Welcome to the front door of Roots Music and Random Thoughts where each week (or whenever I feel like it) I curate, aggregate and update news, events, images, ideas, sounds, odds and ends. Nothing fancy, but simply a speck of dust on the highway and a nice spot to pause for a few moments to take a break from the surf.
New Music Rising: Both a Tribute and Compilation, The National Gives Us A Day of The Dead.
In my previous life as a sales exec for music distributors and record labels which ended in 2007, among my responsibilities during the last eleven years of a thirty-five year career was representing several record labels that specialized in ‘tribute’ albums. I put quotations around the word because in reality they were nothing of the sort. The premise for a majority of the releases were simply a quick money grab of getting record stores to take just one or two copies and drop it into the artist’s bin to target the completist…those fans that would buy anything.
It was a formula that worked pretty well as long as there were enough stores with enough space to add them into their inventory, and each label had their own specialty. One would try to find at least one living member of a defunct band, throw them into a studio with session players and crank out new versions of old songs. Another did straight, cheap soundalikes that sold at bargain prices especially in places like military PX’s and onboard ships. Yet another took a different path, by bringing out a series of well-produced bluegrass recordings, and later adding string quartets and infant-ized lullabies to the concept.
In today’s world of streaming, most music is consumed not as a complete album but individually as a song, as well as being programmed for the listener as part of someone’s curated playlist. So unless you’re Drake or Taylor Swift or Adele, you’re not going to sell six digits of albums anymore, and judging from looking through last week’s charts, you’re a success if you make it to just a thousand albums.
Against that backdrop, along comes an overly-ambitious real, honest-to-God Grateful Dead tribute release that targets not only a very specific buyer of a band that still has a rabid following, but also is tied to a charity known for doing such projects to raise money for HIV and AIDS awareness and research…the Red Hot Organization. Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National curated the set and there is also a performance scheduled at the second annual Eaux Claires Festival on August 12-13.
Being a retired Deadhead who grew weary of the scene back in the early eighties, yet each month still rotates a few dozen tracks in and out of my core iPhone playlist, this set was one that called my name and I’ve been navigating my way through the five-plus hours of music. What I wish I could tell you is that I loved each and every note, but after two weeks of daily listening it has driven me back to my vast digital Dead library in search of the real deal.
Not to say that this set isn’t worthy of a spot on your shelf, because the high spots far exceed the not-so-high ones, and hearing younger artists who were not even born when the Dead first came together re-invent these songs with different instrumentation and arrangements is like digesting a handful of ear candy. And the thirty or forty bucks it’ll cost you goes to an important cause, so there’s that too.
Every Picture Tells A Story.
The image at the top of this page was shot by my long-time-we’ve-only-met-online friend Sandy Dyas, who is a visual artist based in Iowa City that I’ve written about often. You can visit her website here and check out her work, books (buy them…really) and blog. And more of her images can be found on this site….like this one.
The Last Words On Guy Clark.
Guy Clark’s biographer and documentarian, Tamara Saviano, posted this letter on her Facebook page May 28th, just over a week after Guy’s passing. It’s a rare public sharing of something very personal to her, his family and friends, and it is so touching I’m going to reprint it here.
It’s been a wild couple of weeks, months really, with Guy’s decline and death. I’ve spent almost every minute of the last 10 days coordinating and planning. Now, finally, I have some downtime on this long and appropriate Memorial Day weekend to spend some time alone to grieve.
Guy had suffered from a long list of health problems—lymphoma, heart disease, diabetes, and bladder cancer among them—and we were lucky to have him years longer than we’d expected. The last three months of his life were especially brutal; he spent most of them in a nursing home. By the end, Guy’s only goal was to go home to die—to be in the place he loved, surrounded by his art, books, and music. With the help of friends and hospice workers, he made it.
It didn’t become real to me until I saw Guy’s body at the funeral home two days after his death. In the last months, he had become thin and frail. Yet, plumped up with embalming fluid, he looked like Guy Clark again. How weird is that? Because he was going to be cremated, he was laid out in a simple box just for a short time so a few of us could see him. The funny thing is, Guy is so dang tall they had to take his boots off to fit him in the box. The top of his head was pressed against one end of the box and his feet pressed against the other. Guy Clark does not fit in a box.
Guy’s last wishes were clear. At some point in his waning years, his lyrical request —“Susanna, oh Susanna, when it comes my time, won’t you bury me south of that Red River line” —changed to instructions to be cremated, with his cremains sent to Terry Allen to be incorporated into a sculpture. “I think that would be so fucking cool,” Guy said at the time. “Sure, leave me with a job to do,” Terry joked.
But it’s no joke now. In the days after his death, Guy’s closest friends pulled together a plan to honor his wishes. Jim McGuire hosted a wake—a typical Guy Clark picking party, one of many that took place at McGuire’s studio over the years. Guy’s family and Nashville friends gathered around an altar on which we’d placed his ashes, his old boots, and our favorite picture of him, and we took turns playing Guy Clark songs. At the end of the night, Verlon led a chorus of “Old Friends” that knocked the wind out of the room.
