The last month has been tough on me; many things are calling for my attention, and writing has had to fall by the wayside. I have been listening to some great stuff- the new Peter Rowan, the Frank Solivan, some great Steve Forbert music from the past. The Gibson Brothers’ new album They Call It Music is spectacular, and my review of it has been posted at the Lonesome Road Review.
Archive for the ‘singer-songwriters’ Tag
My review of 1945 has been posted to the Lonesome Road Review.
Track down this one.
Ralph Boyd Johnson 1723 9 St SW http://www.RalphBoydJohnson.com
For those unaware of its significance, 1723 9 St SW may be the worst album title since 461 Ocean Boulevard. Ralph Boyd Johnson most obviously believed that this Calgary address had to be the title of his sophomore album.
You see, and as most anyone with a passing familiarity with the lore of the Alberta roots music scene will tell you, 1723 9 St SW was the home for a period of time of Billy Cowsill. Until his death in 2006, Cowsill was the (mostly) undisputed prince of the Calgary alt.country community, and his influence on RBJ and others has been apparent and lasting.
A decade ago- back when all things seemed possible and No Depression unified disparate singers and songwriters under a semi-cohesive banner- Ralph Boyd Johnson emerged with Dyin’ to Go, still one of the strongest roots music albums the province has witnessed. For a while Johnson worked the circuit, playing the festivals and the occasional club date, chasing a dream that seemed elusive.
His dream wasn’t Son Volt (or even Hayseed)-level success. Johnson always appeared to simply want the next gig to be better than the last, the next song to resonate with another listener. While I’m not familiar with details of his life since Dyin’ to Go received widespread praise, I’ve kept my ears and eyes open.
In the middle of the last decade, Johnson was a driving force behind Rivers and Rails, A Tribute to Alberta, a strong and diverse collection of original material celebrating the province’s centennial. I would occasionally see his name mentioned in the various free Calgary street papers, and once was very pleasantly surprised to catch him opening a show at the Ironwood. Still, considering the quality of Dyin’ to Go, and the promise it revealed, it was disappointing that few outside southern Alberta heard his name, let alone his music. RBJ was surpassed, at least commercially and familiarity wise, by a slew sowing similar ground- Corb Lund, Tim Hus, JR Shore, Leeroy Stagger, and others.
This past winter saw the release of 1723 9 St SW, and what an appearance it was.
[Insert long-winded and only semi-coherent, but almost relevant diatribe.] Some time ago, I was beginning to feel increasingly disenchanted with the abundance of pointless covers being released. I probably have more albums of cover songs than most people do, and obviously enjoy an inspired interpretation of both a standard and unfamiliar tune. I’m not sure when it happened, but it may have been around the time Doc Watson passed away. I’m not sure why.
I do know this. A few years ago, Steve Earle released his album Townes. In one of the interviews I read at that time, Earle- and bless him for his honesty- stated words to the effect that, as he was writing the novel I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive he knew he needed an album on the marketplace and decided to record the Townes Van Zandt album. (From a New York Times Anthony DeCurtis article, 2009: ”…The urge to complete that book, which he has intermittently been working on for eight years,led indirectly to the Townes project. ‘I’ve talked about doing it for a long time,’ [Earle] said about recording an album of Van Zandt’s material, ‘and since I didn’t have to write the songs, I thought I could make this record, turn it in and then finish the book.”) While that album is a pretty good- if unnecessary- one, it doesn’t touch the emotional impact of Earle’s own “Ft. Worth Blues,” written following Van Zandt’s death. The mercenary-like execution of the album tarnished it a bit for me, leading, in some large way, to my increasing dissatisfaction with ‘the tribute album.’ Too often, they appear to be the commercial stop-gap that Earle at least is bold enough to acknowledge.
