FEATURED SONG OF THE WEEK
Why The Bright Stars Glow: Valerie June
When the world needed an injection of hope, the scientists provided it. Musicians and songwriters are rolling out the positivity too. Joyously so in the case of Valerie June’s latest offering, Why The Bright Stars Glow, our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. The American embraces multi genres but we can call this astral soul.
It is a further advanced track from her latest release, The Moon & Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers, due out in March. The Memphis-born, Brooklyn-based singer embarks on a dreamer’s journey in search of enduring beauty, her instantly recognisable vocal suitably ethereal. The earlier aperitifs were Call Me A Fool, featuring Stax legend Carla Thomas, and Stay/Stay Meditation/You And I.
‘It finally became clear why I have this dream of making music,’ the multi-instrumentalist said. ‘It’s not for earthly reasons of wanting to be awarded or to win anybody’s love – it’s because dreaming keeps me inquisitive and on that path of learning what I have to share with the world. When we allow ourselves to dream like we did when we were kids, it ignites the light that we all have within us and helps us to have a sort of magic about the way we live.’
Her country and the world are ready to start the healing process, June believes, after all the turbulence of political and social unrest during the pandemic...
When the race is run
And the gold is won
Look how far we’ve come
Dancing in the sun
It is then I know
Why the bright stars glow
Produced by Jack Splash (Alicia Keys, Kendrick Lamar, John Legend, CeeLo Green) and recorded in Miami and Los Angeles, the album is her first since 2017’s The Order Of Time, admired by Bob Dylan, and is described by Uncut Magazine as ‘elegantly subversive, a psychedelic tour de force that mixes folk, soul and spiritual Van Morrison-style hymns into a delirious, unique whole’.
On landing Splash she said: ‘For this album I wanted to see how we could bring some modern elements into that band-in-the-room approach I’ve taken with my records in the past. Any time you create, you should always be exploring and changing and trying things you’ve never done before.’ The producer hired an eclectic band of musicians led by Al Green keys man Lester Snell; there are luscious strings, smouldering horns and African rhythms. Church imbued June with her love of gospel and she was introduced to blues, R&B and soul by her father, a part-time music promoter said to be the first to book Prince in western Tennessee.
Looking back, June observed that the various recording sessions had been conducted with a full moon or shooting stars as a backdrop. ‘The moon and stars are so involved in this album. I don’t even know how to explain it, but they are there.’ She told Shore Fire Media in New York: ‘I see these songs almost like matches for people to strike when they need to reignite that inner light and keep going when things feel dark. I hope it helps them to feel empowered, to realise their strength and their beauty and all the gifts they have to give.’
‘It’s been a hard year,’ she added. ‘We could open a lot of doors in the way of love and respect and kindness to one another because a lot was revealed to us. What do we want to do now that the veil has been torn and we can see everything? I think it’s time for anybody who has a heart that is open to start working on the healing. Don’t waste any time. Just believe that human beings can as great as the light of the moon and stars and make it happen.’ Otherworldly words as well as sounds.
I Ain’t Living Long Like This: Shannon McNally
Combine the velvet vocal of Shannon McNally, the writing of Rodney Crowell and the spirit of Waylon Jennings, and you have one of the great foot-stomping country-rock tracks and our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com, I Ain’t Living Long Like This. Waylon would have loved it. Rodney still does.
Crowell’s song, the title track of his influential debut album in 1978 and relayed to a wider audience by Jennings on What Goes Around Comes Around the following year, is the lead single from McNally’s May release The Waylon Sessions. Instead of unveiling new material McNally took the bold step of paying homage to Mr Outlaw Country.
You would think McNally might regard this musical territory as too testosterone-heavy but the Long Island-born songwriter says: ‘There’s a feminine perspective hidden inside each of these songs. My job was to find a way to tap into that and draw it out. I have never heard a woman sing any of them but these tunes are poignant and relevant to me and women in general.’ Not a pronoun is changed.
In an interview with American Songwriter, who premiered the single, she said: ‘Waylon was the cornerstone of my record collection. What appeals to me is that sense of self. He was an artist so important to American music, and I just thought I can do that. I wanted to get the sound right, and I wanted it to be respectful. I wanted deeply authentic players. Getting the guitars right was really important. I didn’t want to re-interpret the grooves or reinvent the wheel at all.’
