Posts Tagged ‘Country’

Rumer’s old music: Townes van Zandt – Flyin’ Shoes

Monday, May 21st, 2012

It’s Rumer week at guardian.co.uk/music. She’s taking over the Old Music blog to talk about her favourite songs, and on Thursday we’ve got an exclusive interview lined up as well as a special live stream for you. First up, she takes a look at a classic from America’s greatest undersung songwriter

Steve Earle said of Townes van Zandt: “He’s the best songwriter in the whole world … I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table and say that.” A cult songwriter battling alcoholism, drug addiction, and bipolar disorder, Van Zandt’s love of Elvis Presley and Hank Williams inspired work such as Flyin’ Shoes – bleak songs, but full of energy.

Van Zandt found Flyin’ Shoes at his nearby river, where he’d frequently sit and talk to the water. He was daydreaming about the Battle of Franklin, and the fate of wounded soldiers in the Civil War (both Confederates and Yankees) who were forced to lie there all night, awaiting rescue or death. The song is about a man who doesn’t think he’ll make it through to morning, but the lyrics are more universal. For me it reads like an ode to escape: over the last 18 months I’ve found myself drawn to songs that are about this desire to run away and be free. 

I first encountered Flyin Shoes via Be Here to Love Me – a brilliant documentary about Van Zandt – and was immediately struck by the raw beauty of the track. When recording a version of it for my new album of covers, Boys Don’t Cry, I wanted to bring out the gospel element: this was a hymn for a dying man, and a soundtrack to a noble soldier’s final hours. So I told all the musicians to get into character, almost, and to perform as if this was the last thing that they’d ever play. We added a harmonica line as the “final solo” of the fallen soldier, and the backing vocals at the end of the song are supposed to have this sense of ascension.

Tackling songs such as Flyin’ Shoes is like going into the heart of darkness. But it’s all about telling the story faithfully, and finding the right emotions in the original recordings. Townes van Zandt may not be a household name but his songwriting, and Flyin’ Shoes especially, remains incredibly powerful. The inscription on his gravestone apparently reads: “To Live Is To Fly.”

• Boys Don’t Cry by Rumer is released on Atlantic on 28 May.

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Elvis Costello – review

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

City Hall, Newcastle

With a back catalogue as labyrinthine as Costello’s, the act of choosing a set list must be arduous and baffling. Hence the “Spinning Songbook”, whereby a fairground-style wheel containing the names of 40 songs is spun by members of the audience, who then dance to their chance selections in a cage, occasionally alongside a red-booted go-go dancer.

Any suspicions the wheel may be rigged are banished after it throws up Harry Worth, from 2008′s Momofuku album. Costello explains how it traces the fortunes of a couple whose wedding he attended by accident while staying at a hotel in Bradford, and who visited him at gigs for years until they were suddenly no longer speaking to each other. And the next selection? Harry Worth again. “This is about a couple I met in…” begins the chuckling singer, before suggesting another spin.

In a tight-fitting suit, the skinny 57-year old looks eerily like his punk-era incarnation. Any signs of the ageing process are craftily hidden under a straw boater, and he is clearly revelling in a less familiar role as fairground-style compere. Duringa dub Watching the Detectives, he emerges on the balcony to drag down a spinner/victim and doesn’t miss the opportunity to quipthat the cane he brandishes is “ascale model of Rupert Murdoch’s head on a pike”.

But the wheel allows him to explore the full panoply of his songbook and every emotion, from country-style regret (Good Year for the Roses to uncomfortable home-truths (Deep Dark Thoughtful Mirror). A four-song “jackpot” of time-themed songs peaks with abeautifully sung Man Out of Time.

They are all superb songs, beautifully sung, although Costello realizes that a whole set at random could be uneven and hurls in unlisted selections. The songs range from breakneck punk (Radio Radio, Pump It Up) to “rock’n'roll as it was in the 1920s”, from recent album National Ransom.

Most rewarding is the return of his political fire. After a beautifully eerie Shipbuilding, he explains that he has revived the anti-Thatcher Tramp the Dirt Down (“a song I never thought I’d sing again”) owing to the return of right-wing conservatism, and sings it with brutally unrestrained venom.

Then it’s back to Oliver’s Army and the rest: a three-hour, 30-song-plus rollercoaster with a human jukebox.

Rating: 4/5

Pop and rockElvis CostelloPunkCountryDave Simpsonguardian.co.uk 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


Tom Jones: Spirit in the Room – review

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

(Island)

Full marks for nerve to Tom Jones for opening his second successive album of stripped-down gravitas rock with Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song, transformed from hotel-bar funk into afinger-picked country blues. Cohen’s version is a mordant, blackly comic meditation, but Jones can’t play lines about “born with the gift of a golden voice” for laughs and so he turns it, unexpectedly and triumphantly, into aeulogy for a life in music. It’s also thehighlight of this collection mixing covers of rock-aristo songwriters, acouple of well-regarded cults and asprinkling of blues, soul and gospel. It’s never as rollicking as 2010′s Praise and Blame, though a version of Tom Waits’ Bad As Me will sound agreeably demented to anyone who’s never heard the original. Odetta’s Hit or Miss answers its own question, sadly, in itstransition to country-pop. Most intriguing of all is the closing version ofthe Low Anthem’s spectral Charlie Darwin, into which a full choir is inserted, as if to compensate in bigdollops for the fact that doing “spectral” has never been among Jones’s noted virtues.

