Songs Of The Week 2020: Take 2

Neil Morton


Holy Ghost Fire: Larkin Poe

As lockdowns begin to ease, uneasily, salutes a duo whose gritty rock has raised our spirits in the virtual world. Nashville-based Larkin Poes Holy Ghost Fire is a celebration of musics healing power and our Song Of The Week.

The rousing song honours the Lovell sisters southern roots, Rebeccas blues-powered vocal and Megans slide and lap steel guitars a constant delight. When we wrote it we had no idea how cathartic it would be to release a song of optimism and unity during uncertain times, says Rebecca. Music can galvanise your heart and help you rise above – all youve got to do is sing.

That anthem appears on their cryptically titled fifth album Self Made Man. The north Georgia natives, both classically trained multi-instrumentalists, formed their band in 2010, naming it after their great-great-great grandfather, a distant cousin of the author Edgar Allan Poe whose writing they enjoyed as kids before the family connection was discovered. Their self-produced album was completed just two weeks before tornadoes struck north Nashville and the pandemic closed down livelihoods.

The so-called little sisters of The Allman Brothers could have named the album Self-Made Women after a journey steeped in relentless touring, dedication and dues well paid. Now they have their own label, Tricki-Woo Records, and are encouraging others to follow their lead. Before the name and style change to an earthier sound, they toured as The Lovell Sisters with fiddle-playing eldest sibling Jessica before she turned her back on the bluegrass and country scene to study and start a family.

The blues is very dear and near to our hearts, and its not strongly represented by women, Rebecca told Hour Detroit in 2018. We feel that theres this new resurgence in support of the blues, a genre of American heritage that is truly a treasure. We are trying to bring it into the 21st century and respectfully take it somewhere new.

There are so many strong stereotypes that are in place, especially regarding the entertainment industry. There are diva singers and male blues shouters – all of these archetypes that we want to do our best to shatter because people are not just little coloured crayons in a box. We can be whatever it is that we choose to be.

On their Poe ancestry, she said: I would say the flavour of Southern Gothic has informed our storytelling and songwriting. We love his dark imagery and can’t help but have that filter in our own work as well. One could hear the sublime Tedeschi-Trucks Band covering Holy Ghost Fire and the song would have suited Paul Rodgers’ rich timbre in his Free and Bad Company days.

Hibernation has been more bearable with artists such as The Milk Carton Kids, The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (sample this inventive reworking of Kraftwerks The Model), Rhiannon Giddens, Gretchen Peters and Emily Barker to entertain us with their home livestreaming. Larkin Poe have been prolific with their exciting covers and advanced teasers for their latest album such as this socially distanced rendition of Holy Ghost Fire.

We are all missing Glastonbury at the moment, despite the BBCs best retrospective efforts. Larkin Poe have appeared twice and their blistering set at the 2016 festival was one for the memory vault. This weekend they joined their band for an album release show at Brooklyn Bowl Nashville. The audience was a digital one but at least the stage was real. When playing live and loud, these sisters come alive.

Colors: Black Pumas

It was heartening to read the list of nominees for the Nashville-based Americana Music Association Awards, many of whom have featured in our Songs Of The Week blog at We now welcome a new addition: Black Pumas and the soul-funk gem Colors from their superlative eponymous debut album.

The Austin-based powerhouse duo, comprising singer-guitarist Eric Burton and producer and multi-instrumentalist Adrian Quesada, appear in two categories: group of the year and best emerging artists. These Pumas are about to pounce on a wider audience.

Californian Burton, 30, busked his way from Santa Monica to Austin where friends linked him up with Laredo-born Quesada, 13 years his senior and a veteran of the mid-Texas music scene. I was driving at the time and Eric sang over the phone. I couldnt hear him that well but his passion and energy were so contagious.

Burton, who has a gospel and musical theatre background, was always keen to pay homage to his influences, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye, but Colors and the album itself are no retro, 70s soul nostalgia trip. Quesada told Rolling Stone: I didn't know Eric had James Brown-level frontman chops. As soon as we stepped off stage the first time, we said to each other: Theres a spark here.

