Throughout both the recent preachin at the AMEN Pew and the raw despair of The! New! Plague!, I have dropped alot of music that has been getting me through this fucking thing. But its been scattered. Occasionally, Ill give some props to an album or an artist, but its random based on where the writing is taking me that day.
So, I decided a few weeks back to give mini reviews of these albums. I think you will find a clear throughline from all these records. They live in a space that is country, folk, a bit of bluegrass. If I had to catagorize it, I would call it hard times music.
And I think thats why I am drawn to it. It has a certain quality to it. I am not going to say timeless…..Its more like, I can feel the hardscrabble in the sound. Its that sort of hard times struggle music that I really connect to here. I’m not working crops, or dealing with having no money. Its more of….feeling put down. I think thats why I keep coming back here. Feels comfortable. Like a thick blanket.
One last item. This isn’t an exhaustive list. I have been listening to other stuff that isn’t folky. But, making this felt…right. So deal with it. Off we go.
Let start with the obvious one. I can’t remember what took me to Levon Helm. But, I wandered upon his last two albums EARLY in the crisis. I can’t even remember how I got there. I was listening to The Band or something, and then I remembered that he got some really good reviews like Johnny Cash did for his end of career records.
I was immediately blown away. His voice is raw after the stroke and other maladies. But man, he picks some fuckin great songs for this record. I fucking LOVE Growing Trade. That was my “time to clorox the groceries song.” And I think thats why I have been tuned to this music. Feels very like, “makin hay while the sun shines” kind of music.
His band is tight, its mixed perfectly, and its not necessarily all downers. Tons of songs like Stuff you Gotta Watch and When I Go Away have a nice rockin feel. I know Levon did NOT like how The Last Waltz went down, and he did not want The Band to break up. I wonder if this is like his last ditch attempt to get back to that kind of feel. Its definitely not that because you can’t duplicate that kind of magic each of those guys had. But this is definitely Levon’s share of the magic in full force. Its an all night party band in a barn (cause he did that shit), and you wouldn’t have it any other way.
See also Dirt Farmer
I recently recommended this album, and this person asked if this was honest. Like if he was just her cashing in or playing to the crowd or something. I suppose its the natural cynic in all of us to assume dishonesty first. Well, at this point, I have heard most of her discography (which was no small task), and this is easily the MOST personal and honest full album in her catalog. There are individual songs that I think speak to Dolly on a personal level, but this project here is real straightforward. This is her tribute to how she grew up. Her tribute to that secluded spot in Tennessee that she grew up in.
And it is exceedingly pure. Songs like In the Good Old Days (When Times were Bad) and The Better Part of Life, she means all that shit. And if you can’t get over the sentimentality (like some assholes), you wont find it here. Take it from me, I am the biggest critic of my rural southern upbringing, but I find it impossible to pierce this shell of purity. She loved her childhood, and she wants to tell you about it. And I completely appreciate that. There are plenty other Dolly albums out there if you want another angle on hard times. In the meantime, I will find some comfort here.
See also Coat of Many Colors.
I used to hate on the Grateful Dead. I used to say they were just weaker versions of The Band. But here’s the thing, the Grateful Dead are cool to just chill. To wait for you. You’ll come around the other side. Maybe you need to get older, maybe you need to live some life. But, you’ll come back. They always do.
I did, about two years ago. And especially over the pandemic I have spent a ton of time diving into the PILES of live albums that the band has, and I haven’t made it through the other side on that yet. So, I picked this album to highlight. I think the Dead do a great job telling some amazing stories, and this album is full of them. Dire Wolf is probably my favorite song on the record, but there are a ton of winners here.
I also love the production on the record. Its got that: a few people with instruments, hanging around your fireplace, jamming on their instruments. Quality stuff.
See also Wake of the Flood
And the newest entrant in this rogue’s gallery of albums, this one has been getting a ton of playtime this past week. This is just a fucking good idea executed well. Sturgill has often said that he is not in the same part of his life as he was when he wrote the first half of his catalog. What a better way to purge it than by just going FULL BLUEGRASS. Right?
For Sturgill, you are fucking right it is. When this album works it fucking SOARS. All the first album and Sunday Valley stuff just completely explodes in this format. Probably doesn’t hurt that he has the best fucking backing bluegrass band anyone could assemble, especially during a pandemic. All the producer had to do was to not fuck this up, just let the audio get absorbed onto the recording, and that’s exactly what this album does. The only slight times it doesn’t quite work is the covers of some of the later things. My least favorite track here is the cover of Turtles All the Way Down, as the psychedelia is part of what makes that track so fucking incredible. It just doesn’t quite hit the same as bluegrass.
But this is an extremely minor complaint in the grand scheme of things. To be honest, I wish more artists did stuff like Cuttin’ Grass. Bob Dylan does it every time (as nothing he does live ever really sounds the same twice). But this is a fantastic record for the times. I think like Dolly singing about her childhood, Sturgill is tapping into something primal to process the tough times.
And as usual. I am here for it. I love this one more than Sound & Fury. There, I said it.
I will leave it at that for now. Try some of these records out. They may just improve your attitude. See some hope on the horizon. Wouldn’t it be nice?