Born In The U.S.A. Turns 35

“I’m 35.  we got a boy of our own now.  Last night I sat him up behind the wheel and said, ‘Son, take a good look around.  This is your hometown.'”

Now Born In The U.S.A. is as old as Springsteen was when he sang that line from the album’s closing track.  (It’s nerdy trivia like this that most likely fascinates only me.}

I was thirteen when Born In The U.S.A. was unleashed upon the world on June 4th of 1984.  Though I’d turn fourteen in November of that year, I was already a major music nerd and had been for several years.  Springsteen was someone I was very familiar with thanks to the local rock station I was glued to in North Carolina, WQDR.  That was a big summer for this nerd, as I won a 1981 Rolling Stones tour poster on Allan Handelman’s East Coast Live show (which propelled me into a three-decade radio career, damn it all) for correctly guessing the artist singing “Mr. Bassman” (it was Johnny Cymbal – still have the 45); I spent the spring and summer taping hours of ‘QDR programming including their fifteenth anniversary Woodstock tribute weekend and other shenanigans; and I bought the Born In The U.S.A. record (yes, we called them records back then – no one called them vinyls, for Pete’s sake).

I really liked Springsteen.  I’d heard Born To Run; I loved what I’d heard off The River (“Hungry Heart,” “Cadillac Ranch”); I’d heard ‘QDR play “Rosalita,” “Spirit in the Night” (which I’d first thought was Van Morrison – I was a kid, okay?), and “Badlands;” so I was very familiar with the name by the time the then-still-new MTV first aired “Dancing in the Dark.”  Then it got weird.

What the hell was this?  What was this awful keyboard-driven boom-tap dance silliness?  It sounded like The Boss had sold out.  The savior of rock and roll was catering to the MTV crowd and was copping Madonna’s production tricks.  Then, I heard the title track.  More keyboards.  Ridiculous, repetitive, loud keyboards.

I bought the album anyway. Boy, was I glad I did.

Listening to the album from start to finish – all twelve songs – I was mesmerized.  Of course, some songs hit me right off while others took a while – some years – to grab me (like “Cover Me” – why did I not like that at the time?).  Born In The U.S.A. was the first time I fully listened to Springsteen’s lyrics, and they were revelatory to me.  Listening close with friends back then, we realized the title track wasn’t jingoism by any stretch – it was an indictment of the war machine and the treatment of our veterans by our own.  It was my first explicit taste of a song being fully ironic with its presentation.  Teenage mind blown.

Tracks like “No Surrender” and “Bobby Jean” hit me right in the feels as a teenage romantic longing for a relationship like the ones Bruce sang about.  I didn’t have a Bobby Jean at the time, but I imagined that’s exactly the way I would feel – and react – if she moved away.  I loved the way he wished her good luck in the end but didn’t beg her to come back.  That’s a mature attitude, and one I apparently needed to hear.

I didn’t hear Nebraska until a couple of years later – around sixteen or seventeen, the perfect angst-filled age to hear such desolate work – but looking back, “Downbound Train” was the definite spill-over from those sessions.  Much of Born In The U.S.A. has a strong, anthemic sheen even when the lyrics may have a dark undercurrent.  Yet “Downbound Train” follows the Nebraska model musically as well as lyrically, although in an electric setting.  Elsewhere, Springsteen’s love of rock’n’roll fuels “Working on the Highway,” “I’m Goin’ Down,” and “Glory Days,” while “Darlington County” is probably the most Springsteen song Springsteen ever recorded, bordering on self-parody.  It’s got Clarence’s sax riding a Boss-centric riff, a cowbell, and lyrics that are at once hilarious, creepy, and tragic.

“I’m On Fire” is as sexy as Springsteen got (with his hit for the Pointer Sisters, um, “Fire,” a close second), while “My Hometown” didn’t bring tears to my eyes until I became a father and I raised my son – in my hometown.

35 years on, Born In The U.S.A. stands as a towering achievement in music in general, the ’80s in particular, and in Springsteen’s oeuvre specifically.  It absolutely deserves its 30x platinum status.  It may have a few trappings of ’80s production, but the spirit, performances, and lyrics far exceed any of its shortcomings.  As for “Dancing in the Dark,” aw, hell…now I think it’s a masterpiece.  And it is.

