Tag Archives: Johnny Cash

Top 20 River Songs of All Time

Last weekend a few friends and I took a three-day canoe trip down the Des Moines River in Iowa, starting in Estherville and ending up in Rutland.  Since this experience, I can’t get the river off my mind (I have water on the brain).  The journey packed a jambalaya of emotions: fear, exhilaration, calm, joy, and enlightenment.   Many around Iowa look at the Des Moines River as a dirty cesspool of cow dung and pesticides, but they’ve obviously never gotten to know those murky brown waters. Now, I can’t help but feel a connection to the river.

Realizing I need to post a blog before BDWPS.com dries up like a riverbed, I contemplated different albums I could review. Nothing excited me though, and without passion, my writing sits as lifeless as a dead fish on the banks. Instead, I followed my recent enthusiasm from my river experience and decided to write a list of the “Top 20 River Songs.” As I started compiling the list I began to realize that rivers have been the subject of many, many, many songs. And it isn’t any wonder: rivers are mysterious old souls that can look serene and inviting while hiding beneath their vast power and unpredictability. They are both beautiful and terrifying at the same time.

Honorable Mention:

“River”Akron/Family
“Lazy River” Louie Armstrong
“Green River” CCR
“Yes, the River Knows” The Doors
“The River” Dutchess and the Duke
“Roll On Columbia” Woody Guthrie
“How Deep is that River” Mason Jennings
“River” Killdozer
“River of Deceit” Mad Season
“All the Gifted Children” Lou Reed
“Mississippi River” Muddy Waters
 

20. “Proud Mary” Creedence Clearwater Revival

I hate this song (probably because it has been so over-played), but I felt compelled to include it on the list. If you asked the average person to name five river songs, this song would undoubtedly come up. If I left it off the list I would be deceiving the readers based solely on my bias. I prefer the CCR version over Tina Turner’s. Then again, that’s like saying I prefer liver and onions over a Spam sandwich.  Regardless, you made the list CCR. Take your #20 ranking and roll with it. 

19. “River, Stay ‘Way From the Door” Frank Sinatra

“River, Stay Away From the Door” is a plea to flood waters to stay away from the narrator’s cabin.  The song takes on a double meaning as a plea to an ex-wife or girlfriend, asking her to stay away and leave him with the few items that he still has: his bed and a fire.  And really, that’s all a man needs, right?

18. “Dam that River” Alice in Chains

As with 90% of Alice in Chains songs, “Dam that River” is about heroin addiction. In it, Layne Staley sings of someone trying to dam the river (stop his addiction), but despite their efforts, the river still washed him away. Damn.

17. “Down in the River to Pray” Alison Krauss

There has always been a connection between rivers and religion, one that goes beyond baptism.  With “Down in the River to Pray” Allison Krauss sings about going to the banks to speak to God. And why wouldn’t she? Just like God, the river is deep and mystifying, cleansing and strong, ceaseless and never-ending. It makes you wonder why anyone who lives within 20 miles of a river goes to  church to pray.

16. “Ballad of Easy Rider” Byrds

On the “Ballad of Easy Rider,” the Byrds draw a connection between riding a motorcycle and riding a river, and I guess it makes sense.  During our trip down the Des Moines last weekend, we often didn’t know where we were or where the curving waters would take us next, but we never really cared just as long as we kept moving. I imagine this is the same experience those roving bikers felt in “Easy Rider,” letting the journey lead their way toward freedom. The only difference being (spoiler alert) we didn’t have a bad acid trip or get murdered by hillbillies.  (Side note: Bob Dylan helped write this song)

15. “River of Sorrow” Antony and the Johnsons

No other voice could pull this song off quite like Antony. His croon always captures the spirit of a desperate soul.  On “River of Sorrow” he begs the endless river to stop swallowing many things: sorrow, love, and time.  Now if only he’d tell the river not to swallow my cell phone and wallet (which it did!).

