FEATURED SONG OF THE WEEK
In My Room: John Paul White & The Secret Sisters
In My Room: a perfect title to describe the humble songwriter’s location of necessity during the global shutdown. From their rooms they’ve been entertaining us in the hope we might be tempted to buy a CD or some merchandise to tide them over. It is also the name of a timeless ballad, covered beautifully here.
The Beach Boys’ 1963 song from their Surfer Girl album, 2min 11sec of divine harmonies, is honoured faithfully by John Paul White, backed by fellow Alabama songwriters The Secret Sisters, aka Laura and Lydia Rogers. The cover was recorded live at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, New York, future heart of the pandemic, in 2016. We all remember the original. White has launched his Tribute To The Living sessions in which he pays homage to his songwriting heroes. ‘Let’s make sure the people we owe a debt to are aware of it. Let’s help the people that inspire us... inspire others.’ His first guru is Walt Aldridge, his first song the brilliantly titled Holding Her And Loving You.
The former Civil Wars frontman has just released a charity download of a song he and Rosanne Cash wrote before the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis which is hauntingly appropriate. Entitled We’re All In This Together Now, the track’s accompanying video shows images of people coming together to help each other through traumatic times, from hospital frontline staff to foodbank workers and donors.
Cash’s lyric was sent to her friend White, with whom she worked on Rodney Crowell’s It Ain’t Over Yet, to weave his magic. ‘The last few years have been tough,’ said Cash. ‘I wanted to find some little corner of community, some instinct toward unity. It was hard to find, so I figured I’d have to write it. Last year, I wrote these lines and sent them to John Paul. He came up with this gorgeous melody very quickly. I was so moved. But the song didn’t fit on my last record, and it didn’t fit on his last record, so it sat there waiting for just the right moment. Which is now.’
White added: ‘I don’t believe I’ve ever been a part of something that foretold things to come true as vividly as this song, or something that would feel so relevant months after its completion. I loved the song, but for whatever reason it hadn’t yet seen the light of day. Once it dawned on me recently how prescient the song was, I asked Rosanne if she’d be willing to put her voice to it. She said: ‘I thought you’d never ask’.’
Brian Wilson, now 77, was the creative genius behind In My Room, providing the melody for the late Gary Usher to co-write the lyric. The first verse features Brian and younger siblings Carl and Dennis, now departed, synchronising perfectly just as they did when big brother taught them in the bedroom they shared as kids.
It is hard to comprehend that Brian was deaf from birth in his right ear. A hallmark of the Californian’s craft is how the self-taught keyboard wizard makes a quite complex chord structure sound effortlessly simple (God Only Knows, the song he is most proud of, is a perfect example, not forgetting the introduction to California Girls and the glorious entirety of Good Vibrations).
Wilson, in the 1998 documentary Endless Harmony, said In My Room was about being ‘somewhere you could lock out the world, go to a secret little place, think, be, do whatever you have to do’. The dark back story is that the Wilson boys’ home life was far from harmonious, their tyrannical father the root of Brian’s well-documented psychological and drug-related problems.
There’s a world where I can go and tell my secrets to
In my room, in my room
In this world I lock out all my worries and my fears
In my room, in my room
Here’s a live TV clip from The Red Skelton Hour in 1964. Wilson’s pursuit of perfection is clear from those judgemental glances.
Lean On Me: Bill Withers
If we needed a song to help guide us through tempestuous times, the late Bill Withers must have known all along. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is his 1972 classic Lean On Me, a gospel-infused anthem to the power of togetherness.
Lean On Me, a US No1 hit single from his second album Still Bill, celebrates community spirit and has spawned a host of cover versions, the latest of which is a stirring NHS Relief fund-raiser featuring Beverley Knight, Joss Stone and more than 100 vocally distanced artists in honour of frontline life-savers in the UK.
Withers died aged 81 during the global lockdown from heart problems. The 47-year-old Wolverhampton-born Knight, whose soul influences would include Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin, was born the year after Lean On Me was released. She has family ties to the NHS and reasons to be thankful.
Knight’s mother, a former nurse, and brother were struck down by Covid-19 and are now recovering. She has many relatives who have worked in the NHS. ‘I feel it’s much more than just a nice thing to do, it’s my absolute duty to get involved.’ The download and accompanying video was a response to the weekly doorstep Clap For Carers campaign and will aid the mental health of key staff through NHS Charities Together and You Okay, Doc? You can donate here.
Withers’ childhood in the poor district of coal-mining town Slab Fork, West Virginia, inspired the song. The homesick songwriter had moved to LA after nine years in the US Navy. He was a professional musician for only 15 years until 1985 but left a rich legacy, which included Ain’t No Sunshine, Grandma’s Hands, Lovely Day and Just The Two Of Us. Aided by his Wurlitzer electric piano and bluesy baritone, he composed a simple message that was sung at two presidential inauguration ceremonies and has resonated down the decades:
Lean on me, when you’re not strong And I’ll be your friend I’ll help you carry on For it won’t be long ’Til I’m gonna need Somebody to lean on
‘I’m a stickler for saying something in the simplest possible way with some elements of poetry. Simple is memorable,’ Withers told Songfacts. ‘The key is to make somebody not only remember it but recall it over and over again. When you mention that some stuff I have written has lasted a long time, I think that’s because it’s re-accessible.’
Nearly half a century after it was created, we have a soundtrack for dark days, a hymn of hope. When this crisis is over, we will all know someone who has been laid low by the virus or someone who has sadly perished. Like Beverley Knight's relatives, my brother-in-law survived a challenging spell in hospital. When he returned home, the neighbours took to their steps to clap him.
