Flawless execution in both musical performance and as a theatrical, cinematic piece.
The barn is essential to the music and the stories. It’s skeletal remains reflect the skeletal remains of most of the album’s characters who are nearing the end, having run from and away from everything that was ever good for them and the people that loved them. The barn’s wooden boards mirror what’s left of these characters: weathered and worn, fragile, slightly askew, but somehow still remaining and doing the best they can to hang on in a semblance of the work they used to perform
The barn is the perfect encapsulation of the vehicle used to deliver a story straight from the mythos of the West and western movies with their horses, cowboys, lonely men and wide open spaces filled simultaneously with blazing light, darkness and the shadows in between where the characters often find themselves living on the margins.
Bruce puts a huge collection of musicians and sounds in a very small space that reminded me so much of Elvis Presley’s stage show with a rhythm section, vocal support, a 30 piece orchestra, orchestra director and musical stage director. The sound embodies the pot pourri of musical tastes he’s been working at for 50 years. The country, pop sophistication of Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell, a nod to the horn arrangements of Allen Touisaant who worked with country artists in the 70’s including Cambell, paying tribute to the Nashville songwriters like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle on Somewhere North of Nashville, the pure pop of southern California Beach Boys and Phil Spector orchestrations, Smokey Robinsonesque vocals on Sundown and There Goes My Miracle, a few hints of the Cosmic County stylings of Graham Parson, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Emmylou Harris and everything in between. It’s a sonic orgasm.
Beautifully shot inside and outside, lush in sound and scenery, incredible arrangements and flawless in musicianship by all on stage. The sweeping scenery filled with cactus and desert scrub, loping horses and lonely characters walking in silence pairs perfectly with the music Springsteen and friends play.
This movie earns 5 gold plated Takamine acoustic guitars hung on the wall.
“And so we keep walking through the darkness towards the sunrise because that’s where the light is. Happy trails pilgrim”
I woke up this morning with the half light of sunrise creeping through my window shades, wondering where the train was. Lingering in the state half way between dreamy slumber and consciousness, I heard the far distant sound of a train whistle a mile to my south emanating from a Canadian National freight train heading east to Chicago. A feeling of melancholy took hold of me as I realized I was taken from a dream, a dream of my youth. In my dream, I am 10 years old again, lying in my grand parents bed room in their house on the north end of Springfield, Illinois. In my dream, I can see myself as I lay in the dark listening to the train whistle and the click and clack of a long freight train passing on the tracks to the south. I lie in bed with sounds in my head as I watch the soft light shadows splayed on the ceiling above me, shadows coming from the trees and bushes outside the window, wondering where the train is heading, what the conductor looks like, and what mysterious materials are held in the big, heavy box cars.
I know dream researchers say that we all dream all the time, but for whatever reason, I have’t had many vivid dreams that I remember when I wake up in a long time. I think what set this off was, after having turned 45, the half way point for me in life hopefully, taking a recent trip to the Illinois State Fair held annually in Springfield near my grandparents old house. On the way into town, I drove by the old house to take a look at what had happened to it’s appearance since the house was sold last year after being in the family for close to 70 years. Not much had changed at least on the outside, what with some rock laid down in front of the shrubs in the front yard and some landscaping stones. With my kids in the backseat, I stopped for a short time in the street looking and remembering and sharing a few funny stories about my grandparents.
My maternal grandparents were William Hubert “Hubie” Barr born near Mattoon, Il August 30, 1916 and Iva “Ivy” White Barr. They married October 6, 1936 and had two daughters, Glenda Lou and Madonna “Donna” Sue while living in Mattoon near Western Avenue. My grandfather grew up on a farm near Lerna, Il, served in the Civilian Conservation Core, one of Roosevelt’s CCC Boys, worked for Hayes Freight and was a proud member of the Teamsters Union. My grandmother raised two great women while also working in various restaurants in Mattoon including Snappy Service. In the mid 50’s, Hayes Freight decided to move their operation to the state capital and the family decided to move for a better opportunity. For $15,000, they built an 800 square foot, 3 bedroom, one bathroom house near the Fairview neighborhood of Springfield, bounded by Sangamon Avenue to the north, 19th Street to the east, North Grand Avenue to the south and 9th Street to the west.
A working class section of town, the north end was supported by jobs at the Illinois Watch Factory, Hayes Freight, a Pillsbury mill and shipping center among others. The bells of St. Aloysius on Sangamon avenue, a quarter mile to the north, could be heard ringing out throughout the day, the ones I remember were in the morning and at the end of the day. Burlington Northern tracks a quarter mile to the south had constant rail traffic running every 30 minutes with clanging bells alerting drivers as the gates came down halting traffic followed by the train whistle. Church bells to the north, train whistles to the south, both a quarter mile away, half way between heaven and earth, The state fair grounds to the northwest, a short 15 minute walk away. Both my mother and Aunt Glenda graduated from Lanphier High School to the south west.
All this is to say the kind of neighborhood my grandparents and mom and aunt were a part of and lived in, and by extension myself and brothers Kevin and Sean and father. I was fortunate that my parents Robert and Donna Hilligoss lived in the Springfield area until 1977 when we moved to Godfrey, Il. Fortunate in that we got spend a lot of time with our grandparents at their house and in the area as our grandmother watched each of us for a time while our parents both worked, dad as a teacher and mom as a legislative aide at the Capitol. Even after we moved, we often times made the trek up and down I55 to see them and spend time together. Random memories: lunch and hamburgers at Maid Rite, hot dogs and chili at Den’s Chili Parlor, donuts at Mel-O-Cream, pizza from Vic’s and daily afternoon visits to the pubs and saloons dotting neighborhood corners in the area. Hubert would take us with him for his afternoon PBR, Falstaff or Schlitz beer. We’d sit next to him on a bar stool while he ordered one for him and would tell the bartender, “Set my boys up with a redeye!!” To this day I don’t know what the hell a red eye is but it tasted just fine. Hubie wasn’t one to suffer fools gladly and had this sign on the front of the house right above the doorbell warning those dumb enough to read it and still ring the bell.
