In Hampton, Virginia, at five o’clock one drizzly, cool January morning, Theresa Lane, Merle’s girlfriend (no one addresses Merle as Mr. Haggard, though his friends often refer to him as Hag), summoned me by phone to Merle’s bus. As I walked across the parking lot of the Coliseum Sheraton a half hour later, the Strangers’ bus was the silent, dark one. Merle’s emitted a dim golden glow and rumbled on high idle. Theresa, a tall, slim, attractive woman in her late twenties, with tousled blond hair and muscular arms and shoulders, met me at the door and escorted me through the living room and down the narrow hallway, past a framed photograph of Hank Williams and another of Dolly Parton, into the kitchen, where Merle sat on the floor, his eyes closed and his bare legs stretched straight out under a small table. Naked except for a plaid flannel shirt and après-ski boots, he greeted me with a slight nod. I took a seat at the table, summoning faith in what one of the Strangers had told me months earlier at a Merle Haggard-Willie Nelson concert in Las Vegas—“Don’t knock on his door if he don’t tell you to. Don’t not knock on his door if he does tell you to”—and Theresa stood behind Merle to knead his shoulders, now and again pulling his head up hard, until his neck was stretched taut.
“Goddam, my head feels like it oughta be lifted right outa my skull,” Merle said. He reached for a pack of unfiltered cigarettes and a lighter on the table, where several packs were scattered among cigarette papers, sheets and scraps of notebook paper, cassette tapes, and empty cassette cases. On the counter were a few dirty dishes, glasses, and some silverware.
Steve Young died last week. The country songwriter of the 1970s produced hits for a lot of people, including Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. He made the decision not to be the road warrior that might have seen him have a commercial breakthrough but he wrote a lot of good songs for the country music world. He’s best known for his song “Seven Bridges Road,” although I love “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way,” which Willie Nelson did on his fantastic Phases and Stages album.
There’s a big ol’ new Grateful Dead tribute album coming out. It is curated by The National. Don’t know how good it will be. There’s some interesting performers and some that are less interesting. And I don’t know why you have some acts do multiple songs, but whatever. Anyway, at least Courtney Barnett covering “New Speedway Boogie” is an interesting and pretty good choice.
Reviews of recent albums I’ve checked out.
Mates of State, You’re Going to Make It
In the 2000s, Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel’s couple band made albums that were broadly referred to as “joycore” for their alt-indie songs about relationships and parenting that lacked angst. Rather, this was happy pop music for happy people and even the songs about relationships that could go bad end up going pretty well. For those who liked more irony in their music, this was not really for them, and sure, it can be pretty twee, but I liked 2008’s Re-Arrange Us and 2011’s Mountaintops a great deal. Those albums remain in relatively regular rotation today. But they disappeared after Mountaintops. Finally, last year, they released an EP. But You’re Going to Make It does not really capture much of that old magic. There’s just not a whole lot going on here. The music is still as happy as ever, but the songs don’t really resonate. Maybe this is more or less the end for this band if this is all they could muster after four years. C+
Joanna Newsom, Divers
Joanna Newsom will always be divisive. Some will love her odd voice, others will hate it. Her career has been pretty inconsistent. The Milk-Eyed Mender I thought too cute for its own good. Ys is one of the best albums of the 2000s. Have One on Me had potential if it wasn’t a three-album behemoth. There are good songs there, but it mostly fell flat. Editors are important. Use the discarded songs for record-day throwaways, don’t expand your release to three separate albums unless the songs are solid gold. After five years between albums, she released Divers last year. The reviews were pretty solid. I held back, not sure I was ready after the disappointment of Have One on Me. However, lately, as those songs have come up on shuffle, I have found myself enjoying them more and more. Perhaps the album’s size combined with the difficulty of her voice and the expectations after Ys for me to give up on it too quickly.
I enjoyed Divers thoroughly. While it is going to take a few more listens to figure out the typical knotted lyrics, the music and her voice really washed over me. The vast numbers of instruments used on this album certainly helps differentiate the songs. And I didn’t think there was a weak song in the bunch. I moved back into thinking she’s has a brilliant vision. I may feel differently later. But not now and I don’t think after listening to this album another 15 times this year, which I imagine I will since I will buy it.
