As you’ve no doubt noticed, I’ve been quiet, with no posts since March 27. During this hiatus, I’ve been dealing with the fact that my blog has been invaded by spammers and as a result also doing some soul searching about my desire to continue, knowing other technical issues will be sure to follow sooner or later. First, let me say that my tech support at WordPress, the host for my site, assures me that none of you should be threatened as a result of my issues. It’s been annoying as hell, nevertheless, so I’ve decided to lower the curtain on Finding Classic CowjazzR&B just shy of the third anniversary of my launch.
This particular good thing will come to an end with a flurry of quickie recommendations culled from albums released during the spring of 2018, with a couple of exceptions. This is really a list with a quick “why” you should give these a listen. With respect for the time you have to spend on this, I will not attempt to include a video clip for every album, but I will sprinkle in a few. Then in response to questions I receive frequently, I’ll put this all to bed by listing my all time favorites in various categories.
Here we go with my best discoveries of the first half of 2018 not already discussed in prior posts:
Willie Nelson – Last Man Standing. Does anyone doubt he will be? Not if he keeps writing thoughtful, humorous, irreverent music like this.
Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real. Lukas is becoming a damn fine songwriter, a strong guitar player, and his voice is maturing. This album is actually from late last year, but I didn’t cover it then. It even includes an homage to Carolina Beach Music and an interesting twist on “Georgia On My Mind.”
Jerry Jeff Walker – It’s About Time. The old hell raisin’ lost gonzo is in a more mellow mood looking back on love and life after a bout with cancer. Jerry Jeff has always written about his “here and now,” yet he manages to make singing about his life feel like he’s singing about yours and mine.
Django Walker – That’s Just Me. Like Lukas Nelson, Django is finding his way out of his old man’s shadow. He’s not quite as far along as Lukas, in part due to a sojourn away from the bidness, but he’s proving he has his own audience pleasing take on Cowjazz.
Here’s a twofer: A tune Django wrote with a half dozen or so songwriting buddies during a late night in Belize, initially recorded by Jimmy Buffett, done again here with Jerry Jeff guesting. It’s also done up with a different version on JJ’s own record.
Parker Millsap – Other Arrangements. I first wrote about Millsap in 2016 when his song “Hades Pleades” set my hair on fire. He’s moved closer to southern blues-rock with this album, but I still think he has the most compelling voice I’ve heard since I started this blog.
Diane Shaw – Second Chance. The best retro-soul album I’ve heard in a long, long time. This one recalls especially the Gamble & Huff Philadelphia sound of the early 1970’s while containing a few hints of late sixties Motown.
Brothers Osborne – Port Saint Joe. These chart topping brothers seem at first blush to be just another forgettable contemporary country act, but it turns out their songs are far stronger than their peers, and the singing of one bro and guitar playing of the other are mighty fine indeed.
Kelly Willis – Back Being Blue. This is her first album since a pair of duets with her husband Bruce Robison in 2013 and 2014. I love seven out of the ten cuts, which will get you in anybody’s hall of fame.
Joshua Hedley – Mr. Jukebox. Hedley laughs when music city media refers to him as an “outlaw.” As he readily says, his music is a throwback to Nashville studios’ “countrypolitan” crossover sound of the late fifties through the late sixties – exactly the kind of music that the original “outlaws” rebelled against. But in the right hands – Patsy Cline, Eddy Arnold, Ray Price and Jim Reeves – countrypolitan produced some thoroughly delightful music, and so does Hedley.
Old Crow Medicine Show – Volunteer. These guys bring so much joy and energy to their performances. Very few groups seem to have as much fun making well crafted, well performed music.
John Prine – The Tree Of Forgiveness. Yes, illness has taken a bit from his voice, but it’s still an album of John Prine originals. Nothing more need be said.
Michael McCloud – Live As I Can Be Volumes I and II. I stumbled into an outdoor bar (can you do that?) in Key West and discovered this 70 something curmudgeonly antithesis of the Jimmy Buffett wannabes. I was treated to tunes filled with wit, heart, and occasionally depth that belied the rum soaked setting. Released about a dozen years ago but still available on Apple Music or iTunes.