Burtons voice is formidable, swooping and soaring with equal facility. His composition, particularly its infectious chorus, hints at Gnarls Barkleys Crazy. The duo became a sextet for a pulsating live version with hip-hop fan Quesada switching from keys to impressive guitar. Their music has been described as Bobby Womack fronting Wu-Tang Clan. Black Moon Rising, Fire and the engaging ballad Oct 33 are outstanding too.

The bands name may evoke the Black Panthers but the connection wasnt intended – it just sounds badass. Burton told The Independent: One of our goals is unity in a time of divisiveness. We dont worry about trying to make political statements. Life is more precious than that.’ Quesada added: ‘At our live shows we have people from all different backgrounds, ethnicities and genders – it’s all about inclusiveness.’

Video director Kristian Mercado, who used a backdrop of life in the Bronx for his film, said: Eric and I spoke in great length about perspective and growing up, and how sometimes its a complicated experience, and we wanted to capture the feeling that it is both beautiful and sometimes imperfect. We wanted to show both the joys and hardships of life colliding.

Those Americana award nominees who have contributed to Songs Of The Week include Brandi Carlile, The Highwomen, Yola, Brittany Howard, Our Native Daughters, Aubrie Sellers, Nathaniel Rateliff and the late John Prine. Quesada has already won a Grammy with the Latin funk ensemble Grupa Fantasma, who once backed Prince; Black Pumas can add to his scroll of honour.

Song For Sam Cooke (Here In America): Dion

Dion, still in fine weathered voice at the age of 80, has unveiled a touching anthem just when it was needed, Song For Sam Cooke (Here In America), our Song Of The Week at, from his Blues With Friends album, a series of collaborations with an array of stellar musicians.

The song, embellished by Paul Simons warm harmony, was conceived decades ago ago but left in a drawer until Dion was inspired to polish and complete it after watching the movie Green Book. It chimes with todays Black Lives Matter mood, telling of a tour of the segregated South in the early 60s with the soul pioneer and civil rights activist – But the places I could stay/ They all made you walk away’.

New Yorker Dion, full name Dion Francis DiMucci, told American Songwriter it was not just about racism. Its a song of brotherhood and understanding. Sam Cooke looked after me in the South. We went to see James Brown and The Flames. People were getting on my case. Sam brought me to some soul dive and he told people: Dions with me. Cool out. I was rough around the edges but he was a very refined guy. His father was a preacher, and he was living out the gospel.

You stayed more steady than a backbeat on a drum

You told me you believed a change was gonna come

You sang for freedom but lived life free

I saw it in your smile and in your dignity

You were a star when you were standing on a stage

I look back on it, I feel a burning rage

You sang You Send Me, I sang I Wonder Why

I still wonder, you were way too young to die

Cooke died at the age of 33 after a bizarre motel shooting incident in 1964. The verdict of justifiable homicide was disputed by his family and has been the subject of conspiracy theories ever since. But there is no arguing with the power of his musical legacy: Change Is Gonna Come, Wonderful World, Bring It On Home To Me, You Send Me, Chain Gang, Another Saturday Night, Twistin The Night Away.

As the title of Dion’s album suggests, the other 13 tracks, co-written by Mike Aquillina, are mainly blues-oriented, with accomplished guitar work from a support cast that includes Jeff Beck (on the gorgeous Cant Start Over Again), Joe Bonamassa, Sonny Landreth, Billy Gibbons, John Hammond Jr, Brian Setzer, Joe Menza, Jimmy Vivino, Steve Van Zandt and Samantha Fish. On the slow-burning spiritual Hymn To Him, a reworking from Dions Velvet & Steel gospel album in 1986, Bruce Springsteen contributes a memorable break and his wife Patty Scialfa a sensitive harmony.

Theres a rousing duet with Van Morrison (I Got Nothin) and the liner notes are penned by another old buddy, Bob Dylan: When you have a voice as deep and wide as Dions, that voice can take you all the way around the world and all the way back home to the blues. He knows how to sing, and he knows just the right way to craft these songs. When Dion reaches out, friends tend to say yes.

