Where Are You Little Star?

You could say that’s the essential question of this blog. Where is the great music performed by little stars that are so easily overlooked? Still, that thought came clearly into focus for me as I was reading a piece in the March 16 New York Times by Jon Caramanica about Joey Feek. I’d be more surprised if you know who she is than than if not. She is or was the female half of an out of the mainstream country duo with her husband, Joey + Rory. She lost her long battle with cancer on March 4. I had stumbled across their music a few years ago, and I had the opportunity to see them from a second row seat at the Ryman Auditorium in February, 2013. It would be hard for me to choose which was more beautiful: her looks, her voice or the love projected between the two. All three were 10’s.

Caramanica’s article was in praise of her and other recently deceased artists, “outsiders” who put together “steady, modestly successful, under appreciated careers full of heartfelt music.” It made me want to tell you about Joey + Rory and a few others like them. All are artists who put out numerous albums of “heartfelt music.” Although under appreciated by the mainstream, to their core fans they are stars.

Joey + Rory – The Life Of A Song

I could have chosen to write on any of several really fine albums by this duo. I picked this one, which I believe is their first because of a couple of songs that I can’t get out of my mind. The first is “Tonight Cowboy You’re Mine.” How could a woman who seems as sweet as Joey sound so sexy? Their duet on Shawn Camp’s “Tune Of A Twenty Dollar Bill” and their ode to Emmylou Harris are also a favorites. They even pull off a nice version of “Free Bird.”

 

I don’t want to short change Rory. He’s a solid singer, especially harmonizing with Joey, and a fine guitar player and songwriter. In fairness, though, it’s Joey’s voice that made their act. I agree with Caramanica’s description: “she eased her way into words as if they were warm blankets on long winter nights.” She’s one of those singers who’d make you happy just singing the phone book. Other albums by the pair you might want to check out include: Album Number Two and Country Classics: A Tapestry Of Our Musical Heritage, which is a terrific collection of covers. If you like gospel, you should also check out their finale together, the recently released Hymns.

Joey + Rory aren’t unknowns. They appeared on the Grand Ole Opry numerous times, for goodness sakes. You just never heard them on the radio or saw them on the CMA or ACM Awards shows. Still, to their fans and on my stereo, they’re stars.
Chris Wall – Tainted Angel

Jerry Jeff Walker fans know that Chris Wall burst onto the scene with three tunes on Jerry Jeff’s great album, Live at Gruene Hall – “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight,” “Rodeo Wind,” and “Trashy Women.” Then before he could catch his breath, “Trashy Women” became a big hit on commercial radio for Confederate Railroad and garnered a Grammy nomination. Truth was, and is, that Chris is perhaps the most literate songwriter in country music. Somehow he fits lyrics that are either beautifully, poetically sad or wittily tongue-in-cheek into classic country two steppers or waltzes. If you want to rave on or twirl around the dance floor with your sweety, he’s got the melody and rhythm you need. If you want to ponder a fresh take on where it all went wrong or laugh at life you can’t control, well he’s got lyrics for either as well.

Sadly, after the initial burst, big commercial success eluded Chris. Happily for us, that didn’t dampen his talent nor did it prevent him from putting out some mighty fine albums while becoming a popular fixture in night spots from Austin to western Montana. I could recommend anything he’s released, but if I had to pick one, I think I’d go with Tainted Angel. Chris’s baritone voice is appropriately world weary, and he’s energetically backed by one of Austin’s favorite bands, Reckless Kelly who give the proceedings a nice punch. Best of all he tells marvelous stories with details that bring them to life. You can see as well as hear what he’s saying, which makes the humor, bitterness, pain or joy all the more real. When he sings, “Ole Charlie was a great looking guy, he always was a star, Me I was kind of quiet and shy, with all the charm of an offensive guard” in “Three Across,” you know exactly who he’s describing. Other highlights are the title tune and “I Never Got Over Losing You,” “Half Of What Killed Elvis,” and the rip roaring “No Sweat.”

Honky Tonk Heart with “Trash Women” and “Rodeo Wind,” Any Night In Texas, a terrific live album, and Cowboy Nation with “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” and a personal favorite “The End Of The Rainbow Inn,” which reminds me of a hometown bar I frequented while in high school and college, are all strong outings with a mix of tunes suitable for a dance floor or last call. If you’re feeling more introspective, check out Just Another Place with “Hank Williams’ Cadillac” and “Somewhere Between Forty And Falling Apart.”

Apropos of the theme of this post, in “Hank Williams’ Cadillac,” Chris recalls advice he got from Jerry Jeff. “If you just want to be a star, he said, it’ll beat you like a gong. If you want to pick up that old guitar, just do it for the sake of the song.”

