Jack Covert, in 2017, when he retired from his successful career in the book business, after a memorable start as a small Milwaukee record store owner. Courtesy onmilwaukee.com.
Dirty Jack hit the dirt hard, for the last time. It may be the last time, but I don’t know a music fan who dug deeper into music as a record buyer, and into album warehouses and personal collections, as an eager buyer-seller. Dan Burr’s Crumb-esque cartoon strip (below) illustrates that Jack Covert well, (taken from the linked obit by Dave Luhrssen of The Shepherd Express:)
I’m a bit late in acknowledging Jack, but last week I was distracted by writing about the death of Nanci Griffith, another great person who fit into the popular music world in her own slightly square-peg-in-a-round-hole way.
Dirty Jack’s Record Rack, on Farwell and Irving, was my favorite record store in my youth, even though I ended up becoming an album buyer at Radio Doctor’s Soul Shop and Peaches Records. 1
But in the early ‘70s, Jack’s Rack was closer to my Downer Avenue family home during college at UWM, even during my early years working at Radio Doctors. And Jack’s always had plenty of jazz in stock as well as rock, as Jack’s tastes leaned jazz-wise, as did mine. Plus, his hole-in-the-wall shop was THE PLACE for hole-in-the-corner “cut-out” LPs, a dream for a collection builder’s on a budget. 2.
And Jack knew how to buy and sell. I remember Jack several times almost physically escorting me to the cash register with an album I was unsure about. He also wasn’t shy about letting his crankiness show right in the store and, with that Snidely Whiplash mustache, you shoulda been a bit suspicious of this guy (see the snapshot photo in Dave’s obit piece). Yet I almost always was thankful he sold me.
Dan Burr’s affectionate cartoon history of Dirty Jack’s Record Rack. The store staff members in the last panel, below Jack, are (L-R) Ed Heinzelman,* album buyer Terry Wachsmuth, Mark Schneider and Chris Ballone. Courtesy Dan Burr and Shepherd Express.
Take a look at the smile in the photo at top, taken when he retired. Back in the day, Jack would jump on you, then flash that I’m-your-pal-with-three aces smile, whenever he and you needed it.
And how many record stores in the 1970s had custom marketing matches, with the owner’s beaming mug on them, proclaiming it “Cut-Out Capital of the World!” ?
His second-in-command at the Rack was a slightly-built long-hair named Terry, who had a bit of Jack’s crankiness, in a more skittish way. But Terry really knew his stuff, as did Mark Schneider, the friendliest Jack’s employee, in my memory. Mark wore his erudition gracefully. Today the San Francisco-based Schneider — married to my former Milwaukee Journal colleague, rock critic Divina Infusino – comes to mind when I see Steve Earle’s guitarist Chris Masterson, who’s grown into a killer axe wielder since I last heard him live. Masterson, like Mark, has an affable personality and the same sort of long, ultra-blonde hair, and glasses. 1
I digress partly because I know Jack was a smart businessman who really valued and knew how to use his best employees. I think Mark would agree.
I also admit my comparisons of record store personnel to pop music artists may seem a bit over-the-top. But it’s something that I think Rob Fleming might nod his head to. He’s the slightly grandiose fictional owner of the record store in Nick Hornby’s wonderful novel High Fidelity, a comparison to Dirty Jack’s which Dave Luhrssen also makes aptly. I don’t think Jack or any of his guys floated through the sort of confused romanticism as does Rob (played by John Cusack in the hit film version). They knew how to channel their romantic impulses into music passions.
I had moved to Madison by the time Jack was hired at Schwartz Booksellers so I didn’t see him succeed as founder and president of 800-CEO-READ, a company that steered through the challenge from big box bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble and the rise of amazon.com “with ingenuity and a commitment to superior customer service for authors, customers, and the publishing houses themselves,” as the company’s press release on Covert’s death explains.
Jack Covert is also the co-author of 100 Best Business Books of All Time: What They Say, Why They Matter, and How They Can Help You (Link). The 100 Best has been translated into over 10 languages and the hardcover sold over 40,000 copies.
