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Posts from the ‘Country music’ Category

Don Henley’s Cass County

Don Henley - Publicity Shot #2 (Credit Danny Clinch)During one of the interviews given to promote his new solo album, Don Henley mentioned that he writes poetry. When his voice gives out, he said, that’s probably what he’ll turn to. This would have been no surprise to admirers of “The Boys of Summer”, his solo hit from 1984, which has an opening verse whose perfect cadences seem to come complete with punctuation: “Nobody on the road, nobody on the beach. I feel it in the air: the summer’s out of reach. Empty lake, empty streets; the sun goes down alone. I’m driving by your house though I know you’re not home.”

It’s a great pop song, of course, with a dark undertow — just like many of the best Eagles songs, from “Hotel California” to “King of Hollywood”. In the Eagles’ world, no pleasure was ever unmixed. The same trait also marked out the best products of Henley’s solo career, including the four great songs from The End of the Innocence, his third solo album: “The Last Worthless Evening”, “New York Minute”, “The Heart of the Matter” and the title track. These were songs that had something to say about the human experience back in 1989 and have lost none of their truth and resonance.

His new album, Cass County, contains many outstanding moments, beginning with the opening track, Tift Merritt’s “Bramble Rose”, a gorgeous slow waltz with a killer chord change, in which Henley takes the first verse, Miranda Lambert the second, and Mick Jagger — in his “Wild Horses” mode — the third. It’s one you can play over and over again, just waiting for that change, which Henley brings out more effectively than Merritt did on her excellent original version in 2002 (clue: listen for the words “a bramble rose”).

The album arrived on a Saturday morning. I put it on while I was having breakfast and ended up playing it all the way through three times, non-stop. Among the other notable tracks are Jesse Lee Kincaid’s “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune”, a favourite from the Dillards’ Wheatstraw Suite album back in 1968; the rocking “That Old Flame”, with a great lyric on which he’s joined by the wonderful Martina McBride; and Jesse Winchester’s ever-lovely “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz”. Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton are among the album’s other participants.

On these songs, the poetry isn’t in the words. It’s in Henley’s voice. That sound of bruised longing is one we know so well,  immediately evoking good and bad times and the complex feelings that went with them. Whatever he had back then, he’s hung on to it.

* Cass County is out now on Capitol Records. The photograph of Don Henley was taken by Danny Clinch.

Ronnie Milsap says goodbye

Ronnie MilsapIf you’re lucky enough to be in Nashville this Saturday night, go and see Ronnie Milsap at the Ryman Auditorium. He’s one of the great singers of the past half-century’s popular music, even though no one talks about him much any more. And, at the age of 71, he’s in the middle of what he’s decided will be his farewell tour.

Sadly, I’ll be 3,000 miles away. But I’m so glad I saw Milsap before his famous run of 40 No 1 country hits, which started in 1974. Nothing against his country records, of course. Some of them still sound great. But the night in 1971 when I saw him at TJ’s in Memphis, Tennessee, a musicians’ bar to which, at that time, you had to take your liquor in a brown bag, he was still in that state of grace to be found somewhere between country and southern R&B, with the balance tilted in favour of R&B.

It was a late night at the end of a long day, and I had a brown bag with me, so I don’t remember the details. But I do remember that he had a terrific little four-piece band — what else, in a musicians’ hangout in Memphis 40-odd years ago? — including himself on piano. He also had, when heard in person, one of the great white soul voices, in a line of devout Ray Charles worshippers including Charlie Rich, Dan Penn and Troy Seals. The only specific song that I remember from the set is the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion”, which was on the charts at the time, because it seemed such an improbable choice but worked so brilliantly.

As far as I can tell, he made no records that sounded much like the set he played that night. In 1966 he’d cut  “Ain’t No Soul Left in These Old Shoes” with the producer Huey P. Meaux for the Scepter label; released on Pye in the UK, it became a Northern Soul favourite. From the same year there’s a very nice version of an early Ashford and Simpson song, “When It Comes to My Baby”, produced by Stan Green.

All that later success on the country charts seemed to take the R&B edge off his voice, but he could still sing beautifully. Here’s an example: his smooth version of “Any Day Now”, one of Burt Bacharach’s finest. My favourite of his later recordings is the Grammy-winning “Lost in the Fifties Tonight (In the Still of the Night)”, which I love no doubt partly because I was in the USA when it came out in the summer of 1985, cruising the Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Washington DC  in a rented Buick.