 

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Coverin’ Dylan

Bob Dylan

Since it’s Bob Dylan’s birthday weekend (yes, because his actual date of birth, May 24th, fell on a Friday this year, he gets the entire weekend – it’s the law), I thought I’d write another piece that will undoubtedly get lost in all the Dylan-themed posts floating around the interwebs.  Actually, it’s not a “piece” per se, it’s just another list (keeping up with today’s list-obsessed culture) of five of my favorite covers of Dylan songs.  No, it’s not an original idea by a long shot, nor is it comprehensive, it’s just five versions of some classics and deep cuts that may have been overlooked and I think you should hear.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Enjoy!

Mavis Staples – “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”

Hidden in the bonus features of Martin Scorcese’s masterful first Dylan doc, No Direction Home, an acapella rendition of this Freewheelin’ classic gives us yet another reason to love Mavis (as if we needed another one).  The most striking part of this performance is when the legendary Soul Queen of Freedom stops in the middle of a line to marvel at the weight and beauty of the lyrics before continuing.  At that moment, we are one with Mavis – struck at how powerful, yet sadly prophetic and relevant the song still is.  (Be sure to check out the fantastic new Mavis album, We Get By, here.)

Maria Muldaur – “Lord, Protect My Child”

Another wonderful bonus feature from No Direction Home, the venerable Maria Muldaur reimagines this Infidels outtake of parental love into a strong blues of determination.  Whereas the original is an astonishing and heartfelt plea (featuring one of Dylan’s greatest vocals), here, Muldaur alone in a cafe, transforms the ballad into what sounds like a command to the Almighty.  (Check out Maria’s latest here.)

Neko Case – “Buckets of Rain”

The closing track on the devastating Blood on the Tracks is an exercise in melancholy restraint.  Its beauty lies in its subtlety.  Neko Case, herself a master weaver of atmosphere, injects her own mystic mojo into this masterpiece but never takes it where it doesn’t belong. (Neko’s acclaimed Hell-On is available here.)

Bettye LaVette – “Mama, You Been On My Mind”

I’ll admit it:  I cried like a damn baby when I first heard Bettye LaVette’s take on one of Dylan’s most oft-covered songs.  In this rhythm-and-blues belter’s incomparable hands, a timeless song of longing and acceptance transforms and deepens into a heart-wrenching homage to all mothers passed.  From LaVette’s flawless album of Dylan covers, Things Have Changed.

Miley Cyrus – “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”

Miley Cyrus stopped twerking long enough to deliver a very fine take on another Blood on the Tracks standout.  Recorded for the exhaustive 2012 Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Celebrating 50 Years of Amnesty International tribute collection, Miley shows restraint and vulnerability here, not to mention great taste in material.

 

 

Where It All Begins

An Allman Brothers Band album that stands as tall as their classic sides, Where It All Begins completed a trilogy of fantastic return-to-form albums that showcased the talents of not only the ABB foundation of Allman, Betts, Jaimoe, and Trucks, but the soon-to-be mighty “string-section” of the as-yet-to-be-formed Gov’t Mule, Warren Haynes and Allen Woody.

For those that may have been too young to fully appreciate the Duane and Berry years as they happened, Seven Turns, Shades of Two Worlds, and Where It All Begins exposed the brilliance of the ABB to a new generation in the early ’90s. I was a huge fan in the ’70s growing up, but the band dissolved at the dawn of the ’80s, sparing us from attempts – like most veteran rockers of the era – to conform to the drum machines and synths of the time. (Allman brushed up against that temptation on his I’m No Angel solo effort, returning more to form on its follow-up the following year, Before the Bullets Fly.)

Where It All Begins was again produced by the mighty Tom Dowd and included the now-classic 9-plus-minute Betts-penned title track, which recalls the country-jam-jazz of “Blue Sky,” “Jessica,” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” Betts also turned in the motivational “Everybody’s Got a Mountain to Climb” and the prophetic blues rave-up “Gonna Change My Way of Livin’.” They paid tribute to Bo Diddley – and were rewarded with a big rock radio hit – with “No One to Run With,” and first exposed most of us to Warren Haynes’ now-standard “Soulshine,” here sung by Gregg in prime soul fashion.

Where It All Begins is the sound of a Sunday summer afternoon; the sound of a road trip down long, wide stretches of highway as well as green grass and magnolias gently swaying in big rural back yards where children play and dance while the adults prepare dinner on the grounds. Afterward, the grown-ups sit on the back porch and spin tales while staring off across the field, grateful for a brief respite before returning to the Monday grind while the kids chase lightning bugs as dusk draws nigh.

This album means a lot to me, as it was released under a month after my son was born. In fact, he now wears the shirt adorned with this album cover I bought on their tour that year as they made their annual stop at Walnut Creek (now Coastal Credit) Amphitheater in Raleigh. (I would see the Allmans perform there annually through all of the ’90s.)

