Music Of The Month: September 2021

Adia Victoria A Southern Gothic

The best individual song from September has to be Parker Millsap’s version of Vigilante Man from the Woodie Guthrie tribute album Home In This World. In addition to a top-notch musical arrangement, the idea of updating the lyrics for today’s times —in true folk-music tradition— is a stroke of genius. And man, those screaming guitars come in and do their job at just precisely the right moment.

Another high-water mark for the month was the release of a found musical document. Thirty-one years ago, Emmylou Harris and (her then band) The Nash Ramblers performed a concert at TPAC in Nashville. The show was recorded, the tape was shelved, and nobody ever thought about it again. Until now, with the release of Ramble In Music City. The Nash Ramblers period is one of my favorite points in Emmy’s career, and their At The Ryman record, which was released in their heyday, is one of only a handful of live recordings I really love. Any other time, Ramble In Music City would quite likely have been my pick of the month.

But this month the nod has to go to Adia Victoria with her new record, A Southern Gothic. It’s laid back, bluesy, swampy, and something in her voice lends just the slightest hint of a jazz undercurrent to a portion of the proceedings. Several guest artists make appearances throughout, adding exactly what each song calls for and keeping the flow going, without ever calling unnecessary attention to themselves. Every song grabs my full attention, and I want to hear them all over and over again. What else can you want from a record?

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Music Of The Month: August 2021

Liam Kazar Due North

Due to the way the dates fell, plus some unusually busy weekends, I’m late getting my August recommendations posted. But just like July, there were not a lot of releases in August that really grabbed me.

Having inexplicably jettisoned their clever and memorable band name Mandolin Orange, the duo (and married couple) Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz brought us their first record under their new more pedestrian moniker, Watchhouse. The album is self-titled, and it’s a good one.

James McMurtry’s new record, The Horses And The Hounds, also came out this month. I always look forward to new music from McMurtry; for my money one of the best lyricists out there today. This latest entry does not disappoint, and the song “Canola Fields,” in particular, is a real winner.

This month’s top recommendation, though, is the album Due North from singer/songwriter Liam Kazar. Throughout I hear notes of Talking Heads, classic soul, and bubble-gum pop. Here and there just the tiniest glimpse of a Jeff Lynne flourish. I find a few of the tracks to be a bit over-produced for my personal taste, but every song is a toe-tapper, and it’s also great music for driving. (Trust me on this; my daily commute is 90 minutes each way.) It’s far and away the new release I’ve turned to most often this month.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

The “Circle” Album

Once upon a time The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was flying high on the popularity of their cover version of Jerry Jeff Walker’s Mr. Bojangles. In 1971 the recording eventually climbed all the way to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. While that was happening, the band tried something unusual. Band member John McEuen asked Earl Scuggs if he’d be willing to record with The NGDB, and Scruggs accepted. Soon after, Doc Watson accepted the same invitation, and from there the party kept growing.

Fifty years ago this month (that is, August 1971), the band entered Woodland Sound Studios in Nashville along with Scruggs, Watson, “Mother” Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements, Junior Huskey, Norman Blake, and Pete “Bashful Brother Oswald” Kirby, among others, and they spent six days recording together. Heading into second grade at the time, of course I knew absolutely nothing about it. Probably very few people did. But the result of that session was the landmark Will The Circle Be Unbroken triple-LP set, released in November of the following year.

There was never a time in my life when I didn’t have at least a passing interest in all sorts of music, but in those days my friends and I had our heads wrapped up in the Beatles, Animals, Rolling Stones. Some of us were starting to dip our toes into Led Zeppelin. In my house country and bluegrass ruled the roost because that’s what my Dad liked, and the rest of us, including myself, were totally fine with it. I was just too cool, or at least too concerned about the appearance of coolness, to admit it.

Anyway, sometime in (I’m guessing) late 1973 or early ’74 my cousin, Lee Templeton, paid my Dad a visit one Saturday afternoon with a new record in hand. I’m pretty sure Lee was aware that my Dad had recently recorded a bunch of (8-Track) tapes of old, rare-to-unknown country songs from a stash of records a friend of his had removed from a broken jukebox, which made Lee think my Dad might be interested in his new find.

So off they go the basement, to the ol’ console record player. Something pretty similar to this baby:

Upstairs, my afternoon loped along like any other 4th- or 5th-grader’s Saturday does, until my mom asked me to go to the basement and get something from the freezer. I headed down, paying no particular mind to my Dad, my cousin, or the music, and dug around in the freezer for awhile to find whatever I was looking for. As I was about to go back up, from the stereo I heard what I now know is Doc Watson’s voice say “…I’ll start it out like this” just before they blasted into (again, what I now know is) Black Mountain Rag. I was dumbstruck. I don’t know why, really. Doc was a big figure in our house; it certainly wasn’t the first time I’d ever heard him play. It probably wasn’t the first time I’d ever heard him play that tune. But it was definitely the first time it hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.

