Mayer’s Playlist for June 2014, Part 1

ALBUM OF THE MONTHS

Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, by Sturgill SimpsonSturgill Simpson

It’s easy to take pot-shots at what passes for country these days. You know what I’m talking about: the feel-good, truck-drivin’, beer-drinking music makes for great stadium concert sing-alongs. If that’s your scene, then more power to you.

Some of you, like me, want something different. We want music that is more firmly rooted in the country tradition, songs of heartache and life’s tribulations that are performed with grit and authenticity.

Fortunately for us, there is a renaissance afoot. A new breed of artists has emerged who are revitalizing country, reviving the spirit and song craft of the country pioneers. Score one for us that Sturgill Simpson, one of the neo-traditionalist movement’s leading lights, is back with his second album in as many years. Damn if it ain’t a beaut.

Lead track “Turtles All the Way Down” has a warm and rambling melancholy that gives way to the chugging honky-tonk “Life of Sin.” “Long White Line” keeps things moving with a groove that hearkens back to the truck-drivin’ classics of the 1970’s.

A real surprise is Simpson’s magical cover of the late 1980′s new wave hit “The Promise.” Simpson transforms the song by giving it a dramatic George Jones feel. “I’m sorry, but I’m just thinking of the right words to say,” he croons, “I know they don’t sound the way I planned them to be.” It is a performance that is plaintive and powerful.

Lyrically, Simpson preserves the custom of writing about troubled times without being spurious or sensationalistic. His characters take a matter-of-fact approach as they consider their oft-troubled situations. “But it ain’t all flowers, sometimes you gotta feel the thorns,” Simpson declares on “It Ain’t All Flowers.”

With Sturgill helping to lead the charge, country music is beginning to sound as fresh today as it did back in the day. Can I get an amen?


THE PLAYLIST


When You’re Here, John Fullbright (from the Blue Dirt Records release Songs)
After the tremendous (and justifiable) success of 2012’s From the Ground Up, Fullbright strips things down with his latest release. Following in the footsteps of writers like Randy Newman, he understands that subtlety can be incredibly compelling.

The arrangements, mostly centered around Fullbright’s piano and acoustic guitar, are particularly stunning here. Alternately lush and sparse, they convey the drama in Fullbright’s songs.

His lyrics are simple and direct, while conveying tremendous power and emotion. This magical ode to companionship is a great example. “As for lonely I can show you how to live a life alone,” he counsels, “all it takes is getting used to getting lost.”


Frankie Please, Rodney Crowell (from the New West Records release Tarpaper Sky)
There’s a lot to be said for consistency. Rodney Crowell is a fine example, a 40+-year songwriting veteran with a tremendous catalog that grows stronger with every new release. His latest is a roots-rockin’ hootenanny, filled with gentle ballads and crackling rave-ups. From the ambling Cajun feel of “Fever on the Bayou” to the emotional tug of “God I’m Missing You,” Crowell’s songs are filled with vivid language and vibrant storytelling.

Here’s one of my favorites from Tarpaper Sky. How can one note love a song that begins with a line like, “You tore through my life like a tornado looking for a trailer park.”


Intervention, Old 97’s (from the ATO Records release Most Messed Up)
The quartet from Dallas are back with a collection of no bull-shit, let’s have a good time kind of rock and roll. Pick your favorite topic – such as boozin’ or hanging with friends, lovers or wanna-be-lovers – and there’s undoubtedly a song about it here. Musically the band is in rip-roaring form, guitars blazing and beats pumping.

If there was ever any doubt that the Old 97’s are the life of the party, Most Messed Upshould put it to rest.


We Both Lose, Tommy Malone (from the MC Reocrds release Poor Boy)
Whether performing solo or as a founding member of the subdudes, New Orleans singer-songwriter Tommy Malone knows how to serve up a potent stew of R&B, rock and soul. His latest solo release drives the point home.

Malone brought together a crack group of like-minded musicians, the kind who know how to play and sound damn good doing it. They play with precision and grace, all the while finding some spirited grooves.

Of course it helps that they start with a damn fine batch of songs. Here’s one of my favorites from the release, a happy-go-lucky break-up song.