Fairview Park was built after the houses were built and included basketball courts, a playground and 3 baseball fields, one for T ball, one for Sandy Koufax league teenagers and one for 10-12 year olds directly situated behind the house, with a 30 foot tall screen separating flyballs from the field from the backyard of the house. For as long as I can remember, one of his daily battles was waged against violators of the sign that clearly said “No one over 12 can hit balls from this field”. One by one, late teens and even adults would step onto the field with baseballs and bats, taking swings trying to knock one over the “Green Monster” in short left field, creating their own version of Home Run Derby. Balls would come flying over the fence into the backyard, some dropping innocently into the grass, some banging off the roof or window awnings and sometimes breaking a window. He’d hear the tink of a bat against ball or hear a thud off the roof and go tearing into the back yard, looking for the ball and after finding it, leaning against the fence holding the ball daring the perpetrator to come ask for the ball back: not many dared and those that did came away empty handed.
My grandparents maybe didn’t have lot in the way of financials, but they had a lot of love and grace, and they took great care of what they had, working daily to carry themselves with dignity and pride. Adding an awning over the front porch along with a glider seat to provide a shady spot to sit and rest and enjoy a beer every once in a while listening to the St.Louis Cardinals on the radio. Growing rose bushes in the backyard near the wooden swing. Later adding a full one car garage and work space along with an adjacent shaded porch. Ivy would play games with us all the time including shut the box, Go Fish, and endless rounds of Trouble. All of us spent a lot of time there as kids and then as teens and adults, coming back to visit as often as we could.
In 1983, our grandmother Ivy passed away after a long battle with cancer. In 1994, Hubie died from cancer as well. Our father who had decided to go back to teaching in the Springfield area in 1994 and had stayed with Hubert during that time took over the house and lived there most of the time until he retired. The house remained in our family until February 2018 when we decided it was time to sell the house after our mother died. On a cold, damp late winter day, we cleaned the house out one last time, donating most of the furniture and taking what was left, some for practical uses and some for sentimental reasons. After the work was done, we took one last look around, the years and memories and love swirling in our hearts and minds. After 70 years and thousands upon thousands of entrances and exits, we closed the front door one last time, making sure it was secure and locked, taking care just as they did.
Afterwards, we went and shared a meal together. Before leaving town to return home, I drove by the house one more time just to linger for a moment, lost in my memory. With the sun setting to the west and the golden glow of winter sun shining off the houses and rooftops, I parked my car and decided to take one more look around. As I have done hundreds of times, I climbed the 60s era television antenna ladder bolted to the west side of the house and stood on the roof overlooking the park and baseball fields of my youth. As I looked around the neighborhood remembering all the good times and those that have come and gone who graced the same ground, the church bells of St. Aloysius began ringing to the north and a freight train began rumbling to the south, letting off a whistle blast, a gift from Hubie and Ivy saying thank you, we love you and miss you Barski and Tevin and Shagnasty. The sun setting to the west, church bells to the north and a train whistle to the south, halfway between heaven and earth.
Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, Madison Square Garden, 2009
By Ryan Hilligoss, Shawn Poole and Jim Musselman
May 1, 2019
“The approach toward song as the potential to reach people and to touch people’s lives and to change the world in the sense is something he’s held a deep belief in and he’s pursued it his whole life.” Bruce Springsteen on Seeger
My friend Shawn Poole from backstreets.com and Backstreets Magazine and I want to pay our respects to Pete Seeger, who would be turning 100 years old on May 3. Pete passed away on January 27, 2014 at the age of 94, having lived a long, full life fighting for social justice, racial equality, world peace, and environmental safety. But more importantly, Pete Seeger’s message was delivered in the form of music, played on the banjo and accompanied by the many voices of his audience who always joined in with Pete on the chorus. Pete Seeger was and remains an icon of musical history, greatly responsible for the folk music revival of the late 1950s and early 60s. For his activism, Pete was once described by poet Carl Sandburg as being “America’s tuning fork”. Pete’s musical legacy and activism are reflected in many ways in the music and career of Bruce Springsteen. Bruce once said of Pete, “Pete was one of those guys who saw himself as a citizen artist, as a citizen activist. He had a very full idea of those things and how it connected to music and what music could do. The power that music had to influence and to inspire. That’s the power of folk music and that’s the power of Pete Seeger.”
Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, Pete Seeger and Tom Morello 5/3/2009 Madison Square Garden
What better way to start off than watching Bruce Springsteen himself talking about the Pete Seeger’s legacy. Springsteen’s speech is taken from Pete’s 90th birthday celebration held at Madison Square Garden on May 3, 2009 where artists as diverse as Bruce, Tom Morello, John Mellencamp, Ani Defranco, Roger McGuin, Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie helped celebrate Pete’s music and spirit. Pete insisted the concert be known as The Clearwater Concert and all the proceeds went to The Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a foundation Pete and his wife Toshi helped create in 1966 to clean up the Hudson River and surrounding wetlands. At the birthday celebration, Bruce was joined by Tom Morello on a version of The Ghost of Tom Joad. You will see a version of The Ghost of Tom Joad featuring Pete Seeger trading verses with Bruce. I’ll talk about this a little more later, but it is of special note that longtime Seeger friend and mentor, Woody Guthrie, who also directly influenced Springsteen himself, wrote the song The Ballad of Tom Joad, inspired by John Ford’s 1940 film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. Just as Woody was inspired by John Steinbeck, Springsteen was inspired by Guthrie and Steinbeck and wrote his own piece of art in the folk manner of adding lyrics and verses to a bit of pre-existing music. In 1995, Springsteen released his solo acoustic version of The Ghost of Tom Joad which was then covered by Rage Against The Machine in a much different version that cuts to to the anger and rage of a political situation. Later, Springsteen and RATGM guitarist Tom Morello would collaborate on a full band studio version which includes incredible guitar work from Morello that elevates the song to higher limits. The folk tradition is alive tonight.