I was still way too preoccupied with my self-perceived notion of my coolness to let on what was happening. I went back upstairs like nothing was going on, but that was the moment in my life when I realized there was much more to this music my Dad loved so much than I had ever given it credit for.

That summer I went to spend a week with my aunt June in Raleigh, a tradition that had started a year or two before. She took me shopping, and the first thing I got was my own copy of the Circle album. My aunt was NOT a fan. I imagine when it was time for me to leave that year, she was well ready to be rid of me.

By the time I went off to college, I had been playing regularly in my bluegrass band for over five years and my copy of the Circle album was worn out. I bought it again. Sometime in 1988, Suzy and I converted our music collection over to CDs, sold our turntable, and traded in all our vinyl. I kept one copy of each of my band’s three records, a copy of John & Yoko’s Two Virgins, and the Circle album. But since we no longer had a turntable, I bought the Circle album yet again, this time on CD. Today, all our music lives in The Cloud, so I likely won’t ever have need to buy it again. But it never leaves my rotation for more than a few months at a time.

If you don’t know this record, give it a spin. If you haven’t heard it in awhile, spin it again. It’s perfect.

Music Of The Month: July 2021

Yola Stand For Myself

I wasn’t exactly bowled over by a lot of this month’s releases, so it was relatively easy to make a pick this time around.

Jackson Browne brought us a good batch of new material on his new album Downhill From Everywhere. We also got a new record from Son Volt, Electro Melodier. I always love Son Volt’s sound, although I will readily admit I’m pretty sure I couldn’t distinguish any one album from another.

Early on, my favorite contender for this month was an album called Click Click Domino by the husband & wife duo who call themselves Ida Mae. I hadn’t heard of these guys before, but I very much enjoy their bluesy sound and for several weeks I thought this record might be this month’s pick of the litter.

But then, on the last Friday of the month, along comes Yola’s Stand For Myself. Suzy and I have been big fans of Yola since we found out about her a couple years ago, but I’ve always personally been of the opinion that her records –as much as I enjoy them– haven’t effectively showcased her voice to its best advantage. Well, look no further. This is the album I’ve been waiting for. Great from start to finish.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Music Of The Month: June 2021

Amythyst Kiah Wary + Strange

Some of the best music I heard this month, by far, was in the form of live streams from Cafe Lena in Saratoga Springs, NY. On Saturday, June 12, Stephane Wrembel performed two shows that were streamed for free, and both were extraordinary (as his shows tend to be). Both the early show and the late show are available to watch on YouTube. If you want to see a true master plying his trade, click on these links and enjoy.

But this is my monthly record recommendation, so it seems more appropriate —call me crazy— to recommend an actual record. Luckily there are quite a few good ones to choose from this month.

There were new records from a couple of people I wasn’t familiar with. K.C. Jones brought us Queen Of The In Between, and Rachel Baiman released Cycles. Both achieve the accomplishment of offering up intensely personal lyrics, often about very dark subject matter, without ever becoming maudlin or melodramatic. Well worth repeated listening.

The month also saw new material from a few familiar faces. Hiss Golden Messenger’s new Quietly Blowing It stands as a bright light as we begin to make our way out of the trauma of the pandemic. I have similar thoughts about Tim O’Brien’s latest, He Walked On, though this record is a bit more pointedly topical. And Amy Helm continues to impress with What The Flood Leaves Behind.

Early on I was pretty convinced that Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real were probably going to win my recommendation this month for A Few Stars Apart. Back in the day, I was firmly of the opinion that Willie could do no wrong. Lukas is currently making it pretty clear the same is true for him. Alas, this month his record got edged into runner-up position because…

Amythyst Kiah’s new record Wary + Strange is off the hook good. Big, bold, butt-kicking good. Like a lot of folks, I learned about Kiah by way of 2019’s Songs Of Our Native Daughters album, on which she was featured alongside Rhiannon Giddens, Layla McCalla, and Allison Russell. Kiah definitely stood out on that record, which is no small feat for anyone working next to Giddens. But even so, I did not see this new record coming. I can’t say enough good things about it, so I’m not going to try. Just go listen. Now. What are you waiting for!? Go!!

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Music Of The Month: May 2021

Lord Huron Long Lost

There was a LOT of good music released this month, once again making it very hard to pick just one record to recommend. The Black Keys dropped a pretty much straight forward blues album called Delta Kream which, front to back, might be my favorite record from their catalog. I’m also really digging Rising Appalachia’s latest, The Lost Mystique Of Being In The Know. Oliver Wood (of The Wood Brothers) delivered an excellent solo record, Always Smilin. And another new solo album, Start It Over, from The Deslondes singer/songwriter Riley Downing, is also great.

