Magnificent (Unsung) Men Of Memphis

What is it about Memphis? The musical luminaries who were born, raised or recorded there would probably fill an entire wing of several different Halls of Fame: W.C Handy, B.B. King, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Booker T., Steve Cropper, Otis Redding, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Al Green – who knows how long I could go on. With so many giants, there were bound to be some awesome talents who were overshadowed and thus largely overlooked except by true cognoscenti and hard core fans. Today I want to tell you about three men, one whom I’ve followed since the 1970’s and two who came to my attention only in recent years. All three have long terms “leases” on my regular playlists.

Sid Selvidge – I Should Be Blue

Well loved and well known in Memphis, Sid Selvedge eschewed the life of a major label, constantly touring performer after getting a glimpse of that life in the wake of a couple of moderately successful records in the 1970’s and some rave notices for performances in Greenwich Village. Instead he chose a rather low profile path playing small folk clubs, teaching in Memphis, and working behind the scenes in the music business. While he put out the occasional album every decade or so, I didn’t run across him until around 2010. I read about I Should Be Blue in a blog called Jazzwax written by Marc Myers. I mentioned him in an earlier posting because, while Jazzwax is primarily devoted to jazz, Myers occasionally writes about other music that catches his ear. (Note: I’ve added a link to Jazzwax on the blogroll in the sidebar to this page.)

Sid’s album certainly caught my ear, and I couldn’t wait to share it with brothers and friends on our trip to the Alligator River a few weeks later. The undeniable hit with this group was “A Blonde Headed Girl” in which the singer confesses to the judge that he “was a fool for a blonde headed girl in a convertible automobile” later described as the devil in disguise behind the wheel with “her skirt rolled up and the top rolled back, she had legs that went right on up to her neck.” We all fell in love with the blonde, of course, but also with his slightly fragile yet facile voice that perfectly matched the plight of our hero.

Beautifully produced by Don Dixon, the album features songs by blue ribbon writers like Fred Neil, Tom T. Hall, Townes Van Sandt and Duke Ellington along with a couple of originals by Sid and one by his marvelous duet partner on several tracks Amy Speace. They’re an especially great pairing on Van Sandt’s “I’ll Be Here In The Morning” and Donovan’s “Catch The Wind.” I have to agree with one reviewer who called this the best recording ever of the latter song. Other personal favorites are Hall’s “That’s How I Got To Memphis,” Sid’s “Lucky That Way” and “Fine Hotel” and the Ellington classic “Do Nothing ’Til You Hear From Me.” But every cut is a keeper thanks to the material, the singer and Dixon’s careful mix of instrumentation – always additive, never overpowering. Is it country; is it jazz; is it folk; is it pop? Nah man, it’s cowjazz.

Sadly Selvedge was diagnosed with throat cancer while touring behind this album and subsequently passed away. It’s really a shame because this warmly engaging performer seemed to have found the perfect partner in Dixon to up his recording game, which no doubt would have brought his gift to a wider audience. Thank goodness we do have this recording. Strongly recommended.

Spencer Wiggins – The Goldwax Years

Imagine how a four story office building might feel surrounded by the skyscrapers of mid-town Manhattan. If you can, then perhaps you can imagine how the owners and artists at Goldwax Records in Memphis in the 1960’s felt hidden as they were in the shadows cast by hometown Stax and Hi Records (i.e. Al Green) not to mention Atlantic which practically set up camp there. Spencer Wiggins could have been a star at Stax , and Goldwax head Quentin Claunch knew as much about writing and producing soul records as anybody in town. But they hardly saw the light of day much less the spotlight. Wiggins gave it a shot, but ultimately gave it up by the early 1970s and moved to Miami where he became a deacon and choir director for his church and sometime gospel singer. Today at 73 he remains, as his Wikipedia bio puts it, “one of the best kept secrets of soul music.”

Well, now the secret is out. Best of all, this collection lays all his best work out for you to hear. There are twenty-two cuts on the album. I figured when I bought it on iTunes that I would probably end up deleting at least seven or eight of them, but try as I might, I’ve only been able to part with three. Whether the songs are deep soul ballads or stirring up tempo shouters, Wiggin’s voice handles them with ease, and the production and horn driven band are equally up to the task.

He released eight singles for Goldwax, but none of them hit the charts, so they’ll likely seem brand new to you as they did to me. You might recognize a couple that were hits for others, notably “Take Me (Just As I Am)” by Dan Penn and Spencer Oldham, and a gender switched version of Aretha Franklin’s first Atlantic hit here presented as “I Never Loved A Woman (The Way That I Love You.)” The latter was recorded at Muscle Shoals based Fame Recording Studio with Duane Allman on guitar. Spencer nails both tunes.