I’m still an “any-day-now-it-shall-be-released” author, but maybe Jack and I connected a bit because he also turned out to be something of a journalist. He wrote more than 600 monthly Jack Covert Selects business book recommendations that run in newspapers and business journals across the country, and has been featured on CNN and NPR, in Inc. magazine, Fortune, the Harvard Business Review, Washington Post, New York Post, BusinessWeek, and more.
That’s dealing in the big time. Not everyone in “big” business is a crooked wheeler-dealer. At this point, I’ll make no more personality comparisons to famous people.
Yes, Jack Covert had the smarts and personality, and always knew how to sell his stuff. I’m sure that mustachioed smile and those crafty ways are serving him well with Saint Pete at The Pearly Gates.
Thanks to Dirty Jack’s staffer Ed Heinzelman for background information.
1 Unlike Mark Schneider, Masterson may actually be albino, like his fellow guitar gunslinger Johnny Winter. But Masterson was tearing up “Hey Joe,” with Steve Earle at an even nastier pitch than on a 2017 video available on YouTube. I saw Earle and Masterson do that great murder ballad as an encore recently at Big Top Chautauqua in Bayfield, Wisconsin.
2. Cut-outs are out-of-print records, typically with a hole punched in the corner of an LP, or a mark obscuring the normal USBN scan bar. I suspect Jack Covert would later know very well how to find and market out-of-print books in a similar fashion.
Christopher Porterfield on the road. milwaukeerecord.com
Perhaps his parents detected the glint of a wanderer in their infant’s eyes, then they named him. Christopher Porterfield is like a flawed version of Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, especially in his marvelous song “Home (Leave the Lights On).” Or in “Summons” or “Enchantment,” or the Kerouac-esque “If I Knew.” In his humble way, Porterfield conveys an acute sense of place, even as locales shift. So he honors “the sacred,” as he did in his recent live YouTube performance, from Café Carpe, the quietly legendary roots music venue in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, which prompted this essay. He paraphrased the great poet-naturalist Wendell Barry: “There are no places that are not sacred, only some that are desecrated.” This recalls the adage “The Holy Land is everywhere,” spoken by Native American wise man Black Elk, as the white man began his desecrating.
And much of Porterfield’s traveling runs parallel to wayward inner psycho-scapes, like the one depicted on the cover of the second Field Report album, Marigolden. There, two people stand separated by crevasses, lonely, yet heart-wrenchingly close, a stone’s throw away. Beside one person is a car — with head lights projecting towards the other person but too far overhead to illuminate the other person — an almost plaintive failure of technology.
Cover to Field Report’s “Marigolden” album. Courtesy amazon.com
You get the feeling of risk in his wanderer’s sensibility. He conveys a distinctly American dilemma of isolation or alienation, from a desolate yet hungry heart. Yet the persona also belies the mythical Western loner/cowboy narrative.
Porterfield’s slightly nerdy-hip horn-rim specs help make that abundantly clear. The UW-Eau Claire journalism major crafted his band’s name as a clever anagram of his last name, and the name Field Report posits himself as striving to be an honest yet poetic correspondent on what he finds “out there,” in still-untamed or sacred or desecrated, America, and in the craggy depths of his own heart and life.
Bob Dylan still does something comparable but less confessionally, as he did brilliantly probing modern American history in his epic Kennedy assassination song “Murder Most Foul,” last year. Porterfield’s missives, rich in autobiographical experience, seem closer to The New Journalism as Song, with the reporter playing a central role.
To back up a bit, I recently made the critical assertion that James McMurtry is probably America’s finest living singer-songwriter “south of Bob Dylan.” Of course, there are a goodly handful of others who would be that in that “best” conversation, including Steve Earle, whom I also reviewed in that blog. 1
But recently, Porterfield reminded me of his powers in his superb, often exquisite virtual concert. The front man and singer-songwriter for Field Report is a Milwaukeean (by way of Minnesota), part of the rich motherlode of creative songwriting born of the Upper Midwest, including (among many others) Dylan, John Prine, Greg Brown, Prince, Jeffrey Foucault, Peter Mulvey, Hayward Williams, Bill Camplin, Josh Harty, Heidi Spencer, and Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver), with whom Porterfield previously played with in the band DeYarmond Edison.