14. “Ol’ Man River” Beach  Boys

You knew “Ol’ Man River” would make the list. It’s a staple of the river song catalog and has been performed by artists such as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Ray Charles, but my favorite version comes from the Beach Boys off their album “Friends/20/20.”  It’s probably inappropriate to like their version the best considering it originated as a slave song with lyrics like “let me go away from the white man boss.”  Oh well, I’m a sucker for Bryan Wilson harmonies.  I guess I would draw the Beach-Boys-slave-song-line at “Strange Fruit” (although I imagine it would even be pretty incredible).

13. “Pissing in a River” Patti Smith

I first discovered this song when I read Nick Hornby’s Songbook. In the chapter on “Pissing in a River” he recounts an incredible show he caught of Patti Smith and how her performance of this song still remains in his mind. Hornby says it best: “…the song was called ‘Pissing a River’; and it was played on guitars, and it lasted four or five minutes, and its emotional effects depended entirely on its chords and its chorus and its attitude. It’s a pop song, in other words, and like a lot of other pop songs, it’s capable of just about anything.”

12. “River Euphrates” Pixies

In “River Euphrates” the narrator finds himself stranded, out of gas, on the Gaza Strip. I used to think his solution was to ride a tire down the Euphrates river, which would be pretty sweet, but doing research for this blog I discovered that he actually says “Ride the tiger down the River Euphrates!” Riding a tiger down a river?! And I thought riding a tire was bad ass.

11. “Five Feet High and Rising” Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash has several river based songs (“Big River,” “Run Softly Blue River”) but the one I like the best is “Five Feet High and Rising.”  I love how the song goes up a key each verse, a subtle touch that adds to the narrative. Plus, Cash somehow makes a disaster like a five foot flood sound fun.

10. “Watching the River Flow” Bob Dylan

When I started compiling this list, Bob Dylan’s “Watching the River Flow” was one of the first songs to come to mind, but when I searched through my i-Pod for the song, it was nowhere to be found. “What album was it on?” I wondered, searching one album after another. Then I realized I first heard it on his second edition of greatest hits, which I didn’t load to iTunes for redundancy reasons. With all of Dylan’s bootlegs and rarity albums you’d think there would be another place to find this great song, but it has only be seen on that one greatest hits compilation. It’s a testament to Dylan’s songwriting talents; an awesome song like “Watching the River Flow” is just a leftover.

9. “Shenandoah” Pete Seeger

A song about as old as America’s rivers themselves, “Shenandoah” once served as a shanty for river men and has changed over time as people from across our great nation changed and added lyrics to fit their region. Over the years, the name “Shenandoah” in the song has represented a plethora of things: a river, an Indian chief’s daughter, and a small Iowa town.  Pete Seeger’s version is my favorite. While others spruce their recording up with orchestra swells and back-up choirs, Seeger captures the folk soul of the song simply with his voice and a guitar (there’s also a live version with a banjo – yes, a banjo).

8. “Black Water” Doobie Brothers

“Black Water” has an upbeat, blue grass feel that captures the sensation of rolling down the river with friends, taking the experience all in.  It also hearkens back to Huck Finn’s journey down the Mississippi on a raft and how those black waters led his way. Some have suggested that the black water represents anything from bong water to moon shine, but I tend to believe it is simply about the Mississippi River. And if it is about drugs or alcohol, why are they riding on a raft? Does that symbolize a bean bag? And are the catfish pot brownies?

7. “Whiskey River” Willie Nelson

I don’t think there is an actual Whiskey River, but the metaphor is pretty obvious. With a broken heart, Willie turns to whiskey to wash away his pain and take his mind off of his problems for just a while.  The river makes for a great whiskey analogy because while riding the Des Moines we were disconnected from the real world of responsibilities. It was just us and that amber current (Note to self: bring a bottle of Jack next year).

6. “River Guard” Smog

This song always reminds me of “Shawshank Redemption.” Not that there are any rivers in the film, but Bill Callahan’s story of these prisoners being free for just a moment conjures up the image of Andy Dufresne and his gang drinking beers on the rooftop, finding joy and freedom for an instant. The river serves that same purpose in “River Guard,” giving these criminals a chance to be “unburdened and relaxed.”

