Pickers’ Showcase!

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As a guitar player, I have a fondness for, well, guitar players, and for that matter musicians who pick, strum, or bow all manner of stringed instruments. There are so many of these guys and gals we could talk about, so here are just a few. My purpose is not to start an argument over who’s the best. I just want you to enjoy some of the best at the top of their game while listening to some damn fine tunes all the while.

Having said that, we will, indeed, start at the very top.

Flatt and Scruggs with Doc Watson – Strictly Instrumental

This album from 1967 is certainly a showcase for the man who practically invented the three finger-roll style picking on the five string banjo, Earl Scruggs, and the most influential innovator ever on the folk and bluegrass acoustic guitar whose lightning fast runs set the instrument free. I speak, of course, of Doc Watson. Earl and Doc lead the way on this instrumental journey through eleven standards of the mountain folk and bluegrass tradition. The best part is, that’s only the beginning, because the rest of Lester and Earl’s band, The Foggy Mountain Boys, are no slouches either. There’s Uncle Josh Graves, one of the pioneers of the dobro, the very fine fiddle player Paul Buskirk and Lester Flatt’s steady rhythm guitar. They are joined by a great harmonica player, who I believe in this case is Charlie McCoy.  Still, it’s Earl and Doc who are in the spotlight the most. They lead a dialog of bell clear notes that I can only describe as thrilling. The breakneck pace, the dexterity of the playing, and the interplay among the instruments set an extraordinarily high bar for any acoustic string musician to reach.

Here is a terrific example on a tune ironically titled, “Nothing To It.”

Jorma Kaukonen – Blue Country Heart

Most of the time, when I mention Jorma Kaukonen I get a puzzled “who’s that” kind of look in return. When I reply that he was the lead guitarist for Jefferson Airplane and later Hot Tuna, I may get a glimmer of recognition. It doesn’t bother me, however, because I would have had the same reaction up until the time I first heard this album released in 2002. Turns out Kaukonen is a master of country and country blues style finger picking. Once again, though, the headliner is just the beginning. On this collection he is surrounded by arguably the best musicians in the world today on each of their respective instruments: Bela Fleck – banjo, Jerry Douglas – dobro, Sam Bush – mandolin and fiddle and Byron House – bass. Kaukonen has brought this supergroup together to breath life into classic country tunes from the 1930’s and 40’s. Tunes made famous by folks like Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry, Jimmy Davis, and the Delmore Brothers, provide a perfect, almost jazzy vehicle for these virtuoso performers. The structure and tempo of tunes like “Blue Railroad Train,” “Big River Blues,” “Just Because” and “Waiting For A Train” paired with Kaukonen’s warm, slightly gruff vocals give the whole album the feel of a warm fall afternoon with a bunch of old friends making music on the back porch. Go ahead, pull up a chair and crack a cold one, but listen closely – you won’t want to miss a note…”Just Because.”

Ry Cooder – Borderline

Ry Cooder has been making magic with his guitar since the late 1960’s. In the process he’s released many albums plus scored several motion pictures. He’s also found and boosted the careers of many fine musicians, a notable example being the Buena Vista Social Club from Cuba. His precise, eloquent approach to the electric and slide guitar sizzles but doesn’t overpower the song, his fellow musicians nor most importantly the listener. In this regard, his playing is kind of an electric guitar cousin of Doc Watson’s acoustic style. I chose to highlight this particular album, originally released in 1980, because frankly the songs are as much fun as the musicianship is dazzling. There is a latin flavor throughout especially on the pleading “Why Don’t You Try Me Tonight,” “The Girls From Texas,” John Hiatt’s “The Way We Make A Broken Heart,” and of course the title track, which is the album’s only instrumental. There are also three very nicely done covers of hits from the fifties and sixties. I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite track with so many great tunes, but a top candidate would have to be “Crazy ‘Bout An Automobile,” which Cooder had performed in his live shows for several years before this release. Cooder plays guitar, slide guitar and vibes on the album and is joined by a stellar supporting cast. I’d be remiss not to name Jim Keltner on drums and George “Baboo” Pierre on percussion. Those guys in particular give the recordings their bounce and groove. Put this one on your stereo, give the volume a tad extra juice, and get ready to smile.