Little did we know that this would be the last studio album Dickey would record with the Allmans, and they wouldn’t release another one for another nine years – the fierce Hittin’ The Note, which would be their last, and the only one without Dickey, but fittingly with Derek Trucks.

The Allmans called it quits for good – and on their own terms – in 2014 as they celebrated their 45th anniversary with a run of shows at what became their second home, NYC’s Beacon Theater. This year marks 50 years since their debut album and 25 since Where It All Begins. When we argue about who’s America’s greatest rock band, the Allman Brothers Band should always, always be in the conversation (as should CCR, but that’s for another day).

Happy 25th to both my son, born April 18, and to Where It All Begins, released today, May 3, of 1994. Long may you both run.

Country Musings, Part Two: Earl Thomas Conley

etc-pic-e1555256058454.jpgHe didn’t chase trends, didn’t record novelty tunes, didn’t have a gimmick, he didn’t even play cowboy dress-up; Earl Thomas Conley just sang country music.  Between the urban cowboy craze and the adult contemporary/soft-rock fetish at the start of the 1980s and the rise of Garth and the adult contemporary/soft-rock fetish at the start of the 1990s, Conley racked up an impressive eighteen number ones without ever explicitly bowing to trends.  There may have been subtle digital production flourishes here or there, but nothing that sounds too embarrassing today, which is a rarity for mainstream music of any kind from that era. Continue reading “Country Musings, Part Two: Earl Thomas Conley”

Country Musings, Part One: Gene Watson

gene watson youngToday, for no particular reason other than I’m in the mood for it, is a list of the five best Gene Watson songs.  Gene Watson, country badass from Palestine, Texas that had a string of classic country songs that were perfect for barroom jukeboxes and honky-tonk bandstands.  They could make you cry, cuss, fight, drink, and … love.  Sometimes all at once.  Here ya go… Continue reading “Country Musings, Part One: Gene Watson”

Best Albums of 2018

It may have been a rough year for a variety of reasons, but none of them were musical.    2018 saw a plethora of fantastic albums from artists young and old, and across all musical genres.  The more I tried to narrow this list down to ten, the harder it became, so I stretched the limits and ended up with 20 (plus two honorable mentions – a pair of compilations of previously released and unreleased material by a couple of Wilburys – one who’s left us, the other still on the road heading for another joint).

The criteria were simple.  I judged the albums based on the ones I listened to – reached for – most often.  Some I reviewed for publications (whose original reviews are linked below), some I didn’t.  Hopefully, you’ll find something here that will pique your curiosity and cause you to seek it out, or at least prompt you to revisit an album you may have dismissed or overlooked earlier in the year.  Thanks for reading and be sure to support the artists that bring you joy.  Go to a show, buy a physical album; turn it up, and enjoy yourself.

NOTE: No Depression has recently overhauled their website.  It looks great, but some of the links below are currently inoperable.  Hopefully, they’ll have them all back up soon.  Thanks for reading!


1. Amanda Shires – To The Sunset

Amanda-Shires-To-The-Sunset-1533052491-640x640A masterpiece that reflected on resilience in the face of adversity as well as the relationship between mothers and daughters (“Eve’s Daughter,” “Charms”), the ebullience of new love (“Leave It Alone,” “Parking Lot Pirouette”), and perspective while the world falls apart around you (“Break Out The Champagne”).  Throughout, To The Sunset shimmers with multi-layered arrangements, peerless songwriting, and production that works without regard to categorization or genre. 


2. Aaron Lee Tasjan – Karma For Cheap 

Aaron-Lee-Tasjan-2018

Tasjan took the cosmic cowboy schtick to its logical conclusion in 2018, delivering an album that evoked endless summer days as seen through a hazy veil of Beatlesque psychedelia and scintillating ELO-like production.  There’s not a hint of Music City in this East Nashvillian’s ode to childhood memories through sunny choruses and irresistibly sugar-coated melodies – and it’s all the better for it.

Original review for Americana UK.


3. John Prine – The Tree Of Forgiveness

john-prine-2018Prine’s first in many-a-moon showed up on several year-end lists for good reason – it’s as strong as any in Prine’s oeuvre.  From the hilarious “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)” to the impossible-to-listen-without-smiling-through-tears “When I Get to Heaven,” Prine proves deserving of every accolade bestowed upon him this year – and all the years passed.


4. Kevin Welch – Dust Devil

SINGLE POCKET JACKET -most common formatAnother artist long overdue for a new album in 2018, Welch’s first solo outing since 2010’s A Patch of Blue Sky is his best in two decades.  The writing is unequaled, his choice of covers exquisite, and that soothing rasp is still front-and-center.  The title track alone is worth the admission, but adding in the other nine makes this the deal of the year.

