VARIOUS – Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams (Slate Creek SCR0526172)

Gentle GiantsNow 78 and still going strong (his most recent album being in 2014), Don Williams is, both in person and on disc, one of the most laid back country artists you could imagine. Initially finding success as part of 60s folk-pop outfit The Pozo Seco Singers, whose hits included ‘I Can Make It With You’, ‘Hey Look What You’ve Done’ and ‘Excuse Me Dear Martha’, he embarked on a solo career in 1971, going on to score huge success with such song as ‘We Should Be Together’, You’re My Best Friend, ‘Some Broken Hearts Never Mend’ and, only released as an A-side in the UK, ‘I Recall A Gypsy Woman’.

Inducted into the Country Hall of Fame in 2010, he’s now the subject of a tribute album although, strictly speaking, it should The Songs Made Famous By Don Williams, since he’s better known as an interpreter than a writer

While curiously omitting ‘Gypsy Woman’ and ‘Best Friend’, it also doesn’t always go for the obvious crossover numbers, several numbers here likely to be familiar only to dedicated country fans, such as Keb Mo’s recording of US Country number 1 ‘Lord I Hope This Day Is Good’, Lady Antebellum’s string arrangement of Dave Loggins’ ‘We’ve Got A Good Fire Going’ and, a number 11 country hit in 1984, Loggins and Lisa Silver’s wistful story song ‘Maggie’s Dream’, sung here by Trisha Yearwood with Dan Dugmore on steel and electric guitars.

The collection opens with his 11th number 1, 1978’s uptempo ‘Tulsa Time’, given a suitably gutsy, going over by Pistol Annies with Mickey Raphael on wailing harmonica and tasty guitar by Colin Linden. Brandy Clark takes it into ballad territory for one of two numbers co-written by Roger Cook, 1980’s ‘I Believe In You’ waltzing lazily along on Guthrie Trapp’s resonator guitar. Three of his best known recordings come on a roll, kicking off with 1977 number 1 ‘Some Broken Hearts Never Mend’, Jerry Douglas providing dobro to Dierks Betley’s vocals. Only ever released as a B-side, but, for many, one of his signature songs, Bob McDill’s ‘Amanda’ gets a stripped down and throaty dusty blues treatment by Chris Stapleton, wife Morgane on harmonies, recorded live at the Grand Ole Opry in 2013. Arguably the seminal Williams number, and one he actually co-wrote with Wayland Holyfield, Alison Krauss gives ‘Till The Rivers All Run Dry’ a gentle, beautiful, reflective acoustic reading with a lush string arrangement by Kristin Wilkinson.

The second Cook co-write, 1982 number 1 ‘Love Is On A Roll’, is actually performed by himself and his co-writer John Prine, Linden on electric slide, Raphael on harmonica and Cook also providing ukulele and joining Garth Fundis on background vocals.

The most recent Williams hit here comes from 1981 and was actually a duet with Emmylou Harris and, while it’s a bit cheeky to assign a widely covered Townes Van Zandt classic to the songs of Don Williams, the spare version of ‘If I Needed You’ featuring Jason Isbell and wife Amanda Shires more than warrants turning a blind eye.

The album ends with another McDill song, Garth Brooks stepping up to the plate for a faithful rendition of ‘Good Ole Boys Like Me’, a suitably mellow end to an album clearly made with love and affection for the true Texan gentle giant.

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the VARIOUS – Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams link to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

ORDER – [CD]

Artist’s website: www.don-williams.com

Don Williams himself – ‘You’re My Best Friend’:

GRETCHEN PETERS – Blackbirds (Scarlet Letter Records/Proper PRPCD124P)

BlackbirdsOne of last year’s finest albums was Ben Glover’s ‘Atlantic’, and one the finest tracks on that was ‘Blackbirds’, a southern gothic tale of an unfaithful heart murder he co-wrote with Peters and on which she duetted. It resurfaces now for her own version, providing both the album’s title and, with stripped bleak, ominously swelling bonus track reprise, its bookends. Where Glover’s was a brooding acoustic number, Peters, who delivers it solo, colours her first version with a sparse, throaty electric guitar fuzz, restrained organ fills, a fuller chorus and a swelling instrumental break. It’s a different approach, but no less electrifying in its dark power, setting the thematic and emotive scene for the contemplations of death that follow.