She is grateful for the artistic freedom gained by her switch to Blue Rose Music. ‘I’m tired of the market dictating to artists what it is that they are and what they have to be,’ she said. ‘I had the opportunity to make the record I wanted to make. But what has gotten so boring to me about the modern landscape is that everybody is worried about all this other crap before they’re worried about their soul. The entire music business is a mess, for writers, for artists, for everybody. Everybody gets screwed. If this isn’t a spiritual pursuit for you, go get a job. I need to do what channels through me, and Waylon’s attitude and perception of life is something that we need. I want to have fun and I want to feel good, I want to bring some joy, and I want people to feel that same sense of freedom that I feel.’
Crowell, who sings one of the verses, tweeted: ‘Her brains, beauty and big heart notwithstanding, the fact Shannon is bad-ass enough to pull off a Waylon Jennings covers album surprises me not in the least.’ Other tracks include Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line, Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys and I’ve Always Been Crazy. Crowell’s fellow Texan, who formed supergroup The Highwaymen in 1985 with Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, died in 2002.
McNally has recorded a covers album before – 2013’s Small Town Talk, a tribute to Bobby Charles and a collaboration with Dr John. For The Waylon Sessions she recruited an impressive cast: Crowell, Buddy Miller, Lukas Nelson, Jennings’ widow Jessi Colter, Waylon’s old pedal steel player from The Waylors Fred Newell and guitarist Kenny Vaughan (Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives), who brought in drummer Derek Mixon, bassist Chris Scruggs and Bukka Allen on keys.
McNally’s last album, 2017’s Black Irish, was produced by Crowell and featured a smouldering track they wrote together, Banshee Moan, a former Song Of The Week on this website. McNally, whose music transcends genre and on this occasion gender, has been called ‘probably rock’s most talented undiscovered gem’, working under the radar for nearly two decades. This record can raise the volume for a singular voice.
Stay Awake To Dream: Lauren Housley
On the day Joe Root recorded that special hundred in his 100th Test another Yorkshire milestone was being celebrated. It was only a single but a beautifully crafted one. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is Stay Awake To Dream by Rotherham-born songwriter Lauren Housley.
It is a soulful, thoughtful entrée to her third album, Girl From The North, due out in April, which follows 2017’s The Beauty Of This Life and 2015’s Sweet Surrender. It marks a journey of rediscovery with tales of love, loss and trauma. She told Americana UK, who premiered the video: ‘To move forward we sometimes have to go back. I wanted to prove to myself that it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you can make great music. Returning to my hometown of Rotherham a few years ago, after leaving at the age of 18 [she was earlier based in Newcastle and Manchester], seemed like the most bizarre decision I’d ever made. It was never part of my plan but it has has enabled me to reassess my life and career goals and move forward in a way that feels true to myself.’
The sound is more Nashville, where she has performed (My Sleeping Heart was inspired there), than South Yorkshire. She was influenced by her father’s Elvis impressions and her mother’s Motown and Eva Cassidy records but the northern connection features strongly in her lyrics. Stay Awake To Dream, exquisitely sung, recalls a disturbing episode from her childhood, the bleak verses contrasting with the hopeful chorus...
Don’t want to end up like Bobby
She’s gone lost her head
But I’d never be broken by the things that you said
I made the decision to be no angry man’s wife
14 and knowing to say no to this life…
I’ve got rain in my eyes seeing stars through the trees
The darker the night the brighter they seem
While everyone else falls asleep
I lay awake to dream
Housley, who says music is her therapy, wrote the new material with guitarist husband and long-time musical collaborator Thomas Dibb, mostly recorded in a studio the couple built beneath a food hall in Rotherham, which they used for their wedding reception. ‘This is a real step up for Lauren in songwriting and storytelling,’ said Dibb. ‘She is drawing on inspiration from her childhood, growing up in a working-class town, having big dreams and exploring the world through her art. I hope young girls and women can listen to Lauren’s story and find inspiration in it themselves.’
