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

Monday Morning Video: James Booker

A friend introduced me to the music and legend of the late New Orleans pianist James Booker. The “Bayou Maharajah,” as he was called, lived a flamboyant life. While he never found true commercial success, he built gained popularity in Europe and even played a couple of shows with the Jerry Garcia Band (before being replaced by Dead pianist Keith Godchaux).

Here’s a full solo concert performance captured at famed New Orleans venue the Maple Leaf back in 1983. As if the music wasn’t enough, the early 1980′s cable tv introduction is good for a chuckle.

Missy Werner – Turn This Heart Around

You just can’t have a good summer mix tape without some bluegrass.  Whether you’re getting liquored up at a festival down at the fairgrounds or spending some quality time with the family at the annual church picnic, bluegrass just sounds like a carefree, sunny day.  Yes, there are plenty of songs about heartbreak and angst, and I’m not sure any genre has more classic murder ballads.  But you usually have to pay close attention to the lyrics to realize it.  Meanwhile, the sound of claw-hammer banjo or flat-picked guitar is almost guaranteed to get people up and dancing.

Lucky me that the latest release from Missy Werner, Turn This Heart Around, slid across my inbox last week.  It’s bluegrass in all its finest forms.  Missy takes the vocal lead on all the tracks, with occasional harmonies from the likes of Sierra Hull and Sarah Siskind, and plenty of harmony from the band itself.  Her voice has that clear-as-a-bell quality you get from an Alison Krauss or Rhonda Vincent.  So whether it’s the slow ballad of Dead Man Walking or the tumbling rapids of Rocks In the River, nearly every song is anchored with Werner’s voice.  There is a lone instrumental track on the disc, Snake In the Grass, where the band gets to stretch their solo chops.

While I really liked a couple of the uptempo tunes on the album, like Rough Edges and Cloudless Blue, everything came together best on Come Back To Me, with its soaring vocals and rock solid instrumentals.  Having said that, the most interesting song on the album is Travelin’ Light.  Its gospel harmonies and call-and-response chorus have a purity of style that suck you in to hitting repeat more than once.

Turn-This-Heart-Around Turn This Heart Around covers a lot of bluegrass territory, so there’s bound to be something that catches your fancy.  Perfect for a summer mix tape.