Alabama Bound

What is it about Alabama? On the one hand it’s a state too well known for hatred and violence between the races. On the other hand, its black and white musicians have found a bond that has resulted in incredible records from the turbulent fifties and sixties all the way to the vexing twenty teens. I know, the same two statements could be said of most southern states. But only Alabama has Muscle Shoals, where a core group of rural, dirt poor white musicians, songwriters and producers wrote for and played behind soul greats from Aretha Franklin to Percy Sledge to Wilson Pickett and many more. Such was their success and resulting fame that artists as big as the Rolling Stones came there to pick up on the vibe for their own recordings.

Fifty years later singers are still going to the studios there searching for the magic – the feeling and the groove that transcended differences and powered those great records. Lucky for us, some of them are good enough to find it, as you will hear in two albums in particular that have been released in the last few weeks. One is a fine farewell from a hall of famer, while the other is a bright “hello” from a newcomer so new he still has a part time day job.

Gregg Allman – Southern Blood

Normally I don’t write about stars as big as Allman because I figure even casual music fans are familiar with their work. This album caught my attention, however, despite the fact I’m not what one would call a “fan” of either Gregg solo nor the Allman Brothers Band. I respect him and believe he as a solo artist or bandleader deserves all the accolades that he and his mates received over the years. I enjoy hearing the occasional Allman song. For some reason, however, I just never liked them enough to own any of their records, although I did buy the Duane Allman Anthology album years ago. My attitude changed dramatically with Southern Blood.

Maybe it was something about an old veteran coming to grips with his own mortality and expressing that process through a collection of songs carefully chosen for the purpose. I found the same appeal in Glen Campbell’s farewell release Adios, which I wrote about a few months ago.

From various articles, I understand that Allman originally planned to write all new songs for the album, but his declining health and dwindling time led him to settle for just one original to kick it off. With help from his producer Don Was, he chose covers to fill out the album that fit the flow and mood perfectly.  With a couple of exceptions that provide a bit of punch, this album doesn’t rock. Yet the controlled passion of the performances belies the notion that it’s mellow. A bit melancholy in some places, reflective in others – no doubt. It’s a man looking back on a life lived on his own terms while savoring songs that have meant something to him along the way.

 

There’s a story behind each selection that I won’t go into here. If you’re interested, go to his interview in Garden and Gun  magazine here: http://gardenandgun.com/feature/gregg-allman-says-goodbye/.

There’s also an excellent article from NPR which you can find if you “google” Gregg Allman Southern Blood. The NPR article makes the point that returning to Muscle Shoals to record Southern Blood brought Allman full circle because it was there that he and Duane started their career, as sidemen and as an unknown new band, Hourglass. It’s fitting, therefore, that he did include a tune from one of Muscle Shoals’ top songwriting teams, Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn’s “Out Of Left Field,” originally a hit for Percy Sledge.

 

The opening song, “My Only True Friend,” is quite good but clearly personal. Perhaps too much of that wouldn’t have been such a good thing. I think the covers he chose to follow his opening statement make the appeal more universal – it’s not just about himself. You and I might have chosen the same songs for our own farewell. Enjoy it with a smooth whiskey.

 

Cale Tyson – Careless Soul

Young Mr. Tyson is a Texan who in his twenties moved to Nashville. From what I’ve learned from the articles I’ve found, he’s not a record industry guy. Rather he began performing in the somewhat “alternative” club scene in East Nashville. He seems to have started as a neo-traditionalist honky tonker. A few years ago, he did an EP that sounded like Hank Williams and early Ray Price, but was that really Cale Tyson? While he respected the artists he mimicked, he hadn’t really grown up on their music. Then he hooked up with a producer who, after listening to Tyson describe the music floating around in his head, suggested they go to FAME studios in Muscle Shoals. They took a bunch of musicians from Nashville; the only original FAME swamper in the studio was bassist David Hood. But then again, who’s more responsible for a record’s groove than the bass player? And maybe there is something to the legends about the studio there. As Tyson told NPR, “The room was incredible.”

The result is, dare I say it -cowjazz, an otherwise indescribable mix of folk, country, R&B and whatever. There are horns and strings along with guitars and pedal steel. There are tunes you can dance to, tunes that make you yell “yahoo” and tunes to cry to. There are tunes with a soul groove and tunes that sound like they could have been written by denizens of the Brill Building like Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Regardless, they all possess catchy melodies and intelligent, sometimes clever lyrics.