Phil Shaw on Dion and one of the great songs of the 60s

I Find It Hard To Say (Rebel): Lauryn Hill

People have been told to get ready, a change is gonna come, for decades now, but the sickening story of police brutality against black Americans knows no end. Our Song Of The Week at is a 2016 reworking by Lauryn Hill of a song she wrote 15 years earlier, I Find It Hard To Say (Rebel).

Curtis Mayfield, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye… one would have thought more soul-infused anthems were unnecessary. New Jersey-born Hill used the word Rebel as a verb, an exhortation to stand up and speak out. Her message, at first deemed inappropriate in the wake of 9/11, has proved depressingly relevant on countless occasions since in a land riven by institutionalised racism among law enforcement bodies. The outrage over the very public murder of a defenceless George Floyd in Minneapolis has been worldwide, not merely confined to the streets of US cities.

Hill’s original song, from 2002’s live MTV Unplugged 2.0 album, was written after the death of Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant shot by police in 1999, and its release was delayed. ‘It was such a hot time in the city at that point, I was afraid that if I put the record out, people would misunderstand what I meant by Rebel and just take it to the streets.’ It wasn’t the first time a wallet would be mistaken for a gun, as Bruce Springsteen sang on American Skin (41 Shots).

I find it hard to say, that everything is alright

Don't look at me that way, like everything is alright

’Cause my own eyes can see, through all your false pretences

But what you fail to see, is all the consequences

You think our lives are cheap, and easy to be wasted

As history repeats, so foul you can taste it

And while the people sleep, too comfortable to face it

His life so incomplete, and nothing can replace it

The 2016 update, melodious amid its raw power, was unveiled at Jay Z and Beyoncé’s Tidal X charity concert in Brooklyn and reprised emotionally in the Charlie Rose studio. Hill tweeted: Old tune, new version, same context, even more relevant now. Sick and tired of being sick and tired.

The Fugees co-founder, who blends R&B, neo soul, hip hop and rap and is celebrated for such classics as Everything Is Everything, Guarding The Gates, The Mystery Of Iniquity and Black Rage, displayed a keen sense of timing: the divisive Donald Trump era was dawning. When a president for whom empathy and compassion appear anathema prefers to emphasise the backlash rather than the crime that sparked it, anger is bound to heighten. Most principled people were appalled when Trump conducted a crass publicity stunt in front of a Washington church bearing a bible as a prop after nearby peaceful protesters had been teargassed. Even the local bishop disowned him: We need moral leadership and hes done everything to divide us.

At a memorial service in Minneapolis the family attorney blamed Floyds death on a pandemic of discrimination; references were made to Americas history of slavery, bigotry and white supremacy. The tone of Lauryn Hills words was echoed by the Rev Al Sharptons eulogy: We cant let this go. We cant keep living like this.

At least in this instance punishment will be seen to be done, if only because a camera captured the unspeakable act. But will the system which accommodates such behaviour be decontaminated? As civil rights continue to be wronged, we should put Hills song on repeat until the knee on the neck of justice and decency is released for good, and we can breathe again. Black lives should matter more than a hashtag.

It Must Be Someone Elses Fault: Courtney Marie Andrews

A whole album about heartbreak may be too much to bear just now but we are talking Courtney Marie Andrews here, and few artists articulate emotion quite like her. Our Song Of The Week at is It Must Be Someone Elses Fault, an advanced track from her forthcoming release Old Flowers.

The Phoenix-born singer wrote the album while coming to terms with the end of a long-term relationship. ‘There are a million songs about heartbreak, but I did not lie when writing these songs,’ she says. ‘This album is about loving and caring for the person you cant be with. Its about being vulnerable after youve been hurt. Its about a woman who is alone but OK with that, if it means truth. This was my truth this year – my nine-year relationship ended and I am a woman alone in the world, but happy to know herself.

Andrews guitar and keyboards are augmented by only two other musicians: Twain multi-instrumentalist Matthew Davidson and Big Thief drummer James Krivchenia. Andrew Sarlo keeps the production sparse to liberate that exquisite, aching vocal which manages to combine power and fragility.

