Review: Jamey Johnson

(Above:  The song is called “Playing the Part,” but Jamey Johnson is definitely his own man.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Jamey Johnson stood onstage at Crossroads in a black t-shirt and blue jeans. The wind that pushed temperatures to the mid-century mark on Saturday night frequently floated the long follicles of his hair and beard. Subtract the acoustic guitar and add some tattoos and Johnson could have easily been mistaken for one of the performers at Rockfest, occurring simultaneously just a few blocks away.

Call him the last Highwayman or forgotten outlaw, Johnson’s music is wedged in a narrow crevasse in today’s country landscape, too traditional for the alt. country/no alternative scene and rarely sweet and polished enough for the new/young country machine. (Johnson has tasted mainstream success in co-writing Trace Adkin’s “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” George Straight’s No. 1 hit “Give It Away” and his own “In Color.” He performed the latter two to great response, letting the audience take over on the chorus.)

Johnson basks in the music of his idols, both stylistically and aesthetically. Littered with signatures, his blonde acoustic guitar is clearly a tribute-in-progress to Willie Nelson’s famous six-string Trigger. Johnson’s 24-song was an immaculate honky tonk playlist, seamlessly crisscrossing between original material, Nelson, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Don Wilson, Hank Williams – both father and son – George Jones and Ray Price.

The one-third-capacity crowd oscillated in their responses throughout the 100-minute set. They were either completely invested, whooping and hollering and singing along with every word as on “Get Straight,” “In Color” and several of the better-known covers, or completely disinterested and conversing over the performance. Perhaps the consistently low-key, understated arrangements wore thin, but given their overwhelming responses at times it’s hard to believe this crowd didn’t know exactly what they were getting beforehand.

High points included a steamrolling “That Lonesome Song” that gained energy from the interplay between the pedal steel and electric guitarists. During a spirited reading of “Tulsa Time,” Johnson gave each of his six band members time in the spotlight as they passed solos across the stage. “By the Seat of Your Pants” opened with an a cappella verse capped with a rare Johnson solo on his acoustic guitar.

After slowing the set to a crawl with the romantic “Amanda” and remorseful “Walkin’,” the night ended with the crowd-pleasing “In Color” and jubilant “I Saw the Light,” the most energetic number of the night. A few more moments like this would have kept the crowd in hand more consistently.

When the houselights came up few could believe it was over. There was no encore and Johnson had barely acknowledged the crowd beyond working our town into his lyrics a couple of times. It was clear as he left, however, that Johnson was satisfied he’d made his mark.

Setlist: High Cost of Living; Lonely at the Top; Cover Your Eyes; Night Life (Willie Nelson cover); Country State of Mind (Hank Williams Jr. cover); Can’t Cash My Checks; The Door Is Open (Waylon Jennings cover); Playin’ the Part; Mary Go Round; Tulsa Time (Don Williams cover); I Remember You; That’s the Way Love Goes (Merle Haggard cover); That Lonesome Song; For the Good Times (Kris Kristofferson/Ray Price cover); unknown slow blues cover; Still Doing Time (George Jones cover); Misery and Gin (Merle Haggard cover); By the Seat of Your Pants; Give it Away; Set ‘Em Up, Joe; Amanda (Don Williams cover); Walkin’ (Willie Nelson cover); In Color; I Saw the Light (Hank Williams cover).

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Carrie Rodriguez honors family, roots on new album

(Above: Carrie Rodriguez graces the Austin City Limits stage.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Over the years, Carrie Rodriguez closed her shows with “Punalda Trapera,” a Spanish-language number frequently performed by her great aunt, Eva Garza. Inevitably, fans asked which album it was on. The catch: it wasn’t – until now.

“Love and Circumstance,” Rodriguez third album, pays tributes to her family, inspirations and some contemporaries.

“Because of the response from fans, I decided to record these songs the way our band does them,” Rodriguez said.

Producer Lee Townsend helped Rodriguez pick the dozen covers, including well-known songs by Merle Haggard and Hank Williams, and surprising numbers by M. Ward and Little Village. Townsend was also able to convince Buddy Miller to take time from his tour with Robert Plant and Allison Krauss to contribute to the cover of his song “Wide River to Cross.”

“I’m a huge Buddy Miller fan. He’s one of the people I’ve always wanted to work with,” Rodriguez said. “Fortunately, he had a portable recording rig with him on the road, so he was able to record his vocal tracks from his hotel room on the road. It was very sweet of him.”

