Social Distancing Spins, Day 1

By Joel Francis

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a lot of things away, but one thing it has provided me in abundance is plenty of extra time at home. I decided to make the most of my social distancing by doing a deep dive through my album collection. As the turntable spun, I was inspired to write about what I heard.

My intent is to provide brief snippets about each day’s albums. I understand that many of these classic recordings deserve lengthy posts on their own, but since we will be covering a lot of ground here I will try to remain brisk and on point. Ready? Let’s get to it.

Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell (1980) Sabbath’s first half-dozen albums are rightly canonical. Heaven and Hell isn’t as groundbreaking but every bit as enjoyable as those classic platters. Sadly, the Ronnie James Dio era of Sabbath is mostly remembered by headbangers these days. This is the only Sabbath album I own, but I look forward to someday adding Mob Rules to the collection.

Hot Water Music – Light It Up (2017) – Playing the most recent album from the veteran Florida rock band was intended to wet my whistle for their concert at the RecordBar, scheduled just a few days away. Alas, like everything else on the horizon it was moved forward on the calendar until a hopefully calmer time. With a name swiped from Charles Bukowski and a sound like gasoline arguing with barbed wire the show is guaranteed to be a winner whenever it is held.

The Hold Steady – Heaven is Whenever (2010) This was my least-favorite Hold Steady album when it was released and I confess I haven’t played it as much as the albums that preceded and followed it. I thought the departure of multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay left too much of a hole in their sound, though the band sounded great when I saw them on this tour. Playing it now, I don’t think I gave Heaven is Whenever is enough credit at the time. It’s not a masterpiece on the scale of Boys and Girls in America and not as fierce as Teeth Dreams but there are some freaking fine moments, including “Our Whole Lives,” buried at the end of side two.

Bruce Springsteen – Born in the U.S.A. (1984) What can be said about this landmark that hasn’t been said before? To be fair, this album was a request from my five-year-old son who loves “Dancing in the Dark” thanks to E Street Radio. “Dancing” is the next-to-last track, meaning he exposed to 10 other great tunes while waiting for his favorite number. Hopefully a few more of them will stick, although I’m not sure I want him singing “I’m on Fire” quite yet.

The Yawpers – American Man (2015) This Denver-based trio fits in well on Bloodshot’s roster of alt-country acts. Songwriter Nate Cook’s early 21st-centry examination of the U.S. of A. plays like a road trip. On songs like “9 to 5,” “Kiss It” and “Walter” they sound like Uncle Tupelo being chased through the Overlook Hotel by Jack Torrance.

The Highwomen – self-titled (2019) I toured the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville a few years ago. I was fascinated by the museum until the timeline reached the late 1980s. After Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle came on the scene, mainstream country and I quickly parted ways. The four songwriters in Highwomen are trying to reclaim popular country music on their own terms. Many, many great artists have tried to bend Music City to their tastes only to retreat exhausted. The best of them found Music Row sucking up to their pioneering sound only after it became popular. My guess is that the Highwomen will follow this same route, but they are so good you can’t rule out they will be the ones to finally break the stale, chauvinistic stockade.

(I say this and then notice that I’ve namedropped two male country stars in this piece without mentioning any of the female members of the Highwomen. Sigh. Please forgive me, Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris.)

Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy! (2019) The Ivy League-educated neo-soul songstress focuses on the small to show us the large on her second album. Each of the thirteen tracks focus on an important black artists – Nikki Giovanni, Eartha Kitt, Jean-Michel Basquiat – explore what it means to be black in America today. What sounds like an academic thesis is actually a good dance album, thanks to a soundscape that slides between jazz, soul, hip hop, Afro-beat and even touches of EDM.

Jeff Tweedy – Together at Last (2017) Thanks to the film “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” Jeff Tweedy’s bands Uncle Tupelo and Wilco barely made it into the mainstream before the monoculture collapsed and the entertainment world splintered into a million micro-genres and sects. The eleven songs performed here are stripped of all wonky production and distilled to voice and guitar. They are still amazing.

Joni Mitchell – Ladies of the Canyon (1970) Joni Mitchell’s work in the 1970s is every bit as good as Neil Young’s and even better than Bob Dylan’s. This album finds Mitchell branching out by adding more instruments to the guitar-and-voice arrangements found on her first two albums. The jazz clarinet solo at the end of “For Free” gets me every time. Three of Mitchell’s biggest songs are tucked at the end of side two. “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Woodstock” set up “The Circle Game,” a look at mortality than never fails to leave me feeling deeply blue.

