The Nashville-based Dualtone label has an enviable catalog, including albums by the Lumineers, Shovels & Rope, and perhaps most precious of all, Guy Clark. Clark arrived at Dualtone in 2006 as an oft-covered songwriter and a well-loved recording artist. His three studio albums for the label were each nominated for a Grammy, and 2013’s My Favorite Picture of You took home the trophy. Clark’s May 2016 passing turned these recordings into a capstone to a thirty-nine year career that made earlier stops at RCA, Warner Brothers, Asylum and Sugar Hill. Dualtone’s 19-track collection cherrypicks Clark’s three studio albums and his 2011 live release Songs and Stories, and adds a trio of previously unreleased demos that were co-written with Hal Ketchum, Marty Stuart and Holly Gleason.
No song in this collection is more emblematic of Clark’s observational powers than “My Favorite Picture of You,” in which he draws a lifetime’s worth of knowing – “a thousand words / in the blink of an eye” – from a bent and faded snapshot of his wife. Elsewhere in the collection he turns a thrift store guitar into a ghost story, and under his watchful gaze, a roadhouse parking lot harbors the drama and detail of a novella. The dreamlike interior of that dancehall is extolled in “Cornmeal Waltz” as a fiddle moves dancers gently around the floor in three-four time. Clark was a writer’s writer, musing on the physical and psychic costs of his art in “Hemingway’s Whiskey” and turning fierce weather into humorous poetry with “Tornado Time in Texas.”
There are several shades of weariness in Scott Nolan’s latest album. He’s exhausted by a lifetime of emotional weight on his shoulders, both his own, and that which he’s assumed, and his soul seems worn by having to tell these stories. It’s a tone that effectively brings the listener into both the confidence of the story and of the singer. Nolan sings of emotional dead ends and the positive expectations that make them all the more depressing, drawing fragmented details that reveal a shared picture in the chorus. He opens the album with a canny observation of the dichotomy between temporality and immortality, surrendering to the inevitability of change while still seeking to guide its course. He may feint to fatalism, but there’s a current of hope animating his songs.
Some of Americana’s finest songwriters salute a peer
It’s one thing for a songwriter to be fêted with a tribute album at the relatively young at of 42, but to be honored by a who’s who of one’s peers speaks louder than words. And with the likes of James McMurtry, Hayes Carll and Slaid Cleaves having satchels full of terrific original material, their willingness to saddle up a favorite from Adam Carroll’s catalog is both a tributary offering and an artistic opportunity. The largely acoustic productions of Jenni Finlay and Brian T. Atkinson rightly leave the limelight on lyrics whose emotional resonance is immediate, and whose meters are so natural that they barely sound composed.
Each performer finds a natural fit to their chosen song, with the Band of Heathens’ digging a gospel groove for “Oklahoma Gypsy Shuffler” and Matt the Electrician adding anxious fingerpicking to “Old Town Rock ‘n’ Roll.” There’s two-stepping mandolin and steel as Noel McKay and Brennen Leigh sing the story of Bob, the “Karaoke Cowboy,” and Walt Wilkins explores a showman’s life in “Highway Prayer.” Carroll’s lyrics derive from fleeting moments, snapshots whose studied details conjure life stories. His narratives drop their baggage on the platform to chase expectation down the tracks, one step ahead of consequence.
On the cusp of adulthood (his twentieth birthday party was held October 15th at Genghis Cohen), Mason Summit’s already on his third full-length album of original music. He’s a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist whose music brings to mind the craft of Brian Wilson and Chris Stamey, and the emotional delicacy of Elliot Smith. Working with engineer John McDuffie and a selection of top-flight L.A. studio players, Summit has fashioned an even more sophisticated version of his introspective sound, and his lyrics showcase the emotional and artistic discovery that marks the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
Summit wrestles with the onset of outside awareness (“What I’m trying to say / Is that I don’t know what to say”) and the disturbing things it can bring to light. He struggles with relationships that are out of balance, the mystery of temptation, the banalities of daily living, and – surprisingly for a teenager – mortality. His introspection gives voice to teenage thoughts that aren’t often spoken aloud, at least not within earshot of adults. “When Time Was Mine to Spend” ruminates on the heavier burdens and narrowed freedoms of adult life, and though sung in the second person, “Suede Pockets” rings with first-person break-up details.
California singer-songwriter spans acoustic folk and canyon pop
After five solo albums, and earlier records recorded with Young Art, Damone and the Greater Good, singer-songwriter Shane Alexander has self-produced his most sonically fetching work yet. The sparseness of 2013’s Ladera can still be heard in the opener, with Paul Simon-styled finger-picking and a double-tracked vocal that suggests Elliot Smith. But the album quickly expands beyond acoustic folk with the second cut’s driving drums and atmospheric piano and steel, echoing 1970s canyon rock with a melancholy lyric of haunted memories and a memorable chorus hook. And melancholy turns into panic as a relationship dies in the power ballad “Hold Me Helpless.”
Brushing up against death will make you philosophical. Or at least that’s the impact it’s had on songwriter Tommy Womack, whose 2012 recovery from near-fatal addiction and 2015 recovery from a life-threatening car accident has deepened his introspection, magnified his gratitude and optimism, and sharpened his sense of humor. All are on full display in this new collection of songs, essaying everything from wry takes on aging to blunt confrontations of faith and death.
The album opens with hope and wit in “Angel” and “Comb-Over Blues,” before turning to a Lou Reed-styled monotone for “End of the Line.” The latter reflects on the heightened awareness of mortality brought by recovery’s second chance, and segues seamlessly into the Dylan-ish “It’s Been All Over Before.” That second chance is met head on in “I Almost Died,” a harrowing first-person account of a drug-fueled near-death in which Womack recreates an addict’s obstinate dependence on “almost.”