Audio Stream: Tommy Malone, “We Both Lose”

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First Cold Day of Fall, Ian McFeron (from the self-released Acoustic)
Seattle-based McFeron revisits songs from his catalog on this special acoustic release. His songs have always been enchanting, possessing a soothing warmth even when he is singing about heartache and tragedy. The sparse acoustic arrangements presented here make them even them even more so. Multi-instrumentalist Alisa Milner adds her own special musical touch, not to mention some wonderful harmonies.

Audio Download: Ian McFeron, “First Cold Day of Fall”

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Sing Together, Jeff Black (from the Lotos Nile Music release Folklore)
Black writes in the liner notes that the compositions on Folklore are inspired by photographs. Close your eyes and you will undoubtedly begin to visualize these photos as you listen to this collection of songs.

Black is a storyteller of the finest kind. Armed with just his guitar (and the occasional banjo and harmonica), he paints vivid musical portraits. He has a wonderful way of bringing characters to life in his songs, burrowing into their innermost thoughts and deliberations. The results are sublime.


On a Wire, Waylon Speed (from the Crow on Ten Records release Kin)
Who says that you have to be from below the Mason-Dixon line to play some fine Southern rock? No one told these four guys from Vermont, as they serve it up in spades. Their songwriting is top notch, catchy yet with plenty of whiskey-infused edge in the mix. At times they channel the rambling feel of the Allman Brothers, at other times they evoke the electricity of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Audio Download: Waylon Speed, “On a Wire”

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Age of Miracles, The Trews (from the Nettwerk Records release The Trews)
For over ten years, Nova Scotia’s the Trews have served up brilliant stadium-ready rock. Their latest shows that the group has no intention of slowing down or changing. The songs on this self-titled release overflow with bombastic electric guitar riffs, softened only by the quartet’s pop hooks and polished harmonies. It is a perfect summer soundtrack. Best played loud.

Ward Hayden Reflects on the Legacy of Hank Williams

Hank Williams

When Twangville heard about The Garden Spot Programs, 1950, a just released collection of Hank Williams performances that hadn’t been heard in over 60 years, we asked Ward Hayden — singer-songwriter for Girls Guns and Glory and the biggest Williams enthusiast that we know — to share his thoughts on the release.

We had requested a few paragraphs; what Hayden gave us was so much more. Read on for a musician’s view on the legend and inspiration of Hank Williams.


Over 60 years since his passing, unreleased Hank Williams material is still popping up.

My first encounter with ol’ Hank began when I heard his song “Kaw-Liga” playing on the tape deck of my mom’s car. I was about 5 or 6 years old at the time, but I can remember singing along with Hank at the top of my lungs and thoroughly enjoying howling out the chorus with him. I didn’t understand the underlying sentiment of the song or the witty story of a wooden Indian’s heartbreak, longing, and regretful woes. In Hank’s lifetime, this song was branded as a novelty and the gimmick of the song’s humor and imagination wasn’t lost on me. Wooden Indians aside, this still wasn’t your average song of longing. It told the complete story, from start to finish, in just 3 verses. Many of Hank’s songs capture a moment or an emotion, this one captured an entire experience and with it, a range of emotions.

Although his music was often played in my home as a kid, I didn’t fully connect with Hank’s music until I turned 20 years old. By then I’d felt the painful and lasting sting of heartbreak, loss, and unrequited love. It was like the words and music of Hank Williams had become illuminated, they were all I could see, all I wanted to hear, and the only thing that allowed me to feel better.

Hank WilliamsAfter discovering this deeper meaning that existed inside of Hank’s songs, I was hooked. Yet Hank’s music has not lived on solely based on its artistic merit. Rather, it is due to a combination its timelessness paired with the public’s fascination with his hard living and self-destructive lifestyle, which ultimately led to his early demise. His life has been sensationalized and subsequently Hank has become the poster boy for the doomed country singer–brimming with talent, but plagued by addictions and infidelities. Hank’s story is the tale of a man who makes it to the top of the mountain, only to realize the happiness he was seeking was actually back where he’d started his journey.