We have been playing this gorgeous track since the summer of 2019 when Housley and friends performed an acoustic version for the Under The Apple Tree sessions, recorded around one mic outside the studio in Bob Harris’s garden. Like a certain cricketer, this songwriter is here for the long run. Roots music, you might say.
Killing The Blues: Rowland Salley
It is often rewarding to trace a great song back to its source. Killing The Blues, famously covered by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, was written as long ago as 1977 by American musician Rowland Salley. It is our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. Rowland who?
You might not have heard of him, but you’ve probably heard him. On some lyric sites, he is actually listed as Salley Rowland or misspelled his name while some of those who have recorded his composition have been lazily credited with writing it. Illinois-born Roly, now 71, is the bass player with Chris Isaak’s band, Silvertone. He didn’t submit Killing The Blues for critical assessment until his only album of the same name in 2005. He once said: ‘The part I like best about writing is the second you realise that you’ve just written a song.’
His solo album was recorded on weekend breaks in Vancouver during filming for The Chris Isaak Show in 2004. Shawn Colvin, who sang it on her Cover Girl album in 1994, said: ‘Larry Campbell told me in 1981 while we were in a band together that I should learn this song by his friend Roly. Just when you think there’s no new way to say anything, you hear a song like this and think, that's as good as anything before or since.’ Colvin’s version remains Salley’s favourite.
The reimagining by Plant and Krauss on 2007’s classic Raising Sand album was a restrained and smouldering duet, enhanced by T Bone Burnett’s inspired production, and earned the songwriter a belated Grammy. Plant recalled in an interview with The Times in 2008: ‘When I first heard it, I was driving through the Welsh borders in Herefordshire. I just stopped the car. It was so poignant, so masterly.’
Krauss added: ‘When you combine a melody that lifts you up with a lyric like that, it’s a twisted thing. When you get the combination, it’s really something.’ Salley, an accomplished water colour painter whose art has featured on three Maria Muldaur albums, said the song concerned a fork in the road of a cherished but doomed relationship. It was even used in an advertising campaign for the chain store JC Penney, which included sentimental images of family reunions and Fourth of July celebrations. Bit of a stretch for a break-up song.
The striking aspect of the original is the range of Salley’s tenor; some interpreters did not risk attempting the higher register. Plant and Krauss achieved it perfectly, their synchronicity reminding us of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris in an earlier magical heyday.
The song’s bruised beauty is compelling, its chorus daring you not to join in...
Now I’m guilty of something
I hope you never do
Because there is nothing
Sadder than losing, yourself in love
Now you ask me, just to leave you
To go out on my own
And get what I need to
You want me to find what I’ve already had
Somebody said they saw me
Swinging the world by the tail
Bouncing over a white cloud
Killing the blues
John Prine covered it too. So did Chris Smither and Billy Ray Cyrus with Shooter Jennings. Robert Vincent and Anna Corcoran, UK Americana award winners, are the latest to do justice to the song. But Roly the creator killed it first.
South Gotta Change: Adia Victoria
When Nashville-based songwriter and poet Adia Victoria unveiled her impassioned single South Gotta Change in August she had no idea it would be so prescient. As Joe Biden and Kamala Harris restored dignity and empathy to US politics, the South showed that it can change.
The 34-year-old South Carolina-born musician described our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com as ‘a prayer, an affirmation, and a battle cry all at once’. It was co-written with Marcello Giuliani and Mason Hickman after the death of civil rights activist Congressman John Lewis. ‘I pondered the work he accomplished and the work left to us who remain.’
Victoria added: ‘No other place embodies the American experiment with the precision of the South. It is home to both unspeakable horror and unshakable faith.’ When she cries ‘I stood up to the mountain, told the mountain: Say my name’, she is confronting a legacy of oppression and racism while proudly connecting with her black heritage.
Producer T Bone Burnett, born in St Louis and Texas-raised, knows all about gothic blues, not to mention the centuries-old scourge of white supremacy. The Georgia election result, with Baptist pastor Raphael Warnock becoming the state’s first black senator, joined for the Democrats by a young Jewish politician in Jon Ossoff, will have gladdened their hearts. Small steps, big statement.