Another touching moment in a world that cannot touch. The NHS deserves help, greater protection and proper reward, not just our well-intentioned and welcome applause. We all need somebody to lean on.
If A Song Could Be President: Over The Rhine
During John Prine’s forlorn fight against this virus from hell we were reminded of a song by the Ohio duo Over The Rhine celebrating the power of music and those who create it. If A Song Could Be President is our Song Of The Week at Here Comes The Song, dedicated to a humble master of his craft.
We’d make Neil Young a senator
Even though he came from Canada
Emmylou would be ambassador
World leaders would listen to her
They would show us where our country went wrong
Strum their guitars on the White House lawn
John Prine would run the FBI
All the criminals would laugh and cry
If a song could be president
Over The Rhine, aka husband and wife Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, included the song on their 2007 album The Trumpet Child. Detweiler wrote it during the George W Bush era but the song, beautifully delivered by the soulful Bergquist, is just as relevant under the present commander-in-chief.
The simple country-folk melody could be Prine’s, and so could the witty lyric. The song was sparked by a 2005 invitation to the White House where the couple reiterated their criticisms of the administration’s policies and stressed music’s importance in uniting diverse people regardless of affiliation.
Steve Earle, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Patsy Cline are also referenced in the song. In a live version Tom Waits is Secretary of State and Bob Dylan has a seat at the UN. ‘If a song could be president, we’d fly a jukebox to the moon.’ Prine, a songwriter of whimsy, insight and empathy whose words could light up a face as well as darken it, would have approved. Over The Rhine’s latest album, Love & Revelation, tackles the subject of loss and Broken Angels is a former Song Of The Week on this website.
Prine, who died from coronavirus complications at the age of 73, was one of Johnny Cash’s big four of songwriters, alongside Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark and Steve Goodman. Accolades have flowed by ‘like a broken-down dam’. Dylan, who had earlier described Prine’s music as ‘pure Proustian existentialism’, tweeted: ‘Thanks for everything.’ Crowell called him the ‘architect of Americana’, extolling his gravitas and grace, his wisdom and poignancy, his timeless art.
Gretchen Peters’ first concert as a junior high school girl was a Prine show. It marked the beginning of her education as a songwriter, inspired by his ‘economy of words, indelible characters and truth-telling’. Referring to his masterpiece Angel From Montgomery, she said: ‘Every female character I’ve ever written about has the DNA of that woman swatting flies in the kitchen.’
There’s flies in the kitchen, I can hear ’em there buzzing
And I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today
How the hell can a person go to work in the morning
And come home in the evening and have nothing to say
From his first eponymous album in 1971 which contained Hello In There, Sam Stone, Paradise and Angel From Montgomery, via 1978’s Bruised Orange (That’s The Way The World Goes ’Round), 1986’s German Afternoons (Speed Of The Sound of Loneliness) and 1999’s In Spite Of Ourselves, to his last, The Tree Of Forgiveness in 2018, classic songs have formed a long queue. We will cherish those final poignant tracks Summer’s End, Caravan Of Fools and When I Get To Heaven. If only a songwriter could be president. RIP John Prine.
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is such a hard way to go
Johnny: Sarah Jarosz
It was reassuring to hear the esteemed David Crosby lauding the talents of 29-year-old songwriter Sarah Jarosz – we’ve been fans of the Texas-born New York-based multi-instrumentalist since her Transatlantic Sessions television appearance in 2011. Her new single Johnny is our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. Enchanting.
Johnny, a song about wanderlust and an anxious desire for escape from small-town suffocation, is on her forthcoming album World On The Ground, produced by the accomplished guitarist John Leventhal, husband of Roseanne Cash. ‘John wanted me to try to take a step back and look at the world in my songwriting rather than looking inward,’ she says. ‘It completely opened the gates.’
That Transatlantics introduction, when she was backed by bluegrass pioneer Alison Krauss, came well before her alliance with the Grammy-winning trio I’m With Her (Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan) who are regular guests on mandolin mentor Chris Thiles’ Live From Here radio show. During the global lockdown, that show has been remodelled as Live From Home, and Jarosz was its opening performer. Vocal distancing can have its benefits.
The new album, following 2016’s Undercurrent which earned her a Grammy, takes its title from another track Pay It No Mind, in which a wise songbird observes the world below. After all the introspective songs, she becomes a storyteller, inventing or inhabiting characters in genre-melding vignettes of her life growing up in Wimberley, just south of Austin.
The Johnny melody, vocal and guitar textures have an ethereal quality as the listener is lured to the delicious chord changes of the chorus...
He takes another sip
Of that blood-red wine
Just waiting on the stars
That will never align...
You might not get what you paid for
You know that nothing’s for sure
And an open heart looks
A lot like the wilderness
The author or co-writer of such memorable songs as Build Me Up From Bones, Mile On The Moon, Green Lights and House Of Mercy took up the mandolin at the age of nine, and it’s not the only instrument she has mastered (add guitar, banjo, fiddle and piano). In extolling her virtuosity Crosby, no stranger to celestial harmonies, tweeted: 'I have said before that I think Sarah Jarosz is an incredibly talented young woman but the single Johnny proves it beyond any doubt. I love her in I’m With Her and I love her by herself. I can’t wait to hear the album.’ Neither can we.