* The picture — uncredited — is taken from a very interesting 2009 interview with Ronnie Milsap by Ken Norton Jr on Engine 145, a roots music blog (

Elvis at 80

ElvisHad he lived, Elvis Presley would have been 80 on Thursday, January 8, 2015. I first heard “Heartbreak Hotel” when I was at boarding school, aged nine, in 1956. I understand what John Lennon meant when he said that Elvis died the day he had his hair cut and put on a military uniform, but I never believed it. All but one of my 10 Elvis favourites come from the post-army period. Here they are. You might find the choice a little eccentric. Baby, I don’t care…

1. “Beyond the Reef”

Written by Jack Pitman, a Canadian songwriter, during a visit to Hawaii in 1946, “Beyond the Reef” was covered by Bing Crosby in 1950 and by the Ventures (as an instrumental) in 1961. Elvis recorded it on May 27, 1966 at RCA Studios in Nashville, during the sessions that produced the sacred album How Great Thou Art (as well as his cover of Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time”, which almost made this list). It remained unreleased until 1971, when it surfaced as the B-side of “It’s Only Love”;  in 1980 it appeared on a four-CD set titled Elvis Aron Presley. Elvis sings the verses as an extra member of the Jordanaires, emerging to sing lead only on the bridge. On the surface it’s a bit of Polynesian-style kitsch. A little deeper down, it’s a singularly beautiful record of which Ry Cooder would have been proud.

2. “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame”

I love Elvis when he finds the spaces between genres. This great UK No 1 hit from 1961 takes the Bo Diddley beat and turns it into pure pop music, just like Buddy Holly did with “Not Fade Away”. Acoustic rhythm guitars, what might be a stand-up bass, the drummer using brushes — and, in the bridge, a switch to a fast shuffle, with Floyd Cramer pounding an eight-to-the-bar piano figure. And a tragic little story of heartbreak in the lyric. The song is by Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus, who also wrote the other side of the 45: “Little Sister”. Along with “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane”, it’s the greatest double A-side in history.

3. “(You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care”

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote this for Jailhouse Rock in 1957. I imagine they borrowed the title from Out of the Past, Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 classic film noir, in which Robert Mitchum, in a clinch with Jane Greer, is reminded of her relationship with a powerful mobster and the trouble that might ensue. “Baby,” he drawls, “I don’t care…” As told by Elvis, the story is very different: “You don’t like crazy music, you don’t like rockin’ bands / You just want to go to a picture show and sit there holding hands…” But the teenage soap-opera words are undercut by the backing, which exemplifies that “crazy music” to the max, with an ominously throbbing intro and the most brutally abrupt ending ever.

4. “The Promised Land”

I’ve talked about this song, and Elvis’s great version of it, here (and elsewhere). Written by Chuck Berry in 1964 and recorded by Presley at the Stax studio in Memphis in 1973, it was perhaps the last genuinely creative act of his life, brilliantly abetted by James Burton and Johnny Christopher on guitars, David Briggs on piano, Per Erik Hallin on electric keyboard, Norbert Putnam on bass guitar and Ronnie Tutt on drums.

5. “Sweet Angeline”

Another from the Stax sessions, with a slightly different line-up (including the MGs’ Duck Dunn on bass guitar and Al Jackson Jr on drums), this ballad was written by Chris Arnold, David Martin and Geoff Morrow: three British songwriters. I love the song, for the way it brings the best out of Elvis and for the way the bass fill towards the end of the second bar gives it the hook that makes you play it over and over again.

6. “The Girl of My Best Friend”

More pure pop, this time from 1960 and the pens of Sam Bobrick and Beverley Ross. Not released as a single by Elvis until 1976, when it made the UK top 10. Ral Donner had the US hit.

7. “Reconsider, Baby”

A very nice version of Lowell Fulson’s classic blues, from the Elvis is Back! album in 1960, with the singer on rhythm guitar.

