This week’s version of Hard Times Come Again No More by Stephen Foster is the first one I heard, the one that turned me on to the song, it’s enduring message, and it’s graceful beauty. Here is James Taylor with Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O’Connor.
“Country” star Jason Aldean told the Washington Post that all country’s little ole females are the same. Put the men on stage and the women in the kitchen, or at least in the dressing room for after the show.
“I feel like a lot of times female singers, to me, when they’re singing – and I’ll probably kick myself for saying this – a lot of times, it just seems like I can’t distinguish one from the other sometimes if I just listen to them, you know?“ Aldean said. “A lot of times they just sound really similar to me.”
You know what, Jason? It’s a helluva lot easier for me to tell Brandy Clark from Kacey Musgraves from Courtney Patton from Sarah Watkins than it is to separate out your rapping dreck from that of Brantley Gilbert or Luke Bryan or Tyler Hubbard. Go soak your head in a bucket of Bud Light and cow piss.
I’m going to try and start a regular series here, and post a different version of this blog’s namesake song each Sunday – Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More,” from 1854. To kick things off, here’s the legendary Mavis Staples.
Toby Keith has one of the best voices in country music, and he used to use it to crank out some pretty great songs – remember “Should’ve Been A Cowboy,” “Who’s that Man,” and “My List”?
Those days are long past. Toby Keith is a musical wreck right now, and I’m not even talking about Trigger’s July article about the failures of his restaurants and label. Just WHAT was that train wreck on Colbert’s third Late Show last night? Don’t get me wrong – I used to love Toby Keith, and I want to again. Here’s to redemption, but it won’t come from this song, and probably not from next month’s new album.
The song was “Rum is the Reason,” and it’s the third we’ve heard from Keith’s upcoming album “35 MPH Town.” It’s beach country you would expect from Jimmy Buffett or Kenny Chesney, not Toby Keith – though Buffett will appear on a different track, so maybe this signals a new direction for Keith. That could be fine, but, the tune, which Keith wrote with Scotty Emerick, just doesn’t work. I have no idea what it’s trying to say – it’s just a mess, it’s all over the place. On the one hand, we’ve got a laid-back beach song about enjoying booze like Davy Crockett or Pancho Villa, and the chorus says “I’m having fun.” But then it also lists Stalin and Hitler as problem drinkers, and the main line of the chorus is “Rum is the reason pirates never ruled the world.” So what the hell IS this song, and WHEN am I supposed to listen to it? Is this to relax on the beach and forget my worries, or is it a cautionary tale for those times I need to get something good done but would rather drink with Hitler? (Which, just so we’re clear, is never.)
Like I said, hot mess, all over the place, no sense whatsoever. 1.5 whiskey bottles out of five. Rum is the reason I’m going to forget this song even exists.
The album’s title track is also a mess, lamenting the decline of America’s small towns. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing, and in some ways, the song hints of a return to the Keith of old, which I would welcome – a slower song about real life, showing off Keith’s voice and deep themes. But despite setting admirable goals, it utterly fails to achieve them.
As Trigger points out, it lists symptom after symptom, without hitting the causes. And I’ll add that it’s the same list of symptoms folks have been complaining about for decades – even though crime and teen pregnancy rates are actually DOWN. We all know something is wrong and we’re scared, but instead of really digging into it and figuring things out, we just turn to the old comfortable tropes. That’s easy to do, but it’s also counter-productive and ultimately quite divisive. And this song is simply a part of that. At least the feel is country; there are no complaints about that here. 1.5 whiskey bottles out of 5.
I may not review it, but I’ll give the full album a listen on Spotify when it comes out, if for one reason and one reason only – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Bob DiPiero wrote the first track and first single, “Drunk Americans.” All hail Brandy Clark. The song was the album’s first single, and it feels like a more laid-back version of Brad Paisley’s “Alcohol.” I give it three whiskey bottles out of five, and I could definitely listen to it again. It’s a feel-good drinking song about how we can all come together for a beer, no matter what our divisions. It’s relatively shallow; there’s no real social commentary, despite a picture of Boehner and Obama drinking together in the video. But sometimes simple thoughts like that are the most important thoughts, and really, the song is fun and harmless. Which is just the way I like my drinking songs – unlike, say, oh, I don’t know, “Rum is the Reason”.
