Category Archives: Folk

Warm as Rye Whiskey: Bill Staines

Bill Staines

Bill Stain

1976

I lived in Dinkytown, a rather silly-named part of Minneapolis that abutted the campus of the University of Minnesota in the southeast part of the city. Other than cheap pizza restaurants, taverns that served weak (3.2%) beer and ice cream parlours (Bridgemans, there on the corner of 4th and 15th) Dinkytown was like any other campus neighborhood in the US. Oh, except for one thing. This little hamlet was where Dylan started off singing in the underground Rathskeller tavern in early 1962.

As a young, homesick undergrad I would shuffle through the icy streets (sort of like Dylan on the cover of Freewheelin’, sans the beautiful girl) not sure what I was looking for. When the cold became unbearable I’d duck into one of the several record stores and lose myself by flipping through the racks. Dreaming, lusting and craving so many but unable to purchase but one or two every few months.   In one of the stores, where the guy behind the counter was tall and had granny glasses, making him look like some character out of a Dickens tale, they frequently played Bill Staines records.

I grew up with a lot of folk music: Chad Mitchell Trio, Kingston Trio, Christy Ministrels, Sons of the Pioneers and Burl Ives.   The art of telling a story to the accompaniment of nothing more than an acoustic guitar was one that I held dear, but I had never heard of Bill Staines. His albums didn’t give too much away by way of biodata. Rather they spoke only of his love of the American landscape, especially the western states, and usually sported a sepia or b/w cover.

The first song I remember of his that stuck in my mind was one called Rye Whiskey Joe. I didn’t know what rye whiskey was as opposed to any other sort of liquor (being raised in a seriously serious evangelical family, those things were never part of my world) but his voice did have an incredible warmth and empathetic feel to it. Like he was singing about his best friend, someone he knew well and loved.

Staines in those years became a bit of minor celebrity in folkie circles. When Garrison Keilor hit the big time with the Prairie Home Companion, Staines was a regular guest at the World Theatre in St. Paul. I noticed that by the mid 80s his album covers were in colour and many of his songs were being covered by other folkies.   I never had the chance (read, money) to see him play live around the West Bank coffee houses but for many years he was one of my favorite singers.

He sings a very North American kind of folk music. Simple. Unfancy. Straight to the point. The songs have melodies, they tell stories and sound best with a finely tuned Martin guitar. Sometimes they allow for yodeling or even whistling and always, they are connected to places. The rivers of Texas, the Wyoming skies, the northern woods along the Canadian border and so on.   Though I have travelled the world several times around since those days, at the time I was rooted in Dinkytown. Bill Staines songs fed my imagination and fired by intention to get out of Minnesota and see the world.

And so with a small side track by way of AMG, I’ll bid you farewell and commend the wonderful Bill Staines, American songwriter, to your listening pleasure.

The American landscape has been a major theme for New Hampshire-based singer/songwriter Bill Staines. His songs have captured the beauty of rivers, mountains, and the open space of the American West. Staines‘ ability to write songs that seem like traditional folk songs has made him a favorite source of new material. His original tunes, including “The Roseville Fair,” “River,” “Wild, Wild Heart,” “Yellowstone Winds,” and “A Place in the Choir (All God’s Critters),” have been covered by such artists as Nanci GriffithJerry Jeff WalkerGrandpa JonesFairport ConventionPriscilla Herdman,Gordon Bok, and Mason Williams.

Although his country-folk tunes reflect on the personalities, lifestyle, and environment of such places as Wyoming, Colorado, and Alaska, Staines hails from Lexington, MA, a small city northwest of Boston. As a youngster, Staines was heavily inspired by the folk scene in Boston and Cambridge in the early ’60s. Together with a junior high school friend, Dick Curtis, and his younger brother, John, who later played with the Pousette-Dart BandStaines formed a folk band, the Green Mountain Boys. Although theCurtis brothers preferred old-timey string music and bluegrass, Staines remained tied to romantic folk ballads. Staines later organized and ran a student folk music coffeehouse, The Barn, at Lexington High School. The experience prepared him when he became the host of a weekly open-mike hootenanny at the folk music venue Club 47 in Harvard Square. Staines gained popularity as a songwriter whenRandy Burns & the Skydog Band recorded his first original song, “That’s the Way It’s Going to Go in Time,” in 1966. He released his debut album, Bag of Rainbows, the same year.