Bruce Springsteen and The Seeger Sessions
In the liner notes to We Shall Overcome, Bruce Springsteen and The Seeger Sessions, released in 2006, Springsteen writes, “In 1997 I recorded, We Shall Overcome for Where Have All The Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger. Growing up a rock and roll kid I didn’t know a lot about Pete’s music or the depth of his influence. So I headed to the record store and came back with an armful of Pete Seeger records. Over the next few days of listening, the wealth of songs, their richness and power changed what I thought I knew about “folk music” Hearing this music and our initial ’97 session for Pete’s record sent me off, casually at first, on a quest.”
Shawn Poole from Backstreets.com here. I was very pleased and honored to be asked by my buddy Ryan Hilligoss to contribute to this special project celebrating the 100th anniversary of Pete Seeger’s birth. As Ryan noted, Pete made an enormous, lasting impact not only on music but on social and political conditions in the U.S. and around the globe. Pete Seeger is also the only musician to date for whom Bruce Springsteen has recorded an entire album’s worth of songs in tribute. The person whose spark started the fire that became that album, entitled We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, is Jim Musselman, the founder and president of Appleseed Recordings. Appleseed is based in West Chester, PA, not too far from where I live, and recently I had the pleasure of visiting with Jim Musselman and chatting with him about how The Seeger Sessions happened, Bruce Springsteen’s relationship with Pete Seeger and Bruce’s continued relationship with Appleseed Recordings as one of their official recording artists, including his most recently released recording for Appleseed, a Seeger Sessions outtake recording of Lee Hays and Pete Seeger’s classic song “If I Had A Hammer.” I’ll be sharing with you some excerpts from our conversation. Here’s Jim talking about how The Seeger Sessions came to be, followed by a bit of recording that Jim made with Pete Seeger himself talking about The Seeger Sessions and its opening track. Take it away, Jim and Pete.
We Shall Overcome
Shawn Poole: You just saw Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band’s version of Old Dan Tucker,“introduced” by Pete Seeger himself through the magic of technology, and thanks to Jim Musselman of Appleseed Recordings for sharing that recording of Pete with us for this special project. There is another version of “Old Dan Tucker,” from Bruce Springsteen & The Seeger Sessions Band’s 2006 performance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Bruce has listed that performance among his top concerts of all time and just last weekend while onstage with Thom Zimny in a special screening of archived footage at the Asbury Park Music & Film Festival, announced that he hopes to release a film of that entire 2006 Jazz Fest performance. Stay tuned, Seeger Sessions Band fans! The first recording of a Pete Seeger song that Bruce Springsteen ever contributed to Appleseed Recordings was his version of “We Shall Overcome,” the song that Pete helped to compose and popularize during the Civil Rights era. Bruce recorded his version of “We Shall Overcome,” with the musicians who later became The Seeger Sessions Band, for the 1998 Appleseed Seeger tribute album Where Have All The Flowers Gone? “We Shall Overcome” is a song that has been used by so many people all over the world to give them strength and courage during their struggles. When the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks occurred, NBC News used Springsteen’s version of “We Shall Overcome” over a montage of video footage from the aftermath of the attacks. Here’s Jim Musselman talking about what that meant to Pete Seeger.
You just saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band along with guest Roger McGuinn of the Byrds covering Pete Seeger’s Turn! Turn! Turn!. This version was performed on April 23, 2008 and released officially shortly after. Roger McGuin and the Byrds were one of many artists to cover Pete’s songs back in the 1960’s as part of the folk revival. Turn turn turn was written by Pete Seeger in the late 1950s. The lyrics – except for the title, which is repeated throughout the song, and the final two lines – are adapted word-for-word from the first eight verses of the third chapter of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. In addition to Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen was greatly influenced by Roger McGuinn, so once again, the music comes full circle with this recording.
During his blacklist period, one of the few ways Pete could earn a living to support his wife and kids was to teach music at summer camps and at schools. He also toured colleges, presenting his brand of folk music, teaching a great amount of American traditional songs to a new generation. Pete recorded several albums for Moe Asch’s Folkways Record label. He was a frequent columnist in the folk publication Sing Out! Pete also urged John Hammond at Columbia records to sign and produce Bob Dylan. As a founding member of the Newport Folk Festival, Pete was integral to pushing for the inclusion of many various artists as wide ranging as The Weavers, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Earl Scruggs, Odetta, Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, Cisco Huston and Joan Baez.
Next you’ll hear Jim Musselman discuss American Land and then hear a live version of the song played by Bruce Springsteen and The Seeger Sessions band taken from the Live in Dublin release.
