Field Reportings from Issue #68
FLIGHT OF MAVIS: On April 27, Anti- Records will release We’ll Never Turn Back, an album of updated freedom songs sung by MAVIS STAPLES, one of the most electrifying voices of the civil rights movement. The album, which features vocals from Ladysmith Black Mambazo and members of the original Freedom Singers, is no exercise in nostalgia. “Down in Mississippi, brothers in jail/Uneducated children, it’s the 21st century/It feels like it’s 1960,” Staples testifies in an extended ad lib in the album’s juking version of “99 & A Half”. “Broken levees, lyin’ politicians,” she goes on. “Runnin’ through hatred, homeless babies/Freedom now! Freedom now!”
Later, in the autobiographical “My Own Eyes”, a new song in which Staples recounts being jailed by racist police in Mississippi when she was a child, she sings, “It’s been almost 50 years/How much longer will it last?/We need a change now more than ever/Why are we still treated so bad?
Recording an album of civil rights songs with Mavis Staples should have been a no-brainer, but producer Ry Cooder admitted that at first, both he and Staples weren’t quite sure how to proceed. “We were a little uncertain about how to jumpstart things,” he said. “It’s movement music. It’s hard to do so long after the fact. In the end, though, it was just a matter of saying, ‘Man, let’s hit it. Let’s just do these songs.'”
Staples and Cooder also supplemented some of the lyrics with new ones that spoke to the injustices of the present, such as the plight of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “We worked on some of them and got a little more content going,” Cooder said, explaining that “they were originally soldier music and a little bit threadbare. If you’re not going out on the bus or out into the battle, you need something else, you need some extra gas in the tank.
“Most of these things were one take, two takes,” he went on to say. “You just go for it. You don’t have to talk about this. That way you get the emotional response that happens initially. It won’t happen on the fourth take, you know? That’s when you start calculating. You want to put as much physicality into it as you can. That’s what makes it start to feel real. Because this is physical music. This has to sound urgent. And I tell you what, Mavis really got there. She felt it, you know?”
Fueling the urgency of the proceedings, Cooder added, was the presence of the Freedom Singers on several tracks. “They stoked that fire way up, because to them, the times haven’t changed a bit,” he said. “They’re still soldiers in their own mind. They’re not entertainers as such. They’ve been in prison; they’ve been shot up; they’ve been beaten up. They were out there doing it, and to them it’s exactly the same.
“You hear them talking about those times, the movement, what it recalls for them, and it’s just like yesterday. So that feeling that the present and the past are one thing in this is very, very powerful. They know that. We may seem a bit well-fed, but as far as those three people are concerned, it’s still the movement. They never left.”
The arrangements on the album are, appropriately enough, lean and hungry, often just Cooder’s slide guitar and some atmospheric percussion or loop from his son Joachim. And, of course, the vocal call-and-response that’s one of the galvanizing hallmarks of the gospel tradition.
The likes of “This Little Light”, “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “(Ain’t Nobody Gonna) Turn Me Around” couldn’t sound more of the moment. “It’s certainly right on time,” Cooder said of the album’s music and message. “Anybody can enjoy it and take from it what they can and look at the world and say, ‘This is right now. This is talking about today.'”
ODD COUPLE: It was a strange match on paper but a solid blend onstage at the Factory in Franklin, Tennessee, where Bruce Hornsby and Ricky Skaggs joined forces on a brisk January night to tape their installment of the CMT Crossroads concert series. Backed by Skaggs’ band Kentucky Thunder, the duo tackled material from each of their repertoires, along with covers drawn mainly from American traditional music, most of them to be featured on their self-titled CD due out March 20 on Sony BMG/Legacy. Skaggs and his band kept the focus on bluegrass, though Hornsby’s piano, with its jazz feel and Aaron Copland harmony, added a unique dimension. They spanned the gap from Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen”, whose famous guitar lick transplanted smoothly onto the keyboard, to Hornsby’s “Mandolin Rain”, recast as a ballad that floated through a pool of dark and restless chords. The only discord came after “Valley Road”, transformed into a bluegrass firestorm with piano and mandolin trading explosive seven-bar solo fragments toward the end. Once the subsequent ovation subsided, Hornsby spoke doubtfully into his microphone: “Ricky, don’t you think that was a little fast?” Skaggs looked back, apparently surprised. But Hornsby persisted: “Folks, we’re just airing our dirty laundry, but I’d really like to do this again, maybe a little later.” And they did — but it had to wait until they’d finished their rendition of Rick James’ “Super Freak”, with John Anderson ambling onstage to warble “it’s such a freaky scene” in a high, lonesome tenor.
–ROBERT L. DOERSCHUK
MEN OF STEEL AND MILD-MANNERED REPORTERS: Well, maybe they’re not all that mild-mannered. But in a true “that’s Nashville” double-bill event at the storied Station Inn on January 19, Peter Cooper and Eric Brace, two talented singing-songwriters who happen also to be well-known journalists, both fronted new bands featuring legendary steel guitar innovators: pedal steel master Lloyd Green in Cooper’s case, and dobro ace Mike Auldridge (of the Seldom Scene) in Brace’s. What may have been the majority of working steel players in Music City (among many other listeners) were on hand to catch this show — a unique display not of guitar pyrotechnics, but subtlety.