The Nashville Scene devoted an entire edition, with Victoria as guest editor, to her song, the issues it raises and the symbolic alliance of black singer and white producer. In a joint interview, Burnett said: ‘My thesis is, essentially, that the Civil War never ended. There was a ceasefire but it was never resolved. I believe we’re in the moment to finally resolve the Civil War in favour of equal rights for all people.’
Victoria added: ‘In the South I think one of the reasons we are so hard-pressed to get past the Confederacy is because the myth will not die. You think of what James Baldwin said: The reason why white people hang on to their hate is they don’t know what to do without it. They’d be flailing in the wind.’ The unpardonable behaviour of desperate Donald Trump supporters on Capitol Hill confirmed that viewpoint.
In a later essay, Burnett wrote: ‘While African Americans and their descendants have been overcoming indignity for over four centuries, they have in return given the world literature, art, music, knowledge and wisdom, and shown the world grace, courage, faith, perseverance and forgiveness, and for that, the world owes them the deepest respect and gratitude.’
On a becalmed Capitol at Biden’s inauguration ceremony, Amanda Gorman, at 22 the youngest poet to deliver the presidential poem, recited The Hill We Climb eloquently, movingly and without rancour. This was not fake muse. It was half written when the Capitol was stormed; it would soon be completed. Her message about the need to heal was the same Victoria had committed to song:
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
Not because we will never again know defeat
But because we will never again sow division
For her debut single in 2016, Stuck In The South, Victoria lamented: ‘I don’t know nothing ’bout Southern belles/ But I can tell you something ’bout Southern hell/ When your skin give ’em cause/ To take and take’. The pain is still there but the maturer South Gotta Change, while echoing the Sam Cooke sentiment, emphasises hope: ‘I won’t go blindly in the night, I would drag you to the light.’ We’re gonna find a way.
Nobody’s Stopping You Now: Lake Street Dive
Rachael Price’s soul-laced voice is a priceless gift. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is Nobody’s Stopping You Now, Lake Street Dive’s advance single from their latest album Obviously, due out in March. It’s optimistic, uplifting and just what we need right now.
The track, typical of the Boston band’s contemporary brand of retro soul-rock, is lead vocalist Price’s letter of encouragement to her younger self, an ode to originality and staying true to oneself, co-written with stellar stand-up bassist Bridget Kearney.
You’re on the cusp of an obsession
Time is not on your side
All winter slaving for perfection
But somehow you’re never satisfied
That hunger will last you for a lifetime
Until you learn how to set it down
Sip the nectar from the honeysuckle bush
Nobody’s stopping you now
It’s OK to let the real you out
Nobody’s stopping you now
Kearney took to Twitter to expand on the creative process: ‘Rachael wrote the song as a lullaby from her adult self to her childhood self. I thought this was such a beautiful concept and was honoured to get to complete this letter of reassurance to baby Ray Ray. I remember sitting by a river in Colorado on a show day of ours listening to our first completed set of lyrics for this song and shedding real tears thinking about finding the words to say to a young girl who is struggling – a message of hope that life will get better, and that she can be free to be herself and be her own version of womanhood, in her own time.’
The album’s title is the first word of opening dance track Hypotheticals. From the outset Lake Street Dive lean on Nashville-based producer Mike Elizondo’s hip-hop recording expertise. A versatile man for a versatile band who once said they ‘wanted to sound like The Beatles and Motown had a party together’. Their love of The Beatles has never waned judging by their New York rooftop cover of Don’t Let Me Down for one of their Halloween specials.
Multi-instrumentalist Elizondo has collaborated as a songwriter with Dr Dre, Eminem and 50 Cent and has helmed the dials for Fiona Apple, Mary J Blige, Carrie Underwood and 21 Pilots. ‘We’ve been a band for so long that we didn’t want to just become a feedback loop of our own ideas,’ says Kearney. ‘It felt like a really good time to bring in another person, and Mike really opened us up. He encouraged us to make bolder arrangement choices, take those chances and try those things. The record really is a success in what we set out to do: continue to challenge ourselves, continue to grow, and do things we’ve never done before.’