Make no mistake, there have been some good tribute albums- the Guy Clark This One’s For Him, for example. Far more often, I’ve found ‘tributes’ to be less than satisfying. The recording that brought this to a head was Ricky Skaggs’ ‘tribute’ to Doc Watson. Now, Skaggs can cover any song he likes, and his version of “Tennessee Stud” is no better or worse than any other version I’ve encountered- they all pale next to Doc’s. So, when Skaggs released “Tennessee Stud” soon after Watson’s death, as well-meaning as it may have been, its inclusion on Music to My Ears left me cold and a little bothered. (Contrast that with a video of Elizabeth Cook covering “Columbus Stockade Blues” at Kansas City’s Knuckleheads, a bar I hope to visit this coming week to catch Amy LaVere, but I ramble, yet again.)
And, as others died and the requisite recordings emerged, I started thinking that a true and meaningful tribute needs to be something more than a ‘by the numbers’ cover of a favourite song.
A cover is a cover, and more often than not, I can find something appealing in covers of even my favourite songs; Hollie Cook’s interpretation of Rachel Sweet’s “It’s So Different Here” being a not so recent example. What I have tired of is the ‘tribute’ cover where someone or several someones pay ‘tribute’ to an artist by covering their music; I love Nick Lowe’s music, but Lowe Country mostly left me wanting. It wasn’t terribly interesting to hear others interpret Lowe’s music, simply because most of them couldn’t hold a candle to the original (not to mention, but I will, that I already own a couple different Lowe tribute albums.)
If an artist is going to ‘pay tribute’ to someone they admire, why don’t they take the time to actually write, to create, a true tribute to that artist? Ralph Boyd Johnson’s album (and you thought I had forgotten what I was supposed to be writing about today) is a perfect example of this. RBJ wanted to pay tribute to his friend and mentor Billy Cowsill. Rather than just covering a few of his songs- which he could easily have done- he took the time to craft something memorable, including the title track to his new album.
I’d love it if more artists went to the effort of pouring their admiration and appreciation for those who influenced them into an original creation, songs like Eric Burton’s “Guy Clark,” Jill Sobule’s “Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry,” The Steel Town Project’s “Leather and Bass (The Night Suzi Quatro Rocked Out ‘Can the Can’)” and Steve Forbert’s heartfelt ode to Rick Danko, “Wild As the Wind.”
Even songs that serve as indirect homage to artists, “John R and Me” (Radney Foster) or “Willie’s Guitar” from John Anderson, and “White Cadillac” by The Band, raise the ‘tribute’ bar. This is the reason Tom Russell’s “The Death of Jimmy Martin” resonates more than the many covers of his music (and some of them were great, including A Tribute to Jimmy Martin, The King of Bluegrass with Audie Blaylock, JD Crowe, Paul Williams, and Kenny Ingram) that were released following his passing.
Again, I love cover songs. To belabour my point, I’m just tired of them being labeled as ‘tributes.’ A tribute should be more, and I think a good place to start would be to create a song that captures the emotional and artistic impact the work of another has had on an individual. Take it to the next level, and then call it a ‘tribute’ as Old Man Luedecke does with “Song for Ian Tyson” and Mike Plume recently did with his ode “So Long Stompin’ Tom.”
Which is a long way around to stating, Ralph Boyd Johnson gets it right with his homage to Billy Cowsill.
Within the album, no fewer than four songs contain reference to Billy Cowsill. (And if you don’t know who Billy Cowsill was, Google him and purchase a Blue Shadows album. While you’re at it, consider Dustin Bentall’s “Ballad of Billy Cowsill.”)
Cowsill, who co-produced Dyin to Go and with whom Johnson wrote “The Fool Is the Last One to Know” from The Blue Shadows’ On The Floor of Heaven, was flawed: his troubles got the best of him. The genuine affection and honest regard Johnson held for him is apparent in every note and clever phrase contained within the fictional narrative “The Legend of Wild Billy C” and the reflective, more realistic “1723 9th St SW.” “Bill’s Pills,” despite its plea of “O, darlin’ don’t cry,” is simply sad.