Staines initially attracted national attention with his yodeling. In 1975, he won the prestigious National Yodeling Championship at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Kerrville, TX. His album Miles, released the following year, included the heartfelt ballad “Sweet Wyoming Home.” A self-taught fingerstyle acoustic guitarist, Staines was heavily influenced by the playing of Jackie Washington, a regular performer at Club 47, and Tom PaxtonStaines uses a right-handed Martin D-18 guitar that he turns over and plays left-handed.Staines has been increasingly inspired by his experiences as an amateur pilot. His 1995 album Looking for the Windincluded several aviation-themed songs, including “Bill Hosie,” about a builder of airplanes, and “Song for Tingmissartaq,” written for Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. In 1993, Staines composed The Alaska Suite, a 15-tune instrumental suite for strings and brass that was inspired by his many flights to Alaska.

Staines‘ song “A Place in the Choir (All God’s Critters)” has become a children’s music classic. In the ’80s, Stainesperiodically performed with the Passim All-Stars, an informal folk group that also included Mason DaringJeanie Stahl,Billy Novick, and Guy Van Duser. In 1993, he released an album of children’s songs, The Happy Wanderer on the Red House Records label, that included “The Hound Dog Song” and “I Can Feel the Sweet Winds Blowing (Bless My Soul)” as well as interpretations of “Home on the Range,” “The Gypsy Rover,” and “Kookaburra.” Staines continued recording for Red House during the remainder of the 1990s and into the 21st century, releasing such albums as Going to the West (1993), the aforementioned Looking for the Wind (1995), One More River (1998), October’s Hill (2000), Journey Home (2004), and Old Dogs(2007). Staines‘ songs have been featured in the songbooks If I Were a Word Then I’d Be a Song (Folk-Legacy, 1980), All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir (Puffin, 1989), River (Viking, 1993), and Music to Me (Hal Leonard, 1994). (All Music Guide)

Just Play One Tune More

Track Listing:

01 Red Clay Country Blues

02 Wild Rippling Waters

03 Alkali

04 The Lost Mine Of The Chisos

05 I Must Be Going Home

06 The Boats They Come And The Boats They Go

07 Spanish Is A Loving Tongue

08 Lynchburg Town

09 My Sweet Wyoming Home

10 Rye Whiskey Joe

11 The Black Fly Song

12 Liverpool Light

13 The Music Box

14 White Mountain Goodbye

BS

Poet Laureate of the Suburbs: John Prine

John Prine

John Prine

When heburst’ onto the fading folk/emerging roots music scene in the early 1970s, John Prine was saddled with the extraordinarily arrogant and burdensome label, ‘the new Dylan’, by the music press. In what his fans were soon to recognize was one of his most enduring traits, Prine shrugged his shoulders and got on with the job of writing and singing some of the most wonderful, moving and humane songs in the American songbook.

In fact, beyond the fact that both Dylan and Prine had Midwestern roots and wrote and sang their own material, you would be hard pressed to find much territory they shared. While Dylan has changed from protest singer to angry young man, recluse, Christian preacher and interpreter of American roots music , John Prine has pretty much ploughed the same furrow for going on 45 years now.

And what a furrow it is. In it Prine digs the rich soil of the basic human nature of the average suburban American. His ridiculous dreams, his car accidents and broken plumbing, his tendency to drink too much beer, his bewildering freakish teenagers, and his loving, long suffering girlfriend. Where Dylan put suburban America on notice with The Times They Are a Changin’, Prine can only shake his head and sigh when Barbara Lewis runs off to join the Hare Krishnas. “Come back to us,” he pleads, not liking the fact that the youngster has left a gaping hole in the family.

Prine’s lyrics are as straight forward and unpretentious as a boilermaker’s bowling shoes. Long words that need dictionaries are nowhere to be found in his songs. He just uses the language and syntax of the guys at the bar. And annunciates in all the wrong places (listen to how to he speaks the word ‘coward’ in the middle of the Great Compromise).

