Mayer’s Playlist for Oct 2014, Part 1

ALBUMS OF THE MONTH

Boxers, by Matthew Ryan Matthew Ryan Boxers is an album of discontent. Life, love, work -- you name it -- the characters that inhabit this collection of songs are dissatisfied. There is rage, resentment and restlessness. Through it all, however, Ryan manages to find a glimmer of hope -- sometimes it’s a lyrical cue, other times it is a shimmering melody. It isn’t always bright but it’s there if you want to find it. Ryan sets the tone early with the blaring guitars and pounding drums of the title track. “How do you say goodbye to a dream that just won’t die,” he asks. While some might view this as a song of resignation and defeat but I consider it a more an acknowledgement that the road is rarely easy. "You're a boxer against the ropes & there's blood running down your throught," he continues, "but this is the fight you chose... Here we go." “Suffer No More” tells the tale of a couple dealing with job loss and economic hardship. “All we want today is something like a fair shake,” Ryan sings, “and all we want tomorrow is a ladder that won’t fall away.” An acoustic guitar and a sauntering beat convey at least a touch of hope. Ryan recalls painful early lessons in love on on the boisterous “The First Heartbreak.” I’m sure that many a listener can relate to the line, “I was there the night you got that tattoo, some scars got nothing to hide and everything to lose.” It is a line that is vivid, raw and meaningful, a hallmark of Ryan’s writing. Songs like the noisy “This One’s For You, Frankie” and the potent "Heaven's Hill" showcase the exceptional band that Ryan assembled for Boxers. Producer and guitarist Kevin Salem left the rough edges intact as musicians Brian Bequette, Joe Magistro and Brian Fallon (the Gaslight Anthem) unleashed a sonic fury across most of the album. In the midst of all the bruising rock songs are occasional quiet moments such as the stunning acoustic ballad “A Song to Learn & Sing (Until Kingdom Come).” In many ways it plays as the album's musical centerpiece as Ryan quietly reflects on hardship and pain yet still remains optimistic.

So let’s sing “Dirty Old Town” at the top of our lungs Don’t look now here comes the sun Your head is a map and your heart is a drum And the road is the road you’re on ‘til kingdom come.
Boxers also contains “An Anthem for the Broken,” a song that Ryan released earlier this year to raise funds for longtime friend of Twangville John Anderson as he battles ALS. You can read more about it here, but I challenge anyone to not be moved by the song’s furious jolt of electricity and optimism.
An anthem for the brotherhood The light in the dark and the lean for good The knowing not which way to go But here but for the grace of the unknown I know Adollar's not a peace nore end I'd do it all and all again An anthem for the broken hearts That made it worlds from where they'd start.
Even in its darkest moments there is a message that resonates across Boxers – life may be harsh but it needn’t be bleak. We all have the power to find satisfaction and contentment, even if it isn't in a way that we originally intended or expected. We just need to find it. Leave it to Ryan to craft a raggedly beautiful album to remind us of this fact.
Audio Download: Matthew Ryan, "Boxers" [audio: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/7770435/01%20Boxers.mp3]

THE PLAYLIST

Words From a Letter The Far West (from the Medina River Records release Any Day Now) I caught this Los Angeles-based quintet play an afternoon show at the Americana Conference and was damn impressed. They skillfully mine the Southern California brand of Americana, recalling Gram Parsons and the legends of the Bakersfield Sound. Singer Lee Briante has an appealing melancholy to his voice. It lends the right country feel to their more rock-laced songs while giving added depth to the country-oriented ballads.
Audio Download: The Far West, "Words from a Letter" [audio: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/7770435/07%20Words%20From%20A%20Letter.mp3]

Jailhouse, Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives (from the Superlatone Records release Saturday Night/Sunday Morning) Marty Stuart's latest release borrows a title and concept from Dr. Ralph Stanley. The impressive double album celebrates the decadence of Saturday night and the penance of Sunday morning. While some might frown on reproducing the concept, Stuart is one of the few who has the credentials to pull it off. Stuart is a rightful heir of the country music tradition, an honor that he wears with pride with this release. Joined by a crack band dubbed the Fabulous Superlatives, Stuart romps, rumbles and strolls through the 23 glorious tracks on Saturday Night/Sunday Morning. They infuse every song with an enthusiasm and joy that is infectious.
I Wasn't the One, Joshua Black Wilkins (from the self-released Settling the Dust) It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that the Nashville-based Wilkins is a phenomenally talented photographer. He approaches music in a similar manner, creating songs that have an evocative appeal. The musical arrangements are minimal without being sparse. They are often punctuated by a wistful pedal steel. To these ears it conjures up images of a drifter riding the rails, singing songs that are dusty, weathered and downright intoxicating.
Audio Download: Joshua Black Wilkins, "I Wasn't the One" [audio: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/7770435/03%20I%20Wasn't%20The%20One.mp3]

