In The Toolbox: Double Feature….

Posted by Payton | Posted in toolbox | Posted on 10-01-2009

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You could say this about all my feature posts, but it’s been way too long since I’ve done an In The Toolbox. This is the recurring post theme that explores an ‘essential’ album chosen from my handy toolbox full of CD’s. I’ve extended this privilege to any of my vinyls that I keep in my sturdy Eurolite carrying case (both seen above).

To get things going again with this feature, I’m offering up two gems today. These discs come from a couple of Texas’ best songwriters and both were the album that turned me on to the artist. Also linking these albums together is the fact that they both feature a cut of the namesake song for this blog. This Mornin’ I Am Born Again was originally a Woody Guthrie poem that Slaid Cleaves got his hands on put to music. Slaid included his version on his career-making album Broke Down. A few years later, Ray Wylie Hubbard recorded a cut of the song for my favorite album of his, Delirium Tremolos.

Slaid Cleaves – Broke Down
Philo (2000)

One of my first orders of business back when I started this blog was to get Slaid’s name out into the blogosphere. My first post following the introductory Best of 2007 lists was an Artist Spotlight on Slaid. There, I expressed my admiration for Broke Down, his 5th album, but only the 2nd originally released on CD. The disc contains 10 tracks, not one of which can be considered weak.

‘Broke Down’ leads off, introducing the listener to Slaid’s unmatched ability to tell a story. If this album had a hand in jump-starting Slaid’s career, then the title track gets most of the credit. He continues this trend with ‘Breakfast in Hell,’ a John Henry-esque story of the tragic death of a Canadian logger. The most powerful track on the album is a well-chosen Karen Poston cover, ‘Lydia’ - a captivating story of a weathered widow twice-scarred by coal mine tragedy. The tune fits Slaid and the album so well, you would never guess it wasn’t his. While his narratives are generally of the brokenhearted and last-leggers, there is an air of optimism in Slaid’s voice that hints at a happy ending – even if it may not occur during the span of the song.

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In The Toolbox: Begonias (2005)

Posted by Payton | Posted in Uncategorized, album review, toolbox | Posted on 05-06-2009

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I never have understood the term ‘critically acclaimed.’ I mean, if the acclaim of critics is important enough to note at every chance, shouldn’t people (record companies for one) take their opinions more seriously. The term instead has become a stigmatic warning that equates to one saying “this record didn’t sell shit, but I – and a few of my colleagues – really dig it.”
But it really is a shame that the opinions of some of the most qualified music aficionados out there fall upon deaf ears. The people that make the decision of ‘what should I listen to’ for the majority of the country are money-minded, corporate radio operators and mega-conglomerate record execs. This leaves the nation blindly believing that what they hear on their speakers is the best music out there. If only they knew………..

Can you imagine if the Midwest housewife that grew up on a diet of Patsy Cline and Porter Wagoner knew what Caitlin Cary & Thad Cockrell did for country music back in ‘05? Well, they made Begonias, a stunningly beautiful REAL country album. By the way – it was critically acclaimed all over the place – just check out this rap sheet.

Caitlin Cary & Thad Cockrell – Begonias
(Yep Roc, 2005)

Caitlin, the velvet-voiced violinist formerly of Whiskeytown, found in Thad a perfectly complimentary tenor tone. Thad Cockrell, the son of a baptist preacher, took to songwriting in college and when the two found themselves looking for work in Raleigh, NC, the pieces just fell into place. Begonias is at once sad, classic country and hopeful, modern folk.

The disc strolls in with a modest-tempo tune, Thad leading the way. Immediately you recognize the effortlessness in his upper-range tenor. Caitlin covers the last line in the first verse with angelic harmony, setting the tone for what will prove to be a record of vocal perfection.

Two Different Things

The duo keeps the album fresh with each track; “Something Less Than Something More” unique in its contrast. Heavy steel guitar and haunting vocals are countered by driving tom brushes that keep the song moving. “Second Option” can easily be considered the stand out alt-country tune with an original melody, electric guitar sparingly displayed, and even a timely bridge/solo break. But just as Begonias has picked up speed and lifted spirits, Caitlin drops you to your knees with her a capella intro to “Please Break My Heart.” This throwback tune evokes a long-lost Patsy Cline/Buddy Holly collaboration, toeing the line between country gold and doo-wap.

The album highlight comes at track 7. Truly one of the most beautifully written and performed songs I’ve heard, “Warm and Tender Love” is what country music should sound like. This song simply speaks for itself.

Warm and Tender Love

The back half of the disc does have its low points, interestingly coming from the faster-paced songs that come across as hokey. The album, however, finishes very strong. Written from an interesting point of view, “Conversations About A Friend” tells the story of the fate of a pair of lovers from the perspective of the friends that originally set them up. Caitlin and Thad take you back South, where they dread the cold winter days, “Waiting on June.” Country music is inherently sad, and this album stays true to that. Not in the clichéd ‘my wife left me and my dog died’ fashion, but in pure, heartbreaking stories told in the simplest way. Begonias is wrapped up with its saddest effort. Sparse insturmentation allows the couple’s dripping vocals to shine in the beginning of this desperate tune, but when the emotion has nowhere else to go, it manifests itself into a full band escort to the “Big House.”