Ian Hunter – You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic (1979) Ringo’s All-Starr Band isn’t the place for deep cuts, so I knew when Ian Hunter was listed as the guitar player for the 2001 tour I held a ticket for, I knew I was going to hear “Cleveland Rocks.” The only problem was the show was in St. Louis, so it didn’t really work. That’s Hunter’s catalog in a nutshell for me. All the right ingredients are there on paper and I get excited about hearing the albums when I read the reviews, but they never fully click with me. His releases are so plentiful in the used bins and priced so cheaply I keep giving them a shot hoping the next one will be The One.

Bear Hands – Fake Tunes (2019) Another play anticipating a performance that was cancelled. They descending keyboard part on “Blue Lips” reminds me of a good appropriation of Vampire Weekend’s first album (that’s a compliment). The overall vibe sends me to the same place as Beck’s “Guero” and “The Information” albums.

Thom Yorke – Susperia (2018) I’m not sure we needed a remake of Susperia, the 1977 Italian horror classic, but I’m glad it gave us Thom Yorke’s moody score. Trading his laptop for a piano, the Radiohead frontman provides 80 minutes of spare, melancholy instrumentals. The few vocal tracks make you wish there were more.

Yorke performed in Kansas City, Mo., less than two months after Susperia’s release, but ignored his latest album until the final song of the night. His performance of Unmade alone at the keyboard was the perfect benediction for a skittery night of electronic music.

Jack White and the Bricks – Live on the Garden Bowl Lanes: 1999 (2013)

The Go – Whatcha Doin’ (1999) These albums both arrived courtesy of the Third Man Records Vault and were recorded around the same time. Jack White was always a man of a million projects. When Meg was unavailable for a White Stripes show he grabbed some buddies – including future Raconteur Brendan Benson and Dirtbombs drummer Ben Blackwell – for a set including a couple songs that would become Stripes staples, a pair of Bob Dylan covers and a song by ? and the Mysterians (not 96 Tears). The sound is a little rough but the performance is solid.

The debut album from The Go, Whatcha Doin’ is hefty slab of garage rock guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Jack White plays guitar and co-writes a couple songs, but this isn’t his show. He left the band shortly after the album came out, but there was no animosity. In 2003, The Go opened several shows for the White Stripes in the United Kingdom.

Syl Johnson – We Do It Together (compilation) This is the sixth platter in the amazing Complete Mythology box set released by the Numero Group in 2010.The material starts in 1970 and ends in 1977, omitting the time Johnson spent with Hi Records. Never lacking in self-confidence, Johnson frequently claimed he was every bit as good as James Brown and Al Green. Although he doesn’t have their notoriety, Johnson’s albums could easily slip into a DJ set of those soul masters.

Bill Joe Shaver: Honky Tonk Survivor

(Above: Survivor Billy Joe Shaver performs “Old Chunk of Coal” at Farm Aid 2011 in Kansas City, Kan.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Search the name of country legend Billy Joe Shaver and the phrase “honky tonk hero” isn’t far behind. It’s the name he gave his autobiography and the name of the landmark album Waylon Jenning recorded of Shaver’s songs in the early 1970s. That association earned him a seat at the far end of the outlaw table, another handle that has stuck with Shaver over the years.

It is difficult to summarize a life that reaches back to the Great Depression, when Shaver was born, and a catalog of music that spans five decades, but a better word to describe him may be survivor. Check out this passage from Shaver’s self-penned, online biography:

“I’ve lost parts of three fingers, broke my back, suffered a heart attack and a quadruple bypass, had a steel plate put in my neck and 136 stitches in my head,” Shaver writes, “fought drugs and booze, spent the money I had, and buried my wife, son, and mother in the span of one year.”

billy_joe_shaverWhen Shaver lost his fingers, he taught himself to play guitar again without those digits. The night his son died, he was back onstage, playing the scheduled gig. Guitar and pen are Shaver’s constant companions through crisis.

“I write songs as my way out of life’s corners,” Shaver said in a recent phone interview. “I always just wrote for myself, but it worked out that a lot of people got in the same kind of shape I did and identified with what I was writing and held it close to their chest.”

To Shaver, “Try and Try Again” and “Live Forever” aren’t just classic show-stoppers and sing-alongs – they’re literally lifesavers. When Shaver started writing “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal” he was in a particularly bad spot.

“I was set up to be the next big deal in Nashville, but I was drinking, doing drugs, chasing women. I was doing everything you weren’t supposed to do,” Shaver said. “One night, I had a vision of Jesus Christ. He was sitting there, eyes like red coals.”

Too intimidated to make eye contact, Shaver sat there, stewing in humiliation.

“His head was in his hands and he was going from side to side with his head,” Shaver continued. “He did have to say it, but I knew he was asking How long are you going to keep doing this?”

Overcome with guilt, Shaver drove in the middle of the night to a special place away from the city he discovered with his son, planning to kill himself.