Rating: 3/5

Tom JonesBluesCountryLeonard CohenTom WaitsPop and rockMichael Hannguardian.co.uk 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Willie Nelson: ‘If we made marijuana legal, we’d save a whole lotta money and lives’

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

The veteran musician on God, politics, his favourite singer and why weed should be decriminalised

What were the songs that made you realise you wanted to be a musician?

When I first started out, I sang a lot in church. Amazing Grace was the first song that I can remember ever singing. Gospel was probably the main kind of music I was into. Then I got into Bob Wills (1) and Hank Williams and FrankSinatra and Louis Armstrong, allthose great singers. Ray Charles came along – I loved him. Ray Price. Thegreatest singer there is, I think, isRay Price (2).

Sinatra was a big hero of yours, ofcourse.

Yes, he was. Still is. He is my favourite singer. And I read somewhere that Iwas his favourite singer, so that reallymade me happy.

There’s no better compliment than that …

That was the big one.

What did you love about his singing so much?

I loved his voice, I loved his phrasing, I loved his acting, I loved his attitude. Everything about Sinatra was good. He had the ability to pick great songs and once Sinatra had sung them, that pretty much was it. He pretty much put his stamp on everything.

The early 50s seemed like a golden age, with people building popular music brick by brick, didn’t it?

For me it was. It’s where my music came from. I used to work in the cotton fields a lot when I was young. There were a lot of African Americans working out there. A lot of Mexicans – the blacks and the whites and the Mexicans, all out there singing, and it was like an opera in the cotton fields and I can still hear it in the music that Iwrite and play today.

When you started out as a songwriter, how far did your ambitions extend? Did you always want to become a singer as well?

Honestly, when I was growing up I had no idea that I would succeed to this extent. I would have been very happy – I was a big Gene Autry and Roy Rogers fan, and I liked to ride my horse and throw my rope and shoot my gun and I loved all that kind of music – to be another singing cowboy. The fact that I got to do songs like Stardust and sing with Ray Charles and do a lot of things with other singers – Frank Sinatra and I did a couple of things together – that was beyond anything I could have dreamed of.

Is it hard to stay interested in songs you wrote 60 years ago, but which you know your audience still wants to hear?

I really enjoy singing those songs, and I have yet to get tired of them. When I do get tired of one I replace it with another one, cos there’s a jillion songs out there I can do. The band has no idea what I’m going to do next, cos I have no idea. I just play it off the top of my head.

You don’t feel the urge to do a Bob Dylan and keep your best-loved songs fresh by making them unrecognisable?

That probably works for him, and I’m sure my take on them each night is a little bit different. But basically I do ‘em the traditional way. I enjoy being out here and I enjoy playing the music, and as long as the people show up I hope to be out here – we haven’t slowed down any, we do 150 shows a year. I try to split it up so I can spend time around the house with the family, the horses and the things I love doing when I’m off. It seems to be working pretty good. I work a few days and I’m off a few days.

Was Nashville’s audience as conservative as the Nashville industry when you headed off to Texas to play “outlaw” country in the 70s?

When I left Nashville I went to Texas because that’s where I came from, and because I was playing in Texas a lot in different places. And I saw hippies and rednecks drinking beer together and smoking dope together and having a good time together and I knew it was possible to get all groups of people together – long hair, short hair, no hair – and music would bring them together. I called Waylon Jennings and I said: “Waylon, you need to get down to Austin because it’s really happening here. There are people here with hair dragging the ground that will love your music.” He laughed a little bit, then he came down and found out I was telling the truth.

Did the breakthrough you made with Red Headed Stranger in 1975 surprise you?

I didn’t really realise how large it was gonna get. I had nothing to compare it to. As it was happening, it was a slow thing, so I sort of went along with it. I was just feeling grateful that the night before I woulda had a bunch of hippies and rednecks in together having a good time. I didn’t know how big it could get. Today, as I look back on it, I mighta been a little bit shocked about how big it was gonna go.

You’ve never been afraid to take risks – is that what separates an artist from a pop singer?

I don’t know. But I do know that if you’re with a record company and you’re with them for four to eight years and you’re under their control, and their producers produce you the way they think you should sound, that may be OK for some people, but for me it was not a good idea. In Nashville, the songs that I was singing and playing and the styles they were in were not the direction I needed to go. But in Texas there was a lot of people who liked the kind of music I was playing. They liked the country – the real solid hardcore steel guitars and fiddles – they still do. They like the real country music – not that there’s anything wrong if you put strings and horns on, but for me it waters it down. Personally, I want to hear country music with a steel guitar and a fiddle; I want to hear Stardust with strings. That’s just me.

You have been politically active on theleft for a long time, but as a young man you volunteered to be a jet pilot in the Korean war. Did you look at the world very differently then?