5. “River” Joni Mitchell

I find it strange that Joni Mitchell’s “River” has become a Christmas song. It was never intended as such. Sure, it speaks of decorations and songs of peace, but the message is anything but joyful.  Joni wrote “River” about the remorse she felt when thinking back on the daughter she gave up for adoption. Instead of most songs on this list that speak of flowing waters, Joni wants a frozen river to “skate away on.”  That’s a Canadian for ya.

4. “Down By the Water” PJ Harvey

What happened under the bridge is still in question, but there is no doubt that innocence was lost.  Whether it was the narrator who lost her childhood to sexual abuse or her actual daughter, she stands on the banks of the river and begs the fish (Christ) to bring back her purity.  The fact that many think this is just another riverside murder song shows just how much depth there is in PJ Harvey’s songwriting.

3. “Take Me to the River” Talking Heads

This is originally an Al Green song, and as much as I respect Mr. Green, I prefer what the Talking Heads did with it. The Green version was based in religion with him turning to the waters to wash away his sins.  In a genius move, David Byrne took these lyrics and tweaked them to be about a lover who the narrator can’t resist. He’s willing to give up everything just for her to “dip (him) in the water.”  Leave it to Byrne to make baptism sound racy.

 2. “Down by the River” Neil Young

One of Neil Young’s most mysterious songs, “Down By the River” has a chorus of “Down by the river, I shot my baby.”  This would suggest that this is another song about a riverside murder, but the rest of the trippy lyrics speak of “taking a ride” and being dragged “over a river.” While Young has stayed pretty mum on the subject of the song, some have suggested that the river represents heroin (a motif discussed earlier with “Dam the River”) and he’s shooting himself up in order to take the ride. Again, it’s probably just about a river, but it’s fun to think about.  Whatever the case, it’s a damn catchy song with distinctive guitar break-downs throughout.  Just like a river, Young’s guitar solos are always erratic, fierce, and unrelenting.

1. “The River” Bruce Springsteen

As with most Springsteen songs, “The River” tells the story of the struggles of adulthood.  This particular song tells the story of a couple who has been together since high school, spending their youth down at the river swimming and sunning.  As the song progresses both the river and their lives change with time. By the end, the river that once tied them together and brought them joy is gone.  It’s hard to imagine a river dying; about as hard as it is to see teenage dreams dry up.

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Honky-Tonk Angel

Every 4th of July that I’m back in Iowa, my mom and I take a trip over to Okoboji to peruse the flea markets.  This year was no different with my mom and I making the annual trip over to the lakes to walk past table after table of rusted signs, antique china, and baseball cards (a Texas flea market is much different in content, usually featuring used clothing, black market DVDs, and economy-sized boxes of Chiclets).

As a toddler I went with because I had to, as did my brothers, but as we got older, my siblings quit going while I continued tagging along with my mom.  While my mom has always gone in search of what ever rusty gold she can find, I’ve went over the years for different reasons. In middle school I searched for David Robinson cards to add to my collection (today, my 150 Robinson card collection is probably worth a buck fifty).  After college I still willingly went along, now searching for old pint glasses (Schlitz, PBR, Hamm’s, etc), but this collection petered out when I realized that pint glasses aren’t much fun without beer inside them.  The past few years I’ve gone with my mom just for tradition’s sake, but this year I had a new collection in the works: vinyl.

Writing this blog made me curious and I was pleasantly surprised to see that a Robinson rookie card goes for around 20 dollars.

You would think being a music enthusiast I would have jumped on the vinyl train long ago, but I always found myself blindly satisfied with CDs.  This of course all changed with the dawning of the i-Pod.  I found myself buying CDs that I’d rip to my computer and never touch again.  As much as it pained me, I realized I needed to move to MP3s. They’re more eco-friendly and don’t fill up shelves at the house. Despite this realization, I couldn’t make the switch. The idea of paying money for something you can’t tangibly hold in your hands didn’t set well with me. Plus, I couldn’t part with the experience of reading the liner notes, analyzing the lyrics, and exploring the artwork.

