Sam Bush’s Tightrope Walk

Sam Bush has called his newest project, Storyman, his “singer-songwriter album.” For those of us who have enjoyed Sam’s original tunes, this seems like a great idea. Tunes like Circles Around Me (co-written with Jeff Black) and The Ballad of Stringbean & Estelle (co-written with Guy Clark & Verlon Thompson) from Sam’s last studio album, Circles Around Me, are a tribute to the heights that a “singer-songwriter album” might attain.

Still, there are others who approach Sam’s music from his live performances. His ability to cross elements of traditional bluegrass, reggae, rock, blues, and more into a high energy blend of jam band groove with a strong dose of disciplined musicianship is legendary. These live performances are the main reason why so many refer to him as the King of Telluride. The prospects of a “singer-songwriter album” for these folks likely causes a shiver, followed by a sigh and crossing of fingers out of fear of what might be missing in this venture.

The good news is that Sam does an amazing job of doing service to all sides of his audience with this release. Sam has for the first time co-written every song on an album. For co-writers he has called on many of the usual suspects. For instance, Sam turns to Jeff Black to help him pen Transcendental Meditation Blues. Former Sam Bush Band lead guitarist, Jon Randall Stewart, co-writes two songs, Bowling Green and I Just Wanna Feel Something. Current members of Sam’s band, Stephen Mougin (guitar) and Scott Vestal (banjo) contribute Play By Your Own Rules and Greenbrier respectively. Some of Sam’s more famous friends join the party too. Sam co-wrote Carcinoma Blues with Guy Clark and Handmics Killed Country Music with Emmylou Harris. Despite the various co-writers and occasional shifts in style, the album hangs together as a satisfying, cohesive package.

On Play By Your Own Rules, the band establishes a familiar Sam Bush groove accompanied by a typical Sam Bush message — taking control of one’s own life with an emphasis on being kind to one another. This tune will likely become a concert favorite soon with the hot lick that quickly establishes itself as the hook of the song. With its reggae rhythm churning, Everything Is Possible is another soon-to-be concert favorite. I expect fans will embrace It’s Not What You Think in the same way due to its fiery musicianship and Sam Bush-patented changes in rhythm and texture.

Greenbrier is a bluegrass-style instrumental that will appeal to Sam’s more traditionally-minded fans. Likewise, Bowling Green recalls Sam’s parents’ love of music and includes the melody of several traditional bluegrass tunes woven into the song’s structure. And, of course, Sam’s impeccable mandolin and fiddle playing remain the central part of every song on the album.

Lest we forget the title of the album, Sam tells some stories here too. Lefty’s Song is a forgotten unrecorded New Grass Revival tune telling the tale of a long lost love. On Carcinoma Blues, Sam relates a slightly light-hearted take on cancer as only a survivor can and uses a bouncy Jimmie Rogers groove to reinforce the effect. Transcendental Meditation Blues recalls Sam’s courtship of his future wife and the anticipation-filled 120 mile bus ride it took to see her in their early days.

There are a few guest appearances of note too. Deborah Holland (Animal Logic, The Refugees) shares vocals with Sam on their co-written tune, Everything Is Possible. Likewise, Emmylou sings with Sam on Handmics. Alison Krauss lends her unmistakable harmony vocals to Lefty’s Song.

So while Sam calls this his “singer-songwriter album,” it’s about the furthest thing from the sometimes sappy side of that moniker. With its mix of story songs, bluegrass melodies, and lofty musicianship, this album should be a delight for all of Sam’s fans regardless of their favorite kind of Sam Bush song.

Here’s one of Sam’s story songs based on the true story of the murder of Stringbean of Grand Ol’ Opry fame and his wife Estelle.

And here’s a live version of Transcendental Meditation Blues.

The Jayhawks: Tiny Desk Concert

I simply love NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series! The short set format, usually 15-25 minutes, is a great introduction to new bands and a perfect lunchtime diversion. For familiar bands, it’s a lovely glimpse into what they’re doing now since each usually features new music. And the stripped down, mostly acoustic format is a warm and intimate way to allow the songs to really shine through.

This newly posted video from the Jayhawks is a delight (click the link). Enjoy!

And here’s a list of other available Tiny Desk Concerts.

And because I can’t help myself, here’s a favorite song from the Jayhawks.


50 Best Alt Country Albums

green-on-red-gas.jpgIt’s all so subjective. It’s worthy of a healthy dose of good-natured give and take (arguing) with a friend. It’s kind of cool to find a few you missed. And it’s even cooler to find you own most of them… Whatever guilty pleasure you derive from these “best” and “greatest” lists, they’re usually a fun read.

This one is no different. Here’s Paste Magazine’s list of the 50 Best Alt Country Albums… Lots of cool stuff here, a few surprises (to me, anyway), and a few new discoveries too.

I just wish I still had this album from Green on Red on vinyl. For awhile, it was one of my all time favorite albums and marked my exit from interest in what was “popular.”

