Having just met Nanci Griffith I can tell you she is exactly the same off stage as on. She listens carefully, speaks with kindness, and will not disguise her outrage with injustice or intolerance. All of these attributes also contribute to her skill as a songwriter and song chooser. Examples are everywhere on her new album.
The album’s title has a double meaning – Mildred and Richard Loving were married in 1958 despite a judge’s attempts to void their interracial marriage. They were later part of a landmark case (Loving vs.The State of Virigina, 1967) voiding all laws preventing such marriages. This song will likely become her next “It’s a Hard Life,” except the results are more positive.
Nanci also writes about the dangers of too much money or simply having too much “stuff.” Check out “Things I Don’t Need.” She’s guessing that many of her fans are her own age, suddenly realizing that we’re keeping too much of life’s baggage. Cleverly, as we begin to catch ourselves looking through our attics and crawl spaces, she reminds us to recall why we kept these things – often because we don’t let go of the baggage in our hearts. In almost a Zen way, she cautions us to enjoy the present instead of being held back by the past.
“Not Innocent Enough” is an eye-opener about capital punishment using a very specific example (Phillip Workman vs. The State of Tennessee). Other songs are not so deep. “Sing” emphasizes the health benefits of music. All in all, this is another keeper for your Nanci Griffith collection. Even though many of the songs are similar in pace, they are each unique individually and truly unforgettable. (JB)
Johnsmith’s early albums showed promise and today that promise has been delivered. His last two albums have catapulted him to the next level. His voice has great range and his writing allows him to show off that voice. In addition, he is now surrounding himself with talent. Stuart Duncan, Darrell Scott, Radoslav Lorkovic, and Tim O’Brien back him and John stays right with them. Tom Prasada-Rao produces and plays multiple back up roles.
The album begins with a lovely remembrance of a trip for two across the Pacific Northwest in a VW beetle. He’s betting you took a similar trip once, or he is suggesting that you should. “Father’s Day” is personal, but you can’t stop thinking about the first time your own Dad actually said that he loved you. If he never did, this song will at least provide a glimpse into what it feels like. Juni Rae is a very catchy welcome wish to his baby entering our world, a place full of mistrust, but also of support.
One of the album’s surprises is his tribute to a favorite tree. Of all trees to celebrate, he chose the lowly Scotch pine. Certainly not a botanical favorite, the Scotch pine often has to fight off diseases, and does not grow thick and full like a Spruce, for example. Perhaps he sees something of us in that tree. That’s for the poet in you to decide. Certain trees do remind us of favorite places which can be in your own backyard.
Johnsmith might have begun as a Scotch pine, and he might still be one, but today
his own overlooked gifts are just as obvious. (JB)
In the late 1990’s, Levon Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer. It was suggested that Helm have a laryngectomy, removing his voice box. He would never be able to speak, much less sing again. The tenor voice that dominated songs like “Down on Cripple Creek,” “The Weight” and “The Night they drove Old Dixie Down” was not to be heard again.
Against his doctors’ advice, Helm did not get a laryngectomy. Instead, he went through a strenuous process of radiation over the course of years. He had still lost his ability to sing. But Helm was still actively playing drums and producing music with his friends via his Woodstock home and recording studio. In 2004, he attempted to sing again, his voice weak and raspy. With constant practice, his voice became stronger. And 2 years ago, he debuted his Grammy-winning comeback, Dirt Farmer.
The sequel, Electric Dirt, has a very different sound than its predecessor. While all the songs have are distinctively Helm’s, he’s expanded his sound in several ways. In songs like “Tennessee Jed” and “Kingfish” we hear Helm accompanied by a large brass section that isn’t afraid to take the lead. This contrasts with the traditional Appalachian-sounding melodies of “Golden Bird” and “Growin’ Trade,” a lyrically driven tale of a farmer who was to turn to a new crop to make his wages. There’s even a few douses of gospel with his daughter, Amy, and Teresa Williams singing soulful backup vocals on “Move Along Train” and “When I Go Away.”
Levon Helm is a rare breed of musician, who adamantly tries to better himself all the time. Despite the damage to his vocal chords, he belts out and sings joyously throughout this whole album. Whether you like the way his voice sounds now or not, the music and general attitude of the album (and the group for that matter) have to be respected. Does Electric Dirt live up to Dirt Farmer though? That’s for you to decide. (DH)
In the 1980’s, Dave Alvin revitalized interest in rock-a-billy and American roots music with his band The Blasters. Using the great rock musicians of the ’50’s and ’60’s as archetypes on which to base their style, The Blasters added hard rock and punk into their original blend of roots-based rock, producing fierce guitar-driven tracks and gentle ballads decorated with doo-wop harmonies.
Today, Dave Alvin still has the same rock and roll influences. But he’s taking the music he loves in a new direction with an all-star all-female group called The Guilty Women (his last band was the Guilty Men). Comprised of Sarah Brown, Nina Gerber, Amy Farris, Lisa Pankratz, Laurie Lewis, Christy McWilson and Cindy Cashdollar, the Guilty Women, led by Alvin, are touring non-stop in the coming months.
Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women are playing roots rock in a very different way than Alvin has in the past. The album starts off with an almost Zydeco version of Blasters hit “Marie, Marie” and continues to bring the listener to a wide range of sounds. In songs like “Downey Girl” and “Anyway”, we hear heartfelt, yet effortlessly subtle vocals form Alvin, who normally has a very dominating voice. Christy McWilson is supported by Laurie Lewis and Amy Farris in “Potter’s Field,” a gentle and almost spiritual piece. Ending the album is an upbeat piano-driven version of “Que Sera Sera” that provides an ironically swinging arrangement to an otherwise sad number.
Both the players and the leading man are on top of their games and provide a rocking interpretation of roots music, while still knowing when to unplug and perform with gentle subtlety. (DH)
by Doug Hite and Jim Blum