Here is a video of Ry Cooder performing “Crazy ‘Bout An Automobile” live in Santa Cruz in 1987 with several of the same performers as on Borderline.

Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives – Live At The Ryman

With this album, we’ve come almost full circle from our opener with Flatt & Scruggs and Doc Watson. For starters, it’s bluegrass. Second, Marty Stuart actually played in Lester Flatt’s band as a teenager in the 1970’s. Third, among the guest stars on the album is non other than Flatt & Scruggs and The Foggy Mountain Boys’ legendary dobro player Uncle Josh Graves.

Just before the circle closes, however, this album roars off on its own track. It’s bluegrass all right, but with more than a touch of rockabilly attitude. Marty on mandolin and his band regulars, Kenny Vaughan on guitar, “Handsome” Harry Stinson on snare drum and Brian Glenn on bass, play and harmonize with abandon. They’re joined by Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Charlie Cushman – now part of the award winning Earls of Leicester – on banjo, and of course the aforementioned Uncle Josh. When these boys take off on “The Orange Blossom Special,” they leave nothing but smoke on the tracks. The crowd at the Ryman is clearly loving the ride.

Back and forth they go, each musician getting multiple moments in the spotlight. There’s blues, traditional country harmony, honky tonk and tom foolery. Toward the end of the show, they slow it down just a tad to showcase Uncle Josh on “The Great Speckeld Bird.” Then they kick back into overdrive for “Sure Wanna Keep My Wine” leading straight into two barn burners, “Walk Like That” and “Hillbilly Rock,” that close the show and leave you limp, with just enough left in your tank to reach for the replay button.

Until next time, let’s boogie on out of here with Marty and the boys.


Album Review Roundup – 2015 (So Good, So Far)


In case you’re thinking, hey this isn’t new info, what’s up…I discovered a technical issue with the posting I did last week titled Album Review Roundup – 2015 that prevented the site from opening properly on certain popular devices which are used by many of my readers. Long story short, the fix seems to be to break the post into two parts. For those of you who were unable to open last week’s post, this is the second part, and you should find the first part immediately preceding it. For those of you who were able to open it before, please hang tight. There will be a completely new post next week. I’m sorry for any inconvenience. I’m still an old dog learning new tricks.

Part Two

Part One of my Album Review Roundup for the first half of 2015 focused on soul, roots, R&B, jazz and pop. Now let’s take a look at the best country albums as seen through the prism of Classic Cowjazz R&B. They range from a veteran with a classic country bent, to two stars who rose in the seventies, to a couple of Texas cowboys to the king of western swing. “Hit it boys, aahhh”

Alan Jackson – Angels And Alcohol
The picture of Alan Jackson on the cover of his album Angels and Alcohol depicts a very comfortable man with a slight smile knowing he’s one of the two or three best singers and songwriters in country music. In his early years, I thought he was a very good singer of very good songs. He grew into a great singer who could make even ordinary songs sounds very good indeed. Now with George Strait semi-retired, Randy Travis a mess, Clint Black disappearing and Dwight Yoakam splitting his time between singing and acting, Jackson is the last of the neo-traditionalist generation, who came to prominence from 1983-1990, still standing. Regardless of a song’s tempo, he never hurries a line, he never strains to convey emotion, and he can bend a single note into three – but only when the the song needs him to do so. He also knows he’s an entertainer. In the great honky tonk tradition, he puts out a set of music on this album that you can dance to, laugh to, perhaps cry to and make love to. As an old song says, with this one “he had me at hello.” To show you what I mean, here’s the opening track:

The engineering is superb, so you can fully enjoy the multiple guitar players producer Keith Stegall employs on most tracks. Happy surprise, this real country music album shot to the top of Billboard’s country music album charts and number three on the Billboard 200 soon after its release. Maybe there is hope for classic commercial country music after all.