It’s one of three numbers she co-penned with Glover, second up being the next track, ‘Pretty Things’, an achingly wearied, musically understated number built around guitar arpeggios that disarmingly harbours a lyric about numbing the pain, the cruel vagaries of fate and life’s “slow parade of losses.” The third, ‘When You Coming Home Baby?’,  sees her duetting with Jimmy LeFave on another downbeat number about separation and desperation as, backed by banjo and Jerry Douglas on dobro, she sings “Cause you got a bottle, don’t mean you have to drink.”

There’s one other co-write, reuniting her with her Wine, Women and Song tour collaborators Matreca Berg and Suzy Bogguss, who also provide backing vocals, for ‘Black Ribbons’, the heady brew of baritone guitars, accordion, banjo, charango and mandola underpinning the sense of anger and helplessness in a tale woven around the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a fisherman lays his wife to rest. There’s also a single non-original, David Mead’s ‘Nashville’, a gently rolling leaving and coming home love song to the city that, with its twilight skies ambiance, brings a rare note of optimism and light to the otherwise overcast proceedings.

The pull between the need to escape and the desire to stay are evident too on the piano-backed, strings-painted ballad ‘Jubilee’, a nod to her New York childhood that conjures the gospel hues of Randy Newman in its musings of mortality and familial bonds that give a poignant but celebratory tug to the lines “I’m an orphan thirty years on how I miss my father’s voice and my mother’s arms. I was you once, and now you’re me. It’s in this circle that we make a family.” Piano and strings again accompany another song about death on ‘Everything Falls Away’, the sea and the tide serving as the metaphors for loss as she recalls “a voice on the phone saying I’m sorry” and going to down to the sea to remember happier times.

Dreamy yet haunted by an overwhelming hurt, ‘The House on Auburn Street’ again takes her back to those New York days and uses a late 60s childhood memory of a neighbours’ house burning as a metaphor for the end of innocence and suburbia’s underbelly, foreshadowing tragedy in the line “I found you on the roof shooting sparks into your veins and staring vacantly across the green suburban plains.”

Peters says the album is about “lost souls, people trapped in the darkness, or fighting their way out of it”, and that finds its strongest expression in ‘When All You Got Is A Hammer’, a blues underpinned number about injustice, with surly baritone guitar, charango, dobro and Jason Isbell on harmonies, as Peters sketches a powerful portrait of a soldier who “came home from the desert with a medal on his chest”, ill-equipped to fit back in, suffering post traumatic stress, left to fend for himself and unable to “feed his own damn children on the money that he brings home.” Peters superbly catches that sense of impotency and rage in the memorable line “when all you got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

A hospital provides the setting for the despairing ‘The Cure For The Pain’, the final cut before the ‘Blackbirds’ reprise, as with a simple delicate electric guitar and melancholic strings arrangement, the protagonist begins by damning the hell, the “sorry waste”, he’s come to where waiting for death doesn’t come with movie violins, just “machines and medicine”, and ends by blessing the pills, the sheets, the food that you can’t eat and “the damned who walk these halls”, hauntingly recognising that, in a line loaded with both nihilism and empathy, “the cure for the pain is the pain.”

It is not, perhaps, the sort of thing you might put on to lift you from the depths of depression or the contemplation of the inevitable, but such are the glimmers of light shining through these wonderful songs and magnificent performances, that, even at the darkest, Peters’ compassion, anger and sense of the preciousness of the moments we have lead you to not go gentle into that good night, but to rage and say “Goddamn this losing fight.”