As much as I like all those, my runner-up for May’s pick of the month is another blues record: Little Black Flies by Eddie 9V. Every single track on this record will make your toes tap and your head bob. So. Much. Fun. Neither Suzy nor I had ever heard of this guy before, but we will definitely be keeping an ear out for him from now on.

But in the end, my #1 May recommendation is Lord Huron’s new release, Long Lost. I hear a little of everything on this record. It’s folky, of course. (Who would imagine me recommending anything that wasn’t?) But in addition to that, there are huge helpings of Spaghetti Western, some psychedelia, a smattering of ’40s -’50s era American Songbook-like stylistic flourishes, not to mention any number of passages straight out of the Angelo Badalamenti / David Lynch toy box. And I don’t mean that I hear all this from one track to another; these influences are all stirred together in different combinations on every song. Hopeful. Mournful. Melancholy. Optimistic. It’s really good.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Now Is The Time

Heading into the new year (and decade), I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how to be positive and keep some level of hope in the face of what I believe to be some of the worst times in our history. Then this morning, one of the first things I saw was this tweet from singer/songwriter Moses Sumney:

This comes to me like a punch in the gut. Viscerally disturbing.

While it is certainly not up to me to tell Mr. Sumney how to feel, and in fact I think I understand his despair, I’m compelled to say I could not disagree more. Now is exactly the time for art.

In the current moment we’re bombarded, mostly in real time, with news of every terrible thing that happens across the globe. Fire, flood, famine, war and violence of every kind, not to mention climate change and catastrophes of every other stripe. At the same time, we find ourselves coaxed and cajoled from seemingly all quarters to pick a side, stay within our tribes, be suspicious of others who don’t look and think like we do.

It is precisely during these times of division and strife that the arts have the most power. The act of creation is, intrinsically, a statement that we are better than our worst impulses; that we stand in defiance of destructive forces, indeed in defiance or our mortality; and most importantly, that every one of us shares a common humanity. The arts, perhaps more than anything else in our lives, prove to us time and again that, as Roger Waters has said, “..there is no ‘them.’ There’s only ‘us.'”

There’s never a bad time to create, but the more it feels “insane and futile,” the more important it becomes.

A Peek Into The Past

I started playing guitar sometime in 1978, when I was in the eighth grade. Almost immediately I was getting together with friends to form bands. Of course my first thought was to become a rock star, but pretty soon it became clear that we could get a lot more gigging opportunities (and have a lot less gear to lug around) if we played bluegrass. By the time I was a high school sophomore I’d been through various incarnations of two or three bands, and everything finally shook out into a band called The Southland Ramblers. The personnel included me, my father, another father and his two sons, and a couple of friends. By late 1980 we were gigging regularly, had a bit of a following, and were starting to make a (very) little money. We decided we should make a record.

We picked out an assortment of some of our popular tunes, practiced them for a few months, and headed down to Arthur Smith’s recording studio in Charlotte, where the whole thing was recorded and mixed in one eight-hour day. “Here Come the Southland Ramblers” came out in 1981. We got 1000 copies of the LP and 500 8-track tapes, and it was just about the coolest thing any of us could imagine. Even better, people bought ’em!

Might as well make another one, then, right? In 1982 we recorded “We’re At It Again” at Bias Recording Studio in Springfield, Virginia. If anything, we were even more excited about this second record because it included a few of our original songs. Again, everywhere we played, people bought ’em up. Sweet.

We never found out what the connection was, but at some point after the second record came out, we got a call from Granite City Studios in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, asking if we’d like to record there. They offered us a really good deal (free recording and mixing, if we agreed to buy the records directly from them), and so came about our third record, “The Autograph Album.” Almost everyone who’d bought our first two records had asked us to autograph them, much to our surprise, so with this record instead of a front cover we included a 8×10 black-and-white glossy inside the shrink wrap. Hence the album name.

Well, as the younger among us headed off to school and/or out into the working world, the Ramblers inevitably dissolved — though the records, for a time, continued to sell. It’s a nice footnote, as well, to mention that later on my dad bought my mom a dobro, she learned to play, and they formed a band and continued to use the Southland Ramblers moniker for several more years.

All of this is preamble to the point of this post: Just before Christmas, an old friend of mine from high school, a very fine drummer named Bob Dunlap, transferred all three of our old records to CD for my mom. Thanks to Bob’s efforts, I’ve consequently been able to convert the songs to mp3 and post them on my website.

It’s been odd for me to hear them after all this time (I have copies of them, of course, but I haven’t owned a turntable in decades), and I can’t possibly offer even a remotely objective opinion about them, but for better or worse they are now available for anyone hear.

You can download them (for free) by clicking here. I’d love to get any feedback you might have about them. Let me know what you think….