 

 

The Subdudes – Annunciation

The Subdudes- Behind The Levee

The Subdudes, founded in New Orleans, has become one of my favorite bands, and I have all or most of eight albums by them. I had a hard time picking just one to feature, so I went with two. Annunciation is from early in their career. Released in 1994, it was their third studio album but came after a three year gap in their recording career. Behind The Levee is the second album from their later period after a breakup for a few years from 1996 to 2002. Although released in early 2006, it was actually recorded before Hurricane Katrina.

The Subdudes took their name from a comment by a fan. The guys had been playing in rock bands, but one night they played a session with primarily acoustic instruments. After going back to rock, a fan commented that the loud rock sound made it hard to hear the terrific  words of their songs, and that he preferred the night their playing was more subdued. Thus they were christened, and their concept was born. They feature acoustic instruments, flavored by occasional electric guitar, and use a variety of rhythm instruments rather than a full drum set. This approach puts the focus on their beautiful harmonies and marvelous lyrics. The music itself is, as you might guess given the locale of their genesis, a mix of rock, R&B, country, zydeco and anything else in the kitchen sink. It’s beautiful, it’s rhythmic, it’s fun, it’s thoughtful. Hell, it’s cowjazz. And the guys are marvelous entertainers.

Annunciation leads off with the toe tappin’ “You’ll Be Satisfied.” From there, it all glides on until the fifth track which ups the amp a bit with some tasty slide guitar over a swamp boogie groove. Even some of the more serious subjects are laid out over a feel-good bed. An example is “Poverty” in which our singer thinks about how the world might be without poverty, but the melody is so pretty and the Carolina “shag” beat so seductive that it keeps the message from becoming too heavy. All manner of influences are evident throughout the album, but never imitation. I guess I would say that you can enjoy it as feel good music, and you can also let it take you over on a deeper level. It’s a laid back vibe with an uplifting spirit. Subdudes is just the right name for this band.

I can say much the same about Beyond The Levee. It’s opener “Papa Dukie And The Mud People,” although different in many ways, is every bit as entertaining as Annunciation’s “You’ll Be Satisfied.” It’s a humorous account of the impact that a band of hippies camped out down by the river has on the local community and in particular the singer’s family, all set to an irresistible beat. Throughout, producer K’eb Mo’ has the band in a groove in which they’re clearly comfortable. The song “Let’s Play” with it’s childhood tunes and rhymes encapsulates the whole ethos at work here. Rarely can you find a group of musicians who can put out music that tackles such mature themes yet is so much fun to listen to.

 

 

Subdudes are an institution in New Orleans. These days they seem to take long hiatuses and then go on a semi-national tour of really cool, smaller clubs like The Birchmere in Alexandria or The Rams Head in Annapolis. So, it’s not Carnegie Hall or Fenway Park. So, their only real national exposure was a featured spot on HBO’s series “Treme.” They’re still stars in their universe, or they wouldn’t be bringing it to the people for over 25 years.
James Govan – Tribute To Otis Redding (Live In Porretta)

Very few people outside of Memphis have ever heard of James Govan, yet in a way he personifies the Memphis soul tradition. He cut several tracks for Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals from 1969 to 1972, but none hit the charts. Maybe he was a little too late. Maybe he sounded a little too much like the genre’s icons, Otis Redding and  Wilson Pickett. Many like Govan sunk into oblivion or went back home.

Somehow Govan persevered, and by 1989 he became a fixture on Beale Street in Memphis. For more than twenty years his primary base there was the Rum Boogie Cafe where he performed for tourists as well as locals with the Rum Boogie Band or pianist Charlie Wood. He became known as “Little Otis” because of his similarity to Redding, but clearly he was a singer who’s big voice was made for soul and R&B. He became a beloved star in Memphis, a city that’s known for it’s share of musical heroes.

Amazingly he also became a star in Europe. As reported in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, “‘He was our hero, a true talent,’ said Graziano Uliani, founder of the Porretta Soul Festival in Italy, where Mr. Govan performed numerous times, becoming a hugely popular figure among European audiences.” Govan performed at the Poretta Festival from 1993 to 1997. To put his acclaim in perspective, the Festival featured such soul luminaries as Solomon Burke and the aforementioned “Wicked” Wilson Pickett.

His Tribute To Otis Redding is a scintillating record of one his legendary performances at the Festival. While it’s a little uneven in some spots and in others sounds a bit too derivative of the “Big O,” we have to remember that the entire show was after all a tribute to Otis. Moreover, I think several of the best tracks on the album are tunes not associated with Redding, such as Govan’s invigorating take on “Stand By Me.”