Feels like I’ve gone crazy

Like the women in my family usually do

We can’t seem to keep our heads on

Long enough to make it through

But I’m still sensitive and stubborn

Still cry more than a person should

But it’s this feeling inside that’s changed

Like I’ve gone bad, but the world is good

We await the arrival in late July of Old Flowers, building on the beauty and brilliance of Honest Life and May Your Kindness Remain. The album was delayed to ensure that independent record stores across the US have physical copies available at the same time as the digital release. Weve had other delicious tasters, such as Burlap String and If I Told, with its plaintive, nagging question Would You? One can hear occasional echoes of Linda Ronstadt, Brandi Carlile and Kim Richey but comparisons have become unhelpful and unnecessary.

Oh, but it must be someone else’s fault

Must be someone else’s heart who tainted mine

No, I cannot be to blame for the story of this pain

Oh, it must be someone else’s fault

As Andrews told The Telegraph in 2018 she learned to sing listening to Aretha Franklin and drank more from the well of Laurel Canyon songwriters than Nashville traditionalists. They wouldnt call this country where I grew up. Im an old man when it comes to music, she quipped, emphasising the influence of Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Neil Young and John Prine as much as Joni Mitchell, Carol King, Lucinda Williams and Carly Simon. Songs dont have a gender. The flowering of this singular songwriting talent has been a constant joy.

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Arkadelphia: Waxahatchee

Devotees of Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin and Gillian Welch should be impressed with the latest release by Waxahatchee, aka Katie Crutchfield, the 31-year-old Alabama musician. Song Of The Week at is Arkadelphia: Indie rock melts into Americana.

Crutchfields beguiling drawl guides us through a deeply personal landscape on her country-tinged fifth solo album Saint Cloud. Strengthened by the sobriety she embraced two years ago, she explores the southern roots she once rebelled against. Her recording alias derives from a creek near the family home in Birmingham, Alabama. Arkadelphia, a beautifully dark tale about addiction which takes its name from a road in Birmingham, has a Dylanesque feel. But it is Williams who remains her ultimate role and soul model...

If I burn out like a lightbulb

They’ll say She wasnt meant for that life

They’ll put it all in a capsule and save it for a dark night

When we were kids, free as the air

With a violence craving to turn up somewhere

A tap dancer, a memorised number

An avalanche of the deep red clay earth

Crutchfield told Pitchfork: The song is about someone I have known for a very long time who struggled badly with addiction. It starts with this imagery of the South from my youth and conjures this innocence. Then the middle part takes you into the thick of the addiction: it’s truly dire, it’s life or death. I have struggled, but not like this person did. So it’s just relating to them, trying to connect, and almost feeling like you’re getting ready to say goodbye. At the end it’s this whole thing of recovery and trying to do the next right thing in life.

Saint Clouds stripped-back sound, the calm after 2017s Out In The Storm (a throwback to her punk days with twin sister Allison in P.S. Eliot), helps to project the evocative lyrics, which enjoy a fresh clarity and perspective. I leave my home desolate/ But not alone/ Ive a gift Ive been told/ For seeing whats there, she sings in The Eye. She certainly has.

Arkadelphia, with the Telecaster twang of Detroit backing band Bonny Doon and Crutchfields emotional restraint despite the painful subject matter, could have come from her favourite album, Williams commercial breakthrough in 1998, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. Hearing it was an epiphany for the apprentice just as her sorcerer was hooked as a 12-year-old listening to Bob Dylans Highway 61 Revisited on repeat.

Crutchfield gained a fascinating insight into her gurus songwriting process for the magazine Interview. Williams’ quality shows no sign of flagging, as her latest politically charged album Good Souls Better Angels illustrates. Crutchfield told Paste: She was this cool black sheep of country music. She was so hard to market because she refused to commit to a genre or pander to what was popular. She is such a role model to me, someone who is committed to the integrity of the music above everything else. That’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do, too. And then obviously, she’s one of the greatest songwriters of all time.

Waxahatchees own storytelling powers are formidable on the title track honouring her fathers home suburb in Florida and capturing her time spent in New York City. Cant Do Much is an uplifting love song but she is at her best when tugging at the heartstrings, as in the poetic Ruby Falls about the passing of a friend (Real love doesn’t follow a straight line/ It breaks your neck/ It builds you a delicate shrine). Crutchfields new sound heralds a new creative chapter.

