FEATURED SONG OF THE WEEK
Don’t Call Me Names: Rhiannon Giddens
Rhiannon Giddens always sings passionately about racial and social injustice, from slavery to women’s rights and civil wrongs. Now she is taking on the misogynists and gaslighters. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is Don’t Call Me Names. It is an electrifying performance.
The roots songwriter, fiddler and banjo player and African-American music history activist from Greensboro, North Carolina, has rarely been this angry. She recalls a hurtful lover and, to a swamp-blues backbeat, gives him a piece of her mind. But the snarling chorus can be interpreted more universally as a clarion call for equality...
Don’t call me names
Don’t yell at me
Don’t think you can treat me any way you see
Don’t sermonise, don’t patronise
If you wanna talk about me, look me in the eye
Don’t threaten me
Don’t treat me rough
Don’t try to throw one at me ’cause I’ve had enough
You wouldn’t treat a dog that way
Don’t call me names
Giddens, founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and member of formidable folk ensemble Our Native Daughters, explains: ‘The framework is a love affair but it can happen in any kind of connection. The real story is accepting my inner strength and refusing to continue being gaslit and held back; and refusing to sacrifice my mental health for the sake of anything or anyone.’
Her critics, who must be few, regard her vocal as too pure and precise. But they should think again. The blues and gospel were as important to Giddens as her classical training and her soulful swooping is a constant joy. Now she has added the growl to the plaintive in her powerfully emotional range.
Giddens’ new single follows last year’s absorbing projects with Our Native Daughters and multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi on their album There Is No Other. She was recently named artistic director of the Silkroad Ensemble, a cross-cultural music organisation founded over 20 years ago by the renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Silkroad aims to bring together performers, and music new and old, from cultures connected to the ancient network between East Asia and the Mediterranean.
During the lockdown she performed a distanced duet with Ben Harper for a version of Nick Drake’s last composition, Black Eyed Dog, and a superb rendition of her own At The Purchaser’s Option from her Freedom Highway album with partner Turrisi from their base in Ireland for the Stephen Colbert Show in the US.
Giddens chose the perfect Black Lives Matter moment to release Don’t Call Me Names: ‘I don’t often write personal songs but this one stayed with me – it poured out and just sat there waiting for the right time. The anger I felt then is the anger I feel now at my entire country being gaslit, held back and sacrificed. We have to keep saying no to toxic behaviour, no matter how small or large the stage, and keep saying it nice and loud.’ Turn up the volume.
Simple Math: Kathleen Edwards
Welcome back, Kathleen Edwards. After a six-year self-imposed exile, the Canadian alt-country singer-songwriter is bewitching us again. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is Simple Math, an ode to the joy of cherished friendship.
Simple Math, which the UK education minister might have been tempted to use during his bout of algorithm and blues, is a standout track on Edwards’ new album Total Freedom, her first since 2012’s Voyageur, disarmingly candid tales of flawed relationships and bittersweet nostalgia.
Four albums into her career Edwards turned her back on the burdens of the music business in 2014, citing burn-out from playing night after night and nearly destroying her voice. ‘I’d never experienced clinical depression before,’ she says. ‘I tried to stick it out and put on a brave face, but I was really sick.’ That reedy delivery has mellowed and her flair for attractive melodies and clever observations is unscathed.
All these people in my life
Come in and out like a kite...
You teach me
Love is simple math
I don’t care how old we get
I’m just one and you’re one and we’re two together
I’m OK being friends forever
Safety pins to taper our jeans
We were raising hell in the back seat
Building forts in cedar trees
Ice cream banana seats
Running wild in our bare feet
Everything and nothing changes
And now we are our mother’s age
During her ‘working sabbatical’ the songwriter opened a café called Quitters near her home in Ottawa. Now the muse has returned with a fresh brew of coffeehouse songs and an album full of hope and rejuvenation. Her café hosted the launch party. Thankfully, the proprietor is no quitter. We are reacquainted with a more confident and contented performer who prefers to keep her options open.