Oh Miss Carolina: Robert Jon & The Wreck
The curiously underrated Robert Jon & The Wreck’s new album Last Light On The Highway – their fifth studio creation – is released in May and a tantalising taster in the shape of a first single, Oh Miss Carolina, is now being served. It’s our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. Volume please...
The quintet based in Orange County, California – Robert Jon Burrison, Henry James, Warren Murrel, Andrew Espantman and Steve Maggiore – have attracted a passionate following in the US and Europe and glowing plaudits for their brand of southern rock, described as ‘classic but fresh’ and, by the band themselves, as a ‘double shot of southern rock with a blues chaser’. Note that lovely chorus chord change.
There are hints of The Allman Brothers Band and The Eagles and, on this girl-that-got-away love song, a large slice of Lynyrd Skynyrd. This rocking wrecking crew, led by the impressive chops of Burrison and driven by the slick guitar of James and Maggiore’s strident piano, have finetuned their high-energy sound. Burrison may be the frontman but writing credits are shared.
The self-produced Last Light On The Highway was recorded across the States and Australia and the band plan to tour extensively once the pandemic abates. The winners of the best live band title at the 2013 Orange County Music Awards, lauded by guitar guru Joe Bonamassa for ‘keeping the history of classic 60s and 70s rock alive for newer generations’, have a double live album in the pipeline too.
Even a powerhouse turns down the lights sometimes – here’s the sweet ballad Shine On – but they are better known for their raunchier soul-soaked numbers such as Take Me Higher and Old Friend. ‘Getting wrecked never felt so good,’ they say on their website. Their mantra since forming in 2011 has been ‘music, miles and whiskey’ – you have been warned.
East October: John Moreland
‘How am I every gonna get by all by myself?’ Sounds like a plea from many of us during these dark times of self-isolation. In fact, it’s the refrain of John Moreland’s East October, our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com, a touching track from his fifth solo album, LP5.
The 34-year-old Texas-born, Oklahoma-based Moreland pays homage to an old friend and fellow songwriter Chris Porter who died in a car crash in 2016. The title references one of Porter’s own songs, East December. Moreland’s genre-defying confessional roots music has been described as ‘gloriously and joyously heart-breaking’. Regret, pain, life’s fragility, love and loss are his usual territory but on LP5 he grapples with damaged faith, the church and consumerism...
Looking backwards, all my pictures
Look like send-ups of stolen scriptures
We were children dressed up like men
Painting places we’d never been
If the album title isn’t high on imagination, deliberately so, Moreland’s intelligent, pithy lyrics most certainly are, earning high respect from contemporaries such as Jason Isbell who feel he should be a household name. On the atmospheric opening track, Harder Dreams, the imagery demands you listen from the first line...
All the Gods are watching wars on television
Placing their bets and telling jokes about religion...
I don’t belong to you and you don’t belong to me
You got ads to sell so you tell me that’s who I need to be
Moreland asks the killer questions: ‘What good’s a letter in a language you can't read?’ and ‘Is the truth a work of fiction?’ As the man says: 'Better ask the bloodstained sky.’
Experimentation was always a risk but producer Matt Pence’s use of drum loops, synths and other sonic effects generally enhance Moreland’s stylistic step-change. Multi-instrumentalist John Calvin Abney adds accomplished flourishes, particularly on the bluesy A Thought Is Just A Passing Train and I Always Let You Burn Me to the Ground, and Bonnie Whitmore contributes lovely harmonies, but Moreland’s grizzled, canyon-deep voice and his facility with fine words remain the key ingredients.
In the closing Let Me Be Understood, which hints at the Animals’ 1965 hit (the resemblance ends with the title), Moreland evokes Dylan and Springsteen, complete with strumming acoustic guitar, harmonica and stripped-down sound. We understand the new Moreland. Self-doubt has been replaced by self-acceptance.
I used to walk around with shackles on my hands
Back when I still needed you to tell me who I am
Weather Beaten: Katie Spencer
Sadly, like every musician, Katie Spencer has had to cancel her engagements for the foreseeable future as the coronavirus cuts deep into all our livelihoods. And, like small, intimate venues everywhere, The Harrison in London, where we hoped to see her performing, may be facing underlying wealth problems. At least we devotees can listen to the music, and even buy it instead of merely stream it if we want to play fair with the artists who created it.
Spencer, the 23-year-old from East Yorkshire who describes herself as a guitar-based progressive folk singer-songwriter, plays acoustic music at its most beguiling, and our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is the captivating title track from her debut full-length album of 2019, Weather Beaten.
Her accomplished guitar picking, intricate yet unfussy and so pleasing on the ear, transports us to the heyday of her heroes, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, John Martyn and Roy Harper. Her voice is just as warm and honeyed. Ralph McTell is a fan as well as a sound judge: ‘Like a musical weaver she threads her poetic lyrics through the guitar strings and produces little tapestries of song.’
Weather Beaten concerns a broken relationship and begins with eyes meeting across a crowded room...
I used to count your smiles like sparks Flying from a fire in a lazy wind A fleeting glimpse of something I was trying to reach But jealous loving makes you burn
It includes a fine clarinet solo by Martin Winning although the live version in the video above features just Spencer and bassist Andy Tytherleigh. Other standouts on her self-released album, which followed a couple of EPs, are Hello Sun, with Tom Mason’s swooping double bass a delight, a Spencer favourite Too High Alone and Drinking The Same Water, a beautiful song promoting empathy and celebrating people’s differences as well as their similarities.