Love, though, is Prine’s great theme. Love between a man and his woman and the kind of love that ebbs and flows and is full of idiosyncrasies like smelly socks and embarrassing tattoos. And when love breaks and fails or doesn’t quite get off the ground, the only response is to take it on the chin and get on with life.   No use sitting around crying and moping. No need for angst ridden screeds of revenge ala a certain period Voice of a Generation. “If you don’t want my love/I’ll find someone else to give it to.”

If love makes Prine’s world go round, humor is the grease that lubricates the whole messy contraption. Listen to almost any of his lyrics and somewhere embedded in them is a sly, laid back joke. Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven, Dear Abby, Let’s Invite them Over and Yes, I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You are just a few exhibits. While others like Loudon Wainwright III are able to make you smile too, you get the feeling that the song has been written precisely as a joke; to get a laugh.   With Prine, even his overtly funny songs are first and foremost about the character and his or her life. Though we may laugh at their stupidity more often we are chuckling, ‘there but for the grace of God’. Prine’s songs confirm that without a sense of humor we would hardly qualify as humans. And its central necessity to living a healthy, balanced life.

For your listening pleasure I’ve selected 30 prime cuts (which has been incredibly difficult; there are SO many other equally worthy contenders for inclusion) which reflect the philosophy of the poet laureate of the American suburbs.

Prine House

Track Listing:

01 The Great Compromise

02 Shop Talk

03 If You Don’t Want My Love

04 Sailin’ around

05 Bear Creek Blues

06 It’s Happening To You

07 Morning Train

08 Ubangi stomp

09 I just want to dance with you

10 Everybody

11 Dear Abby

12 Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven

13 Angel From Montgomery

14 Please Don’t Bury Me

15 Sam Stone

16 Let’s Invite Them Over

17 Storm Windows

18 The Frying Pan

19 Blue Eyed Elaine

20 Yes I Guess They Oughta Name A Drink After You

21 So Sad (To Watch Love Go Bad) (With Connie Smith)

22 Pistol Packin’ Mama

23 Automobile

24 This cold war with you

25 Bruised Orange (Chain Of Sorrow)

26 Middleman

27 Old Rugged Cross

28 One Red Rose

29 Souvenirs

30 Baby Let’s Play House

JPJPJPJP

Gratitude for: Glen Campbell

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Among my very first record purchases (or maybe it was a gift from a cousin) was a Glen Campbell album that had Wichita Lineman and Dreams of the Everyday Housewife on it.

He was big in the States at that moment. I had just arrived from India with absolutely no idea of TV or American pop culture. And Glen Campbell had his own show and was all over the radio. I related to him in a way that made sense to my 11 year old boyish soul. His hair was combed to the side but neatly over the years, not hanging over them like the ‘hippies’. For a couple of years he was my unconscious hair-do role model. His voice was ordinary which was nice…none of this freakish screaming ala Jim Morrison.   And, amazingly, I related to his songs.

Dream of the Everyday Housewife for some reason particularly made sense to me. Maybe because my mom was alone much of that year as Dad drove around the country drumming up support from churches for us to continue to live in India. But the sense of longing , of feeling that perhaps I’ve made the wrong choice, has my boat sailed without me, were feelings I’ve been haunted by throughout my life.

One thing I didn’t know at the time was that Mr. Campbell had already paid his dues in the music industry. Or rather, he’d been paid MANY MILLIONS of dues. He had been a tremendously successful session guitarist pulling in thousands of dollars a day back when a good annual salary hovered around $12,000. Sadly, on his records, including the one we share today, his skill as a picker is deeply hidden. A real pity.

So to start or end your day let’s recall the great Mr Glen Campbell who is still with us but only just. He’s gravely ill and I’m sure would appreciate some of our good thoughts, wherever they might come from.