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – The Traveling Kind

The last couple of years have been good for Rodney Crowell. His 2014 release Tarpaper Sky is in my opinion his most enjoyable album in years. Now in 2015, he has this superb collaboration with Emmylou Harris, The Traveling Kind. Rodney, of course, was a member of Emmylou’s Hot Band in the 1970s and has contributed many tunes to her oeuvre, but some forty years passed before they truly collaborated again on 2013’s Old Yellow Moon. That’s a good album too, but for whatever reason, I like The Traveling Kind better. Maybe it’s the greater preponderance of original tunes – they co-wrote six of the eleven, although the covers are quite good. My one quibble is that the title song doesn’t work for me all that well as an album opener. It’s a good song, but I would have moved it farther down the program. Having said that, it’s a strong collection ranging from the incredibly poignant “You Can’t Say We Didn’t Try” to the honky tonkin’ kicker “If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now.” When I listen to a big talent encounter like this, I want more than good songs. I also want to feel like the the stars are having fun singing together, like they’d be just as happy doing it in my living room as in the studio. I get that feeling here.

Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – Hold My Beer, Vol 1

Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen are two Texas boys, both veterans of the Texas honky tonk circuit which occasionally expands to Oklahoma, New Mexico and sometimes beyond: solid singers and performers who’ve not had the monster hit to propel them to the top of the charts. Along their career path, they became friends who shared a stage with some regularity. They wrote a song about their adventures together, and that led to Hold My Beer, Vol 1.  For starters, how can you not buy an album with a title like that? And then, if you’ve ever had that great friend with whom you’ve shared the highs and lows, how can you resist a song with the refrain, “I guess what they say is true, all you need is one good friend; ’In the Next Life,” I want to be ourselves again?” From that starting point, the album glides into overdrive with the boys’ version of Joe Ely’s “I Had My Hopes Up High.” Let the fun begin.

The chemistry between Randy and Wade is palpable, and all you need is a bit of a breeze, warm sunshine on your face and a cooler full of cold ones to feel like you’re part of the act. There are some solid originals and a couple of tips of the hat to the golden age of country music. Of course the great thing about Texas honky tonks is that the golden age is still alive and well there. Through every swinging door you’ll find acoustic guitars and fiddles, lap steel guitars a cryin’ and cowgirls a twirlin,’ sawdust on the floor and steaks on the grill. ‘Scuse me while I pop a top again.

Asleep At The Wheel – Still The King

When I first heard about Still The King, I thought “oh lordy, the Wheel’s going to the Bob Wills well again.” After all, they released Tribute To The Music Of Bob Wills in 1993 and then Ride With Bob in 1999. Both albums were chock full of Bob Wills’ hits and featured big star guest artists. What’s left to say, or more relevant, to sing on this subject? Well, I should have known better than doubt Ray Benson, founder and long time leader of Asleep At The Wheel. He’s come up with another gem that’s just pure fun whether you’re listening or two steppin’. While he’s repeated a few songs, he’s found plenty that he’s not previously recorded. And while some guests return, like George Strait, Lyle Lovett, Willie and Merle, Ray has found a new generation who dig this music. The guest list includes the Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, Jamey Johnson, Pokey Lafarge, Brad Paisley, Robert Earl Keen, Elizabeth Cook and Carrie Rodriguez. Mix new blood with old, and season with the Wheel’s passion for Bob Wills’ music. The recipe delivers a tasty treat once again.

And sometimes it’s just dessert – the lyrics are only a vehicle around which a whole bunch of musicians strut their stuff.

My opinion of Ray Benson and Asleep At The Wheel is colored by their marvelous performances at two of the Lea Brothers Band’s Western Classic and Barbecues to Benefit the Foundation Fighting Blindness. Plus I’ve had the pleasure of visiting with Ray on his bus and sharing a few stories. He’s a genial giant, talented and warm. Surprisingly given the music he plays, he’s not a Texan at all. Rather he’s from Pennsylvania. I asked him once why he chose western swing as his musical province. He told me that from his earliest days, he loved watching folks dance to his music. He went on to say that when his wanderings brought him to dance halls in Texas, he knew he had found where he belonged. Despite all that, I did wonder if we needed yet another Bob Wills tribute. After listening to this album many times already, I will say that in Ray Benson’s hands, Bob Wills is Still The King.