And sometimes I smile when I realise that we’re Breathing the same air And we’re drinking the same water All the while, never mind I just hope That you’re thinking of your daughter
Weather Beaten, which has just been released on vinyl, was produced by Spencer Cozens, a long-time collaborator of John Martyn and Joan Armatrading, who captures the intimacy of her live performances. Another Spencer (no relation) appears in the only non-original track, the oft-covered traditional song Spencer The Rover, one of the most engaging versions I’ve heard. But it is her own elegant compositions, inspired by the landscape of her home county and inhabited by the ghosts of her guitar idols, that linger in the memory.
Many singers and songwriters have taken to social media to advertise their music and merchandise; there are live online mini-concerts, mainly solo with social distancing in mind. Desperate times require desperate measures. As the political soundbite says, whatever it takes. Spencer tweeted this week that she will spend this uninvited hiatus writing and recording new material, asking followers to ‘head over to Bandcamp to peruse (and maybe purchase) something from an artist, as a gift to yourself or a loved one, and to help keep the music coming in the future’. Hear, hear.
I'll Be The Sad Song: Brandy Clark
Brandy Clark, understated and still underrated, has empowered a generation of women with her heart-on-sleeve songs. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is I’ll Be The Sad Song, the opening track of her latest album, Your Life Is A Record, her most emotional, autobiographical to date.
One of the few openly gay artists in Nashville, Clark was writing through the painful break-up of a 15-year relationship and used the project as therapy. The first line provides her third album’s title...
If your life is a record People and places are the songs... I’ll be your sad song, your what we almost had song Your what might been wasn’t meant to be Couldn’t be your happy song but at least we had a song So I’ll be the sad song you sing
‘Well, I’m a lover of sad songs,’ she says on iTunes. ‘As many times as things work out, they also don’t work out. One of my favourite lines on the album is: If your life is a record, people and places are the songs. That’s why I chose it for the title. Somebody’s going to be your sad song and you’re going to be somebody else’s. I couldn’t be your happy song. But at least we had a song. It is that old saying: It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved.’
Jay Joyce (Little Big Town, Eric Church, Carrie Underwood, Ashley McBryde) is again at the helm after producing 2016’s highly successful Big Day In A Small Town. Multi-instrumentalists Jedd Hughes and Giles Reaves help Clark and Joyce lay down a stripped-back sound with the Memphis Strings & Horns adding lovely layers to other standouts such as Who You Thought I Was, Love Is A Fire and Can We Be Strangers.
The 44-year-old Washington-born wordsmith has produced a profoundly personal record, with herself as the main protagonist rather than her customary cast of damaged small-town characters, but hasn’t turned her back on her status as a potent storyteller in the Bobbie Gentry mould with Pawn Shop and Bad Car. Her writing gets sharper and sharper. The hits she has composed for so many artists could be hers now. You never know, they may even play them on country radio.
At home with the humdrum and the sweeping canvas, Clark had to persuade her record label to kick off the album with I’ll Be The Sad Song and close with the equally poignant The Past Is The Past rather than the other way round. After all the heartbreak, she wanted hope and healing to have the last word.
Like many Nashville-based entertainers, Clark rallied to the cause of the city’s recovery from last week’s devastating tornado which caused loss of life and demolished homes and businesses, including music venue The Basement East (its ‘I Believe In Nashville’ mural somehow survived).
Fellow songwriter Gretchen Peters knew she was one of the lucky ones. In an eloquent article for The Atlantic, she described walking through her Germantown neighbourhood in the aftermath: ‘The small, random things you find in the wreckage are the ones that break your heart. They’re like the details I try to put into my songs, little totems of the people they belonged to, signifiers: a broken dinner plate, a band T-shirt, a hairbrush. Everything people say about the fragility of life, about control being an illusion – these everyday objects are reminders of the truth at the heart of the clichés. They are the things you put into a song to make the people in the song real.’
A ‘To Nashville, With Love’ benefit show was staged featuring Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile, Old Crow Medicine Show, Yola, Sheryl Crow, Ashley McBryde and Katie Pruitt. Clark performed for free at Grimey’s music store, raising money by selling signed T-shirts and an autographed guitar. I’ll Be The Sad Song, in fact any of her beautifully sad songs, would have been an appropriate choice.
Worried Mind: Aubrie Sellers
A song title to sum up our mood but for Aubrie Sellers, daughter of country singer Lee Ann Womack, the anxiety is more personal. Worried Mind, from her second album Far From Home, is Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. She calls it garage country; we could be parked here for a while.
The grit and grunge of this swampy blues is provided by boyfriend Ethan Ballinger’s scintillating guitar as Sellers shows how rock has influenced her as much as mum’s purer country roots and songwriter father Jason Sellers. She knew when picking up a guitar at 13 she would have to discover her own maverick musical path.
‘My voice isn’t dissimilar to my mother’s, so people expected me to follow in her footsteps. I think I surprised a lot of people when I didn’t,’ says the 29-year-old Nashville-born, LA-based singer. Frank Liddell, now her stepfather, is at the production helm as he was for her vaunted 2016 debut New City Blues. Pedigree and promise.
Sellers says of Worried Mind: ‘This song encapsulates what I go through as an introvert who becomes an extrovert on stage.’ She sings: ‘They got pills for things that hurt/ I’ve tried some, but they don’t work/ For a worried mind.’ Here’s a live, stripped-back Paste Studio version with Ballinger in fine touch.