Elsewhere, the themes are universal. “Holes in His Shoes” captures the intensity of a challenging friendship. Johnson displays his ability to drop gems worthy of Guy Clark singing, “I’ve got a friend threadbare button loose, through the eye of a needle found a hole in the noose…makes Keith Richards look like he just joined the band…” “Free of the flesh, and scared of our deeds, at the foot of the throne, we shall all be received,” Johnson sings in a song written with Cowsill (“Foot of the Throne”), in which they also manage to recognize TVZ.
The snappy “Cleaning House” has all the elements one looks for in a classic country-blues: an action-oriented woman and a no account fella; the clarinet fill is unexpected. While the Cowsill-oriented tracks are each meaningful, heartfelt and more than memorable, Johnson is at his best on “Adios Santa Rosa,” another song co-written with Cowsill, as well as ubiquitous Tim Leacock (whose The Wandering V’s I need to explore.) I never thought I would type ‘calypso’ in a RBJ review, but the lively “Blue Bird” fits that bill. Continuing the ‘feather’ theme, Johnson revisits “Ol’ Black Crow,” reworking and likely improving upon the spoken word, rap-influenced tale from his debut.
In an unexplained twist, a live rendition of Cowsill presenting his classic “Vagabond”- the first song of his I recall hearing, back in ’84 as he opened for John Anderson at the Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton- is appended to the disc. Culled from The Co-Dependents’ initial album, the track seems a fitting way to conclude an album over which his (blue) shadow is so prevalent: with Cowsill himself.
Ralph Boyd Johnson is his own man. Yes, he was fortunate to be ‘schooled’ by Billy Cowsill, but the path he has followed has always been his own. 1723 9 St SW is an album of which I am certain Cowsill would approve, and of which Johnson can be proud.
If you read all of that…I apologize. I worked on this piece for a long time, and I don’t know if I near got it right. I do know it is long, and I’m plumb certain it isn’t perfect. But, it’s done and I mean it all. Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
My review of the recent release from John Driskell Hopkins & Balsam Range has been posted to Fervor Coulee Bluegrass. When I first received the album, I had never heard of John Driskell Hopkins, and to date I still don’t believe I’ve heard the Zac Brown Band; I hear they are a big deal. Based on this album, perhaps me should give them a listen. I’ve already checked down Levi Lowrey’s I Confess I Was A Fool based on his collaboration contained within Daybreak.
As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Getting most of his notice as a third of Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, Stephen Fearing has been slowly (very slowly) increasing his profile on the Canadian folk scene for the past twenty-five years. While BARK has brought regular attention to Fearing since the release of High & Hurtin’ in 1996, Fearing has remained more under-the-populist-radar than his partners Colin Linden (who has become familiar to some with his sideman appearances on Nashville) and Tom Wilson (Lee Harvey Osmond).
When it comes to making music, Fearing has consistently, if infrequently, released albums of substance and growing appeal; Between Hurricanes, like Yellowjacket and That’s How I Walk before it, simply becomes more interesting and enthralling the more one listens.
Opening with clean picking and an immediately appealing groove, “As the Crow Flies” sets the course for an album of constant delight. “Rising from the ash and the dust, you turn the key from hope to trust…look ahead,” signals that Fearing has perhaps turned to a new chapter. “As my car flew off the road, images and memories were running through my head; promises I never kept, lies and pretty faces in my bed…” he sings in “Don’t You Wish Your Bread Was Dough,” touching on those regrets we all own.
“Cold Dawn” is staggering, as are “These Golden Days” and his reading of “Early Morning Rain,” and each in different ways and for a variety of reasons.”Keep Your Mouth Shut” is a raucously BARKy, while “The Fool” is as acute as the finest ballads ever sung by Marty Robbins or written by Kris Kristofferson. In many ways, Between Hurricanes reminds one most frequently of an album The Band (whom I have been listening to quite steadily recently) might have made had they been born and raised thirty years later.
I suggest that from my perspective, Fearing has never sounded in better voice, but that seems a bit much as he has always had a pleasing one; still, things seem a bit more focused, more mature even, if such makes any sense. Let it stand, then, that he sounds wonderful throughout the album.