I’m honored to review this collection of radio broadcasts from The Garden Spot Programs because Hank’s life and music have had such a lasting impact on my own life and journey. Almost 5 years ago, when I was just beginning my career in music, I had a dream of performing a tribute to Hank Williams on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. These days are immensely important in the timeline of Hank’s life because they mark the dates of the two shows Hank never got to perform. He missed his performance on New Year’s Eve in Charleston, WV due to an ice storm, instead spending the night at the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville, TN. Then he missed his New Year’s Day performance in Canton, Ohio due to his untimely death at just 29 years old, likely shedding his earthly coil in the backseat of his now infamous pale-blue ’52 Cadillac.

What makes The Garden Spot collection of broadcasts such a valuable addition to the Hank Williams catalog is not only are these recordings incredibly clear and well preserved, likely a credit to the mastering engineer, they are also a must-have for any Hank fan/collector in that they’re audio snapshots of a time gone by. Hank and the Drifting Cowboys are on the job and, boy, do they play some good songs here. This is essentially a live album, even though the audience was tuning in via radio, and the group sounds comfortable and together. Hank and his boys are laying it down.

There is some repetition of the songs and you hear The Garden Spot jingle enough times to start skipping over it whenever it pops up with repeated listens. However, this collection as a whole is outstanding. Hank is relaxed and comes across as humble, human, and lively. He’s not a hog for the spotlight and each segment features a ripping instrumental fiddle tune. While listening to this album in a dimly lit room with the TV off and the music up, I felt whisked away to a simpler time. I kept envisioning Hank and the boys crowded around the microphone, each positioned to capture the right tone and volume of their instrument, all the while featuring Hank’s voice. These guys are real professional and it’s evident in the way they perform. This recording, from 1950, is a time when Hank was in his prime and his confidence is apparent and charming, but not overpowering. He comes across as a likable guy and a captivating performer.

The musical highlights for me are both renditions of “Lovesick Blues,” a tin pan alley song that Hank didn’t write, but learned from the recording of a largely forgotten minstrel performer named Emmett Miller. Hank took Miller’s version of the song and channeled it through himself. In doing so, he breathed new life into an already good song, added some hillbilly inflections to it and yodeled out what’s become one of country music’s most legendary tunes.

Hank WilliamsAnother highlight is a truly stunning version of “I Can’t Get You Off of My Mind”. What makes Hank’s delivery so remarkable is the way he causes you to believe every word he says. He sings in a way that evokes emotion from the listener and his words are written in a manner that offers a glimpse into a person’s heart that is seldom seen and often kept hidden. He sings of things that are raw and sore and that hurt. It’s painful, but it’s real, and he makes it accessible and palatable. That his lyrics are often easily comprehensible and plainly stated is what gives them their magic. Hank gets deep, without getting wordy or overly figurative. He gets deep by tapping into feelings that can hurt to tap into, and explaining those feelings in a way that almost anyone can understand.

This is an album that I’m sure to spend more time with and get to know better. As a performer, there’s a lot to learn from a recording like this one. The exchange between Hank and announcer Grant Turner, and even the pace of Hank’s speech as he introduces each song are a good example of using comedic banter to hype up a popular song or to segue into another topic. It’s a valuable lesson on how to present yourself as a performer and as a person.

Hank is arguably one of the greatest songwriters of all time, no matter the genre. After hearing this recording I find myself feeling like I had a glimpse behind the curtain, seeing beyond the myth and the legend, getting to see him as a man.


Ward HaydenWard Hayden is the singer-songwriter for Boston-based Girls Guns and Glory. The group just released their fifth album, the Eric “Roscoe” Ambel produced Good Luck. The album is a rockin’ good time and also includes a version of the late 1940′s song “Rockin’ Chair Money,” a song often associated with Williams.

Girls Guns and Glory, along with Sarah Borges and Jamie Kent, will be performing on a special Boston Harbor boat cruise on July 20th (info and tickets here). The cruise will celebrate the release of a new 7″ vinyl single that the group recently recorded with Sarah Borges. The single includes a Borges-penned original titled “Get As Gone Can Get” as well as a cover of the Sonny & Cher classic “Baby Don’t Go”.

