From Sondheim to the Blues: A Baker’s Dozen of Outstanding Upcoming Roots Music Releases
If you thought my first column this year focusing on upcoming notable roots music releases was packed with good stuff, you will be even more thrilled with what’s in store in the next few weeks. From Rhiannon Giddens’ and Otis Taylor’s fierce and poetic looks at the history and struggles of African-Americans, to folk icon Judy Collins paying homage to a true American original, Stephen Sondheim, who made the avant garde palatable to Broadway audiences, to Hayes McMullan, a once forgotten bluesman who played with Charley Patton, there is much to treasure in the next few weeks.
While these releases represent the rich and abundant diversity roots music has to offer, most also present both a larger and deeper instrumental backdrop as each artist enlarges his or her respective musical canvas. They, and we, are all the richer for it.
Rhiannon Giddens-Freedom Road
Following up any artistically and commercially successful album is a hard thing to do. It can be intimidating and a daunting task. What does Giddens do after her triumphant Tomorrow is My Turn – does she turn inward or outward? Well, she has done both on Freedom Road, and the result is nothing short of genius.
She turned inward inasmuch as there are nine originals and three beautifully done covers. She also turned outward as she uncovered many hidden, painful stories of black Americans and turned them into eloquently written and performed songs. Her voice has also deepened and grown more expressive, like honey among the flowers.
I was fortunate to have seen Giddens several times last year when she was performing many of these songs live to audiences for the first time. Without exception, we were stunned not just by the stories, but how well she was able to enable a white 21st-century audience to empathize with 19th- and 20th-century black history.
Case in point is the harrowing “Julie,” which she wrote after learning about a Southern slave who was offered money to stay with her mistress after the war. The kicker is that the money she is being offered came from the proceeds of the sale of her children. Needless to say, she chose freedom. Yet, we know only too well that 150 years later their descendants continue to be abused by the system that legalized slavery in the first place.
Giddens follows that song with Richard Farina’s chilling “Birmingham Sunday” about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 that killed four young black girls. The song identifies each of the girls by name so they are not some mere statistic or footnote to history.
Giddens said, in a note,” Know thy history. Let it horrify you; let it inspire you. Let it show you how the future can look, for nothing in this world has not come around before. These songs are based on slave narratives from the 1800s, African-American experiences of the last century, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and headlines from streets of Ferguson and Baltimore today. Voices demanding to be heard, to impart the hard-earned wisdom of a tangled, difficult, complicated history; we just try to open the door and let them through.”
Freedom Road is a testament to that history.
Taking nothing away from her previous producer, T Bone Burnett, I find this album to be significantly wider and deeper in its musicality, and its use of a more diverse instrumentality results in a richer canvas for Giddens to display her writing talents and her gorgeous voice. In short, producer Dirk Powell is a simpatico spirit.
If you, like me, found Tomorrow is My Turn to be a great record, you will find Freedom Road to be a masterpiece. It hits the streets this Friday, and NPR has been streaming it.
Hurray for the Riff Raff–The Navigator
Alynda Lee Segarra has been one of the most prolific artist in any genres lately, having released eight albums in seven years, including 2014’s Small Town Heroes, which ended up on many critics’ Top 10 lists that year. Segarra had firmly established herself as a force in the Americana world, as well as speaking out on social issues.
These past three years have resulted in an ambitious story of growing up Puerto Rican in New York, set against a musical backdrop of the sounds of the city from the 1960s onward, full of Latin rhythms, pulsating rock, and sweet soul music. I don’t know how much of the album is autobiographical, but it comes across as a young woman searching for an identity as she “navigates” her way through the most diverse city in the world while also being a part of it, taking in all its influences. Hence, the album’s title, The Navigator, whose title song both begins and ends the journey.
Produced by Paul Butler (St. Paul and The Broken Bones and Devendra Banhart), the 12 original songs take on gentrification of the South Bronx and the co-opting of Segarra’s culture and offer a prophecy of sorts that could stave off a dystopian future through a reconnection with one’s ancestors and pride in one’s heritage.
And not just her own heritage, as Segarra has said that the album is “dedicated to the water protectors of Standing Rock – thank you for your bravery and giving us hope. Also, to the people of Peñuelas, Puerto Rico, who are demanding an end to the AES dumping of coal ash which leads to water contamination – we are with you. All over the world there are heroes, who, despite suffering generations of oppression, are protecting the land and the future of our humanity. Rican Beach is a fictional place, but it was written with my ancestors in mind. It’s time to call on yours and to always remember: this land was made for you and me.”
