God Bless America(na)

As we venture into what will undoubtedly be the strangest Holiday season we’ve ever experienced, this is a time to give thanks for all we have. Many of us have less than we did at the start of the year, and more than a quarter million Americans have passed away due to Covid-19 – yet, we still have much for which to be thankful. We in America also find ourselves in some of the strangest political and social times we’ve ever experienced – we will have a new President (no matter what our current one says), and we continue to experience social unrest. In spite of all of it, I still have to say God Bless America! And for anyone who feels differently, look at my picture – despite all of her flaws, Black and Brown people are probably still better off here than anywhere else in the world – but we ALL have to be better as a collective to make things work.

For this post, got some new music under the Americana umbrella, starting with the new album from Chris Stapleton, the latest musical turn from Sturgill Simpson, an intimate solo project from Ben Harper, the latest from Jeff Tweedy, and a check-in on a couple of my Folk queens who have new songs out there, Valerie June, and Rhiannon Giddens.

So… if you’ve been a regular reader of my spot, you know that I don’t shy away from speaking on current events of the times, and also that I appreciate when a musician uses their considerable influence and stature to take a stand. Now, especially in Country music, musicians often go out of their way NOT to venture into sociopolitical territory, because it’s “no-win” territory for them – they’ll either be branded a racist or a traitor; I did a post here a couple of years ago that touched on this subject called “Just for the Record : The Politics of the Politics in Music” – check it out in my archives… Regarding the flaws in this society and the current unrest, one of the hotbed issues has been a point of recent controversy for one of County music’s biggest stars. I’ve gotta talk it out with y’all, so I’m about to go there on this issue.

Chris Stapleton is no stranger to controversy; he dipped a toe into these waters a couple of years ago when he collaborated with Justin Timberlake on the track “Say Something“, which was about taking a stand. Prior to the release of his latest album Starting Over, he did an interview for CBS This Morning; I was unable to find the interview on YouTube, but a trip to CBS This Morning’s Twitter page produced the goods. Among other topics, he was asked about the Black Lives Matter movement, and that’s where the rubber hit the pavement for a lot of folks; here’s the full interview (pick up the BLM portion of it around 4:10)…

He said two things that ticked folks off: 1.) “You know, I thought we were living in a different country. And that’s 100 percent real. I feel like the country that I thought that we were living in was a myth…” He actually caught the ire of people on both sides for this one – he caught the wrath of some Black folks for just now realizing how different life in America is for them, and from some White folks for essentially calling “our way of life” a myth. 2.) When asked about BLM : “Do I think Black lives matter? Absolutely. I don’t know how you could think they don’t. I think we all have a lot of work to do, you know, as individuals and as a society, and if you don’t think that, I think you’re not looking.” Oh, this statement has had folks flinging his CD’s out the window of the pickup truck like a frisbee! They have jumped off the Stapleton bandwagon.

Did they hear what he said in full??? He said “absolutely” Black lives matter (note: he didn’t address the organization, just the movement – very important distinction – I myself have some issues with things that members of BLM the org have said and done). The people who say “All lives matter” can’t let the statement “Black lives matter” pass through their lips, because I don’t believe they truly care about them. He also said “we all have work to do”, meaning ALL races, including Blacks – some took it to imply “only Whites”, which, while they do bear much of this burden, it’s not all on them. Here it is for me, in a nutshell: I’d love to say that all lives matter, but all lives don’t matter, until Black lives matter to the same degree and concern, and handled with the same regard as other lives. And… my Black brothas and sistas have to understand that we cannot continue to yell the mantra, while we continue to kill each other. Period.

Chris Stapleton is a compassionate individual; he said NOTHING wrong here, and if you’re mad or offended at what he said, then you’re who he’s talking about, as a part of the problem – his admission that his eyes have been opened is the start we need from people in a position of certain privilege to begin addressing and resolving the issues of injustice and inequality in this society. That is all; I said what I said…

Now… on to his new album… Starting Over is Stapleton’s fourth solo album, following up the duology from 2017-18 From A Room, Vols. 1 & 2. Many country music fans have pinned their hopes on him for bringing back “real’ Country music, that outlaw spirit of a Waylon Jennings, for instance, instead of the hybrid stuff you get a lot of these days (see Thomas Rhett).