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Track Listing:

01 Rhinestone Cowboy

02 Both Sides Now

03 By The Time I Get To Phoenix

04 Gentle On My Mind

05 Too Many Mornings

06 Wichita Lineman

07 One Last Time

08 Don’t Pull Your Love_Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye

09 Reason To Believe

10 It’s Only Make Believe

11 Honey Come Back

12 Give Me Back That Old Familiar Feeling

13 Galveston

14 Dreams Of The Everyday Housewife

15 The Last Thing On My Mind

16 Where’s The Playground, Susie

17 Try A Little Kindness

18 Country Boy (You Got Your Feet In L.A.)

19 All I Have To Do Is Dream (With Bobbie Gentry)

20 Amazing Grace

G….C

Humble and Glory draped: Harry Manx and Kevin Breit

Harry Manx and Kevin Breit

Harry Manx and Kevin Breit

A small (perhaps in reputation) record full of brilliant string playing, some very old and unexpected covers, references to Al Capone and lots of brilliant string playing (did I say that, already?).

Harry Manx from north of the border is a blues man with a strong love of Indian ragas. He studied for a while there and is a pretty good at handling the Mohan veena (invented Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, India’s classical guitar guru). Not a great voice but a lot better than mine. Together with his friend Kevin (Breit) he’s turned out a very pleasing north American record.

The musical partnership of singer/songwriter/guitarists Harry Manx and Kevin Breit is given a third outing on their duo album Strictly Whatever. The two play a variety of stringed instruments that includes, along with many different guitars, banjo, and mohan veena (Manx) and electric sitar, ukulele, and mandolin (Breit); Art Avalos provides percussion. Sometimes on these mostly self-written tunes,Manx and Breit create a ramshackle folk-rock sound somewhat reminiscent of Bob Dylan albums of the late ’90s and early 2000s, notably on “Nothing I Can Do.” That similarity is accentuated when Manxis singing in his gruff voice, though he can also suggest Mark Knopfler (“Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep”). The album is a low-key mixture of folk, country, and blues styles full of textured playing and interaction between the two guitarists, who have enough experience with each other to be comfortable trading licks throughout. (AMG)

I’m sipping a whiskey. I get on a plane in a few hours and in a few more will be back home with my family! A week of work followed by a week of down time before the rush to the end of the year begins in earnest.   This record which I’ve really enjoyed over the past many months is one I hope you’ll enjoy too! Humble but glory draped in its own way.

Strictly Whatever

Track Listing:

01 Sunny

02 Nothing I Can Do

03 Looking For A Brand New World

04 Hippy Trippy

05 Mr Lucky

06 Note To Self

07 Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep

08 Little Ukelele

09 There Was A Girl

10 Looking For A Plan

11 Dance With Delilah

12 Carry My Tears Away

M a N x

 

Old Friends: Greg Brown and BIll Morrissey

folk-singer

Someone just asked me on FB, what, off the top of my head were the top ten books I’ve read in my life. I admit, I had to think about that for a while. It was not an instant recollect, which surprised me somewhat.

If someone asked me to do the same about records I would be much quicker to respond. And though the record the Dog shares today is not in that elite company of the TOP 10, it is definitely a stayer. It has been in my collection for more than 15 years and is played very regularly.

Greg Brown, the Iowa born, Minneapolis living singer/songsmith has over the years eased himself, quietly, steadily and with no fuss or muss, into the ranks of America’s best lyricists/writers. His well deserved reputation has long since ceased being the ‘secret’ of the Twin Cities folk scene and is now recognized by most critics and fans of quality, solid music. His lyrics are by turn wry, poignant and deeply moving especially when accompanied by some of the sweetest melodies and guitar picking on either side of the Mississippi. But what has always nailed it for this humble fan is his world-weary baritone that is polished as an old brass doorknob.

Bill Morrissey, was born in New England and like Brown, was at the time of his early death but 3 years ago, regarded as another American folk jewel. His voice is somewhat more fragile, not to say frail and in this setting makes a lovely counterpoint to the river-deep tones of singer friend, Brown. The chemistry between these two quiet achievers is palatable on this very satisfying record of understated but lively interpretations of standards, classics and the songs of their friends. Not bothered about duetting on every number, they are completely comfortable with soloing as well as sharing the tune. You get the feeling that here are two old mates, sitting in a hotel room or around a fire place in a country bar, jamming, sharing laughs and favorite tunes.

