The main musical story in my life in the last couple of weeks is the discovery of Cocaine and Rhinestones, a podcast on the history of country music by the son of David Allan Coe. It’s pretty great. I’ve listened to about half the episodes so far. There’s a great one on Loretta Lynn’s song “The Pill,” which is more about the suppression of women saying anything remotely controversial through the whole history of country music than the song itself. Coe has attempted to tell these stories so that people not that familiar with country music will get something out of them and I think he best succeeds here. There’s a 3 part series on the major players behind “Harper Valley PTA,” Jeannie C. Riley (singer), Shelby S. Singleton (producer) and the great Tom T. Hall (writer). That trilogy works very well in getting at how the industry will chew you up and spit you out, with hustlers like Singleton seeing singers like Riley as nothing more than a commodity to exploit. Meanwhile, Tom T. Hall is just the best, one of the only big stars seemingly unaffected by fame and even writing Riley a follow-up to Harper Valley when she was desperate for money and had converted to evangelical Christianity. He didn’t want to, but he couldn’t say no to her because he’s just a nice guy. The song is horrible by the way but it reflected Riley’s new values. The Louvin Brothers episode is just wonderful, a good biographical overview of the great singers, really exploring their roots in sacred harp music, showing how Ira’s behavior destroyed him and his working relationship with Charlie, and how the arrival of rock and roll really hurt bands like this.
The only episode so far that didn’t do much for me is the one on Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee,” which discusses the well-known fact that the song is satire, although it usefully places his choices to make that and “The Fighting Side of Me” in the context of the music industry. Still, maybe it’s only familiar to people like me. Certain Jacobin writers would gain a lot from hearing that episode, preferably before writing hack obituaries hating on him without knowing anything about the man. My reply to that hideous Jacobin piece is one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. There are also what he calls “liner notes” at the end of every episode that last about 15 minutes but I found largely skippable. The whole thing is very well researched. There are blog posts to each episode that also include reading lists for the material Coe used to make the episode. That’s great. In any case, I very much look forward to checking out the rest of the first season and to future seasons.
This Quincy Jones interview was everywhere and you may have seen it already, but if you haven’t, it is amazing. Dating Ivanka Trump! Telling us who really killed JFK! Hating on The Beatles!
I was mentioning Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra on Twitter and Howard e-mailed me this great 2016 piece that explored Haden’s leftist politics.
H.C. McEntire, Lionheart
Heather McEntire’s amazing voice is a revelation to nearly everyone who hears it and she sings backup vocals on many albums and tours of prominent artists. Mount Moriah, her band with Jenks Miller, is a roots-country outfit that put out one of the best albums of 2016. With Miller not able to tour much right now because of small children, McEntire decided to make an album of her own, with guidance from Kathleen Hanna, who encouraged her to take her songs about being a lesbian from an evangelical family in North Carolina and put together an album. I don’t know if I like it quite as well as Mount Moriah’s How to Dance, but the political importance of the songs are greater and it’s very worthy of your time. Unlike Julien Baker, who I discussed in the last of these posts, McEntire’s family has never accepted her and that, along with her home state’s politics, define this album. If you think queer country is something you need, then here it is.
Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music, 1968-1970
In the late 1960s, there were a lot of hippies with guitars recording music. Some of them were pretty good, even if they never made another album. This is a solid collection of this music. I was familiar with only one selection from this album, from F.J. McMahon’s whose Spirit of the Golden Juice album is an enjoyable listen that I picked up some years ago. The only thing about this collection is that a lot of these artists do sound like they have listened to a lot of Crosby, Stills, and Nash and so it all kind of runs together after awhile.
Anthony Joseph, Caribbean Roots
Now this is an interesting album, from 2016. Joseph is a poet and novelist from Trinidad who also makes albums. This is lyrically interesting and a deep dive into Caribbean music and Caribbean ideas and literary themes. It’s a constantly shifting map of musical sounds that have a basis in soul and reggae and jazz but which frequently veers into Afrobeat or salsa or whatever Joseph is feeling. This is certainly ear-catching and worth a listen with its very interesting vocals and lyrics. I didn’t love it, sometimes feeling that the music would devolve into cliches, but I am certainly glad I listened to it.
The James Hunter Six, Whatever It Takes
James Hunter is a hell of a singer. The question is whether a British soul revivalist adds much to the genre. Or maybe it’s whether the many people who have been working in neo-soul the last decade have added much. But then I think it probably doesn’t matter. With someone like Hunter, what you are going to get is a lot of songs that sound like Sam Cooke, with a good band and a great singer. Like with Leon Bridges, I feel the world is probably a better place with people making new music in this old style, even if it doesn’t shake up the world.
Lilly Hiatt, Trinity Lane
Sure, John Hiatt’s daughter is going to have advantages, such as having her father’s band on her album. But put those inherent advantages aside and unlike so many children of famous musicians who put out mediocre music, this is really good. It mines some of the same world as her father–well-written country-rock about getting sober, about living alone, about the life of being an adult. It’s just a good album.
Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die
This is an absolutely outstanding short album by Branch, an avant-garde trumpeter who had long played in Chicago and has recently moved to New York. With a great band behind her–Tomeka Reid on cello, Jason Ajemian on bass, and Chad Taylor on drums–this is one of the finest jazz recordings I have heard in the last few years. Branch has a great sound and is a rising composer. I really hope I can see her play live soon, whether with this group of musicians or whoever else.
This solo release by the Calle 13 frontman was on a lot of end of the year best-of lists. But I don’t really get it. It seems a lot of the love is for political reasons–it’s a statement about global inclusiveness, filled with musicians from around the world. It’s drawn from the DNA test Residente took and the 10 nations where he has ancestors. And that’s fine. But I’ve always found albums this draw from all over the world to make statements that appeal to liberals somewhat trying (Manu Chao is one offender that everyone I knew in graduate school loved). I have no problem with bringing in Tuvan throat singers or French singers or African folk musicians. I just don’t think that doing that in itself is either good or bad. And while the album is perfectly fine, I don’t think it’s a great musical statement either.
Lawrence Arabia, Absolute Truth
Completely acceptable but nondescript alternative-pop by New Zealander James Milne. This is fine. I have nothing useful to say about it though as it sums up the relative blandness by that description.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music and none things politics.