And don’t forget…
I wrote a detailed review in an earlier blog about Chris Stapleton’s Traveller, and I briefly mentioned Willie Nelson’s and Merle Haggard’s Django and Jimmie. Both albums are near the top of my list of “best of 2015.” Three others that I’m still evaluating but sound promising are James McMurtry’s Complicated Game, Jimmy Lafave’s The Night Tribe, and James Taylor’s Before This World, which I already agree is his best in years. Just because I’m not ready to recommend them, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check them out. If you do, let me know what you think. And let me know if you think I’ve missed a good one.
I love Willie’s and Merle’s album. Since I didn’t write about it in detail in the earlier blog, I’ll leave you with a clip of the two legends together again.

Album Review Roundup – 2015 (so good so far)

Part One 

The year 2015 is a bit over half through, and so far it’s been pretty darn strong for album releases within the Classic Cowjazz R&B spectrum. This week I’m presenting the first of a two part roundup of brief reviews of new releases that you may want to check out. No doubt, many of you may already have some of these, but I hope there will be at least a couple you may have missed. This is by no means all of the albums I know about and have sampled during the first half of the year; it’s not even all I have actually purchased. Of the albums I’ve heard, however, these are at the top of my “recommended” list so far in 2015.

Part One features a spectacular debut which I best describe as a soul/folks/roots fusion, a modern take on traditional New Orleans jazz, a couple by veteran singers comfortable in multiple variations of R&B, and the latest from a pop maestro.

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Rhiannon Giddens – Tomorrow Is My Turn

Rhiannon Giddens usually performs with the Carolina Chocolate Drops who specialize in music from the old time African American folk and blues tradition from the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Her solo turn in the recorded concert Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating The Music of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ so impressed producer T Bone Burnett that he persuaded her to do a solo project. The result is a stunning showcase for her incredible voice, and although the production and instrumentation may be more commercial than her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the song selections and treatments are true to her love for classic roots music. In this case most of the tracks are by or associated with female singers. To say the highlight for me is her R&B flavored version of Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You” is easy, but it also shortchanges wonderful performances of “Waterboy,” “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mine,”Up Above My Head,” and so many others. I believe it should be Grammy’s Album of the Year.

Here’s Rhiannon at the Grand Ole Opry:

Dee Dee Bridgewater With Irvin Mayfield & The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra – Dee Dee’s Feathers

I don’t usually write about jazz in part because I don’t feel qualified, but I’m making an exception here for three reasons. First Dee Dee Bridgewater is an entertainer who learned how to connect with her audiences through Tony and Olivier Award winning performances on New York and London stages that paralleled her career in jazz. Second, this album is a celebration of New Orleans, the city and its jazz heritage, on the 10th anniversary of hurricane Katrina. Third, I believe without New Orleans jazz there would be no cowjazz nor R&B.

Dee Dee’s Feathers is a marvelous mix of old tunes like “St James Infirmary,” more recent songs like Harry Connick’s “One Fine Thing,” and new music written for this project. Bridgewater collaborated with the great albeit recently controversial New Orleans bred trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. The music is modern yet closely connected to the New Orleans tradition. There’s variety in tempo and rhythms. It’s both great and accessible. You don’t have to be a jazz aficionado to enjoy hearing this music. Laissez le bon temps rouler!

Boz Scaggs – A Fool To Love You

Boz has recorded everything from hard core blues to slick pop to jazz standards and even near-folk. With 2013’s Memphis, he seemed to want to move back toward his sweet soul roots. Although highly regarded by many, somehow it just didn’t work for me, so even with repeated samplings, I could never get myself to click on “buy.” On 2015’s A Fool To Love You, however, I’m happy to report he got it right. It’s a great mix of primarily older material, yet I would never describe it as Boz covering oldies. They’re just good songs. One is reminiscent of Fats Domino; another is sixties soul; there’s early R&B and a lovers’ slow dance; Boz echoes his Silk Degrees era hits in a couple plus adds a nod to disco; he wrote a traditional sounding blues shuffle to round it all out. Heck, there’s even a tango number. Whatever the style, he sounds like he’s in control and having fun. Plus there are duets with Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams, and an excellent cast of musicians. All in all, the album showcases a veteran master at his best.