Inhabiting a space somewhere between John Hiatt’s muddy Americana waters and Bruce Cockburn’s warm, comfort folk, Between Hurricanes is a bit minimalist in places, but never feels unduly spare. Co-producer with Fearing, John Whynot, serves as Fearing’s musical foil, contributing everything from piano and organ to percussion, bass, and autoharp.
Stephen Fearing is on a western swing, appearing in Saskatchewan and Alberta this week and next including at Red Deer’s Elks Lodge on March 7; all details at his website.
Hayden isn’t an artist I would normally feature at Fervor Coulee. While my definition of roots music isn’t really wide enough to include his brand of introspective ‘rock,’ last evening I was listening to Ohama’s The Potato Farm Tapes and realized that there isn’t much more ‘roots’ than a guy is sitting alone in the basement of a farmhouse making electronic music; in that spirit, Just Us just may be roots music.
Forty hits some people harder than others. Based on his new album Us Alone, Hayden has passed the milestone no worse for wear.
Embracing the changes that occur with additional maturity, the dense atmosphere of Us Alone reveals the singer-songwriter at the apex of his talents. I’ve spent much of the last week listening to Neil Young’s Psychedelic Pill, an over-the-top (and entirely tremendous) celebration of instrumental and recording indulgence. Us Alone plays in contrast- every bit as personal, perhaps even as indulgent- but with self-control constraining any thoughts of letting a groove evolve over twelve or twenty minutes.
The phrase ‘dad-rock’ has been used to describe this album, a phrase as meaningless and trite as MILF-grass would be. Rather, Hayden has crafted an album of (mostly) intense observations and literate descriptions and challenges that are as sweet, charming, and cutting as a Ron Sexsmith collection, with tonal textures that bring to mind a Cowboy Junkies set.
The album begins with the gorgeous “Motel,” a song of love and devotion mixed with an audible backbone of desperation; that the central subject is dealing with a baby that won’t stop crying could be missed if one just allowed the sounds to wash through the speakers. It sounds beautifully simple, with percussion amplifying the fatigue of the couple seeking relief.
Equally beautiful is the aching “Just Give Me A Name,” a song of dealing with infidelity. The singer, while claiming he doesn’t want or need the details, the reasons for the incident in question, most obviously requires such to process and move past the betrayal. As with “Motel,” the instrumentation is layered while remaining quite wonderfully spare.
“Blurry Nights,” a duet with sister-in-law Lou Canon, fits in with the largely Hayden-alone produced bulk of the album while establishing a sense of community within the recording. That the song is an album highlight isn’t to detract from the quality present throughout Us Alone.
The album continues in this manner with each song taking the place of the previous as the next ‘favourite.’ That Hayden sustains listenable intensity throughout the album’s 45 minutes is admirable.
Bereft of commercial consideration or oversight, Us Alone grabs the listener and forces one to attend to the unfolding interpersonal drama (“Rainy Saturday”) and introspective minutiae (“Almost Everything”) through the power of language and instrumental ingenuity.
The album-proper closes with “Instructions,” a funereal lamentation of last wishes; that the desired musical accompaniment is The Band seems an entirely appropriate conclusion. The semi-obligatory ’hidden track’ features Hayden at the piano, singing additional Beatlesque observances of companionable seclusion; in this case, despite the presence of a chocolate bar deliveryman and reference to New Orleans, the song is less than its parts.
I haven’t followed Hayden closely over the years. I have a couple albums, purchased second hand, that I’ve listened to once or perhaps twice at the most. I heard him perform at a folk festival. I really have no investment in the guy. At least, I didn’t until Us Alone. Well deserving of Polaris Music Prize 2013 consideration.
Annie Lou- formerly and still Anne Louise Genest- released Grandma’s Rules For Drinking this past autumn, and while it took its time finding me, I am certainly glad HearthPR helped it make its way east from the coast. My review has been posted over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass. The album has been featured fairly frequently on CKUA.
