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.

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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.
http://www.classiccowjazzrandb.com

Old Masters Return; New Blood Arrives, Chapter I: R&B/Soul

I thought a good way to affirm one of the purposes of this blog is to showcase examples of new work by some of the old masters juxtaposed with strong examples of newcomers working within the classic forms. I’ve broken it into three chapters with the first devoted to R&B/Soul, the second, next week, to country, and then the third to the Texan influenced gumbo of folk, rock ’n’ roll and country that spawned the term “cowjazz.”

Let’s also consider this question: If there can be the Great American Songbook of pop and jazz music from the golden age of the 1930s and 1940s, why could there not also be a similar appreciation of great R&B/Soul songs from that genre’s golden age, primarily the fifties and sixties? The same question could be asked about classic Country music. I think there are records that only work with the original artist and arrangement. On the other hand, there are many that meet the key test for a standard: can it be rearranged, reinterpreted and given fresh life by other singers and musicians? We will be starting our look into this question this week and no doubt return to it from time to time in future posts.

We will start with relatively recent releases from two great and distinctive voices from yesteryear, Aaron Neville and that righteous brother Bill Medley.

Aaron Neville – My True Story

I’m hard pressed to think of an artist more qualified to pluck tunes from the repertory of soul and doo wop greats than this man who had his first gold record in 1966 and who has also been an integral part of one of the all time great singing goups, The Neville Brothers. Keith Richards and Don Was co-produced this album, which was released in 2013 when Aaron would turn 72, with surprising restraint that keeps the spotlight on the bones of the songs and Neville’s shimmering voice. Shimmer is the only word I can conjure to describe the unique way his voice slides back and forth between normal range tenor and falsetto. Don’t get me wrong, the backing musicians are superb, but placing the spotlight on Neville enables us to re-discover 12 “golden oldies.”

Although there are several uptempo numbers – “Money Honey,” “Work With Me Annie,” and “Little Bitty Pretty One” to name three – this is not a party record. I think I love it best with a cocktail at the end of the day, or while gazing into a warm fire – not quite ready for bed – nursing one last bourbon on the rocks while tapping out the rhythm on the glass. You’ll want to treat your ears to Neville’s readings of “Gypsy Woman,” “This Magic Moment/True Love,” “Under the Boardwalk,” and “Tears On My Pillow” without any extraneous distractions. And when he concludes with “Goodnight My Love,” you’ll want the party to be just for two. To say Aaron Neville “covers” these tunes is to miss the point. On this album, these are Aaron Neville’s songs. Highly recommended.

Bill Medley – Your Heart To Mine: Dedicated To The Blues

Released in 2014 when Bill Medley turned 74 years old, this collection amply illustrates the influences that propelled his brilliant turn as the lead singer with fellow Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield’s calls and response on the immortal “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.” Similar to Aaron Neville, he has chosen soul classics, here by the likes of Ray Charles, Johnny Ace, Jerry Butler, Sam Cooke, the Drifters and Sam & Dave, His producer Steve Tyrell has given them spare instrumental backing that keeps the focus on Medley’s voice and the songs’ inherent emotional heft. Yet, he’s gone a bit further than Neville in altering the tempos and phrasings usually to add a bit more of a blues feeling to songs originally presented in the pop-soul vein prevalent at the time. A prime example is “Hold On, I’m Coming,” a soul rave up and sixties party anthem which here has been slowed down just a tad to be more of a grinding blues. Truth in advertising: I didn’t initially like this version all that much, but returning to it after a bit of a hiatus, I’m really warming up to the arrangement.

My favorites are still “Drown In My Own Tears,” “Your Precious Love,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Rock Me Baby” with it’s acoustic guitar and dobro, “ and “This Magic Moment,” another tune slowed down to great effect. Time and again, producer Tyrell brings in just the right piano or guitar flourish, horn burst or background vocals. In the end though, this is all about Bill Medley’s voice – and what an instrument it still is after all these years.