One of my favorite lines is from “Somebody Save Me,” in which the singer, whose lover is out of town, is begging that “somebody save me from doing her wrong.” As he confronts the temptation to stray, he intones “somebody please help me, I’m losing my mind, I’m crossing my fingers that I won’t cross the line, if somebody sees her, tell her come home, I want to be faithful, but I won’t be for long.” Well, you can guess how it ends.

What we can’t guess is where Tyson will go next. Careless Soul was released in the UK a couple of years ago, but was unheard here in the states until it was released this past summer. He didn’t grow up on country music, although he appreciates it, and he didn’t grow up on R&B either. He can sound authentic with either genre but he worries they’re not authentically him. He told Rolling Stone that while waiting for Careless Love to be released in the US, he’s been writing songs in more of an indie-folk vein inspired by Conor Oberst and Emmylou Harris on Oberst’s album Bright Eyes. To tell you the truth, I have no idea what that might sound like. I do know he’s a fine singer and a very good songwriter. I also know that he found something good inside the walls of that old studio in Muscle Shoals, perhaps the spirit of Rick Hall and Clarence Carter. Stated simply, Careless Soul is one of the most enjoyable albums I’ve heard this year.

 

And in the category of “what the heck…”

Marc Broussard – SOS-2: Save Our Soul: Soul On A Mission

Marc Broussard is not from Alabama, and this 2016 album was not recorded at Muscle Shoals. Nevertheless several of the tunes were originally written and recorded in integrated studios in Muscle Shoals and at Stax in Memphis. All are from the canon of greatest soul hits by Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, the Isley Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave and Solomon Burke. In fact Burke’s song “Cry To Me” inspired Broussard to depart from his usual repertoire and record this set.   He openly says that he tried to emulate the arrangements of the original recordings. He wanted to expose their pleasures to a new generation of audiences, albeit with a higher recording fidelity given technology today. Having said that, this is not a case of a white guy ripping off black artists’ music. Born into the melting pot of Louisianna music – his dad is in the Louisianna Music Hall of Fame, Broussard has built his chops from the ground up.

Clearly he internalized classic soul music while growing up. Even more clear is the joy he brings to the project. I don’t think he’s quite wicked enough to pull off Wilson Picket’s “In The Midnight Hour,” but otherwise there’s more than a record full of great fun here. As I listened I couldn’t help remembering all the white bands I heard in the sixties – the Embers, Catalinas, Fabulous Five, Sardams and so many more – playing R&B and Soul music in college frat houses and beach dance clubs throughout the south. White bands covering  records of black singers written and produced by both black and white artists. What’s in those grooves bound them all.  You know, I think we can bridge some divides, if we just turn off the news and turn up the stereo.

 

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Chuck Berry And The Birth Of Rock ’N’ Roll

A couple of weeks have gone by since the passing of Chuck Berry, and I’ve wrestled with what to say or to recommend to you. So many people have commented on his death, his music and his impact. The New York Times alone had several wonderful articles including one about his best hits and another about the songs that influenced several of his hits followed by subsequent recordings that were in turn influenced by those same hits. Frankly, I really had nothing to add.

Then I came across an album that is a compilation of his early blues tracks for Chess Records. It’s called simply:

Chuck Berry Blues

The album features Chuck covering sixteen tunes primarily from the 1940’s and early 1950’s blues canon – tunes like “House of Blue Lights,” “Route 66,” “Confessin’ The Blues,” “Driftin’ Blues,” “Worried Life Blues” and “I Just Want To Make Love To You.”

On these cuts, you hear an artist looking for his identity, his own original sound. You hear influences of Nat King Cole, Charles Brown, Louis Jordan, and Elmore Leonard, but also you hear a performer who wants to innovate rather than duplicate . In this sense the album reminds me of the Sun Sessions compilation by Elvis Presley. Both albums fall short in places, but both tease us with glimpses of what’s to come. Fittingly, the album ends with the strongest evidence that Chuck was evolving into something special, a scintallating version of W.C. Handy’s “St Louis Blues” that breathes sparkling new life into an old chestnut. The riffs and swagger are clearly emerging.