8. “Dark Moon”

I’ve got this on a 1999 RCA CD called Elvis: The Home Recordings. The song was written in 1957 by Ned Miller (later famous for “From a Jack to a King”), and was recorded in a country version by Bonnie Guitar and a poppier rendition by Gale Storm. Singing with his pals to the accompaniment of his own guitar, apparently in his LA house in Bel Air in 1966 or ’67, Elvis finds an irresistible groove.

9. “It’s Now or Never”

All the bells and whistles — the full Neapolitan, in fact — on this remake of Eduardo di Capua’s “O Sole Mio”, the new English lyric written by Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold and recorded on April 3, 1960, the day before “The Girl of My Best Friend”. If you agree with Lennon, it’s exactly the sort of thing you’ll hate. Those were the days when I used to write the week’s No 1 in my diary every Saturday night, and I’m not going to apologise.

10. “A Mess of Blues”

From the same session as “It’s Now or Never”, and a No 2 hit in the UK in 1960. Another Pomus/Shuman classic and an early reminder that, even with his hair still shaved army-style, the King still had it.

Happy birthday, Elvis.

* The fine photograph was taken by Lloyd Russell Sherman and appeared on the cover of the 1985 LP Reconsider, Baby.


Snowed in with Emily Barker

Emily Barker : Vena PortaeThe first time I met Emily Barker, eight or nine years ago, she was working behind the counter at Brill in Exmouth Market, a small but perfectly formed Clerkenwell coffee-and-CDs shop. She’d come over from Australia a couple of years earlier, and soon she was recording an album and playing gigs with her band, Red Clay Halo (including one memorable performance to about 50 people crammed into the shop). A stroke of deserved luck arrived when “Nostalgia”, a track from her second album, was used as the title music for the BBC’s remake of Wallander, winning her a BAFTA award.

Her latest project is an album by a trio with Dom Coyote and Ruben Engzell, called Vena Portae. They recorded it in a temporary studio in  Mölnbo, a small town in Sweden, while snowed in during the winter before last: a kind of Scandinavian Big Pink. It came out a few weeks ago on the Humble Soul label. Here’s the lead-off track, “Summer Kills”: listen out for the subtle touches of saxophones and bass clarinet (all played by Magic Gunnarsson) behind Emily’s lovely voice.

She and Red Clay Halo — Anna Jenkins (violin, viola), Jo Silverston (cello, bass, banjo, saw) and Gill Sandell (accordion, piano, flute) — are on tour in Britain next month. I’m going to try and catch them at St James’s Church in Piccadilly. Meanwhere here are a couple of video clips: first at the Union Chapel in Islington two years ago, performing “Nostalgia”, and then in the studio this month with a quite heartbreakingly beautiful cover of Tom Waits’s “Day After Tomorrow”.

* The photograph is from the jacket of Vena Portae and was taken by Johan Bergmark.

Songs of the South

Rosanne CashYou have to wait until the 11th and final track of Rosanne Cash’s new album, The River and the Thread, for the latest evidence in  support of my theory that there has never been a bad record featuring the electric sitar, that curious hybrid invented in the late ’60s by the Danelectro company of New Jersey.

Among my own favourite examples would be not just obvious things like the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby” (1968), Joe South’s “Games People Play” (1969), the Stylistics’ “You Are Everything” (1971), and Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” (1972), but the Hollies’ “The Baby” (also made in 1972, after Mikael Rickfors had replaced Allan Clarke, and the group’s greatest single, in my view), Paul Young’s stormingly soulful and brilliantly arranged “Tomb of Memories” (1983), and Pat Metheny’s piercingly beautiful “Last Train Home”, a track from the 1987 album Still Life (Talking) and a treat even for those who might not otherwise have much interest in Metheny’s work.

Anyway, back to Rosanne Cash. I bought The River and the Thread — released on the Blue Note label, an example of the broadminded approach of the company’s current president, Don Was — after reading an eloquent 10/10 review by Luke Torn in the January issue of Uncut. I don’t often find reviews to be very reliable guides these days, but this one was pretty close to the money. In more senses than one, actually, since I’m now going to have to embark on an expensive trawl back through the Rosanne Cash albums I’ve missed in recent years.

I found it to be an album that creeps up on you. The first time I played it, I got through half a dozen tracks thinking, “Well, this is pretty nice, but I don’t know about 10/10…” Then the songs started to grip, and by the last couple I was thinking it was excellent. The electric sitar topped it off, like a seal of approval. So I went straight back to the top, listened through again, and it turned out to be that good from start to finish.