I’m going to throw you a curve with the video because I could not find a good example from this album. Instead, this is an amazing performance of the old Beach Boys’ tune, “In My Room.” Medley is joined by songwriter Brian Wilson and Phil Everly on this track from his recently prior album Damn Near Righteous, which I’ll no doubt write about in the future. Could there be three better collaborative singers from the sixties? I can’t wait for you to hear it! Though not on the album, it’s representative of the quality you’ll find there. Plus you can go right to the internet for a cherry picking download.

And now for some new blood.
Eli “Paperboy” Reed & the True Loves – Roll With You, and Come And Get It

Readers who attended the 2011 or 2012 editions of the Lea Brothers Western Classic & Barbecue saw “Paperboy” deliver a spine tingling performance that prompted many to ask: “how could a twenty-something white kid from Massachusetts channel Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke and James Brown without singing a single cover?” He sang songs that you could swear you remember hearing back in the day, only you didn’t because “Paperboy” and his friends just wrote them in the last couple of years.

His story in short – he became enraptured by R&B when his father played a box set of Ray Charles CD’s while on a long family road trip vacation. After graduating from high school he spent a year or so soaking up all he could learn from delta bluesmen in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Poking fun at his boyish appearance, they said he looked like the paperboy. And the name, like the music, stuck. After a stint in Chicago, then back in Boston, he moved his base to Brooklyn.

I’m citing two of his albums here because I have a tough time picking between them. Roll With You probably has a few more funky tunes while Come And Get It is perhaps a little smoother rhythmically. But rest assured both are high energy, especially in contrast to the two by Neville and Medley. When “Paperboy” hits it, you simply can’t sit still. One option for you if you’re downloading from iTunes or Amazon is to cherry pick from both. Here are my personal favorites:

From Roll With You:
“Am I Wasting My Time” – reminiscent of Clarence Carter
“It’s Easier” – a ballad with the classic Muscle Shoals sound
“Take My Love With You” – wakes the ghost of Wilson Picket
“I’ll Roll With You” – time for some belly rubbin’ slow dancin’ with your baby
“She Walks” – to the dark end of the street?
“(Doin’ The) Boom Boom” – good god! gettin’ down like James Brown.

and from Come and Get It:
“Young Girl” – in the Stax summertime groove
“Come and Get It” – is that Philly soul?
“Pick A Number” – oh yeah, sweet Chicago
“I Found You Out” – more horn driven Memphis groove
“Tell Me What I Wanna Hear” – is that the Four Tops or a Junior Walker shuffle?
“Time Will Tell” – I can hear Percy Sledge
“Pick Your Battles” – smooth soul with strings a la the Chi Lites

What I like about “Paperboy” on these albums is that he’s not copying the greats I’ve mentioned, but he sure can channel their soul. Whether you get one or both albums, or you cherry pick my suggestions, you’re going to love having this music and knowing there are young artists out there who know how to shake it down. And by the way “Paperboy” is a heck of a nice guy.

Check out this You Tube clip of “Paperboy” gigging with Daryl Hall – yes that Daryl Hall – during an appearance on “Live From Daryl’s House.” Look at the grin on Daryl’s face – nobody’s having more fun, except maybe you.

The California Honeydrops – Spreadin’ Honey

“There’s a band out of the bay area where I live called The California Honeydrops…they’re getting a lot of play on my turntable lately.” Bonnie Raitt, from an interview in the Fargo Monthly June 12, 2014.

I’m certainly not going to argue with Bonnie Raitt about who’s great playing R&B, especially not in the case of this band. As these guys say on their website, “The California Honeydrops don’t just play music – they throw parties.” Their repertory is more eclectic than Paperboy’s two albums. In fact, they’re a bit of a one group case-in-point assertion that there are younger musicians working in classic forms of Delta blues and New Orleans second-line as well as R&B, a little funk and soul. Like Paperboy, however, they record very few covers.

They started as two guys playing for tips in the Oakland BART station, and as they expanded to the current lineup of five multi-instrumentalists, they have continued a heavy schedule of live performances. It shows in their cohesiveness and spontaneity on record. More important, they seem to be having way too much fun, and they want you to have great fun right along with them.