Well, I’m not necessarily a warmonger, but I’m not necessarily someone who would want to sit around while we were getting the shit beat out of us either. I’m a second-degree black beltin taekwondo and also kung fu, soI’m a martial artist and I’m not afraidof trouble. I just don’t like tolook for it.

You fell out with the church in the 50s– unlike artists such as Elvis and Jerry Lee who kept trying to balance the devil’s music with the love of God. What happened?

I was teaching Sunday school and playing clubs, but there were a lot of members of church who didn’t think that was a good idea. They felt if I was going to teach Sunday school I should quit my job at the club. I was playing music on Saturday night at the Nite Owl to a lot of the people I saw in church on the Sunday morning. I wasn’t the only one going to both places. (3)

Did starting to smoke weed (4) make adifference to the way you thought about the world and your political interests?

When I was out in the bars drinking and fighting I was a little bit less of a peacemaker than I would be if I’d had acoupla hits of a joint and gone and laid down somewhere. I’d have less bumps on my head, that’s for sure.

Won’t it be too hard for Congress to decriminalise weed?

Well, Connecticut just became the 17thstate to legalise or decriminalise marijuana (5). It’s coming. It has to, because economically we need the money – why give it to criminals? Most people realise it’s not a deadly drug like cocaine or cigarettes. Cigarettes killed my mother, my dad, half my family, so don’t tell me about health when you’re talking about legalising marijuana because it’s not dangerous healthwise. I’m the canary in the mine, and I’m still healthy. Had I stayed with alcohol I would have been dead or in prison or somewhere today. (6)

Do you think the policy-makers in Washington might one day realise the war on drugs has been lost?

I do know, again, there’s a lot of money in prisons and there’s a lot of money in lawyers, and down on the borders there’s a lot of money in guns that come back and forth because of the drug laws. If we made everything legal we would save a whole lotta money, a whole lotta lives. If we taxed and regulated the drugs the way they do in other parts of the world, we would be far better off, I think.

Have you been disappointed with theObama administration?

When he was running for office and hehad a lot of aspirations, I had a few doubts about whether he was going to be able to do it or not. I don’t think the president has as much power as we think he does, and he can say what he wants to while he’s running for office, but once he gets in there, there are four or five guys who take him into a small room, sit him round a small table and say: “Look, cowboy, here’s the way it is.” Idon’t believe he can do everything he said he would.

Is songwriting a gift or craft?

It’s a gift. It all comes from somewhere. I started out really young, when I was four, five, six, writing poems, before I could play an instrument. I was writing about things when I was eight or 10 years old that I hadn’t lived long enough to experience. That’s why I also believe inreincarnation, that we were put here with ideas to pass around. Somebody sent me here to write Crazy (7) and gave me the talent to do it. I can’t take credit for any of that.

Foot notes

(1) One of the first great country musicians, as founder of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys in the 30s.

(2) One of the other great country singers, nicknamed the Cherokee Cowboy.

(3) Willie maintains a relationship with God, via a portfolio kind of spirtuality.

(4) Nelson is a proud and inveterate weed smoker. As recently as November 2010 he was arrested for possession, but the prosecutor agreed such a small amount for personal use merited only a fine. The small amount in question was 6oz.

(5) Connecticut actually decriminalised marijuana in June 2011. Maybe he meant New Hampshire, which did so in March 2012.

(6) It would be fair to say this is the subect onwhich he was most effusive during the course of our interview.

(7) Sung by Patsy Cline, and reputedly the most popular jukebox song in history.

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My Darling Clementine – review

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

Union Chapel, London

For the theatrical opening, at least, the setting is perfect. The Tammy Wynette and George Jones wedding song The Ceremony is playing as Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish walk up the Union Chapel aisle. She’s wearing white and clutching a bouquet, and he’s dressed in a hat and cheap blue suit. (“It’s polyester”, he later explains. “We suffer for our art.”) Once they reach the stage, the mood changes as he picks up a guitar and they launch into By a Thread, the first of their pained duets about broken relationships, cheating and hurt. Behind them are a five-piece band, with organ, pedal steel, and twanging guitar work from Martin Belmont, famed for his work with Carlene Carter and Nick Lowe. By now they sound as if they should be to be playing in an American honky-tonk bar, back in the 60s or 70s.

My Darling Clementine is a bravely unfashionable British band who set out to pay tribute to those great country duos of that era – Tammy and George, or Johnny Cash and June Carter. And they do so remarkably well. Like our great veteran purveyor of country misery, the bleakly humorous Hank Wangford, they mix gloom with excellent musicianship and some fine songs. It’s clear that this is no spoof band when they can write powerful weepies like Departure Lounge or the stomping 100,000 Words.

All that’s lacking is variety. They switch between slow gloomy ballads and medium-paced sad country rockers, but performing almost every song from their album How Do You Plead? is not quite enough. A few more country classics like A Good Year for the Roses – made famous by George Jones and Elvis Costello, and finely sung here by the duo with solo keyboard backing from Dalgleish – would have helped an original and entertaining set.

Rating: 3/5

CountryPop and rockElvis CostelloRobin Denselowguardian.co.uk 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds