & I worked up the part, and then he and and one of his daughters played the trumpet part. Mark's other daughter played the flute part on "Wings". I should mention that these girls are twins and were first year band students at the time we recorded the parts. I think they did an amazing job. Ben Johnson from Arkansas did the organ & bass work on this project. His interpretations added a lot to the all of the songs. We actually have 2 versions of "Feelin Like I've Been Here Before". The version on the album is lovingly known as the lounge mix. The organ work helps bring out the mood of the original feeling of the song.

TMC: Both of your releases sound remarkably clean and well mixed. Those two descriptors don't always apply to self-produced music with limited funds for production. Your albums are well balanced with well lifted vocals, clear highs from your guitar, a steady but clear bass, etc. What process did you go though to mix all of your elements into a mastered production?
MK: The magic of production. I'm old school and think that when you record a song it should sound like you are playing it live. In other words, we keep it as simple as possible. We record the guitar and vocal work at the same time and typically do it in one take. After reviewing the initial raw mix, I may make some minor changes in lyrics or composition and then record the vocals and guitars again. Once we have all the parts done, my producer sends me the songs. I tell him what I want more of, less of or just gone.

TMC: Like many, you have a diverse musical interest though you are an unabashed Widespread Panic fan. Yet you don't parlay that fandom into a copycat songwriting style. Talk a bit about how you get the inspiration to write songs and any artists who influence your compositions.
MK: Unabashed Widespread Panic fan....I love that. I get a lot of inspiration musically from Widespread Panic. I do write a lot after attending their shows. I'm not sure exactly why. but I think it is the way their music reaches down and grabs your heart & soul. I go to a lot of live shows not just Widespread Panic. I write a good bit after shows, and I think it is from watching artists and their fans enjoy the beauty of music and the joy it elicits from one's soul. There are a lot of artists that inspire me. I am amazed by the songwriting of BloodKin (Danny & Eric), the late Vic Chestnut (everyone should listen to Vic), John Hiatt, John Prine, Neil Young, James McMurtry, Daniel Lanois, Kris Kristofferson, Keith Whitley, Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, John Doe, Billy Joe Shaver, Guy Clark and (the Master) Bob Dylan.
TMC: Do you find yourself keeping a journal of couplets, refrains, riffs and such? Or do you generally have the majority of a song come to you in a single setting?
MK: I've tried many different ways of writing over the years. I used to keep a journal of ideas, phrases & words that interested me, but I explored a different formula on For Your aMUSEment. On aMUSEment I either came up with a melody or riff first and then built the song around it. I didn't write any of the lyrics down until after we recorded the rough mix. Then I went back and made some lyrical changes before we went back to record the songs that would be on the album. I am of the opinion that songs are never finished. I believe they always grow and that it is OK to change the lyrics as I please as I continue to play them. I made them up - if I wish to change them then I will. The only song I wrote in one sitting was "Wings".
TMC: As much as I dig so many forms of music, I'm completely ignorant of most of the gear used by musicians. Gibson, Fender, Martin. Tele, Strat, Les Paul, SG. This pedal, that fader, pick thickness, capos. "Acoustic" vs. dreadnought. Etc. Describe your guitars, how you went about choosing them, and why you are partial to them.
MK: I have three guitars that I work on the most. I have an Ibanez acoustic/ electric better known as Maggie, a Baby Taylor and an Ovation Celebrity. They all have different tones and all have supplied their share of songs. I used "Maggie" for all of the songs on Guided Spirit. I chose the Ovation for all of the songs on For Your aMUSEment except for "Couch Down the Hall"(I played Maggie on it) and "All About You" (played the Ovation & Taylor on this song). I bet you're wondering why the Ibanez has a name. This guitar was named after my wonderful bride Margaret Alice Kirkland. She gave me the guitar for my 40th birthday to replace my 2 pawn shop guitars.
Be sure to follow Mark on Twitter, and check out more of his music at his website. If you live in the greater Birmingham area, perhaps you'll even have the opportunity to hear him play live somewhere. I'm sure he'd enjoy your being there, having a conversation before or afterwards and accepting your tips and a purchased beer - even if you are an Auburn fan!


Monday, June 16, 2014

Sharing a Six Pack: Miss Shevaughn and Yuma Wray

In March this year, Miss Shevaughn & Yuma Wray (web | MS Twitter | YW Twitter) released their second album, Lean Into The Wind. The duo is a veteran of the oft-mentioned, top-of-the-line,state-of-the-art, annual, on-line music festival of all-time: Couch By Couchwest.