Beyond Berry’s guitar playing and singing, his songwriting, especially his lyrics, is what not only separated Chuck from other artists, but also separated his music from everything that came before. He captured the day to day joy, frustrations, trials and tribulations of young Americans in the mid-fifties – black and white – and put them to an ebullient beat that defied anyone to sit still when they heard it. In doing so, he converted R&B, with a tiny country seasoning, into a music that galvanized a generation. In my not so humble opinion, he along with three others were the alchemists of rock ’n’ roll.

Rock ’N’ Roll’s Mount Rushmore

In 1955, the top selling record for the year was Perez Prado’s “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.”  Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” was the only rock ‘n’ roll record in the top 30. Just one year later, as an old song goes, rock ’n’ roll was here to stay. There were twelve rock ’n’ roll songs in the top 30, five by Elvis who held the top two spots, plus another two by the Platters who were evolving from easy listening to become a precursor of black vocal groups like the Dells and the Temptations. It’s hard to describe how revolutionary the change was at the time. Here’s what a top ten hit sounded like before the earth moved between 1955 and 1956.

I was there, listening to radio and records, when Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard hit the scene. Yes, there were earlier artists who planted the seed, and giants like Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner and Bill Haley and His Comets were making waves and upsetting the programmers on “Your Hit Parade.” Ray in particular was laying the foundation for what would one day become “Soul” music. But nobody, I mean nobody, generated electricity and heat like Chuck, Elvis, Jerry Lee and Little Richard.

I’m going to list for your consideration my favorite early record by each of these “big four.” Before I list them for you, however, I first must submit that the greatest record in the history of rock ’n’ roll is by far and away Chuck Berry’s “Johnnie B. Good.” It wasn’t the first rock ’n’ roll record. It wasn’t even Chuck’s first hit. But from the opening riff, its story and the musical way it tells the story define the genre. There’s not even a close second. I’ve heard it at least 1000 times including this very afternoon. Without exception, every time I hear it, I’m over taken with glee; I play air guitar; I pound on the steering wheel if I’m in the car; I jump from my chair if I’m at home; I hop out of my booth and onto the dance floor if I’m at a juke joint; I turn it up, and I sing out loud. Having said that, here are my other personal favorites by the Big Four.  When you hear any one of them, you know you’ve heard rock ‘n’ roll.

Chuck Berry – “School Days”

Next to “Johnnie B. Good” this tune best defines rock ’n’ roll in a teenager’s life, the cure for the humdrum and anxiety of high school. There was a joint right across the street from my high school, The Varsity Grill, which fits Berry’s description to a “T,” right down to “dropping the coin right into the slot.”

Elvis Presley – “Heartbreak Hotel”

This was Elvis’ first release on RCA after departing Sun Records, and it went on to be Billboard’s top selling single record for 1956. It’s a different tempo from most of his early rockers, more bluesy and featuring a tinkling piano along with the guitar. But from the opening line, Elvis’ voice commands your attention, and he never lets go.

Jerry Lee Lewis – “Great Balls of Fire”

Jerry Lee only knew one way to play. All out and on fire. Following closely behind Elvis at Sun, he lit up the radio waves with songs like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Breathless,” but for me “Great Balls of Fire” stamped Jerry Lee and rock ’n’ roll itself as something just a little bit dangerous.  Jerry Lee re-recorded the tune for his bio-pic starring Dennis Quaid. Though not the original, this clip from the movie aptly illustrates the mania surrounding early rock ‘n’ roll and recreates a legendary encounter between Jerry Lee and Chuck. Although Jerry Lee got the best of Chuck here, he’s on record quoting his mother as saying, “You and Elvis are good, son — but you’re no Chuck Berry.”

Little Richard – “Lucille”

The first rock ’n’ roll record I ever owned was Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” and it was soon followed by the two sided “Ready Teddy” and “Rip It Up” along with “Long Tall Sally.” I give the nod here to “Lucille,” however, based on its almost subversive opening with the distinctively throbbing rhythm contrasted by sparse well placed piano single note key strokes, then Richard’s pleading squeal – “Lucille, you won’t do your sister’s will.” Little Richard always seemed on the verge of coming completely unglued while pounding his piano and leading his relatively large band. He was early rock ’n’ roll’s most flamboyant showman and set a standard that influenced a wide array of artists from James Brown to Prince, as I think you’ll agree seeing this clip from 1969.

These four records cover the spectrum from day to day teen life to heartbreak to hot new love to pleading for a departed lover to “come back where you belong.” I don’t think anybody can deny that Chuck Berry belongs on rock ’n’ roll’s Mount Rushmore of the genre’s founders. Who do you think should be up there with him? What are your favorite songs from the launch years of rock ’n’ roll? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Meanwhile… the one and only Chuck Berry with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band still rockin’ and rollin’ forty years later.