Say what you will about Joanna Newsom, she’s truly a unique figure in the history of American music. A
Buddy Miller, Cayamo Sessions at Sea
The country songwriter and singer also co-hosts a show on XM with Jim Lauderdale. They did this cruise with a bunch of fans and musicians. Miller decided to record it. This is the result. It’s perfectly pleasant. No one is going to complain about hearing him do “After the Fire is Gone” with LeeAnn Womack or “Love’s Gonna Live Here” with Kacey Musgraves. Some performances are better than others. You’d think Lucinda Williams singing “Hickory Wind” would be great but it really isn’t. Miller and Shawn Colvin covering “Wild Horses” is nice. In fact, the whole album is nice enough. But I can’t see ever really needing to listen to it again. B
Mothers, When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired
Mothers is an Athens, Georgia band led by Kristine Leschper. This is a solid debut with some major bummer songs but a pretty solid sound. I don’t love this, but I like it and I will be curious to see where this band goes. B
One of my ten favorite albums of all time is back in print. That is Sonny Sharrock’s Ask the Ages. The great guitar player died soon after making this album, just as it landed him a major label deal. This is a perfect album that moves from swing to free jazz and back. Great band too, with Elvin Jones, Pharaoh Sanders, and Charnett Moffett. This is a great review of the brilliance that is Ask the Ages. If anything 10/10 is too low. What’s interesting about the album is that it is far and away the best album he ever made. While Seize the Rainbow is pretty solid, his early work isn’t very good and when he was coaxed back into recording in the mid-80s, it was something of a mixed bag. The album he did with Nicky Skopelitis really doesn’t work at all, for instance. But Ask the Ages is transcendent. Really makes me wonder what would have come next.
I saw the Drive-By Truckers on Wednesday. It was my 10th DBT show, which is the most of any band in my life. Oddly, not only has it been 10 different venues, but 10 different cities. So I’ve seen them in big halls and small clubs, dives and beautiful old theaters. I’ve seen them with Isbell, on The Dirt Underneath tour after the band almost broke up and when the legendary Spooner Oldham was touring with them to play keyboards, and in all their iterations since. I saw the epic 36-song show at Terminal 5 in New York (an awful, barren space) on New Year’s Eve 2010 that included Patterson Hood’s dad coming out to cover some of the Muscle Shoals soul hits he had played on, playing “The Flying Wallendas” while the Flying Wallendas were performing above them, followed by set break sword swallowing, followed by Cooley covering “Delta Dawn,” followed by walking through Times Square at 3 am on January 1 during the cleanup.
This show was good, but not the best I’ve seen, largely because Patterson Hood’s voice was completely shot due to a throat thing and he was really struggling to sing. Still, he wasn’t actually sick so the music was great and of course Cooley was wonderful and singing more songs than usual. Moreover, they had the organist for the Boston Red Sox sitting in with them on keyboards for the whole show. He was great. Also, they have a new album coming out this fall. Played a few songs off of it, sounded good.
Finally, a few short reviews of some recent albums I’ve heard.
Wussy, Forever Sounds. My favorite band turns up the noise for the new album. I love it, but I don’t love these songs as much as usual. There are some gems–“Dropping Houses,” “She’s Killed Hundreds,” “Hello, I’m a Ghost,” “Donny’s Death Scene.” But at least so far I haven’t really enjoyed the second half of the album much. And there’s not the great lyrics on any song that characterized songs like “Yellow Cotton Dress,” “Motorcycle,” or “Halloween,” to name a couple from the past. Of course, it’s pretty common for Wussy albums to grow on you as you listen to them because they are so designed as albums. So I may enjoy it more going forward. Still really good, but not in love with this. B+
This video makes me wonder if there’s some weird presidential bust collection in a field somewhere I need to go visit.
Richard Thompson, Still. I’ve listened to RT for more than 20 years now, having gotten into his work in college, around the time Mirror Blue came out. I stopped buying his new albums though after Front Parlour Ballads. Still is fine–I don’t think he is capable of a bad album–but it’s not something I can see listening to frequently. His guitar work is still great and the lyrics good enough. For someone working this long, his productivity and consistency are amazing and a late-career slow fade is entirely respectable. However, I found “Guitar Heroes,” where he intimidates the guitar playing of his favorite guitarists of the past, a really annoying song. B-
Laurie Anderson, Heart of a Dog. This was Christgau’s favorite album of last year. I could barely get through it. I respect Laurie Anderson but I’ve never liked any of her albums. The arrangements are great. Her talking about her damn poodle for 75 minutes is however not something I am ever going to listen to again. Yes, I know it’s also about her husband Lou Reed dying, etc. But it’s mostly about the dog. Might be more interesting in the movie form. C
Matthew Shipp, The Conduct of Jazz. This was my favorite Shipp album in a long time, an equal to those great albums he did for Thirsty Ear in the early 2000s like Pastoral Composure and Equilibrium. This is also for Thirsty Ear so maybe it really comes together when he records for that label. With Michael Bisio on bass and Newman Taylor Baker on drums, The Conduct of Jazz is just a lot of fun to spend time with, with Shipp in full improvisational glory. This I will buy and listen to frequently A
This can also serve as a Saturday evening open thread on anything music, or really anything unrelated to the damn election.