We can thank one of country’s rising forces Maren Morris for reigniting the flame after she invited Edwards to Nashville to co-write a song, Good Woman, which appeared on her 2019 album Girl. When it comes to lost love Edwards’ pen is fiendish. On Glenfern she wittily recounts her early years on the road with guitarist ex-husband Colin Cripps (‘We had a tour bus with a bed in the back/ We bought a rock and roll dream, it was total crap’); Hard On Everyone recalls an emotionally abusive liaison (‘Everything in this house wants to breathe/ The words that get twisted up when you speak’); and the angry Fool’s Ride explores the similarly painful territory of lies and more lies (‘You know how to spend my money/ You know how to spin a story’). Feelings Fade is heartbreak beautifully expressed.
The album was co-produced by Edwards, guitarist and long-time collaborator Jim Bryson and Nashville-based Grammy award-winning multi-instrumentalist Ian Fitchuk who has worked with Morris and Kacey Musgraves. Its title, taken from the lovely Birds On A Feeder, perfectly captures the resilient Edwards’ newfound optimism. Her sense of freedom is total.
Sweeter: Leon Bridges
Texas-raised R&B singer Leon Bridges had intended his oh so soulful song Sweeter for a future album but the furore over the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement begged a swift release. This slow-burning plea for social and racial justice, with the video featuring his father and childhood friends from Fort Worth, is our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com.
Bridges, who performed for Barack Obama at the White House, will be among the A-listers taking the virtual stage at this week’s Democratic Convention in Milwaukee, no doubt energised by the presence of Senator Kamala Harris on Joe Biden’s vice-president ticket. Harris will find she has Bridges and a host of liberal-minded friends in the music business as well as Black Lives Matter as her running mates.
The synth-piloted Sweeter features the saxophone flourishes of LA jazz and hip-hop artist Terrace Martin. ‘I have been numb for too long, calloused when it came to the issue of police brutality,’ says the Alabama-born Bridges. ‘The death of George Floyd was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. It was the first time I wept for a man I didn’t know. I cannot and will not be silent any longer.’ Martin adds: ‘This is meditation music; is not music for the ears but rather music for the heart. The heart needs to be repaired.’
The aching lyric conveys the thoughts of a black man taking his last breath...
Hoping for a life more sweeter
Instead I’m just a story repeating
Why do I fear with skin dark as night?
Can’t feel peace with those judging eyes
I thought we moved on from the darker days
Did the words of the King disappear in the air
Like a butterfly?
Somebody should hand you a felony
’Cause you stole from me
My chance to be
Since his debut album Coming Home in 2015, the dapper Bridges, as elegant with his dance moves as his music, has slowly won over critics who cast him as a retro soul crooner in the Sam Cooke mould. The style has evolved and revealed broader, more modern influences on 2018’s Good Thing. Now Sweeter hints at even better things with its bitter closing line: ‘And I wish I had another day/ But it's just another day.’
Bridges will be endorsing the anti-Trump message with Billie Eilish, John Legend, Maggie Rogers, Common, Billy Porter, Stephen Stills and, interestingly, The Chicks (now minus the Dixie because of its slavery era connotations) who will be performing tracks from Gaslighter, their first album as a band for 14 years.
Gaslighter recounts a personal hell rather than a political one, concentrating mainly on the fallout from Maines’ very public divorce; infidelity in high fidelity. Her movie actor ex, who must have seen the 1944 film Gaslight with its theme of psychological abuse, gets it in the neck more savagely than any leader of the free world. Producer Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey and Lorde) cranks up his famed country-pop devices for the title track and the crushingly anecdotal Sleep At Night but the ballad Young Man, a poignant love letter to her son, is sensitively handled and rivals 2006’s Easy Silence for its beauty. Maines’ singular voice is best left uncluttered at the most touching moments.
As George Bush found, The Chicks were not ready to make nice. And they still aren’t. It is unlikely the fearless Maines and multi-instrumentalist sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer will suffer the level of opprobrium their anti-Iraq War stance received from country music conservatives when they take on this divisive president. On Gaslighter they do so on just one track. We can hear the sound of March March.
The Woman Who Planted Trees: Emily Barker
Emily Barker never ceases to surprise with her inventive, lyrical songwriting. The Woman Who Planted Trees, a moving tribute to the Kenyan environmental and political activist Wangari Maathai, from the Western Australian artist’s forthcoming album A Dark Murmuration Of Words, is our Song Of The Week.
Professor Maathai became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for her ‘contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace'. Ahe died at the age of 71 in 2011 but her legacy lives on with seeds and saplings planted years ago now towering as mature trees above the people in her community. ‘It’s a matter of life and death for this country. The Kenyan forests are facing extinction and it is a man-made problem.’