Here is Boz in a Jools Holland big band concert treatment of the title track.

Brian Wilson – No Pier Pressure

This album is a bit of an outlier from the music I usually follow. If you don’t like the Beach Boys, chances are you won’t like No Pier Pressure. And if you like the sixties era Beach Boys, you still may not like it. There’s no “Surfin’ USA” or “Fun Fun Fun” here. Still…Brian Wilson is one of those geniuses who is so often tormented by the pursuit of a magnum opus. In my opinion it’s been too much weight for his more recent solo albums to bear. In contrast, I read somewhere that this album is just a collection of tunes he had worked on from time to time – no grand plan, as he hints in the album’s title. The result: it works as really engaging pop rock and a nice change of pace. He has a couple of interesting guest artists. Plus he’s joined on several tunes by his old Beach Boy mate Al Jardine on what – not surprisingly – are some of the best cuts. Although there might be a cut or two I’ll eventually delete, the more I listen to it, the more I like it. Maybe it’s just that we’re in the middle of summer, and no doubt about it, for all of his experimentation over the years, Wilson’s soul is still basking in Southern California summer sun. Give it a listen. You might agree that’s a pretty good place to be.

Steve Tyrell – That Loving Feeling

Steve Tyrell has created a very nice second career for himself as a jazz-like interpreter of the Great American Songbook, starting in the late 1990’s following up on his surprisingly successful turn as vocalist on standards used in the Steve Martin movie, “Father of the Bride.”  Tyrell is blessed with artful phrasing, an ability to connect with audiences, the smarts to surround himself with great musicians, and a contagious respect for the songwriters responsible for such enduring songs. Thus he was able to overcome an only average voice to create entertaining night club shows and above average albums that go down really well with cocktails. If you’re a baby boomer who also likes Tyrell, you will probably like his newest effort, which connects his second career to his first.

In his first career Tyrell was kind of a boy wonder in the control booth or producer’s chair for some of the biggest singles and albums in the sixties and early seventies. For That Loving Feeling, he’s given fifteen of the era’s hits low key, somewhat jazzy arrangements. In other words, like his other albums, this is music better suited for cocktail hour than a big party. Tyrell uses guests quite well. Highlights include “On Broadway” with the great songwriter Barry Mann, “Rock and Roll Lullaby” with original artist B. J. Thomas, “Good Good Lovin’” with the wondrous Judith Hill, and of course “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Felling” with the great Bill Medley. I’ve included a clip below of Steve and Bill talking about how the monster hit’s co-writer Mann created an arrangement that enabled Steve to take parts of the song that originally belonged to Bill, yet provide room for Medley to (in my opinion) still own his biggest hit. I never really liked the song “Jazzman” that opens the album, and the closer “Hound Dog” seems out of place even reincarnated here as a blues. But the rest of That Loving Feeling is like a good single malt; it gets better with repeated servings.

Check back for Part Two of the Album Review Roundup which will focus on country music from traditional to western swing.


The Dan Penn Connection

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My friend Tommy Baysden says that anyone who hasn’t yet seen the acclaimed 2013 documentary film “Muscle Shoals” should go straight to assisted living. I have to agree, but in case you haven’t see the movie, it’s the story of how in the 1960s a bunch of largely white country boys mainly from northern Alabama and Mississippi combined with a remarkable array of black singers to create many of the all time great R&B hits. In a place and time often marked by hatred and too frequently by violence between the races, these cats filled a studio with love, respect, a groove and soul.