Other favorites of mine include the beach music shuffle “The Kind of Woman That’s Got No Heart,” an uptempo “He’s Too Old” that recalls Otis Redding or Wilson Picket with a bit smoother vocal style, a good old Memphis blues “Anything You Do Is Alright” (could that be B.B. on lead guitar?) and another pleading soul ballad by Penn and Oldham called “Uptight Good Woman.” Bottom line: if you like deep southern style soul but tire of repeatedly listening to old hits, do yourself a favor and dig into Spencer Wiggins. And who knows, maybe we can finally shine a little of that spotlight on Spencer. I think you’ll agree he deserves it.

Jesse Winchester – A Reasonable Amount of Trouble

In some ways, Jesse Winchester doesn’t fit as neatly under the title of this post as do Spencer and Sid. For starters he was neither born nor recorded much in the city, and after graduating from Williams College in Massachusetts, he spent most of his adult life in Canada. Still he did grow up in northern Mississippi and Memphis, and the country, folk and r&b he heard there clearly influenced his music. Moreover, can I really call a man “unsung” who, in addition to his own multiple albums over several decades, is the subject of a tribute album, Quiet About It, by stars as varied as James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett, Allen Toussaint, Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, Rosanne Cash and Elvis Costello? Maybe not, but I can say that only rarely when I mention his name does anyone really know who he is.

You see, Jesse never had a big hit record, never wore outrageous costumes, never engaged in tasteless self promotion. As the tribute album title infers, he just quietly went about crafting and singing wonderful songs. His voice – both in his singing and writing- was often gentle, always clear, sometimes slyly humorous, strong when it needed to be, and every now and then it could bite. I first encountered him in the late 1970s via his album Nothing But A Breeze, and his music strikes me today in the same ways it did then. It makes me smile, makes me wistful, makes me think, makes me move, makes me hum along and makes me laugh. Most of all, it makes me happy. And when I read of his death in April, 2014, the news made me cry.

But Jesse left us a gift with his posthumous release A Reasonable Amount of Trouble. He had beat cancer of the esophagus in 2011, and when his voice was strong enough, he had gone back in the studio to record a wonderful set of songs. Thus, to introduce you to Jesse, the end is a good place to start.

Like most of his albums this one is dominated by his originals with a few covers blended in harmoniously. His voice is a tad rougher from his illness and the mood has hints of reflection and nostalgia, no doubt owing to the inclusion of three covers from early rock ’n’ roll vocal groups, the Dell Vikings’ “Whispering Bells,” the Cascades’ “Rhythm of the Rain,” and the Clovers’ “Devil or Angel.” Still nothing about this album is a downer. Rather it sounds like a man who is glad to be alive and happy to be able to once more do what he loves. Jesse is having fun here as you hear in his own songs as well as the oldies. He’s making the most of the moment as he encourages us to do in the bright opener, “All That We Have Is Now.” Yet there is an enigmatic mix of resignation and hope in the closer, “Just So Much.” Perhaps he sensed it would be his last.

The great lap steel by Jerry Douglas and tasty guitar by producer Mac McAnally signal that this album is in the same vein as Sid Selvidge’s I Should Be Blue, while Jim Horn’s sax ever so slightly hints at Spencer Wiggins’ soul sound. Jesse Winchester’s music is hard to categorize but easy to love.

You may be wondering about the album’s title, since the collection includes no song by that name. According to his web site, it was taken from one of his favorite movies, “The Maltese Falcon.” Humphrey Bogart’s character Sam Spade asserts, “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.” Jesse loved the line and frequently used it – as if you needed another reason to like this guy. To borrow another of Bogie’s lines from the same movie, Jesse’s music “is the stuff that dreams are made of.”

I’m going to close this post with footage of Jesse’s appearance at Jimmy Buffett’s summer of 2011 “Concert For The Gulf” following the BP spill. Although Jimmy had recorded several of his songs starting with “Biloxi,” and they had exchanged emails and phone calls, the two had never met before Jesse volunteered to help. The giant crowd knew Jesse through Jimmy, so when he took the stage they greeted him warmly. What they saw was a thin, pale, grey haired man simply dressed, soon to undergo cancer treatment, who looked like the antithesis of a rock star about to perform before well over 35,000 dancing, singing fans. Regardless, in moments he had them enthralled with his delightfully rhythmic “Rhumba Man,” which Jimmy had included on 2009’s Buffett Hotel. Jimmy stays in the background here allowing Jesse to bask in the crowd’s adoring glow. Clearly everyone is in a joyful groove.