 

Out With The Old, In With The New – Not So Fast!

There will be loads of good new music to hear and talk about in 2017, I’m sure. Yet in the waning days of 2016 and the snow bound days of early 2017, I decided to slow down my rush to the new and spent some time rummaging through the “dust bins” of yesteryear. There I found a couple of albums that hardly made a ripple when they were released in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and another from the last decade that suffered the same fate. Regardless of their fate, all three are filled with great songs and performances, and despite or because of their relative anonymity, they sound fresh today.

Dionne Warwick – Soulful

By 1969, Dionne Warwick had established herself as a singular talent turning one song after another from the writing and producing team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David into sophisticated pop gold. In doing so, she differentiated herself from the somewhat grittier soul singers like Mary Wells, Betty Everett, Tina Turner, and the soul queen Aretha Franklin. I don’t know her motivation. Maybe she just wanted to remind her audience, and perhaps her peers as well, that she too grew up in the church and could bring the soul whenever she wanted. Whatever the reason, she took a one album break from Bacharach and David, and went to Chips Moman’s American Studios in Memphis. Chips was about as hot as a producer could be at the time working with Neil Diamond and more importantly Elvis Presley on what would become the album that turned around the King’s career, From Elvis In Memphis. Together Dionne and Chips produced this mighty fine collection of classic soul covers.

I shouldn’t say the album didn’t make a ripple because it did reach #2 on Billboard’s R&B chart, #11 on the pop chart, and the lone single, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” reached 16 on the pop charts and 13 on the R&B charts. From a chart perspective, it was one of Warwick’s most successful albums. Still, fairly quickly after its release, Dionne went back in the studio with Bacharach and David and resumed the string of pop songs that had been so successful for the three of them.

Perhaps because of her quick return to pop, or because there was no new material on Soulful, the album has been largely forgotten. It shouldn’t be. Yes Dionne was different from most female soul singers. Where many of them range from nitty gritty to soaring, Dionne’s voice seems to float. But the emotion is there all the same. The album cover photo fits the album’s title and the singer, not to mention the Memphis studio players.

The arrangements for most of the tunes are reminiscent of the originals of songs like “I’m Your Puppet,” “Do Right Man, Do Right Woman,” “People Got To Be Free,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” and the aforementioned “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” The one major exception arrangement-wise is on the Beatle’s “A Hard Days Night.” The tempo is slowed to a grinding groove transforming the song from a rock ‘n’ roll romp into R&B dirty dance – a very pleasing change up. It makes me wish Dionne had worked more with Moman and writers like Dan Penn to come up with a new batch of R&B/Soul. Why she didn’t is a mystery to me.

 

 
John Sebastian – The Tarzana Kid

How could an album featuring a multiple hit maker, who took a memorable star turn at Woodstock, with backing by the likes of the Pointer Sisters, Emmylou Harris, Ry Cooder, Lowell George, Buddy Emmons and David Grisman, and with songs by some of the best tunesmiths around fail to even scratch on the charts. It’s not as if the output from all this talent isn’t worthy. In fact, it’s a damn fine album.

The Tarzana Kid, released in 1974, contains several Sebastian penned tunes including a couple of covers of songs from his Lovin’ Spoonful days, and a co-write with George, “Face of Appalachia.” There’s a nice version of John’s “Stories We Could Tell,” which had been the title song of the last Everly Brothers album before their early seventies break up. In fact, the great Phil Everly provides the harmony vocals. There are also entertaining covers of Lowell George’s Little Feat classic “Dixie Chicken.” the old Guy Mitchell chestnut “Singin’ The Blues,” and Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting In Limbo.” The latter was adventurous then because few, if any, white musicians had tried their hand with reggae at the time.

Here’s one of my personal favorites from an early Lovin’ Spoonful album given an acoustic treatment on The Tarzana Kid with the great Ry Cooder backing John on slide guitar and mandolin.

So despite great talent, strong songs and the very engaging Sebastian, the album bombed. Ironically Sebastian had a surprise #1 hit with “Welcome Back,” the theme song for the hit TV comedy “Welcome Back Kotter” two years later. His label Reprise rushed out an album to cash in on the hit, and for my money it’s nowhere near as good as The Tarzana Kid. The point is, this is a really fine album, if you like well crafted songs played by genuine talents in a manner that feels like you’re all just sitting around the living room having a good time. I’m darn glad I found it, and I’m tickled to be able to tell you about it.

Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives – Souls’ Chapel

Marty Stuart hasn’t had a hit since the early 1990’s, and this is an album of gospel songs, so it’s easy to understand why the album barely scratched into the top 100 on the country charts and produced no singles. It’s a shame because this is one terrific album. First, forget it’s gospel because it’s really rockabilly that could have been cut in Sun Studios in 1956 complete with extra reverb on the simmering guitars.

Marty was born to sing rockabilly, just born too late. Plus his band, the Fabulous Superlatives are aptly named not only for their playing but also for their harmony singing and their turns on lead vocals that Marty generously shares. I’m not a big fan of gospel music typically, but here it’s the emotional grit that gives the band traction. I can’t get the soulful voices and bent strings on songs like “There’s A Rainbow (At The End of Every Storm) out of my mine. These may be songs of praise, but the performances are country fried Rhythm and Blues as well.

My least favorite song on the album is the first, so I suggest you skip over that one and jump right into “Lord, Give Me Just A Little More Time,” a sentiment we probably all embrace.

Who Is Gary Nicholson?

Like so many songwriters, musicians and producers, Gary Nicholson is largely anonymous to the public at large, yet he has played an enormous role in the creation of hundreds of songs and albums. In fact, working as so many Texans do at the intersection of country and blues, he’s collaborated as writer, producer or guitarist for a galaxy of stars ranging from Willie to Garth to Ringo to Buddy Guy to Delbert McClinton and the late, great Guy Clark.

I featured one of his best songs, “Leap of Faith” as recorded by Delbert, in my post titled “Three White Men With (Rhythm and) The Blues” last May. Recently, I came across the same tune as the title track for an album by Seth Walker, a North Carolinian transplanted to Austin. You can probably see where this is going. Please allow me to introduce you to Gary via Seth and Delbert.

Seth Walker – Leap of Faith
and
Seth Walker – Gotta Get Back

Seth Walker is generally labeled as a blues artist, as is Delbert McClinton with whom he apparently connected after moving to Texas. But neither artist is that easy to categorize as their music ranges across R&B, country, folk, pop, New Orleans second-line and wherever their mood and song choices take them. I was previewing Seth’s most recent album, Gotta Get Back, when I learned that his biggest selling album, Leap of Faith, was produced by Gary Nicholson and featured seven songs co-written by the two of them, plus the title song. I fell in love with the range of songs, Seth’s very fine guitar (never overdone) and his expressive yet restrained singing.

He doesn’t go for the big brassy sound that’s associated with Delbert, nor the long guitar solos typical of many bluesmen. Still the album has an impressive array of instruments put to service in stompin’ toe tappers like the opening “Can’t Come With You” and “Somethin Fast,” groovin’ shuffles like “Rewind” and the title tune, soul ballads like “I Got A Song,” the church tinged “Lay Down,” and the semi-country cover of Nick Lowe’s, “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide.” I think this album is going to be in my heavy rotation for quite a while.

There’s a gorgeous fully orchestrated version of Seth and Gary’s “I Got A Song,” which iTunes’s reviewer described as Ray Charles -like.  Here, however,  is Seth with a stripped down version, the unvarnished songwriters’ art.

 

Gotta Get Back has a little less Nicholson influence but as it’s Walker’s newest release, you will want to check it out. It does include five numbers he co-wrote with Gary including the kickoff number, “High Time.”

 

This album is a bit different in that Walker is trying to pay tribute to a number of musical styles which have influenced him over the course of his life. There’s New Orleans with “Fire in the Belly” (funk) and “Way Past Midnight” (second-line), folk with “Home Again,” gospel with “Turn This Thing Around,” pop with “Dreamer” and R&B groove with “Movin’ On.” If I had to pick just on of these albums, I’d go with Leap of Faith. But I’m more than glad to have both.

 

Delbert McClinton – Nothing Personal

Delbert frequently titles his albums with something other than one of the tunes included as he did here. He can also be a bit sly with misdirection. In fact the tone of the album is very personal in several ways: song selection, arrangements, vocal delivery, indeed in overall atmosphere. Gary Nicholson not only co-wrote five of the songs, he also produced this 2001 Grammy winner in the Best Contemporary Blues category. Oh, and he played some fine guitar as here with Delbert on the “Sandy Beaches Cruise” in 2013.