Jack Williams – Dreams Of The Songdog. Williams is another 70’s something curmudgeon who my good friend Tommy Baysden introduced me to after my post on Josh White earlier this year. Williams had written a song in tribute to White some time ago. Anyway, Williams writes terrific songs, almost none of which you’ll ever find on commercial radio because, well because that’s just Jack. This album has several other musicians filling out the sound, so if you want something more stripped down that really features his stellar guitar playing, try some of his others like The High Road Home. You should check out his web site at www.jackwilliamsmusic.com where you’ll find a few videos of select songs. And you’ll also find a couple of videos of 15 minute or so medleys with which he closes his live shows. They are riotous surveys of songs from across multiple genres that apparently inspired him to pick up a guitar in the first place.
Arianna Marie And Her Roomful Of All Stars – Kingdom Of Swing. Marie is an able if not especially distinctive singer but the real thrills come from her All Star band assembled by producer Duke Robillard and topped off by the Roomful of Blues horn section. Robillard and Marie generously give all these cats room to roam, and Marie’s original tunes blend seamlessly with the standards. It’s a romping homage to late forties and early fifties jump blues bands that packed dance floors from Harlem to West LA and were the final launching pad for rock ’n’ roll.
Birds Of Chicago. My friend Danny Bullock put me on to this duo earlier this year. They’re almost impossible to categorize, though they are found on some streaming services as Americana. There are echoes of all kinds of music I grew up with modernized with gorgeous harmony singing and elegant songwriting. I can’t pick a single album to recommend now because I’ve just started exploring – you’ll simply have to browse through their catalog.
Gary P Nunn – Friends For Life (Volume 1). Gary P Nunn has written two of the greatest anthems to the Lone Star State: “London Homesick Blues,” made famous initially by Jerry Jeff Walker and subsequently the theme song for “Austin City Limits,” and “What I Like About Texas,” not to mention hits for the likes of Willie Nelson and Rosanne Cash. After working with Michael Martin Murphy and Jerry Jeff in the early to mid – seventies, he set out on his own and wrote or recorded several albums worth of music that endeared him to fans, honky tonk dance hall owners and other artists throughout Texas and beyond. On this one he’s helped out by a passel of Texas stalwarts from Robert Earl Keen to Lyle Lovett to you name ‘em. All these great singers are gathered to help, to honor and to celebrate Gary P. So crack open a cold Lone Star, grab a good lookin’ partner and hit the dance floor.
While we’re on Gary P, his all time best solo album I think is Home With The Armadillos, recorded live from “Austin City Limits.” It contains several of his best early tunes including the two anthems mentioned above, and the hit song that Willie recorded.
And since you asked…
Rolling Stone and other publications come out with their top 100 albums or top 100 songs from time to time. When they do, someone will invariably ask if I’ve ever compiled my top 100. The answer is no. That’s way too hard because the more you include the more you could include, if that makes sense. So, I’ve arbitrarily limited my faves to five in all categories. The process was essentially spontaneous, primarily the first five that came to mind. There is some logic involved there, but I won’t dwell on it.
By definition limiting to five leaves out bunches of great songs, songwriters, singers and recordings that both you and I surely love. When you’re tempted to ask “but how could you leave out whom or whatever, just remember, these are my lists as of today; you can have your own. As you’ll see, the categories are called my “favorites.” I’m not claiming my favorites are the greatest until the very last category, which occurred to me after my first draft.
So here we go starting with the two most important categories because it all starts with the song:
Five Favorite Songwriters: Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Smokey Robinson, Guy Clark, Willie Nelson
Five Favorite Songs: “Mood Indigo,” “My Girl,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Mr. Bojangles,” “Scotch and Soda.”
Five Favorite Male Singers: Frank Sinatra, Jerry Jeff Walker, Sam Cooke, B.B. King, Ray Charles. Sentimental favorite: Jesse Winchester.
Five Favorite Female Singers: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Patsy Cline, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight.