 

 

If you like classic soul, I suggest you set aside your nit picking like I ultimately did and just revel in a man who clearly loves cutting loose on many of the great hits of the Memphis soul canon. And he has the pipes and the hot horn driven band to do it. When Govan died in 2014, his fans gave him a parade procession down Beale Street. By all accounts it was a celebration fit for a star.
Author’s note: If the title of this post strikes a familiar chord for you, then like me you’re showing your age. It was the opening refrain from “Little Star,” a hit in 1958 by the doo wop group The Elegants. It was an aptly named tune for this one hit wonder.

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New Music From Old Souls

The last three months have brought amazing new music from some true veterans of the business. Nothing nouveau here, no twenty somethings. Just rock solid performances. I hope the rest of the year is this good.

Loretta Lynn – Full Circle

Loretta shocked the country music world and proved she was “still woman enough” in 2004 when she released Van Lear Rose, produced by rocker Jack White. The album and individual songs from it garnered five Grammy nominations with two wins, including Best Country Album, over forty years after she first hit the charts. Now a dozen years later she’s released Full Circle. The album is a revelation of what this now 83 year old dynamo can still do as a songwriter and singer. It includes the first song she ever wrote to record, “Whispering Sea,” a re-recording of one of her biggest hits, “Fist City,” a collection of classic older material from the likes of the Carter Family, a pair of tunes she learned at her mother’s knee, and a couple of her new tunes. She still writes with pencil and paper, which proves it ain’t the technology, it’s the talent that matters. The backing musicians frame her still strong voice beautifully throughout. She sings with passion and emotion yet without the histrionics that undercut so many young contemporary singers. And on her new songs she can still turn the kind of phrase that signals her best work. “She’s got everything it takes to take everything you’ve got…she’s had a million old flames, so to her you’re nothing new” is a classic example from her duet with Elvis Costello.

Perhaps the best news is that these are the first fourteen cuts from nearly a hundred that she’s done under the production of John Carter Cash and Loretta’s daughter Patsy Lynn Reynolds  over the last four years. The plan is ultimately to release them all. This album closes with a beautiful duet with Willie Nelson “I’ll Be At Peace When They Lay Me Down.” From the way Loretta sounds here, it’ll be quite awhile before they lay her down. Regardless she’s leaving a legacy of music to love long after that day comes. One of the best truly country albums I’ve heard in a long time, I give it my highest recommendation.

And speaking of Willie Nelson…
Willie Nelson – Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin

Willie Nelson wins the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, and then he does what only Willie would do. He almost immediately records an album of Gershwin songs. Given what he did with Stardust, no one should be surprised that this new collection is superb. In Willie’s most recent autobiography, It’s Kind Of A Long Story, Willie reminds us that in his formative years, he was as surrounded by the music of the American songbook and jazz by the likes of Django Reinhardt as he was by Hank Williams and Bob Wills. In particular he indicates that his idiosyncratic phrasing, singing often behind and occasionally ahead of the beat, was strongly influenced by Frank Sinatra, the greatest interpreter of Gershwin and his peer songwriters. In short, Willie has an almost unfair advantage over any other singer who might try to do what he’s done here.

The only pre-listening question is would the arrangements and instrumentation be too orchestral or conversely too “country?” Rest assured, they’re right on the money. They let Willie be Willie, which is to say there’s ample room for his singing, his guitar and his peerless harmonica player Mickey Raphael, who almost by himself makes any Willie record worth hearing. Other instrumental luminaries include sister Bobbie on Hammond B3 and piano and Paul Franklin on steel guitar. It’s like a swinging little jazz-country septet. “I Got Rhythm,” “They All Laughed,” and “Summertime” are just the beginning of the highlights as you can tell from the video of “Someone To Watch Over Me.”

Like Loretta, Willie at 83 years is still on top of his game as repeated listening to this marvelous album affirms. Treasure timeless music this good from artists of any age.

 

After Loretta and Willie almost anything else is anti-climactic. Having said that, I do think there are other recent offerings from veteran artists that you should check out.

 

Paul Carrack – Soul Shadows

Paul Carrack is an English singer/songwriter/musician who first burst on the scene in 1975 with the band Ace and their pop hit “How Long.” Since that time he’s woven a solo career around stints in several hit making bands including Roxy Music, Squeeze and Mike + The Mechanics. He’s also written songs for others, such as the Eagles’ 1995 hit “Love Will Keep Us Alive,” and he’s collaborated with a long list of primarily British artists. While he frequently displayed his soul music influences, they became more obvious with his release of a collection of classic soul and R&B tunes called Groovin’ and the extended version Still Groovin’ in the early 2000’s.