Barker’s beguiling vocal and guitarist Pete Roe’s sparkling arpeggio combine for a memorable melody...
When the land was dry
No food to eat
When the soil was sick
And the river weak
You took a spade
Bare hands, bare feet
And sowed your love
Roots down deep
In the cool, dark shade
Leaves sing your name
Wild green tongues glisten in the glade
Your branches warp, my fingers weft
Weave me through this gift you left
The formidable Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement to reforest degraded land, providing food and empowering women. Barker, who moved to England in 2002, said: ‘I grew up planting trees with my family along the Blackwood River to help prevent erosion, and in barren paddocks that had been cleared for livestock during colonisation. Those lessons stuck with me and I’ve continued to support tree-planting schemes, especially in Australia where there are huge problems with salinity due to swathes of land being cleared by the early settlers.’
We’ve already heard the delightful Return Me from the impending release which also features partner Lukas Drinkwater (bass and guitars), Rob Pemberton (percussion, synth) and the strings of Misha Law and Emily Hall. The album’s tantalising title is explained by its creator: ‘The American writer Emily Dickinson once said that if you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves – like the starlings in a murmuration, where the movement of each bird is related to just seven of its neighbours, none of us are aware of the fluctuating shapes being created by the flock.’
Barker, an eco warrior like her African inspiration, tackles global concerns and more personal issues. ‘The songs are an exploration of climate change, racism, sexism, and myths of economic progress through the lens of my constant questioning of what it means to feel at home. I found myself searching for connections between these themes and how they shape the rapidly shifting modern world we live in. Finding meaning becomes challenging with the deafening clamour of social media in this age of fake news and algorithmically filtered conversations, but it feels important to try.’
We have written before about Barker’s impressive collaborations with Applewood Road, The Red Clay Halo and Marry Waterson, her soundtrack offerings such as Nostalgia (for the BBC’s version of Scandi crime drama Wallander) and her acclaimed last solo outing Sweet Kind Of Blue, recorded in Memphis in 2017. The woman who wrote about the woman who planted trees is a musical warrior too.
Typhoon: Laura Cortese & The Dance Cards
In the land of uplifting, lilting songs, Typhoon by Laura Cortese & The Dance Cards is one of the loveliest. San Francisco-born Cortese, now based in Ghent, Belgium, wrote it in the wake of a stormy relationship. It’s our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com, timely balm for the downhearted.
Fiddler Cortese and her impeccable string band dip their indie folk into loop-laced electronica to joyous effect on their new album Bitter Better, produced by synth wizard Sam Kassirer (Lake Street Dive, Dustbowl Revival, Josh Ritter, Lula Wiles). There is little hint of the turbulence at the heart of a quasi-pop song, attractively delivered, that will make you gently rock.
Cortese’s collective of impressive players and vocalists – Valerie Thompson (cello), Zoe Guigueno (bass, guitar), Jenna Moynihan (fiddle), Sumaia Jackson (fiddle, banjo), Jeni Magana (guitar, bass) with Kassirer on keys, tricks and dials and engineer D James Goodwin on percussion – speak to the fears of the pandemic even though the song was sparked by earlier personal pain.
I’m digging through those piles
Digging, digging, digging through those piles
Looking under pieces of my tin roof
Digging, digging, digging through those piles
Keep on searching, keep on searching
I can’t turn my back
Can’t, can’t, can’t turn my back
On the dirty water that took you from me
Can’t, can’t, can’t turn my back
Keep on searching, keep on searching
I better start
Better, better, better start to build
A few miles in where the sandy earth stays dry
Better, better, better start to build
Keep on searching, keep on searching
Cortese studied at Berklee College of Music and ended up staying in Boston for 18 years. She wrote or co-wrote the songs for Bitter Better in Belgium during a period of isolation (before the world locked down) qualifying for residency. Natural and man-made disasters (hurricanes in Boston, wildfires in home state California and that typhoon) are used as metaphors for personal anguish.
From The Ashes is another exquisite example of the bittersweet – ‘I come from the ashes of what was begun/ What will begin again’. She explains: ‘It came from me thinking about the way things are torn down and rebuilt, including ourselves, in a lifetime. These songs were created to tap into a certain sense of resilience and relief and release, something people can really use right now.’