The album is a sonic delight, with five percussionists and doo-wop backing vocals. The pulsating rock beat hits its pinnacle with “Living In The City,” telling the story of a city on fire, inhospitable to the marginalized, and my personal fave, “Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl,” a Beatles-esque anthem ballad. The album hits the streets on March 10.
Valerie June–The Order of Time
CBS’s Saturday morning show has gotten a lot of roots music credibility lately. From Rhiannon Giddens a little over a year ago to Valerie June’s appearance just a couple of weeks ago, it would seem to want you to get up earlier than usual and actually turn the TV on. If you caught that most recent performance, you’ll understand why I, and may others, say that June sounds like no one else. Her highly anticipated follow-up will absolutely not disappoint you.
June’s performance of “Shakedown” surely shook the TV crew, as I could see in a brief behind the scenes video I was privy to. This follows the track “Astral Plane” that debuted on NPR Music last October along with a nice interview with Ann Powers. As Powers notes, “The country and blues inflections of her 2014 breakthrough album, Pushin’ Against A Stone, are still present, but more subtle, blending with jazz and ambient elements that help the songs become more conversational and more expansive.”
As with several other releases mentioned in today’s column, June expands the size of her canvas by including horns and a Hammond organ. But the increased number of musicians (her band on the CBS was nine in number) underscores her wistfulness on this record. So much so that I am not the only listener who has heard more than a trace of Nico in her vocals. It is an amazing record. I think no fewer than three of the album’s songs are available for streaming and the CBS video is up as well. It is an amazing record.
The Order of Time will be released on March 10, and June began a four-week tour of the South and East this past weekend.
Otis Taylor-Fantasizing About Being Black
I think it was Otis Taylor who I heard ask the rhetorical question, “Why is every white singer songwriter called a singer-songwriter, while a black sing-songwriter is call a blues artist?”
As with Gidden’s Freedom Road, Taylor’s 16th (!) album is even a starker, yet poetic, look at the historical trauma of the African-American experience, from the voyages of slave ships to life in the Mississippi Delta. It seems that he travels back in time and moves forward, too.
As Taylor said in a note, “I’ve taken all of my thoughts about the history of racial injustice and created a musical interpretation for modern times. When I started recording in 2015, I had no idea the topics would become even more relevant.”
You could call the album a concept album as its 11 tracks tell the story of a continuing struggle and a statement on the African-American experience. Taylor uses both banjo and fiddle to great effect, as they were the instruments of slaves on the plantations, and he connects those experiences with the present.
Taylor’s music has been called “trance blues,” and based on my listening experiences, it seems to be a genre occupied solely by him. His vocals are deep and brooding, sometimes hearkening to Southern field hollers, and his guitar work sounds as if it was dug up from Mississippi blues roots. Then just when you think you have him figured out, he throws in a distant trumpet or other instrument that conjures up an atmosphere quite unlike anything else out there.
As a bonus, here’s what Chris Griffy, writer/photographer for AXS and ND, has to say about the album, “It couldn’t have landed at a better time. In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement and accusations of racial and ethnic profiling at America’s highest levels comes a wide-ranging meditation on the struggle for equality. Taylor moves from the shackled slave of “Banjo Bam Bam” to the civil rights movement in “Jump Out of Line” to a controversial interracial marriage in “Jump to Mexico,” an album standout that gets some instrumental help from Jerry Douglas.
Taylor’s use of fiddle and banjo are, on the surface, nothing new. Groups like Carolina Chocolate Drops have been working to reclaim those as traditional black instruments for years. But Taylor doesn’t take the traditional string band arrangements of those instruments, instead making them work within the confines of blues music. It’s a mix that both nods at tradition and forges new paths.”
Fantasizing About Being Black was released last Friday. If you happen not to have any of his albums, this is a good place to start.
Hayes McMullan-Everyday Seem Like Murder Here
Speaking of the blues, our friends in Seattle have unearthed another gem, Hayes McMullan. When he passed away at the age of 84 in 1986, his talent and legacy were largely forgotten. But thanks to roots scholar Gayle Dean Wardlow (who wrote Chasin’ That Devil Music – Searching for the Blues and discovered Robert Johnson’s death certificate in 1968), we have added a necessary name to the blues pantheon.