I first met Porterfield some years ago, when we were both employed by Marquette University. He was leading his previous band, Conrad Plymouth, at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn, a Milwaukee music venue that has long nurtured and celebrated singer-songwriters. “Fergus Falls,” destined as the opener for the first Field Report album, was already a highlight in his repertoire.
I’ve seen him open solo for Richard Thompson at The Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, which immediately put him on substantial ground with that great artist. By then, Field Report was touring and making its mark. The band has since opened for Counting Crows, Emmylou Harris, Aimee Mann, and others. They signed to Verve/Forecast in time for their third album Summertime Songs. That label’s catalogue includes Ritchie Havens, Tim Hardin and Laura Nyro.
So, yes, I’ll put him in the bigger-name conversation of great songwriters. Porterfield isn’t as outward-looking or social commenting as a McMurtry or an Earle. But on the premise that “all politics is personal,” you might accordingly contextualize this far more introspective artist. He lacks some of the musical range and variety of those artists (He’s not really a rocker, as those two often are, even if Field Report’s last two albums delve into pop-rock textures and elevated production.
Porterfield is essentially a lyrical brooder who can raise his emotional temperature as high as a rocker’s, as a lonesome howling wolf, though not in a bluegrass sense. So, even if McMurtry often expresses regret and doleful sentiment in a funky rock groove, it’s often couched in ironic attitude — he can walk that fine line superbly. But until Porterfield proves otherwise, hearing him in a hard-rocking backdrop seems problematic.
Christopher Porterfield, lead singer-songwriter of Field Report. Courtesy npr.org
Though Earle certainly has strong and tender singing moments, Porterfield is actually a more gifted vocalist than either he or McMurtry. His songwriting catalog can’t compare to those prolific veterans, but his voice is how Porterfield often catches you, as sharply and powerfully as an ace fly fisherman. For now, instead of comparing him too closely to others, I’ll mainly strive to take him on his own terms — looking at the world from inside-out, and poetically, while often mining the quotidian, and being easy to connect with. His extraordinary singing emanates with stunningly affecting power, and unassuming poignancy. His points of emphasis often teeter along a gravelly vibrato that virtually bleeds vulnerability, and other times as startling upper-register bursts of emotion. These two stylistic aspects combine in the listener’s memory like a vivid, very human sonic silhouette.
Porterfield is a bruised, contemporary romantic, who directly admits he’s struggled with alcohol, who often sounds like a man dredging limpid thoughts from the depths of his innards, often with a starkness that feels naked, yet perfectly expressed, in the tender grain and surge of that voice. The emotion’s exposed moment often compels the outcries, but tempered by a man’s eloquent sense of self, uncertain as he may be of his situation.
Among his most affecting works is the aforementioned “Home (Leave the Lights On),” from Marigolden, which captures the longing of being “homeward-bound” as well has the famous Paul Simon song named for that phrase.
Among Porterfield’s most vivid, apparently recollected landscapes is “Fergus Falls,” the song resurrected from a 2010 Conrad Plymouth EP, for the self-titled debut Field Report album. Fergus Falls is a small town in Otter Tail County in Western Minnesota, his native state. Of the song’s inspiration, Porterfield told me: “My family used to have a cabin in northern Minnesota. We would drive through Fergus to get there. It sprung from my subconscious when that song appeared, mostly for the alliteration.”
The first Field Report album opens thusly: “This is the one in which I miraculously pulled out of a freefall dive over Fergus Falls, Minnesota.” It is the first of many struggles for equilibrium and grace in his lyric storytelling, and brings to mind another gifted Minnesota writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, also a drinker, who died at 44, and who, as Elizabeth Hardwick wrote, “had in the midst of chaos the rather cross-eyed power of gazing upon his deterioration as if he were not living it but somehow observing his soul and body as one would watch a drop of water slowly drying up in the sun.” 2
Porterfield emerged from his early vertigo less fatefully, but comparably, with both a sharp-eyed self-insight and a sense of inhabited landscape. Recollected landscapes, real and metaphorical, are a key to his sensibility. As The All-Music Guide has noted, “Some albums are about mood more than anything else, and on Marigolden Porterfield shows he’s a master of creating an ambience that’s cinematic in its strength and emotional impact.” In fact, I can easily envision a Porterfield song adorning one of the new breed of Western movies being made by women directors (eg. Chloe Zhao’s Oscar-winning Nomadland), which court America’s sprawling, rugged spaces but understand the vulnerable smallness of the wandering or wayward soul, alienated from community. 3 “Enchantment” from Marigolden opens on “Easter morning in New Mexico: the Son is risen on another day.” The spiritual wordplay replaces macho Old West gun play.