The American Land- There’ll be diamonds in the sidewalks
Shawn Poole: We are celebrating Pete Seeger’s 100th birthday today. You just saw Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band’s live version of Bring ‘Em Home taken from the Live In Dublin release which is available on audio and video. Also, we included Pete Seeger doing his own Waist Deep In The Big Muddy taken from his appearance on The Smothers Brothers show in 1968. Pete Seeger and the other band mates in the Weavers were blacklisted from radio and television during the age of McCarthyism and Pete was banned from tv until 1968 when the Smothers Brothers went toe to toe with the CBS management, insisting Pete be allowed to perform or they would not produce any new episodes of their very popular show. Pete said and did things as he thought were right and for that, he paid an awfully high price. In 1992, Springsteen released the album Lucky Town along with Human Touch. The album contained The Big Muddy, which while very different in the story and arrangement, bears a very striking similarity to Pete’s song in the title.
Here’s very high compliment that Pete Seeger once gave Bruce Springsteen back in a 1997 New York Times Magazine profile of Bruce: ”He’s a very honest, gentle guy, not showoffish. I once read an interview with him where he said that a rock musician can stay honest if he can look down into the footlights and see his own face reflected there. I wrote his manager, Jon Landau, a letter after I saw that saying that it’s really great that you’ve managed to stay normal good people despite the huge amount of publicity and big sales. Think of how many people’s lives have been ruined by fame.”
This Train Is Bound For Glory- Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Springsteen
It’s hard to talk about Pete Seeger without talking about his friend, mentor, and kindred spirit Woody Guthrie. This Land Is Your Land is often identified with Pete, but it was written by Guthrie who had been out on one of his many cross country rambles, came home and wrote down the lyrics and wrote in the margins, “You can only write what you see”. Just like many other songs like We Shall Overcome, Little Boxes, Jacob’s Ladder and Goodnight Irene, Pete didn’t write them, he might have added some verses or words or covered them, but they are folk songs that he helped pass along to the next generation. As a young man, Pete Seeger worked at the Library of Congress along with Alan and John Lomax on their recording project wherein they went around the country recording every different kind of music they could find in the field including blues, gospel, bluegrass, and country. During this period, Alan Lomax invited Woody Guthrie to Washington DC to record some of his material. One day, Woody showed up with no notice as was his style, Alan introduced him to Pete who accompanied Woody on many of his recordings since Pete could play whatever instrument and style Woody required. Afterwards, Woody left Washington and headed for California and took Pete with him and showed him how to ride the railways, how to busk for money playing music on street corners and earning money for food and lodging, and teaching him all the music he knew. As a member of the Almanac singers in 1941, Pete invited Woody to join their group which he did and the group recorded several albums of 78s including folk music, union songs and anti-Fascist songs prior to the outbreak of World War II.
UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1970: Photo of Woody Guthrie Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Pete Seeger’s banjo. This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender
Many of Woody’s guitars sometimes had the words “This machine kills fascists” on the face. Pete learned from Woody’s message and turned his own into a message of love and hope and so on the head of his banjo, Pete wrote, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
Woody Guthrie was very politically motivated and involved in many movements over the years as was Pete Seeger. In 1955, under McCarthyism, Pete Seeger was called in front of the House on Un-American Activities due to his outspoken support of civil rights, labor rights, racial equality, and anti-militarism. During his testimony, Pete said, “I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers. I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American.”
Hobo’s Lullabye was written and originally recorded by Goebel Reeves in the early 1930’s and his song was covered by many artists over the years including Woody Guthrie who sang it often and turned it into a hit. Below is a link to hear Bruce Springsteen and The Seeger Sessions Band performing Reeve’s song with Pete on harmony and banjo. This is the only song Springsteen and The Seeger Sessions band actually recorded with Pete.
We’ve Got A Hammer, We’ve Got a Song
Shawn Poole: I want to share with you all one more clip from my conversation with Appleseed Records founder and president Jim Musselman, accompanied by another Bruce Springsteen Appleseed recording, before Ryan then closes out today’s show. Here’s Jim talking about Bruce’s most recently released recording for Appleseed, a Seeger Sessions outtake recording of Lee Hays and Pete Seeger’s classic song “If I Had A Hammer.” The track is available exclusively on the 3-CD set Appleseed’s 21st Anniversary: Roots & Branches. Visit appleseedmusic.com for more information. Now here’s Jim.
Getting Clean again, From The Redwood Forests To The Gulf Stream Waters
My friends Shawn Poole and Jim Musselman and I would like to thank you for reading, watching and listening as we paid our respects to one of America’s finest musicians and human beings of the last 100 years.
In 1972, after playing a concert a young man walked up to Pete and said, “Are you Pete Seeger? I’ve come here to kill you.” Pete had been threatened many times over the years by many different people for many different reasons, mostly political, but this seemed different, so Pete took the young man aside to talk to him. The young man had served in the Marines in Vietnam and had lost many friends in battle and the young man was outraged by some of the things Pete said and the songs he sang. They talked for a while and then Pete pulled out his banjo and together they sang “We Shall Overcome”. Afterwards the young man said to Pete, “I feel better now, I feel clean.” That’s the beauty of Pete Seeger, that’s the beauty of music. If you can sing along and you sing loud enough, you can make a difference and maybe you can even save a life. Maybe you can feel clean again.
Pete often described his work in this way, “I see myself as a planter of seeds. Some of the seeds land on the stones and don’t sprout. Some land on the pathway and get stomped on. But, some land on good ground, take root and sprout a 1,000,000 times over”.