McMullan was also a church deacon, civil rights activis,t and a sharecropper that Wardlow met by chance on one of his record hunting trips in 1967 in Mississippi. Having introduced himself to McMullan on a hunch, he learned that McMullan had played with Charley Patton in the 1920s. It also seems that McMullan had not played much, if any, music since the 1930s, but Wardlow convinced him to pick up the guitar again and give it a go. Wardlow visited McMullan on several occasions and recorded the songs that are included on this album.
As Wardlow says in his liner notes, “Reflecting now on our brief time together, I marvel at the small glimpse of something much larger I was lucky to have captured. The few old snapshots I took, the handful of tunes we recorded, and his brilliant performance of “Hurry Sundown” captured on film are all that’s left of the musical legacy of Hayes McMullan, sharecropper, deacon, and—unbeknownst to so many for so long—reluctant bluesman.”
Everyday Seem Like Murder Here, with its 31 tracks (all but one released for the first time), including several priceless stories and unseen photos, was released last Friday on CD and as a special vinyl box set.
Guy Clark–The Best of the Dualtone Years
During his 40-year recording career, Clark released 13 original studio albums on six labels, the last three on Dualtone. Most of those other labels have released compilation albums of his work for them. Now it’s Dualtone’s turn to mine the depths those three albums, recorded beginning in 2006 and ending with his last, and perhaps most poignant one, 2013’s My Favorite Picture of You.
Clark was a master songwriter, and the selections on this album are no exception. “El Coyote” and “Rain in Durango” demonstrate Clark’s cinematic storytelling skills. “The Guitar” delves into the ordinary or even banal (buying a pawn shop guitar) and transforms it into a novel. An old “Polaroid Shot” serves as the forerunner to his late masterpiece, “My Favorite Picture of You.”
The album also has some previously unreleased demo tracks, “Just to Watch Maria Dance,” “The Last Hobo” (with Hal Ketchum), and “Time” (with Marty Stuart), that are special treats.
Clark also did a live album for the label, 2011’s Songs and Stories. From that album, this compilation includes, among others, late definitive versions of “Dublin Blues” (which has haunted me ever since I first heard it, strangely enough by Townes Van Zandt, not Clark); the song I first heard by him, “L.A. Freeway,” which Jerry Jeff Walker recorded in 1972; and “The Randall Knife,” which holds a special place in my heart. Mine was a Barlow.
While Clark’s own recordings never set the charts on fire, every one of his Dualtone studio albums earned Grammy nominations, with My Favorite Picture of You winning in 2014. Complete your collection on March 3.
Colin Hay–Fierce Mercy
If you thought Colin Hay began and ended with Men at Work, think again. Fierce Mercy is, much to my surprise, his 13th solo release, and he uses his intense songwriting skills to flesh his visions with broad strokes of an Americana brush.
Most of the album’s tracks were written with Michael Georgiades, who contributed to Hay’s previous sets Gathering Mercury (2011) and American Sunshine (2009). Their familiarity with one another makes the songs go down like a fine single malt. Hays has said “Michael Georgiades is my secret weapon, but I guess now with this album it’s not a secret anymore.” It makes you want to go out find what else he has done.
I had the good fortune to see Hay in performance about a month ago on a college campus (before I heard this new album), and not only was the performance extraordinary, the reception by audience was as well. Even though his deeply felt vocals were about love, loss, and aging, they rang just as true to a college audience as they did to those who have lived those themes.
The album was mostly recorded in Los Angeles with Hay’s wife, Cecilia Noël, and with his regular accompanists. It was completed in sessions at Compass Sound Studio in Nashville with Garry West himself at the helm and contributing bass on a few cuts. This adds to what I earlier noted as its “Americana” sound. Having been at the studio on several occasions, I can attest to the vibrancy, an authenticity they bring to any project. But he was not alone: Alison Brown and some well-known Nashville session players were also on hand.
Hay’s documentary Waiting for My Real Life was released in digital form a couple of weeks back, and Fierce Mercy will be out on March 3. He’s in the middle of a US tour now, and then heads to the UK. I urge you to catch him.
I first saw the unknown Pieta Brown not long after her first album was released, when she opened for her father, Greg Brown. With just Bo Ramsey accompanying her, together they wove a spell that lingered for days. I have proof, as every now and then I listen to a soundboard recording the Browns permitted me to make. I had Greg primarily in mind, but sometimes it’s the recordings that take you by complete surprise that you treasure the most.