When I discovered many labels now include download codes with their vinyl, I found a solution: not only was I still getting the MP3s, but I got the added bonus of having a bigger package to adore. Plus, when listening to the music at home, I always opt to hear it on the record player because it just sounds so much more better.

This shift to vinyl soon became an obsession, and now I’ve slipped into the role of record collector.  Despite the lack of free MP3 downloads with used LPs by Charlie Parker, Run DMC, and Willie Nelson, I couldn’t help myself but to hear the classics in the form that they were meant to be heard.  Being a new hobby, this was my first year searching out old records at the flea market, and I left with 20 albums including Black Sabbath’s “Sabotage,” Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life,” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Smash Hits,” the album that changed my life as a 14-year-old kid.

The album my mom found at the flea market

While scouring the tables of boxes, my mom looked around to pass the time. At one point she walked over to me with an album in hand.  “I remember this Kitty Wells album from when I was a kid. I used to love the song ‘Honky Tonk Angels.’ My brother used to play it all the time.”  The mention of her brother Gary caught me off guard. Gary drowned 13 days after his 21st birthday back in 1962.  My mom witnessed it. As you can imagine, this was pretty hard on her.  As always with music, that record brought memories back to the surface.

I encouraged my mom to buy the album, and she did.  As we walked on through the tables of antiques, mom continued discussing my uncle’s love of music. It seemed the sight of that old record had dusted off memories she’d not visited for a while. She talked about the huge collection of records he bought over the years with the money he earned as a barber. She remembered all the concerts he used to head into town to see: Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Patsy Cline.

My mom still has some of the signed photos he bring home for her as a kid including this Patsy Cline. Unfortunately, they got water damaged in a basement.

Something about it all seemed eerily similar, and I knew why.  The pile of records, the concerts, the love of music – it all added up. Driving home, one question haunted me: how could my Uncle Gary, a man I never knew, be so much like me?  Yes, his love of music rubbed off on my mom who raised my brothers and I on a steady diet of Joni Mitchell and Buffalo Springfield, but to the level that Uncle Gary did? The level that I do?

I began to question my thoughts.  How could I possibly even get my uncle’s music-obsession gene? Where did he even get it? My grandpa, who took over the farm at age 14, never seemed to be a music fanatic, and my grandma listened exclusively to the Statler Brothers (“Mama Sang Bass” will forever bring me back to riding in my grandma’s car).  Maybe the music-obsession gene skips generations and somewhere 100 years back one of my ancestors was as obsessed with John Phillip Sousa as I am with Sonic Youth.

Sonic Youth with Sousa on the drums.

Back at home, I continued thinking about Gary with my questions moving away from “Why?” to “What if?”.  What would he be like today? How would my life be different if I had known him? Would he have regaled me with stories of meeting Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline?  What would he have thought of Bob Dylan? Neil Young? Iggy Pop? All unanswered questions.

A week later, these thoughts would still circle my brain like a needle on a record. It didn’t help that my mom left the Kitty Wells record sitting on the kitchen counter, and each time I saw Kitty’s face looking back at me, I couldn’t help but think of Gary.  I finally decided to listen to the album that had raised so many memories for my mom and so many questions for me.

I put the needle on the vinyl like I’ve done so many times before, and listened to the crackling of the record. I wonder if he enjoyed that sound as much as me – the anticipation that comes with it.  And then Kitty Wells appeared.  Her voice wasn’t beautiful by any means. Nasally, a tad flat, yet it didn’t bother me. In fact, I liked it; there was substance to it. It had soul. And soon, that emotive voice filled the rooms and halls of my parents’ house while filling the void of uncertainty in my mind.  No, I never knew Uncle Gary; but in that moment, I knew that he still somehow lived within that music and within me – my honky-tonk guardian angel.

