Music Of The Month: September 2023

Jenny Owen Youngs Avalanche

September was a bit of a weird month. Toward the end of August I saw the list of upcoming releases, and it was chock full of new goodies from quite a few of my favorite artists. But alas, as they came rolling in over the course of the month I didn’t find most of them to be very interesting at all. The only one that really grabbed my attention is Willie Nelson’s latest, simply called Bluegrass. Way, way back in the day when I was playing bluegrass in Touch Of Grass and The Southland Ramblers, we covered Willie Nelson songs routinely. But somehow it never occurred to me that Willie himself might make a bluegrass album someday. But here it is, and it’s pretty great. Good song choices and an absolutely stellar lineup of bluegrass pickers.

Adding to the weirdness, I also really like More Than A Whisper: Celebrating The Music Of Nanci Griffith. Generally speaking I mostly find tribute albums to be kind of all-over-the-place and, perhaps understandably, more than a little uneven. But this one is good throughout, and also offers up what is very easily my favorite individual song this month: John Prine & Kelsey Waldon’s duet on Love At The Five And Dime. Every single thing about this track is perfect.

And so it is that, as so often happens, despite any expectations I may have had, my pick of the month for September comes from someone I never heard of before, Jenny Owen Youngs. Her new release, Avalanche, is apparently her third, and together with a few EPs along the way, it’s a catalog I definitely need to explore in more depth. Back during the thick of the pandemic I happened upon and fell in love with Becca Mancari’s first record (from 2017), Good Woman, and then as her subsequent records came out she ventured onto a musical path that led away from what I’d loved about that record. While I don’t want to take away from Youngs’s own originality, and she certainly doesn’t sound like a Mancari clone, one of the first things through my mind during my initial spin of Avalanche was that it starts to fill in the space where I had hoped future Mancari records would be. I also hear echoes of Edie Brickell, and maybe just the slightest hint of Regina Spektor in Youngs’s vocals. There’s not a bad song on Avalanche. The lyrics are solid and interesting, the melodies infectious, and the production is top-notch. And it turns out she’s originally from Newton, NJ, about 20-ish minutes from our house. We’re practically neighbors.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

(click image to go to artist’s sale page)

Music Of The Month: December 2022

Willie Nelson Live At Budokan

Back in the ‘80s when I was learning to play guitar and how to be in a band, Willie Nelson was becoming such a force in the music industry, and such an influence on me, that it’s hard even now for me to talk about him with any measure of objectivity. All I can say is that back then, he was a god to me and most of my friends.

My pick of the month for December, Willie Nelson Live At Budokan, is a snapshot of Nelson and his band —or “Family,” as they were known— at the pinnacle of their powers at that time. For my money, this was the best-ever lineup of the Family: older sister Bobbie (piano), Paul English (drums), Mickey Raphael (harmonica), Jody Payne (guitar), Grady Martin (guitar), and Bee Speers (bass), and this record captures them at the top of their game, Willie himself is also in top form, in great voice and with his signature near-total disregard for the beat on full display. You can hear him having fun.

And speaking of hearing, I want to point out that the sound quality on this recording is outstanding. As a rule, I’m not a fan of live recordings. I mostly prefer listen to studio albums, and to experience live music live. But this album sounds GREAT.

If you had the pleasure of seeing Willie and Family during their heyday, this album will take you back to that time. If you didn’t, it will give you a real taste of what it was like.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!