Old Masters Return; New Blood Arrives Chapter II: Country & Western

Holding true to the series we started last week, this time we will look at relatively new releases from two still vital old masters and also from two newcomers whose work measures up very well indeed.

Of course, our two old masters have to be Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. For one thing, they’re currently out with their much ballyhooed duet album Django and Jimmie. For the other, many of their contemporaries like George Jones, Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, and Ray Price have all gone on to the heavenly Opry in the last few years. Between having a book on the best sellers list and the new album, Willie is popping up on every talk show on TV. There’s even a ten minute YouTube video on the making of the album.

The album’s title alludes to Willie’s and Merle’s own earliest heroes Django Reinhardt, the gypsy jazz guitarist of the Hot Club of Paris, and Jimmie Rogers, the singing brakeman and first country superstar. All I will say here about their new album is, get it; it’s great. To stay true to my purpose with the blog, I’m going to talk instead about a couple of albums by these masters you might have missed.

Willie Nelson – It Always Will Be

Willie has to be one of the most prolific recording artists of all time because he’s been known to  put out three or four albums in a year, especially when you consider his duets. Thus a new one often fails to make much of a splash in the media. Certainly over the last twenty years, country radio has rarely played anything new that he releases. I know It Always Will Be almost slipped by me. Thank goodness it didn’t because I think it’s one of the best he’s ever done, which makes it by definition one of the great country records.

Willie penned the title song that eases you into the CD. It’s an affirming beautiful romantic ballad that speaks to the timelessness of the singer’s love for his woman. On the other hand, “The Way You See Me” though equally beautiful is achingly sad. He knows losing his lover has left him a shell of a man. He sings, “winds blowing warm for the one I love, winds please kiss her for me, but don’t tell my darlin’ that you saw me, looking the way you see me.” The song tears my heart out every time I hear it, yet it’s so beautiful I want to hear it again.

“Be That As It May” written by Willie’s daughter Paula, who joins him on the tune, is a slightly bluesy country number which moves the tempo up just a tad. In fact the first four tunes are slow dances and waltzes of uncommon beauty. But you know Willie’s not going to be too low key, so don’t be surprised when he knocks you out of your chair with “Big Booty” and “I Didn’t Come Here, And I Ain’t Leaving.” Hard to argue with the logic of the latter. Both are classic hell raisers. Then aided by duets with Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams, he eases back off the peddle before closing with a kind of mariachi blues called “Texas” featuring great guitar work by Willie. Actually, the whole CD is characterized by some of Willie’s best guitar playing and the incomparable harmonica of Mickey Raphael.

I say “Texas” is the last song because you’re going to want to ignore the actual closer, Greg Allman’s “Midnight Rider.” It’s an awful rendition that’s so inconsistent in tone and quality with the rest of the CD that it’s inclusion is unexplainable. Fortunately it’s not in the middle of the CD, and you can also simply delete it from your playlists.

Willie’s voice and guitar are superb throughout, the songs are top notch, and his duet partners blend seamlessly with him, which is not always the case on other records given Willie’s idiosyncratic phrasing.  If you missed it, don’t tarry now. I can’t speak for all your music sources, but it’s right there on iTunes. I checked for you, so you can get it without delay.

 

Merle Haggard – If I Could Only Fly

When you pull up Merle Haggard on iTunes or Amazon, you might think he died twenty years ago. Other than his current hit duet with Willie, you have to scroll through a dozen albums before you get to a new collection that’s less than twenty-five years old.

From what I remember and from recent sources I’ve checked, the Hag spent much of the 1990s in disputes with labels and lawyers that stymied his creative output. In the last fifteen years or so, however, he has quietly put out a series of remarkably good albums, arguably as good as anything he’s ever done. Too bad it seems that radio loves to play adolescent country pop records about partying down listening to Haggard and Jones, yet never play actual records by them. But enough complaining, let’s talk about what Merle has been doing all this time.