Yes, it’s Americana, a somewhat over-familiar genre (particularly if you think that a genre that doesn’t include, say, bebop, doo-wop or hip-hop has no right to that name). But in Cash’s hands, and in those of her producer, guitarist and husband (and electric sitarist) John Leventhal, this voyage into the South — a set of songs, her first new material in seven years, inspired by Memphis, her birthplace, and Arkansas, where she grew up, and recent trips to the Delta, where she visited Dockery’s plantation, Faulkner’s house and Tallahatchie Bridge — largely sidesteps the cliched responses.

Lazy shuffles, slinky swamp-rock boogies, a great Derek Trucks slide guitar solo on “World of Strange Design” and a couple of lovely Leventhal arrangements — strings on “Night School”, trombones on “When the Master Calls the Roll” — typify the immaculate musicianship on show. The lyric make extensive use of geographical and cultural references — “combining the personal with the mythic,” as she puts it — with a constant presence of rivers. “A feather’s not a bird / The rain is not the sea / A stone is not a mountain / But a river runs through me” is how it starts, and “I was dreaming about the deepest blue / But what you seek is seeking you / You can cross the bridge and carve your name / But the river stays the same” is how it finishes.

Here’s the official eight-minute trailer for the album. It’s airbrushed, as these things usually are, but not indecently so. If The River and the Thread isn’t 10/10 for me, it’s certainly a solid eight, maybe eight and a half. I’m looking forward to seeing her London concert on April 30, at the Barbican. And if you happen to know of any bad records featuring an electric sitar, I’d be glad if you kept the information to yourself. This isn’t one of them.

* The photograph of Rosanne Cash is from the cover of The River and the Thread and was taken by Clay Patrick McBride.

Charlie’s angels

Haden Triplets 2Richard Thompson once told me his theory, rooted in an early devotion to the Everly Brothers, that there is nothing quite like the sound of blood relatives singing together. Tanya, Rachel and Petra Haden might be a case in point.

They were born in New York on October 11, 1971 to Ellen Haden and her husband Charlie, who had come to prominence as the double bassist with Ornette Coleman’s great quartet of 1959-61 and later as the leader of his own Liberation Music Orchestra. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Haden’s classic solo on Ornette’s “Ramblin'”, from Change of the Century, and over the last 40-odd years the Liberation Music Orchestra has been one of the great positive forces in the music.

Charlie was born in Iowa; at the age of two he started singing with his family’s band, who performed country songs on radio and at country fairs. When polio ruined his voice at 15, he switched to the double bass and developed an interest in jazz. Later he moved to Los Angeles, and the rest is part of jazz history. A few years ago he explored his roots in a fine album called Rambling Boy.

His triplet daughters, born (like his son Josh, who leads the band Spain) to his first wife, grew up surrounded by music. On visits to their father’s parents in Missouri, they learnt the country songs of his childhood. At home there was usually something good playing — “whether it be our mom playing Billie Holiday and Nina Simone records, or our dad playing Keith Jarrett and Ornette Coleman in the living room,” as they write in the notes to their first album together, The Haden Triplets. They’ve all worked in music for many years, with credits including the Foo Fighters, the Queens of the Stone Age, Beck, Green Day and Todd Rundgren. Almost 10 years ago Petra recorded a acappella album called Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out, which was exactly what it said and earned Pete Townshend’s admiration.

Here’s a short promo film for the sisters’ album, which is released on Third Man Records, Jack White’s label. Perhaps a little confusingly, Tanya Haden’s husband is the actor Jack Black, and the album was recorded — at the insistence of Ry Cooder, who produced it — in their house, with one microphone for the singers and their accompanists: Cooder on guitar and mandolin, his son Joachim on drums and Rene Camacho on bass, with occasional touches of fiddle from Petra and cello from Tanya.

The bulk of the repertoire is drawn from hallowed country and bluegrass sources: the Louvin Brothers (“Tiny Broken Heart”, “My Baby’s Gone” and “When I Stop Dreaming”), Bill Monroe (“Voice from on High” and “Memories of Mother and Dad”), the Carter Family (“Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?”, “Single Girl, Married Girl” and “Oh Take Me Back”), the Stanley Brothers (“Lonesome Night”) and Kitty Wells (“Making Believe”). It suits their voices very nicely: while none of the three seems to be a particularly distinctive singer, together they make close harmonies that are appropriately plaintive. When they step outside the idiom, with the poppier “Slowly” or Nick Lowe’s “Raining Raining”, the results aren’t quite as convincing, although never less that pleasant.

