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Being in Japan has meant I haven’t seen any live music. Now, it’s not that I couldn’t, but I don’t really know the Japanese scene very well and I am very tired by the evenings. So this seems like a great time to deep another deepish dive on one of my favorite albums. Let’s look at Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard’s mid-60s recording Pioneering Women of Bluegrass. This is an album originally released in 1965, but with a significantly expanded reissue by Smithsonian Folkways in 1996, which is the version I know. To me, this is one of the greatest collections of bluegrass music ever made.

Both Dickens and Gerrard have interesting backstories. To understand either of them though, we need to put front and center that bluegrass was led by a bunch of misogynists. Bill Monroe and Jimmy Martin were both especially known for their horrible treatment of women. There were no women in the early bluegrass world, at least not recording. So Dickens and Gerrard were pioneers among other things. Dickens came out the West Virginia mountains with a voice that could cut through a diamond. She moved to Washington in 1950s and started playing in the folk scene. Born in 1925, she was no young woman by the time she got to know Mike Seeger and the Gerrard in the early 60s. Gerrard was an upper class kid from Seattle who went to Antioch College, was exposed to folk music there, and then moved to Washington herself where she married and had four children before her husband died in a car accident. Now a single mother (she would marry Seeger in 1970), she and Dickens made quite a team when they started playing together in the early 60s.

As for the band, it’s amazing. David Grisman was at this time a young mandolin player with a fascinating history of his own. He was Ralph Rinzler’s neighbor, the folk collector. When Rinzler went to North Carolina to record Tom Ashley, Doc Watson was the guitar player on the sessions. It was the teenage Grisman who recognized the brilliance of Doc and urged his neighbor to do more with him. By this time, Grisman had risen to playing bluegrass with some of the greats. Meanwhile, the amazing Chubby Wise is the fiddler and Lamar Grier is on banjo. Dickens played bass at this point in her career and Gerrard handled the guitar.

The album itself sounds like a cleaned up live show. The songs are all old-time country, folk, and bluegrass tunes, many Bill Monroe or Carter Family originals. They could both write and Dickens would later become a powerful writer of political music. But these old-time numbers work so well. TB Blues starts the album, a classic early country song about the dreaded disease. The songs switch between fast numbers and slow ones with the two vocalists sharing duties. Gerrard kills a version of “Walkin’ in My Sleep” and Dickens does a great version of the album’s one original, her “Cowboy Jim.” Dickens’ high mountain voice is incredibly great on The Delmore Brothers’ “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar” and Gerrard’s more straightforward folk voice does wonders with Eddy Arnold’s “Mommy Please Stay Home with Me.” In the album’s latter half, the songs get even stronger somehow, with Dickens tearing off your skin on the gospel classic “Gabriel’s Call” and then Gerrard bringing us back to Earth with a powerful cover of the Carter Family’s “Just Another Broken Heart.” Finally, the last three songs–Gerrard doing The Louvin Brothers’ “A Tiny Broken Heart” and Dickens ripping through Bob Wills’ “Take Me Back Tulsa” followed by the encore-esque and big deep breath in Bill Monroe’s “I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling” makes you feel the ecstatsy on an album one usually only gets at a live show.

I still remember when I heard Pioneering Women of Bluegrass for the first time in the late 90s. This was the moment when I was really exploring bluegrass music and recognizing its strengths (great songwriting and playing with soul on the best albums, the powerful gospel music) and weaknesses (the hippie jam band bullshit of the 70s and after that Grisman himself is pretty responsible for as a matter of fact, turning the music into something frozen in time in Nashville, everything to do with Ricky Skaggs). And like hearing The Freighthoppers or the best Ralph Stanley recordings or the Bill Monroe/Doc Watson duet live collection, I was just completely bowled over by what was one of the finest albums I ever heard. Twenty years later, I feel the same thing. Here’s a few tracks on the album:

And in other news:

A brief discussion with Richard Thompson about some of his solo albums.

I’ve never watched Stranger Things, but I am glad it has such a great effect in getting people to buy Kate Bush albums. I don’t think Bush was ever forgotten per se, but the average person who wasn’t around the 80s probably doesn’t know her. So this is a very good thing.

A few recent deaths. Dave Smith, MIDI innovator. Get out those space sounds. Dan Fogelberg welcomed Jim Seals to Soft Rock Afterlife through some strummed guitar and incredibly boring singing. If only Seals’ hometown of Sidney, Texas (a very remote place) would create a walking tour monument to him like Peoria did with Fogelberg. On the other hand, Fogelberg didn’t respond to the Roe decision by recording pro-forcing women to give birth songs. When I heard Paul Vance wrote “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” about his daughter, I thought it was the creepiest thing I ever heard, but then I read on and she was like 2 so I guess not.

Ziggy Stardust is 50 years old and here is a roundtable about it. Not particularly a fan myself, but many are.

A ranking of the 30 most “essential” tracks from Paul McCartney’s solo career. I’m not so sure how many of these I’d call essential. Probably none of them.