Porterfield’s is a gift he shares with the Texan McMurtry, as well as not many others. It has to do with how he imbues such perfectly wrought details with psychological resonance, so they breathe ultimately as song lyrics even though they’re impressive even on paper.
Like the aforementioned songs, “If I Knew,” the best-known title from the third album Summertime Songs, is also a road song, but more like a DUI-fueled misadventure that probably left old Saint Chris forgotten, way back in the dust: “You were bouncing off the guardrails shouting at the wind/ we were off our meds, drinking again.”
Album cover for Field Report’s “Brake Lights Red Tide.” Courtesy bandcamp.com
On the latest Field Report album, 2020’s Brake Lights Red Tide, Porterfield is still on the road and still searching for equilibrium but with an enhanced sonic vision, that seems to suspend him from deterioration or harm, and allows listeners to share such uneasy atmospheric heights.
The album cover photo (above) is shot from the window of a car stuck in traffic on an expansive modern bridge over a large body of water in China. And musically the group employs synthesizer, played by Thomas Wincek, much more than previously.
For me, this approach first seemed like a calculated detour, and throughout Porterfield’s singing is more restrained than previously. But the effect ultimately beguiles in its open waywardness. The sonics elevate the thrust of the album on a woozy arc, until finally the penultimate track, “Whulge,” which is essentially a synthesizer instrumental, rippling in sonic waves, buoyant yet immersive. “Red tide” refers to a dense kind of sea algae. So, between the atmospheric synth and that metaphoric “tide,” Porterfield still faces mysteries he dares to dive into, especially with such watery themes as “a river’s love” and “Puget Sound.” Finally, the closing track, “Begin to Begin,” suggests a certain sense of being, a psychological condition he describes which seems like falling back into a pre-natal state, a refrain in sighing descent: “Begin to begin to begin to begin…” Only a session with his therapist, he sings, can pull him out.
But the whole notion of receding from a troubled lifetime back into pre-birth, the swallowing or drowning of full experience, is a profound abandonment, a healing re-immersion into imagined innocence. Perhaps it is the impulse toward literary critic Ihab Hassan’s famous concept of American “radical innocence”: “The disparity between the innocence of the hero and the destructive character of his experience defines his concrete, or existential, situation.” 4
Somehow, after life’s vagaries, cruelties and suffering, perhaps it’s a longing we all subconsciously share, to reset our course to unrealized happiness and beauty, a place we may never reach, perhaps, until death’s passage.
Earlier on Red Tide rebirthing hovers, as this sad road saint sings, “My heart begs to be light but my mind gets dark. Can’t push us into love.”
Also, can’t push us into life, and its inevitable losses? Thus are the risks taken, by an artist as honest as he dares to be.
Or should I say, “younger than Willie Nelson”? The great critic Mikal Gilmore reminds us that, at 87, the godfather of “outlaw” Texas singer-songwriters, remains vital and in the game. https://legacyrecordings.medium.com/willie-nelson-first-rose-of-spring-1ae9f6eed41f Nelson’s long legacy (His 2018 album was aptly titled Last Man Standing), reinforces the research and statistics that show that marijuana is a far safer drug of pain or psychological management, or even indulgence, than booze (Among gifted singer-songwriters, see: Hank Williams, dead at 29; Steve Earle’s son, Justin Townes Earle, dead last December at 38; and his namesake Townes Van Zandt, dead at 50; Tim Hardin dead at 39; Phil Ochs dead at 35, Gram Parsons and Jim Morrison, both dead at 27, primarily with alcohol abuse or hard drugs central to their demise. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s gun-shot suicide, at 27, was preceded by substantial drug abuse. The brilliant Brit singer-songwriter Nick Drake overdosed, at 26, on a prescription anti-depressant drug, amitriptyline.)