Big House

So there’s just one more bit of ‘critical acclaim’ for Caitlin and Thad. It may not get them played on any mainstream radio show, and may only equate to a few more album sales, but if I can get the word out to enough ears, the music will do the work itself.

Purchase Begonias [Direct] [Amazon] [iTunes]

Caitlin Cary [Website][MySpace]
Thad Cockrell [Website][MySpace]

Previously Posted on In The Toolbox:
Dublin Blues
John Prine
Red Headed Stranger

In The Toolbox: Dublin Blues (1995)

Posted by Payton | Posted in album review, toolbox | Posted on 10-19-2008

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Often, the greatest measure of an artist’s wealth is how their peers speak of them. Strangely enough, those that are most admired by others in the music community tend not be be widely popular. For songwriters in particular, having their work covered by those in the business who are ‘bigger names’ may be the the extent of the fame they’ll receive. Guy Clark has had his songs re-interpreted by the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker, Johnny Cash, Vince Gill, Jimmy Buffett, Brad Paisley, and Emmylou Harris. But the general public – even those that claim to be country music fans – couldn’t tell you who Guy is.

Guy spent much of his young life runnin’ around with Townes Van Zandt and various Texas music-makers (Check out To Live’s To Fly – a Townes Van Zandt biography with plenty of first hand anecdotes from Guy). He says he obtained much of his songwriting inspiration from Townes, watching how he imagined and formulated songs. Guy released his debut Old No. 1 in 1975 on RCA. The album contained a couple tunes that would become veritable anthems in the 70’s Texas Music scene. Desperados Waiting For a Train is a wrenching tale of an old oil-man who’s seen “seventy years of livin.” On the other side of the emotional spectrum lies L.A. Freeway, whose climbing melodies evoke a nervous anticipation to change one’s surroundings.

i’ll admit, there’s a lot of Guy’s work from the 70’s and 80’s i know nothing about. But in my opinion, you only need one disc to size up Guy Clark:

Guy Clark – Dublin Blues
Asylum (1995)

He couldn’t have picked a better title-track and lead song if it had come to him in a dream. The album starts with one of the most elegant pieces of music Clark has written and includes what “might be the coolest lick [he] ever learned.” Guy is so rich with emotion he doesn’t even have to form words to get his feelings across. The simple “mmm-mmm” that codas the first line in each verse tells you all you need to know.
Dublin Blues

In an homage to one of his proteges Rodney Crowell, Stuff That Works speaks of the simple pleasures in life and is a perfect portayal of Guy’s durability through both his resistance to change and his sage wisdom.
Stuff That Works

In Hank Williams Said It Best, Guy is simply showing off. Eight verses full of inventive turns of the cliche One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
Hank Williams Said It Best

Clark enlisted the help of songwriter/guitarist/friend Darrell Scott for much of the guitar work on the album. But Guy is no slouch on the instrument. The acoustic work on Dublin Blues, Stuff That Works, and Baby Took a Limo to Memphis is something to marvel at. Clark dabbles in carpentry and often plays self-made guitars. In nearly every interview i’ve seen of him, Guy is in his workshop – with tequila and smokes never out of reach. Many of his stories of the shenanigans he and Townes got into sound like jokes long passed around. Guy Clark is the storyteller variety of a songwriter. He’s got that voice that stops all other conversations in the room. In The Randall Knife Guy bares his worn soul like never before – and he simply speaks the words. Imagine hearing this song on a quiet night in Luckenbach.
The Randall Knife

Buy Dublin Blues

In The Toolbox: John Prine (1971)

Posted by Payton | Posted in Uncategorized, album review, toolbox | Posted on 09-05-2008

Well, Nelson’s three-for-three for his Essential Albums over at A Fifty Cent Lighter…, so i figured i better get a move on. My second installment of In The Toolbox comes from a 1971 debut disc from one the most respected songwriters alive.

John Prine’s self-titled album is a collection of songs, all of which – every artist that plays music even vaguely resembling ‘folk’ or ‘country’ is secretly jealous of. A perfect example of this is shown in my first experience with John Prine. In 2001, Pat Green & Cory Morrow paid tribute to some of their heroes (and a few contemporaries) with Songs We Wish We’d Written. They included John’s Paradise on the disc – along with their versions of some classic tunes from people like Darrell Scott, Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon, Merle, and Townes. So many artists today that value songwriting list John as a major influence: Deer Tick, The Roadside Graves, Todd Snider, Hayes Carll, Kasey Chambers, Lucinda Williams, Rodney Crowell, Randy Newman, Johnny Cash – just to name a few.