Grachan Moncur got a good, if late, obit from the Times. I didn’t know he had left the field mostly because of a publishing dispute. What a bummer.

Cool intro to the great Sonny Sharrock.

My playlist for the last two weeks:

  1. George Jones, The Grand Tour
  2. Joe Henderson, Tetragon
  3. Miles Davis, Sorcerer
  4. Sun Ra, The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume 2
  5. The Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Inner Mounting Flame
  6. Wadada Leo Smith, Divine Love
  7. Sonny Sharrock, Ask the Ages
  8. REM, Document
  9. Merle Haggard, Pride in What I Am
  10. Wayne Shorter, Night Dreamer
  11. Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers
  12. Eddie Hinton, Very Extremely Dangerous
  13. Wussy, Strawberry
  14. REM, Murmur
  15. Rodney Crowell, Ain’t Living Long Like This
  16. Ralph Stanley, Cry from the Cross
  17. Don Rigsby, The Midnight Call
  18. Anthony Braxton, Six Monk’s Compositions
  19. Gram Parsons, Grievous Angel
  20. Parquet Courts, Wide Awake
  21. Tom T. Hall, New Train Same Rider
  22. Lucinda Williams, Happy Woman Blues
  23. McCoy Tyner, Song of the New World
  24. Guy Clark, Cold Dog Soup
  25. Neil Young, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere
  26. Old Crow Medicine Show, Tennessee Pusher
  27. Jeremy Ivey, Waiting Out the Storm
  28. Boogie Down Productions, Sex and Violence
  29. Priests, Nothing Feels Natural
  30. Richard Thompson, Live from Austin, TX
  31. Idles, Crawler
  32. Butch Hancock, The Wind’s Dominion
  33. Tom Russell, Blood and Candle Smoke
  34. Emmylou Harris, Evangeline
  35. Skeeter Davis & Bobby Bare, Tunes for Two
  36. Peter Rowan, Medicine Trail
  37. The Regrettes, How Do You Love?
  38. Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp
  39. Emiliana Torrini, Me and Armini
  40. Buck Owens, I’ve Got You On My Mind Again
  41. Eliza Carthy, Restitude
  42. Father John Misty, I Love You Honeybear
  43. Buck Owens, Buck ‘Em: The Music of Buck Owens, 1955-1967
  44. Loretta Lynn, They Don’t Make ‘Em Like My Daddy
  45. Cat Power, Moon Pix

Album Reviews:

Wayne Horvitz, Live Forever, Volume 1: The President: New York in the 80’s

I was never super into The President, one of the jazz/hipster rock/no wave bands in the New York scene of the 80s. Although I think Wayne Horvitz, the organist, is great and he has gone on to have quite a brilliant solo career, the band leaves me cold. But I was curious to check out this mostly live compilation released last year. The previously unreleased studio tracks confirm my previous belief, but the live majority show that this was a pretty fun band in that setting, showing a bit more soul and feeling. I still don’t think all the 80s sounds work that well within the jazz format, but it’s at the very least a fascinating document of a band moving the music forward during these years.

B+

Amaarae, The Angel You Don’t Know

A decent enough set of pop music I suppose, but in the end, I felt it just melt into the ether, with nothing to hold on to or get me excited. It’s well-crafted with lots of good guest stars. The reviews were glowing, talking of her combining her Ghanian heritage with southern and pop music. But I didn’t hear that much Ghana in this music. I just heard some pretty standard pop music. It’s just not that great.

B-

Lilly Hiatt, Lately

I’ve been a big Lilly Hiatt fan for several years now, ever since her outstanding Trinity Lane album in 2017. I got to see her earlier this year for the first time. She played a bunch of tracks from this album, which naturally I didn’t know as I hadn’t gotten around to it until this week. I would say that this is more a solid than great album. One of the many depressive pandemic albums of that awful year of 2020, it’s marked by good songwriting, but there’s not really a song that stands out and rocks you out. Eventually, because of her style, the songs begin to blend together a bit. When they are this good, that’s OK, but the album is mostly also OK.

B

Sam Rivers, Braids

This is an archival release from 2020 of a show Rivers did in Hamburg in 1979. The great Dave Holland is on bass, Thurman Barker is on drums, and Joe Daley is on tuba. This makes for heavy low-end rhythm section to provide a base for Rivers’ amazing saxophone. The sound isn’t uniformly great here but that’s not related the performances. By this point, Holland and Barker had worked with Rivers for a long time and this is a tight band. The tuba is a hard instrument in jazz, but Daley does about all one can do with it in this format. Rivers also pops in on piano and flute from time to time; the piano especially is a lovely change of pace. This is just a great band at the height of its powers.

A

Maren Morris, Humble Quest

A perfectly fine set of mainstream country by a singer that others like more than I do. This is fine. I like it better than the massively overrated Kasey Musgraves. I don’t think it’s a transcendent album by a transcendent artist. I think it’s workable album by a workable artist.