Since this primary season makes me want to melt my own face in acid, I imagine many of you feel the same way. So here’s a good argument about nothing political at all–stop listening to the music of your teenage years and explore new tunes. Nothing says “I stopped trying to listen to music years ago” than a person saying, “The kids these days just aren’t making good music.” Of course, exploring older music also has value so even going beyond listening to Dylan and Stones records to explore Sir Douglas Quintet albums is a good idea. But this is most important for listening to new music. Which you need to do.
In early 2012, Fusilli wrote about the Gee-Bees in a column for the Journal and started a website called ReNewMusic.net, devoted to introducing out-of-touch listeners to some of the best new music being made today—from Bon Iver to D’Angelo, Frank Ocean to the Arctic Monkeys, Janelle Monae to St. Germain. And the idea led to his new book, “Catching Up: Connecting with Great 21st Century Music,” which compiles 50 of his columns with short essays on the generational bias that too often passes for deep insight or sturdy critical thinking.
“We’re surrounded by people who, despite a narrow perspective, insist the music of their youth is superior to the sounds of any other period,” he writes. “Most people who prefer old music mean no harm and it’s often a pleasure to listen to them talk about their favorite artists of the distant past. But others are bullies who intend to harangue is into submission, as if their bluster can conceal their ignorance. They ignore what seems to me something that’s self-evident: rock and pop today is as good as it’s ever been.”
This is an important idea, especially in 2016, when pop music seems like a uniquely apt medium for a range of expression. Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé, among others, are addressing African-American identity and police brutality in stirring songs like “Alright” and “Formation.” Adele and Taylor Swift are writing eloquently about female desire, while Sturgill Simpson and Kacey Musgraves are helping to overturn the gloss-country establishment in Nashville. And if guitar rock is your thing, look to Australia, where acts like Courtney Barnett, Royal Headache and Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever are producing some of the most exciting indie-rock anthems of the decade.
The idea that these young artists should be considered alongside the Beatles and the Stones and Dylan might be easily dismissed as another form of generational bias if it came from a millennial or even a Gen-Xer. But Fusilli is a Baby Boomer who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s and has been writing about music for most of his life. He has a deep knowledge of pop history and even penned an excellent book on the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” (as part of the 33 1/3 series), but more crucially he possesses a driving curiosity about the new music. That makes “Catching Up” a galvanizing read even for those listeners who can name every jazz artist on “To Pimp a Butterfly” or every sample on Kanye’s “The Life of Pablo.” But Fusilli says he wrote the book for “people who are the opposite of the Gee-Bees—that is, secure in their status and welcoming of new ideas.”
In that spirit, I’ve really enjoyed the music of John Moreland in recent weeks. This is off his 2015 album, “High on Tulsa Heat,” which I strongly recommend.
And the new Wussy album is coming out soon. The first song, “Dropping Houses” is typically great.
And in the spirit of older music you might not know if you aren’t of that age, allow me to introduce you to Sir Douglas Quintet, led by the single most underrated individual in the history of rock and roll, the late great Doug Sahm, not to mention Augie Meyers on the organ. Evidently Hugh Hefner had his own late-night show where he wore a tux, interviewed people, and danced to rock and rollers like Sir Douglas Quintet. If you look carefully, you can see Michael Caine dancing as well. 1969, what a time.
The Eagles are about as polarizing as any band in rock history. Yet I am oddly indifferent. I find The Eagles pretty listenable but don’t own any of their albums. If a song comes on, I don’t go full Lebowski and get thrown out of the cab. I also don’t understand why their greatest hits remains one of the top selling albums of all time.
