My first New Year’s resolution for 2016 is to tell you about Doug Seegers. He actually came to my attention several months ago when I was listening to the “Buddy (Miller) and Jim (Lauderdale) Show” on Sirius XM’s “Outlaw Country.” Buddy and Jim’s show was about Doug and his story, and he was a guest. I was so intrigued by his story that I bought his album. I was so enthralled by his music that I’ve listened to it time and again. I kept wanting to write about him in my blog, but just never saw how he fit into my theme that particular week. Well enough procrastination, you need to know about Doug, and you need to hear his music.
I’ll encapsulate Seegers’ story here, but you can get a more thorough rendition via a documentary now available on iTunes Movies. It’s called “Doug Seegers: Cinderella Man,” lasts about an hour, and you can rent it for 99 cents. The short story: native New Yorker grows up loving country music; hooks up with Buddy Miller in a band working the wide open spaces of Texas in the early 1970’s; hates the lifestyle so returns to New York City, marries and has two kids; sinks into alcohol and drugs, loses his family, winds up homeless; somehow – he says with the Lord’s help – kicks drugs and alcohol and heads to Nashville as a homeless street musician living under a bridge and befriended by a younger woman who runs a food pantry feeding homeless people; gets discovered by a female Swedish country singer roaming around Nashville with a camera crew (go figure;) she’s so enthralled she arranges a recording session for a single which becomes a huge hit in Sweden as does his filmed appearance on her TV show; a bunch of Swedes in the music industry there arrange a tour of the country for him, and to support it they arrange for Will Kimbrough and others in Emmylou Harris’s band to produce an album.
Who knows how Seegers’ story will end, but for now, the tour of Sweden – 70 dates in 90 days – was a big success, and the album is terrific.
Doug Seegers – Going Down To The River
When Seegers knew Buddy Miller in the early seventies, he referred to himself as Duke the Drifter. Well if Hank Williams, the one and only Luke the Drifter, showed up in a recording studio in 1993, he might’ve sounded like Seegers, which is to say that Doug has an emotion laden voice with a slightly hard edge. Like Hank, Doug is authentic with a capital “A” with both the vocal and songwriting talent to grab a listener by the heart and never let go. There are only two covers on the album, and they’re doozies: Gram Parson’s “She” and Hank’s “There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight” with Emmylou Harris featured on the former and Miller on the latter. Still, the other ten tunes penned by Seegers hold their own, and several are at least as good as these covers. They range from the spiritually infused title track to the humorous, western swing lament, “Baby Lost Her Way Home Again.”
Seegers’ Swedish tour promotors needed the album produced on a fast track meaning just a couple of weeks. Thus Kimbrough, who’s worked with the likes of Rodney Crowell and Jimmy Buffet, simply assembled his mates in Emmylou’s band, and as you might guess, all are top drawer. (For obsessed aficionados like me, all are identified in the digital booklet that comes with the download.) For the most part, it’s recorded live, meaning the singer and musicians are all recorded together, and the good vibe is apparent.
Seegers may have lived every lyric and note in his songs, but he’s one of those singers who can’t hide the joy he gets from sharing his art even when it’s inspired by heartache. In the documentary, he says that several of the songs were actually written many years ago. He figured that nobody would ever hear them. But now you can, and should. The Lord may have saved Doug from booze and drugs, but it’s his music and that gives him redemption. If it doesn’t give you redemption, I’ll bet at least it’ll give you great pleasure.
No, I did not make a New Year’s resolution to tell you about Mo Pitney, but I vowed to when I walked out of Jerry Hamrick’s barber shop late last Thursday afternoon. Jerry’s a damn fine barber, and he’s also a pretty good guitar picker and singer, so every time I sit in his chair we talk about new music we’ve heard. As I was about to leave, he told me he was recently with a friend who pulled up some YouTube videos by a guy named Mo Pitney who knocked him out.