Ballinger is not the only stellar guitarist on the album: fellow co-writer Adam Wright contributes along with Park Chisholm and Chris Coleman. Perhaps swayed by mum, dad and Liddell, Lone Star State natives all, she chose the famed Sonic Ranch in El Paso to record her idea of desert music.
Another great Texan, Steve Earle, duets with Aubrie on the only song not penned by her, the Shawn Camp-Billy Burnette composition My Love Will Not Change. ‘I really love bluegrass songs and their simplicity, and I think they easily translate into rock songs in a certain way; rootsy rock,’ Sellers told American Songwriter. ‘That was my vision for this song, and I put my own spin on it. It’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever done.’
The lovely gospel-flecked title track could have been sung by Emmylou Harris and there are hints of Miranda Lambert, who has also been produced by Liddell, on the uptempo numbers and Sheryl Crow on the Texas landscape-inspired Under The Sun. But it is the beautiful ballad Haven’t Even Kissed Me Yet, about an uncertain start to a relationship, which is destined to be covered most…
Three days later here we are in your room talkin’trash About all the things that she did behind your back I'm hangin’on every word that you’ve said And you haven’t even kissed me yet
Just My Soul Responding: Smokey Robinson
The miracle that is Smokey Robinson was celebrated this week on the great songwriter’s 80th birthday. The master of Motown affairs of the heart and the heartbroken provides Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com with Just My Soul Responding. A sweet soul music man turns political at last.
The song, which appeared on his first solo album Smokey in 1973 after his departure from the Miracles, has the bonus of a birthday greeting in the intro without being twee or frivolous. This is a rare protest song, with racism, black rights and the pain of native American history at its heart. Robinson, like Hitsville, was slow to acknowledge politics despite a decade in which there was much to protest about but this was perhaps his nod to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Eddie Kendricks’ My People… Hold On, Stevie Wonder’s Big Brother and Edwin Starr’s anti-Vietnam tirade War, which provided the template for Bruce Springsteen’s cover.
The gorgeous falsetto and poetic pen that brought us Tears Of A Clown, Tracks Of My Tears and My Girl (a famous gift to The Temptations and their newly recruited singer David Ruffin, younger brother of Jimmy) embraced the message music:
I was born and raised in the ghetto
On the run-down side of the track
And there are forces who do everything
To hold me back because my skin is black
A sentiment still as relevant now as it was in 1973. Smokey’s birthday coincided with south London rapper Dave’s stunning performance on the Brit Awards show where he won album of the year for Psychodrama. The 21-year-old gave a fiery, soul-baring rendition of Black, which attacks misconceptions about race.
Rhiannon Giddens, author of such compelling dark material as At The Purchaser’s Option, took David Crosby to task on Twitter recently for bemoaning the lack of protest or politically-charged songs. Her own project, Our Native Daughters with Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla and Amythyst Kiah, whose debut offering was our favourite album last year, has been a powerful voice about slavery, the used and abused. ‘Oh you put the shackles on our feet but we’re dancing,’ they sing defiantly on Moon Meets The Sun while Kiah’s Black Myself was an award-winning tour de force.
Artists such as Josh Ritter, Keb Mo, JS Ondara (the Kenyan immigrant who moved to Bob Dylan’s home state of Minnesota), Che Apalache, Big Thief, Jason Isbell and the latter’s old band Drive-By Truckers (check out 21st Century USA and Babies In Cages on their new album The Unraveling) have not been slow to call out injustices in the devisive Trump era. Crosby was referring to CSNY’s old classic Ohio, written by Neil Young, when he was questioning the paucity of crusading songs which have universality and longevity. British band Bennett Wilson Poole were sufficiently inspired by Ohio to record their own anthem Hate Won’t Win, written by Tony Poole after the murder of MP Jo Cox, and perhaps Crosby is not that familiar with the conscience-arousing work of Frank Turner, Thea Gilmore or Billy Bragg.
Hip-hop has long played a leading role in the modern protest era. Now grime exponent Dave (full name David Orobosa Omoregie) is following Stormzy’s fearless lead, his remarkable performance hailed as the most important in the history of The Brits. He added an improvised verse which rebuked the media over its treatment of Meghan Markle and the government’s handling of the Grenfell diasaster and Windrush scandal, even calling the prime minister a racist. A radical voice for the marginalised, a sound to empower a generation.
Look, black is beautiful, black is excellent Black is pain, black is joy, black is evident Workin’ twice as hard as the people you know you’re better than ’Cause you need to do double what they do so you can level them
Smokey Robinson would second that emotion.
Keep Me: Kim Richey
To mark the 20th anniversary of her acclaimed third album, Glimmer, Kim Richey decided to revisit its 14 songs and tour with them. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is the beguiling Keep Me, an advanced track from a treasury of songs so good she made them twice.
The new model, out in March, is entitled A Long Way Back: The Songs Of Glimmer, produced by multi-instrumentalist Doug Lancio. The sound is more stripped back and intimate, the Nashville-based Ohio native feeling the original to be overproduced and perhaps too pop-oriented though she was grateful to Hugh Padgham for his role in her development.
‘The musicians were all super-talented and gave the songs a voice I never would have thought to give them,’ she says on her website. ‘Hugh was up for trying anything and really encouraged me to add all those vocal arrangements.’ The embellishments this time around are provided by guitarist Neilson Hubbard, flugelhorn player Dan Mitchell and drummer Aaron Smith.
The lyric, simple hook and enchanting vocal grab you immediately...
