The loss of John Prine is, for me, the biggest loss of COVID-19 thus far. I don’t have that much to add beyond what Scott and Simon wrote. I saw Prine in 1999, just after he came back from his first bout of cancer. This was in Knoxville and he had his Oh Boy labelmate R.B. Morris open for him. Oh Boy was part of Prine’s great gifts to other artists, an artist-friendly label to promote those influenced by the great man. The show was of course great, even though I can’t really remember which songs he played now, given that it was over twenty years ago and this was before the era where all this stuff ended up online. Sadly, I never saw him again and I really regret that. What I personally really love about Prine is that he wrote lyrics that literally no one else could write. His way of thinking about life simply put him in a different sphere–that of the genuinely unique songwriter. There are others–Tom T. Hall comes to mind here–but it’s a rare gift. His great line in “Grandpa Was a Carpenter”–“Voted for Eisenhower because Lincoln won the war”–for example. Or the entire concept and execution of “Jesus, the Missing Years.” Or his willingness to use complete nonsense to bridge lyrical gaps in “A Big Old Goofy World” in way that still actually worked for the song. This is on top of all the great songs on his first album such as “Paradise” and “Angel from Montgomery.”
Of all the things I love about John’s songwriting, my favorite is the way he could step so completely into someone else’s life. John had the gift and the curse of great empathy. In songs like “Hello in There” and “Angel From Montgomery,” he wrote from a perspective clearly very different from his own — an old man and a middle-aged woman — but he kept the first-person point of view. He wrote those songs and the rest of his incredible debut album while a young man working as a letter carrier in Chicago. “Angel From Montgomery” opens with the line “I am an old woman/named after my mother.” I remember hearing his 1971 recording of this song for the first time and thinking, “No, you’re not.” Then a light bulb went off, and I realized that songwriting allows you to be anybody you want to be, so long as you get the details right. John always got the details right. If the artist’s job is to hold a mirror up to society, John had the cleanest mirror of anyone I have ever known. Sometimes it seemed like he had a window, and he would climb right through.
After John faced a second bout with cancer in 2013, it seemed as though he was playing in extra innings — but he made the most of every bit of it. When Amanda — a fiddler and one of John’s favorite people — and I went into the studio to play and sing on his final album, 2018’s “The Tree of Forgiveness,” we were amazed by the beauty of the songs he’d written after more than 50 years of writing music. John was still razor sharp and he still had a story to tell. On the subsequent tour he played to the biggest audiences he’d ever drawn. He turned 72 that year.
But John’s work wasn’t just about his own music. In 1984, he and his longtime manager Al Bunetta and Dan Einstein started the independent record label Oh Boy Records. In the mid-’80s the major labels seemed like the only game in town, but Oh Boy succeeded against the odds. It released John’s albums along with records by Kris Kristofferson, Dan Reeder and Todd Snider, and they’re still finding new talent and operating with their artists’ best interests in mind. He was a mentor to me and to my wife, who even helped him work on his songs sometimes, in between playing pranks on him while they were on tour. John saw her as a brilliant songwriter in her own right, and if John said you were a great songwriter, you knew it was true.
And there was more to John’s life than music. John and Fiona Prine had a beautiful relationship, loving and balanced and kind. Fiona understood John better than anyone else. After Amanda and I were married, Amanda started asking all the couples we knew, “What’s the secret to staying together?” John and Fiona gave the same answer, and it was the best one we’ve heard so far: Stay vulnerable. John remained vulnerable in love and in his work. He never played it safe.
COVID-19 continues its harvest of our musicians. Wallace Roney, who became famous for working with Miles Davis when Quincy Jones convinced the aging legend to play with his big band at Monteux and Roney needed to help him through it, is dead at 59. Always felt sort of bad for Roney for being that tied to Miles because many thought he was just a clone when of course he was tremendously talented in his own right. He was actually supposed to play a show in Providence last month that was cancelled due to the quarantine. Then there is Ellis Marsalis. Because Wynton is such a musical reactionary, I have always looked upon the whole family with some skepticism, but this of course isn’t Ellis’ fault and no one can question his influence. I confess to missing Fountains of Wayne completely when they were active, but I know the death of Adam Schlesinger affected many people, especially given that he was only 52. Robbie Fulks once recorded this weird but incredible song called “Fountains of Wayne Hotline,” even though he never met the band to that point, which was a story about someone needing to write the perfect pop song and they could call the hotline for help. So Fulks was asked to write a remembrance of Schlesinger, which was also a moment where he could write about being an aging musician and having to start doing these things, which sucks. Typically, it’s a brilliant essay. And we shouldn’t forget the oud master Ahmad Ismael Hussein.
In the non-COVID deaths, we have lost Jan Howard, a largely forgotten country star of the 1960s most known for her duet work with Bill Anderson. And then of course there’s the great Bill Withers. It is a sign of how horrible the times are that here we are this far into a Music Notes post and we are only getting to Withers. I was always sorry that Withers just walked away from music entirely in 1985. He was such a gargantuan talent and I am sure he had more music in him. But he never seemed to regret that decision. He avoided nostalgia touring, even though I imagine he could have used the money, despite what I assume are good royalty checks from all the movies that have used his work. Like Prine, Withers had such a personal warmness to his work that just enveloped you in its deep humanity. David Hajdu has a nice remembrance here.