If you have seen the movie, you already know that one of the featured characters is musician, songwriter, and producer Dan Penn. Although not touched on in the movie, Penn was, and still is, a pretty darn good soul singer in his own right. Penn and others of his cohorts in Muscle Shoals have said that although they were country boys, they grew up much more enamored by the likes of Ray Charles and other black singers than they were country singers. R&B was the music they tried to emulate as they started out, feeling like the notes and chords they were hearing carried so much more power and emotion. Interestingly, when I think back on the early records I was buying, and the music played by the regional bands we danced to in the Carolinas, it was almost all R&B. Late at night, when the signals from far away AM radio stations would come in loud and clear, we’d hear disc jockeys with patter like “Solomon Burke can handle the work and Otis Redding’s got the heading.”

A few months ago, Penn was a guest on Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale’s wonderful show on Sirius/XM’s Outlaw Country channel. He was discussing his association with Muscle Shoals in the context of the recent release of his CD, The FAME Recordings. This is essentially a collection of demo recordings he made of songs he wrote (or co-wrote) while working at FAME Studio. As Penn said, these recordings were not made for release but rather to attract the attention of an established singer like, say, Percy Sledge.

Although many of the other great FAME studio musicians helped out, as demos these tunes didn’t get the full studio treatment. While it’s still fun to listen to so many good tunes in their more raw form, I prefer Penn’s fully developed CD Do Right Man, released in 1994. He’s in fine voice and is accompanied by many of his old friends from the Muscle Shoals 1960’s hey day, this time with a horn section in fully produced form. He does about a dozen of his best known songs plus a couple more lesser known but still strong tunes. I recommend you check it out.

What’s also really fun is to connect and compare Penn’s performances of his songs to those by some of the more well known singers who in many cases made them hits or otherwise gave memorable performances. Of course, you can also make a playlist of Dan Penn songs as recorded by others. You can mix up tempos as well as song orders, use some hit versions and some that were album cuts, and check female versus male versions to end up with several entertaining variations.

Here is the track listing from Do Right Man of those songs covered by other artists, several of which became big hits. ** denotes hit version; * denotes it’s in my collection

“The Dark End Of The Street” – James Carr** *, Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Greg Allman, Linda Ronstadt*, the Flying Burrito Brothers* and many more.

Check out the great James Carr.

And here is Dan Penn with the great keyboardist Bobby Emmons, who played on the Carr recording, in an appearance on David Letterman.

“Cry Like A Man” – Christy Moore

“It Tears Me Up” – Percy Sledge** *, Johnny Adams, The Box Tops, The Hacienda Brothers*

“You Left The Water Running” – James & Bobby Purify*, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Barbara Lynn**, Huey Lewis & the News*.

“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” – Aretha Franklin** *, Etta James, Phoebe Snow, Dionne Warwick*, Flying Burrito Brothers* and many others.

“Memphis Women and Chicken” – T. Graham Brown

“Zero Willpower” – Irma Thomas

“He’ll Take Care Of You” – T. Graham Brown (with Vince Gill), Bonnie Bramlett*

“I’m Your Puppet” – James & Bobby Purify** *, Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, The Box Tops, Dionne Warwick*, Irma Thomas and many others.

I only found one track on the album that did not have other covers, “Where There’s A Will There’s A Way,” but that only means that somebody missed out on a golden opportunity for a hit.  What do you think?

Still, as long as we’re building a playlist of hit songs co-written by Dan Penn, let’s include these, a couple of which can be found on Penn’s The Fame Recordings:

“Cry Like A Baby” – The Box Tops** * (he also produced their hit “The Letter,”) Cher, Betty Wright, Lulu, Arthur Alexander, The Hacienda Brothers*.

“(Take Me) Just As I Am” – Solomon Burke, Spencer Wiggins*

“Uptight, Good Woman” – Solomon Burke**, Wilson Pickett, Spencer Wiggins*

“Out Of Left Field – Percy Sledge** *, Hank Williams, Jr, Al Kooper

“Sweet Inspiration” – The Sweet Inspirations** *

“A Woman Left Lonely” – Janis Joplin, Irma Thomas, Charlie Rich

“Is A Bluebird Blue?” – Conway Twitty, The Band of Oz

This last song was Penn’s very first and helped convince him and others that he could make it in the music business. And what a long career he’s had. While most of these songs represent classic sixties soul music at its finest, Penn has endured as an in demand producer and writer, and still performs as he recently did at Lincoln Center in New York City with several of his Muscle Shoals era friends.