“I could have sworn I jumped off a cliff going to do myself in, but I wound up on my knees with my back to the cliff asking God to help me,” Shaver said. “He gave me this song when I was coming down the trail.”

By the time Shaver reached the bottom of the steep, tricky path he had half of the song. Getting the second half was no easier. Pulling his wife away from her friends and his son from his school, Shaver moved the family to Houston to distance himself from his dealers and temptations.

“I went cold turkey from smoking, doping, everything. I couldn’t keep any food down so I dropped to 150 pounds. One night, after I was finally able to eat again, I finally wrote the rest of the song. It took a year to finish.”

Whenever Shaver writes a new song, he holds it up to the standard of “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” It’s one of the first songs he wrote, not only a key track on Jenning’s “Honky Tonk Heroes” album, but the title song on Shaver’s first album, both released in 1973.

“I wrote that song when I was eight years old,” Shaver said, “and I’m always trying to beat it.”

Next month Shaver plans to release his first new studio album since 2007. He’s been working on the project with Todd Snider, and is finalizing the tracklist, making sure everything is up to the “Five and Dime” standard.

“I don’t want to spill all the beans, but we’ve been doing a few of the new songs live,” Shaver said. “I’ve got a four-piece band that makes enough racket, but still lets people hear the words.”

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Review: Farm Aid

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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“Willie Nelson: An Epic Life” by Joe Nick Patoski

Rock Hall commemorates 35 years of Austin City Limits

“Willie Nelson: An Epic Life” by Joe Nick Patoski

willie2By Joel Francis

“Epic” is the key word in the title of Joe Nick Patoski’s 567-page biography on Willie Nelson. Drawn from dozens of interviews and scores of oral histories, books and articles, Patoski paints a comprehensive picture of his fellow Texan.

If Patoski skimps on Nelson’s childhood – less than 50 pages are devoted to his years as a minor – he makes up for it by piling chapter on top of chapter about Nelson’s early family life, struggles as a disc jockey and songwriter for hire and, finally, as a nascent country performer. Patoski also devotes an entire chapter on IRS struggles and puts in strong perspective how such horrible accounting could have transpired.

But while Patoski’s journalism skills and research is impeccable, he spends too much of his time telling and not enough showing. For example, there piles of anecdotes about Nelson’s generosity and his inability to say no. He sticks around for hours after concerts to sign autographs, and lavishly gifts his friends and family. When a credit card company asked him to put his face on their card, he said yes without thinking of the consequences. Manager Mark Rothbaum has to explain the implications.

“Well think about it: A third of all credit cards go into receivership, so a third of your fans will go bankrupt, and they will have to look at your picture on that card,” Rothbaum tells Nelson. “Every time they see your picture they will think, That prick is making money off of me.”

Nelson asked Rothbaum to get him out of the deal, but the reader is never given understanding of what compels Nelson to be so affable.

The person who shines best is Nelson’s longtime drummer Paul English. English doesn’t appear until a third of the way through, where he initially surfaces as a pimp who drills and robs pinball machines and operates backroom card games. When Nelson’s drummer failed to show up for a radio session, English is recruited. Even though he had never played drums before, but the experience went well enough English accepted Nelson’s invitation to walk away from the lucrative prostitution business and join the band on the road.

English’s skills with a gun and knife were handing in prying a reticent promoter away from the band’s money and bailing Nelson’s smart mouth out of fight. English was never shy about displaying the pistol he always carried, which was usually all it took to calm any disagreements. English’s black market background also came in handy procuring marijuana for the band.

Patoski’s meticulous exploration sheds light on Nelson’s long walk to fame, where record labels and producers try in vain to pigeonhole the artist, and Nelson’s inability to fit into their boxes, even when he gamely goes along. Later, as Nelson’s fame and wealth grows, he builds a studio on his Texas estate. Patoski conveys a laid-back atmosphere where music flows as freely as beer and songs are recorded as effortlessly as lighting a roach. That Nelson practically lived in his studio explains the prolificacy of his catalog (he released two albums in 2008), and the easygoing environment explains how his financial problems reached the boiling point.

The vision of Nelson unearthed in the book refuses to be worried about anything except his music, even when doing so compromised his family and friends. His nature reminds me of a line from the film “Walk the Line.” When Johnny Cash tells June Carter on the back of the tour bus that everything will work itself out, she replies “No, John. People work them out for you, and you think they work themselves out.”

That Nelson’s music has attracted rednecks and hipsters alike is less mystifying after this thorough examination of the man. The songs are merely an extension of the personality: Nelson is willing to meet anyone anywhere for a good time. The access Nelson provided for this thick tome can rest proudly alongside his albums as a testament to the man’s generosity.