In a word: delightful.

Friend of Mine

Track Listing:

01 Ain’t Life a Brook

02 Little Red Rooster

03 He Was a Friend of Mine

04 Memphis, Tennessee

05 The Road

06 You Can’t Always Get What You Want

07 Duncan and Brady

08 Tom Dula

09 Summer Wages

10 I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive

11 Fishing with Bill

12 Baby, Please Don’t Go

G B B M

Winning Game: Lonnie Johnson

Lonnie Johnson

Lonnie Johnson

I picked this album up many years ago in one of those independent record stores that used to dot the strip malls of America. They were dangerous places and fun too. Hours would pass like minutes as I explored rack upon rack of tapes and CDs, while racking up an ever bigger dent in my credit rating.

Thankfully, the independent record store is making a comeback, at least in my hometown of Melbourne. Every week a book store expands its stock to include boxes of old vinyl or a new vinyl shop opens it doors offering to the world once more that deep richness of the 33 1/3 rpm disc.

I digress.

The name, Lonnie Johnson, had been a small whisper in my mind at the time I made this purchase. And looking back, I wonder, why? I was pretty into the blues by that point but was focused primarily on the Chicago electric scene. I knew nothing of the pioneers of the genre and the discovery of that sophisticated East Coast sound of the 20s and 30s was many years in the future. Perhaps there is some sort of sub-conscious ‘knowing’ that inhabits the ether and which operates, unbeknownst to us, compelling the purchase of music which normally would go unnoticed. I don’t know.

This record, though, has been an absolute winner for me since that Fate Full day two decades ago. It is a solo record; just Lonnie, his voice and tremendously accomplished and deceptively simple guitar playing. There is an inherent melody in this collection, something that goes beyond the individual songs. Lonnie’s voice has a timeless quality. I hate words like ‘timeless’, normally. They mean everything and nothing. But in this case it is appropriate. I have never been able to peg whether this is an old man’s voice or that of a young singer. It just is; doesn’t betray age. And it commands our attention because of its sweet deep tunefulness. Johnson is able to use his physical instrument with such delicacy too. Listen to each of these tracks with care but especially the final ballad, You Won’t Let Me Go and try to think of a more sensitive interpretation.

I’m not a guitar player so will defer to those who understand the nuances of the art. B.B. King claims Johnson as his most significant influence, which for me pretty much sums up the case. The guitar picking on this album reminds me of the writing of the Indian novelist, R.K. Narayan, who has built an international reputation on writing wonderfully humane stories in the most basic prose. But try to do the same and you’ll see how difficult that ‘simplicity’ is to replicate.

Lonnie Johnson’s guitar playing is like this. Each note sharp and distinct, so easy to identify. Yet in their relationship with other notes there is born a complex emotional feeling. A feeling of warmth and the particularly human pleasure that arises from when the dart hits the bullseye smack in the middle.

The songs here cover a few standards (Summertime, What a Difference a Day Makes) as well as originals. Evil Woman is one of my personal favorites: my woman is so evil/she sleeps sideways in the bed !

Love this.

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Track Listing:

01 New Orleans Blues

02 My Little Kitten Susie

03 Evil Woman

04 What a Difference a Day Makes

05 Moaning Blues

06 Summertime

07 Lines in My Face

08 Losing Game

09 New Year’s Blues

10 Slow and Easy

11 Four Walls and Me

12 You Won’t Let Me Go

G A M E

Bandit Heroes: Roots of Narco Corridos

Bandit Hero Heraclio Bernal

Bandit Hero Heraclio Bernal

Why do we look up to ‘bad guys’?  Or let’s phrase that another way. Why are so called bad guys (outlaws, bandits, dacoits, highwaymen) so attractive to a certain class of people, especially the poor, disenfranchised and shat-upon?

In Mexico there is long tradition of corridos (ballads) being composed about and sung for all sorts of anti-establishmentarian figures like drug dealers, thieves and smugglers.  In modern America and Mexico one of the most popular genres of music is the narcocorrido, a ballad that praises the exploits of the nasty drug kings that have unleashed so much violence all across Mexico and the southwestern American states. A more unappealing group of businessmen is hard to imagine, these guys who think nothing of decapitation and bloodbaths on urban streets. And yet when these narcocorridos are brought to the stage, the house is packed to the rafters.