Green, the A-team steel legend who played on 10,000 recordings, from Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” to the Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo LP, was recently dubbed “the Conscience of Steel” in a Journal Of Country Music appreciation by Robbie Fulks for his devotion to quality use of the instrument. He had not been seen in a club setting in decades, and has only been back recording and playing at all for a little over four years, after being sidelined by an ear infection in the 1980s. He joined an impressive band Cooper assembled for the occasion, including power-pop star Bill Lloyd on guitar and ex-Jayhawk Jen Gunderman on keyboards.
Green’s live musical contributions ventured dramatically beyond “steel guitar fills,” working as a virtual musical conversation with Cooper’s original lyrics and tunes — pointed, textured songs the listener could easily imagine being broken into news, editorial, comics, entertainment news (musings on Townes Van Zandt and Charlie Rich), and even sports sections in theme. They were written for an album currently being shopped to record labels.
“The album has more steel on it than anything recorded in 30 years,” said Cooper, a staff reporter for Nashville daily The Tennessean and an occasional contributor to No Depression. “The songs are almost duets between Lloyd’s steel and me.”
“Peter and I talked about how to use the steel on these songs,” Green added, “instead of guitar or piano, which has been done so much. Steel’s been relegated further and further into the recesses of the darkness in recent years, except for effect, as kind of a mark that ‘it’s from Nashville’ or ‘it’s country.’ They use steel guitar as a cartoonish instrument these days, and I don’t play that kind of stuff. If I’m gonna play, I’ll play like I think the steel should sound.”
The steel treat continued as Brace, a former Washington Post correspondent, took the stage to front the Skylighters, a harmonious modern bluegrass band with a particular taste for vocal harmonies on Louvin Brothers tunes. Their new disc on Brace’s label Red Beet features Auldridge and mandolin master Jimmy Gaudreau (of the Country Gentlemen), plus the rhythm section from Brace’s regular alt-country rock band Last Train Home.
Keeping up the evening’s string surprises, Auldridge switched back and forth from dobro to pedal steel, and at one point Gaudreau grabbed a Telecaster to rip into “Dear One”, a bit of rockabilly he’d played as a teen with the somehow forgotten “Jimmie G & the Jaguars.”
Audridge and Green, mutual admirers, had worked together once, it turns out, when Mike saluted Lloyd on a mid-’70s tune called “Lloyd’s Of Nashville”. They’d reunited for a brief show rehearsal the night before, for the first time in 30 years. It was then that Cooper and Brace discovered some of their own shared history: They’d both grown up going to Seldom Scene shows — Brace in Washington, D.C., Cooper in South Carolina. And both, as roots-music-crazed underage teens, had been surreptitiously supplied beers in the sorts of places you could hear such stuff — preparation, it seems, for musical adventures. And possibly for journalism.
THE LAST ROUNDUP: May 15 brings the latest from WILCO, titled Sky Blue Sky, on Nonesuch Records. It’s the first time the band has recorded in the studio with the six-piece configuration of recent tours (although the lineup was heard on the live album Kicking Television). Among the more than eighteen tracks being considered for the final tracklist are “Impossible Germany”, “Shake It Off”, “Glad It’s Over”, “Side With The Seeds”, “Walken” and “Either Way”. The album, which was produced by the band, was recorded at the their Chicago studio, The Loft….
Bloodshot Records has set a May 22 release date for a compilation celebrating the late southern fiction author LARRY BROWN. Titled Just One More: A Musical Tribute To Larry Brown, it features tracks from Robert Earl Keen, Alejandro Escovedo, Vic Chesnutt, Greg Brown, the North Mississippi Allstars, Cary Hudson and others….
Ethan Johns, who has manned the boards for Ryan Adams, Tift Merritt and the Jayhawks, has been tapped to produce a reunion album by CROWDED HOUSE. The as-yet-untitled album started as a solo project by singer-songwriter Neil Finn, and follows the 2005 suicide of original drummer Paul Hester, who left the band in 1994….
Canadian singer-songwriter KATHLEEN EDWARDS has begun work in California on her third album, the follow-up to 2005’s Back To Me, with producer Jim Scott. Edwards’ sideman and friend JIM BRYSON has set a March 27 release for his third long-player, Where The Bungalows Roam, on Canadian indie Kelp Records….
A film based on author John Niven’s novella about the making of THE BAND album Music From Big Pink is in the works. The authoritative Band fan site theband.hiof.no reports that the book, which fictionalizes the ’60s music scene in Woodstock through the eyes of a drug dealer, has been optioned by sibling producers Stephen and Jez Butterworth. The latter also penned a proposed James Brown biopic for director Spike Lee….
Singer-songwriter PETER CASE has penned his memoirs. Titled As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport, the tome was published by Everthemore Books in January and details his formative years as an itinerant musician. John Doe wrote the introduction….
Sugar Hill has signed Boston roots-rocker SARAH BORGES, with the follow-up to her acclaimed 2005 disc Silver City penciled in for later this year.