There’s no surprise then that Soul Shadows is largely in that vein even given that all the tunes but one were written or co-written by Carrack. He also plays most of the instruments. The instant classic hit for “beach music” fans, “Sweet Soul Legacy,” is the epitome with its mid-tempo “Carolina Shag” dance beat, horn and handclap accents, and references to the greats from Levi Stubbs to Sam & Dave.

If there’s a criticism of the album, it’s probably that it’s a little too smooth at times. Still Carrack has such a good voice, and he has the veteran’s sense of just how to use it. I find the album easy to listen to without it slipping into the easy listening trap. Highlights other than “Sweet Soul Legacy” include the opener “Keep On Lovin’ You” and the slightly country tinged closer “Share Your Love With Me,” the one tune Carrack didn’t write but sings as if he did. Throughout, Carrack’s voice is a source of pleasure.

 
Babyface – Return Of The Tender Lover

I know. You probably never thought I would write about Babyface. Well, neither did I. But, as I’ve stated, I’m always on the lookout for artists working with classic forms of my favorite genres, and something about this album caught my eye, then my ear. My wife doesn’t really like it, and you may not either, but in a surprising way, I do.

First, he says he’s using all real instruments, no drum machines, no computer loops. Second, he’s written smooth, old school-ish melodies, kind of like Smokey Robinson. Admittedly as a lyricist, Babyface is no Smokey Robinson, but heck Smokey hasn’t really been Smokey himself since the early 1970’s. As a singer, he’s no Smokey either, but he’s at least as good as Eddie Kendricks. There are some danceable, toe tapping rhythms, and a dreamy slow dance or two. For me, “Walking On Air” featuring El Debarge is the hit – a bright finger snapper that could fit nicely on a Myrtle Beach jukebox. I also really like “I Want You” done with After 7, the aforementioned slow dancer “Love And Devotion” and the opener “We’ve Got Love.”

Babyface at 56 is well into his third decade in the music industry, and this album is supposedly a nod to his 1980’s breakout LP Tender Lover. I don’t care for that one at all, but Return Of The Tender Lover is really growing on me, although I’ll probably delete at least one cut that’s a bit repetitive. It has a romantic vibe, and if it doesn’t have a singalong to rival “Ooh Baby Baby” or “Tracks Of My Tears,” it does excel as a complement to cocktails and quiet talk with your main squeeze.

 
Vince Gill – Down To My Last Bad Habit
Maybe I overdosed on Vince Gill’s brilliant 4-CD opus These Days back in 2006. As brilliant as it was, maybe it was just too much Vince at one time, especially as his career seemed on the wane anyway. I sort of lost track of his subsequent work other than to note he continued to be a multi-faceted talent with enough control of his ego to work as a side venture with the brilliant retro-western swing band The Time Jumpers. Thus I felt little enthusiasm for this early 2016 album – until I forced myself to listen to it.

The first two cuts, “Reasons For The Tears I Cry” and the title track, took my breath away. While These Days explored every nook and cranny of country music from bluegrass to honky tonk to ballads to country rock, it’s hard to even call Down To My Last Bad Habit a country album at all until you get to the very last song, a lovingly rendered tribute to George Jones entitled “Sad One Coming On.”  Or as noted by some reviewers , it’s closer to Memphis than Nashville. I mean, Vince goes from the ultra sweet love song “Like My Daddy Did” to the somewhat boastfully salacious rock ’n’ roller “Make You Feel Real Good.” And then there’s “I Can’t Do This.” Reviewers and both sides of my Gemini personality are split – this is either raw emotion beautifully rendered or cloyingly overdramatic, stomach turning rubbish. Rarely has one song delivered such indelible lines so soulfully sung yet mawkishly overwhelmed by B-movie orchestration.  Maybe most of the record is closer to early 1980’s country rock. After all Vince started his path to stardom with Pure Prairie League.

Thus, even if I choose to delete “I Can’t Do This,” I’ll keep a marvelous collection of music by a true professional whose guitar, voice and writing still deliver. When this album is good – as it is on most tracks – it’s very, very good. As soon as I finish this post, I’ll probably click on “Play” for Down To My Last Habit Again.

And then there are a couple of veterans you may not know.