As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Just doing some housekeeping to help out the search engines. My review of Scott Holstein’s Cold Coal Town is at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass here.
As always, I appreciate your interest in Fervor Coulee. Donald
Over at the Country Standard Time site, Jeff has posted my review of Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien’s recent live disc, We’re Usually A Lot Better Than This. I think it is a very excellent album. It was recently named Engine 145′s Best Bluegrass Album of 2012 despite not being a bluegrass album in any shape or form. Then again, neither is # 2, 4, 8… By the way, the best bluegrass albums released in 2012 were, in no particular order, The Special Consensus, The Steep Canyon Rangers, The Earl Brothers, the Bobby Osborne, and the Niall Toner albums. If you don’t agree, you are welcome to being incorrect. As am I.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Just a couple of days to Christmas, and my series of Roots Songs of Christmas is coming to a close. There are so many songs and performances I wish I could have included, and- rather than having a non-roots song of Christmas today- I will provide links to some of these down below.
I had considered going all Bah, Humbug today, but I couldn’t find a link to Tim O’Brien’s song of the same name. “Santa Bloody Claus” was an option, but while I love both of these songs, I don’t want to go down that path this year. I’d rather keep things focused on more traditional meanings of Christmas.
And things don’t get much more traditional than the birth of Jesus Christ. Today, my Roots Song of Christmas is an entire album, bluegrass songwriter and artist Donna Ulisse’s All the Way to Bethlehem. Much like Kimmie Rhodes’ Miracle on Christmas Day, Ulisse has chosen to go all the way and write an entire album focused around Christmas; this set is focused on her interpretation of the events leading up to and following the birth of Christ.
The album obviously has a Christian rather than secular approach to Christmas. From the immaculate conception (“You Will Be Delivered”,) to Joseph’s confusion (“He’s Not Mine,”) to an interpretation of the events at the inn (“You Cannot Stay Here,”) to the star leading the three kings (“I’m Gonna Shine“) Ulisse’s (along with her collaborators) interpretation of Scripture and the Christmas story is both interesting and listenable. I believe “Let the World Wait for a Little While” will become a seasonal favourite.
Considering the number of songs that already exist about the first Christmas, all the traditional songs that we grew up on, it is pretty remarkable that Ulisse has been able to create new and inspirational music that forges new ground: a listen to “He Is Here“ provides ample evidence of this.
The music is varied, some touches of bluegrass, a bit of contemporary Christian-pop sounds, and some country, and it definitely isn’t for everyone. But, one admires the energy and focus- not to mention talent and vision- that went into All the Way to Bethlehem.
Honourable mention today goes to The Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass
Boys with “Christmas Time’s A-Comin’;” this clip is from the old Nashville Network Ralph Emery show.
As for the other songs that I couldn’t fit in before tomorrow’s all-time best Roots Song of Christmas, and really it will be the only song on the list that I consider to be in any sort of order, there are links to more; happy exploring.
Jack Johnson “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer” in which Johnson has rewritten the popular song into the tale of self-determination it should have been all along.
Mary Chapin Carpenter’s excellent ”Bells are Ringing” from her Come Darkness, Come Light album of a few years back.
Eric Bogle “Santa Bloody Claus“
Chuck Brodsky “Toast to the Woman in the Holler“
The Be Good Tanyas “Rudy“
Mary Gauthier “Christmas in Paradise“
Eric Brace and Peter Cooper “Silent Night“
The Indigo Girls “I Feel the christmas Spirit“
Chris Rea “Driving Home for Christmas“
Chris deBurgh “A Spaceman Came Traveling“
As well as a couple I couldn’t find links to, Jane Hawley “Christmas in Montreal” which is on her Letters to Myself album and Laurie Lewis & Tom Rozum’s entire Winter’s Grace album.
Thanks for checking in at Fervor Coulee. Tomorrow, what I consider the all-time best Roots Christmas Song.