Elizabeth Hardwick, American Fictions, Modern Library, 139
“Ghosts of West Virginia” album cover. Courtesy www.bear-family.com
Exacerbated by the January 6 Capitol mob attack, President Biden’s greatest domestic challenge is bridging the chasm between “red” and “blue” America, as deep and wide as any Appalachian valley. Thus, Steve Earle’s brilliantly insightful 2020 album, Ghosts of West Virginia, is so pertinent.
It took courage and empathy, but this Texas liberal imaginatively inhabits the lives of West Virginia coal miners – among Donald Trump’s most forsaken followers. 1 Earle’s outlaw country singer-songwriter sensibilities might’ve helped him to connect with the lives and spirits of other “outsiders” of sorts, plus he’s a native of the neighboring Confederate state of Virginia. 2
Ghosts became the soundtrack to a 2020 documentary theater work, inspired by the tragic 2010 explosion in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, Coal Country, written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen.
Steve Earle performs material from “Ghosts of West Virginia” in a live performance of the 2020 theater documentary “Coal Country.” Courtesy Pinterest
Earle’s crusty singing, and the sinewy band playing, often sound as expressive as the heaving guts of a working miner, or his exhalation in pained repose and reflection. Earle unearths richly peopled story-songs, “Devil Put the Coal in the Ground,” at once grave and scathingly boisterous, or the deep-veined singing and words of “Time is Never On Our Side,” as if Earle is tenderly scraping shards of blood-stained coal from the blast’s ravaged site. “Black Lung” is a worker defiantly testifying to The Grim Reaper, about the industry’s deadliest side-effect. On “Union, God and Country,” Earle deftly personalizes the history of mining unions, their decline, and the company’s ease in exploiting unrepresented workers.
Earle doing a solo version of “Devil Put the Coal in the Ground”:
Despite Trump’s promises, West Virginia coal miners and their industry lost both jobs and production during his administration. Courtesy commondreams.org
Hear also the achingly lovely widow’s lament “If I Could See Your Face Again” sung by the Dukes’ Eleanor Whitmore, and the indignant “It’s About Blood,” where Earle lays blame, and ends with resounding recitation of all twenty-nine Upper Big Branch blast-victim names, like an aural tour of a fresh grave site. It rings, too, like hammers on buttresses of a rising bridge to a better, more whole America: “It’s about muscle/ it’s about bone/ it’s about a river running thicker than water/ ’cause it’s about blood.”
When I saw Earle this summer at the Big Top Chautauqua in Bayfield, Wisconsin, he performed “It’s About Blood” and, sure enough, at the end, he recited the twenty-nine dead men’s names from memory, with raw, stentorian power. And now it seemed as if they were a band of brothers, his very own, and the names had lacerated his heart with so many scars.
Earle’s magnificently immersive evocation and its vividly-drawn characters – amid our careening political zeitgeist – helped me circle back to another important Texas songwriter. James McMurtry may have surpassed Earle as America’s greatest living male singer-songwriter “south of Bob Dylan,” as I put it in my review of McMurtry’s quietly stupendous 2015 album Complicated Game (Lucinda Williams-in-her-prime prompts the gender qualifier). I’ve been watching many of McMurtry’s almost-weekly solo home virtual concerts during the pandemic, which have helped me burrow deeper into his artistic sensibilities.
He lacks the vocal expressive range of Earle or Williams but, as Texas music writer Mike Seely aptly puts it, McMurtry is “rivaled only by Jason Isbell in his ability to construct compelling tales of small-town pathos without sounding patronizing, McMurtry doesn’t exploit his characters or paint them in overly dour strokes…” 3
“Complicated Game” album cover
So I returned to my thoughts about Complicated Game, in striving to understand the psychological makeup of a small-town, rural or working-class Trump voter, especially one who has real-world grievances and hardships, rather than racist hatred, or off-the-deep-end conspiracy-theory intoxication.