Opening track Treat You Better, relating to her divorce some years ago, provides the album title as it grapples with a relationship which became infected by cynicism. She talks in the liner notes about her fresh start in Belgium: ‘Being still allowed me to fill my days – I wrote fragments of songs on the harmonium in our living room or while patting the rhythm on my lap. I co-wrote by text while walking through the Magritte Museum in Brussels. I was learning a new country, a new language and writing songs every day. I wrote about how it felt to watch the world falling apart as I was putting my life together. I wrote about finding relief as I was in the process of finding it.’
There are no musical rules, boundaries or predictability in her world now. She told Strings Magazine: ‘When musicians I love take a risk, I’m thinking, Yes, this is what I’m here for. I’m hooked on exploration and curiosity rather than any specific genre.’ Cortese always offers hope, an alluring melody and an opportunity to dance.
Man Of The World: Peter Green/Fleetwood Mac
Not every great guitarist is a great singer but Peter Green was one of a rare breed. The bluesman with soul in his voice, who has died at the age of 73, provides our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com with a haunting ballad from those early Fleetwood Mac days, Man Of The World.
The guitar hero’s guitar hero left the band he had founded with Mick Fleetwood three years earlier in 1971 with a treasure chest of memorable songs – Black Magic Woman (a huge hit for Carlos Santana), the acid-induced Green Manalishi, the riff-ridden classic Oh Well, Long Grey Mare and Trying So Hard To Forget as well as the dreamy, hypnotic instrumental Albatross. Green’s harmonica playing was impressive too.
The 1969 single Man Of The World reached No2 in the UK charts. Thirty years later, he re-recorded it with the Peter Green Splinter Group. Given the east Londoner’s battles with mental illness and drug dependency, the lyric is so poignant. The former John Mayall’s Bluesbreaker was a heartbreaker too...
I guess I’ve got everything I need
I wouldn’t ask for more
And there’s no one I’d rather be
But I just wish that I’d never been born
In the beginning it was Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, the band’s name formed by Green’s recruitment of Mayall drummer Fleetwood and bass player John McVie. It is difficult to equate the earthy Chicago blues sound of that first iteration with the slick rebuilt rock machine that enjoyed unparalleled global success, Manalishi greenbacks the troubled Green would have gladly given away before his departure. But throughout the Buckingham-Nicks era his musical legacy was never forgotten.
The influential guitarist and British blues pioneer, lauded as a master of tone and economy with a Les Paul in his hands, was honoured by Fleetwood at a remarkable tribute concert at the London Palladium before the lockdown, featuring Mayall, Billy Gibbons, David Gilmour, Pete Townshend, Johnny Lang, Neil Finn, Andy Fairweather Low, Christine McVie, Steve Tyler and Bill Wyman. Fleetwood said: ‘No one has ever stepped into the ranks of Fleetwood Mac without a reverence for Peter Green and his talent, and to the fact that music should shine bright and always be delivered with uncompromising passion.’
Mayall added to the eulogies: ‘Peter in his prime in the 60s was just without equal.’ Green’s old blues guru BB King once said: ‘He was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.’ Farewell, Mr Wonderful, a fragile genius.
I Woke Up In July: The Hanging Stars
For those of us celebrating a big birthday this month, a reminder of those psychedelic folk days in the late Sixties and early Seventies on both sides of the pond from a north London quintet who manage to be retro and relevant at the same time. I Woke Up In July is our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. It’s astral week with The Hanging Stars.
The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, CSN&Y, Love, Matthews Southern Comfort, Starry Eyed & Laughing. More West Coast than Walthamstow, The Hanging Stars evoke that cosmic country era while sounding as fresh as their Merseyside-based contemporaries The Fernweh, another of our favourites.
The track, from their latest album A New Kind Of Sky, also features on an EP along with a fine version of Bert Jansch’s Fresh As A Sweet Sunday Morning and The Mountain. Guitarist Richard Olson’s dreamy vocal is backed by the shimmering pedal steel of Joe Harvey-Whyte, multi-instrumentalist Patrick Ralla, bassist Sam Ferman and drummer Paulie Cobra.
The harmonies are lush, the lyric otherworldly, the effect uplifting...
Time waits for no man, no man waits for time
So give me the now, leave the rest all behind
Can I tell you something that I shouldn’t say?