 
David Lee – The Wichita Kid

I may be stretching to call David Lee an “old soul” given that The Wichita Kid is his debut album, but he’s been working in Nashville as a hit songwriter for more than twenty years. Plus the perspectives he displays in essentially committing his life story to a collection of songs can only come from an old soul.
Lee’s family history in Wichita, Texas, which I won’t go into here, is heartbreaking. Amid the hurdles and tragedies, music became a big part of his life, maybe even his savior. As a young man, he moved to Nashville after reading advice to aspiring songwriters and singers from Willie Nelson: “If you want to buy bread, you have to go to the bread store.” He set aside his ambition to be a singer and focused on his songwriting. He took his time, studied his elders, and honed his craft. He finally placed a hit song with Lee Ann Womack,  and went forward from there to carve out a lucrative career as a hit maker. Eventually, though, his gut pulled him back to Texas where he would finally write the achingly honest songs that only he could sing because in essence they were his autobiography.

I have to say that this album may not be for everyone. The emotions are raw at times. And at times Lee comes awfully close to crossing over from outlaw country to hard rock. Yet, while some of the songs are truly dark, this is not a depressing album. Lee lets the light of love, family and camaraderie shine in a bit, especially in the second half of the album. He even pokes fun at his own alter ego in a song about his old friend “Rowdy” who shows up from time to time to lead him astray – and straight to the dog house. In his interviews, Lee comes across as a simple man with a complicated past. On record, he’s a fine songwriter with a more than adequate, in fact quite compelling voice. He was smart to hone his songwriting craft before taking on this album. I’m not sure what he does for an encore, but I commend The Wichita Kid to you. I suppose it’s a bit like single malt scotch. Some people love it, some don’t, but you shouldn’t let it pass without a taste.

 

Eric Brace & Peter Cooper – C&O Canal

Who? What? I’d never heard of either of these guys until I happened to read a sidebar article in a bi-weekly email update on coming attractions at The Birchmere, a treasure of a music venue located in Alexandria, VA. The article was making the point that the metro DC area had been a hotbed of bluegrass and what would later be known as Americana music in the late 1960’s, early 1970’s and into the 1980’s when clubs like the Birchmere, The Cellar Door and Gallaghers were home bases for the likes of Emmylou Harris, The Seldom Scene, Alice Gerrard and Hazel Dickens and later Mary Chapin Carpenter among others. These two fellows apparently spent their formative years hanging out in these clubs soaking up the influences of these artists.  Eventually they began to carve their own niche in the region and the music world. They’ve been around. They’ve paid their dues albeit in relative obscurity compared to the icons who led off this post.

Sometimes as collaborators, other times independently they’ve put out a smattering of albums over the last couple of decades that fall in the nether regions among bluegrass, country and folk, featuring primarily their own songs. Somehow they got the idea to pay tribute to the great artists who frequented the DC area in their formative years by issuing this very well sung and played collection of tunes originated by their heroes. Turns out this was a splendid idea. The most widely known song in the batch is Emmylou’s “From Boulder To Birmingham,” perhaps followed by The Seldom Scene’s (with Jonathan Edwards) “Blue Ridge,” the title track to a splendid bluegrass collection. All of the songs are excellent and Brace and Cooper’s renditions bring them alive with unpretentious arrangements, smoothly blended harmonies and skillful playing on a variety of acoustic stringed instruments. While there are elements of bluegrass, this is really folk music in the best sense of the word. That means it’s a pleasure to hear, and you’re likely to feel like you could, indeed should, sing along. I’m really glad I stumbled onto C&O Canal.

Author’s Note #1

I was recently asked if I could name my 100 all-time personal favorite albums. I’m giving thought to that question and will talk about it in coming posts this spring. Meanwhile, please use the “comments” link to let me know some of your personal favorites. You may jog an old memory for me and your fellow readers, or you may turn us on to something great we may have missed. After all, isn’t that what this blog is all about?

Author’s Note #2

In my last post I inadvertently used sort of a mixed metaphor, more accurately perhaps a mixed bedtime story. When writing about Dub Miller’s The Midnight Ambassador, I described his singing as “not too smooth, not too gritty, just right as Little Red Riding Hood might say.” As my wife, a former school teacher, correctly pointed out, I should have said Goldilocks.

Author’s Note #3

I so wanted to include Bonnie Raitt’s newly released Dig In Deep in this review of new music from old souls. I hold her in nearly as high regard as Loretta and Willie. Alas, the album just didn’t click with me.  I will say if you missed her 2012 release Slipstream, you should give it a listen. It’s outstanding, her best since her big three from the late 1980’s to early 1990’s:  Nick Of Time, Luck Of The Draw, and Longing In Their Hearts. I can heartily recommend one track from Dig In Deep, however. It’s a ballad that I think ranks near the level of her classic “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” So I leave you with “The Ones We Couldn’t Be.”