Uncle Gary with my mom and Aunt Sally up above on the rocks.

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Top 100 Tracks of 2010 (100-76)

 

Just like every other year end list I’ve done for 2010, I decided to up the anty with my top tracks list by taking it from 50 to 100 songs. I know…I know…it may seem like a bit much. I can explain. Every year I compile my best songs list while making the 18 hour, cross-country drive to my parent’s house for the holidays. As I drive, I explore my i-Pod for the year’s stand-out songs and jot down titles into a notebook when I feel one is worthy of the list (not the safest driving method, I understand). By trip’s end this year, my list totaled 114.  I had a lot of fat to trim, and as I reached the 100 mark, it became more and more difficult to cut great song after great song. As a result, I’ve doubled my workload, but I don’t mind. These tracks have meant a lot to me this past year – the least I can do is give them the recognition they deserve.

 

100. “2012”

PS I Love You

What better way to start a 2010 list than with a song titled “2012”? Okay, it doesn’t make much sense, but I couldn’t help but squeeze this song on as the caboose to the list.

 

99. “Who Fingered Rock n’ Roll”

Cornershop

Back in the mid-90s Cornershop scored a hit with “Brimful of Asha”, a groovy track saturated with sitar and lyrics about using bosoms as pillows.  Unbeknownst to me, Cornershop survived the 90s and are still kicking out strange middle-eastern versions of the theme to “Wonder Years”. And they do ask a great question: who did finger rock n’ roll? My bets on Richard Marx.

98. “Arkansas”

Damien Jurado

Its nice to see Damien still thriving in the music world. His 2010 “Saint Bartlett” shows him taking his sound back to the sparse environs of “Ghost of David”, but the stand out song of the album, “Arkansas”, is probably the most produced. In the tradition of love songs to states, Jurado focuses his break-up with Arkansas.  It doesn’t necessarily have the double meaning found in a “Georgia On My Mind”, but then again, I did once date a girl named Rhode Island.

97. “I Don’t Believe You”

The Thermals

“I Don’t Believe You” is one of the only songs on The Thermals 2010 release “Personal Life” that features distorted power chords and – SHOCKER – it’s the best song on the album. A lesson in not straying from what works.

96. “Thank You For Your Love”

Antony and the Johnsons

A few months ago a fellow BDWPS contributer, PtheStudP, asked me if I’d purchased the new Antony and the Johnsons. I replied by saying, “Nah, I think I’m kinda done with Antony and his voice.” He of course berated me and called me a fool.  His verbal beating forced me to give The Johnsons one more chance, and I was quickly humbled by my disrespect.  Antony and the Johnsons – I want to thank you for your music.

95. “Racer X”

Japandroids

The Japandroids covering the Big Black song “Racer X”? YES PLEASE!

94. “What To Say”

Born Ruffians

2010 was a rough year for Born Ruffians with their disappointing release “Say It”.  Amidst the sloppy collection of songs, “What To Say” is a stand-out due to its memorable melody and its discussion of the age old inability to talk to women. Is it sad that a 32 year old man still relates to this teenage dilemma?

93. “Ain’t No Grave”

Johnny Cash

Would it be wrong of me to accuse Rick Ruben of manipulating Johnny Cash near the end of his life? I understand that Ruben’s production helped give Cash a rebirth in the music world, but now that Cash has died, more and more music keeps coming out from their sessions together, and it seems lik 90% of the tunes are about dying. I’m just saying… Despite the discomfort associated with listening to the ghost of Johnny sing on the 2010 release “American Recordings VI”, I can’t deny what an excellent song “Ain’t No Grave” turned out to be with its layers of dragging chains, spooky organs, and creaking piano keys. “Ain’t No Grave” is more evidence that Rick Ruben, manipulator or not, can make a good song great.