This great live combo started out in 2004 as a quartet, with guitarist Mike ‘McDuck’ Olson and drummer Mike Calabrese, all friends and fellow jazz students in Boston. It was Olson who hit on the name, derived from the dive bars dotted along the Minneapolis street where he and other young musicians congregated. They are now a quintet, their sophisticated fusion of rock, jazz, soul, pop, country and R&B embracing a new songwriter in Akie Bermiss.
The 11-track album is the first to feature Bermiss, a Brooklyn keyboardist recruited after touring with the band in 2017, who gives an amusing account of his induction one night in Chicago. ‘There was a formal engagement situation. They took me to dinner and told me it was a band thing they like to do, and while I was distracted, they each put plastic engagement rings on my plate and asked if I would take their musical hands in band marriage.’
‘Akie brought a lot of stuff to the table,’ says Kearney. ‘It’s pretty remarkable that you can add somebody to the band after 14 years and have this new writer fit into the grand scheme.’ The new album, which includes our first taster Making Do, a warning of the diminished world future generations will inherit, has a lot to live up after the swagger of 2018’s Free Yourself Up. But nobody’s stopping Lake Street Dive now.
American Stooge: Mary Chapin Carpenter
When Mary Chapin Carpenter wrote a song about the enablers of Donald Trump’s alienating presidency, she could not have imagined his term would be defined by chaos on Capitol Hill and democracy itself under siege. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is American Stooge.
Cast in a bluesy JJ Cale groove, the song is a wickedly witty putdown of political yes-men inspired by Senator Lindsey Graham’s hypocrisy in turning from strident Trump critic to arch ally…
It’s the American way
To hell with the truth
He’s suckin’ up to the dude
He’s an American stooge
And maybe he likes it that way
One of only 15 women voted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Carpenter describes the track as an ode to all the apologists who have caved in on their principles for the sake of political survival. She told American Songwriter in August that what started out as a character study of Graham became ‘an indictment of all those sycophants who inhabit the halls of Congress. It’s not just Republicans, it’s Democrats as well. They’re all over the place’.
She said of Graham, who dropped out of the Republican presidential race before the primaries: ‘He is unapologetic in his desire to remain relevant and the way to do so is to hitch his wagon to the biggest star in the universe. I found that to be breathtaking in its honesty but so calculating and damaging to the greater good. Where is your soul, man? How do you face yourself in the mirror?’
Once he stood at a fork in the road
Scratchin’ his head which way to go
Power on his left, conscience on his right
A soul in the balance in a knockdown fight
When he's not kissin’ the ring and levellin’ threats
He’s proud to be your favourite hypocrite
Polishin’ soundbites for the folks at home
A moth to a flame and a microphone
The track appears on Carpenter’s 15th studio album The Dirt And The Stars, produced by Ethan Johns and recorded live at Peter Gabriel’s studios in Bath. All 11 songs, enriched by guitarist Duke Levine’s accomplished Telecaster, were written at her farmhouse retreat in Virginia before the pandemic struck but chime with our emotions in these disturbing times. Here’s a solo version of American Stooge for her Songs From Home series.
American Stooge aside, the album – one of our 30 favourites of 2020 (see below) – is characteristically wise and intimate, full of whispered thoughts and a quietness that speaks strength. Songs such as All Broken Hearts Break Differently, Where The Beauty Is, Nocturne and the bewitchingly nostalgic Between The Dirt And The Stars are true to her desire for ‘no sugar-coating’ with sentimentality eschewed.
She says on her website: ‘The songs are very personal and they’re difficult in some ways, and come from places of pain and self-illumination, but also places of joy, discovery and the rewards of self-knowledge. They arrived from looking outward as much as inward, speaking to life changes, growing older, politics, compassion, #metoo, heartbreak, empathy, the power of memory, time and place.’
Carpenter leaves us with a post-pandemic goodwill message: ‘We are going to need one another even more when we gradually emerge back into the sunlight, blinking, wondering, questioning, worrying, fearing, dreaming, exhaling... We all hope that this is not going to last forever, but we’re going to be forever changed by it.’ Could be a lyric idea for her next thought-provoking song.