I have seen Pieta Brown and Ramsey several times since, and with each new recording, she reveals new layers of what NPR has most aptly called her “moody, ethereal” songwriting and the Boston Globe calls her “mercurial voice.” And I detect a touch of a Blonde on Blonde feel to it all.
With the new album, Brown has tried something completely new. She enlisted a guest artist for each track through regular mail and primarily wrote her portion of the songs in hotel rooms around the country. In order to keep in touch, she took a page out of Frank O’Hara’s playbook and mailed postcards to selected friends. But in her case these were “musical postcards” that were stripped-down, acoustic “shells” of the new songs she’d written while on tour. Among the folks she sent them to were Calexico, Mark Knopfler, Mason Jennings, David Lindley, and Carrie Rodriguez. Her instructions to each were simple — write back. The result is arresting.
One track, “In the Light,” with Calexico, was released for listening last week. Postcards arrives on March 10 at your favorite record locale.
Ruthie Foster–Joy Comes Back
I had not realized how much I missed Ruthie Foster – and how long it had been since I had last seen her – until I saw her again last week. Solo. In all her glory. It seems she took some time off, moved, and had some personal things to take care of. She described the new albums as “therapy.” Whatever transpired, the result is one marvelous album.
But it is not quite what you’d expect – only one original, but I would not call it a covers album. Not by a long shot. She inhabits songs from Mississippi John Hurt’s “Richland Woman Blues” to Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” to The Four Tops’ “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever.”
The album’s title is an apt one, as you can feel the joy in her voice in performing these songs in a gospel manner yet sounding like vintage 1970s soul music. What is amazing is that she did not limit herself to merely reinterpret “soul” standards. There’s a diversity of songs, ones that you’d never associate with her. Besides the Black Sabbath, another one is the Weepies’ “Forgiven.” It’s a gorgeous, majestic, and moving ballad; I am told that when she first heard the playback, she was moved to tears. Foster added in note, “This song said so much about what I was going through. To have it be the catalyst for this album was a gift.”
To achieve the rich sound on Joy, joining Foster are some ringers: Derek Trucks, Willie Weeks, and Joe Vitale just to name a few. The album envelops you. It is one gorgeous listening experience, just like her live show last week that she closed with Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” that she performed solo, as not just a personal statement but as a powerful anthem for all black womankind. The virtually all white audience rose to its collective feet to cheer on this phenomenal woman.
You too can experience the stunning Joy Comes Back, Foster’s eighth album, on March 24.
Marty Stuart–Way Out West
Sooner or later everyone seems to do a western record. Not that it should be unusual, as country music was called county and western for decades before the latter fell out of favor.
So, on his 18th release as a lead artist, Marty Stuart has hopped on the wagontrain, taking with him his crack band, the Fabulous Superlatives, featuring Kenny Vaughn (I can never get enough of him, beginning with Lucinda, then Crowell, and now Marty) and new member Chris Scruggs. Produced by Mike Campbell, the 15-track album is a collection of originals, instrumentals, and rare covers, such as Benny Goodman’s “Air Mail Special” and “Lost on the Desert.” The latter was recorded by Johnny Cash, and Stuart asked him about the song when he was in his band and he said the only thing he remembered about it was changing some words.
The album was conceived as a love letter by one of the last musicians who has connections to bluegrass and county music’s storied past to the lonely, magical and mythical American West, specifically California, which promised paradise to so many dustbowl refugees and migrants.
When I first listened to the album, its feel reminded of an early Cash record. So, I sorted out some vinyl, and the one I picked was The Fabulous Johnny Cash. Later I learned that that was about the first LP Stuart ever had. There is also a strong hint of Marty Robbins, but the real surprise comes when they go all the way to the Pacific Ocean and Vaughn adds some Dick Dale riffs. I guess you can’t get any further west than surf music.
Way Out West arrives everywhere in all three formats on March 10.
Tedeschi Trucks Band –Live From the Fox Oakland
Ever since they joined forces, taking two individual bands and merging them into a single one, Tedeschi Trucks Band has been the natural successor to the Allman Brothers, albeit with, to my sensibility, more of an emphasis on blues. That is a welcome sight, as it seems the blues does not get the critical and above-board attention these days that it deserves.