Disclaimer: TMC is entering his second term as Dep'ty Mayor of CXCW, but I don't have veto power. So I can promote CXCW and any of its performers without compromising my objectivity or position...I think...

The couple who began their lives in the east and south - found their way to one another in the midwest - and now call the west coast home. (Somewhere, the Mountain Time Zone is whining "but what about ME?") Their friendship evolved into a relationship. The relationship evolved into music. Music evolved into a business. And all of that stuff with love at the core evolved into a marriage in March.

Many stereotypes exist in our lives - especially about professions. Accountants are prescriptive. Engineers are rigid. IT folks are geeks. Lawyers are pricks. Musicians are free-spirits. There is likely some element of truth in all of them - as well as some variance. Well, except for lawyers - they really are all pricks.

Miss Shevaughan and Yuma Wray are free-spirited in the way they use their creativity to write songs and music, tour the country, start their gigs about the time many working stiffs are ready to hit the rack, etc. But don't understate their business acumen. They are also entrepreneurs, risk-takers, small business owners, etc. It's one thing to listen to an album and think yeah, I can dance to this. It's another thing to enjoy it AND know a bit about the blood, sweat and tears invested to make it happen. To me, that makes for a more compelling reason to purchase that type of product.

Anyway - to the band and their music...

I've had the pleasure of meeting Miss Shevaughn and Yuma Way a couple of times as they passed through Nashville. I intentionally wanted to wait until their most recent tour was completed to give them a chance to decompress from the road. Then I wanted to see if they'd be willing to provide a bit of perspective of where they've been recently - and perhaps where they're going.

I started an email conversation with the two of them and a six-pack of questions. It went a little sumpin like dis...

TMC: Let's start with some stats, some metrics. You headed east from California following your March wedding and toured until earlier this month. Any idea how many miles you put on the van during those two and a half months or so? How about the gallons of gas you needed, beers consumed, van break-ins, or photos snapped by Ben Tufts?
YW/MS: We got married on March 1st, and the first show of our honeymoon tour was March 6th. We crossed the country three times and went about 20,000 miles. That averages out to about 1,110 gallons of diesel. The odometer on our Sprinter van rolled over 100,000 miles right as we pulled off of our street in California and currently sits at just under 120,000 miles. There’s no way to know how much beer we drank, but some of our favorites were the Deschutes Brewery Fresh Squeezed IPA and the (only available in Wisconsin) NewGlarus Moon Man. We also played at High Desert Brewing in Las Cruces, New Mexico - which is pretty amazing. The van was only broken into once, but we were also rear ended the day before Miss Shevaughn’s birthday. The doors still shut and locked so we just kept on going! Ben Tufts, who plays drums for Miss Shevaughn & Yuma Wray, is one of the best iPhone photographers we've ever seen. (Ben on TwitterInstagram).
TMC: With this most recent set of shows in support of the new album (officially released by the way on March 25th, the day of your Nashville date at The Basement), what are some things the band learned about one or more of the songs during the night-after-night shows vs. how the songs were recorded?
YW: The most obvious addition to our live sound would be Derek Evry (Twitter). He didn't record any of the bass parts on the album, but he joined the band as our touring bass player just prior to us releasing Lean Into The Wind. He’s a super-talented guitarist and singer – so having him on bass and backing vocals almost seems like we might be selling him a little short of his abilities. But he’s really made us step up our game on stage. He’s a seriously intense performer, so with each passing night, both Miss Shevaughn & I found ourselves rocking out a little harder than we did the night before! And consequentially, having way more fun! All thanks to Derek.
MS: We actually toured with most of the songs on the album with Ben before recording them. We knew how much songs can change on the road, and we wanted to give them a chance to mature before we committed to recording. It’s something that we most likely won’t get a chance to do again, and it was a fun way to write. It’s not just the playing over and over again that brings new ideas into the songs, it’s the audience too. You can just become inspired suddenly and throw something out there and the response can be the determining factor in whether or not you try it again. I have to agree with Yuma too. Playing as a full band with everyone contributing and bringing new spontaneous ideas into the live show goes a long way to shape the songs. We actually brought a brand new song “Navigator” into the set a few days before tour, and it felt like we were literally writing that song over the course of the tour. 
TMC: At least two of the songs from the album - Drifter's Compass and Bleed Me - reference this life you've charted of leaving home and riding the road with your music. Describe some of the ways that work for you in writing songs as you tour.  Do you find yourselves writing songs collectively as you ride? Or do you tend to process internally a lyric, a chorus, a riff, etc. that you journal or otherwise document at another time?
YW: Here’s the really infuriating thing about being on the road – so much of your time gets spent driving, loading in, sound checking, loading out – that you don’t really get a chance to be as creative as you would like. Sure Led Zeppelin wrote “Stairway” on the tour bus. But most touring musicians get so caught up in the day-to-day logistics of travelling and playing live that we really don’t have the time to write much on the road. Right now, Miss Shevaughn & I are just off three month of hard driving and playing - and the creative ‘back-up’ is finally just beginning to abate. I’ve started at least two or three new songs in my head that are being pieced together from those lingering ideas for riffs that come to you in the early morning hours when you know you have to get out of the van, wander into the Wal-Mart that you have been sleeping in the parking lot of, and find the bathroom – AND hope it isn't closed for cleaning. The ideas that stick with me through that first-light haze are the ones that are going to make up the songs on our next album.
MS: OK, the men’s room at any given Wal-Mart is NEVER closed for cleaning, and the women’s room is closed like AT LEAST 35% of the time. Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest… I think that part of the answer lies in the fact that although we’re leaving home to be on the road, every time we get back on the road it feels like coming home as well. I think that if that hadn’t been there for us the first time, we may not have continued to travel so hard. It is difficult to write on tour, but I think that the observations and the subtle feelings and thoughts that you gather as you travel, the people you meet and the histories that you learn, they become part of what you will write about next. It’s a cycle. Ideas need a chance to breathe and to come into being. And they’re all different. Some come quick, others grow slowly. For me, it seems natural to have a hibernation or a germination creatively. My mind’s not dormant. It’s just in a mode that’s taking in instead of putting out, and touring is perfect for that. Like Yuma was saying, once you get off the road so much comes spilling out that you didn't even necessarily know was in there. 