Domino Sugar, Luke Winslow-King (from the Bloodshot Records release Everlasting Arms) I’ll openly admit that I have a bias towards New Orleans musicians. It’s not because they live in one of the world’s greatest cities. Rather it’s because they are often musical scholars versed in genres from jazz to rock to rhythm and blues. The best ones bring that expertise to life in their music. Put Luke Winslow King in that category. His latest release shifts with ease from the New Orleans jazz of “La Bega’s Carousel” to the Southern rock-tinged boogie of “Domino Sugar” to the bluesy folk of “Traveling Myself.” We’ll call it eclectic in all the right ways. We’ll also say that, perhaps reflective of the city that Winslow King calls home, this album makes for one hell of a listening party.
Coffin Black, The Pine Hill Haints (from the K Records release The Magik Sounds of the Pine Hill Haints) Although the Pine Hill Haints have been around since circa 2000, the Twangville introduction to the Pine Hill Haints came via our Muscle Shoals series. Their self-described "Alabama Ghost Music" blends is a potent mix of folk, rockabilly and bluegrass. The group shifts with ease from the down-home roots of “Scarlet Fever” to the fuzzed-out guitar rock of “Coffin Black.” If you’re looking for some music that overflows with a raw and rootsy enthusiasm, you’d do right to check out the Pine Hill Haints.
A Waltz For Old Jeppson (Carl's Theme), Archie Powell and the Exports (from the single A Waltz for Old Jeppson) I've never tried Chicago home-grown liquor Jeppson's Malört, whose motto is apparently "Malört is not for the faint of heart." Nor do I expect the lyrics of this song to change that fact. "Be it your drug of choice or a big last resort," Powell proclaims, "the results are the same if you're drinking Malört." I am certain of one thing, however. I'll be listening to this rockin' song for a long time to come. (Check out the band's entertaining video tribute to Jeppson's Malört here.)
Nothing Left, Elliott Brood (from the Paper Bag Records release Work and Love) This Canadian trio fall on the rock end of the Americana spectrum. Their songs overflow with catchy melodies propelled by jangly guitars and carefree harmonies. There's a breezy Sunday afternoon vibe to their music, albeit a breeze that packs a playful and energetic punch. If you enjoy this track, you’ll undoubtedly find plenty more to your liking on their latest release.

Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer – The Flower Of Muscle Shoals

They haven't allowed smoking in years, but the rafters still have that slight air of stale cigarettes.  The Fire Department long ago made them sweep up the sawdust, but of course you can never really get rid of all it.  The Polaroids above the bar are too faded to know who's in them, unless of course you know who's in them.  The same brand of beer has flowed from the taps for 50 years, and it's brewed in supertanker-sized vats in St. Louis or Milwaukee.  Aside from the beer, the most important thing to know about this place is that every Saturday night there'll be a band that's equally perfect for a two-step with your girl or getting lost in a longneck.  They're a dying breed nowadays with the popularity of outlaw music and Jaeger shots, but thankfully the old-fashioned honky tonk still exists in wide swathes of America where soul is still more important than style. While the jukeboxes in these wonderful havens of Americana tend to be loaded with George Jones and Merle Haggard, there's a new album from Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer that fits in like a favorite pair of boots.  The Flower Of Muscle Shoals is everything you want in good old classic country music, but with all original songs from Morrison it's like finding a time capsule full of new stuff that's decades old. Over And Over And Over Again is one of my favorites on the disc.  Morrison channels some of the sorrowfulness of Raul Malo into a lament about tying one on to forget, "if I tie it tightly, it won't come undone."  There's a nice little Jones or Haggard fatalism in I've Won Every Battle, But Lost Every War.  It's not all melancholy.  Nighttime Is Here On the Valley celebrates the annual event, be that a rodeo or harvest festival, or sometimes just another Saturday night, "they whistle and they cheer, and they guzzle their beer".  San Luis and Hobbled And Grazing add some sweet Norteno swing from Morrison's youth growing up in New Mexico. Morrison cover In case you're wondering, The Flower Of Muscle Shoals refers to Cahalen's wife.  The song is a good microcosm of the whole album.  It's romantic and redneck and twangy and I'll be damned if it isn't one of the best records I've heard all year.

