Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer venture deep into darkness past and coming

Sister singer-songwriters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer have recorded their first duo album, mostly brilliantly realized covers. Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff

Album cover courtesy rollingstone.com

Album Review

Shelby Lynne/Allison Moorer Not Dark Yet (Silver Cross)

The lateness of this first, yet seemingly natural, collaboration of sister singer-songwriters carries old, heavy freight. Both witnessed their father kill their mother, then himself, in the backwoods of Alabama. Decades past, finally realized, Not Dark Yet reveals both as artists mature enough to transmute tragedy into a deep array of poignant expression. The album cover does depict three figures wholly shrouded in shadow, a teenager and an adolescent frolicking while a third person plays guitar.

Lynne is a fairly straight country artist and younger sister Allison (the ex-spouse of Steve Earle) is decidedly alt-country. And yet, they avoid the sentimental pitfalls common to country autobiographical song with a brilliant array of covers of other singer-songwriters, save one song by Lynne. The title song, one of Dylan’s best late period creations, clearly encounters trauma’s impact: “Feels like my soul has turned into steel/I’ve still got the scars the sun didn’t heal.” Yet it has graceful depth, an offhanded philosophic recognition of darkness’s inevitability in life. Here and elsewhere, their voices’ blood-matched closeness plumbs their souls and touches the listener.

Their oblique approach to their parental loss dwells in their rendering of  Townes Van Zandt’s chilling “Lungs,” uttered from the strangely-elevated viewpoint of a person dying of lung cancer: “Jesus was an only son and love his only concept/strangers cry in foreign tongues and dirty up the doorstep.”

Or perhaps they’re searching for their martyred mother in Jessi Coulter’s “I’m Looking for Blue Eyes.” Here their vocal harmonies are soul-straining but wrenchingly radiant, entwining each other like tendrils of a crown of thorns. Or hear the yearning of Jason Isbell’s “The Color of a Cloudy Day”: “I can never find you in my dreams,” an obsessively repeated refrain. Nirvana’s “Lithium” activates a chemistry that seems to reach into the sisters’ shared historical essence. A forlorn, layered spirituality dwells in this album, an acceptance of the larger mysteries.

And yet, such fathomless beauty and tenderness carries through their lovely, life-worn voices that one feels them, not merely as orphans, but as women artists who have lived, lost and learned. This is among the year’s most indelible roots music albums.

And it’s an activist statement: They list the contact information for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence  beneath the inside-cover song titles and credits.

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A shorter version of this review was first published in The Shepherd Express

Steve Earle: The Hard-Core Troubadour Carries Wounds in his Outlaw Heart

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Steve Earle (right) and two of the Dukes rock out at a recent concert at the Minneapolis Zoo.  Dukes’ fiddle player Eleanor Whitmore and guitarist Chris Masterson also played a short opening set in their duo incarnation, The Mastersons. All photos by Kevin Lynch 

Apple Valley, MN – Steve Earle continues to amaze, for the depth of his musical and songwriting talent, his passion, righteousness and intellect.  Especially the way he often weaves these things through any given song.

He’s also a rare bird for his self-described working-class redneck cultural background. Our overheated stereotyping today might peg him as one of the anti-intellectual, blind-faith types that walk the Donald Trump lockstep. But Earle’s a patriotic lefty and an author with so much to give in mind and heart, and this was abundantly clear when he performed Sunday night at the Weesner Amphitheatre in the Minneapolis Zoo.

His extremely generous set displayed the range of style and attitude he’s cherished for.

A key moment arrived when he recounted his experience of beloved singer-songwriter Guy Clark’s death, which began with a story about high school teachers who showed Earle the way. Fellow Texan Clark had battled cancer for a decade, and lost his soul mate Susanna Clark a few years earlier. Earle recounted waking up in Nashville, and joining other mourners to sing Clark’s songs. In his new album’s liner notes, Earle explains how he packs grief in his back pocket: “It’s no secret that loss comes naturally to those of us who wander the outer edges of the wide world. We’ve not only come to expect that, most of us have made it our stock and trade to embrace it, savor it, set it to the melody that the North wind whistles and the rhythm of a broken heart.”