But my story really begins in January, 2013, when my brothers and our wives traveled to Nashville. One night we went to a local club to see Shawn Camp, whom we knew from his collaborations with Guy Clark. (We liked Shawn so much we booked him on the spot to share the bill with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at our last Western Classic and Barbecue later that year.) Shawn spotted Mo in the audience, and apparently having done some work with him, invited him up on stage to sing a song. Up walked a skinny kid wearing a John Deere Tractor ball cap who looked like he had just gotten off the truck from Illinois. Then he started singing. We heard the purest country voice since Randy Travis, or maybe even further back than that.
During Shawn’s break, I tracked Mo down and chatted for a few minutes. He said he was new to Nashville, was close to getting an album deal, and hoped to have something out in a year or so. I noted his name and every few months checked around for his album. Although he’s been signed to Curb Records since 2014, he’s only released a couple of singles, so I guess the album is still in the works. Which brings us to my conversation with Jerry Hamrick, after which…
I went straight home and searched YouTube for Mo Pitney. Lo and behold, Mo has been pretty busy networking among some of country music’s classic greats. His better YouTube videos are from niche TV programs such as a tribute to Ray Price which was evidently orchestrated by Hall of Fame writer and singer Bill Anderson. I’ve already mentioned Mo’s amazing voice, but the kid also has a very engaging stage presence. He’s humble and self deprecating, yet with an underlying “yeah I look like a green, country kid, but wait’ll you hear me sing” confidence. He hasn’t had the big release yet – maybe Curb doesn’t know what to do with a real country singer – but he’s garnered enough respect to snag an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, where he sang one of his own singles, “Clean Up On Aisle Five,” to a standing ovation.
So there’s no album to tell you about. Instead, go to YouTube, search for Mo Pickens, and go from there. Here’s one to get you started. It’s aptly titled “Brilliant Version of Borrowed Angel.” Bill Anderson’s extended introduction provides an opportunity to sample Pitney’s personality and easy presence. And check out the all star company he’s keeping. After hearing this, I think you’ll want to set aside time to further explore this great new talent.
Video: Vince Gill and Patty Loveless – “Go Rest High On That Mountain”
While searching through Mo Pitney videos, I stumbled upon this video of Vince Gill singing “Go Rest High On That Mountain” with Patty Loveless at the funeral service for George Jones. A longer version on YouTube has a long tearful intro as Vince talks about his friendship with George. The song, one of Gill’s best, is loaded with emotion for him. He began writing it when the great singer Keith Whitley died, then completed it some years later when his own brother died. I’ve seen him perform it live, and it’s incredibly moving in part because of all he has invested in the song. To that add the emotion of the moment. It became too much for Gill. On the verge of breaking down, only Loveless’s stalwart harmony vocal and a rising crowd pulled him through. Then he delivered one of the most beautiful, soulful acoustic guitar leads you’ll ever hear. Watch, listen and enjoy.
Solomon Burke – Nashville
After seeing Patty Loveless’s strong duet with Vince Gill, I began thinking about her “second career” as one of the great harmony singers in country music, so I started looking through her catalog. There among the likes of Dwight Yoakam, Gill and George Jones was Solomon Burke. What?!
Solomon Burke was, of course, a pioneer of soul music in the late 1950’s and early sixties. In fact, by legend, he was the first artist to be described as a “soul” singer. Like many in his day, Burke was torn between his singing for the church – he was also a preacher – and his blossoming career singing the devil’s music, R&B. He refused to let Atlantic Records promote him as an R&B singer for fear his church brethren would cast him out. Someone came up with the answer – Soul, and he soon became known as the King of Soul churning out hits like “Cry To Me” and “Got To Get You Off My Mind.” One of his early hits, however, was actually a country song, “Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms.)” I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn, therefore, that in a modest late career revival, he had followed up his Grammy winning 2002 album, Don’t Give Up On Me, with a country album recorded in and thus aptly named, Nashville.