As Hayden mentions above, the group hosts an annual series of Hank Williams tribute shows to honor the artist’s legacy and untimely passing. Folks in New England – or those interested in making the trip – should stay tuned for details on this year’s performances.

You can catch Girls Guns and Glory on tour in the US and Europe throughout 2014 (Tour dates here). Not surprisingly, there’s a good chance that you’ll hear a Hank song or two mixed into their set.

Photo credits: Hank Williams photos courtesy of Colin Escott; Ward Hayden photo courtesy of Suzanne McMahon.

Photos that ROCK! Girls Guns & Glory

Over the past few months, I’ve gone on a bit of a Girls Guns & Glory binge. I saw them first at the Sinclair in Cambridge, MA, then at a Church coffeehouse in Franklin, then at an arts center in Natick, all in a fairly short amount of time. These boys are always on the move and I’m happy to catch them whenever they are in range. It’s always awesome when you go to a show and are completely blown away by a band you’ve never seen, which doesn’t happen to me often. I felt like I was hit head-on by GGG and I was addicted. The catchy retro-country-rock songs, Ward Hayden’s dreamy and crooning vocals, and the snappy outfits on each band member- damn, good stuff. If you haven’t seen or heard them yet, please check them out and you’ll be “shakin’ like jello” in no time! They are very fun to photograph and I’m looking forward to more opportunities!

More Than a Feeling: A Special Boston Playlist*

FEATURED ALBUMS

Smith & Weeden, by Smith & WeedenSmith & Weeden

It’s always a treat to stumble across a band that, quite simply, sounds like they are having fun. Such is the case with the Providence-based quartet* Smith and Weeden, whose songs run the gamut from harmony-laced country to guitar-fueled rock.

In the country category are ambling tunes like “Drinking” and “Wondering.” Singer Jesse Emmanuel Smith has a voice perfectly suited for these songs, ably buoyed by the band’s tasteful harmonies.

“Drinking” is a ready-made country classic, bringing together a honky-tonk melody, a woeful tale of heartbreak and, well, alcohol. “Well you don’t get answers fast from a bottle or a flask,“ sings Smith, “I’ve got some time to kill so I’ll have another glass.”

How many songs of heartache do you know that include a snippet of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic?” Well, “Grace and Glory” does, along with some acoustic guitar traces of “Amazing Grace.” It makes for an interesting combination and a mighty fine song.

In the rock category are “Aim to Please,” “Boys in Bands” and “Playing a Part.” Guitarist Seamus Weeden shines on these songs, shifting from bruising power chords to nuanced solos with ease. His playing is full of character yet never loud and gratuitous.

They are a regional band for now, but hopefully they’ll hit the road and bring some of their rock and roll fun to a town near you.


THE PLAYLIST


Love Me Tender, Jess Tardy (from the forthcoming Sky City Lullaby)

Ten years! That’s how long it has been since Tardy’s last release. We could blame the delay on a lot of things, including a failed record deal, but let’s not fixate on the negative. Rather, let’s celebrate a sublime collection of (mostly) classics from the American songbook.

Tardy, with help from her friend (and talented mandolin player) Sean Staples, kept the arrangements simple. The restrained accompaniment puts the emphasis where it should be: on the songs and Tardy’s captivating voice.

Her take on “Love Me Tender” is a great example. Where others would be tempted to tackle it as an overwrought ballad, Tardy takes a different path. A mid-tempo swing and some exquisite harmonies give the song a fun 1940’s Andrews Sisters feel.

Other gems to be found on Sky City Lullaby include Tardy’s take on Ernest Tubbs’ “Waltz Across Texas,” Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” and her own “City of Gold.”

Audio Stream: Jess Tardy, “Love Me Tender”

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Easy to Love, Old Jack (from the forthcoming What Is Home to You)

One might be tempted to label Old Jack as happy-go-lucky. Their sound would certainly support that description. The have a big band rock feel that is steeped in soul, overflowing with an assertive pop attitude and plenty of wonderful harmonies.