The Latest is Not The Greatest

Since beginning this blog I’ve tried pretty hard to keep it focused cleanly on the subject at hand, which is to say my guitars, my guitar lessons, and my opinions and experiences related to both. I’m not completely convinced the world requires a public record of any of these things, but I am positive that what the world DOESN’T need is a public record of the more personal aspects of my life. I have made a conscious effort to only mention friends, family, my workplace, etc., insofar as they have some connection to or impact on the aforementioned guitar-related experiences.

And so it is that I write now about outside forces that have affected my musical pursuits over the last couple of months; not to complain (God knows I’m doing enough of that off-line these days), but rather to keep this record complete.

Since my last entry in October, a number of changes have taken place at work, chiefly the unexpected departure of my boss and the relocation of our NYC offices. Along with the continued crappy state of the general economy, the consequences of these two occurrences have been staggering. In addition to all the usual trials and frustrations of moving, our office relocation was also an office resizing — from a crowded-but-adequately-sized space to something roughly half the size. Over a month later now, we still haven’t figured out quite where to put everything. Worse, the absence of my boss has left an oversized hole in upper management which has resulted in an oversized dose of micromanagement coming from the top. My level of exhaustion and frustration is staggering and at least vaguely depressing.

All this may seem completely off the mark as related to the topics of this blog, but the connection is that all this has thrown me and my home life into such upheaval that I have almost completely stopped all my musical activity. First, my daily schedule became so irregular and unpredictable that I was forced to suspend my lessons. Since then the stress and overwork have increased exponentially, to the point where I’ve also suspended my practice time. I haven’t lost my interest and enthusiasm, but I’ve found that the only way for me to recharge my batteries is through passive activity: I can listen to music, watch TV, read…. I just can’t expend the energy to pay attention, make the decisions, and concentrate on the myriad of details necessary for mindful, constructive practice. Of course this, too, adds to my general frustration.

It’s very hard for me to see where this is all leading. My gut tells me the situation at work is unlikely to improve. It remains to be seen if I can find a way to personally deal with the situation more effectively, or if I’ll have to make changes of a more drastic nature. Certainly I can’t continue indefinitely down this same path.

Pickin’ & Grinnin’

Since settling in Jersey, I’ve been keeping an eye and an ear out to find bluegrass or folk musicians who might like to get together and play. I know they’re out there. They aren’t standing around on every street corner and coming out of the woodwork like they are in North Carolina, but they’re around. Every time we go to a show featuring any of our favorites — Sam Bush, Del McCoury, Dan Tyminski, Tim O’Brien, etc., the venues are packed and the audiences are enthusiastic. And where there are fans, some of those fans are also musicians. So they’re definitely here somewhere; it’s just a question of finding them.

My problem in finding other musicians is twofold, comprised of equal parts passivity and laziness. First, I rely too heavily on a personal theory that like-minded individuals will inevitably be drawn together without making any particular effort. But then, I’m so content to sit around the house doing nothing that in order for my aforementioned theory to actually work, those like-minded individuals would pretty much have to be miraculously drawn into my living room in order for me to find them. Not completely outside the realm of possibility, but somewhat unlikely.

This being the situation, I’ve been in Jersey six years now without meeting any of these fellow folk and bluegrass players. Upon this gradual realization, it occurred to me to post a message on our town’s online forum to see if anyone would respond. In less than 24 hours I found someone within a 15 minute drive from my house.

Unfortunately, we made contact just as everything in my life seemed to be going haywire all at once. My wife got sick, work went nuts, and my car broke down. So it was that even after we found each other, it took several weeks for us to get together and swap a few tunes.

But finally in September we both found a free Saturday and my new-found picking buddy Mike and I got together. He came to the house around 2, and we played through everything that came to mind until after 5:30.

For me, the coolest thing is that Mike played banjo, not guitar. Don’t get me wrong; two (or more) guitar players can make some great music and have a heckuva great time playing together. It happens often. Throw in a banjo, though, or a mandolin or pretty much anything other than a guitar, and you’ve automatically given the music another whole dimension. Also, I happen to just really dig the banjo in the first place, and I can’t remember the last time I sat down with a banjo player. It’s been at least a decade, maybe more. I had a blast. Mike also plays steel guitar, so there’s more fun to come on future Saturday afternoons.

This also was my first opportunity to play my new guitar with another musician, and I was really pleased with it. Strumming rhythm, the tone meshed well with Mike’s picking, and the volume very easily held it’s own. I stumbled through a few leads and a couple fiddle tunes, and it was plenty easy to keep my single-note lines loud enough, as well.

It’s been quite a long while since I played with another musician and I was rusty, to say the very least. But there was no way to diminish the quality of the instrument I was playing or the amount of fun I was having. From every aspect it was a great afternoon, and as Mike was leaving we made a preliminary plan to go together to the next jam session of the Bluegrass & Oldtime Music Association of New Jersey on the third Sunday in October.

More on that when the time comes.