Wish I Was: Gretchen Peters

A dedication more than 10 years in the making: Gretchen Peters has finally released her tribute album to the genius of Mickey Newbury. Our Song Of The Week at is Wish I Was, a typically dark track by the Texan who inspired Peters to her own songwriting summit.

Newbury, who died in 2002, would have been 80 when Peters album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, was launched digitally. Peters alluring vocal is enhanced by partner Barry Walshs polished piano (and accordion elsewhere), Will Kimburghs sumptuous guitar and the haunting harmonica of Charlie McCoy, who was a regular Newbury collaborator. The album was produced at the Cinderella Sound converted-garage studio in the Nashville suburb of Madison where Newbury made his most memorable recordings such as Looks Like Rain, Frisco Mabel Joy and Heaven Help The Child. Peters is a self-confessed lover of sad songs, and Wish I Was sounds like one of her own beautifully bleak compositions. Heres the 1978 original which was reprised on a later album and retitled Willow Tree.

It was one of the first Newbury songs Peters recalls hearing as a young bar singer in Boulder, Colorado. Im drawn to visual imagery in songs, and this lyric is like a movie – full of beautiful things and that pervasive sadness that Mickeys music is known for.

Wish I was a grain of sand Playing in a babys hand Falling like a diamond chain into the ocean

A grain of sand is all I ever wanted to be Lay me down, let the water Wash right over me, wash over me Peters told Radio 2s Bob Harris Country from her lockdown on the Florida coast that she had used the same Cinderella studio bathroom for her vocals that Linda Ronstadt did for her Silk Purse album. Talk about soaking up history. It helps the listeners mental picture as Peters delivers one of her favourite verses...

Oh I wish I was an old guitar

Sittin in a beat-up car

Hittin every two-bit bar

From here to Texas

Then I wouldnt be ashamed

To look up my old friends

And they would be so proud

To see me strung up again

In Wish I Was and other imaginative interpretations – The Sailor, She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye, Heaven Help The Child, Saint Cecilia and the lovely Three Bells For Stephen – one can hear the influences that informed her own dazzling gems, recorded after Newburys passing, such as On A Bus To St Cloud, The Matador, Idlewild, The Boy From Rye and Lowlands. Surely I am not alone in believing Peters has matched if not surpassed the quality of her heros work. Newbury would have approved.

In a letter to Newburys memory in the roots journal No Depression, Peters wrote: At a time when I was struggling mightily to find my voice, I heard yours... I knew you were someone I needed to know. Listening to those records I heard an echo of my own restlessness. I heard an itch that needed scratching. Sometimes I thought I heard a spark of anger, a sly middle finger aimed at the establishment on Music Row. That well is where the songs come from, and once they do, it’s not your pain anymore. It belongs to the song. It belongs to the world.

You weren’t made for the machine. And the machine wasn’t made for you. Not for your beautiful, crazy, over-the-top records, not for your devastatingly sad and gorgeous voice. I never knew you. But I felt like you knew me. You were a beacon for a young artist trying to make her own way through the murk.

Newbury’s compositions have been covered a staggering 1,500 times by everyone from Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis to Johnny Cash, Bettye Lavette and Willie Nelson, but wider recognition curiously eluded him. Now, thanks to Peters, he is unsung no longer. His fellow Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee tips her hat to the huge hit enjoyed by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition in 1968, the bad-trip cautionary tale Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) which was part of the soundtrack for the movie The Big Lebowski. Kimburgh’s swampy Tony Joe White-style guitar and Peters’ bluesy vocal elevate the song to coveted cover status.

I woke up this mornin with the sundown shininin I found my mind in a brown paper bag within I tripped on a cloud and fell eight miles high I tore my mind on a jagged sky I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in I pushed my soul in a deep dark hole and then I followed it in I watched myself crawlinout as I was crawlinin… Not satisfied with one or two cover versions, Peters decided on a 12-track homage to the guru she never met, a country music outlaw before that phrase was coined. We look forward to her next album of original songs. Everybody wants you when youre locked down and out…

Phil Shaw presents his top 50 greatest cover versions

Stan Hey: Three covers a cut above the original

Neil Morton on Gretchen PetersArguing With Ghosts

We'll Make It Through: Ray LaMontagne

We all need songs of hope at the moment. The blame-and-shame lyrics are still being written. Our Song Of The Week at

.com is Well Make It Through, a new release by American singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne. That sandpaper rasp of a voice is beautiful and so is the uncomplicated sentiment.