B

Mary Halvorson, Amaryllis

If there ever was a jazz album that deserved an A, this is it. Just a great set from this brilliant guitarist and composer. She put together a new band for this, which includes her usual drummer in Tomas Fujiwara and then a bunch of people who I don’t know: Patricia Brennan on vibraphone, Jacob Garchik on trombone, Nick Dunston on bass, and Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, with the Mivos String Quartet joining the fray on three songs. What makes Halvorson great, other than her astounding guitar skills and sound, is that she makes every project so different. Other that Fujiwara and her frequent collaborator (not here though) Taylor Ho Bynum, this is someone who develops completely different bands with every album and almost always to quality effect. This big sound works so well here. What’s interesting is how groove oriented it is for this type of music, especially in the early tracks. This is improvisation at its best, with Halvorson making great production choices and Fujiwara holding it all together with his drumming.

A

Here Lies Man, Ritual Divination

This is kinda interesting, though not fully realized. Anchored by Antibalas guitarist and vocalist Marcos Garcia, this is an attempt to merge Afrobeat with Black Sabbath. And that’s exactly what it sounds like. At first the big hard rock thick chords and riffs are fun with this, but at 15 songs, the proceedings drag a bit. Sabbath was always too repetitive for its own good and even though these guys really know what they are doing, you can hear the limitations of that type of music, even with the Afrobeat infusions. Plus, the Sabbath is more dominant here than the Afrobeat. Still, it’s a worthy project and one some of you might like a lot.

B

Alister Spencer and Satoko Fujii Orchestra Kobe, Imagine Meeting You Here

A nice big band treatment led by the Australian conductor and Japanese pianist. Fujii’s work can be difficult but this had a nice warm feel, for the most part. Recorded live in 2019, before everything shut down, it’s both an exploration of the power of the best improvisational musicians in Japan (wish they were playing while I’m here) and a demonstration of just what a great composer and conductor can offer such an orchestra. Also, getting Fujii to be a bit more accessible with the piano in the context of the big band pays major dividends. She’s an enormous talent but sometimes lets the abstractions get a bit too much. The performers here are: Ko Iwata, Yasuhisa Mizutani (alto sax); Eiichiro Arasaki (tenor sax, shakuhachi); Tsutomu Takei (tenor sax); Keizo Nobori (bari sax); James Barrett, Shojiro Yokoo, Natsuki Tamura, and Rabito Arimoto (trumpets); Yusuko Kaneko and Yusuke Imanishi (trombones); Takumi Seino (guitar); Satoko Fujii (piano); Hiroshi Funato (bass); Yoshikazu Isaki (drums). Very worth your time if you like experimental jazz.

A-

The Del McCoury Band, Almost Proud

Del is so old that his name is Delano, after a certain president still in office when he was born in 1939. Haven’t checked in on his work in awhile but saw he has a new album. Del’s voice is definitely not what was it was 20 years ago, but that isn’t so important here. The band has been together, other than a change in the bass player 15 years ago or so, forever. They sound great. These songs are more…fine with a few gems. But this is still good, solid, enjoyable bluegrass. It ain’t peak Monroe/Flatt/Scruggs/Stanley but what is these days? “Honky Tonk Nights” is a real fun one, even if it does feature Vince Gill, who always did have a great voice even if I didn’t like most of his career. And I certainly like “Sid,” about Sid Hatfield and the Matewan Massacre. Not enough mine war songs these days.

B

Kids on a Crime Spree, Fall in Love Not in Line

Although I despise this title with what it means politically, I tried to move beyond it. On the other hand, this band sounds like a nostalgia trip to 1985. At least the nostalgia was short, with 10 2-3 minute songs keeping it brief. If you like your 2022 albums to sound like 1985, you will like this better than I.

C

Drive-By Truckers, Welcome to Club XIII

Just read Elizabeth’s write-up of the album, another masterful piece of music criticism and far more useful as an analysis of the latest DBT release than mine.

As for me, I’ll just say that the production on this album is really fantastic with with a lot of interesting touches on the guitar that I’ve not heard before from them. Evidently Cooley is making up for his writing block of the last few years (frequently a problem for him) by spending a lot of time in the studio working on other aspects of the album. It shows. Hood of course has no such problem in writing. So he dominates the proceedings here. “The Driver” is already one of my favorite all time DBT songs, perhaps he best song about driving ever written, or at least one of them. I really want to know Cooley’s reading list. The weird 19th century anti-Catholicism book for which he bases “Maria’s Awful Disclosures” is not exactly a widely known story and neither was the death of Ramon Casiano in 1931. He’s clearly exploring the deep parts of our horrible pasts. “Welcome to Club XIII” is a really fun song about being in shitty clubs in the 90s (“your favorite Foghat cover band” is a hilarious line). I just wish there was another Cooley song or two. That’s the one thing that is keeping this from being among DBT’s very best. But the second tier DBT albums are very, very good as well.

A-

As always, this is an open thread for all things art and music and none things politics.

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