When he got home, Earle wrote his song for Clark, “Goodbye Michelangelo.” It shows his well-honed tender side. Plucking a plaintive electric mandolin, he sang: “So long, my Captain adios/ Sail upon the sea of ghosts/ Chase the white whale to the end/ Bring the story back again…You taught me everything I know/ Goodbye Michelangelo.”

Why “Michelangelo”? Clark was an artist-craftsman, a sculptor of guitars, as well as a musical poet like his best friend, and Earle’s first great influence, Townes van Zandt. (Guy’s ashes are accordingly waiting to be incorporated into a sculptor’s bronze statue. For a great example of that three-man connection, hear the album Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark: Together at the Bluebird Café.)

“Michelangelo” graces Earle’s new album So You Wannabe an Outlaw, which is inspired by an original “outlaw musician,” Waylon Jennings. His classic album Honky Tonk Heroes grabbed Earle’s wayward heart again, not long ago when he was searching for an album theme. Jennings’ album was another timeless collaboration of dust-covered compatriots, Billy Joe Shaver and Tompall Glaser. 1

Earle’s a man of brotherhood and sisterhood, and both tendencies are shot through with romanticism, he admitted Sunday, toward the end. He openly recounted circumstances that surround his current situation, not-long divorced from his former musical mate and spouse Allison Moorer. He’s hopelessly star-crossed, it seems, having been married seven times, including twice to the same woman. Despite it all, Earle still believes in romance, not only between lovers, but in the idea that there’s a person out there for everyone. He even helped Moorer finish a song not long ago, which he then recorded and performed, “News from Colorado.” And even if his belief is riddled with holes, he now cherishes the provisional freedom of “watching all the baseball games I want to.”

These reflections led to the new album’s “The Girl on the Mountain,” which echoes Townes Van Zandt’s “Colorado Girl,” speaking pointedly of a love he can’t let go. Earle could always soften his boot heel-tough voice and it drags its feet like a hobo here: “Sometimes late at night I pray/She’ll come down to me someday/But the girl up on the mountain never knew.” The ambiguity of that last clause pricks the heart. Did she ever really know how he loved her? Did he ever really have a chance? Would he always lose her to a mountain?

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Steve Earle is a self described “romantic” who’s unafraid to bare his soul in concert.

The new album bears various riches, including two hard-life songs “If Mama Could See Me” and the harrowing “Fixin’ to Die.” The former one walks the fine line between shame and regret: “If mama could see me in this prison she’d a cried but she cain’t,” another canny line about tough realities. What mother can really accept an imprisoned child?

“Fixin’ to Die” recounts a crime of passion: “Fixin’ to die and I reckon that I’m going to hell. Shot my baby in the Heaven-on-the-Highway hotel!” Earle followed it up with the thematically conjoined “Hey Joe,” best known as a cover by Jimi Hendrix. It’s another murder ballad that he and his ace band The Dukes lent great power and even majesty, the broad-shoulders of tragedy. It also included a razor-edged political ad lib: “I’m goin’ down south before that a–hole builds that wall/ So a man can be free!”

Earle mixed in just enough of his superb catalog for variety, including the heavy metal grinder “Copperhead Road,” the pealing mysticism of the minor-key vamp “Transcendental Blues,” the stirring call-and-response of “City of Immigrants” and, in encore, one of his most exhilarating songs, “Johnny Come Lately.”

In the World War II tradition, “Johnny” celebrates returning veterans, even though this tale tells of a Purple Heart Vietnam vet who’s plenty worse for wear. Yet the irony of his troubles make hardly a dent in the hometown hoopla. Wait until he tries to find a job.

Finally, I can’t overlook Earle’s power-packed new song “The Firebreak Line,” which, he said, might be the first and only song dedicated to wildfire fighters. Wildfires continue to ravage droughted areas and threaten property and human health and life. Talk about a new breed of unsung heroes. Until now. “Gotta pray that the wind’ll die/ and it rains down from on high/ raise a glass/ for the hotshots past/ in hotshot heaven up above the sky.”

Even if his personal life – including serious prison time for drug convictions – often plays like a B disaster movie, Earle is a hard-core hero in my book, the sort we need as many as possible of in our blighted culture and politics.