Save me a place away from all the other clutter In the back of your mind Somewhere safe, where distance and the tears won’t matter Don’t leave me behind
Wherever you go forever Keep me, yeah, keep me
Richey recalls being ‘scared to death’ when making the original in New York and London. ‘I felt we were just blowing through a bunch of money. It wasn’t the way I was used to making records.’ She had been a staff writer at Blue Water Music, and this was her first series of confessionals after the earlier co-writes. ‘Recording these songs again was a good way to look back and remember I made it through those times.’
For the artist’s website biography, Kelly McCartney explains: ‘The 20 years of distance between then and now provided another benefit: Richey is more comfortable with her voice. Long Way Back sounds like it has nothing to prove. It’s more spacious, but not less spirited, with Richey’s voice feeling more relaxed and rounded.’
Richey adds: ‘I started writing songs because of Joni Mitchell, probably like most women songwriters of a certain age. I loved being able to write songs because I was really super-shy. I couldn’t say things to people that I wanted to say. If I put it in a song, there was the deniability. If I ever got called on it, I could say, ‘Oh, heavens no, that’s just a song! I made that up’.’
The songs on Glimmer needed to shine. Now they dazzle. The other two previews are Come Around, which would not have felt out of place on 2018’s brilliant Edgeland, and the cleverly conversational Hello Old Friend. ‘It was great to revisit these old friends,’ says Richey. A pleasure for us too.
T-Bone Steak And Spanish Wine: Tom Russell
When the lyricist Bernie Taupin named a Tom Russell album as his favourite of 2019, we just had to take notice. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is taken from that LP, the deliciously titled T-Bone Steak And Spanish Wine, by a writer of fine vintage.
The album, October In The Railroad Earth, is the 29th studio release by one of America’s great musical storytellers, still creating and performing at 72. In T-Bone Steak And Spanish Wine, a classic of nostalgia, Russell revisits a bar he played four decades earlier in northern California. Times have changed even if the proprietor and dish of the day haven’t.
The owner is addressing that Minstrel Kid in the song...
The music ain’t like it used to be
When you could tear our hearts out in any song in any key
Now it’s all just background noise to me
The T-bone steak and the glass of wine’s on me
The album was billed as ‘Jack Kerouac meets Johnny Cash in Bakersfield’, heroes both to a musician who is also an admired painter, poet and author. The title track is a borrowed line from the beat poet (‘He was gone in October, 62 dollars in the bank’) and a Cash composition, Wreck Of The Old 97, is the only track of 11 not penned by Russell, one of the first songs he learned to play on guitar.
Russell’s baritone echoes his heroes, Cash, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, with a road-worn, world-weary tone. Still crazily unrecognised, the Californian deserves a place in my would-be John Prine academy of storytelling alongside Guy Clark, James McMurtry and Joe Ely.
Elton John’s long-time collaborator, in an interview with the LA Times, also praised the work of women artists such as Brandi Carlile, Gretchen Peters, Brandy Clark and Maren Morris. ‘I don't listen to pop music,’ said Taupin, a discerning judge. But Russell's album earned special praise. Lyrics matter. The man who wrote such pearls as Gallo Del Cielo, Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall? and Guadalupe and such album masterpieces as Blood And Candle Smoke, The Rose Of Roscrae and Folk Hotel continues to raise the bar – and not the kind where Kerouac found trouble.
A recurring theme in Russell’s writing is the fickleness and fatalism surrounding fame. There are memorable characters, vivid observations and cinematic landscapes. David Letterman said of his regular TV show guest: ‘I’d like to quit my job and travel with him... if the money can be worked out.’ Turn the car radio volume to high on Highway 46, where James Dean came to grief, and When The Road Gets Tough, written with his wife Nadine.
Russell is an outlaw voice, crossing the borders of folk and rockabilly while staying true to his country cowboy roots. I’d love to have been in the audience at that bar when the ragtime troubadour, as he describes himself, first dropped by. And not just for the steak and vino.
The Roving: Bonny Light Horseman
The beauty of traditional folk music is its boundless capacity for reinterpretation. A captivating example is The Roving, a gem among gems on an album entitled Bonny Light Horseman by the band of the same name and the latest project of Anaïs Mitchell. It is Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. The ancient is given a modern spin.
The country-sweet tones of Mitchell, fresh from writing the hit Broadway musical Hadestown, are perfect for this tale of infidelity. Her collaborators in an unlikely folk supergroup are Fruit Bats singer Eric D Johnson and multi-instrumentalist/producer Josh Kaufman (The National, Hiss Golden Messenger, Josh Ritter and Bob Weir), and they enlist fine vocal support from Lisa Hannigan, The Staves and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon.
‘These 500-year-old lyrics are so deeply applicable,’ says Johnson. ‘The Roving could be the plot of an 80s teen movie. We sing you ancient love songs of timeless humanity and heartbreak that are going to make you feel something no matter what century you're in.’
The Vermont-born, Brooklyn-based Mitchell adds: ‘The songs feel like ours but they’re not. We worked on them and they feel like an authentic expression of us, but we're also re-enacting ritual. It was very healing to delve into these old stories and images that have existed for so long that you can rest in them.’ The songwriters have rewritten verses and lines in these familiar ageless tunes, subtly omitting the twee or frivolous. Generally the tweaks work a treat.
After his exquisite performance on Deep In Love, Johnson takes the lead for a gorgeous reimagining of Magpie’s Nest with Mitchell harmonising, and there is delightful call-and-response interplay between the two on Jane Jane. Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings would probably have tackled the latter in the same way. The title track, which gave the band its name, sets a reflective, astral tone. Audiences in Glasgow (Celtic Connections) and London have been enchanted.