He keeps that spirit alive, at least for a couple of tracks, the rollicking “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice” and “Arkansas“; “Worry B Gone” is a Guy Clark cover song, a lil country boogie, and “Watch You Burn” is a song centered on the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting at a Country music festival. He infuses some Blues into “Hillbilly Blood” and “Whisky Sunrise“, and sings a couple of odes to his wife and background vocalist Morgane with “When I’m with You” and John Fogerty’s “Joy of My Life“. He spent some time recording at the familiar “A” Room studio in Nashville, but he also recorded some tracks at the legendary Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama, and I think that’s where the Soul comes out – “Old Friends” is a cover song that starts off like an old R&B song, with a spoke word intro; then there’s the two centerpieces for me : “Cold” is a smoldering R&Bluesy track… “Oh, why you gotta be so cold / Why you got ta go and cut me like a knife / Put our love on ice / Oh, girl you know you left this hole / Right in the middle of my soul…”, complete with a searing guitar solo and dramatic strings, this song is deeply emotional… OMG!! This track sends chills down my spine, it’s so good! Then there’s “You Should Probably Leave“, a song about two people who know they’re no good for each other, with the lyric “I know you, and you know me / and we both know where this is gonna lead / You want me to say / that I want you to stay / so you should probably leave…” Those smartly ironic lyrics are a hallmark in Country music… Finally, “Maggie’s Song” traces the life of a dog until she passes away with her head in his hand, and he bids farewell to his home in the closing track “Nashville, TN“.

I was a fan of Chris Stapleton before he took a stand, and I give him mad respect now for being brave enough to make his position known, and to admit that he learned something about himself, and will work to make a change. And by the way, the album’s really good, too; this album will join his other three albums in my collection. Here’s the video for the title track…

Someone looked in the direction of Sturgill Simpson in reference to his stance on current events, and whether he aligned with recent comments from Chris Stapleton, or more along the lines of they who form the opposite opinion; he basically told the latter NOT to look in his direction for support… so he’s a compassionate individual as well, and down with the struggle, so to speak. This Country maverick is really outside the mainstream of the genre, bouncing from one stylistic tendency to another; he won a GRAMMY for his Country / Music hall 2016 album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (which I bought), then released the anime, Alt Rock-influenced SOUND & FURY last year. The new album Cuttin’ Grass Vol.1 – The Butcher Shoppe Sessions is essentially Sturgill and his string band assemblage of accomplished musicians doing Bluegrass versions of songs from his back catalog.

The Butcher Shoppe is a studio in Nashville, where these tracks were recorded; it has very much the feel of a covers album, and that’s because that’s what it is, Simpson covering Simpson. The musicians are great with their instruments, especially the female on the mandolin- she is really sharp. In contrast to what you may normally expect from Simpson, he plays it relatively straight here with the arrangements to these songs; he’s usually known for taking some sonic liberties with his tunes, but here, they are just straight-ahead covers in a Bluegrass style. For the most part, it works, although by the time I got to the last quarter of the 20 tracks here, I was starting to get a little tired of it.

There’s no telling which way Sturgill will go next; the title suggests there may be a second volume coming- he’s rumored to be wanting to do a albums of 80’s covers- that’ll be an interesting album, especially depending on the musical style he wishes to employ for it – maybe he’ll do something like French group Nouvelle Vague did, with Bossa Nova versions of old New Wave tunes. There is no official video for any of the album’s tracks, but here’s a clip of Simpson performing “Breaker’s Boar” on Late Night with Stephen Colbert

The newest album from guitarist Ben Harper is a tribute to some of his favorite places, in song. Winter Is for Lovers is a 15 track all instrumental album featuring only Ben and his custom made lap steel guitar.