Ryan Bingham Reunites with Crazy Heart Director

Ryan Bingham‘s first two albums, Mescalito Ryan Binghamand Roadhouse Sun, were filled with a series of strong lyrical images seemingly examining the world from the wrong side of the tracks. These songs of desperation, resignation, and occasionally a bit of redemption have been recurring themes for Bingham. And it is precisely these themes that perfectly evoked the mood and storytelling required in the Oscar winning movie, Crazy Heart.

T-Bone Burnett, musical director for Crazy Heart, recruited Bingham in 2009 to provide original songs for the soundtrack of Scott Cooper‘s film, a story about a too-long boozy, fading country music star forced to confront his demons. One of the co-written songs, The Weary Kind, earned Bingham and T-Bone an Oscar for Best Original Song. In addition of Bingham’s contributions, the rest of the soundtrack features a great mix of music from Buck Owens, the Louvin Brothers, Waylon Jennings, and Townes Van Zandt as well as credible performances from Colin Farrell and the Dude himself, Jeff Bridges.

Bingham has now reunited with Scott Cooper for his new western film called Hostiles which stars Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike.  Bingham will be contributing original songs for the film which has just started production. Release is scheduled for late 2017. For me, the pedigree of Scott Cooper and Ryan Bingham has me highly anticipating this new film and it’s sure-to-be amazing soundtrack.

Here’s Bingham performing The Weary Kind.

And here’s a favorite song from Bingham’s newest album, Fear and Saturday Night.

The Next Waltz from Bruce Robison

Bruce Robison has had a rather successful career as a performer and songwriter with three #1 records to his credit (Travelin’ Soldier by the Dixie Chicks, Angry All the Time by Tim McGraw & Faith Hill, and Wrapped by George Strait). He’s released several solo albums over the years in addition to duet albums with fellow songwriter and wife, Kelly Willis.

Bruce has started an occasional video series that asks artists to reflect on the songwriting process. The series called The Next Waltz is a nod to Martin Scorsese’s documentary of the Band’s final concert. Even better, the series features recording techniques using analog equipment with the hope of capturing the warmth and immediacy of a decidedly old school approach. Rather than documenting solely a live performance, these videos include a newly recorded song along with discussion and reflections about the song and songwriting process. Backed by a top notch band, each installment has been a distinct pleasure.

Thus far, the series has included features from Kelly Willis, the Turnpike Troubadours, and Jerry Jeff Walker. While I’ve enjoyed each, Jerry Jeff’s version of Song for Life, a Rodney Crowell composition, has been my favorite. Here’s that video of the song only:

On a personal note, Song for Life makes me think of a friend that passed this year. I don’t think I’ll ever hear this song again without thinking about Rick. Songs are good for that.

And here’s my favorite among Bruce’s #1 songs:

Lilly Hiatt Steps Into the Spotlight

I’ve long been a fan of John Hiatt‘s songwriting. For a long time people knew John Hiatt’s songs even if they didn’t know him. Songs he wrote that were hits for other artists include Riding with the King (BB King and Eric Clapton), Have a Little Faith in Me (Delbert McClinton), Thing Called Love (Bonnie Raitt), Angel Eyes (Jeff Healey), and many more. Because there’s so many great songs Hiatt has written, I tend seek out interviews and additional information about him regularly.

In recent years, John has mentioned his daughter, Lilly Hiatt, in interviews as an up and coming songwriter. Lilly’s story is an unusual one. She is the only daughter from John’s first marriage. Shortly after she was born, John checked himself into rehab. As he cleaned up and began to rebuild his life, John’s wife and Lilly’s mom committed suicide. John and Lilly soon moved to Nashville just as John’s career blossomed. There she lived a somewhat normal life as a recording artist and a songwriter’s daughter, not so unusual in Nashville.

As Lilly entered college, she began to muse whether a career in music was calling. Careful not to position herself only as John Hiatt’s daughter, Lilly slowly moved towards establishing herself as an independent artist and songwriter while learning the tricks and pitfalls of the music business from her dad. A delicate balancing act of occasionally performing with her dad while paying her solo dues with gigs in less prestigious halls and sparse crowds followed.

In 2011, Lilly released her debut album, Let Down, with her band the Dropped Ponies. Generally, the album was well-received and was easily categorized in a roots-oriented stew of styles. Lilly may shine brightest though on the rockier edge of this territory with fine songs like Angry Momma and Big Bad Wolf. Her songs are solidly punctuated by Beth Finney’s feisty guitar work.Still, Lilly has an adept way with lyrics and is unafraid of including personal observations in her work.

2015 brought us Lilly’s sophomore effort, Royal Blue, which continues to establish her own sound as a slightly crunchier, indie-influenced version of Americana. Certainly, there are strains of Lucinda Williams in the sonic palette and lyrics, but the two are more distant cousins than close relatives. The indie sound is augmented by Deertick’s Adam Landry’s production. Standout cuts include Get This Right and Far Away.

I admit to just jumping on Lilly’s bandwagon recently. That being said, I’ve been intrigued by what I have been exposed to thus far and look forward to more. Here are a few samples to consider: