Archive for February, 2009

Leonard Cohen – First He Took Manhattan

February 25, 2009

Leonard Cohen’s upcoming tour kicked off last week with his first U. S. performance in 15 years, at the newly restored Beacon Theatre in New York. You can read all about it here, in Nate Chinen’s excellent New York Times review. The entire concert-all three hours of it- will begin streaming on NPR’s website tomorrow.

Tomorrow, tickets for the first three shows of Mr. Cohen’s tour go on sale at his website. The tour begins in Austin, Texas on April 2 and ends on June 2 in Denver.

In my last post, I wrote that Bob Dylan’s music was the soundtrack for much of my life in the 1960s. It took me a lot longer to understand what Leonard Cohen was up to. I listened, sure, but I never really connected. It was Johnny Cash’s version of Bird On The Wire (on the classic American Recordings) that took me back to Cohen’s own records, and when I went back I found a wealth of wisdom I’d missed the first time through. I’m Your Man, the documentary/tribute concert film released a couple of years ago, brought me even closer to the heart of Cohen’s great work.

One of my favorites of Cohen’s early songs is Sisters of Mercy, from 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen, his debut album. As Cohen tells it, he met two young women during a snowstorm in Edmonton and took them back to his hotel room, where all fell chastely asleep. He awoke in the night, wrote the song for them as they slept, and presented it to them in the morning: “one of the few bonuses,” he said, “of being a poet.” The song appeared in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller – that’s where the video comes from. Please enjoy.


Talking About Movies

February 21, 2009

Tomorrow is Oscar night, and while music-themed movies were shut out this year (Cadillac Records had the best shot), the seasonal uptick in movie talk got me thinking about my own all-time nominees for Best Picture With A Musical Theme. Here they are for your thoughtful consideration:

Nashville: To the critics’ credit, this one was recognized immediately as the masterpiece it was and is. Thirty-four years after it was made, it hasn’t lost a drop of its power and relevance. The performers wrote many of their own songs (and did all their own singing), and their characters were in many cases modeled on real country stars. The resulting music was fresh but still familiar, new but rooted in Nashville tradition. The real Nashville hated it, but it was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. The only winner was Keith Carradine for I’m Easy, his signature song in the film.

Tender Mercies: Mac Sledge let the bottle bring him down. Can love bring him back? Robert Duvall’s performance as the country singer who hits bottom in a Texas motel earned him an Academy Award, and Horton Foote’s screenplay won one, too. This is not an eventful film: Mac’s epiphanies are mostly introspective ones, which makes Duvall’s performance all the more remarkable.

I’m Not There: Bob Dylan’s music was the soundtrack for my life for a while in the 1960’s, and means a lot to me still, so I approached this movie with caution. It took six actors to complete Director Todd Haynes’s picture of Dylan: could he fuse those portrayals into a movie that worked as a movie, and keep old Dylan hands like me happy with the way he treated man and music? He could and did. The film worked for me at every level, and I was disappointed when the only Oscar nomination it received was for Cate Blanchett’s brilliant Jude Quinn (the Don’t Look Back/Daniel Kramer Dylan). She shoulda won.

O Brother, Where Art Thou: Until T-Bone Burnett put this soundtrack together, there weren’t too many folks expecting to see Man of Constant Sorrow rocketing up the pop charts, but there it was. The soundtrack has sold over 8 million (no typo – 8 million!) copies and is the biggest boost old-time and bluegrass music has ever recieved. If those 8 million buyers listened all the way through they heard The Stanley Brothers, Emmylou Harris, The Fairfield Four, and more – you know the list because you’ve likely got the CD. As much great music as T-Bone has brought to us over the years, he’ll have a tough time topping this one. And the movie’s not bad, either! Nominated for two Oscars (screenplay and cinematography), but no wins.

Coal Miner’s Daughter: A great story, well told, but this movie is all about Sissy Spacek for me. She was ambivalent about taking the role of Loretta Lynn, and believed her insistence on doing her own singing would make up the studio’s mind for her. It didn’t put them off (Loretta Lynn wanted her) and I don’t think it would have worked any other way. It’s a transcendant performance, not an imitation of Loretta, but more like a redefinition. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading right now and come back after the credits. Coal Miner’s Daughter received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture: Sissy Spacek’s Best Actress award was the only win.

Vote for your own winner in the poll below – I’ll cast the first vote, for Tender Mercies by a nose over Nashville. If your pick is not on my list, tell us about it in comments. Thanks, and I’ll see you at the movies!

Once I Built A Railroad, Now It’s Done…

February 18, 2009

It’s no secret that things are tough out there right now for a lot of people. Musicians tend to have an even more precarious relationship with solvency than do most of the rest of us, with no health insurance when illness intervenes and no unemployment benefits when gigs dry up. Those of us who sometimes take music for granted owe a lot to the folks who make that music, and I’m here tonight to give us all a chance to pay part of that debt to those who most need it paid. Here are three charities that help either musicians in need or, in one case, people in need of musicians. I hope you’ll be able to help one or more of them.

From Bread and Roses’s Mission Statement: “Bread and Roses is dedicated to uplifting the human soul by providing free, live, quality entertainment to people who live in institutions or are otherwise isolated from society.” Bread and Roses was founded in 1974 by Mimi Farina, and now presents more than 500 shows per year at nursing homes, prisons and homeless shelters, and for other audiences who might otherwise live what no Harry’s Music reader could tolerate: a life without music.

The Music Maker Relief Foundation, according to its mission statement, helps the true pioneers and forgotten heroes of Southern music gain recognition and meet their day to day needs. We present these musical traditions to the world so American culture will flourish and be preserved for future generations.” Their advisory board includes such luminaries as Bonnie Raitt, B. B. King, and Levon Helm, and among the musicians currently on the MMRF roster are Adolphus Bell, Little Freddie King, and The Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Last but most assuredly not least, the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, which “provides financial assistance to all types of career musicians who are facing illness, disability, or age-related problems.” Sweet Relief was founded in 1994 by Victoria Williams, after she was stricken with multiple sclerosis. Since then, Sweet Relief has provided exactly that to thousands of musicians in need.

I’ve checked all these organizations out through Guidestar and can enthusiastically grant them the Harry’s Music seal of approval. To back that up, the Harry’s Music Board of directors has unanimously voted to match reader donations up to $100 total for each of the three organizations described above (maximum cost to Harry’s Music $300). Let me know about your donation in comments or e-mail me directly at Anonymous donations are welcome – just tell us how much you kicked in and we’ll take care of the rest.

Thanks to all for your generosity, and if you need any additional encouragement, here’s Bing Crosby, making his first Harry’s Music appearance and singing about an earlier, even tougher time. Please enjoy!

That’s Not A Girl, That’s Ira Louvin

February 14, 2009

“I’ve got something here I want you to hear.” According to Emmylou Harris, that’s how Gram Parsons introduced her to the music of the Louvin Brothers, and while she loved the sound, she wasn’t quite sure what to make of it at first. “Who,” she asked Gram, “is that girl singing the high part?” “That’s not a girl,” Gram replied, “that’s Ira Louvin.” And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

It’s hard to imagine that the Louvin Brothers’ music would have the audience it has today without the efforts of Gram and Emmylou: most of the brothers’ back catalog is still in print, and Charlie, at the age of 81, is currently touring (schedule here) behind a new album. Gram Parsons revived The Christian Life with The Byrds and Cash on the Barrelhead on the classic Grievous Angel, and Emmylou has covered a bunch of Louvin Brothers tunes as well.

Emmylou is just finishing up a tour with a show called Three Girls and Their Buddy. The three girls are Emmylou, Shawn Colvin and Patty Griffin, and their buddy is Buddy Miller. Their last stop is in Boston next Sunday and I’m looking forward to being there. Until then, here’s Emmylou and Charlie Louvin, with Vern Gosdin, performing the Louvins’ Love and Wealth. Please enjoy.

A Few More For The Blogroll

February 8, 2009

It’s time to bulk up the blogroll a bit – let’s start with When You Awake, self-described as “our ode to country life as well as a chronicle of the current indie country/folk/rock and roll/roots scenes in LA, New York, and any place where people listen to songs that tell stories.” Lots of videos (two Emmylou duets right now), a podcast (scroll all the way down), and even a style section!