Sociologists have puzzled over the appeal of the ‘criminal hero’ ever since (at least) Robin Hood did battle in Nottingham against King John.  They say, by singing songs they are vicariously speaking out against the oppressive system. Or, when the level and quality of justice in a society is so unresponsive and unfair, the poor build up songs about these shady (but brave) figures.  Some scholars have, in Mexico’s case, traced the corridos to times when times were so hard that good men were forced into a life of bad activities.  Like those who can identify with the good man Walter White, of the hit TV series Breaking Bad, who does a terrible thing for a noble reason, these songs are sympatico signals of the ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’ sort.

Scholar Chris Frazer in his book Bandit Nation: A History of Outlaws and Cultural Struggle in Mexico 1810-1920 posits that the driver of the creative spirit behind corridos was in fact a concept of masculinity. A man was supposed to be strong and accomplish great things for those whom he protected, the poor.  In exchange for loyal service the patron provided strength and the necessities of life.  Little did it matter if sometimes the patron crossed over the line that the establishment had said must not be crossed.

And since many of these illegal activities, especially murder, were seen by the singers as justifiable acts (retaliation against cruel bosses or grinding injustice from the system) it is often unclear whether the songs are indeed, glorifying bad guys at all. Rather they can be seen as truly heroic songs.  Just depends which side of the table your sitting on.

Tonight’s musical selection is a collection of these 19th and early 20th century corridos that elevated the exploits of drug smugglers, ‘rebel leaders’ and criminals, like Heraclio Bernal one of Mexico’s most infamous folk heroes.  The songs are sung in the simple folk style with guitar, accordion and every once in awhile a Mexicali trumpet.  The harmonies are sweet and melodies too.  But the songs are filled with references to robbery, marijuana, cocaine, tequila smuggling and death.  There is something weirdly charming hearing a group of elderly women singing fondly of such things!

A fun collection this is.  Take it as proto-gangster rap or genuine songs of the oppressed. Whatever suits your fancy.  As for me, I hear a bit of both.

Roots of Narcocorrido

Track Listing:

01 Corrido de Heraclio Bernal (The Ballad of Heraclio Bernal

02 Mariano Reséndez – Timoteo Cantu

03 Nieves Hernández

04 Corrido de Mier (Ballad of Mier)

05 Tequileros (The Tequileros) – Timoteo Cantu

06 Contrabando de El Paso, Pt. 1 (Contraband of El Paso, Pt. 1) – Leonardo Sifuentes

07 Contrabando de El Paso, Pt. 2 (Contraband of El Paso, Pt. 2) – Leonardo Sifuentes

08 Cocaína (Cocaine)

09 Marihuana (Marijuana)

10 Corrido de Juan García (The Ballad of Juan García)

11 García y Zamarripa

12 Pateros (The River Bandits)

13 Corrido del Hampa, Pt. 1 (Ballad of the Underworld, Pt. 2

14 Corrido del Hampa, Pt. 2 (Ballad of the Underworld, Pt. 2)

15 Canela (Ballad of the Cinnamon)

16 Por Morfina y Cocaína, Pt. 1 (Because of Morphine & Cocaine, Pt. 1)

17 Por Morfina y Cocaína, Pt. 2 (Because of Morphine & Cocaine, Pt. 2) Juan Gonzalez

18 Contrabandista, Pt. 1 (The Contraband Trafficker, Pt. 1)

19 Contrabandista, Pt. 2 (The Contraband Trafficker, Pt. 2)

20 Carga Blanca (White Cargo)

21 Profugo (The Fugitive, Marijuana)

22 Corrido de Juan Meneses (The Ballad of Juan Meneses)

23 Francisco Martínez

24 Tragedia de los Cargadores (Tragedy of the Drug Couriers)

25 Cadena (The Chain Gang)

26 Rey de Pipa Roja (The King of the Road 18-Wheel Tanker)

***