This is such a tough time, there’s not really that much non-death related news to discuss, simply because I can’t go see any shows. Pretty soon, album releases will start drying up too. Not that there’s any shortage of music I haven’t heard. But there’s always something. I did recently watch Birth of the Cool, the new Miles Davis documentary on Netflix. For a 2-hour film on a very complicated guy who advanced music more than probably any other musician of the 20th century, it was pretty good. Knowing Miles’ life story pretty well, it was a reasonably familiar story for me without a ton of new light shed, but the footage was great and if you don’t know about his crazy life, you will learn a lot. Miles was not a great guy and the film doesn’t really cover that up. I thought it did slightly shortchange his early 70s work (neither In a Silent Way nor A Tribute to Jack Johnson are even mentioned and while there are lots of interviews with people in his band, that era doesn’t feature interviews. John McLaughlin is still alive, for one!) and overplayed his mediocre 80s comeback. But in any case, it’s a pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours.
I found the whole “there is a right way to listen to music and what you are doing is wrong” attitude of this eye-rolling, but there is a revival in more public forms of music such as sing-alongs given the social isolation we face. I want to make one thing clear: Erik does not sing along. Including at labor events to “Solidarity Forever.”
If you care about things like “Which year had the best music,” have at it. Interesting to see which songs from some of the years are streamed most today.
This tries to use neuroscience to talk about why it is so hard to listen to new music. And let’s face it, given the number of people who think that popular music peaked the year they graduated from high school, it’s hard to argue against it in principle.
A list of what is supposed to be Dylan’s 50 greatest songs. I for one am shocked and outraged that “Joey” isn’t on there, not to mention #1….. Especially the execrable version he did on that horrible Dylan and the Dead album.
Chuck and Lisa from Wussy decided to shelter in place with their respective spouses and so last night, they played a set of their great songs from the couch on a Facebook video. I watched the first half hour live before I had a Zoom happy hour with some friends, then checked out the rest later in the evening. Made a crappy COVID Friday more than a little better.
Southeast Asian music has long fascinated me, so I want to check out some of the material from the Burmese rock scene.
Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud
Katie Crutchfield again proves that she is among the finest living songwriters. She sprung out of nowhere like Athena, a fully-formed songwriting being with an amazingly complex vocabulary and syntax for the songs. She’s advanced sonically over the albums too. With Saint Cloud, she advances in three additional ways. First, she stopped drinking. Second, she has gotten more comfortable with relatively simple and straight-forward lyrics, meaning that not ever song requires a thesaurus. Third, and most importantly, she’s embraced that she’s from Alabama instead of running from it. Crutchfield has openly adored Lucinda Williams for years and the great bard of the late 20th century South has clearly rubbed off on her hugely talented fan. She’s not exactly singing with a put-on twang here or anything, but there’s a warmness and setting in place that we haven’t seen before. She’s just astounding and this is another triumph.
John Moreland, LP5
The new John Moreland is another success for another of our finest songwriters. Moreland is a true master of inner turmoil and sadness and yet he never resorts to whining or cheap emotion. Rather, he has a lived-in quality that also portrays the ambivalence of these feelings and the need to move on. Although Moreland comes out of a metal background before he turned to folk-country after hearing Steve Earle’s “Poor Man’s War,” and although when you see him play electric live it is LOUD, he hasn’t really pushed a lot of sonic frontiers in his work, though there’s a little playing around the edges here, including on a couple instrumentals that are interesting enough. Moreland is a huge baseball fan so that he named one of those songs “For Ichiro” warms my heart. The only thing that prevents me from going with the full A for this is that I compare to the unreachable heights of his 2013 album In the Throes. But that’s unfair because that album probably deserves an A+. Either way, this is still a very fine collection of songs from a great talent.
Your opinion about this 2017 album probably depends on how you feel about emo-punk being transformed into hip-hop by a rapper from the noted hard streets of Vermont. That sounds worse than it is. Honestly, it’s a pretty decent set of introspective songs that certainly have no shortage of self-pity from white rural America set to a different type of music than usual. He’s a solid rapper with a good flow that can sometimes get very angry and other times have much more of a top 40 sound. It’s alright, but not something I need to hear again.
Joey Badass, All-Amerikkkan Bada$$
This is a real strong album from 2017, a political statement of anger at our tremendously racist nation and yet an album clearly designed to appeal to a pop market. It sold well too. The core issue here is the horrors of the criminal injustice system on black men, which is anything is not discussed enough in hip-hop. Sure, he hates Trump, but he also knows that Trump is just another racist white man in a nation that has defined black men as criminals. Clearly reaching back to the work of Ice Cube and Public Enemy, this is a fine work, lyrically, musically, and in terms of Joey’s flow. The closer, “Amerikkkan Idol” is the real clincher, a story of a black man awakening to the horrors of this nation. If only we all awoke to this.
Charles Bradley, Changes
Bradley’s penultimate album, from 2016, is another solid contribution from this talent who was only discovered late in life. He’s now gone, but his throwback sound to the James Brown era of soul was beloved in his last decade. It’s not even fair to call it throwback–he was signing like this in the 1970s, but to small audiences or in bars to no one paying attention at all. I think the only real question I always had about Bradley was how much he was adding to the genre. Was he just a way for young people to get a window into the great years of soul music or was he moving the music forward? It probably is more the former than the latter, but that still leaves us with a real treasure who I am glad got good attention in his later years. And this is a perfectly fine contribution to the genre. I might could do without the “God Bless America” cover to start the album, though it’s certainly better than any straight ahead version of it by some lame patriotic white singer. But you can’t question the competence and joy on this album.
Prince, One Nite Alone, The Aftershow: It Ain’t Over
I decided to check out this 2002 Prince live album. You know, you’d expect Prince live albums to be better than they are, but they mostly are kind of flat. This is fine of course. I mean, when you have Maceo Parker and Sheila E in your band and you can shred on a guitar like Prince, the final result is going to be at least passable and that’s where this is. But at the same time, I guess I expect something like James Brown’s Live at the Apollo when I hear Prince and the results, at least on the official releases, never really quite reached that point.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music or whatever art you want to talk about and absolutely nothing about politics.