It is not known if the 46-year-old New Hampshire native wrote the ballad with the pain of the pandemic in mind or if it was meant to satisfy a previous need for comfort. But it is so well timed. Typically with this understated man, the track was released without fanfare. We assume that haunting harmonica, blowing like a desert wind, is his.

I know you’re scared cause you can’t see the light You toss and turn through the night Holding me, and I’m holding you And together, we’ll get through We always do

The young LaMontagnes moment of epiphany came when the Stephen Stills song Treetop Flyer woke him on the radio ahead of his early shift at a shoe factory in Maine. After buying the Stills Alone acoustic album (1991) he decided a musical career was a better fit. He gave himself five years to see if he could find an audience for his intimate songs, and found it. We can detect his other influences: The Band, Otis Redding, Van Morrison, Nick Drake and Tim Buckley. His debut album in 2004, the bleak Trouble, was produced by Ethan Jones. God Willin’ And The Creek Don’t Rise in 2010 earned him a first Grammy.

Loved for his soulful, breathy tenor, LaMontagne wrote a song called Jolene (a darker tale than the Dolly Parton hit) which closed out the 2010 movie The Town. Till The Sun Turns Black, the title track from his second album in 2006, was used on the TV medical drama show ER. You might recall him singing the lovely Such A Simple Song on Jools Hollands Later show in 2018 while promoting his acclaimed seventh album Part Of The Light.

LaMontagne is famously private, even resorting to playing live shows in the dark and restricting the banter. He shuns the limelight, rarely giving interviews. I can’t pretend it’s ever felt natural, he once told The Independent. I don’t like to be noticed, or even looked at. But I no longer play with the lights out. He said his aim was to write melodies that endure. Well Make It Through should be one of them.

Carolina: Sarah Siskind

Few artists leave Nashville for good with their status and integrity intact but North Carolina native Sarah Siskind is one of them. Our Song Of The Week at is Carolina, a catchy, guitar-driven cut from her latest album Modern Appalachia.

Farewell Music City machine, hello simpler family life. Siskind moved back east to her home state via rural Virginia four years ago as a successful songwriter – Alison Krauss, Wynonna and Randy Travis were grateful recipients as well as the hit TV series Nashville, The Wire and Pretty Little Liars.

There are echoes here of Joni Mitchell in Siskinds vocal and the open tunings of her electric guitar. The album is a journey of self-discovery, identity and faith...

Who you are isn’t where you’re from But where you’re from is always close And when you go digging in that dirt Get ready for what you fear the most But it’s a fine line between down to earth and underground

Guitarist Mike Seal provides fine flourishes on Carolina with Bon Ivers Justin Vernon helping out on harmonies. Jazz guitar great Bill Frisell weaves his magic on the anthemic title track in which he is referenced among Siskinds influences with Dolly Parton, Mahalia Jackson and Paul Brady, and on the dreamy Porchlight about unfulfilled love (Wishing it was different doesn’t really change a thing/ Push it to the limit or don’t do anything).

The 42-year-old Siskind, who has toured with Bonnie Raitt and Paul Brady, headed to Nashville at the age of 20 and her song Goodbye Is All We Have was recorded by Alison Krauss, which earned her a job as a staff writer at the Big Yellow Dog publishing company. Her motivation for returning to her roots after 14 years away is explored in the vulnerable and intimate Me And Now (with her friend Rose Cousins on backing vocals) and In The Mountains, a love letter to a spiritual terrain where ghosts are confronted and I can let my burdens go.

What started as a move to live a simpler life and raise my family among the mountains soon became a full-blown discovery of self beyond being a musician, but a woman, a mother, a human, she says. Were finding out who we are, she sings. The albums title suggests a fusion of old and new. The sound may lean more to the modern than the Appalachian but Siskinds debt to traditional mountain music – so ancient, so free, it began to sew the fabric of me – is still being honoured.


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