And he went all in. He got Buddy Miller to produce, and Miller lined up some of country music’s finest musicians and singers to help: Dolly Parton, Gillian Welch, Patty Griffin, Willie Nelson’s harmonica genius Mickey Raphael, Sam Bush, Phil Madeira, Al Perkins, Gary Tallent, and David Rawlings along with Patty Loveless and others.
The result is somewhat uneven, yet if you let it draw you in song by song, you’ll be rewarded. Let me explain. The album starts with a stripped down version of “That’s Why I Came To Memphis.” It’s one of my favorite songs, so I was slightly disappointed on my first listen to just Miller’s guitar and Burke’s voice recorded as is, with no reverb or studio induced depth. At this late age, the great man’s voice seems a bit too thin and prone to miss a note or two for this kind of treatment. Next up is Jim Lauderdale’s “Seems Like You’re Gonna Take Me Back.” At first it seems like a lurch into rock, but by the end it’s drenched in revival fervor. The big man is settling in.
From there Burke eases into his duet with Dolly Parton supported by sublime steel guitar from Al Perkins on a beautiful “Tomorrow Is Forever.” Now he’s really hitting his stride, and by the time you get to the interplay with Gillian Welch on “Valley of Tears,” the big man has you enveloped in pure southern country soul, calling out “somebody help me sing it one more time” as he repeats the closing chorus. Burke is a pleading lover one minute, then a preacher and then a rascal the next, so as a listener you’re slip sliding between tears and chuckles.
There are a couple of missteps, in my opinion. I mentioned the production approach on the first cut. The next occurs about two thirds of the way through. First, I’m not a big fan of Miller’s “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger” that follows the marvelous spiritual collaboration with Patty Griffin, “Up To The Mountain.” (There’s too much repetition of dissonant minor chords for my taste.) It in turn is followed by “Vicious Circle,” which for some puzzling reason Miller and Burke try to do in a key that’s uncomfortably high for Burke’s range. His straining vocal was a distraction for me, which is too bad because it’s a really good song.
As quickly as the spell cast over the prior nine or so cuts is broken, however, it’s repaired by the duet with Emmylou on the George Jones – Melba Montgomery classic, “We’ve Got To Hold On.” The iTunes reviewer was critical of Emmylou’s work here, but I thought it was just fine. From there it’s on to the duet with Loveless and then the finale, a wondrously soulful reading of “’Til I Get It Right.” Sublime.
Caveat emptor. For me, the long periods of enveloping strength made for a fine listening experience. I wanted to be sure, so I listened to the album straight through three times in separate sessions before deciding to write about it. The missteps I’ve described prevent me from giving this an unqualified recommendation. You’ll have to try it and decide. Here’s why I like it:
- The man earned his reputation as a soul master.
- The musicians and singers are top of the line, and they’re in fine fiddle and voice.
- There seems be special chemistry at work among Solomon Burke, the harmony singers and the players.
I haven’t decided if I’ll keep or delete the missteps. I don’t know if I’ll often listen to individual cuts. I do know that every now and then, I’ll immerse myself in this great man’s magic spell.
Doug Seegers and Solomon Burke are unique talents. They have the formula: E + P = S. Emotion mixed with passion yields “soul” whether the vehicle is country music or soul music. They’re also first rate entertainers in whose hands even sad songs create a cathartic release that produces joy for both the musician and the audience. Interestingly, several of the players and singers on Nashville also play on Going Down To The River. These include in particular Al Perkins on steel guitar and dobro, Phil Madeira on all manner of guitars and keyboards, Miller on guitar and vocals and Emmylou on duet vocals. Happy coincidence? Perhaps, but it’s a reminder that talent throughout the enterprise matters.
I have to say thanks for putting up with my extended holiday break. There’s tons of great music to talk about in 2016, so I’m glad to be back at it. For now, and for anyone who never had the chance to experience Solomon Burke and wonder if he deserved the title “King of Rock and Soul,” here he is 40 years after his prime at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Happy New Year.