Listen closely to their forthcoming release, however, and the lyrics reveal a darker side. These are songs of considered reflection, expressing doubts and questioning life decisions. The result is something special, a collection that is lyrically dense and musically satisfying.

Audio Download: Old Jack, “Easy to Love”

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A Little Bit Low, Aloud (from the Mother West Records It’s Got to Be Now)

I love my twang but sometimes, especially on those first warm days of spring, I want to crank up the guitars and some full-on power pop. Lucky for me, the latest release from Boston quartet Aloud arrived at just the right time to satisfy my craving.

The group gets right to the point with their music, with nary a track over 3 minutes in length. Even better, the songs on It’s Got to Be Now are high energy blasts filled with tight guitar hooks and vocal harmonies. Most of the songs, including this one, recall classic late 1960′s pop yet with brim with a crisp 2014 freshness that is perfect for sunny afternoon listening.


Johnny St. John and the Doom Band, John Powhida International Airport (from the forthcoming release Airport Life)

Former Rudds singer-songwriter Powhida makes his return with John Powhida International Airport. The group took top honors at the 2011 Boston Rock and Roll Rumble and has spent the last few years meticulously crafting their debut release.

The resulting 15-song opus is a pop record of sophistication and eccentricity. It comes across as a smooth and sinewy mix of Prince and Hall & Oates with some jazz flourishes thrown in for good measure. Heck, even the song titles — “John Mayer Dines with Taylor Swift” and “Cover Me I’m Going for Milk” for example — give an indication of the humor and creativity in Powhida’s songwriting.

Audio Download: John Powhida International Airport, “Johnny St. John and the Doom Band”

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Woman of Mine, Russell Kaback (from the self-released Message of Love)

The Greenfield, MA-based Kaback has clearly studied at the Al Green school of music. His songs are sweet and soulful in just the right way. Message of Love saunters along with plenty of tasty horns, graceful guitars and luscious keyboards. Front and center, though, are Kaback’s soothingly smooth vocals.

Consider this track just a taste of what you’ll find across the full release.

Audio Download: Russell Kaback, “Woman of Mine”

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Let Me In, Brian Carroll (from the self-released Miscellaneous)

Carroll has quickly established himself as a presence on the Boston roots scene. Calling him a dabbler isn’t quite right, although he has spread his tentacles far and wide. Carroll hosts regular gigs that range from singer-songwriter showcases to picker’s extravaganzas and even found time to spearhead a forthcoming compilation of area songwriters covering one-another’s songs. If that weren’t enough, he just released a satisfying 7-song EP of his own mandolin-driven compositions.

Audio Download: Brian Carroll, “Let Me In”

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*Yes, I know several of these artists aren’t quite from Boston proper, but since when has Twangville been proper?

North Of Nashville – North Of Nashville

Sometimes the music we listen to, and write about, here on Twangville is a little light on the twang.  That would not be the case with the debut album from Maine duo North Of Nashville.  From the opening chord of the opening song, The Lady And the Outlaw, this is the music that propelled country to the #1 spot on the charts and the first million-selling country album when Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser released Wanted: The Outlaws in 1976.  Back then, country music with a raw edge and some rock ‘n’ roll sensibilities was new.  That’s not true anymore, but duo members Jay Basiner and Andrew Martelle (with guest Cartwright Thompson on pedal steel) do a great job of paying homage to that idea, whether it was their direct intention or not.

north of nashville cover I liked the uptempo numbers on this disc a little more than some of the ballads.  The Best Of What’s Around is all about living in the moment, “when I saw you weren’t around, I ordered 3 more rounds.”  Dreams Come True (For Awhile) is escapist dance music (2-step, not any of those fancy or modern things).  Same with The Working Man.  For those folks more into wallowing in the pedal steel and fiddle, I recommend Remember These Days and Isabella.

If you’re allergic to beer drinkin’, shit kickin’ music, best take a Claritin before you hit play on North Of Nashville.  If not, give this album a spin and listen to the kind of music that had a huge impact on how country, and Americana, sounds today.