The message of Pete Seeger and also of Bruce Springsteen is this, if you love your country and the world, you’ll find a way to speak up for what you think is right. Pete used his voice and music and that glorious banjo, just as Bruce Springsteen continues to use his voice and guitar to speak out for what is right, for what is good and true and decent in America and around the world. As long as music is played, as long as we sing along, there is hope. Even in the darkest times, let’s keep singing, even if we don’t know the words, Pete will give them to us and we just sing along and maybe we can raise the roof a little higher. So let’s all join in on one final song, and do me a personal favor and sing as loud as you can no matter who might be listening. It’s simple, Pete will give us the words and you just repeat after him. So here we go….a one, a two…a one, two, three, four….
Postscipt- Like a ripple from a pond
After Pete passed, Springsteen released this statement: “We deeply mourn the passing of Pete Seeger. We believe that nobody is truly gone until all those who are touched or influenced by that person are gone from the Earth…So Pete will live on in the hearts and minds of so many for years to come. His vision of peace and justice and equality for all will live on and continue to influence. His music has been used all over the world for social justice. From the Civil Rights movement to the anti-war movements Pete and his songs have been there on the front lines. Like a ripple that keeps going out from a pond Pete’s music will keep going out all over the world spreading the message of non-violence and peace and justice and equality for all. Wherever people are fighting to be free or fighting for equality Pete’s songs and Pete’s vision will be there with them.”
Pete Seeger entertains Eleanor Roosevelt and guests
2018 was a great year in music for fans of all kinds of music. Every year is a great year for music fans if you just know where to look and where to listen whether it be on Sirius/XM, YouTube, terrestrial radio, or, oh my, walking through an actual record store where they still exist and browsing. I’ve heard that music and radio are dead but that couldn’t be more false. Radio stations as many of us knew them growing up are over, being run and programmed by corporate masters far away. No more disc jockeys helping break a new artist they like the sound of by playing their records often in the rotation. Now it’s artists having their own YouTube pages, fans listening on snapchat and Instagram or downloading through their favorite sources. But the music is still there. Musicians are still there making the music they love and wanting to share it with other like minded souls, only if the fans have the ears to listen.
I know it’s the end of January and these top 10 type lists are usually written by mid December, but the holidays and other personal issues have kept me from the keyboard, so for anyone interested, here are my favorite albums of 2018. This is not a ‘best of’ list that implies the writer somehow has a lock on quality or more discerning ears than others, this is my humble list of the albums that spoke to me the most as a listener.
Will Hoge- My American Dream
My friend Jeff Calaway turned me onto Will Hoge a few years ago by suggesting I listen to Hoge’s latest album at the time Never Give In. I loved his style, song writing, lyrics, melodies and his voice which spoke to my Midwestern roots but with universal themes. I’ve since followed him through Small Town Dreams and his excellent 2017 release Anchors which seemed to cover a lot of the same ground I was living in my own life at the time with themes of loss, regret, divorce and it’s results. 2018 saw the release of Hoge’s My American Dream, an angry, violent, loud indictment of the current administration and the current state of our lives, hard working people on both sides of the border doing their best to make a living but barely living and making ends meet. His prior albums have been mostly acoustic guitar, softer sound but this one jumps off the needle from the first to the last track with hard charging guitars and drums, pounding out a warning call on the corruption, meanness and stupidity now sweeping across the nation like an ill wind. From Gilded Walls, Oh Mr.Barnum, Thoughts and Prayers and through the title track, Hoge displays some of his finest song writing of his career and sending a wake up call for his listeners.
Kacey Musgraves- Golden Hour
I’ve had very few celebrity crushes in my life, but Kacey is at the top of my list. her physical beauty is outshine by the beauty of her voice and strength of her song writing, her voice is one of the finest and purest in modern music, on parallel with Roy Orbison and Jackie Wilson in tone, range and smoothness. She followed up her hit Pageant Material with Golden Hour which shines all the way through and includes Wonder Woman, Space Cowboy and High Horse. Deservedly, she’s been nominated for several awards this year including artist of the year, album and song of the year. I’m glad she’s part of emerging female voices in country/pop along with Margo Price and Marren Morris to counter the long held male territory.
Leon Bridges- Good Thing- The Texas raised artist follows up his 2015 smash Smooth Sailing with Good Thing. His initial release was a modern nod to the smooth soul and R&B of Sam and Dave, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles with a retro sound. Based on the popularity and success of his first album, it would have been easy for him to stick with that sound but on Good Thing, he takes a 180 turn into fully modern sounds of R&B, jazz and pop and uses his smooth voice to bring it all to the front. I was able to see him perform in Chicago as part of his tour and it was one of the best and most powerful shows I attended this year. I look forward to him having a long career and hearing where he goes with each new release.
Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats- Tearing At The Seams- This Stax Records group returns with their second album of original material after their initial breakout 2015 self entitled album with Tearing At The Seams. The classic Stax sound with nods to the great Stax musicians of Booker T and the MGs is apparent from the first track, Shoe Boot, an extension in title and sound to the MGs Boot Leg. The front man’s voice is classic soul and R&B with his own touch and the album is strong from start to finish which ends with the album title track, a passionate, painful expression of the process and after effects of divorce. They’re all great but highlights for me are A Little Bit Of Honey, Hey Mama and Still Out There Running.
John Prine- Tree of Forgiveness- Prine returns in his best form with his first album of original material in 10 years. In an interview, Prine said his wife, family and friends staged an intervention and sent him to a hotel to stay and focus on writing new material. Prine is one of the finest song writers of the last 50 years, giving writers such as Townes Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Goodman a run for their money. As can be seen in the album cover photo, Prine acknowledges and embraces his age on the album songs which touch on life, aging, the human heart’s mysteries and in a classic move, a kiss off to his few critics on the albums final track, When I Get To Heaven. The track Boundless Love contains my favorite lyrics of the whole album and represent the classic Prine touch of common day things, the daily lives of his listeners and turning them on their heads.