TMC: Both of you are somewhat midwesterners being from Chicago and Arkansas. The musical and lyrical content of your songs, however, is far broader than genres generally associated with those areas. Who have been your influences over the years from a musical and songwriting perspective that have guided you as you've jumped with both feet into the music biz full time?
YW: Our background/upbringing is actually a little more complex than that – but for simplicity’s sake I’ll say that I grew up travelling. Miss Shevaughn & I started the band in Chicago in 2009. So the inspiration for what we write about comes from a lifetime of rambling & exploring. But in those travels, I’ve met a few people who have influenced my approach to songwriting more than others. In 2005, when I moved to Chicago – I met a singer/songwriter/guitarist from Indiana who now lives in Austin, TX named Simon Flory – he turned me on to some rebellious country songwriters like Steve Earle and Jay Farrar (at least, when Jay was with Uncle Tupelo). At the time, Simon was playing in a shit-kicking outlaw country band called “Merle The Mule” that really expanded my horizons. Up until then, I hadn’t really stepped out of my hardcore/punk-rock comfort zone that I had grown accustomed to while living in Washington DC. I spent the entire year of 2006 hunched over my acoustic guitar, studying classic country and blues, listening, playing and writing.
MS: Don’t forget that we met at a hip-hop club. I grew up in the South. My family lives in southern Arkansas, and I mostly grew up near New Orleans. Yuma and I actually met in D.C. where we both resided for years before we met up again in Chicago. A lot of my family was really musical - bluegrass and southern gospel, Sacred Harp singing on my mom’s side and guitar picking and singing on my dad’s side. My mom played mountain dulcimer, autoharp and guitar when I was a kid. I started performing with her doing folk music mostly when I was about five. I ended up studying opera in college, but I was also really into punk and indie rock at that point. I’d have to say that our friend, Chris Darby, a singer songwriter out of Missouri, influenced our decision to get on the road. He hiked the whole Appalachian Trail and then went on a self-booked tour for 6 months. When Yuma and I started playing together, we realized we were a lot more serious about playing music full time than a lot of other people we’d been playing with. So we did a little two week East Coast tour just to test the waters. As we were driving home to Chicago, I was thinking, “in a year we’ll be on the road full time”. Yuma didn’t know it yet, but my mind was made up. In 2011 we got rid of our apartment and lived out of our car while playing as many live shows as we could.