92. “38 Souls”

Bottomless Pit

Although I loved the music of 2010, I have to admit that the year was truly defined for me by Pavement. I spent most of my life scoffing at the suggestion of Pavement, but this year I opened up to the possibility that they may actually be good, and damn it, they were! As a result, I spent a large portion of the year searching for the modern equivalent of Pavement. I thought Bottomless Pit could fill that void, but I found that they are influenced by more than just Pavement.  For example, on “38 Souls”, a song about capturing souls, the band is able to conjure the ghosts of the 90s, channeling the sounds of Jawbox, Sebadoh, and even Dinosaur Jr. Now if they could just capture the soul of Stephen Malkmus.

91. “One Polaroid a Day”

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists

This song stood out to me simply because it shows Ted Leo trying something new.  Instead of his usual falsetto rantings, this is a slow groove with Leo exploring his lower register.  He’s no Isaac Hayes, but the change of pace was welcomed in 2010.

90. “Threshold”

Beck

Doesn’t Beck sound happy on this song? That’s the sound of a man escaping the clutches of Danger Mouse. Rejoice!

89. “Be Yourself”

Robin Pecknold

I’ve always thought that Fleet Foxes sound a lot like CSNY, so it’s probably fitting that the best song on the tribute album to Graham Nash be by Robin Pecknold.

88. “Jail La La”

Dum Dum Girls

Only the Dum Dum Girls could make being “covered in shit” sound adorable.

87. “In Every Direction”

Junip

If I were to make a year end list for video games (which I have no right attempting), I would put “Red Dead Redemption” at the top due to its never ending landscape that I wasted hours of my life exploring.  My favorite part of the game’s storyline though is when you first enter into Mexico – the game shifts from its annoying harmonica music to an actual soundtrack of Jose Gonzalez’s “Far Away”.  A month after passing the game, I purchased Junip’s 2010 release “Fields”, and everytime I listened to it, Jose’s voice would bring back the image of John Marston entering Mexico where there is nothing but desolation “in every direction”.

86. “General Patton”

Big Boi

When your nickname is General Patton, you better have a song that lives up to Patton’s legacy, and Big Boi steps up to the challenge with this song, an operetic-orchestral chaos that is more fit for Darth Vader than Patton.  It’s possibly the only song that will have you nodding your head to the chants of a concert choir.

85. “Heartbeat Song”

The Futureheads

When I posted my list of the “Best Summer Albums of 2010”, my friend Tim emailed me, pointing out that I once made fun of him for liking The Futureheads. I was forced to admit defeat writing, “Yeah, that’s because I’m a pretentious douche”.  Not even a pretentious douche can deny the melody of “Heartbeat Song”.

84. “Angry World”

Neil Young

Neil Young was a bit misleading with he called his new album “Le Noise” a folk metal album.  Lyrics about the plight of polar bears and bison aren’t necessarily the most metal of subject matter.  If only the album had more songs like “Angry World”, matching the wave of distortion with lyrics that delve into the darker side of the human psyche.  I’d like to believe “Angry World” presents what it may have sounded like if Neil had joined Black Sabbath when Ozzy left.

83. “Roman Candles”

Suckers

I present to you the Seven Dwarves of indie rock!  “Roman Candles” is a reminder that whistling was fun before Andrew Bird came along.

82. “July Flame”

Laura Veirs

Most depressing 4th of July song ever.

81. “Norway”

Beach House

I don’t necessarily love this song. It’s more of an addiction to the disorientation felt while listening to the sickly guitars.  Not even Robitussin can save you from the nausea of “Norway”.

80. “ONE”

Yeasayer

Yeasayer’s “Odd Blood” pissed me off. When did they become a dance band? Unfortunately, “ONE” made it very difficult to hate them for long.  I would be lying if I said I’ve never danced to this song while cooking pork chops with a plum-ginger sauce. I’m straight, I SWEAR.

79. “Early Warnings”

Love is All

What if John Lennon woke up and didn’t fall out of bed, rather knocked his head on a bookshelf? What if instead of dragging a comb across his hair he almost choked on his toothbrush?  Yes my friends, we’ve discovered the anti-thesis to The Beatles “A Day in the Life”.