For these genuinely struggling people, intoxication may not be the word, but there’s a power Trump has over many of them, the kind who attend his rallies, and who may have shown up on January 6 to protest. Some of them may have not realized the protest would lead to forcibly attempting to stop the election’s certification. But to be clear, Trump’s demagogic culpability clearly includes cultivating the disinformation propaganda campaign that led to the protest rally, stoked by radicalized right-wing groups, and then inciting the attack. Even GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell strongly concurred (despite his hypocritical impeachment conviction vote).
Nevertheless, for possible bridge-building that such cultural beacons as Earle and McMurtry might imagine, let’s step back and contemplate the dynamic between Trump and his loyal people. He does boast an easy-sell spiritual elixir, especially in his speaking voice’s persuasiveness, as author and cultural critic Lorrie Moore has observed. What she sees as “reassuring” is the smoke in Trump’s mirrors, the quivering illusion that he, and only he, can fix their problems. Hear out this liberal writer, who’s spent most of her teaching career in Madison, Wisconsin:
“So sue me: I sometimes find President Trump’s voice reassuring. Not what he says. Not the actual words (although once in a while one of his “incredibles” reaches inside my chest cavity and magically calms the tachycardia). Trump’s primitive syntax, imperfectly designed for the young foreign woman he married, always dismays. But during a coronavirus-task-force press conference, when one hears him on the radio, his voice has music. Sorry. It does. A singer’s timbre; it is easy on the ear. Trump’s is a voice you use to calm down people you yourself have made furious. (His foremost mimics—Alec Baldwin, Stephen Colbert—have not captured its pitch, its air, its softness, which they substitute with dopiness, which is also there.) For the first ten minutes, before his composure slackens and he becomes boastful and irritable, he actually just wants to be Santa Claus in his own Christmas movie, and the quality of his voice is that of a pet owner calming a pet. I hear it!” 4
To be honest, I do, too. So it seems such people fall prey to this vocal intoxication, and achieve an almost zombie-like state of acceptance, wallowing in wish-fulfilment, harkening to a lost, pure, white America that never really existed. It’s the essence of Trump’s populist demagogic appeal. But who are these people, and what makes them tick?
The typical aggrieved Trump voter is a middle-aged white male – like Earle and McMurtry – so the songwriters inhabit their empathetic characterizations like walkers-in-their-shoes, having long-observed humanity closely in Texas, the virtual Southern nation-unto-itself, and in the petri dishes of their art’s genius.
Here I refer back to my review of Complicated Game. To me, the album achieves a greatness perhaps unparalleled in recent times, partly because it sounds as confessional as it is observational. Several superb songs about the vicissitudes of love (discussed in my full-length review) are first-person and feel autobiographical, whether they are or not. 5
James McMurtry. Courtesy photosbynanciblogspot.com
This puts McMurtry at the same psychological level of his scruff-necked American archetypes – living and losing, and somehow bubbling back to the surface, right before drowning. And on Game, McMurtry casts a perspective that seemingly reaches across the nation’s myriad highways and byways.
McMurtry typically offers a dead-insect windshield view — but which retains the land and the people’s tough, odds-defying spirit. “Carlisle’s Haul” frames such harsh magnificence in terms of a crab-fishing job, done after the fishing season’s closed: “It’s hard not to cry and cuss/ when this old world is bigger than us/ and all we got is pride and trust in our kind.” McMurtry’s observational story-telling powers have been compared to those of his father (Larry McMurtry, who wrote The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove and the screenplay to Brokeback Mountain, among other indelible works).
But the younger McMurtry also recalls Charles Dickens in the way his gritty details and array of eccentric-but-familiar characters serve a broader critique of society, industrialization, and globalization. His renowned 2005 protest anthem “We Can’t Make It Here” still encapsulates the betrayals of America’s economic times as well as anything.
Consider: The world’s billionaires increased their wealth by about a fifth over the course of last year – to more than $11 trillion, according to Forbes. Meanwhile, a quarter of U.S. adults said someone in their household was laid off or lost a job because of the pandemic.” 6 That’s how well Trump has fulfilled his promises to his blue-collar followers.