I thought of you since we met on that day
I Woke Up in July
The band’s music has been described as pastoral escapism though A New Kind Of Sky, their third album, hints at a change in direction with social commentary peeping through the haze as illustrated by the Brexit-inspired title track and the opener Choir Of Criers.
Olson likes to ‘caress your ears’ with his hypnotic melodies. There are nods to David Crosby on (I’ve Seen) The Summer In Her Eyes and Neil Young on Lonely Rivers. Olson, a Byrds devotee and can’t you tell, honours another of his heroes with the gorgeous (Song For) Fred Neil, a paean to music, while Three Rolling Hills skirts Arthur Lee territory. I Will Please You, with its Doctor My Eyes-like intro, is a rousing account of the dubious charms of a cult leader. The pleasure will last longer than July.
Hustlin’: The War And Treaty
If there was a music award for perseverance, the Nashville-based husband-and-wife duo The War And Treaty would be worthy winners. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is Hustlin’. Because hustle is what they’ve had to do to earn recognition and a tilt at success.
When Michael Trotter Jr and Tanya Blount-Trotter blend their powerful voices, marinaded in southern soul, blues, gospel and country, one wonders how anyone could have been sceptical. The song was written in 2014 after the couple had arrived in Nashville from Albion, Michigan, only to have ‘doors slammed in our faces’. Last year, their resilience was rewarded when they were named Americana Music Association emerging act of the year.
Cleveland-raised Trotter told Billboard: ‘We had been trying many different things with our music, and we were just getting shot down left and right. No labels, no management companies wanted to touch us. There was even one producer who told us to our face we would not work in the industry... because we wanted to write the kind of songs you don’t hear from people with the skin tone of ours.
‘But the truth of the matter is there was something so magnetic about us together we decided from that point on we had to get our hustle on, keep hustlin’ and work at it. That’s where the song came from.’ It is one of two advanced singles, the other being Jealousy, from their forthcoming album Heartstown.
The couple have displayed an admirable work ethic to match their talent. The song, with its ear-worm of a piano hook played by Trotter and delicious dobro from the ubiquitous Jerry Douglas, oozes soul with its swampy feel...
These looks don’t lie
And those tears will dry
You know you want what you can’t have
We’re not selling product you can’t have
So when the wolf howls at the moon
And the cock crows at the sun
We’ll be hustlin’ until the evening comes
The Trotters had already provided us with one Song Of The Week in Love Like There’s No Tomorrow from their Healing Tide album. In our blog we told of the compelling back story of how the couple met. Their full-length debut LP was a powerful declaration of love and hope. Heartstown promises another memorable passion play.
Where The World Is Thin: Kris Drever
Pubs, restaurants, hairdressers and theme parks are open for business again but where does the soul go for sustenance? Orkney-born songwriter Kris Drever reminds us of the importance of artistic beauty with our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com, Where The World Is Thin.
‘Thin places are parts of the world where heaven and earth are less than three feet apart,’ says Drever about this advanced track from his forthcoming album. ‘No one knows if they’re set in stone or fluid; they’re an ancient explanation for our most spiritual moments.’
Drever’s beguiling voice and deft guitar are comforting in a fragile world. ‘Love's not obliged to make much sense/ That’s what makes us spin.’ He performed his captivating song for the Folk On Foot Front Room Festival from his Glasgow lockdown base. Long hailed as a torchbearer for the folk revival, Drever is a generous collaborator and frontman of the prog-folk trio Lau whose so-called anti-Brexit album Midnight And Closedown (a line borrowed from a Seamus Heaney sonnet) earned wide acclaim last year.
His previous single, the evocative, cinematic Scapa Flow 1919, was nominated for best original song in the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. The title track of his last solo album in 2016, If Wishes Were Horses, had already won the accolade, one of seven gongs he has collected including 2017 Folk Singer of the Year. The song contains the caustic couplet: ‘I wish that politicians’ ties/ Would tighten up when they told lies’.
Live music will eventually make a comeback but audiences, like Drever’s world, may be thin. How many artists will survive, how many venues will still be here to provide a stage? We were looking forward to seeing Drever at London’s intimate Kings Place before the days of self-isolation; 2021 is the new hope. Freelances tend to fall through the cracks of job retention schemes, artists resorting to virtual shows (often on a pay-what-you-can basis) and Patreon membership pages on their websites where they offer new material and advertise back catalogue music and merchandise.