It’s not that the album lacks the barroom blues kickers Delbert’s so well know for – there are several, but by eschewing the big brass section in favor of a smaller combo style, Nicholson gives the entire project more of a small room feel. It doesn’t detract at all from the rockin’ numbers, and it really shows off the more intimate ballads. On Nothing Personal Delbert ironically seems to be singing for you personally rather than shouting to a big honky tonk crowd. Numbers like the south of the border tinged “When Rita Leaves (Rita’s Gone)” – truly one of the greatest can’t-believe-she’s-gone-but-maybe-it’s-for-the-best songs ever written, the classically blue “All There Is Of Me,” and the philosophical “Watchin’ It Rain” take on the intimacy and emotional weight that makes them, in fact, truly personal. There’s not a bad tune in the bunch. Heck there’s even a terrific Texas two stepper. And Delbert and Gary surely hit the jackpot when Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood had a big hit with their rollicking co-write “Squeeze Me In.” Obviously, I love this album! And I love this Delbert and Gary collaboration on a beautiful love song, “Don’t Leave Home Without It.”

Gary Nicholson has written too many of Delbert’s songs to count, and he’s played guitar and slide guitar on many others to boot. He’s produced five of Delbert’s albums, two of which won Grammys. Delbert would be great regardless, and Seth Walker would be too. Still there is something about Nicholson’s songs, playing and production that bring out their best. You’ve heard the evidence: the songs I’ve featured from these three albums were each co-written and played by the singer and Gary. The fact that he can do that with two guys born 34 years apart (not to mention all the others with whom he’s collaborated) sends a loud and clear answer to my question, who is Gary Nicholson?  He’s a huge talent, a helluva partner for an artist to have, and the emodiment of the best in Classic CowjazzR&B.  

Here are Gary and Seth showing us what it’s all about on a recent night in Dallas.

Southern Soul That Slipped Through The Cracks

Of all the genres I cover in this blog, traditional soul seems to offer the most opportunities to discover or in some cases re-discover really solid performances. Here are three that I’ve pulled from the digital version of the old bargain bin at your favorite record store. One is a re-discovery from 1969. One is a R&B diva, who never really broke beyond her strong regional following in Memphis in the nineties and early 2000’s. And one is an old master, albeit largely unknown to the general music consumer, who cranked out a gem of a soul/funk/blues album near the end of his long, productive life.  Interestingly, all three have a musical connection to Memphis. Use the comments link, and let me know what you think about them.

Delaney & Bonnie – Home

Many people my age claim to remember Delaney & Bonnie, especially if they were fans of the Allman Brothers, other southern rock bands, or Eric Clapton. For awhile they billed themselves as Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, the latter of which included the likes of Clapton, Duane Allman, George Harrison, Leon Russell and others. The fact is, however, they only had a couple of hit singles, none of which hit the top ten, and a couple of albums that charted none of which reached the top 20.

Having said that, this album Home, which was their first in 1969, never even made the Top 200. It’s a shame because this is a really good soul album. In fact, most of it it was recorded in Memphis by Stax and features Booker T and the MG’s and the Memphis Horns, with tunes by the likes of Steve Cropper, Isaac Hayes and David Porter. A few tracks were recorded in LA where Leon Russel and Carl Radle led the rhythm section. Somehow it all got lost in the shuffle as Stax released some 27 albums at about the same time. Or maybe soul music fans like me couldn’t picture a couple of hippie looking singers making like Otis and Carla or Marvin and Tammi. Having said all that, I’m inclined to classify this gem as a discovery. I know I never heard it, but if you did let me know.

And what fun it is to hear this music. While their later, better known albums edged a little closer to rock, this one is predominantly a soul revue.

Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett came by their musical bona fides honestly. By the time they signed with Stax, they were prepared to perform to the label’s soul stirring standards, and for the most part they do. As originally released, the album contained ten tracks. The Bonus Track Version on iTunes released in 2006 has sixteen which may be a couple too many. Regardless, the album has more than it’s share of highlights. For me these include two tunes by Cropper and Eddie Floyd, “We Can Love” and “Things Get Better” and another by Cropper and Bettye Crutcher, “Just Plain Beautiful,” all of which have a good Stax groove and tasty horns. Then there’s Booker T Jones’ beautiful, soul ballad “Everybody Loves A Winner” featuring a marvelous tenor sax by, I believe, Andrew Love. The most pleasant surprise perhaps is Bonnie’s take on Erma Franklin’s “Piece Of My Heart.” Although not as intense as Janis Joplin’s nearly out of control version released a few months before, it is still a darn fine rendition.

