Monday Morning Video: Johnny Winter (1944-2014)

We lost Johnny Winter last week.  Johnny, known for his blistering fast guitar playing, burst onto the national scene as a solo act in the late 1960s.  A guitar prodigy, Johnny and younger brother Edgar – both albino – had formed a band as they were growing up in Beaumont, Texas, and had a single released when Johnny was just 15 and Edgar 12 or 13.  Over the years, Johnny often shared the stage or studio with his brother, but their careers were distinct.  Johnny stayed faithful to blues throughout his career, with occasional forays into rock, while Edgar has been more of a rocker.  Johnny’s guitar playing ability was astounding, but he also built his legacy by producing several of Muddy Waters’ late-career masterpieces, including Hard Again and King Bee.

The years and the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle took their toll on Johnny.  When I saw him three years ago, he needed to be helped onto the stage and performed his entire show seated, but the music was still there as he played effortlessly.  Below are some memories.

Johnny in his prime:

In 1987, starting to show the years, but still in great playing shape:

This past year on Letterman, very decrepit with apparent vision issues, but the music was still there:



The Stray Birds – Pass Me the Guitar  

I’ll be darned if you can get any closer to the band as you feel at a Stray Birds show. And I wish you would pass the guitar right over to the Stray Birds. That intimacy certainly has been something that is cultivated with the band members and discussed in our conversation. Suzanne, twangville’s photographer, and I were lucky enough to pick their brains about their amazing presence on stage.IMG_9711 The band has been getting lots of press lately. From NPR to WAMU’s bluegrass country, they are not a secret anymore. As the band pulls together tracks for a new record, my wife(trusty twangville photographer Suzanne McMahon) and I got a chance to sit down with the band a while back and in a similar way to their intimate shows. The band waxed philosophical about the importance of connections with the audience, which is certainly palpable.  Singer/fiddler/guitar/banjo player Maya DeVitry explained it very well.

“There’s this Irish fiddle player who came and did this workshop when I was there [at Berkeley College of Music), Martin Hayes, and he talked about inhabiting the melody of these ancient tunes. He would play, not like he was acting, but he was literally inhabiting the melody. I feel like that’s what we do with these songs and these arrangements. We inhabit the song. We try to get inside ’25 to life’ or ‘Birds of the Borderland’ for those 3 minutes. And we also use a lot of eye contact and that’s really intense for people,” said Maya. “I look at people more during a show than I ever do.”

When you attend a Stray Birds show, you can’t help but feel connected to the band. As they come in close for the harmonies and look out over the audience, it’s as though you’re all there together in a trusted community. There’s something built in the shared experience of coming together and “inhabiting” a song. It seems like something that Maya and the band actually invites the audience to do at their shows and be in the song together. Then everyone has that joyful catharsis together. Singer/fiddler/guitar player Oliver Craven also put the personal connections of his life into perspective.

“I think the more I experience difficult things in my personal life, like circumstantial hardships, it puts things in perspective. When I see people in my life having trouble, it reminds me that what we’re doing isn’t the most important thing in the world. As important as it is to us and the people with us in that moment in the show, it’s ultimately not do or die. I think that makes me really relaxed on stage,” said Oliver Craven.

The sense of the relaxation translates into the joy of the audience in that shared experience. That seems to really allow the band and audience to get in closer to inhabit the song. It’s the escape that is just a passing breath of fresh air. And the show back in April at Club Passim in Cambridge demonstrated all of those qualities. The band had a true ability to invite the audience in to “I Wish It Would Rain” and bring those emotions out. Perhaps the same emotions that others may not have been able to express are now on the table. The shared experience in meeting the song and audience is something that the band has truly brought to their shows in a very intimate way.IMG_9609 “Those songs from echo sessions. I think of them like if I’m at a party and people are passing the guitar around, I don’t want to sing one of my own songs. I can hardly ever remember the words to songs other than the ones that we’re performing every night. I have probably five other songs that I remember the words to. ‘Wish it Would Rain’ has been my go to song for years,” said Maya DeVitry. “Echo Sessions is about remembering how fun it is to sing something that you didn’t write. You meet the song. It’s a totally different joy.”

I also asked the band members about their top five records. I got artists, lists of records, and even longer lists.

Top 5ish Artists/Records:

Maya DeVitry

Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks

Tom Waits – Mule Variations

Bonnie Raitt – Taking My Time

Nina Simone – (a live one)

Levon Helm – Dirt Farmer


Oliver Craven

David Bowie – Hunky Dory

Beatles – Abbey Road

The Traveling Willburys – Volume 1

Tim O’Brien & Darryl Scott – Real Time

Tedeschi Trucks – Revelator

Bob Dylan – Highway 61

Hendrix – Electric Ladyland


Charlie Muench

Old & In the Way

Norman Blake

Wood Brothers

Lake Street Dive

Jonathan Byrd

John Fulbright


Photos by Suzanne McMahon

John Hiatt – Terms of My Surrender

John Hiatt has long been one of the mainstays of Americana music.  Throughout his long career, Hiatt has been known for great songwriting and musicianship, but of all his earthy Americana releases, Terms of My Surrender is certainly his grittiest and arguably his most enjoyable work to date.