Mitchell’s Hadestown concept album was released in 2010 and her work on the stage venture took up nearly a decade. It is a folk opera based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set in post-apocalyptic Depression-era America. The hard work was worth it with a clutch of Tonys coming her way, including for best musical and soundtrack, followed by a Grammy. Her latest enterprise might merit a gong too.
Sweet Abandon: Ida Mae
We are looking forward to next Friday’s intimate songwriters-in-the-round concert at London’s Cadogan Hall and our first live exposure to the blues-inspired music of Ida Mae. Their plaintive composition Sweet Abandon is Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. Introducing Chris Turpin and Stephanie Jean Ward...
Top of the bill on Song After Song is the stellar American tunesmith Mary Chapin Carpenter, much loved by this website, who is joined by The Wandering Hearts, Ethan Johns and Ida Mae. Multi-instrumentalist Johns, son of the legendary Glyn, is the common denominator here having produced Carpenter’s Sometimes Just The Sky and Ida Mae’s exemplary Chasing Lights album released in June last year.
The Norfolk couple, now based in Nashville (where else?), named themselves after a Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee tune just as their earlier blues-rock indie band Kill It Kid honoured Blind Willie McTell. Turpin’s smoky rasp blends beautifully with his wife’s smoother timbre influenced by jazz greats from Bessie Smith to Diana Krall.
The swampy power of Turpin’s slide guitar (his 1930s’ National resonator is a joy to any ears) takes a tender turn on Sweet Abandon, a ‘lost-until-I-found-you’ love song with a Birds Of Chicago feel, Stephanie Jean emulating the subtle nuances of Allison Russell. Elsewhere there are echoes of the erstwhile uncivil Civil Wars on Easily In Love and If You Don’t Love Me, The White Stripes on My Girl Is A Heartbreak, and Robert Plant & Alison Krauss (à la Raising Sand) on Chasing Lights.
The couple rarely stray far from their beloved blues roots. Indeed, the intro to Rightfully, Honestly is notable for the field recordings of birdsong at Robert Johnson’s grave during a road trip to the Deep South, a musical pilgrimage. Ida Mae may look too young to be so indebted to the history of the blues but it is a heartening, laudable trait.
Frank Zappa’s son Dweezil adds to the guitar pyrotechnics on rousing opener Boom Boom Boom. But Ida Mae are at their most engaging when the temperature and tempo cool for ballads such as If You Don’t Love Me. Here’s the dreamy, slow-building title track whose opening verse sets a high lyrical standard…
You let your dreams roll like thunder Into the arms of a stranger And all that drunken darkness held you under, pushed you faster And you were chasing lights
Kid: The Pretenders
Would you believe, it is 40 years since the release of the debut album by The Pretenders. As a salute to one of rock’s most distinctive vocalists and performers, Chrissie Hynde, our Song Of The Week at Here Comes The Song is Kid, the second of three singles from that acclaimed record.
Brass In Pocket, the first UK No1 hit of 1980 and a dancefloor invitation if ever there was one, is a fans’ favourite on that eponymous album, but Ohio-born songwriter Hynde didn’t think it was so special. Kid is as catchy, a clever Sixties-style pop song, with guitarist James Honeyman-Scott (an all too brief life lost to drugs) evoking the twang of Duane Eddy instead of the jingle-jangle of The Byrds, and followed the Kinks cover Stop Your Sobbing into the charts.
Hynde left Akron for London in 1973, fell in love with the place and stayed, surviving and thriving in the punk era. She published a lauded autobiography, Reckless, duetted with Frank Sinatra, toured with Stevie Nicks and developed her passion for painting. Asked by The Independent last year about music, women artists in a male-dominated world and the #MeToo movement, she was obviously uncomfortable being cast as a feminist role model: ‘Sexism and discrimination never came into it with my band. It was all about having some songs and playing them. I’ve never had a problem. It’s fantastic. But now I’m apologetic. Because people, especially women, are always like, ‘Didn’t you have to work harder?’ And I’m like, No.’
Hynde, with her seductive vibrato and deft phrasing, blends romanticism and cynicism in her intelligent, fearless lyrics. Is Kid about a lover or a child? Perhaps both. She can break your heart or wreck your preconceptions. As she is still doing with an album of jazz-inspired covers, Valve Bone Woe – she calls it ‘my karaoke moment’.
She was determined to promote the importance of melody, believing there is a dearth of it in too linear modern music. From Sinatra to Mingus, The Beach Boys to former lover Ray Davies, Hoagy Carmichael to Nick Drake, these jazz dub reimaginings are typical of her risk-taking streak.
Hers is an imposing back catalogue, from barn-stormers to beautiful ballads: Private Life, Message Of Love, Talk Of The Town, Don’t Get Me Wrong, 2000 Miles (on everyone's Christmas song playlist although intended as a lament to Honeyman-Scott), the poignant Hymn To Her, written by schoolfriend Meg Keene, and the more recent Let’s Get Lost.
Don’t Get Me Wrong showcases the strength of her lyric writing and her penchant for introducing a surprise word for delicious rhyming effect:
Don’t get me wrong If I’m acting so distracted I’m thinking about the fireworks That go off when you smile
Don’t get me wrong If I split like light refracted I’m only off to wander Across a moonlit mile
The fiercely single-minded Hynde is a vital voice who is still fronting the franchise she created, aided by a revolving cast of band members. A new album is expected soon, the first since the impressive Alone in 2016. ‘Nobody tells me I can’t, Nobody tells me I shan’t,’ she talk-sings on the title track. It remains the great Pretender’s mantra.