Americana 2014, The Sounds, Part 3

Every fall, The Americana Music Association gathers members, artists and music fans together in Nashville for its annual conference. Starting with the annual Americana Music Awards and continuing through four days of showcases and panel discussions, it is a tremendous celebration of Americana music. Here are my highlights among the many live performances I saw over the 4 days I was there.  You can also check out Mayer's favorites.
Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives.  I've written about how good Stuart is in a live show before.  But he'd kind of drifted off my radar the past few years.  Then I scored a ticket to a taping with Stuart and his band for Mojo Nixon's SiriusXM radio show.  What an incredible hour of entertainment.  From trading jabs with Nixon, "stand up Mojo...if you still can", to country rapping about the weekend, to playing along note for note with every song on Outlaw Country while waiting for the show to start, Marty entertained us at every point.  Oh, then there was his actual set of music.  Drawn mostly from his new album, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, it covered everything from rock and roll to gospel a cappella.  Along the way we also were reminded just how fine a guitar player Stuart is. Carlene Carter.  I also caught a taping Carlene Carter did for SiriusXM.  With a career that stretches from her early teens in the 60's to present day, she has a rich heritage of just her own musical path.  Then throw in the Carter family experiences and it's a microcosm of country/Americana music.  The highlight was when Jeff Hanna, of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and half a dozen other musicians who had gathered in the XM studios reprised 1972's seminal Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
Trigger Hippy.  Joan Osborne and Jackie Greene.  You don't really have to say anything more to know it's going to be a good show.  And yet that generates expectations with many that would be hard to meet.  Yet they and the other band members put together a potent combination of virtually every style of music you can imagine and blasted right through those expectations.  The worst thing for me is realizing this might be a one-time-only project. Cory Chisel's Soul Obscura.  I was leaving a venue with a vague plan for the evening when I ran into a couple of friends just coming in.  When I told them I was leaving because I hadn't heard about Cory Chisel, they gave me that are-you-really-that-stupid look.  So I turned around and went back in and got the surprise of the week from Cory Chisel's Soul Obscura.  In case you're like me and not familiar with this project, Cory and his band do covers of obscure 60's soul songs.  And dare I say improve on them all. Bradford Lee Folk.  Another fortuitous decision on my part.  Without a particular next destination in mind I stuck around for a set from Folk and his Bluegrass Playboys.  With a brain full of heavy lyrics and indie sounds from earlier in the day, the old school bluegrass from these guys was a breathe of fresh air.  Flawlessly executed and with a focused sound, I have no doubt they replicate that experience regardless of your frame of mind.
Joe Fletcher.  Without his band on his latest album and tour, Fletcher underscores his songwriting ability.  His gravelly voice and almost laconic stage presence somehow work in combination to pump excitement into the room.  His was the last set I saw of the weekend, and put a proper exclamation point on all the great music I heard the previous 4 days.

2014 Americana Music Awards

On September 17th, the glitterati of the Americana Music Scene gathered at the historic Ryman Theater for their annual Awards show and presentation.  Mayer and I were lucky enough to procure a seat to the festivities.  You can get a full list of the award nominees and winners here, but these are the highlights from our perspective.
Jason Isbell walked away with a sweep of the big 3 for Southeastern; Artist of the Year, Album of the Year, and Song of the Year.  His performance of Cover Me Up with wife Amanda Shires was excellent, and afterwards he noted that he'd written the song for her.  He recounted how scary it was to sing it to her the first time, and in accepting the Song of the Year award he encouraged the audience to "do what scares you".
The House Band for the show was led, as always, by Buddy Miller.  This year it also included Don Was on bass, Ry Cooder on guitar, and Ry's son Rocky Cooder on drums. They were joined by renowned session musicians Tim Lauer (keyboards), Brady Blade (percussion) and the McCrary Sisters (vocals).  A lot of people would argue Miller is the premier guitarist in Americana music today, but after the awards show I think you'd have to say it's a two-man race with Ry.  Cooder really turned it loose from the opening number, a sizzling version of Willie Dixon's You Can't Judge A Book By It's Cover.  His duet with Flaco Jimenez on a Norteno number was also a highlight, as was his and Miller's playing on Valerie June's "You Can't Be Told." [caption id="attachment_20242" align="alignleft" width="317"](Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Americana Music) (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Americana Music)[/caption] The Ryman has been called by many the Mother Church of country music.  The church theme covered several excellent performances, not the least was Loretta Lynn singing Coal Miner's Daughter on the very same stage she debuted at the Opry 54 years ago to the day from the awards night.  Also taking advantage of the spiritualness of the place was Parker Millsap doing Truck Stop Gospel and St. Paul & the Broken Bones creating their near-religious-experience aura with The Grass Is Greener.       [caption id="attachment_20241" align="alignleft" width="299"](Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Americana Music) (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Americana Music)[/caption] Finally, you have to make some kind of effort to pick a favorite in a night with over two dozen performers.  No disrespect to the youngsters, but the edge goes to a couple of veterans.  Marty Stuart And His Fabulous Superlatives nailed a cover of No Hard Time Blues, a Jimmie Rodgers number performed in honor of the Rodgers Museum.  Stuart also brought a train lantern originally owned by Rodgers which gave his introduction and performance an extra air of authenticity. After a heartfelt intro from Keb Mo, who noted the man was doing world music before there was such a category, Taj Mahal did a version of Statesboro Blues that trumped any other version I've ever heard, and there are a lot of them.
The evening finished with an ensemble performance of Johnny Cash's Get Rhythm, that featured Cash family members Carlene Carter and Roseanne Cash.  With that, the audience went into the night and the beginning of 4 nights of showcases that Mayer and I will cover in future posts.  
Click here for more Americana Music Conference coverage.