By Ryan Hilligoss, December 7, 2020
What can I say about 2020 that hasn’t already been said a million times over already. It’s been a bleak, dark, hard year between Covid and all that’s been taken from us including friends, family, socializing, human interactions and our sanity. Despite the restrictions and need for safety protocols, one thing has remained consistent this year which is the creation of art and music, just in time when we needed it the most. Without artists and all who help create it, we would have been without much needed respite from the darkness lingering on the edge of town. Art, music, literature, film, and television are the things that allow us to shake off the dust of the day and rise a little higher and see the world in a different way. Art and the artists who make it provide us with much needed laughter, tears, joy, ideas to consider, and other people’s shoes to walk in for a brief time.
Given all the time I’ve had on my hands this year, it’s allowed me to take daily walks along my dusty country roads while listening to music and getting away from the torrent of gloom and doom barreling at us daily. While walking alone physically, I’ve had some of the best musicians in the world as good companions along the way. Here is a sampling of some of my favorite new music from this year. For anyone reading this, nothing I can say will enlighten or say anything you can’t learn by just listening so I’ll leave it at that. Many of you have probably heard of most of these, but maybe not and hopefully you can find something new to listen for a while on your journey. And if you know something I need to listen to which doesn’t appear here, let me know.
I Remember Everything, John Prine
John passed away earlier this year, taking a little bit of me with him when he left. He was one of the best songwriters of the last 50 years. His writing and lyrics could make you laugh and cry, sometimes in the same song, even sometimes in the same verse. He kept his eye on the daily lives of common people, the people he came from, and turned them into songs of Everyman. I Remember Everything was the last song he ever recorded and was released after he passed in April. The song became his first Billboard number one song and encapsulates everything great about his songs, his humor and pathos, his guitar and his voice.
Carsie Blanton, Fishin’ With You
Released very shortly after John passed, I ran across this excellent tribute from Carsie. She nailed it in the chords and arrangement and worked in plenty of Prine lyrics and song titles. Anytime things seem easy and simple, they are anything but. Carsie says what all of us non musicians wanted to say to John, and she did it in perfect fashion: thank you John Prine.
Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit, Reunions
One of the finest songwriters, guitarists and musicians working today continues a streak of incredible albums. The 400 unit is a great band which includes Amanda Shires, his wife and superb musician and songwriter in her own right, on fiddle and background vocals. “The river is my savior, because she used to be a cloud/ Now she’s happy just to lay there, when she used to be so proud”
Springsteen, Letter To You
The Boss Man recorded his 20th studio album along with the E Street Band in late 2019 in the hopes of launching a world wide tour in 2020. According to multiple interviews, Springsteen wrote most of the songs in a quick burst of inspiration after his one man show Springsteen On Broadway concluded in 2018. The album has twelve tracks, nine written recently and three coming from material he wrote in the early 70’s. The band gathered at his Colt’s Neck, NJ home studio and recorded all the songs in four days, resting and listening to play backs on the fifth day. It’s the first time the band recorded live together in the studio since the 80’s. In my opinion, the album ranks up in the top 5 of his career. In lieu of a tour, Springsteen decided to release a documentary film of the same name, directed and shot by longtime collaborator Thom Zimny, showing the band recording live in studio, working together on arrangements, commiserating and toasting each other at the end of every hard earned day. The album and film are exceptional and well worth your time. The film is currently only available on apple TV which often times offers a free 7 day trial. Below is a live performance of the song taken from Stand Up For Heroes fundraiser, sung with his wife and fellow musician Patti Scialfa at their horse barn.
The Mavericks En Espanol
All songs and lyrics sung in Spanish and I have no idea what Raul is saying but I know it’s beautiful and heartfelt. The Mavericks combine several genres including pop, country, salsa and western swing and make it their own with myriad beats like samba and ska. Lead singer Raul Malo has one of the finest voices in all of modern music, operatic like Roy Orbison and Elvis but all his own style and phrasing. A tip of the hat to the band for this gem.