Original review for No Depression.


5. Ry Cooder – The Prodigal Son

RC_ProdigalSonCover_5x5_600dpi_CMYK-1024x1024Ry Cooder, at the urging of his son Joachim, returned to that inimitable slide guitar and to interpreting classic gospel and blues on The Prodigal Son. The title track adds lyrics about Cooder first laying eyes upon pedal steel guitar legend Ralph Mooney and the effect it had on him, turning the Sensational Nightingales’ take on the Old Testament parable into a dusty, bluesy celebration of “dim lights, thick smoke, and loud, loud music.”


6. The War and Treaty – Healing Tide

war-and-treaty-2018Michael and Tanya Trotter have quite the astonishing backstory.  I urge you to read up on them.  What matters most, of course, is the music, and Healing Tide delivers.  Deep soul and hard gospel surround lyrics rooted in love – love for one another, love for all.  It was the most celebratory, joy-filled release of 2018 – a year when we really needed some positive vibes.


7. John Howie, Jr. – Not Tonight

Not TonightThe best country music doesn’t have to be sad, but it sure as hell has to be honest.  The Two Dollar Pistols frontman and leader of the Rosewood Bluff checks both boxes and then some on his solo debut.  Detailing the end of a relationship in startling and brutal detail over the course of 40 minutes, Not Tonight may not be your first choice of music for the party, but it will be the one you reach for when you’re left on your own.

Interview with John Howie, Jr. for No Depression.


8. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

Golden hour Kacey MusgravesWatching an artist grow from album to album is always rewarding, and Musgraves delivered her best yet in 2018.  Golden Hour is miles away from her first two; long on atmosphere and deep, kaleidoscopic textures, it’s country music psychedelicized.  The clever wordplay is still there, but it’s embedded into airy, sweeping arrangements that never sound forced.  Even the techno-lite of “High Horse” and nods to ’70s-era ELO sound inevitable.


9. Shemekia Copeland – America’s Child

Shemekia-Copeland-Americas-ChildAmerica’s Child is an album we needed in 2018.  Songs about race, #metoo, and what it means to truly be a patriot sit alongside tributes to southern cookin’, prideful blues stomps, heartwrenching soul, and a bluesy John Prine cover (featuring vocals by the man himself).  The guest list is impressive (Prine, Emmylou Harris, Rhiannon Giddens, Mary Gauthier, Steve Cropper, etc.), but this is definitely Copeland’s show, and she shines throughout.


10. Mark Knopfler – Down The Road Wherever

Mark-Knopfler-Down-The-Road-WhereverMarking 40 years since Dire Straits’ debut album, 2018 saw Knopfler looking back as he moved ahead.  Songs like “Drover’s Road” and “One Song at a Time” seem to address the infancy of his old band matter-of-factly without sentimentality nor regret.  The beauty of this sprawling set (the deluxe version boasts 16 tracks) unfolds over its 80-minute runtime.  Knopfler’s fluid guitar never overpowers the songs.


11. Sarah Shook & The Disarmers – Years

sarah-shook-2018The biggest compliment I can give to any band’s album is that it sounds just like their live show (paradoxically, the worst thing I can say about a band is that their live show sounds just like their album).  Years doubles down on Sidelong‘s barroom sweat, punk power, and honky-tonk blood.  Shook sings ’em like she sees ’em.  Her Disarmers burn the damn place down while she’s drinking us under the table.  Yeah, there’s heartbreak, but it’s with a side of middle finger.


12. John Hiatt – The Eclipse Sessions

john-hiatt-eclipse

There’s just something so…comfortable about John Hiatt.  His gruff growl sounds both pained and wise.  Saying he’s grown into that magnificent voice is a given.  The songs on The Eclipse Sessions cover typical Hiatt territory, but he always finds new ways to twist and shake up the everyday and mundane.  From the warning of “Over the Hill” to the honest and oddly-reassuring “Cry to Me,” Hiatt gives us another reason to rejoice in the raw beauty of imperfection.


13. Carter Sampson – Lucky

Carter-Sampson-2018Yeah, lucky 13.  Somewhere between Norah Jones and Natalie Merchant, Sampson’s voice crafts these tales of love and luck from the long, dusty, desolate plains of Oklahoma with a sly wink and strong sense of what makes a song captivating.  Including a cover of Shel Silverstein’s venerable “Queen of the Silver Dollar” drives home the point that not only can Sampson write the hell out of a song, she can pick ’em, too.