“Complicated Game begins to feel like a great artist’s most mature statement to date, and also a recording that ought to resonate across the nation’s political spectrum for its invocations of American freedom, and of its discontents. Both seem to flow through McMurtry’s veins by now. But he’s holding steady. 7
“ ‘Deaver’s Cross’ is a righteous bluegrass song and the first of two remarkably magnanimous pieces for a guy stereotyped as a grumpy pessimist: So when you’re fishing that March brown hatch/ Won’t you share your morning’s catch/ with those whose ground you walk across/ May their memory be not lost.
“A song that follows, after a few of the tough-minded ones, reminds us that, though unmistakably a worn-denim Texas troubadour, McMurtry has clearly traversed America, gigging and searching for dusty companionship. And he sure can celebrate, even as he stares down reality, in the lovely, Uilleann-piping ode to ‘Long Island Sound.’ Riding a gentle, rolling melodic wave evoking that long, lapping coast, he sings: These are the best days, these are the best days, boys put your money away, I got the round. Here’s to all you strangers, the Mets and the Rangers, long may we thrive on the Long Island Sound.
It’s the understated peak of the record and it catches the setting sun on a horizon of rooftops, because McMurtry has climbed this high to see what a magnificent place the great old island is. And then, the two closing lines are poetic strokes — he might be looking at Anywhere, U.S.A.
Liner photo from James McMurtry’s “Complicated Game.” Photo by Shane McCauley
And yet, McMurtry remains too much of a cold-eyed critic of easy social conventions to leave us with only comforting thoughts. The album closes with its strangest song “Cutter,” about a sorry soul who physically mutilates himself with a knife, for reasons ostensibly sociological and psychological, yet ambiguous: “I miss my dog from years ago/ Where he went, I still don’t know./whiskey and coffee while I burn my toast, and build a cage for all my ghosts.” He could be one of countless desperate military veterans, or other American survivors. McMurtry’s under-appreciated vocal vibrato nails the man’s unsteady, just-hanging-on societal mask.
This character feels like just the sort of person who Trump pushed over the edge, into anarchic violence at the Capitol on that fateful January day.
Nevertheless, as (McMurtry) told recently told Rolling Stone, he sees his characters as “enduring, not fading away. Standing against the current that wants to wash you away but can’t, yet.” 8
We can only hope, and strive, for the time when such folks endure as a reasonably healed part of America’s social fabric, while the raw edge of the nation’s anti-democratic and anti-diversity malignance begins to fade away. Musical storytellers like Earle and McMurtry have laid forthright footsteps to follow, and perhaps to a bridge to new understanding, healing and common purpose.
1 The number of people employed by the coal mining industry has fallen 15% since Trump took office in January 2017. Job losses temporarily stabilized during his years in office, according to US Bureau of Labor Statistics Data, but the trend is continuing. Jobs did not increase, partly due to Trump’s trade wars and unsuccessful efforts to use the Defense Production Act to prop up coal plants, before the pandemic curtailed coal demand and employment.
Production has followed suit. Despite coal prices remaining stable around $35 per ton over the last decade, production fell during Trump’s years in office to just 706 million short tons, the lowest amount since 1978, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
2. Earle’s empathy for surviving West Virginia family members now extends to his own profound personal loss. He just released another album, J.T., dedicated to his gifted son, the noted singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, who died in August, at the age of 38 of an apparent drug overdose.
6. Vauhini Vara, “The United States of Amazon,” The Atlantic, March 2021, 93
7. I was even more prompted to revisit, and extoll, McMurtry’s album because it, and McMurtry himself, still seem underappreciated. I surveyed two appropriate “Best of” lists: UDiscoverMusic‘s “The 10 Best Americana Albums of All Time,” (published in May of 2020)
Neither list includes Complicated Game, much less any McMurtry album. Interestingly, Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, is Number 2 on both lists, and Earle tops the “Ten Best” list with his Copperhead Road album. Several other Earle albums make Paste‘s “50 Greatest”, as does Jason Isbell’s Southeastern.
Are these big-picture best-of lists too high a bar for McMurtry? I don’t think so.