The Chicks Gaslighter
The Chicks return with their fifth studio album and their first since 2006. Lead singer Natalie Maines and sisters Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire channel the rage fueled by Maine’s recent divorce from her husband father of their children. If you think Taylor Swift can burn an ex, just listen to Gaslighter or Tights on My Boat. I remember clearly walking in the morning listening to the album when I got to the last track, it hit me hard having gone through a divorce myself in the last few years, and I had to sit down on a nearby bench to gather my thoughts. While my circumstances were different, the power of music and songwriters is, they sometimes can nail the essence and spirit of something that countless others have experienced but you feel like it was written just for you.
Taylor Swift Folklore
When she was younger, I listened to her hits but didn’t really pay attention thinking she was a passing fad but over the course of her career, she has proven herself time after time with each passing album. She is the real deal and is in it for the long haul as a musician, performer and song writer. I give her all the credit in the world for fighting for control of her catalogue and making hard decisions while fighting for her artistic freedom. She is one of the few current musicians I can see having a career filled with high quality material and the longevity like Springsteen and McCartney. It doesn’t matter the genre she writes and records in, she’s all in and at the top of her game.
Will Hoge Tiny Little Movies
Thanks to my friend Jeff Calaway for introducing me to this phenomenal singer and songwriter a few years ago with his album Never Give In which was followed by Anchors and My American Dream. His lyrics and arrangements remind me at times of James McMurtry and Springsteen in his storytelling abilities and the way his lyrics evoke cinematic images. If you’ve never listened to Will, do yourself a favor and check him out.
Bob Dylan Rough and Rowdy Ways
The ever changing chameleon, the self described poet laureate of rock and roll keeps the creative train rolling in a nearly 60 year career. He scored his first Billboard number one single with this 17 minute dirge regarding the assassination of JFK in Dallas, Texas. Anyone songwriter who can name check the Beatles, Wolf Man Jack, Etta James, The Kingston Trio, Jellyroll Morton, Macbeth and The Eagles and many others is the Shakespeare of rock and roll.
Chris Stapleton Starting Over
Stapleton keeps his string of high quality recordings going following up on Traveler and From Studio A Volumes I and II with Starting Over. Backed by his superb band including his wife Morgane on vocals and percussion, Stapleton lays his powerful voice into a wide range of genres including rock, country and blues. The title track is a perfect song, only slightly below Traveler in his catalogue in my opinion. Stapleton along with Isbell and Sturgill Simpson make up a trio of artists pushing country/rock forward.
Margo Price That’s How Rumors Get Started
Along with Brandi Carlisle, Amanda Shires and Kacey Musgraves, Margo, hailing from Aledo, Illinois, is part of an excellent collection of work being done in country/pop by strong female singers and song writers.
“I grew where I was planted
But I never felt at home
My head was filled with questions
And my feet, they long to roam
My arms reached out like branches
But my heart just couldn’t stay
I left the moment that I could, a prisoner of the highway”
Tom Petty Wild Flowers and All The Rest
When Tom Petty originally wrote and recorded his solo album Wildflowers in 1994, he intended it to be a double album with roughly twenty five songs but the label demanded he cut it down to one album which even then was a stretch at fifteen tracks. Right up until the time he passed, he and fellow Heartbreaker and long time partner Mike Campbell toyed with the idea of rereleasing it in his original formulation and touring behind the entire package of material. Since he passed, Campbell and Tom’s family have been sorting through his vault of material and they decided to release it as he envisioned along with home demo recordings, outtakes and live recordings. Simply put, it’s a beautiful tribute to a great artist and musician by those who loved and worked with him.
“So dream away my love, let your heart be free/And if ever someone tries to break your will, have a dream on me”
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading and listening. I hope to see you up the road soon enough at a concert where we can stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart. Rock on my brothers and sisters.