TMC: You serve as your own management team - recording and producing, booking gigs, taking care of travel logistics, etc. Many bands do some of that but not necessarily all of that - and certainly it would seem rare to do with tour dates sprinkled from coast to coast and north to south. Describe some of the benefits and challenges of being a rock-and-roll band while also being a deliberate business person.
YW: Don’t take this the wrong way, but I would LOVE to not have to do any of the “business” stuff that we are currently embroiled in as “DIY” musicians. Booking sucks. Tour managing sucks. Self-promotion sucks. Most musicians are not wired to be business-oriented – but the sad fact is that we are trying to ‘come up’ in an era where there are lots of other performers travelling the same road that we are. And if we want to keep moving – we better know how to pull over and fix the occasional flat tire on our own instead of relying on someone else to do it for us.

There are some doors that are not open to us yet because we represent ourselves instead of having a large, corporate artist management company promoting us. But hopefully, when we do get that ‘lucky break’ and have the opportunity to work with people who can promote us far beyond our own abilities to do so, we are not going to get ‘taken for a ride’. I’m confident that, even though we may have to work a little harder and longer than some musicians out there, we are never going to be tripped up by some opportunistic crook looking to take advantage of under-experienced naiveté.
MS: You hear a lot about bands that just come out of nowhere and people who became famous overnight and “weren’t even trying”. I really dislike that narrative because there’s always someone who worked hard even if it was behind the scenes. I think the ‘work’ part of artistic work should be acknowledged. I like knowing what goes into all of these aspects of our job because we have a better appreciation for it and a better understanding of how everything comes together. And we do have a support team. It’s grown as we’ve gone along. We started out with us just emailing a few bloggers to send them our music and now Tony at Pavement PR has helped us with publicity for our last two albums. Lean Into The Wind came out on a Chicago label, Seven Dead Arson, that’s run by a friend of ours, as opposed to our first record, We’re From Here, which we put out totally on our own. I totally agree that I’d love to focus solely on writing and playing at some point, but I like that we’re finding people to work with who really believe in what we’re doing and whose efforts we really appreciate.
No rest for the weary. The life for this band is on the road and on the stage - and with a smile and a kind word. Be sure to find a nearby show, and buy their music and the band a drink. Beer for Yuma, tequila for Miss long as it's not Patron.


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Nick Dittmeier - Light of Day

Nick Dittmeier, an Indiana songwriter, recently hit my radar with news about his new EP, Light of Day. With a listen or two, I realized I dug what he was a'sangin. His deliberate guitar picking style and use of a slide immediately caught my ear.

And when Dittmeier released a video for the title track, I knew I was on board. After all when you can get Matt Damon to jam on guitar you've got something going, right? Wait. What? Oh.

Another standout track based on insightful lyrics and some good jangly guitar work is My Grey Suit.

My favorite track from the EP is Simple As A Nod. The title alone speaks volume, but there is much more to enjoy. The song has a good dose of twang and a smidgin of a Bakersfield feel to it.

The opening to Die And Go To Shively, the 5th song from the EP, has a Jerry Reed feel and the meter of lyrics reminded me of Alabama's Dixieland Delight.

For a broader intro to Dittmeier's music, enjoy this mini-concert. The video segment opens with an intro by a mayor of some municipality.  It's clear the guy is not the mayor of Couch By Couchwest because its mayoral position is filled ably by Popa2unes.

1:15 - Coming Home Soon (3rd track from the record)
5:50 - Lay Your Trouble Down With Me (from 2013 release Extra Bitter)
9:15 - Paint My Masterpiece (Dylan / The Band cover not on album)
13:30 - I Can Sing (from Extra Bitter)
17:00 - Interview
20:00 - Angel From Montgomery (Prine cover)
24:15 - My Grey Suit
27:55 - You Don't Have To Leave The Light On For Me (from Extra Bitter)
32:10 - Die And Go To Shively
37:15 - Light of Day

Check out Nick Dittmeier on his website, Twitter, and Bandcamp.