I could have picked any one of the several albums Merle has released in this latest wave, but I’m going with the one that kicked off this productive period released in 2000 on an indie label, If I Could Only Fly. Quite simply, it’s Merle at his best doing what he does better than most. He wrote or co-wrote ten of the twelve tracks. His guitar playing is sharp, and although his voice may not be as supple as it was thirty years ago, it’s still full, still glides to and around any note and is still able to convey just the right emotion to fit the song. That’s always been one of Merle’s secrets because he writes and sings in such a wide array of moods and rhythms. On this one you’ll find honky tonk blues, western swing, a tinge of calypso, and pensive ballads. No surprise – Merle and his band sound right at home on all of them.

Merle was 63 when this album was released, and his perspective in his writing reflects the time in his life, as it always has. His lyrics on songs like “Wishing All These Old Things Were New” are so candid they’d be shocking if they came from a lesser talent. On others they reflect a family man longing to be home from the road – “Leavin’s Getting Harder” of “If I Could Only Fly,” or a father’s confessions both of his love and his shortcomings -“I’m Still Your Daddy.” He’s also still able to show his wit in the double entendre laden “Bareback.”

Merle is truly an Old Master. This album, and several that followed, prove he did in fact return.
Jason Eady – Daylight & Dark

We’ll start our look at a pair of newcomers with Jason Eady. Eady was born and first started singing in Mississippi, but when he began working in Texas, he found his voice as a songwriter. At first his music might have been referred to as Americana albeit with a twinge of country. In 2012, he hooked up with Nashville based producer Kevin Welch, known for his indie streak. Their collaboration produced a marked shift toward traditional country music that resulted in two albums produced back to back AM Country Heaven, and in early 2014, Daylight & Dark. I have them both but give a slight edge to the latter in part because of its thematic consistency.

Eady’s voice has a classic timbre and emotional control reminiscent but not imitative of so many of traditional country’s finest singers like Vern Gosdin and Don Williams. Welch kept the instrumentation spare on Daylight and Dark allowing the guitar, pedal steel and fiddle, as well as Eady’s voice, room to be heard. The top shelf musicians include Americana Award winner Fats Kaplin on peddle steel and fiddle, and guitar player extraordinaire Richard Bennett, who has backed a range of singers from Emmylou Harris to Barbara Streisand. They add texture that beautifully complements but never crowds the vocal.

Most of the songs are newly written by Eady, giving lie to the fear that nobody knows how to write real country music anymore. As he says on his own website, “The moment I came up with the first verse and chorus of ‘Daylight and Dark’ was a breakthrough. I understood that what I wanted to convey in the album is that life is not simple. Most songs don’t do that. They’re either happy or sad. But life doesn’t work that way. Most of the time we live somewhere in between. And that place is between the daylight and the dark.”

Although the serious theme inspired by the title song is carried through several songs, the tempo of the tunes is quite varied. Eady and Welch found places in the lineup for a couple of barroom kickers as well as a classic country duet. The album has songs that reveal harsh truths and lines that cut, but it also has lines that tickle and melodies that glide like cowboy boots on a dance floor. It is, after all, real country music.

 

Heather Myles – Sweet Talk & Good Lies

Heather Myles sounds as if she was more likely influenced by Dwight Yoakam, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard than Patsy or Tammy. And she certainly bears no resemblance to Faith, Carrie or Taylor – thank god. Hers is straight ahead Bakersfield style country built for honky tonks and dance halls. Myles came by her sound naturally having grown up on a ranch in Southern California. If she had come along 10 or 15 years earlier during the neo-traditional era spawned by Strait, Travis and Yoakam, she would probably have been a major star.

Despite arriving during an era when country radio rarely plays country music, she managed to put out a series of very fine albums. I have a couple of them. I’ve chosen to recommend Sweet Talk & Good Lies as a place to start primarily because of her rendition of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” a fun duet with Dwight Yoakam on “Little Chapel,” and her nod to Detroit’s glory days, ” Big Cars.”

The rest of the set is strong as well, especially “One Man Woman Again.”

The tune “Little Chapel” is a great example of the misdirection inherent in the Bakersfield branch of country music. It’s not a typical weeper. Rather it refers to a couple running away to a “little chapel on the Las Vegas strip, where the preacher looks like Elvis, and we could even strike it rich.” You’ve got to love it.

I also really like her album Highways & Honky Tonks, and if you want to cherry pick a great cut not on either album, go for “Rum & Rodeo.”

Final note for the week
I hope and your friends and family had a great and music filled Fourth of July weekend. I’m a little late with this post due to excessive celebration. I’m on vacation for the rest of the week, so I will not be posting next Monday. I’ll be back with more recommendations and fun music info on July 20. ‘Till then, as Dwight Yoakam would say, “turn it on, turn it up…”