John Prine – John Prine
Atlantic (1971)

This introduction to John Prine continually reminds us of the simple elegance of lightheartedness and brevity in music. He begins with an acoustic-driven tune about that glorious “escape from reality” that’s just a puff away. Halfway through, John gives us a political number poking fun at those obsessed with puttin’ the American Flag anywhere it’ll stick – and even admits that he’s guilty of it. Scattered throughout the disc are perfectly written lines (“i knew that topless lady had something up her sleeve”) that make us wish we could all look at life with the same loving flippancy as John.

Helping to frame these lyrical gems, and possibly his greatest appeal, is John’s ability to turn a phrase. No one, not even Dylan, has better melodic timing or syllabic choices in their songs. He often goes the less intellectual route in his word choice in order to get that timing just right, and in doing so, shows us just how smart he is.
i’ll leave you with the great advice John gives in Spanish Pipedream: “Blow up your TV. Throw away your paper. Go to the country. Build you a home. Plant a little garden. Eat a lot of peaches. Try and find Jesus on your own.”
John Prine – Illegal Smile
John Prine – Hello In There
John Prine – Sam Stone

In the Toolbox……..

Posted by Payton | Posted in Uncategorized, toolbox | Posted on 07-11-2008

A few days ago, i made my first contribution to Star Maker Machine – a cool group-blog that features a different theme each week. They have a few regulars – boyhowdy form CoverLayDown, divinyl from Ceci N’est Pas un Blog, paul from SettingTheWoodsOnFire, and ramone666 from For The Sake of the Song (to name a few) – but they also encourage reader submissions.
This week’s theme has been Hell Week, i.e. songs about hell, the devil, sinners, etc. As soon as i saw the theme, i knew exactly what song to post – Ray Wylie Hubbard’s Conversation With The Devil.
i remember hearing it a few years ago when XM radio was a new thing. Up to that point, i had heard a few Ray Wylie songs, but really only knew him from the infamous shoutout Jerry Jeff gives in his recording of RWH’s Up Against The Wall….

Anyway, you can check it here, so i don’t have to repeat myself.
There’s a similar story about Nelson’s first post on StarMaker here. Nelson runs the new-born FiftyCentLighter, and in addition to a This Mornin’…. shout-out, he’s got a great post on Son Volt’s Trace. He calls it an essential album, and he couldn’t be more right. i, too, had been thinking about going through my catalogue of CD’s for those deserted island, can’t live without, bought multiple copies of…… discs – basically, a greatest albums that i own feature. Trace will definitely make the list, and i wanna thank Nelson for reminding me i wanted to do this.

As for the title and picture – i had this miniature toolbox that came in a package deal with Cross Canadian Ragweed’s Garage (along with a vinyl and a mechanic’s shirt). I had no idea what to use if for (tools were out of the question as i could maybe fit a hammer in there….) until i realized that it was just wide and deep enough to fit a long row of CD cases. Perfect! i had recently outgrown my flipbook style CD case and was a little tired of the discs getting scratched. And so, with the help of lots of haphazard music stickers, the Toolbox O’ Music was born. It’s normally filled with the newest additions to my library; however, there are those few albums that never seem to get bumped out. This feature post will highlight those masterpieces.

So, to start, we’ll go way back……….

Willie Nelson – Red Headed Stranger
Columbia/Legacy ~ 1975

The quintessential must-have album for any fan of country music. Red Headed Stranger was created as a concept album that rolls along seamlessly and tells of a preacher on the run from the law. Filled with short piano interludes and multiple reprises of Time of the Preacher, the album takes you on ride through the Old West making stops in barrooms and brothels along the way. In 1986, a movie was filmed that loosely followed the flow of the album.

Red Headed Stranger catapulted Willie into the same country-stardom that he lives in today. The album reached No. 1 on the Billboard Country Music charts and the hit single Blue Eyes Cryin’ In The Rain was his very first No. 1 single.

Thought of as a troubadour-songwriter, Willie’s most famous tunes, however, were not self-pinned. Blue Eyes was written by Fred Rose, Seven Spanish Angels by Eddie Setson and Troy Seals, I’d Have To Be Crazy by Steve Fromholz, etc. But Willie has the ability to give each and every song he records his own touch, whether it’s from his tenor-twang, the timbre coming from Trigger, or simply his ‘Willie Nelson Charm’.

The two stand-out tracks on Red Headed Stranger were not Willie originals either, but because i’ve never heard any other versions and HE OWNS THEM, they might as well be his.

Willie Nelson – Can I Sleep In Your Arms
Willie Nelson – Hands On The Wheel
This album, as well as any forthcoming album on this feature, is best enjoyed from front-to-back, and with deep consideration. i appreciate when you can tell than an artist spent time planning a track order and the album has the feel of a 40 minute story with a beginning, middle, and end – as opposed to a 10-14 track collection of their best songs at the time.
So put this one in and take a slow drive with your “hands on the wheel” listening to “something that’s real.”