I don’t know much about Providence, RI’s The Low Anthem—I encountered them on a Paste Magazine sampler cd (remember those?) more than a decade ago, and downloaded a couple of their albums. The other day, though, I stumbled across this 2011 recording of “Blood and Altar,” and it honestly gave me chills—it’s a hauntingly beautiful song.
The Working Songwriter
I first discovered that singer-songwriter Joe Pug had a podcast when he interviewed my college classmate Josh Ritter some years back, and it has turned into one of my regular must-listens. It might be a little “inside baseball” if you’re not a songwriter yourself, but chances are you’ll learn a lot about the craft from the series of luminaries Pug has accumulated in his catalog.
“Prayers for Richard” by David Ramsey, Oxford American
I found out about this 2015 piece on the infamous Little Richard, who died earlier this month, through Aquarium Drunkard‘s newsletter. It is everything the best music writing should be—lyrical, personal but damn near universal, and cognizant of a legend’s cultural impact without being overly reverent. If you have any interest in the roots of rock and roll, this is a must-read.
Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy”
This week’s newsletter turns out to be a bit of a love letter to my adopted hometown of Chicago, and this sweet little confection from Chance the Rapper and his collective of collaborators (including a killer hook sung by Jamila Woods) is a great place to start.
South Side Stories, “Arthur”
“South Side Stories” is a collaboration between Chicago’s WBEZ and the creators of the Comedy Central show, South Side. In this episode, we meet pretty amazing character. Arthur Dubois is a retired 72-year-old with a brand-new career aspiration: to become a big-time trap producer.
“Chicago’s Hidden Indie Rock Archive” by Monica Eng, WBEZ
I wasn’t in Chicago for the glory days of its alternative rock scene, but Adam Jacobs (who became known as “The Taping Guy”) was, and he has 10,000 live recordings to prove it. In a time where many of us are wondering what the future of live music venues are going to be, this is a truly fascinating glimpse into their past.
I’m guessing we could all use a pick-me-up these days, and there’s no way this little ditty by early slide guitar master Casey Bill Weldon won’t have you tapping your foot or dancing around your kitchen. Fun fact: Weldon was married (at different times) to both the legendary Memphis Minnie and Geeshie Wiley, whose own mysterious recording was covered in a New York Times article I featured back in the fourth issue of this newsletter.
Radiolab, “Songs that Cross Borders”
Country music, for better or for worse, is often thought of as one of the most American of musical genres. However, in this episode of Radiolab, you’ll hear how incredibly appealing it seems to be to people in places from the Caribbean to Zimbabwe to Thailand… and why. Plus, follow along on reporter Gregory Warner’s Afghan accordion adventures.
“Ten Train Songs That Tell the Story of the South” by Scott Huffard, Bitter Southerner
Being stuck in the house all the time must have me thinking about traveling, and there aren’t many modes of conveyance that get more attention from songwriters than the locomotive. In this piece, a student of the American South’s relationship with the train puts together a playlist that tries to “imagine a new canon of Southern train songs that cut through the stereotypes of the romanticized Dixie and the sanitized music of modern country,” from Bessie Smith to R.E.M.
John Prine, as probably everyone reading this will already be aware, died this week as a result of COVID-19. I didn’t expect to be one of the people adding to the avalanche of remembrances of him—he was one of those artists that I always respected from afar as “a songwriter’s songwriter,” but never put in the time get to really know his work. I have always really liked “Angel from Montgomery,” though, and this version from his 2000 Souvenirs album is a revelation—a portrait of an artist who has been living with a work for 30 years, and come to understand in a way that his younger self simply couldn’t. “To believe in this living is just a hard way to go,” indeed.
Songkick Live Streams
I’ve mentioned the Songkick app in a previous email, as my go-to means of finding out when artists I love are playing nearby. But in the age of social distancing and lockdowns, they’re also providing an index of upcoming livestreamed concerts that you can enjoy from the comfort of your own home (pants optional).
“A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now …
The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music” by William Weir, Slate
It’s better to burn out than fade away, as the bard once sang, and this 2014 Slate article makes the case that modern popular music has, for better or for worse, whole-heartedly embraced this maxim. Weil gives a variety of reasons for this shift, from the simplicity of the “skip” button to the simple ubiquity and ease of implementing the technique with modern technology—gone are the days when adding a fade-out to a recording meant physically carrying the recording device to the other side of the room!
It’s only been two weeks since the last newsletter, but that sure does seem like a very, very long time ago. As many of us are stuck at home, looking for a way to occupy their time while under “stay at home” orders, one way for us to connect from across mandated social distances is through music. So I put together a brief playlist of songs that have taken on a new resonance in our strange new reality, and opened it up to your submissions as well. Just save the playlist to your Spotify library, then you’ll be able to add songs to it. Add your favorite tunes about social distancing, working from home, general anxiety, whatever. Bonus points for tongues lodged firmly in cheek.
Please note: this is not intended to in anyway make light of the current situation, just to provide a chance for us to connect, and maybe put a smile on each other’s faces, while we all try to make it through these difficult times.
I keep seeing Nashville-based singer-songwriter Adia Victoria’s style being described as “gothic blues,” which hits all the right buttons for me. This tune in particular, with its swampy snares and shivering lead guitar, is right in my sonic wheelhouse.
“Imaginary Worlds,” on Audio Dramas
In a time of global freakout, escaping into a world outside of our own is a tempting thought. Eric Molinksy’s fascinating podcast about why we create imaginary worlds “and why we suspend our disbelief” mostly explores science fiction and fantasy films, novels, and other artifacts. In episodes 101 and 102, he explores the radio history and the podcast-era resurgence of audio dramas—how they’re produced, and why they’re so compelling.
“The True Story Of The Fake Zombies, The Strangest Con In Rock History” – Daniel Ralston, Buzzfeed
Ah, the ’60s. Back when no one knew what bands actually looked like, and all it took was adding some quotation marks for unscrupulous promoters to semi-legally run impostor acts—including future members of ZZ Top!—out on the road to capitalize on a mysterious British band’s hit single. This Buzzfeed article lays out the whole weird story.
Last year was a pretty lousy year for a lot of people I know. Call it escapism, call it self-care, but sometimes music is the only thing that can pull us out of a bad place. Most of the songs on this year’s annual mixtape are pretty upbeat, even if the subject matter is often not (which should be no surprise if you’re at all familiar with the music I write), but the common thread between them all seems to be a belief that clawing one’s way out of the darkness and into the light is always possible… and having a good soundtrack never hurts.
Last week, my latest album (and the second record on Beartrap Spring Records), The Long Farewells‘ Only the Stars was released. AmericanaUK called it “a fine album with lyrics to pique your interest and imagination… pleasingly literate songs with stories to tell,” and it’s available on just about every streaming and download platform out there. To save you the trouble of looking for links:
This Sunday, November 10, we’ll be appearing on the Val Leventhal Show on Que4 Radio to talk about the album and play a couple of tunes. Show starts at 10am, we should be on around 10:40 or so. And next Friday, November 15, is the album release show at the Montrose Saloon in Chicago.
Back in 2017, when I released Americayana, I did so through a conjured-from-thin-air label I called Beartrap Spring Records (named after the cabin in the Catskills where I grew up).
Now, as I prep for the second Beartrap Spring Records release(!), I’ve started an email newsletter in which I share audio tidbits—music, podcasts, books, articles, what-have-you—that I think are worth sharing and spending some time with.