Next up, take a look at Star Maker Machine, a group blog with a twist: each week there’s a different theme, and contributors (who include Paul from Setting the Woods on Fire and Ramone666 from For the Sake of the Song) post a song that fits the theme. Last week songs had to have the word “one” in the title, and postings ranged from George Jones to Funkadelic to Three Dog Night. This week – songs released in 1989.

Finally, Amanda sends us Flop Eared Mule all the way from Australia. Amanda’s observing Leonard Cohen week – if you’ve never heard him sing Red River Valley, this is your chance.

For today’s video I bring you Phosphorescent lead singer Matthew Houck doing a stunning cover of Lucinda Williams’s Big Red Sun Blues. For a lot more music (most of it from their new CD of Willie Nelson covers), visit the band’s MySpace page: you’ll find their tour schedule there as well. My Boston/Cambridge readers can catch them at The Middle East on February 27.

Poor Ellen Smith…

February 4, 2009

On February 8, 1894, Peter DeGraff was hanged for the murder of his 19-year-old sometime girlfriend, Ellen Smith. Six thousand people watched him die, and the occasion was by turns solemn and raucous. DeGraff himself joined in the festivities from the scaffold, singing hymns, and, with his last words, confessing to the crime that only he could have committed.

Ellen’s life was little remarked, but her death is still sung: “Poor Ellen Smith/How was she found/Shot through the heart/Lying cold on the ground.” The ballad is often attributed to DeGraff himself, who is said to have composed it on the scaffold, but no contemporaneous account supports this idea. Whoever first sang Ellen’s song is long forgotten, I’m sure, as are those who first immortalized Omie Wise, Laura Foster, Pretty Polly, and the rest of Ellen’s unfortunate companions in death.

Dan Barry’s New York Times column this past Monday tells how some of DeGraff’s descendants have dealt with their family history over the years, with particular attention to Randy Furches, whose mother is Peter DeGraff’s great-niece. Mr. Furches has written new verses to the old ballad, verses which not only add depth to the relationship between Peter and Ellen, but give Peter a backstory that gives his confession a poignant context. You’ll find a recording of Mr. Furches’s performance right next to Barry’s column.

We’ve all heard the old murder ballads, but when Mr. Furches sings his version of Poor Ellen Smith, he brings to it an immediacy, an urgency, that has all but disappeared from more traditional performances. Peter DeGraff probably never sang about his crime, but more than 100 years after the fact, his voice is being heard. Thanks to Dan Barry for writing the story.

Here is a 1949 recording of Poor Ellen Smith, featuring the voice and banjo of Molly O’Day. O’Day’s text finds the remorseful killer awaiting his release from prison, ready to return home and visit Ellen’s grave. Please enjoy.

Willie Wrote It, Patsy Sang It

February 1, 2009

In his comment on my recent Lefty Frizzell post, Duncan Walls recommends From Willie To Lefty, Willie Nelson’s tribute record. I’d never heard it before, but have now, and I’ll second Duncan’s emotion: Willie does Lefty right.

Unlike Lefty, who wrote songs for himself, Willie started out in Nashville writing songs for other singers. In 1961, his first full year in Music City, Willie had hits for Ray Price (Night Life), Faron Young (Hello Walls), and Patsy Cline (Crazy), while his own recording career was going nowhere. Could be that writing the way Willie did, with other singers in mind, gave him a different and deeper insight into the process than a singer-songwriter could get, and enhanced both his writing and his interpretive skills. There aren’t many singers who’ve covered a wider range of material: on Stardust, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Kurt Weill and George Gershwin are among the composers represented, and on Across The Borderline, Willie adds Paul Simon, Lyle Lovett and Bob Dylan to that illustrious list. All this and Lefty, too!

But in the beginning, at least, Willie got paid to write, not to sing. I don’t know if he wrote Crazy with Patsy Cline in mind, but I’ve never heard anyone sing it better than she did. Please enjoy, and please pay particular attention to those guitar runs.