Saturday, May 10, 2014

2014 National Train Day

Last year, I learned about National Train Day for the first time. Fortunately, I wasn't too far behind as Amtrak started it in 2008. For 2013 NTD, I blogged a handful of train songs ranging from funny to introspective to downright swampy. So how's about we do so again in 2014?
Credit: Chad Cochran of Chad Cochran Photography
I'll lead with Graveyard Train by Doug and Telisha Williams who now record and tour as Wild Ponies. This one is included on Doug and Telisha's album, Ghost of the Knoxville Girl. Ghosts? Graveyards? Lonesome train whistles? Oh yeah, be afraid - very afraid - but still rock!

Next is Southbound Train by The Newton Gang. I stumbled across this one quite by accident. The song was included on the compilation CD Brooklyn Country Vol. 1 sent to me by Uncle Leon & The Alibis - who were featured in last year's set of train songs.

Songwriters like Guy Clark come along maybe once in a generation - perhaps even every two or three. Texas 1947 ranks among my favorites from Guy's long list of great songs. And it just happens to include a story about a train!

OK, so Boxcars by Eric Brace and Peter Cooper as a train song might be a stretch. But c'mon, it's got boxcars, freight trains, a Nashville Sounds baseball jersey, and a sad love song ballad by two of TMC's favorite songwriters ... and people.

Speaking of favorites, Tommy Womack sings the next one. Willie Perdue continues to stun me each time I hear it. Many of Tommy's songs make me laugh, smirk, tap my foot, laugh some more, nod in approval, cross my arms as I get pissed off, etc. But Willie from Tommy's 2000 album Stubborn makes me sit still ... and intentionally listen. A post-high school jock with a fascination for trains chooses to hop a boxcar one summer evening...and then his life in the small town will never be the same.

I couldn't rustle up a YouTube clip of the song. Nor do I have a boot of it from any of his shows. But he did play it at the Family Wash one night a couple of years ago at my request. The patrons collectively had the same reaction as me when I listen to it. Not silence, quietness. And he honored my request again by allowing me to share the album's song here for you.

Wreck of the Old 97 is based on a true story and has been recorded by many for almost 100 years. I really dig this version by The Osborne Brothers.

Last year I featured six songs. This year I think I'll share seven. And I'll close with Driver 8 by R.E.M.


Friday, March 21, 2014

Greg Smith and The Broken English

The last couple of years during Couch By Couchwest I was introduced to some great music - and people - from Brooklyn NY. Among them were Matthew and Livia as The End Men and Uncle Leon and The Alibis. Both Brooklyn bands - but distinctly different musical styles and influences.

Recently, another Brooklyn group - with yet another style - hit my radar - Greg Smith and The Broken English (web | Twitter). Ready for spring? If so, many songs from their upcoming release, Ramblin' Roads will put a spring in your step.

Slated for release on April 8, the album is collection of really good songs with a solid diversity of instrumentation. Guitar with a slide. Bass raised to right level in the mix - as are the various elements of the drummer. Acoustic, electric, keys, mandolin, harmonica, ♫ whistling ♫, percussion shaker thing, brushes, etc.

I'm as guilty as anyone about asking "So who do they sound like?" when told about a band with whom I'm not familiar. On the one hand, I'm personally looking for some creativity vs. copying someone else. On the other hand, its more difficult to explain to someone why they should listen and enjoy if you can't label an unfamiliar artist. So while its tough to nail down a specific "sound" by the band, I do hear what seem to many influences such as Ray LaMontagne, Dylan, and The Jayhawks. The 13 songs include a nice mixture of rock, country, and pop sounds as well as fast-paced rocking numbers followed by tender but not trivial ballads. 

After having grown up in western Massachusetts, Smith relo'd to the southern borough of NYC. His compositions reflect a balance of growing up in a rural part of a state and adjusting to life in Bright Lights, Big City.

On most of the songs, Dayna Webber provides wonderful harmony to Smith's lead vocals. In a couple of spots, her harmony along with others in the band almost remind me a Stones prime era when harmonies truly complimented lead vocals vs. competing with them.

I really like that the album sounds like it was recorded as a band - not just a featured front man singing lyrics over a polished yet muted musical track recorded by session stalwarts. The album opens with three strong tracks - musically and lyrically - with Ain't That Bad, Whiskey Breath and Cigarettes, and Living Like A Joker.