On the best songs the sense of intimacy is very appealing. The Haden Triplets has the atmosphere of music made in the family parlour, for their own enjoyment and for that of their circle of friends, of whom we are made to feel a part. And sometimes, as with the glorious “Voice from on High”,  you just want to lift your own voice and join in.

* The photograph of Rachel, Petra and Tanya Haden is from the inside cover of The Haden Triplets and was taken by Jo McCaughey.

Still melting in the dark

Jimmy WebbJimmy Webb has been giving interviews to promote his new album, and when someone asked him which he considered to be the best of the countless recorded versions of “MacArthur Park”, I was pleased by his answer. “Richard Harris,” he said, clearly harbouring no resentment over the Irish actor’s insistence on rendering the title as “MacArthur’s Park”, despite attempts by the 21-year-old composer, arranger and producer to correct to him during the sessions in 1968 for A Tramp Shining, the album from which the seven-minute track would be plucked to become a huge hit.

Forty-five years later, the composer sings it as he originally intended in the version included on Still Within the Sound of My Voice, in which he recruits a bunch of guests to help him on the album’s 14 tracks. Lyle Lovett appears on “Sleepin’ in the Daytime”, Joe Cocker on “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress”, Art Garfunkel on “Shattered”, David Crosby and Graham Nash on “If These Walls Could Speak”, and so on. Mostly, these aren’t real duets: the guests either add background vocals or, like Rumer on the title track, pop up to deliver a verse or two. Webb is unquestionably at the centre of the stage, ensuring the album’s overall coherence, something assisted by Fred Mollin’s production, which is full of banjos, mandolins, fiddles and dobros on top of a de luxe rhythm section: the epitome of LA-goes-to-Nashville polish.

The tracks I like best include the singularly beautiful “Elvis and Me”, in which he touchingly outlines the story of his real-life meetings with Presley, assisted by the Jordanaires (recorded before the death of Gordon Stoker, their last original member, earlier this year), and the duet with Keith Urban on “Where’s the Playground, Susie?”, a lovely song which didn’t do quite as well for Glen Campbell in 1968 as its trio of Webb-composed predecessors, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston”. But the pick of the lot is the remake of the thoroughly eccentric song that turned a wayward thespian into a star of the pop charts.

The wonderful choice of guest on Webb’s new version of “MacArthur Park” is Brian Wilson. We’re given the full seven minutes and 21 seconds of this extraordinary song, all four movements, without the lavish orchestration of the original but with an arrangement that more subtly reproduces the full dramatic range and makes marvellous use of Wilson’s celestial harmonies, stacked behind and around the lead (and we won’t ask how they were achieved: just enjoy the result). The third movement, originally the orchestral interlude, is now opened up to feature a majestically soaring dobro solo from the master of the instrument, Jerry Douglas, as the rhythm team races alongside him.

There’s always an extra dimension of poignancy that a composer with even half a voice brings to a performance of his or her own song, and Webb sings his great lyric — what an opening: “Spring was never waiting for us, girl / It ran one step ahead / As we followed in the dance” — as well as it has ever been sung. His homespun delivery makes him sound like a modest sort of chap. But in the future, if anyone asks him which he considers to be the best version of “MacArthur Park”, he can say: “Mine.”

* The photograph of Jimmy Webb is from the insert to Still Within the Sound of My Voice, and was taken by Jessica Daschner.

The Byrd who fell to earth

Gene ClarkSomehow Gene Clark never looked young, even when “Mr Tambourine Man” was hitting the charts before he had turned 21. Unlike the other members of the Byrds, or of their rival groups breaking through on both sides of the Atlantic in 1965, he didn’t look like a boy. He had a face that seemed to have seen things, a face of premature experience.