In fact, I’ve found the Dan Penn connection extends in more varied directions than I first imagined. Here are just two albums released in the last few years that show his influence across the entire spectrum of Classic Cowjazz R&B.

Greg Trooper – Make It Through This World

When I was checking some of the information used in this post, I discovered that Dan Penn had in 2005 produced an album for a singer/songwriter originally from New Jersey, Greg Trooper. So I sought out this album and was blown away. I immediately added it to my music library and listened to it two or three times in a row.

Although he was born in New Jersey and at one point had a band in New York, Trooper has apparently lived most of his adult life in Austin, Texas, and Nashville, carving out a place in the Americana niche. I had never heard of him, yet he’s very respected in the music world. For example, he’s worked with Larry Campbell, who is so well known for his years with Bob Dylan and Levon Helm, and he had an earlier album produced by Buddy Miller.

Having said that, I checked out all of his music that I could readily find, and for my money, his album with Penn stands apart. Mind you, this is not R&B. Still, Penn seasoned his songs with a hint of groove, a rhythmic underpinning and mix of instruments that brings to Trooper’s songs and his singing, something I can’t quite find a word for that makes me want to hear them again and again. But don’t misunderstand, it’s not just what Penn did, its how it showcases Trooper’s lyrics, melodies and singing. The match up just works.

I can’t find a loser in the bunch, but I have found a couple of early favorites.  As you heard, “Dream Away These Blues” is actually an upbeat prognostication of how the singer will feel after he recovers from his blues. He’s down today, but he knows he’ll be up tomorrow. I love the way Penn employed the organ on this and other tunes to bring a little gospel feel to the proceedings. Then, you have to love a lyric that goes: “If you don’t like my peaches, don’t know where they’re grown, I’ll walk all the way to Georgia, just to bring one home to you, ‘This I’d Do’…” as Trooper recounts all the things he’ll do to prove his love. Again, it’s that organ that pulls you into the the song most flavored by R&B.

Great lines abound, for example “lonely as a cheap hotel” from “Don’t Let It Go To Waste.” The one I keep coming back to, however, is “I Love It When She Lies,” in which Trooper sings about a girl so wonderful she couldn’t possibly be telling the truth “when she looks into my eyes, and tells me I’m the prize, I love it when she lies.”

It’s not all sweetness and light, however. “Close To The Tracks” is the story of a woman trying to understand why her perfect romance went bad. “She called her mom and her dad, but they wouldn’t understand, they say ‘what did you do to that hard working man.’” And there’s the poignancy of “I’ve got all that I wanted, got all that I’ve dreamed, and I’m So Lonesome For You Now” about a man who’s reached the pinnacle, alone. Still despite the blue times, for Trooper on this album there is always hope as in “When I Think Of You My Friends” when he sings, “out of work, out of luck, but never out of dreams.”

In case you missed my point: I love this record.”

The Hacienda Brothers – What’s Wrong With Right

What do you get when you put together a band – led by two southern Californians, one a country underground hero who sang everything from country to rockabilly to Tejano to Philly soul, and the other a song writing guitar god from a cult band with a penchant for equally cross genre adventures – and an old swamper from north Alabama? I’m not sure, even after several listenings. Thus, I’m not sure this album is for everybody, but I am sure everybody should give it a try and see for themselves.

Allow me to elaborate. The swamper as you no doubt have guessed given the subject of this article is Dan Penn. Somehow Penn got connected with singer/songwriter Chris Gaffney and Dave Gonzales, guitar picker extraordinaire for The Paladins. Gaffney and Gonzales founded a genuine honky tonk band called The Hacienda Brothers. Working together in 2005, Gaffney, Gonzales and Penn pushed the boundaries of country honky tonk toward soul music on the band’s eponymous first album. Then in 2006, on What’s Wrong With Right , they pushed a little farther toward soul and in my opinion found a sweet spot. Penn called is “western soul.”