78. “Odessa”

Caribou

The actual city of Odessa, Texas is not nearly as fun as this song would suggest.

77. “Kids On the Run”

Tallest Man on Earth

With “Kids On the Run”, Kristian Matsson ditches his acoustic guitar for a piano, and surprisingly it’s the best song on the album.  It could be due in part to the poignant lyrics that reveal a story of two scorned lovers, still running away from their past like children. Basically, it’s “Born To Run” except in this version Wendy is trying to escape Bruce and his velvet rims.

76. “Fuck You”

Cee Lo Green

Yesterday I was riding in the car with my mom when this song came on the radio. Even though I’m a grown man, I still felt uncomfortable as the chorus arrived, knowing the YouTube sensation lyrics of “Fuck You!” were just ahead. Then, just when it arrived, the lyrics “Forget you!” came out the speakers as my mom sang along. I took comfort in knowing my mom was oblivious to the actual lyrics, and it made me realize this song is great, with or without the cursing (although I’ll take the cursing version if I must choose).

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Roky Erickson with Okkervil River “True Love Cast Out All Evil”

Roky Erickson with Okkervil River
“True Love Cast All Evil”
[Anti-]

Rating: 8

In the past month I’ve gotten back into the dating game, taking several different women out on that all too awkward first date. I hate the entire courting process in general with its uncertainties and 20 questions interview format. But my most despised, unavoidable moment is when the dreaded question arises: “So what kind of music do you listen to?”  I never know how to answer.  Some of my favorite artists at the moment are Devo, Slayer, Tanlines, Four Tet, Wu Tang, Erykah Badu, and the underappreciated 1960s band The Zombies. How do you describe all of this in one blanket statement? I could give the generic “I like everything” but that’s a bit misleading. I don’t want them to think I enjoy both Nickelback and Brad Paisley.

Usually I just say I like “weird” music or sometimes I splurge and say “indie” music, another misleading response.  I of course am then forced to ask the same question, dreading the response I’ll get because I know I will be disappointed. In my recent exploits, the answer has been “country music”.  I know….I know…no matter how much I try to get past this point, it remains in the back of my mind, an imaginary scarlet letter “C” scrawled across their shirt the remainder of the night (make your own jokes).

I hate to be judgemental of other’s taste, but I struggle to find any value in modern country: the hokie lyrics, the put-on twang, the predictable storylines.  And the thing is, I actually love country music. Not the convoluted crap on CMT, but real country. The country music of Willie, Emmy Lou, Merle, and Johnny. The old style of country that still had a soul, that was soaked in sincerity and warbled with authenticity. There was no need to pander to patriotism or reach out to the religious right. In fact, country music was about rebelling, about “killing a man in Reno just to watch him die”, about “drinking yourself blind with whiskey, weed, and women”, not the transparent choruses of “God is great, beer is good, people are crazy!” or “I love this bar!”  Unfortunately, in the 80s the country music machine began moving away from its gritty country roots toward a glossier, family friendly approach.

Johnny Cash became so fed up with country music that he bought a full-page ad in Billboard magazine featuring the above picture with the caption,“American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for their support.”

I don’t mean to say real country doesn’t still exist, or that artists haven’t taken the sound into more adventurous directions. Here in the nation of Texas we have our own breed of country with artists like The Band of Heathens, Guy Forsyth, and Ryan Bingham presenting a sound that is more tried and true to what this style of music is supposed to be. It isn’t a coincidence that all these musicians hail from Austin, a city where all music forms blur lines and reach in new directions.

Austin is also where the subjects of this album review hail from (you knew I’d get to the album review eventually…).   While Okervill River usually thrive on folky rock anthems, Roky Erickson is a 1960s psychedelia survivor who’s quirky personality leans more towards Daniel Johnston than Lou Reed. Yet when I listen to their collaboration “True Love Cast Out All Evil”, I can’t help but believe that this is a country album at its core. Maybe it’s alt-country, Texas country, or whatever other label you want to stamp on it, but it’s country music.