Ain't That Bad
Oh heaven help me, I know I ain’t that right
I got a bomb inside my head
And a fire in my heart burning bright
But it don’t shine no light
Its hard to recognize the truth in a world full of lies
Take me back in time
Before the good book was written by design
When all a man would do to clear his mind
Was take a walk, say a prayer and goodnight

Whiskey Breath And Cigarettes
Playing Pot Head Blues in Converse shoes
nuff said

Living Like A Joker - This song caught me from the jump. I loved the early solid groove and vocals. But when the rest of the song climbed aboard, the full sound had me wanting the song to continue as a 10-minute jam session.

Hey, What's The Use - This one is written as if it may be the most personal song of the album. One can feel the tug of staying near home while tearing away to dig the dream elsewhere.

 Son, I hope you're doing fine down in the city, life must be sublime
I couldn’t take it there, all the cars and people everywhere
I hope to see you soon.
Back on the farm sometime before the next blue moon
Mom, I’m tryin' hard to get somewhere, I’d like to help you there
I work my fingers to the bone
I sing my heart out till my blood runs cold
The hope inside my veins don’t stop from bleedin'
Every single time it rains

Losing Hand - OK, so its a video with too much crowd chatter. But that's not the fault of the band or the song!

Nowhere Left To Hide
Sing it again - Like kids at play on an old tire swing
Bring it again - Everything we knew ever since we did
Get lucky again - Let the dice roll down a road of sin
And sing it again - Till there's nothin' left to win.

Way Back Down - I really like this one! Staccato diction to lyrics without being rap. The song's drum and guitar opening reminded me a bit of Robert Earl Keen's Shades of Gray but the pace of singing then reminded me of Todd Snider's Incarcerated. Yet the song has absolutely nothing to do with either. Make sense? Yeah, I was afraid you'd say that.

Oak n' Ashes - Possibly my favorite track from the album. This is the one where I seem to hear an influence of The Jayhawks. A harp openin' almost always kills.

City life and the tricks they deal
Keep me up all night like a spinning wheel
I ain’t fixin’ to hold up here
I might be broken down but I’m still shiftin’ gears

Like oak before the ash, strike before the gold
Throw my whiskey in the trash, I won’t need it anymore
When I sing this song about you and hope that I ain’t lost
The place where I came up, before the road that I have crossed

Little Darling - Dayna shares lead vocals on this tender one.

Play Like A Little Girl - One of the 'poppier' tunes from the album and one that contrasts well with other styles of the remaining songs.

Spare Me Eliza - The closer

Top to bottom, Ramblin' Road is going to be fun one to listen to repeatedly. I'm really pleased too that the band performed twice at this year's Couch By Couchwest.


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Couch By Couchwest 2014

The longest running on-line music festival is back! Starting Sunday, March 9th and running through next Saturday, the fourth annual Couch By Couchwest extravaganza will have the interwebs buzzing with excitement ... and well, buzzed at times.

CXCW's strengths are its varied simplicity of participating and diversity of music offerings.
  • Rather than travel to any hyped festival destination, you get to enjoy the music from wherever you want - your couch, hotel room, local coffee shop, favorite drinking establishment, porcelain throne, airport terminal, front porch, back deck, tree house, tornado shelter, etc.
  • No need for an admission wristband, and no worries about trying to be at two or more places at the same time. The venues and stages are open 24/7. Visit CXCW's website, and enjoy videos of performers whenever you want and as often as you want. Even when CXCW ends next Saturday, the site and its videos will continue to live - kinda like a bad rash.
  • Oh yeah! The performers. You'll likely find something to like - probably lots of somethings. Funny, serious. Rock, bluegrass. Individuals, bands. Twang, somber. Fast, slow. Well known artists, unsigned treasures. 20-somethings, old farts, and young'uns. LoFi videos, scenic vistas, and umm, err exploding things.  
Credit: @magearwig from Bucket Full of Nails
Over the last three years, CXCW has introduced me to many great new artists and their music. I've long been one to continually dig for new diamonds-in-the-rough, and this forum annually surfaces many great ones.

A PSA if I may though. The admins for CXCW will do an incredible yeoman's job (except probably for their intern) of sharing hundreds of videos the next seven days. In addition, they'll pass along pictures of kids, pets, tacos, waffles, couches, significant others, bars, etc. Believe me, everyone is assured of having fun. But at its core, CXCW is about its performers and their music. If you find someone you like, take it further.
  • Buy a download through the performer's or band's website, iTunes, Amazon, etc. 
  • Keep tabs on touring schedules and see your new fave when they come through town. Introduce yourself - the CXCW connection is a great cold open. 
  • Perhaps buy merch from them.
  • Support a new Kickstarter campaign.
  • Follow them on Twitter, like them on Facebook, become a fan on ReverbNation, etc.
So grab a brew, a bag of chips and the electronic, internet-enabled device of your choosing (at least one that has a web browser) and join in the fun.

