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.