Original review for Americana UK.


14. Bettye LaVette – Things Have Changed

Things Have ChangedRhythm and blues’ greatest comeback story continues as LaVette does Dylan.  “Reinterpret” is a word that may be overused, but here it’s most apropos.  She drops the F-bomb in the title track, changes the subject of “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind” (and in doing so, rips out your heart and stomps that sucker flat), and turns “It Ain’t Me, Babe” into the mother of all soul-drenched rejections.  Things Have Changed leaves you hoping LaVette keeps rummaging through Zimmy’s vaults.


15. Dan Baird and Homemade Sin – Screamer

dan-baird-homemade-sin-screamer-cover

Hands-down, the best balls-out rock’n’roll album of the year.  Screamer looks mortality in the face and, well, screams at it, blows by it, and keeps rockin’.  Baird and company strut, sway, rock, pummel, groove, and roll through over 50 minutes of fist-pumpin’ anthems with a couple of sawdust weepers thrown in for good measure.  Cancer can take a screamin’ leap and a back seat – Dan and the Sin are here to stay.

Original review for No Depression.


16. Phil Cook – People Are My Drug

Phil Cook People Are My Drug

I admit to having been under a rock when it came to Phil Cook.  However, I crawled out from under it when I caught wind of People Are My Drug and I’ve been humming and singing along to its contents ever since.  Blues, gospel, soul – and a big heart.  It pulls you in with the slow-burning opener “Steampowered Blues” and leads you through a joyous journey of peace, love, and rock and roll.

Article on Phil Cook for No Depression.


17. The Bottle Rockets – Bit Logic

bottle-rockets-2018The country-rock fury from Missouri returned in 2018 with an album that didn’t so much complain about the hi-tech present as merely observe and report in their dry, inimitable way.  (Ok, “Lo-Fi” may come close to “old man yells at cloud” territory, but it definitely hits me right in the feels.)  The hilarious yet heartbreakingly on-point “Bad Time to Be an Outlaw” is worth the price of admission alone.  Uber-cool producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel returned to bring out their best, which they always deliver.


18. Rosali – Trouble Anyway

Rosali-2018Awash in guitars, Rosali’s magnificent Trouble Anyway glides through your ears like butter.  The grungy sound owes more to the War on Drugs (whose Charlie Hall contributes and Jeff Zeigler mixes), Cowboy Junkies, and Living With the Law-era Chris Whitley than the Seattle sound of the early ’90s.  Yet it’s the songs that matter, of course, and Rosali has crafted an album’s worth that stays with you long after the sustain has faded.

Original review for Americana UK.


19. Robbie Fulks & Linda Gail Lewis – Wild! Wild! Wild!

robbie-linda-gail-2018

I would say that Linda Gail Lewis could write a book, but she already has.  While her album with Van Morrison (You Win Again) almost 20 years ago was a sweet and fun trip down memory lane with choice covers of classic country chestnuts, with Robbie Fulks she pulls out all the stops and goes Wild! Wild! Wild!  The country here rocks and the rock rolls, while “I Just Lived a Country Song” has the power to expose all charlatans.


20. Cedric Burnside – Benton County Relic

CedricBurnsideRelicCover

The grandson of North Mississippi blues legend, R.L. Burnside, Cedric stepped out from behind the drums, plugged in his guitar, and conjured the deepest, sensual, raw, trance-blues of the year.  It wasn’t all mojo drone, however; “Ain’t Gonna Take No Mess” struts, crows, and swaggers like Zeppelin holed up in a hill country juke.

Original review for No Depression.


HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Tom Petty – An American Treasure

an-american-treasureBursting at the seams with live and alternate studio versions of both Petty classics and deep cuts, and peppered with previously unreleased revelations, An American Treasure was a bittersweet posthumous release from the rock and roll legend who left us unexpectedly and way too soon in October of 2017.  Almost a year to the day later, we received this reminder of what a gift his music was to us all.

Original review for No Depression.


Bob Dylan – More Blood, More Tracks:  The Bootleg Series, Vol. 14

bob dylan more blood more tracksThroughout the entire Bootleg Series, fans have been waiting for two big eras – the Basement Tapes (finally unveiled in Volume 11) and the Blood on the Tracks sessions.  Finally released in 2018 as Volume 14, More Blood, More Tracks unearthed the full sessions from New York, both solo and with Eric Weissberg & Deliverance helmed by Phil Ramone, and the later sessions in Minnesota with brother David Zimmerman behind the console.  Details aside, this is quite simply the holy grail of anger and vulnerability set to song.