When Mr. Bowie moved to Berlin, Mr. Pop occupied a room in Mr. Bowie’s apartment there “over the auto parts store,” he said. The title song for Mr. Pop’s next album, “Lust for Life,” germinated in that apartment.
Mr. Pop and Mr. Bowie, seated on the floor — they had decided chairs were not natural — were waiting for the Armed Forces Network telecast of “Starsky & Hutch.” The network started shows with a call signal that, Mr. Pop said, went “beep beep beep, beep beep beep beep, beep beep beep,” the rhythm, which is also like a Motown beat, that was the foundation for “Lust for Life.” Mr. Pop recalled, “He wrote the [chord] progression on ukulele, and he said, ‘Call it “Lust for Life,” write something up.’”
The amount of cocaine involved in this story is unknown at this time.
I don’t know how people really come up with definitive Top 10 album lists. But everyone loves them. Even the AARP has one! I listen to a ton of music, at almost every waking moment, and unless you are dedicated strictly to listening to new music in order to produce a list like this, I don’t see how you can come up with anything definitive. The number of albums compared to, say, the number of films released in American theaters makes the latter a possible task and the former impossible. Plus I still buy a lot of older albums as well (for whatever reason most of the new jazz I got in the last year is actually 2-5 years old so that’s really underrepresented here) In any case, here are my 10 favorite 2015 albums, a list that will probably look way different a year from now when I listen to a lot more 2015 albums in between listening to 2016 albums and all my older albums.
1) Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love. A perfect comeback album for one of the 10 best rock bands to ever exist. Let’s just embed an entire show.
2) Torres, Sprinter. I thought this was just great. MacKenzie Scott has a tremendous amount of emotion in every note of her voice. I’ve heard her songs described as storms because of that voice. A really powerful album.
3) Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit. On everyone’s list and deservedly so. “Pedestrian at Best” was my most listened to 2015 song.
4) Ibeyi, Ibeyi. This is hard to describe. These are twin sisters, daughters of a famous Cuban musician, who sing in English and Yoruba using fairly sparse and often minimal instrumentation. And it’s just great.
5) Bomba Estéreo, Amanecer. This is a Colombian band combining elements of hip-hop, electronics, and traditional Colombian folk music, including a lot of traditional instruments. Really glad I ran across this.
6) Alabama Shakes, Sound and Color. I like the first Alabama Shakes album OK, but thought this was a huge artistic jump, with a serious move into psychedelic music.
7) Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp. Call it whiny hipster music if you want. The problem you’ll face is that Katie Crutchfield is really good at what she does.
8) Tal National, Zoy Zoy. This band from Niger is another of my favorite finds of 2015. Incredibly enjoyable music
9) Kurt Vile, B’lieve I’m Goin Down. Guitar rock for the 21st century.
10) DJ Spooky and the Kronos Quartet, Rebirth of a Nation. DJ Spooky decided to create his own soundtrack to Birth of a Nation. You can read about his thoughts on it here. He recorded it with the Kronos Quartet. Makes for one of the most interesting albums of the year.
Live Album of the Year is far and away Drive-By Truckers, It’s Great to Be Alive. This amazing live band had never put out a proper live album. At this point in their career, even a 35-song, 3 1/2 hour beast doesn’t feel like enough because a lot of your favorites weren’t on there. Songs that are often overlooked like “Sounds Better in the Song” and “Space City” are great while “The Devil Don’t Stay” is just awesome. Great stuff.
Others albums I liked to various degrees in 2015, many of which I will no doubt listen to a lot more next year:
1) James McMurtry, Complicated Game
2) Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
3) Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free
4) Speedy Ortiz, Foil Deer
5) Ashley Monroe, The Blade
6) Christopher Paul Stelling, Labor Against Waste
7) Joanna Gruesome, Peanut Butter
8) Dave Rawlings Machine, Nashville Obsolete
9) Daniel Romano, If I’ve Only One Time Asking
10) Robert Glasper, Covered
11) The Go! Team, The Scene Between
12) Olivia Chaney, The Longest River
13) John Moreland, High on Tulsa Heat
14) Fred Thomas, All Are Saved
15) Shamir, Ratchet
16) Mbongwana Star, From Kinshasa
17) Dave Douglas, High Risk
18) Dwight Yoakam, Second Hand Heart
19) Sarah Gayle Meech, Tennessee Love Song
In the 1970s, James Brown and Porter Wagoner became friends. Wagoner was of course a major player in country music and so he managed to schedule the Godfather of Soul in the nation’s least friendly venue to his kind of music, the Grand Ole Opry. It shouldn’t have been so hostile, as country and soul musicians were borrowing from each other all the time during these years. But by the 1970s, the country music establishment self-identified with the politics of white backlash and social conservatism (it wasn’t actually true that Earl Scruggs was the only Nashville star who voted for McGovern but it was close enough) and its audience loved hearing Merle Haggard singing “The Fighting Side of Me,” even if Haggard may or may not have believed in the message. Country music of the period is full of one-off right-wing songs as everyone sought to take advantage of the culture wars.