Plus – most interesting new male and female singer: Parker Millsap, Margo Price. We’ll see how they do over time.
Five Favorite Singing Groups: The Kingston Trio, The Drifters, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Peter Paul & Mary
Five Favorite Bands: Louis Armstrong & His All Stars, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, The Count Basie Band, The Funk Brothers, The Stax Studios Band aka Booker T & The MGs with the Memphis Horns. Honorable mention – the Swampers from FAME and Muscle Shoals studios and The Beatles.
Seven Favorite Albums: The Kingston Trio – College Concert; The Temptations – The Temptin’ Temptations; Jerry Jeff Walker – Viva Terlingua; Sam Cooke – Night Beat; Jesse Winchester – Nothing But A Dream; Johnny Hodges & Duke Ellington – Side By Side, Delbert McClinton – Live From Austin (Delbert actually has a couple of albums titled Live from Austin. This one is from 1989 and begins with the tune, “Maybe Someday Baby.”) Note: I avoided compilations, Best Of and Greatest Hits albums, while acknowledging that the “live” albums at least partly consist of greatest hits. The live albums selected here stand out for me both because of the songs but also the scintillating live performances themselves, which lift them above even superior studio recordings of the same material. And I am aware I didn’t or rather couldn’t stick with five in this category.
Five Favorite Musical Performers: as in I never click away from one of their songs, and I would go see them any and every time I could get the chance: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, The Kingston Trio, The Temptations, Jerry Jeff Walker.
Five Most Important Musicians of the Last 100 Years: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, and Ray Charles. I know I left off Sinatra, Elvis, Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, etc.. But everyone one of them have publicly said they were influenced by one or more of my five. I was tempted to bump it to six to include Woody Guthrie, and it pained me to omit Billie Holiday, Jimmie Rodgers, Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters, The Kingston Trio, James Brown and B.B. King along with Sinatra and Dylan. In the end, I decided to stick with five.
I suspect that the one name on my list of runners up in the “most important artists” category that my have some of you scratching your head is The Kingston Trio, who are rarely mentioned today. For starters, they dominated Billboard’s album charts from 1958 – 61 with five different albums reaching #1. The next closest during the same period were Sinatra and Elvis. Nineteen of their albums reached the Top 100 with fourteen in the Top 10. At one point the group had four different albums in the Top 10 for five consecutive weeks, a feat never equaled before or since.
Although they never claimed to be folk singers in the traditional sense of the word – and were often criticized by purists, they proved the commercial viability of folk music while practically inventing the college concert circuit. Without the Kinston Trio, there would never have been the folk boom, without which we may have never heard of Bob Dylan. There may never have been “folk-rock” which produced The Byrds and Crosby Stills and Nash among others. Finally, so many youngsters were inspired to pick up the guitar, and in particular a Martin guitar, which The KT played, that the Martin company created a special exhibit in its home office museum in honor of the Trio’s Bob Shane, who played the D-28. Based on interviews I’ve seen and articles I’ve read, I’d wager that 50% or more of the singer/guitarists who became stars in the seventies and eighties originally started out learning to play to Kingston Trio records. The list is as diverse as Guy Clark and Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham.
Martin celebrated The Kingston Trio’s 45th anniversary with the D-28BSKT Bob Shane Special Edition. The announcement in the company’s newsletter, The Sounding Board, in January 2003 stated:
“As the popularity of the Trio grew, so did the demand for Martin guitars. The Kingston Trio played Martin guitars exclusively, and every best-seller Trio album prominently displayed the group with their Martin instruments. The company finally had to build a new factory in Nazareth to meet the demand for Martin guitars fueled by The Kingston Trio frenzy.”
If I could only listen to one single recorded song for the rest of my life, I’d pick Bob Shane singing “Scotch and Soda.”
So there you have it. My blog will remain live until June 20. You still have a chance, therefore, to browse through the archives one more time. I’ve loved helping you search for the best in classic cowjazz R&B. Thanks for exploring with me. Adios and “happy trails to you, until we meet again.”