Fans and the press alike will have much to celebrate, as TTB are about to release their second live album, which will also be available on DVD as a concert film that presents the 12-piece ensemble’s invigorating live show. The film also features extensive behind-the-scenes footage, including Derek’s recent visit to Marc Maron’s garage for the WTF! podcast and an interview with Derek and Susan conducted by Rolling Stone critic David Fricke for Sirius XM Satellite Radio.
Filmed and recorded on a single night, September 9, 2016, at the gorgeous Fox Theater, the concert film and audio were mixed using a vintage Neve console to achieve an exquisitely immersive sound experience, with Bob Ludwig (the most respected name in mastering) doing the 5.1 surround sound mix and album audio. The film was produced and directed by Jesse Lauter (Bob Dylan) and Grant James (Father John Misty) with Trucks continuing in his role as producer on all music elements.
The band plays many of their own compositions, but intriguingly adds interpretations of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire,” Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “I Pity the Fool,” and Derek and the Dominos’ “Keep On Growing.” Trucks’ guitar work grabs the spotlight for stunning extended solos. These must be heard/seen to be believed.
Live From the Fox Oakland will be released in all available formats, including high-end vinyl and Blu-Ray on March 17. However, the set lists differ somewhat on the audio and video, as the video release features two tracks as unexpected as they are outstanding: George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” and what I have found be the most perfect finale of all time, regardless of genre, Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.”
Sandwiched between six sold-out days playing at the Warner Theater in Washington, DC, and The Ryman in Nashville, the band plays my hometown. You better believe I’ll be there. They then head to Europe and return home for a summer long tour.
Judy Collins-Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim
Unlike Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins did not discover Stephen Sondheim when, in 1975, “Send in the Clowns” (from 1973’s A Little Night Music) was included on her album Judith. Sondheim was by then a well-established Broadway composer. But she did something just as remarkable: she was the first to popularize that song and bring a new audience to him. Collins was the first person to record the song, save for the cast recording. Sondheim himself credits her with making it a standard. No one else saw what Collins obviously did.
Despite having displayed his one-of-a-kind genius since West Side Story and having three magnificent Broadway productions under his belt, he was still largely unknown outside the Broadway world. Judy Collins changed that and certainly me.
Musicials were not “serious” stuff like Dylan, Bergman, and Chekov were. Even though in college I had seen a touring company’s production of Company, my experiences simply were not deep enough for me to appreciate Sondheim. After that there were full albums of his songs, with performers including Jane Harvey, Julie Wilson, Bernadette Peters, and Cleo Laine. And let me not fail to mention the wonderful Blossom Dearie, who also did treasured versions of his songs. I have since seen nearly every one of his musings on the human condition that masquerade as musicals.
I owe all that to Judy Collins. This should not be all that surprising as she’s been doing this for over 50 years, beginning with In My Life when she became the first folk singer to record a Beatles song. Love Letter is both an album and a DVD of Sondheim’s songs. Appropriately enough, the DVD was released on Valentine’s Day, with the album coming on March 3.
Lambchop–Is a Woman
Just in time for its 15th anniversary, Lambchop’s Is a Woman will be available on vinyl in North America for the first time. The 2-LP set in a gatefold sleeve will allow Lambchop fans to fully appreciate the lovely album art. As a bonus, the reissue will include eight digital bonus tracks recorded during those sessions.
While it was Nixon (released two years earlier) that introduced Kurt Wagner and his Nashville collective’s luscious country soul grooves to the world, it was the deceptively gentle Is a Woman that fully registered another alt to the alt-country world. It administered a quiet, yet compelling shock to the system.
As with the Handsome Family and a very others, Wagner weaves an alternate world in which you get lost, and only after the record is over do you realize that it was “just” a record. As Wagner himself asks on “Bugs,” “Think of things and how they got this way/ Way above the rest/ Isn’t this the fucking best?”
The album’s remarkable “My Blue Wave,” where Wagner depicts a world of helpless tragedy in which comfort can be found in the smallest of gestures, exemplifies the true spirit of this record.
Fifteen years later, Lambchop continue to confound and astound in equal measure. While their sound consistently shifting and surprising, and the band’s lineup has morphed and adapted repeatedly since the album’s original release, the extraordinary, idiosyncratic Is a Woman is now considered to be one of the band’s finest.
It is a remarkable record, one of my 10 essential albums of the decade past. The vinyl version, with the extra digital tracks, will be out on March 3.
Now, by all means treat yourself to photos of these artists by the best photograhers music journalism has to offer.
Note: The Hayes McMullan photo was provided by his estate.