We learn a lot about the background to the way he looked in The Byrd Who Flew Alone: The Triumphs and Tragedy of Gene Clark, a two-hour documentary  by Jack and Paul Kendall, released on DVD this week, in which the two English film makers talk to just about everyone involved in the story of a great singer-songwriter who didn’t begin to receive proper attention as a solo artist until after his untimely death in 1991. Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby from the Byrds, the producer Larry Marks, the record company president Jerry Moss, the singer Carla Olson, his wife Carlie, members of his family and many others are among those providing testimony, interspersed with snatches of music from the various phases of his career.

Gene Clark’s face turns out to have been that of a person who grew up in a small community in rural Missouri, in circumstances described by one his brothers as “austere”. He began playing in bands at the age of 14, moved to Los Angeles while still in his teens, joined the New Christy Minstrels, and decamped to the fledgling Byrds in 1964. Just over a year later he was receiving a first royalty cheque. Because he wrote songs that the group recorded as B-sides and album tracks (such as the wonderful “Feel a Whole Lot Better” and “Set You Free This Time”), he earned more money than the other four members. That first cheque was for $47,000. The others got $4,000 each. “The rest of us were still taking buses and walking around LA,” Roger McGuinn remembers, “and he had a little MG. That created a bit of tension.”

The MG was followed by a Porsche and then a very nice maroon vintage Ferrari. And there were other factors. “You take a group of young men, very different young men, give ’em some money, introduce them to drugs… I don’t think there was anything wrong with the fact that we all of a sudden got laid a lot… but the money and the drugs… that’ll do it every time,” says David Crosby, one who knows whereof he speaks.

Clark’s departure from the group and the various chapters of his solo career are dealt with in fascinating detail. I always loved the two Dillard & Clark albums, particularly The Fantastic Expedition, and it was sad to listen to the reasons behind the disintegration of that pioneering project in 1969, followed by many more false starts.

“He had great songs,”  Hillman says, “and he sang from the heart. Why didn’t it work? That’s the question.” Chronic indiscipline when under the influence of drink or drugs seems to have been the simple answer. Perhaps the happiest period of his life began in 1970, when he moved out of LA to Mendocino with Carrie McCummings and enjoyed a return to his roots in rural surroundings. It was there that he wrote the songs for the album White Light, produced by Jesse Ed Davis and released in 1971, which I consider to be the highlight of his career: the recording in which his gifts find the best balance and the most sympathetic environment.

Many of his admirers would nominate No Other, the album that followed in 1974, recorded for David Geffen’s Asylum label and produced by Thomas Jefferson Kaye with a huge budget and a cast of thousands. It’s a cult classic, to be sure, and it contains some fine songs that only Clark could have written, but I find it overproduced, overarranged, overplayed, overpackaged — just overwrought in every direction. Its commercial failure more or less put an end to his prospects of once again experiencing the success he had all too briefly known with the Byrds.

He wasn’t entirely finished. I wouldn’t be without the album he made with Olson, called So Rebellious a Lover, released the year after his death and containing two real classics: his own “Gypsy Rider” (“Crank her over once again / Put your face into the wind / Find another road where you’ve never been”) and the most gorgeously compelling version of “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies” I’ve ever heard. But the life did for him when he was only 46.

There are some sad and illuminating reflections in the course of the film. “I watched him go from an innocent country boy to road-weary and just… tired of it all,” McGuinn says. Marks, who produced his first solo album, says: “You couldn’t help but just feel the energy that Gene put out whenever you were with him. It wasn’t all good. That energy carried some danger with it.”

Luckily, bits and pieces of his music continue to emerge. The latest is Here Tonight: The White Light Demos, released on Universal/A&M’s Omnivore label, containing bare-bones versions of some of the great songs — “For a Spanish Guitar”, “The Virgin”, Where My Lover Lies Asleep” — plus others than didn’t make the cut, including the lovely “Here Tonight”, which turned up on the restored version of an abandoned album called Roadmaster, which was to have been his next A&M release after White Light. The demos are touching in their plainness. You wouldn’t swap them for the original album, but they’re very welcome. And the documentary is highly recommended.

* The photograph of Gene Clark is from the insert with Here Tonight: The White Light Demos, and was taken by Henry Diltz.

Willie and the women

Willie NelsonDid Willie Nelson ever encounter a female singer with whom he didn’t think he could bring off a passable duet? I very much doubt it. His new album, To All the Girls…, is full of successful new collaborations with Rosanne Cash, Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Shelby Lynne and a dozen others. It can’t fail, and it doesn’t.