Kings Place and similar small halls such as Camden’s much-loved Green Note have launched fund-raising campaigns via livestreaming concerts. Desperate measures for desperate times. The UK government has announced a generous financial rescue package for culture and the arts; alas, help has arrived too late for many. We dearly hope music’s cherished arenas on the fringes and below-the-radar performers are not forgotten. Let the music play, as the hashtag proclaims. The soul demands more than the reopening of churches.
Holy Ghost Fire: Larkin Poe
As lockdowns begin to ease, uneasily, herecomesthesong.com salutes a duo whose gritty rock has raised our spirits in the virtual world. Nashville-based Larkin Poe’s Holy Ghost Fire is a celebration of music’s healing power and our Song Of The Week.
The rousing song honours the Lovell sisters’ southern roots, Rebecca’s blues-powered vocal and Megan’s 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 you’ve 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 it’s not strongly represented by women,’ Rebecca told Hour Detroit in 2018. ‘We feel that there’s 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: ‘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 Kraftwerk’s 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 BBC’s 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 herecomesthesong.com. 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 couldn’t 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: There’s a spark here.’
Burton’s voice is formidable, swooping and soaring with equal facility. His composition, particularly its infectious chorus, hints at Gnarls Barkley’s 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 band’s name may evoke the Black Panthers but the connection wasn’t intended – ‘it just sounds badass’. Burton told The Independent: ‘One of our goals is unity in a time of divisiveness. We don’t 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 it’s 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 herecomesthesong.com, from his Blues With Friends album, a series of collaborations with an array of stellar musicians.
The song, embellished by Paul Simon’s 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 today’s 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. ‘It’s 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: ‘Dion’s 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 Can’t 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 Dion’s Velvet & Steel gospel album in 1986, Bruce Springsteen contributes a memorable break and his wife Patty Scialfa a sensitive harmony.
There’s 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 Dion’s, 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 herecomesthesong.com 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 he’s done everything to divide us.’
At a memorial service in Minneapolis the family attorney blamed Floyd’s death on a pandemic of discrimination; references were made to America’s history of slavery, bigotry and white supremacy. The tone of Lauryn Hill’s words was echoed by the Rev Al Sharpton’s eulogy: ‘We can’t let this go. We can’t 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 Hill’s 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 Else’s 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 herecomesthesong.com is It Must Be Someone Else’s 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 can’t be with. It’s about being vulnerable after you’ve been hurt. It’s 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. We’ve 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 wouldn’t call this country where I grew up. I’m 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 don’t have a gender.’ The flowering of this singular songwriting talent has been a constant joy.
No longer a rookie dreaming: Ian Malin’s appreciation
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 herecomesthesong.com is Arkadelphia: Indie rock melts into Americana.
Crutchfield’s 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 wasn’t 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 Cloud’s stripped-back sound, the calm after 2017’s 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/ I’ve a gift I’ve been told/ For seeing what’s there,’ she sings in The Eye. She certainly has.
Arkadelphia, with the Telecaster twang of Detroit backing band Bonny Doon and Crutchfield’s 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 Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited on repeat.
Crutchfield gained a fascinating insight into her guru’s 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.’
Waxahatchee’s own storytelling powers are formidable on the title track honouring her father’s home suburb in Florida and capturing her time spent in New York City. Can’t 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’). Crutchfield’s 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 herecomesthesong.com 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 Walsh’s polished piano (and accordion elsewhere), Will Kimburgh’s 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. Here’s 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. ‘I’m drawn to visual imagery in songs, and this lyric is like a movie – full of beautiful things and that pervasive sadness that Mickey’s music is known for.’
Wish I was a grain of sand Playing in a baby’s 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 2’s 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 listener’s 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 wouldn’t 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 Newbury’s 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 hero’s work. Newbury would have approved.
In a letter to Newbury’s 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 shinin’ in 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 crawlin’ out as I was crawlin’ in… 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 you’re 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 Peters’ Arguing 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 We’ll 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 LaMontagne’s 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 Holland’s 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. We’ll 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 herecomesthesong.com 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 Siskind’s 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 Iver’s 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 Siskind’s 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. We’re finding out who we are, she sings. The album’s title suggests a fusion of old and new. The sound may lean more to the modern than the Appalachian but Siskind’s debt to traditional mountain music – ‘so ancient, so free, it began to sew the fabric of me’ – is still being honoured.