At first I thought my country diagnosis was due to Roky’s earthy twang. Then I changed my mind and decided it was due to the occasional whine of the steel guitar. But I was still wrong. The combined powers of Roky and Okkervil results in heart-wrenching tales, brimming with sincerity and soul. Roky, a victim of paranoid schizophrenia, growls out lyrics that come straight from the heart, not from the notepad of a hired songwriter. This is real, melancholy melodies of a man who is struggling to live day to day.

“Be and Bringing Home” is more country than anything you’ll find on CMT. It looks like some time in the mental hospital could do Tim McGraw some good:

Okkervil River know better than to step on Roky’s toes, playing as a back-drop rather than a center-piece.  Yet, when the time arises, they step up to the plate and hit a home run with their artistic approach, exploring noise fueled nooks and crannies of the honky-tonk that only a five dollar call girl knows.  I’ve been a critic of Okkervil over the years, but I’m beginning to wonder if my dislike was mislead. They are a popular band in their own right, yet they allow Roky to do his thing while still adding their own unique nuances to his songs.

“Please Judge” starts off as a slow, procession, but mid-song Okkervil raise the song a notch with their own unique perspective:

Maybe I’m wrong altogether. Maybe this isn’t country music. And really, does it matter what it is if it’s good?  I guess to a stickler like me it does. Maybe Roky and company are simply taking a genre into stranger, unexplored territories, like a musical Lewis and Clark.  I guess there-in lies the answer to that dreaded date question “What kind of music do you like?”  It’s not “indie”, “everything”, or “weird”: simply put, I like music that explores. I guess I’m just a nomad at heart.

“Goodbye Sweet Dreams”:

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Mark Olson & Gary Louris “Ready For the Flood”

Mark Olson & Gary Louris

“Ready For the Flood”
New West Records

Rating: 7.0
This year at SXSW I had the pleasure of seeing Mark Olson and Gary Louris play together, marking the reunion of the two prominent voices that made up the early nineties alt-country act The Jayhawks. That evening at the Driskill, their voices still shared the same fluid harmony that gives you the full body chills, but something had definitely changed since their last album together, “Tomorrow Green Grass”.  13 years later, their voices now shared a worn exhaustion, gritty yet sopped in wise serenity. While their work with the Jayhawks seemed to be filled with a bright eyed hope, the duo’s sound has now taken on an old man winter approach.

The photographs on their new album “Ready for the Flood” share the same sentiment. While their classic Jayhawks album “Hollywood Town Hall” is adorned with snowy photos of them bundled up in front of a church, an image seeping with Midwestern zeal,   “Ready for the Flood” shows the band relaxing in what resembles a retirement bungalow somewhere in Arizona.  Like a couple of aging snow birds, the two have escaped the uniform, cold world of their youth and moved to warmer surroundings. 

Even the lyrics reflect this same haggard message.  In “The Trap’s Been Set” the two voices warble “I’m an old an angry man … when I was young I felt the sun within”. The majority of the songs on their latest are just as catchy and hummable as their past work (“Bicycle” and “Chamberlain, SD” are definite highlights), although the album does have its weak moments, a claim that couldn’t be made during their highest moments in the mid-90s. 

For “Ready for the Flood” Chris Robinson (of the Black Crows) stepped in to produce, although the work he did isn’t very evident. It’s not that the production value is bad, it’s just unobtrusive, which I suppose is a good thing in some respects. But part of me wanted the album to resemble the sparse atmosphere that Rick Rubin created on Johnny Cash’s American Recordings. Yes, I know Rubin and Robinson hate each other, but my pitting of the two rivals is completely unintentional.

 I wanted this album to seep with age, to hear the same two voices I heard at SXSW, gravelly and earnest.  The sounds are still sweet splendor; I just wanted it to spill out my speakers like a finely aged wine.

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