John Hiatt_

Despite some early success as a songwriter, Hiatt was a late bloomer as a performer.  Among his early songwriting credentials was “Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here,” which Three Dog Night took to number 16 in 1974, while Hiatt was still banging around Nashville trying to get his start.  But his reputation as a solo artist and stage performer was built one day at a time over many years.   His first two solo albums, Hangin’ Around the Observatory and Overcoats, were commercial failures.  After moving to California, Hiatt did a stint in Ry Cooder’s backing band, establishing a musical relationship with Cooder that would would last through several future projects.

Throughout the 1980s, however, Hiatt continued to struggle with personal demons, which included alcoholism, the suicide of his wife and his languishing career.  It was on Bring the Family that Hiatt put it all together, both musically and personally.  For that reason, Bring the Family will likely always be considered the most important Hiatt album.  With participation by Cooder, bassist Nick Lowe, and drummer Jim Keltner, the core group behind of Bring the Family would later reunite to become the short-lived 1990s supergroup Little Village.  Since then, Hiatt has continued to produce outstanding work and interesting collaborations with the likes of the Jayhawks, Bonnie Raitt and Luther and Cody Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars.

But with Terms of My Surrender, Hiatt has taken his usual straight-forward Americana recipe and reduced it to its barest elements, producing a great album that will likely be on the short list for my favorite Americana album of the year.  He has certainly taken a page from Cooder’s recent playbook (e.g., Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, 2011), producing a really simple collection of fantastic songs.  From the first notes of “Long Time Comin’,” Hiatt’s crusty vocals highlight a rootsy, bluesy collection of tasty takes that sound unadorned and informal, as though they could have been recorded in Hiatt’s living room.  “Face of God” sounds as though it could have come from the lips and fingers of the oldest Mississippi bluesman.  “Marlene” sounds like a throwback 1950s rock-n-roll anthem.  “The Wind Don’t Have to Hurry” is an instant classic.  Other great songs include “Nobody Knew His Name,” the title tune and the satirical “Old People.”  Joining Hiatt on the album were members of his touring band, the Combo, featuring lead guitarist (and the album’s producer) Doug Lancio, Nathan Gehri on bass and Kenneth Blevins on drums.

Mayer’s Picks: The Best of 2014, So Far (the Songs)

Chris MillsRubicon, Chris Mills
(from the Loud Romantic Records release Alexandria)

Mills lulls you in with a lilting melody before unleashing the jaw-dropping emotion of lyrics and voice. The results are heartwrenching.

Lydia LovelessReally Wanna See You, Lydia Loveless
(from the Bloodshot Records release Somewhere Else)

This is the way rock and roll is supposed to sound: honest, boisterous and alive.

Drive-By TruckersShit Shots Count, Drive-By Truckers
(from the ATO Records release English Oceans)

The opening track from the Truckers was a lock for this list based on the title alone. The fact that it is rocks like only the Truckers can? Just icing on the cake.

The Hard Working AmericansWelfare Music, Hard Working Americans
(from the Melvin Records release Hard Working Americans)

This is the very definition of win-win – a group of phenomenally-talented musicians recording a raucous version of a song written by one of my favorite songwriters.

Jimbo MathusRock and Roll Trash, Jimbo Mathus
(from the Fat Possum Records release Jimbo Mathus)

This is swamp rock at its finest — unbridled and whiskey-infused.

Jonny Two BagsHope Dies Hard, Jonny Two Bags
(from the Isotone Records release Salvation Town)

While the lyrics reflect on a rough break-up, the music bristles with a raw and defiant energy.

Lake Street DiveBad Self Portraits, Lake Street Dive
(from the Signature Sounds Records release Bad Self Potraits)

Who knew a break-up song could sound so uplifting? Pure pop perfection.

Rod PicottWhere No One Knows Your Name, Rod Picott
(from the Welding Rod Records release Hang Your Hopes on a Crooked Nail)

If there is such a thing as a perfectly-weathered song, this is it. Picott has a knack for songs that are well-worn in topic, tone and voice.

Photo credits: Todd Cooper (Lydia Loveless), David McClister (Drive-By Truckers), James Martin (The Hard Working Americans), Elizabeth DeCicco (Jimbo Mathus), Jarrod McCabe (Lake Street Dive), Stacie Huckeba (Rod Picott)

Woody Guthrie in New York City

Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie has a storied place in music history. He is one of those touchstones that continues to inspire both musicians and activists around the world. Heck even the poor souls folks who aren’t familiar with Guthrie have undoubtedly sung a few verses of his seminal “This Land Is Your Land.”

Although he is most often associated with his birthplace of Okemah, Oklahoma and his time spent in California during the 1930’s “Dust Bowl” era, Guthrie spent 27 years living in New York City.

The forthcoming My Name is New York is a three-disc set that chronicles Guthrie’s New York City years through stories and song.

Two of the discs features interviews with folks like Pete Seeger (in one of the last interviews before his passing), Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott among others. Consider it a verbal walking tour of 19 locations around New York City that were stops along Guthrie’s journey.

The third disc is a treasure-trove of Guthrie gems. These include the first recording of the seminal “This Land Is Your Land” and two home demos. There are also several tracks featuring other artists – including Billy Bragg & Wilco and the Del McCoury Band – performing Guthrie’s music. Proof that the legacy lives on.

Here is Guthrie’s home demo for “My Name Is New York”:

Pete Seeger telling the story behind the song “Tom Joad”:

Photo Credit: Photograph by Alfred Puhn. Courtesy of Tamiment Library at NYU