Stax’s own web site notes that even with all the label firepower employed in the recording, “the record went virtually unnoticed.” Thanks to the internet and digital outlets like iTunes, that need no longer be the case. Take a moment to notice – and enjoy – this really fine record.
Ruby Wilson – Ruby Wilson and A Song For You

I’m often asked where I find the more obscure artists I feature. Sadly, I found Ruby Wilson when her obituary in the New York Times caught my eye a few weeks ago. She was a Texas born blues and R&B singer who spent a big chunk of career from the 1980’s until her recent death delighting both locals and tourists as the Queen of Beale Street in Memphis. Intrigued, I searched for her albums and found two you might like.

The self titled first one was released in 1981. The first three songs are uptempo in the disco style arrangements popular at the time. While I prefer the soul grooves of Muscle Shoals, a couple of these do nicely showcase a strong, assured talent. The tempo shifts with the fourth cut, a classic-style soul ballad, “Bluer Than Blue,” which is as strong a performance as you’ll find short of Aretha Franklin or Gladys Knight. The tunes that follow are similar in style and quality. The woman can flat out sing.

A Song For You, released in 2009 bookends her career. Firmly established by this time as a blues and R&B belter with regular gigs at Memphis clubs like B.B. king’s, Wilson strikes a different note with this covers collection of jazz influenced ballads. Her vocals are soulful but more graceful and nuanced than soaring. It’s cocktail hour with classics like “At Last,” “Fever,” “What A Difference A Day Makes,” and maybe my new favorite version of the title track. Good stuff.

Who knows why some artists make it big and others with equal or better talent don’t? Is it management, poor record company promotion, failure to find that signature hit, some of all three or dozens of other reasons. I don’t know. I do know I’m thankful to find artists like Ruby Wilson. I just wish it had been in a club in Memphis rather an obit in the Times.

 

Calvin Owens – That’s Your Booty

My search through Ruby Wilson’s discography led me to Calvin Owens and this album apparently released after his death in 2008. Wilson is one of a strong contingent of singers, including the likes of Otis Clay and Archie Bell, whose vocals add power to Owens’ big band tour de force through soul, funk, blues and jazz. The presence of a couple of strong ballads notwithstanding, this is a “turn it up and boogie” joy ride.

Born in 1928, Owens grew up literally and musically in Houston in the 1940’s and early 1950’s. Like many Houston musicians of that era, he’s always blurred the distinctions between blues and jazz. He met B.B. King and joined his band as trumpet soloist through the middle of the decade. Years later he rejoined King as his bandleader and trumpeter from 1978 – 1984, playing a key role on King’s Grammy winning album Blues and Jazz in 1983. In between and after his tenures with King, he played behind a long list of luminaries and led his own smokin’ bug band.

The cut “On My Feet Again” with Wilson in full blues belting mode could easily have been a vehicle for B.B. On the other hand, Owens stretches his boundaries with the funk of “The Dog ” and the jazzy “Trumpet Blues”

 

Owens obviously had a taste of the big time touring and recording with King. Similarly, Ruby Wilson played with several big names and also had roles in several movies. Although Delaney and Bonnie never had a top ten hit single or album, they certainly enjoyed high profile exposure touring with Eric Clapton, not to mention raves from Hall of Fame level stars testifying to their talent and influence. Still, none of these albums made a ripple much less a splash on the charts. Give them a listen. I bet you’ll agree  this is music that deserves to be recovered from the cracks in the market, and most importantly, heard and enjoyed.

 

What the heck…

Here’s one more that may have slipped through the cracks for you: the talented Tasha Taylor singing her dad’s, the great Johnny Taylor, greatest hit, “Who’s Making Love?”

 

 

New Year’s Resolution

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.

Mo Pitney

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.

Final thoughts.

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.

 

The Dan Penn Connection

(Quick reminder: If you are a subscriber to email notification of each of my new posts, you can read the entire text from the email.  I do embed video and audio clips, but you must go to my actual blog site at http://www.classiccowjazzbandb.com to see those links.)

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.
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