“Sometimes my ol’ heart is like a washing machine
It bounces around till my soul comes clean
And when I’m clean, when hung out to dry
I’m gonna make you laugh until you cry
Surround me with your boundless love
Confound me with your boundless love
I was drowning in the sea, lost as I could be
When you found me with your boundless love”
Paul McCartney- Egypt Station– As he has always done and will continue to do as time allows, McCartney finds a brilliant way to capture modern sounds and styles with fresh material while always maintaining the level of quality and songwriting that is his standard. From straight up rock and pop to dance and EDM and ballads, he makes it interesting from start to finish. At this point in his carer, he could easily become a parody of himself or just cash it in, but the artistic drive still propels him to search for answers in the same 12 notes and octave.
Janelle Monae- Dirty Computer- This beautiful, vivacious, multi talented artist continues her mastery with Dirty Computer. Blending funk, soul, R&B and rock, she takes influences as wide as Jackie Wilson, James Brown, George Clinton and Prince and makes her own way through the musical landscape. Her shows and videos are visually stunning and she continues to press the boundary of current art with an eye on tomorrow.
Nalani and Sarina- The Circle- These two sisters from New Jersey released their best album of material so far in their short career. The production is cleaner and smoother and mixed to maximize their beautiful harmonies and power of their lyrics. From the first track until the end, the album is full of high quality lyrics, themes and melodies. Their voices are so natural and blend so well together, they remind me of other sibling artists like The Everly Brothers and Ann and Nancy Wilson. Blending rock, pop, R&B and funk to make their own sound. Highlights include Welcome To The Rest Of Your Life, Never Let Go Of Your Hand and Tomorrow and Yesterday. I’ve been able to see them perform live twice and they put on a tremendous live performance full of energy and attitude and musical versatility powered by their 5 piece band.
First Aid Kit- Ruins
First Aid Kit is a Swedish folk duo that consists of the sisters Klara (vocals/guitar) and Johanna Söderberg (vocals/keyboards/Autoharp/bass guitar). They are folk based but blend in country and rock when they are joined by their band. Their voices are immaculate and stunning and join for harmonies out of this world. Rebel Heart, Fireworks and Postcard are highlights for me. It’s amazing to me that they know the American song book so well with obvious influences of Emmy Lou Harris, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and others. Below is my favorite song by them as they pay tribute to Emmy Lou and Graham Parsons with Emmy Lou in attendance.
Honorable mentions: Roseanne Cash She Remembers Everything, Tom Petty’s American Treasure, Elvis Presley with Royal Philharmonic Where No One Stands Alone, Brandi Carlile and Bruce Springsteen’s live Broadway performance soundtrack.
Happy listening and let me know what your favorites were in 2018.
I came to Steve Earle a little later than most, picking up in his career with the release and tour for The Mountain with The Del McCoury Band. I remember very clearly two things that night long ago at Mississippi Nights along the river in St.Louis in 1999: being amazed at how hard a bluegrass band could rock and seeing local St.Louis icon Beatle Bob dancing in front of the stage to Steve’s cover of I’m Looking Through You. Since then I’ve seen him several times during his solo acoustic residency at the City Winery in Chicago. I’ve listened to each new album he’s released starting with Transcendental Blues, on through Washington Square Serenade, The Low Highway and So You Wanna Be An Outlaw among other while also going back through his catalog including my personal highlights El Corazon, I Feel Alright and Train a Comin’. The last albums I listened to and finally understood were Guitar Town and Copperhead Road, two of his first major releases.
Last night at Elgin Community College in Elgin, Illinois, Steve Earle brought the mighty Dukes along for the ride while celebrating the 30th anniversary of Copperhead Road. This was my first show seeing Steve Earle perform with the Dukes and while I have loved the solo acoustic shows, make no doubt about it, I am a Dukes convert from this point on. During a two-hour, 25 song set, they absolutely tore the roof off the house with hard-driving rock and roll, country, Irish rebel songs, and everything in between. The band was incredibly fantastic and includes Chris Masterson on lead guitar, Eleanore Whitmore on fiddle, keyboards, acoustic guitar along with beautiful vocals, Ricky Ray Jackson on pedal steel and keyboards, rock solid Kelly Looney on bass and absolutely on fire Brad Pemberton on drums.
In celebration of the anniversary of the album, they opened with the 10 cuts from Copperhead Road. In between songs, Steve said that Copperhead Road reflected America finally coming to grips with the effects of The Vietnam War roughly ten years after the conclusion of the war, including the release of Platoon and Springsteen’s Born In The USA. 30 years later, the first half of the album is just as relevant as ever in the dubious political times we live in now. The highlight for me was the “Christmas song” Nothing But a Child. The quotation marks are for the fact the song was written and recorded in a hot and muggy Nashville July in 1988. Steve wrote it for his publishing company which was owned by the Oak Ridge Boys who were in the midst of recording a Christmas album so all the writers for the company wrote a Christmas song and put them on the pile, none of which were actually used for the subsequent album, so Steve used it to close out his album.
The next 15 songs were highlights from this studio albums as well as some deep cuts including Guitar Town, Someday, My Old Friend The Blues and So You Wanna Be An Outlaw, the title track to his latest album, a tip of the cap to Waylon Jennings and other outlaw country artists and song writers he has long admired. The highlight for me was Firebreak Line, a tribute to all the brave men and women firefighters who put their lives on the line to protect the houses and lives of those caught in the wildfires like in California recently, many of whom built houses in places they probably shouldn’t have. On the album, Firebreak Line is a country based foot stomper, but in concert last night, I witnessed what would happen if the Ramones played country music….holy shit!!!!….the pace was frantic and Pemberton drove the song and the band to match the heat of the lyrics. I could have heard that one played a few more times. Earle closed the main set with Fixing To Die which segued way into an incendiary version of Jimi Hendrix’s Hey Joe with Chris Masterson and Earle trading lead lines on guitar. Incredible.