At midnight, Verlon, Shawn, McGuire, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Guy’s son, Travis, his caregiver, Joy, and I boarded a tour bus in Nashville that would take us—and Guy—to Santa Fe and Terry Allen. Guy’s last road trip. We slept little during the 18-hour drive; we all had too many Guy stories we wanted to tell. Grief shared is grief diminished.
We arrived in Santa Fe in time for dinner on Wednesday, May 25. Terry, his wife, Jo Harvey, and their son, Bukka, hosted another wake. Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, his partner, April Kimble, Robert Earl and Kathleen Keen, Joe and Sharon Ely, their daughter, Marie, Jack Ingram, and painter Paul Milosevich flew in from all parts to be there. We set up another altar, gathered around and told more Guy stories.
After a feast of green chili enchiladas, tamales, guacamole, and homemade salsa, we huddled around a fire pit on the stone and adobe patio. Hanging wisteria perfumed the air as old friends toasted Guy, clinking glasses of wine against bottles of Topo Chico and cans of Robert Earl Keen beer. Under a night sky blanketed with stars, a guitar came out. This time there was a rule, and it was simple. “Play a song Guy would have made you play,” Steve said. Three among this group had written songs about Guy. Shawn sang “This Guy, Guy,” written with Gary Nicholson. (They got to play it for Guy shortly before his death. When they’d finished, he deadpanned, “Well, isn’t that cute.”) Next, Verlon played his ode, “Sideman’s Dream.” Then Vince shared the song he wrote, “There Ain’t Nothing Like a Guy Clark Song,” one that provides a perfect benediction to the master songwriter’s life. Through these songs—and many more of his own—there’s no doubt Guy Clark will live forever.
Guy Clark doing his song “Magnolia Wind” with Shawn Camp and David “Ferg” Ferguson as a birthday party for Cowboy Jack Clement winds down one Nashville night around 10 years ago.
Record Store Memories Revisited.
My Broadside column over at No Depression last week was about those wonderful places of my youth back in Philadelphia where I spent much time and money pursuing new music that eventually turned into a job.
Here’s a couple of paragraphs but if you’d like to read the whole thing, click here.
I literally stumbled into a career the last day of college — the job description was “go to record stores.” My new boss gave me the keys to a 1972 VW Beetle, a list of about five hundred stores from DC to New York, three-ring binders of catalogs, and boxes of promos, and he sent me off to sell.
I started with King James and Bruce Webb’s in the city, moved out to Bryn Mawr near the Main Point, to visit Plastic Fantastic, and Keller’s House of Music in Upper Darby. Al’s Record Spot and Levin’s Furniture in Kensington. Mel’s in South Philly. There was Speedy’s and Phantasmagoria in Allentown, the Renaissance in Bethlehem, Spruce Records in Scranton, and Central Music in Williamsport. There was Waxie Maxie, Kemp Mill, Discount Records, and Music Den. There was Eynon Drug Store, Gallery of Sound, and H. Royer Smith’s classical shop, where I scored Skip Spence’s Oar album, which they’d had sitting in the basement.
Ska, A Jamaican Contribution to World Music.
Last February on the Black Girl Nerds website I found this article written by Kevin Wayne Williams. While it focuses on ska, it is a vast survey of music from the island that also touches on mento and reggae. It is absolutely worth your time to check out and includes a ton of links.
This was published for Black History Month, and I’ll start you out but you need to click here for the full story.
When you go back in history, ska was an exclusively black musical genre, an offshoot of mento. Mento, a Caribbean music style noted for its syncopated rhythm (essentially a series of off-beat triplets), was usually played by small groups: typically a vocalist, a tongue-drum, a banjo, and a guitar. It’s a cousin to calypso music, and, despite being rhythmically distinct, the two forms were generally marketed as calypso in the US: most Harry Belafonte songs were actually mento, not calypso.
In the late 1950’s, Jamaican musicians began to incorporate American R&B sounds into mento, and the hybrid form stabilized on using the same syncopated structure with an even stronger off-beat chord known as the skank (bonus info for music theorists: the skank in ska is nearly always a major chord, while in reggae it’s generally a minor chord). Typical instrumentation was a guitar, a bass (sometimes a bass guitar, but just as often a concert bass), drum, saxophone, trumpet, and trombone: still the core ska band today, although some bands have much larger horn sections. Many of the musicians of this era are familiar today as reggae and rocksteady musicians: Bob Marley probably being the most famous to American audiences, with names such as Toots Hibbert (reputed to have actually invented reggae) and Desmond Dekker still having some familiarity.
Videos You Wouldn’t Know Existed, Unless You Found Them By Mistake.