He also displayed his superb musical taste in his choice of opening acts. The first group, the duo called The Mastersons, are actually members of the current edition of the Dukes, and include the excellent guitarist-vocalist Chris Masterson and violinist-mandolinist-vocalist Eleanor Whitmore. Together the couple dealt out piquant harmonies and snap-dragon rhythms.

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The Cactus Blossoms add very original dimensions to their Everly Brothers-esque vocal harmony style.

Harmonies were also the calling card of the second opening group, The Cactus Blossoms, and if you only glanced at the card you’d swear it read “The Everly Brothers.” I’ve never heard a group more perfectly and pointedly capture the gleaming fraternal resonances of that famous duo. And yet, for all that, you found not a single Everly cover in the set of this St. Paul-based group. Their lone cover was an old Kinks song, “Who’ll Be the Next in Line?” And they burn a very personal trademark into their style. For all their soul, the Everly Brothers almost sounded slick compared to this group. Which doesn’t mean The Cactus Blossoms lack for high musical skills. The vocal harmonies are achingly plangent and precise. From their mirror voices and looks you’d swear they’re blood brothers but nope, the singers are Page Burkum and Jack Torrey. And tellingly, they make no mention of the Everly brothers’ style on their website bio page.

What’s different is that the Blossoms slather a thick, hazy glaze of knotty-pine country on their Everly-ish pipes, often delivered at a sleepy shuffle, but with a band fully capable of cranking up for a bluegrass style hoe-down, or personalized Honky Tonk with a hint of burnished class. The overall effect, at its best, is down-home, infectious and quietly thrilling.

zoo amphThe Weezner Amphitheater at the Minneapolis Zoo is a stunningly picturesque concert setting.

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1 Earle historically is a brilliant collaborator, among his highlights have been full album-collaboration with the Del McCoury band, The Mountain, which includes his superb duet of “I’m Still in Love with You,” Iris Dement, reminiscent of his joyous “You’re Still Standing There,” with Lucinda Williams. He recorded “Johnny Come Lately” with the ultimate rabble-rousing Irish bar band, The Pogues.  Then there’s his duet with Allison Moorer “After The Fire Is Gone” from Coal Miner’s Daughter: A Tribute To Loretta Lynn, and several duets with Emmylou Harris and one with his sister Stacey Earle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Depression print quarterly investigates and celebrates Heartland music

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The full cover of the “Heartland” issue of the Spring 2017 issue of No Depression, The Quarterly Journal of Roots Music. Cover painting by Iowan Greta Songe  

 

In Milwaukee at least, spring is in the air, and in the earth and the river. The pathway along the Milwaukee River down below Kern Park is still fairly muddy but leaf padding of decayed brown and faded gold along each side of the path allows fairly brisk negotiation.

Ah, but if you pause to observe nature’s inexorable might, the big river flows swift and strong in it’s fluid, forward tumble. The quirky rhythm of the meandering pathway and the propulsive rhythms of the river are part of the essential music of the heartland which helps, perhaps subconsciously, inspire the rhythms and melodies of human music which emerges from the vast, green, heaving chest of America, The Heartland.

So it is now time to respond to that embrace’s cultural power. There’s no better way to do so in one fell swoop, short of turning on a Jayhawks CD or a rootsy radio station, than the Spring 2017 issue of No Depression, The Quarterly Journal of Roots Music, entitled The Heartland.

Full disclosure: the issue includes an article by this writer, a survey of upper Midwest venues that cater to roots music, ranging from a working CSA farm to a poster-bedecked Madison basement house-concert venue.

The 160-page coffee table-sized journal began by defying most digital media trends through reasserting intellectual and aesthetic quality in real print. Editor-in-chief Kim Reuhl has stood on the shoulders of the strong journalistic tradition pioneered by her predecessors Peter Blackstock and Grant Alden when they began the original No Depression magazine in 1995, dedicated to the growing movement of roots music that looks forward as much as it reaches back into the past. When the magazine ceased operations it continued as a very strong community-oriented website. Then a new business partnership with The FreshGrass Foundation in 2015 opened the doors to reinvent No Depression as a new kind of print music publication.