Like I Used To: AJ Lee & Blue Summit
If you’re an admirer of I’m With Her and Lula Wiles, you’ll enjoy the music of AJ Lee & Blue Summit. The Californian band, who play a blend of bluegrass, country, western swing, jazz and folk, provide Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com with Like I Used To. Mandolin magician AJ Lee is a songwriter of growing stature.
This love song of regret and yearning, a plea for a second chance, is the title track from their below-the-radar debut album of last year. Lee wrote all 12 tracks and is backed by Molly Tuttle’s younger brother, Sully, fellow guitarist Jesse Fichman and bassist Chad Bowen. Lee’s rapport with flat-picker Sully in particular was honed by her regular stints with The Tuttles family ensemble, led by guru Jack.
Lee’s voice has a honeyed purity, a pleasure to hear and harmonise with. She plays guitar, fiddle and banjo too and can probably do without predictions such as ‘Is this kid the next Alison Krauss’. Like I Used To, with its lovely chord changes and shifts in tempo, creates a mood of nostalgia but this mature twentysomething is giving the old genre a thoroughly modern makeover. Here’s an acoustic live version of the song.
AJ, Aissa Joelle in full, has been singing since she was four and played in her mother Betsy Riger Lee’s old band, the whimsically named Granny And The Skillet Washers. To emphasise the importance of musical lineage, grandad Lee was a jazz piano player. ‘Whatever it is, she's got it,’ says mum. ‘And you can’t teach that.’
Lee has been named Northern California Bluegrass Society female vocalist of the year an extraordinary nine times. She talked to Bluegrass Today about her writing regime: ‘Sometimes a little melody or rhythm will pop into my head and I’ll reach for my phone to record it. Sometimes it will become part of a something, or nothing at all. Sometimes a whole song will get written in an hour. It’s a waiting game. I’ll catch myself thinking about love, or friendships, or nature, or having a good time, and that always helps inspire me to write.’
Lee’s alliance with fellow Santa Cruz natives Blue Summit began in 2015. The band enjoyed a short UK tour last year and are planning to revisit in May and June, joined by brilliant fiddler Jan Purat. No doubt they’ll treat us to the lush Crossing The Blue Skies and the moody Misty Rays. The vocal interplay is divine and emphasises the point about a broader mission than just making bluegrass bigger on the West Coast even though Lee has so far resisted a move to Nashville.
Chris Thile, the mandolin master of Punch Brothers, hailed I’m With Her as the best band in the world on his influential Live From Here show. Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Watkins, stellar songwriters all, have long been heroes for Lee, but there is every indication talent can take her to a summit of her own.
Conundrum: Robert Vincent
If last year made us aware of how serious the climate change threat was, this year must be when we start tackling it. Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is Conundrum, a powerfully simple message from Merseyside-born songwriter Robert Vincent, which was premiered by Glide Magazine.
A popular visitor to Nashville, where he signed for the Thirty Tigers label, with his intelligent country rock built on universal themes, Vincent questions our self-destructive attitude to Earth’s welfare in an advanced track from his new album In This Town You’re Owned, produced by Ethan Johns and due out in February. The Americana devotee explains: ‘We are faced with a conundrum about whether or not to remain as consumers and continually take from the world we live in, or to start looking after our planet, to try to fix the damage we are doing.’
Conundrum’s refrain is succinct and memorable...
There’s no turning back
We take love from this world
Try to leave some when you go
There’s no secret plan
You’re born into this world alone
Try to leave it better off when you go
We were given a first taste of the album in October with the single release of the title track, abbreviated to This Town, whose video showed scenes from Vincent’s hometown of Crosby, particularly the art deco-style Plaza cinema of his childhood escape, blended with images from American shrines whose music has touched him, from Nashville and Memphis in Tennessee to Buddy Holly’s Lubbock in Texas.
If Holly was a past influence (there’s more than a hint in the uptempo My Neighbour’s Ghost), Jason Isbell sounds like a current one, in the beauty and cleverness of his balladry. The title song expresses Vincent’s frustration with the manipulation of people’s views by social media. ‘The old days of small-town talk have gone, it is now a global town. Sadly it has created division, in this town and everyone’s town.’
Conundrum – I love the banjo interlaced with acoustic, steel and electric guitars – is further evidence why Vincent won the inaugural Emerging Artist accolade from Bob Harris at the Americana Music Association UK Awards in 2016. It is a worthy addition to our Save The Planet playlist which includes Jackson Browne’s Before The Deluge, Tracy Chapman’s The Rape Of The World, The Rails’ Cancel The Sun (Hello Armageddon), New Model Army’s Ballad, Melissa Etheridge’s I Need To Wake Up, Jimmy Cliff’s Save Our Planet Earth, Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), The Beach Boys’ Don’t Go Near The Water, Cat Stevens’ Where Do The Children Play, Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi and Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush. Young updates his classic line ‘Look at Mother Nature on the run’ for his live shows from the 1970s to the 21st century.
Our second grandson was joyfully welcomed into the world on Friday, sharing the birthday of the young environmental activist Greta Thunberg, as fires still raged in Australia and US-Iran tensions were frighteningly heightened. Let us hope hawkish leaders, who take out enemies and create a million more in the process, tone down the macho rhetoric, talk more of peace and empathy and abandon their denials that it is we who are imperilling the planet. For the sake of future generations.
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