Twitter: @couchxcouchwest
Facebook: CXCW


Monday, March 3, 2014

Eric Brace: There's GOLD in them thar songs

A decade-plus ago, Eric Brace relocated from Washington DC to East Nashville by-cracky Tennessee. Forget the Tennessee Titans or Nashville Predators professional sports teams. Brace's relo is arguably one of the top yet understated free agent acquisitions for the city in the 10-12 years.

On his Nashville-formed label, Red Beet Records, Brace has released a limited number of tremendous albums primarily for himself as a solo artist and duos with songwriter and The Tennessean writer, Peter Cooper.

Recently, Brace and Karl Straub released an interesting collaboration based on the mid-1800s California gold rush titled, Hangtown Dancehall. Many riches were reaped during that brief era, and many stories became legendary - even if many would never pass today's Snopes test.

Those few years also resulted in immense hardships and strife. Folks came from across the continent for a fruitless attempt at hitting it big. The few dollars people brought with him to survive their search disappeared without replenishment. Relationships thought to be rock solid at the beginning of a long journey to California dissolved like a fart in the wind when muddy panning came up empty.

Hangtown Dancehall was crafted from a folk song of the era named Sweet Betsy From Pike. Two youngsters from Missouri, Ike and Betsy, traveled the long, hard road with a golden gleam in their eyes. Yet as a good folk song should do I suppose, the twosome fizzled out in Hangtown when the stress of the search becomes too much.

The backdrop for the album - though this version is not from Eric and Karl.

Brace and Straub picked up where Sweet Betsy left off, and in the words of Kenny Bania...

Brace and Straub created a musical - a folkie drama if you will - with various vocalists playing character roles in the album's songs. Vocals are contributed by a variety of singers including Kelly Willis (married to and performs with Bruce Robison), Tim O'Brien, Darrell Scott, and Jason Ringenberg (Jason and The Scorchers)

Brace's recording and marketing of the album on his terms from the east side of the Cumberland rather on Music Row gave him many freedoms and opportunities to explore. The album includes 22 tracks. Some are as brief as 30 to 45 seconds. On the high end, a couple flirt with the 4 minute mark. From beginning to end, however, I'm not sure an individual track stands out as one that can easily be separated from the whole - and that's a good thing.

The one exception may be I Know A Bird released previously a few years ago by Brace and Cooper on their album You Don't Have To Like Them Both. Brace wrote the song with the gold rush in mind, but I'm only guessing he wanted the song to eventually be part of a larger storyline.

The album is truly a pleasurable listen. Envision for a moment about the dreams as well as the challenges of traveling cross-country 150 years ago in the search of gold - or in today's era of foolishly chasing can't-miss celebrity stardom. Many of those ideas have likely been captured in one of the songs. Some examples include:

Pretty Girl In Missouri
They left him lying there, they ran away that night
Betsy cried about her daddy blood so red, skin so white
They left for California, across the open plain 
Maybe they'll dig up the gold and bury all the pain

Gone To California
Gonna cross the big wide prairie
Gonna climb that hill
They got gold there bigger than boulders
Gonna get my fill

If You Don't Know Me
I heard you call me "a faithful friend"
Ike, I was talking 'bout the dog
And I heard you say that I smell pretty bad
Ike, I was talking 'bout the dog

Life Story
If there's gold still on his person 
It would be a sin to leave it in the dirt
When our church still needs new windows
And a pile of new Bibles couldn't hurt

They emptied out his pockets
But I doubt they searched the lining of his coat
While I'm checkin', I'll refer to you
The golden words of truth that St. Paul wrote.

Hanging Tree
I didn't have to wonder what I'd done
I'd killed a man and I'd been hung
When I awoke I was so cold 
I'll be hanging soon
I killed a man for gold

Taking in the artwork and absorbing the lyrics are needed in addition to simply listening to the songs. After buying the music, visit for the latter. The storytelling by Brace and Straub through their concept and lyrics is a rarity in today's 3-minute singles, iTunes download, music consumption generation.

Red Beet Records:
Twitter: @ericbrace
YouTube: redbeetrecords