“Midnight Dream,” written by the band, sets the tone from the moment Dave Berzansky’s pedal steel meets Joe Terry’s organ. The soul flavor is enhanced by the inclusion of Penn’s classics “Cry Like A Baby” and “It Tears Me Up” along with “Cowboys To Girls,” the Intruders hit from the sixties. I know it sounds incongruous that a cowboy bar band could pull these off, but the Hacienda Brothers are up to the task. Careful though; just when you think the guys are all about soul, they hit you with “The Last Time,” a beer joint country two stepper in the grand tradition – Gonzales has said that he had imagined he was writing the song for Ray Price – and a great cover of Charlie Rich’s “Life’s Little Ups And Downs.” Gaffney’s weathered voice hits just enough right notes with just enough passion to pull off all these gambles. Gonzales’ guitar is restrained, but about the time you miss it, he zings you with the perfect fill you and the song need. Plus on the instrumental finale, “The Son of Saguaro” he gets to strut his trademark deep twangs in the company of Gaffney’s lonesome western accordion along with pedal steel and gut string guitar to eerie, slow burning effect.

On this album, The Hacienda Brothers cross all the borders. Give a listen; it’s a journey you might want to take.

How important was Dan Penn to the album’s sound? That’s the essence of the question NPR’s Terry Gross posed to Gaffney and Gonzales in an interview on her show “Fresh Air.” Gonzales responded that Penn just has a feel for how to enhance a song. “He knows how to find the groove, how to find the soul” in the song. In a separate interview on NPR’s “Morning Edition, Penn commented on the characterization of his songs as having “a down home, conversational quality in his lyrics…and always a strong rhythmic feel.” He said, “I like a good groove. I’m not looking for a big mental statement. Just give me a groove and tell me something I like.”

Take the title track which Gonzales co-wrote with Penn. He told Gross that all he had was the title. He and Penn were hanging out in Vernon, Alabama, when he asked for Penn’s thoughts on it. “I looked him straight in the eye and said, “what’s wrong with right,” and he looked right back at me and said, “do I hold you too tight?” They knew they had something and finished the song that night.

Penn has repeatedly said that he prefers collaboration rather than writing solo. Yet even though he’s had many co-writers, and has produced records in multiple genres, almost any song he’s touched has something you can feel, that groove and soul Gonzales describes, that connects James Carr and Percy Sledge to newer performers like Greg Trooper and The Hacienda Brothers.

(Special note: I’m digressing slightly off my titular subject, but I just feel you need to know more about Chris Gaffney. Before he hooked up with Dave Gonzales and Dan Penn, he showed off his versatile vocal chops on his own 1995 album, Losers Paradise. His voice was a decade younger and stronger, thus slightly less weathered yet still filled with the soul that gave him such range across genres. He flat kills the title track as well as Tom Russell’s “The Eyes Of Roberto Duran,” which explains the futility of fighting with his woman, and “The Man of Someone’s Dreams,” as sad a requiem for wasting a chance at love as you’ll ever hear. He also presages The Hacienda Brothers with his solo version of “Cowboys To Girls” on which he’s supported by the haunting harmony voice of the inimitable Lucinda Williams.  At the very least, you’ll want to cherry pick at least those four tunes.”)

Let’s close out by cherry picking from among Dan Penn songs you may have never heard, or perhaps have heard but didn’t connect them to him.

“I Hate You” – Bobby Blue Bland
“Got a Feeling For Ya” – Kelly Willis
“Blue In The Heart” – Irma Thomas
“I Won’t Cry For You” – Irma Thomas
“I’m Not Through Loving You Yet” – Pegi Young (Neill’s wife)

I can hardly think of a better way to close this discussion than with one of my all time favorites Irma Thomas singing a Dan Penn song:

Closing note: I will be traveling next week to the wedding of one of my nieces, so I won’t be able to do a post. I’ll be back in two weeks with more music news and thoughts. If you’re enjoying what you’re reading and hearing, please pass along the link to your friends.