I’d love to see some more combinations of Keith’s voice with Clark and McAnally’s songwriting talent. Keith himself used to be a good songwriter and he’s still a great singer, but seems to have lost his way. Maybe they can help him find it again – but that’ll probably have to be with NEXT October’s album, not this year’s. We’ll see.
Few bands mean as much to me, emotionally and personally, as the Steep Canyon Rangers, so I was excited when the band released their ninth studio album two weeks ago. “Radio” was produced by legendary dobro player and fellow-GRAMMY winner Jerry Douglas, who also plays on the album.
You need to buy this album, if for just this one reason: Graham Sharp’s “Down That Road Again” is one of the best new songs I have heard in a long time. In fact, if you don’t count Jason Isbell’s songwriting, it might be THE best new song I’ve heard in years.
The song, with Graham on lead vocals, feels like someone who is finally standing on firm ground but hasn’t forgotten the pain of the past and uses it to warn himself against an imminent fall. The climax of the chorus particularly resonates with me – “Right now I need the kind of friend / Who won’t let me go down that road again.” I have a few friends like that, and there’s almost nothing in this life that I am more grateful for than them. (Waves at Diana and everyone else.) I also like the line “There is a man who looks just like me… If you see him ’round won’t you stop and say It’s not too late.” It reminds me of one of my favorite Isbell tunes, “Live Oak.” We all have those hollow, moments when we feel driftless and unmoored from ourselves.
The music on “Down That Road Again” is every bit as important as the lyrics. It opens with a slow, moving intro from Douglas on steel guitar and best-in-the-business Nicky Sanders on violin (and it really is more violin than fiddle here). But what really gets you is the tight harmonies on the chorus – the slide on “Right now” takes my breath away every time. Douglas certainly deserves producer props for that, as do engineers Julian Dreyer and Clay Miller at Echo Mountain Recording. While the Steeps’ albums have always been great, like most bluegrass bands, the harmonies just don’t come across nearly as well recorded as they do live. “Radio” starts to fix that, and not just on “Down That Road Again” – though this song in particular is one of those moments that really reminds us why music exists. I’m not afraid to say it: This song makes me cry. Thank you, Graham.
Radio is certainly a good album worth a spot in your rotation. That said, aside from “Down That Road Again” and another Sharp tune, “Wasted,” I think I actually prefer both 2012’s amazing GRAMMY-winner “Nobody Knows You” and 2013’s “Tell the Ones I Love.” But don’t get me wrong! This is a good album, and I’ve listened to it half a dozen times already. Other highlights include “Blow Me Away” (embedded below), “Long Summer,” and, if you’re looking for feel-good nostalgia, the title track.
As with the other two Rounder albums, there’s one upbeat instrumental track written by mandolin player Mike Guggino (“Looking Glass”) and 11 solid bluegrass songs – seven by Graham Sharp, three by bass player Charles Humphrey (including two with frequent songwriting partner Phil Barker of Town Mountain), and one from lead singer Woody Platt and his wife Shannon Whitworth. While Woody’s distinctive smooth voice remains lead on seven songs, Graham takes lead on four (in addition to prominent harmonies), which is more than the last two. Since Graham’s voice is deeper with a bit more edge to it than Woody’s, this makes the album’s sound slightly rougher than fans might be used to.
But on the uptempo side, the Platt/Whitworth song – “Break” – was a nice surprise, as Woody didn’t write anything on the last two albums, and it features Whitworth alongside him on vocals. That said, it’s always a little chilling, and intimate in an uncomfortable way, to hear a married couple sing about breakups (I’m looking at you, Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis!). But, I suppose that speaks to the strength of the couple, doesn’t it?
There’s one other new thing about “Radio.” Percussionist Mike Ashworth has been touring with the Steeps for a couple of years, but this is the first time he’s recorded with them. While I’m often a purist, I’m perfectly okay with the drums here. The Steeps may have a more traditional sound than some of the other young bluegrass bands out there right now, but Ashworth’s drums, like Woody and Graham’s vocal styles, show that the band is willing to experiment in ways that push the format without breaking it.
4 whiskey bottles out of 5 for 2015’s “Radio.” Given the strength of the last two albums, I might go with 3.5 before 4.5, but I can’t wait to head back to DC and see the band again next month, and if this were a song review instead of an album review, “Down That Road Again” would get 6 whiskey bottles out of 5. You can buy the album on the Steeps’ website.