More encouragingly, Complicated Game scores 87 with MetaCritic, indicating “universal acclaim” based on 9 reviews (including Paste‘s). Isbell’s Southeastern also scores an 87 with Metacritic, which began in 2001, so the iconic Williams and Earle albums predate the site, which measures an album’s contemporary critical reception. Game also was voted No. 3 in NoDepression.com‘s Top 50 albums of 2015, and scored in All-Music‘s list of 22 Favorite Singer-Songwriter albums of 2015. History will have the last say.
Review: Diana Jones Song to a Refugee (Proper Records)
Tennessee-born singer-songwriter Diana Jones revealed a genius for inhabiting, with uncanny authenticity, spirits of the dispossessed, as early as her stunning 2006 song “Pony.” There, she put a young Native American’s poignant, painful reminisces right in the lap of our memories.
Today, the album’s guest artists Steve Earle, Richard Thompson and Peggy Seeger help underscore that she’s the perfect artistic spokesperson for Southern border refugees. Consider the Trump administration’s cruel separation of hundreds of children from their parents, a dilemma the Biden presidency will struggle to resolve.
“The brutal policy of family separation stands in for every other episode of (The Trump administration’s) cruelty, and transcends them all,” writes James Fallows in The Atlantic. ” ‘We’ve been declared in some respects a state sponsor of child abuse by friends overseas,’ ” John R. Allen, a retired four-star Marine Corps general who now is president of the Brookings Institution, told Fallows. “ ‘Having friends and allies declare this as state-sponsored child abuse is a stain on our national soul that will take a long time to remedy.’ ”
Jones’s Song allows us to feel the torn and bereft families’ experience, perhaps to move us to act: My brothers name is Leo, mine is Gabriel/ 46 and 47 but the numbers do not tell/ what we wish and what we long for what we love and what we miss/ our papa’s crazy stories and our mama’s gentle kiss/ this is where are.
Here’s the compulsively incantatory “I Wait for You”: I walked for miles across many borders alone/ over oceans to make it here/ when nights are cold I sing lullabies/ the sun refuses to shine/ I sing for you/no work no pride, some wait for years to find…you have all my heart while we are apart/someday I hope you understand/ when I sent for you and you come to me/ and you come to me we will be free.”
Her singing can be at once maternal, sisterly, and autobiographical. At times, you can almost taste desert dust.
Diana Jones. Courtesy The New York Times
“Santiago” carries special poignance:
Here I stand in my hands is a rosary/ all I own and you take it/ a gift for my grandmother I was seven years old… Then came the killing and the fire/ we had to run some did not make it/ a little boy name Santiago stayed by my side/ his mother’s final words were he’s a good boy you can see/ I’ve never been a father but I would like to be
I know of no more artful evocation of a contemporary human experience that may be too alien for ordinary Americans to fully comprehend.
Throughout the album, Jones switches points of view. She also conjures vivid and sometimes emotionally engulfing metaphors, as in “The Sea is My Mother.” Yet, always her limpid, luminous voice sounds like an angel on a desolate shoulder, witness to a forsaken heart.
America, the land famously welcoming “your huddled masses,” this is where we are.
My brother’s name is Leo, mine is Gabriel/ 46 and 47, but the numbers do not tell.
Here’s a sample from the album, the song “We Believe You,” which features guest performances by Steve Earle, Richard Thompson and Peggy Seeger.
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
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.
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. He often manages to weave all these aspects 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 spouse 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 guitar-maker – 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-songwriter 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 brim 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, “News from Colorado,” which he then recorded and performed. 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 here it drags its feet like a hobo: “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?
Steve Earle, performing here in Minneapolis, 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, on 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 song dedicated to wildfire fighters. Wildfires, especially in California, continue to ravage drought-ridden 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. I wonder how many working-class voters, especially fellow Southerners, pay attention to his word, compassion and insight.
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.
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.
The Weezner Amphitheater at the Minneapolis Zoo is a stunningly picturesque concert setting.
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,” with Iris Dement, reminiscent of his joyous “You’re Still Standing There,” with Lucinda Williams. The Mountain also includes Earle, DeMent and a star-studded gaggle of roots-music singers doing his slowly stirring “Pilgrim,” which director Kenneth Lonergan used to close his breakthrough filmabout a feckless drifter, You Can Count on Me. Earle 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.