If it sounds like he’s playing directly for you in your living room, it’s entirely intended. He rolls through the tracks in precise measure, the sound quality completely bare and exposed, so that you capture the nuance of every note he plays. The mood is definitely chill throughout, with the only exception being the kinda busy “Bizanet“; otherwise, I gravitated to “Manhattan“, “Inland Empire“, “London“, and “Islip“; also, I dug “Brittany“, but at just 48 seconds long, it went by way too quickly.

Ben is able to produce evocative tone poems in a way that’s in turns haunting, plaintive, introspective, and beautiful. Great dinner, background or thinking music, or just good music to enjoy from a master of his instrument. Here’s Ben performing “Inland Empire“… if you have about a half-hour to spend, this clip is taken from the session in which he performs the entire album – check it out on YouTube – time well spent…

Here’s a bonus audio track, featuring a recent collabo between Ben and Rhiannon Giddens (more on her in a moment)… I would loooove to see these two do a full album together. Here’s “Black Eyed Dog“, a cover of a 1986 Nick Drake song…

Before I check out for this post, need to check in on a couple of my Folk sistas… Valerie June has released a new three song suite entitled “Stay/Stay Meditation/You and I“, a tasty teaser for what is hopefully a full album to come. Enjoy the visualizer…

The ever-busy Rhiannon Giddens has been releasing a track here and there, including the collabo with Ben Harper, YoYo Ma, and others. The track “Cry No More” was written in 2015 after the massacre of nine attendees to a bible study at a Black church in Charleston, SC… an incident that happened on my birthday, and the shooter, White supremacist Dylann Roof, is still alive and in jail… just imagine how long a Black man with a gun, shooting nine white church attendees in bible study would’ve been alive… Anyway, she recently re-recorded the track, with the help of composer Michael Abels, who’s known for, among things, scoring the music for Jordan Peele’s film Get Out, members of the Met Opera Chorus and the Nashville Ballet, and various musicians, including cellist Tahirah Whittington, who has an amazing solo during the track. Here’s the finished product…

I will freely admit to not really having any prior knowledge of any of the music produced by neither Jeff Tweedy, nor the band he fronted, Wilco, nor the preceding band Uncle Tupelo; I became aware of Tweedy through his association with the legendary Mavis Staples, working with her on three albums during the past decade. Love Is the King is his latest album, his fourth as a solo artist.

One advantage Tweedy has had at his disposal is the ability to make music from his home studio with his sons, who helped with this project. The theme here seems to center on the human connection, or lack thereof, evident during this pandemic. The title track begins the session, telling us “Violent and still / Spinning above / Stones and slings / When push comes to shove / Love is the king…” There seems to be a fair amount of isolation driven paranoia evident, in “Opaline“, and in “Bad Day Lately“… “It’s been a bad day lately / A lonely place I can’t endure / Being so far away / Always makes things worse…” He’s happiest when he has the human connection available to him; on “Even I Can See“, he pays tribute to his wife: “I was never one who needed to believe / In a god hard to find /But I found by her side / There’s a god / Evеn I can see…” Similarly, in “Save It for Me“, he finds that connection to be a lifeline… “Save it for me / When the world falls apart I can say with certainty / There’s a reason / A light left on in an empty room / Is how a love can be…” Simply stated, yet poignant. He continues to trade emotions throughout the entire set, and musically, it’s rather mellow in a twisted, yet calming sort of way.

Now I can see where Mavis found her connection with Tweedy; he has managed to make a kind of aural blueprint of navigation through all of the emotional changes during pandemic life, and manage to find hope. Just trying to keep it all together is usually the goal, and these days, it’s harder than ever. Nice record, Mr. Tweedy… Here is the video for “Gwendolyn“…

By maestrotjd

I'm a music head. A classically trained violinist/violist literate from chant to Chopin to Copland, Soul man, aging Punk, Classic rocker, Alt rocker, Church choir man, House head, Techno, Industrial guy, almost Rasta, Ska & Rock Steady baby, Junglist, Dubstep to Two-step to Chicago old school steppin', Lounge & Exotica, World Fusion, Latin & Bossa Nova dude, Jazz man from Swing to Bebop to Acid, Trip hop and Hip hop, ya don't stop, a lil bit Country, Gospel, and everything in between. These are my musings (or ramblings).

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