I mentioned the band’s beginnings, but the story is actually longer and stranger than that. It’s co-founder, who is lead vocalist, trumpeter and guitar player, was born in Warsaw, Poland. Lech Wierzynski grew up listening to contraband recordings of Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong. “Taught” to sing by the best, he continued with on the job training at Oberlin College and in clubs in Oakland. His bandmates share his energy and infectious stage presence.

“Spreadin’ Honey” is not their first nor most recent release. Rather it was my introduction to them when I clicked on one of those “if you like so and so, you’ll probably like…” links to one of their best tunes, “When It Was Wrong.” Set to a Carolina beach music beat, the song speaks to the somewhat funny truth that lovin’ may be hotter before it’s “legal,” when you and your sweetie are sneaking around to do what shouldn’t be done quite yet. It is not only a great introduction to the group, it also makes for an intriguing pairing with the down low R&B confessional, “Hell Yes, I Cheated.” Other tunes range from the Dixieland-like title song to the Delta bluesy folk “Pumpkin Pie” to traditional jazz instrumental “Cryin’ Blues” to the ebullient R&B shuffle, “Train Song,” and a few other stops in between. Throughout the album, Lech’s voice dances through the higher registers, and with help from his mates’ musicianship, pulls you in to share his joy singing and playing these songs. There’s no wonder the California Honeydrops are such a hot live act. I strongly recommend this album. Like Bonnie Raitt, you’ll find it getting a lot of play on your turntable too.

Here’s a YouTube of “When It Was Wrong.” It’s recorded live at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco, so it’s an extended version that also demonstrates the band’s interaction with the crowd. You should also visit their web site at http://www.cahoneydrops.com. It’s loaded with videos, some free music, and more fun stuff.

Notes after week #1.

First, thanks to all of you who have already signed up to follow my blog. I hope I can always make it fun for you. I also thank those of you who’ve offered comments.  (If you haven’t registered, you should find a Follow link either in the lower right hand corner of the Home screen or in the blog’s sidebar. All comments generated directly from the blog site come to me for review before posting. I resisted the temptation to post all of those who complimented my genius or writing skill, and one delightful invitation to slow dance to Chris Stapleton. I will, however, approve comments about the music or musicians, or suggestions for artists I should write about in the future. Good examples beyond those posted were emails touting new albums by James Taylor and James McMurtry. Because they were emails rather than comments via the blog site, I couldn’t post them to the comments section. Still it’s the kind of dialog I hope will develop among us music lovers.

In response to some queries, I want to clarify that I do not consider myself a music reviewer. Among other things, this means I won’t often be writing about the newest albums just released this week. Rather I consider myself a music recommender. I don’t care about an album’s release date. I search for good tunes whether they’re released this month, a few years ago or forty years ago. “New” means it’s new to me, and therefore may be new to you. Or perhaps it’s music that over time has slipped through the cracks, either my own or the publics, and somehow has been rediscovered and deemed worth discussing. My descriptions are meant to convey why I like the music, how it makes me feel and why I’m excited to tell you about it.

The blog has a “links” section in the sidebar. From time to time I’ll add links to other blogs or websites I think you might enjoy. This week I will add a link that was sent to me by Barden Winstead, no depression.com . It focuses on roots music (their term.) It has album reviews, live performance reviews and all sorts of other features. If you are looking for genuine full length album reviews, this looks like a great source for this type of music.

I also plan to add a link to a blog on jazz that I’ve followed for several years, jazzwax.com by Marc Myers. He’s an authority on jazz with special interest in the period from the late 1940’s through the 1960s. He’s quite prolific, posting every day as well as writing articles for the Wall Street Journal, books, etc. There are two reasons I really like his blog. First, he makes jazz accessible. Second, he’s open minded enough to occasionally write about artists working in other genres who somehow catch his ear. I’ve made some great finds in jazz but also country, folk and R&B from his blog.

Thanks again for your interest. If you like what you read and hear, please forward it to you music loving friends.