After taking a bow and leaving the stage, the band came back for a three song encore starting with Dixieland and Ben McCullough. No one can rock a mandolin like Steve Earle and I don’t say that ironically. There is a line in music that runs from Springsteen’s Nebraska through John Mellencamp’s Scarecrow and Lonesome Jubilee to Copperhead Road to Tom Petty’s Wildflowers that leads directly to some of the best country/rock music happening today in the forms of Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson. Steve and others paved the way for the blending of multiple genres of country and bluegrass into guitar based, hard rock with a country swing. Earle’s songwriting skills rank up there in the top 5 of the last 50 years in my opinion with Springsteen, John Prine, Bob Dylan, and Kris Kristofferson. Earle told the crowd they just recorded an album of Guy Clark songs, one of his mentors when he started writing, and a bookend to his Townes album, in tribute to his friend and mentor Townes Van Zandt, that will be released next year which will be followed by a more political album to be released just in time for election year in 2020. I’ll be waiting patiently and listening intently to whatever he decides to release, hoping to see him play on stage one more time. There are several more shows left on this leg of the tour and I highly recommend you get your asses out and see him and The Dukes, you won’t be disappointed.
Typically at his acoustic shows, Earle closes the show with Christmas In Washington, giving the crowd his thoughts on our political environment as he strums the chords. I thought that is where he was going last night as he started the last song as he spoke of releasing is next album in the hopes of reaching out to those on the other side of the spectrum and for them. Earle told the crowd he was asked recently during an interview to sum himself up in one word and after deep thought, said he was a Romantic. Romantic in every sense of the word, but more importantly, in keeping hope, in being like Don Quixote tilting after windmills towards the possibility of love, the possibility of peace, the possibility of a better world for our children and each other. He then surprised me by playing The Girl On The Mountain, my personal favorite song, a slow ballad dedicated to that girl up on the mountain, that thing we keep in our hearts and hope for, never-ceasing from trying. I closed my eyes, picturing that girl on the mountain, and listened to a hard-core troubadour pour out his heart on stage while a tear or two slipped down my cheeks.
With thanks to Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, one of the finest columnists in print today, below are 9 things I am thankful for this time of the year.
Chicago– With lights wrapped around every tree in sight, ice skating at Millennium Park, all the decorations on Michigan Avenue and the red and green lights atop many downtown buildings, it’s truly a winter wonderland and sight to see. Also, random Nutcrackers may appear from time to time.
Graham Ronald and Ryan Barr Hilligoss standing post at the Red Head Piano Bar
2) The Christmas Chronicles– Kurt Russell stars as Santa in this Netflix holiday special and includes a musical performance by Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul in full holiday wardrobe.
3) Bruce Springsteen on Broadway After nearly 250 one man shows on Broadway since last November, Springsteen will wrap his Springsteen On Broadway performance with one last show on Saturday December 15, 2018, soon to be followed by the premier of the documentary directed by longtime Springsteen collaborator Thom Zimny on Netflix. Also available on December 14 will be the show soundtrack. Highly recommended for everyone whether you are a Springsteen fan or not. The man sums up his whole life of nearly 70 years using his music as part of the story but also interspersed with sections taken from his autobiography Born To Run released in 2016. It is of the highest art form, raising you out of the daily business of life and watching a performance of beauty and soul.
Photo courtesy of Shawn Poole
4) Kacey Musgraves- She released her album Golden Hour earlier this year and was just nominated for 3 Grammy awards with best album of the year, best solo performance with Butterflies and best country song of the year with Space Cowboy. The girl with the beautiful, superlative, pitch perfect voice keeps bringing one great song after another to the world and we appreciate her. Also, now it’s time of the year to put on regular rotation A Very Kacey Christmas which includes A Willy Nice Christmas, a duo with Willie Nelson.
5) That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound– Written by Daryl Sanders and covers Bob Dylan recording his masterpiece Blonde on Blonde in Nashville in 1965-1966. Highly recommended and would make a great Christmas gift for any Dylan fan or musicologist.
6) The return of snow– It’s early December, yet, we’ve already gotten 15 inches of snow this year including eight inches two weeks ago. My kids are 14 and 12 now and are well into that stage when the thought of hanging out with dad on a regular basis begins to dim and you fight to hold onto the fun times from the jaws of cell phones and friends. But one thing we can always agree on is snow and the fun that comes with it including sledding, snow ball fights and climbing to the top of whatever high pile we can find in surrounding parking lots.
7) Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass– With memories of my departed mom and brother Sean, the holiday traditions are a little dimmer now at family gatherings and other rituals of Christmas, but I have a lifetime of good memories to hold onto.
“I bequeth yself to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall bring good health you nevertheless,
And filter and fiber your blood
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you”
Sean and Ryan, Godfrey, Il 1980
8) Elvis Presley Comeback Special 50th Anniversary Edition– RCA Legacy will release a 50th anniversary deluxe box set with 5 CDs and 2 Blu Ray discs containing all the music recorded for the special along with all available video footage including the jam session with Scotty Moore, DJ Fontana and others along with all footage from the scripted songs and performances with the studio musicians including legendary Hal Blaine on drums. RCA has released several special editions in the past but this will be the first time all available material will be released to the public. Also contains interviews with musicians, director Steve Binder and Elvis’ friends done by Thom Zimny as part of his Elvis The Searcher documentary.
