A few decades ago, when I ran a record store in California, I must have been asked that question a few hundred times a day. They weren’t usually the first words spoken by a new customer, since ascertaining the whereabouts and accessibility of our bathroom and confirming if we would accept personal checks were the top two. But after a cursory look at the waterfalls and end caps with the signage advertising sales and new releases, and a flip or two through the bins, most people would work up the courage to come to the counter, or engage some employee who was restocking the shelves out on the floor, and pop the question.
Anybody who has ever worked in a record store will tell you it was the best moment of the day. That question meant we got to do what we loved to do best: talk about music we knew about, that you’d never heard of. Of course there was a trick to getting it right. You didn’t want to pitch Ralph Stanley to the guy who was holding a dozen used classical albums by a specific Hungarian composer, nor make a rookie mistake like I once did when I handed Mike Love’s solo album of cover songs to Brian Wilson, who smacked it hard, grumbled, and stormed out. If you were going to discuss or suggest something, you needed to know your audience, have some idea of what you were talking about, and be able to stand your ground two days later when they brought it back and you had to lay the “no refund/no exchange” policy on them. A thankless job it was, indeed.
These days, when I want to find out about new music or even older titles that I’ve skipped over, there aren’t many places left to go nor many people to talk to. There are about a half-dozen websites in addition to this one that I visit regularly, to pick up threads of news about new artists and releases. I use You Tube and Spotify more than any other streaming services, wandering about usually late at night, like a prospector panning for gold. Living in a big city allows me access to a number of college and public radio stations, where left-of-center music is served up. And hitting just three festivals per summer exposes me to about a hundred acts over the course of a couple of weekends.
But there is something quite sad to this mission of a mostly singular search and discovery, and it makes me recall that there was once a forum on this particular site that endured for years. It was probably the most popular community forum topic and it asked the simple question about what you were listening to. People responded and shared almost daily. I thought it was a great service to the roots music community, but things change and it’s now hard to find. It was just sort of an old fashioned notion — an online bulletin board that went the way of AOL dial-up. Still, I sort of miss it.
So in the spirit and memory of our old fashioned community forum, where I met many good people, learned an awful lot, and expanded my musical horizons, here’s a brief list of what I’ve been listening to in the past couple of weeks. There’s some old, some new. Some borrowed, some blues. Should the spirit move you, just log in, post your own list in the comments box, and you’ll get notified when others do the same. Then you too can answer the question: Have you heard any good music lately?
Joan Shelley – Over and Even: I loved her earlier collaboration with Daniel Martin Moore, and he engineered this one. Nathan Salsburg plays guitar. Will Oldham and Glen Detinger provide harmonies. It’s a Louisville thing.
Ola Belle Reed: Dust-To-Digital’s August-released book about her life comes with a two-disc sampler. Unbelievable.
Daniel Romano – If I’ve Only One Time Askin’: If you love your late-1950s, early-’60s classic country shaken and stirred with a touch of Gram Parsons, this is for you.
Nikki Talley – Out from the Harbor: I know, there are seven million singer-songwriters out on the road these days, but this woman delivers the type of North Carolina country you wished your local radio station played.
Meg Baird – Don’t Weigh Down the Light: A Philadelphian moves to San Francisco and mixes her Appalachian-style roots guitar work with ethereal vocals and an electric collaborator to create a post-Espers flashback.
The Kennedys – West: Pete and Maura bring out this duo album as well as two solo efforts. Expect more Byrds-like jingle-jangle guitar and their great, close harmonies. Catch them live if you can.
Los Lobos: I’m immersed in their entire catalog, which could take several years to get through. I’ve got acoustic En Vivo, Kiko, and the new Gates of Gold in heavy rotation now. And a tip of the sombrero to Los Super Seven — a great side project.
Oxford American Southern Music Samplers: Blessings to my friend in England who sent me his complete collection, going back to 1999. Most are sold out, but head over to the OA website and sign up to reserve this year’s sampler, which focuses on the music of Georgia. While you’re there, you can grab the few others still in print.
Okay, you’re it.