Carrie Rodriguez performs with Jim Lauderdale and Tim Easton on Sunday at Knuckleheads.

Rodriguez discovered “Punalda Trapera” while going through a stack of her grandmother’s records. The song was immediately added to her live act.

“Eva died in the late ‘40s, so I never got to meet her,” Rodriguez said. “She’s always been a family legend. When I was younger, my grandma would talk about her famous sister who was in films and made records and was on the radio. I always thought she was exaggerating until I got older.”

Even more personal is “When I Heard Gypsy Davy Sing,” a song by David Rodriguez that only existed as an e-mail file until his daughter recorded it. The elder Rodriguez came up in the Houston folk scene of the late ‘70s and moved to Holland when Carrie Rodriguez was 16.

“The song is about a singer in a bar looking back on what he’s done with his life and what he’s left behind,” Rodriguez said. “It was pretty heavy for me to sing as his daughter, but it was very therapeutic. Signing it made me feel closer to him.”

Longtime fans may remember the songs Rodriguez cut with Chip Taylor – writer of the song “Wild Thing” – as the violin player in his band. Her fiddle was largely absent on her last album, but has returned to prominence on “Love and Circumstance.”

“I let the song dictate what instrument I play,” Rodriguez said. “Part of why there wasn’t as much fiddle on the last record is that I couldn’t find a way to fit it in. The songs didn’t seem to need or want it.”

Writing songs on the guitar instead of the fiddle not only came more naturally to Rodriguez, but changed the dynamics of her songs.

“These days I end up writing on the guitar and can’t find a way to fit the fiddle in,” Rodriguez said. “There’s still plenty of fiddle in the live show, though.”

Two years ago, Rodriguez toured in Austin, Texas singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo’s band. Escovedo has been trying to convince Rodriguez to shift her alt-country roots and record a rock album.

“Al has good advice. I always have to consider his suggestions,” Rodriguez said. “Part of why I made this covers album was to take a step back and look at what kind of songs inspired me, and what kind of songs I want to write. Hopefully it’s given me some good inspiration for the next batch of songs I write.”

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Bob Dylan – “Workingman’s Blues No. 2”

 (Above: Happy Labor Day! Bob Dylan’s tribute to Merle Haggard and the working man.)

Bob Dylan – “Workingman’s Blues No. 2”

By Joel Francis

Merle Haggard was on a roll in 1969. In just three years he had racked up seven No. 1 hits and released eight albums. Haggard’s days digging ditches and toiling in prison were finally receding, but he refused to forget the unlucky people he labored beside for so long. “Working Man Blues” was Haggard’s tribute to his fans and his roots.

More than 35 years later, Bob Dylan turned Haggard’s tribute into a personal homage. Abandoning the Bakersfield sound that Haggard helped popularize, Dylan’s “Workingman’s Blues No. 2,” is a nostalgic ballad, introduced by a piano and accented with touches of violin.

Haggard’s “Working Man Blue” is a blazing portrait of a hard-workin’, hard-drinkin’ man with nine kids struggling to make ends meet. In the prime of his career, Haggard’s hero might “get a little tired on the weekend, but “Monday morning, I’m right back with the crew.”

Dylan catches up with a similar blue collar man thousands of shifts later. Worn by hard work and tight budgets, the place he loves best is a “sweet memory.” Too tired to get his boots and shoes, all the weary man can muster is to try “to keep the hunger from creeping its way into my gut.”

Dylan matches Haggard’s detail, but also pulls the camer back a bit, opening with a portrait of “an evenin’ haze settlin’ over the town/starlight by the edge of the creek.” Doubling the number of verses and tripling the song’s length also gives Dylan to explore the weary worker’s love life. The nine kids have moved out and the wife is gone, leaving the fatigued to wonder “am I wrong in thinking/That you have forgotten me?” and imagining his love returning to lead him off to dance in a new suit and a world where he doesn’t have to live on rice and beans.

“Workingman’s Blues No. 2” is less a celebration of the working man than a compliment to Haggard, who toured with Dylan shortly before the sequel was written. At the time it was rumored Haggard would return the favor by penning “Blowing in the Wind 2.” That song hasn’t come to light, but pair of “Working Man” songs provide a perfect Labor Day soundtrack. Play Haggard’s at the outdoor cookout while clutching a cold one; save Dylan’s for some midnight, pre-shift soul searching.

(Below: Merle Haggard’s original “Working Man Blues.” Kick up your heels before the whistle blows.)