My all-time favourite Nelson album is Stardust (1978), which I’d class with Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin and Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely among the most exalted recitals of the great American songbook. My second favourite is Across the Borderline (1993), in which he tackled standards of more recent vintage from the pens of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt and others with equal success; maybe its most striking track is Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up”, in which Willie and Sinead O’Connor sing the parts originally recorded by Gabriel and Kate Bush. Now Willie, who turned 80 in April, might just have presented me with a new candidate for third favourite.

If there’s nothing adventurous about To All the Girls…, that’s in no way to the new album’s discredit. Produced by Buddy Cannon, it’s a spare, unassuming collection of fine songs performed by terrific singers working in a sensitive environment. Willie’s voice, as ever, is the essence of understatement, as comfortable as a much-washed raw cotton shirt. The arrangements represent the essence of restraint and economy: a steel guitar here, a Hammond organ there, a hint of strings or harmonica, all subordinate to Willie’s unmistakeable gut-string guitar. It’s the pattern set by Booker T Jones on Stardust 35 years ago, and it can’t be beaten.

The highlights include Kris Kristofferson’s “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” with Cash, Waylon Jennings’s “She Was No Good For Me” with Miranda Lambert, Bruce Springsteen’s “Dry Lightning” with Harris and the imperishable “Always on My Mind” (by Johnny Christopher, Mark James and Wayne Carson) with Carrie Underwood. Norah Jones does beautifully with Willie’s “Walkin'” (containing one of my favourite openings: “After carefully considering the whole situation / I stand with my back to the wall…”), Mavis Staples manoeuvres Nelson into a slightly funkier area on Bill Withers’ gorgeous “Grandma’s Hands”, and Paula Nelson has the good fortune to be featured on a lovely version of John Fogerty’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”. The surprise for me is Lily Meola, a young Hawaiian singer who sounds as  perfect partner as any on Willie’s “Will You Still Remember Mine”, a sultry last waltz on which a six-decade age gap is closed to nothing.

But the one I can’t get out of my head is “No Mas Amor”, another Willie song, on which he’s joined by the divine Krauss and a mariachi trumpet: there’s almost nothing to it, but it won’t go away. Just like the whole album, which is likely to remain close to the top of the pile for as long as there’s a pile to be close to the top of.

* The photograph of Willie Nelson is from the cover of To All the Girls… There’s a rather sweet seven-minute promo video here.

** An early version of this piece credited Willie as the writer of “Always on My Mind”. Thanks go to Phil Shaw for putting me straight.

A voice to remember

Maybe you’ve heard the sad news that Linda Ronstadt will never sing again. She announced it a week or so ago, letting the world know that Parkinson’s disease has taken her voice. Today I read an interview with her, in the International Herald Tribune, in which she tells Sam Tanenhaus about her illness and the other problems that have dogged her life in recent years.

Things were pretty different when I interviewed her for the Melody Maker in January 1971. She’d had her first hit with the Stone Poneys’ great “Different Drum”, she was already making solo albums for Capitol Records (Hand Sown… Home Grown and Silk Purse), and she was starting to move in the right kind of circles. But she was still a few years away from the superstardom that arrived when Peter Asher took control for the run of hit albums that began with Heart Like a Wheel.

She was smart, funny, serious about serious things, and completely beguiling. She told me how she’d made the move from her home in Tucson, Arizona in 1965, when she was 18, after a friend called from Los Angeles, saying there was a band out there for her to sing with. “I jumped into a car with my boyfriend, who played steel guitar, and we drove straight there. I think the boy went straight back. I never saw him again.”

A free spirit, then and always, but she was fretful about one thing. “I’ve had trouble finding material,” she said. “I don’t write. I’ve never been able to write even a paragraph. And I can’t do songs that have been done well by the people who wrote them.”

That changed, with Asher’s help. She turned out to be a wonderful reinterpreter of the very finest material. I didn’t really follow her through the years in which she collaborated with Nelson Riddle on albums of standards and then delved back into her Mexican roots, but I loved the recordings she made with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. The YouTube clip above is of an exquisite song from their second album, Trio 2, called “High Sierra”. It features Linda. She composed it, too. So she could write a paragraph, after all.


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