Mike Davies

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the banner link below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

It’s not on the album, but you gotta love this. Gretchen, Matreca Berg and Suzy Bogguss:

Gretchen Peters announces new album

Gretchen PetersFresh off her induction into the prestigious Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Gretchen Peters has confirmed the 9th February release of her new album Blackbirds. Co-produced with Doug Lancio and Barry Walsh and recorded in Nashville, the album features a who’s who of modern American roots music: Jerry Douglas, Jason Isbell, Jimmy LaFave, Will Kimbrough, Kim Richey, Suzy Bogguss and more. But it’s not the guests that make Blackbirds the most poignant and moving album of the GRAMMY-nominee’s storied career; it’s the impeccable craftsmanship, her ability to capture the kind of complex, conflicting, and overwhelming emotional moments we might otherwise try to hide and instead shine a light of truth and understanding onto them.

The eleven tracks on Blackbirds face down death with a dark grit and delicate beauty.

“During the summer of 2013 when I began writing songs for Blackbirds, there was one week when I went to three memorial services and a wedding,” remembers Peters. “It dawned on me that this is the way it goes as you get older – the memorial services start coming with alarming frequency and the weddings are infrequent and thus somehow more moving.”

She found herself drawn to artists courageous enough to face their own aging and mortality in their work (Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Nick Lowe), but noticed all the material was coming from a male perspective. “As brave an artistic risk as it may be for a man, it’s much riskier for a woman to speak about it,” says Peters, whose incredible catalogue of songs—including ‘Independence Day’ and ‘On A Bus To St. Cloud’ — have been recorded by everyone from Martina McBride and Neil Diamond to Etta James and Trisha Yearwood. “Aging seems to be a taboo subject for female singer-songwriters, in part because our value has depended so much on our youth and sexuality. I want to write about that stuff because it’s real, it’s there, and so few women seem to be talking about it.”

In an atypical and unexpectedly rewarding move, Peters teamed with frequent tour-mate Ben Glover to co-write several tunes on the new album, which evokes the kind of 1970’s folk rock of Neil Young, David Crosby, and Joni Mitchell that Peters grew up on, albeit with a more haunted, country-noir vibe simmering just below the surface.

Geographically, the album leaps around the country, with particularly heartrending stops in southern Louisiana at the scene of a crime (‘Blackbirds’), Pelham, New York, where Peters probes the hidden darkness of the leafy suburbia in which she grew up (‘The House On Auburn Street’), and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where a fisherman lays his wife to rest after losing everything in the BP oil spill (‘Black Ribbons’). ‘When All You Got Is A Hammer’ is the story of a veteran struggling to adjust to life at home after fighting overseas, while ‘The Cure For The Pain’ takes place in the waning days of illness in a hospital, and ‘Nashville’ brings us back to Peters’ adopted hometown.

Despite the varied locations, the songs on Blackbirds are all inextricably tied together through their characters, whom Peters paints with extraordinary empathy and vivid detail. Blackbirds follows Peters’ 2012 album Hello Cruel World, which NPR called “the album of her career” and Uncut said “establishes her as the natural successor to Lucinda Williams.” If anything, though, Blackbirds truly establishes Peters as a one-of-a-kind singer and songwriter, one in possession of a fearless and endlessly creative voice.

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the banner link below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Blackbirds Tracklisting:

1. Blackbirds
2. Pretty Things
3. When All You Got Is A Hammer
4. Everything Falls Away
5. The House on Auburn Street
6. When You Comin’ Home
7. Jubilee
8. Black Ribbons
9. Nashville
10. The Cure For The Pain
11. Blackbirds (reprise)

Artist’s website: www.gretchenpeters.com

Texan fiddler-singer-songwriter Amanda Shires released new album ‘Carrying Lightning’

Texan fiddler-singer-songwriter Amanda Shires announces her first headline tour of the UK & Ireland in April & May, including shows at this year’s prestigious Kilkenny Roots Festival, accompanied by Rod Picott on guitar and Todd Pertll on lap steel.

Widely regarded for her regular collaborations with Justin Townes Earle, Jason Isbell and Rod Picott, Amanda is taking a deserved turn in the spotlight, promoting her spellbinding new album Carrying Lightning – see below for full tour itinerary & album details.Amanda will also be recording sessions during the tour for Bob Harris’s BBC Radio 2 Sunday show and Barry Marshall-Everitt’s House Of Mercy during the tour. Continue reading Texan fiddler-singer-songwriter Amanda Shires released new album ‘Carrying Lightning’