Epistle: Jealous Of The Birds
Epistle, a love letter to love itself, by the Northern Ireland singer-songwriter Naomi Hamilton, is our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. Performing under her project name Jealous Of The Birds, she can make the spirits soar.
Epistle is one of the standout tracks from her second album, Peninsula, released in September and produced by David Wrench and Marta Salogni just before the March lockdown. Hamilton explores ‘this idea that no man is an island. Each of us is more like a peninsula, reaching off into the expanse of our own individuality but still connected to a bigger land mass and sense of community’. No fan of Brexit, then.
County Armagh-born Hamilton, whose alt folk-rock music has matured wonderfully since the adolescent preoccupations of her promising Parma Violets debut in 2016, borrows a line from Marrow, a song on her last EP Wisdom Teeth, as a theme for her latest recording: ‘You call me peninsula, an island no more.’
Hamilton draws on her influences, Nirvana, Elliott Smith, Fleet Foxes and The Beatles, as Peninsula opens in post-punk rock mode with Young Neanderthal before the nuanced folk beauty of Kodachrome, Haze Of The Hill, Pendulum and Pulaski Skyway takes over. Her love of poetry and painting shines through her cinematic lyrics, informed by her Belfast university degree in English literature and creative writing.
Instrumentally, the penultimate track Always Going embraces both styles and deliberately complements the captivating Epistle. She tells Atwood Magazine: ‘Each song has its own internal logic, but they’re aligned in the same way – kind of like vertebrae in a spine. I want my music to hold the same dualities that our everyday lives have and hopefully Peninsula comes close to doing that.
‘Epistle is a love letter affirming the desire to live, travel and navigate hardship with another person throughout life… I wanted it to have a youthful hopefulness and yet the self-awareness of the complexity of braiding one’s life with another. There’s an equality of trust to that which is really beautiful to me.’
Jealous Of The Birds is an old user name of Hamilton’s on social media, a platform for her art and her pride as a gay activist as well as her band’s moniker. She hopes her music, such as the delightful Dandelion which was used in the TV series Normal People, ‘sound like a real friend talking. I love the idea of songs having that same kind of intimacy. I don’t want them to be posturing or pretentious; just down-to-earth songs that you could share with a friend’.
The multi-instrumentalist’s subtle use of strings on Epistle is as pleasing as the acoustic guitar hook and that beguiling vocal. ‘I know wherever we go, there’ll be joy and flow of the river, of the river,’ she sings in the lovely refrain. It’s the closing track of one of my favourite albums of 2020, leaving us with hope after all the hopelessness.
MY TOP 30 ALBUMS OF 2020 (in no particular order)
Jealous Of The Birds (Naomi Hamilton): Peninsula
Fleet Foxes: Shore
This Is The Kit (Kate Stables): Off Off On
Aubrie Sellers: Far From Home
Courtney Marie Andrews: Old Flowers
Bruce Springsteen: Letter To You
Brandy Clark: Your Life Is A Record
Sarah Jarosz: World On The Ground
Dion: Blues With Friends
Waxahatchee (Katie Crutchfield): Saint Cloud
Diana Jones: Song To A Refugee
Kris Drever: Where The World Is Thin
A Girl Called Eddy: Been Around
Emily Barker: A Dark Murmuration Of Words
Kathleen Edwards: Total Freedom
Bob Dylan: Rough And Rowdy Ways
Laura Cortese & The Dance Cards: Bitter Better
Robert Vincent: In This Town You’re Owned
Mary Chapin Carpenter: The Dirt And The Stars
Gretchen Peters: The Night You Wrote That Song
Secret Sisters: Saturn Return
The Hanging Stars: A New Kind Of Sky
Sarah Siskind: Modern Appalachia
Bonny Light Horseman (Anaïs Mitchell): Bonny Light Horseman
Lori McKenna: The Balladeer
Robert Jon & The Wreck: Last Light On The Highway
Lucinda Williams: Good Souls Better Angels
Laura Marling: Song For Our Daughter
Katie Pruitt: Expectations
The Lost Brothers: After The Fire After The Rain