Indeed, as you sit with a copy of the journal in your lap, the photography and artwork, often spreading across both pages, has the scale and quality of a wide laptop screen of digital imagery. This graphic sensation reminds us that the experience of roots music rises from the thick, layered and complex texture of American culture, the intersection of our strong ethnic musical traditions which remained the envy and allure of the world over.

Plus, you can sit or carry the journal anywhere and enjoy not only the lush graphics but a serious standard of music writing. I can attest, Reuhl works in much closer collaboration with writers in crafting stories than most editors I’ve ever experienced. Of course, the internet has facilitated that close interactive relationship, which was always more cumbersome for print publications with contributions from writers all over North America, and beyond (The summer edition will be “The International Issue,” defying the stereotype of roots music as provincial, hayseed or American-centric.)

Besides seasoned and skilled journalists, the quarterly features contributions by literate and eloquent musicians including, in the Heartland issue, Minnesota blues man Charlie Parr, Indiana blues man Reverend Payton, Illinois folk-wit Robbie Fulks, and a revealing piece by Alabama-born singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, who details her peculiar challenges in penetrating heartland radio, venues and audiences. Yet she persists towards mid-America, and quotes a favorite political maxim: “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.”

Sparing more self-service, I’ll let my article “Fill the Room: Peeking in on the Upper Midwest’s Music Venues” speak for itself. I haven’t even read the whole issue yet, but it seems brimming with highlights, including Margaret Daniels’ examination of the Midwest seedlings of Bob Dylan’s voracious scholarly genius. She draws connections to Dylan’s fellow Minnesotan literary lion F. Scott Fitzgerald including, as Dylan put it in his recent Nobel Prize for Literature speech, how the two writers share “inarticulate dreams” which they both honed to gleaming and haunting vividness.

Katherine Turman’s far-reaching re-examination of so-called “heartland rock” reveals it to be a complicated and far-flung musical phenomenon with improbable classical music foundations, melding sophistication with the jagged edge. She also shows how such big-shouldered music has helped sustain the success of the Farm Aid benefit concert series by connecting with stadium-sized crowds, which the more coffeehouse-scale dynamics of much roots music can’t quite reach.

Historically deeper still is Stephen Deusner’s unearthing and reclamation of the seminal Indiana vernacular music “recording laboratory” Gennett. The label gave us, among other things, Charley Patton’s harrowing 1929 country blues hollers, and Louis Armstrong’s dazzling New Orleans-style jazz recordings with King Oliver, from 1923.

I was also impressed with an interview-profile with singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey, a figure with a street-corner Socrates flair. He annually travels around his native Wisconsin on a bicycle, which allows him to feel the warp and the woof of both cities and rural regions, above all his still-troubled hometown of Milwaukee. The article also reveals Mulvey’s passion and debt to poetry, in his use of concise imagery and artistic “breathing space.” Author Erin Lyndal Martin shows how Mulvey achieves a balance between the philosophical, the political and the poetical, while engaging and challenging with musical storytelling and a palpable openness of spirit.

That’s what much of the best roots music does, but in ways characteristic of each artist or group. When you open the wide pages of this journal, it’s a bit like peeking into that big, defiantly persistent American heart.

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For a preview of the “Heartland” issue and mail ordering and retail outlet information, see below.

The Spring 2017 issue of No Depression, “Heartland,” explores the stories and music that thumps, picks, and breathes between the coasts. While mainstream music critics focus on cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville to learn about rising stars and buzzworthy music, artists in cities like Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Omaha, and Iowa City are making some of the purest, most honest roots music around. What’s more, artists from the coasts are increasingly touring the heartland — and some are even moving there — to find inspiration in the region’s big skies, honest people, and rich musical legacies.

Heartland Rock with John Mellencamp, Bob Seger, and Kansas / The influence of Hee Haw and Branson, Missouri / Native American music in the Dakotas / The unknown story of Indiana’s Gennett Records / The musical pipeline between Chicago and Austin / Why singer-songwriters like Jesse Sykes and Lissie are moving to Iowa

Bob Dylan / The Jayhawks / Conor Oberst / Over the Rhine / Peter Mulvey / Chicago Farmer / Bozeman, Montana / Cleveland, Ohio / Essays by artists like Reverend Peyton and many more