James Brown, of course, was the opposite of everything the country music establishment stood for in the 1970s. He was a symbol of black nationalism, a man of flashy brashness that challenged the white supremacy of country music fans, a man playing at Zaire ’74 instead of the Grand Ole Opry’s Nixon rallies.
But Porter Wagoner didn’t care. He knew Brown was a great performer and felt that if country musicians and fans opened their minds, they would recognize how great he was in a county format. Thus, he managed to get Brown scheduled on the Grand Ole Opry in 1979. Sadly, it did not go well. Even before the performance, the Nashville establishment was angry.
“I could throw up,” said piano player Del Wood in the most eloquent of the Opry outbursts. “It’s not an antiblack issue, don’t get us wrong, it’s not racial. She went on to praise DeFord Bailey, O.B. McClinton and Charley Pride. Since her own piano style was strongly ragtime (Del was the only female country act to have a Top 10 instrumental hit), she was no doubt sincere. “The next thing you know, they’ll be doing the strip out there.”
Jean Shepard was Jean Shepard: “The Grand Ole Opry is supposed to be a mainstay in country music-and it’s fighting for its life. What’s he going to sing, ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’? She condemned the Opry management and said Opry fans weren’t going to enjoy tuning in and getting James Brown. “And you can’t tell me rock n’ rollers are going to wait six hours to hear James Brown. It’s a slap in the face to those people who drive thousands of miles to see the Opry and have to be subjected to James Brown. If Mr. Brown’s on the first show, I’ll appear on the second. If he’s on both, I won’t appear at all.”
Justin Tubb said, “I don’t understand it. None of us do. If it was Ray Charles, I’d be waiting to hug him when he came off the stage,” recalling Ray’s albums of country songs. Ben Smathers of the Smoky Mountain Cloggers square dance act said George D. Hay would be turning over in his grave. Of Opry stars, only Skeeter Davis spoke publicly in Porter’s defense.
Skeeter Davis, it should be noted, was pretty awesome.
The performance itself was not particularly well-received, in part because the Opry hamstrung Brown.
At the Opry on the night of James performance, some of those opposed organized a boycott. Opry officials were worried that the backstage area was going to be very empty so Bud Wendell began offering backstage passes to anyone who wanted to see James Brown. It worked as it was reported that over 300 people showed up backstage that night.
When James performed on the Opry that night, he used Porter’s band and the Opry would not allow him to use his horn section. He performed a number of standard country songs including “Your Cheatin’ Heart” “Georgia” and “Tennessee Waltz.” He then kicked into “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and took off from there. He did the splits and the microphone tosses that he was famous for. The reponse was what you would have expected.
Roy Acuff was quoted as saying “I wish I could go out there and speak my mind, but I won’t.” Dolores Smiley said, “I drove to the Opry and heard James Brown over the car radio, and when I got there it was abuzz in the backstage area. I purposely arrived late. It sounded terrible on the radio. When I got backstage, everyone was outraged and upset. I thought it was funny.”
It was reported that he broke all Opry records and performed for over 30 minutes. Porter would later say that he recorded it and it was actually 17 minutes. It just seemed longer. He did do an encore, but it was reported that he received what most Opry acts get and that was polite applause.
I was lucky enough to see Satoko Fujii’s quarter Tobira, starring my college roommate Todd Nicholson on bass, at Firehouse 12 in New Haven this evening. This is a clip from a recent show in Buenos Aires. They have one last stop on a tour that can only end in one city if you start in Buenos Aires and that’s Troy, New York. That show is tomorrow and you should go if you live in the Capital Region.
We haven’t had a thread about the nation’s best band of the last decade lately, so it’s worth noting that “Little Miami” might be the best song Wussy has ever recorded. Chuck Cleaver thinks so anyway. I can’t really argue, although there are 5 or 6 others that I think have a claim to the title.