9) Blast The Music– I love all kinds of music but some of my favorites are Christmas music. My son Graham would not allow me to listen to Christmas music until December 1, smacking my hand if I flipped some on and instantly turning the station but now that it’s hear…let it rock!!!! from Kacey to Elvis, James Brown, Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Cash and on down the line, turn it on, turn it up loud and repeat. Ho ho ho.
Sarina and Nalani Bolton on stage November 13, 2018. Martyrs, Chicago, Il. All photos courtesy of Hannah McSwain
By Ryan Hilligoss, November 19, 2018
On a frigid, freezing night in Chicago last Tuesday, the powerhouse, sister duo of Nalani and Sarina were red-hot on stage at Martyrs club in Lincoln Park, quickly warming up the crowd with their combination of retro soul, R&B, pop, funk, blues and seamless vocals and sisterly harmonies. Starting off the night with a mashup of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ Dancing In The Street and Sly and The Family Stone’s Dance To The Music was just the first indicator of the energy and breadth of their music geography they would cover in a too short 15 song set, too short only because the crowd and this writer wanted more.
Their musical influences range far and wide and include The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton, Janelle Monae, and several Stax artists like Sam and Dave just to name a few. But make no mistake about it, the duo blends all of those styles into their own unique take on modern music, with nods to the past but looking forward to the music of tomorrow. Their seemingly natural and sizeable energy and charisma only feed into their musical abilities as both sisters play guitar and piano, switching effortlessly from one to the other between songs. Their vocals are different in phrasing and tone but once they sing together, their harmonies are smooth and seamless, reminding me of the brotherly harmonies of The Everly Brothers and the modern pairing of The First Aid Kit, a sister duo from Sweden.
Backed by guitarist Ryan Swing, Mike Klemish on bass and rock solid and funky Sunny D on drums, the pair covered several songs on their new album The Circle, some of their older material and a few ingenious cover medleys. Highlights included Young and Inexperienced, The Deep End, Please Don’t Stop The Rain and Tomorrow and Yesterday which had breathtaking, ethereal harmonies about ¾ of the way through the performance and left this writer with tears in his eyes at the sheer beauty of the message and performance. In the middle of the set, they introduced their next medley of Hard Times Come Again No More, the 19th Century song written by Stephen Foster which segued into their song We’ll Be Free into The Rascals’s People Everywhere Just Want To Be Free, a very audacious and deep combination, spanning three centuries of American music in 3 minutes.
The sisters have stage presence and charm in buckets and had the listeners in the palms of their hands. Their personalities and smiles light up the stage brighter than the Christmas lights on Michigan Avenue. The closing number was one last reminder of their musicality, closing with a barn burner medley of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Prince, and Chicago’s signature song, Sweet Home Chicago, credited to Robert Johnson. My only wish was to have heard Never Let Go of Your Hand, a highlight of the album for me, and to have them play their ukuleles as they often do on stage. But those are my only two small complaints on what otherwise was a perfect performance.
On a personal note, I’ve had one tragedy after another follow me for the last several years including the death of my brother and mother, the deaths of both of my former in-laws, a near death brush with a blood clot and getting divorced. What has sustained me through those times has been the love of my family and friends, my two children and lots and lots of music to soothe my soul. I haven’t written anything for my blog in close to a year, feeling too tired, exhausted and confused to sit down and formulate my thought, but on a cold night in Chicago, two sisters poured their hearts and souls out on stage at Martyr’s with their pure joy, beautiful voices, youthful energy and musical prowess, reminding me of all that is good and meaningful and beautiful in life. I think I’ll be writing a lot more in the near future thanks to Nalani and Sarina.
In a year of great performances and albums including Kacey Musgraves, Chris Stapleton, Nathaniel Rateliff and The Nightsweats and Leon Bridges, Nalani and Sarina pushed the quality of modern music up another level. Be sure to check out their new album and go see them perform live when they come to your town.
As young artists, they have started a conversation with a whole new generation of listeners, one we will be awaiting to continue with the release of each album in the future. While looking back to the music that inspires them and so many others, they also look forward to the music of tomorrow. The music of tomorrow and yesterday.
-Dancing In The Street/Dance To The Music
-Young and Inexperienced
-Pretty Little Lies
-Welcome To The Rest of Your Life
-Tomorrow and Yesterday
-Please Don’t’ Stop The Rain
-Wanna Be With You
-Hard Times Come Again No More/We’ll Be Free/People Everywhere Just Want To Be Free
-Break of Dawn
-Closing Vamp- Ray Charles, Think, Purple Rain, Sweet Home Chicago
After the show, Nalani and Sarina were gracious enough to give me an interview. They were just as charming as they are on stage, often finishing each other’s sentences and thoughts and riffing off one another with humor and wit. The twins are from New Jersey and said music was all around them as kids with their father playing drums in pop and blues bands and their mother using music as part of profession as a therapist. They began their musical education via classical piano starting at the age of 5. They continued their progression learning guitar and ukulele and began writing their own material at the age of 14 or 15. Influences include The Beatles, fellow New Jersian Bossman Bruce Springsteen, Sly Stone, Sam and Dave and other soul artists among many others. The Circle album contains all original material, written by themselves in a synergistic approach with one of them coming up with an idea, arrangement or bits of lyrics and then collaborating with one another to complete the songs. They are currently out touring to support The Circle which is the first time they have travelled extensively to perform. Seeing the country can only give them more ideas for future material.