The debut of a ‘70s L.A. songwriter w/7 bonus tracks
Like many singer-songwriters, J.D. Souther is better known for songs performed by others, including the Eagles (“New Kid in Town”), Bonnie Raitt (“Run Like a Thief”) and Linda Ronstadt (“Faithless Love”), than for his own performances. But in the early ‘70s, the Detroit-to-Texas-to-Los Angeles transplant was introduced to David Geffen by his downstairs neighbor, Jackson Browne, and found himself signed to the nascent Asylum label. This 1972 debut features ten originals, and includes accompaniment by Souther’s then-roommate, Glenn Frey, as well as handpicked session stars Bryan Garafalo, Gary Mallaber, Wayne Perkins and Nashville West fiddler Gib Guilbeau.
The album’s sound helped develop the templates for ‘70s Southern California music, adding country to rock, while keeping the singer-songwriter sensibility front and center. The album was recorded at Pacific Recorders in Northern California, rather than one of the reigning L.A. studios, but you wouldn’t know it from the musical vibe. Souther sounds a bit like his pals Browne and Frey, and his songs have a similar shade of inviting introspection. In “Kite Woman,” which Souther had previously recorded with Frey as the duo Longbranch Pennywhistle, and “How Long,” you can hear the voice that would carry him forward, and the songwriting that would come to fit the Eagles. The latter song was in fact resurrected by the Eagles for their 2007 comeback Long Road Out of Eden.
J.D. Souther’s 1976 sophomore solo album reissued with bonuses
After releasing his 1972 self-titled debut (which has been concurrently reissued with seven bonus tracks), J.D. Souther joined with Chris Hillman and Richie Furay to release two albums as the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. So it wasn’t until 1976 that he returned with this second solo album, produced by the red hot Peter Asher, and featuring performances from Lowell George, Joe Walsh, Waddy Wachtel, Jim Keltner and Andrew Gold, Linda Ronstadt, David Crosby, Art Garfunkel, Don Henley, Glenn Frey and other luminaries. The album is more refined and musically expansive than the debut, and Souther sounds more assured as he lets his songs unfold and reach beyond a singer-songwriter style.
Souther draws upon an expanded set of musical roots and allows himself to linger, as on the gospel-tinged vocal coda of “If You Have Crying Eyes.” Souther and Asher let the performance build to a crescendo and then wind down with emotional vocalizing atop the backing of Asher, Gold and Ronstadt. The musicianship is more sophisticated as well, with the opening “Banging My Head Against the Moon” taking on an island tone as the rhythm guitar, drums and Paul Stallworth’s bass provide intricate accompaniment. By 1976 Asher was hitting full stride as a producer, with seminal albums by James Taylor, Tony Joe White and Linda Ronstadt under his belt, and he helps Souther draw something deeper from his music.
Comparing the demo of “Silver Blue” to the album track, the song’s despairing, open-ended questions become more nuanced, and Stanley Clark’s beautiful double bass adds a duet voice. The recording is a textbook example of how instrumentation can reinforce and amplify a song’s tone, as does Donald Byrd’s flugelhorn on the late night “Midnight Prowl.” David Campbell’s arrangement of cello and flute on “Faithless Love” isn’t as surprising, but provides interesting contrast to Souther’s blue, crooned notes, and strings also add drama to “Doors Swing Open.” The latter’s wariness of hollow relationships weaves into Souther’s pessimistic tapestry of romantic turmoil, unrequited love and lost partners, culminating in the title song’s funereal symbol.
A sad, brilliant gem of early ‘70s singer-songwriter country
Talent and hard work aren’t always enough. They can pave the path, but fame is at the end of a road pockmarked with “timing” and “connections” and “luck.” And though hard luck provides grist for the artistic mill, it can also keep a career from catching fire. Such was the case for Louisville singer-songwriter Denny Lile, whose talent, ambition and artistic brilliance weren’t fully rewarded by the popular recognition they deserved. Other than a song turned into a 1987 Top 10 Waylon Jennings hit (“Fallin’ Out”), Lile’s music, including this long-lost 1973 solo album, were consigned to virtual obscurity. His hometown renown brought feelers from New York and Nashville labels, but the sensitivity that made his songwriting so touching also fueled the alcoholism and self-doubt that sabotaged his career.
Lile wended his way through a number of Louisville bands, including Soul Inc. and Elysian Field, before striking a deal for this solo album. At only twenty-two years of age, his voice was decades older, with the weary, wary confidence of someone who’d logged more miles on his soul than his feet. His singing offered elements of Jim Croce’s melancholy, Gram Parsons’ grief, and, unusually in this company, Neil Diamond’s power; but even among those monumental touchstones, it was the candid voice of his lyrics that really stood out. Backed by guitar, fiddle, steel, dobro and a tight rhythm section of bass, drums and piano, Turley Richards’ productions of “Hear the Bang” and “If You Stay on Solid Ground” garnered a well-deserved offer from Hilltop Records; but while Turley was selling the single in New York, Lile signed with the local Bridges label, in a deal that would haunt him to his 1995 death.
Bridges’ distribution agreement with Nashville’s Starday-King did little to help the single or subsequent album gain traction, and both disappeared without much more than local notice. It’s hard to imagine in this hyperconnected, digital age that an album this good could vanish so completely, but Lile’s deal had surrendered both the recordings and his song publishing, and as the accompanying DVD documentary explains, it took more than four decades to untangle the rights and find the tapes. Once revived, the tapes revealed productions that are crisp and spacious – the sort of record that made your mid-70s stereo system shine – and performances that hold listeners in thrall with their confused and wounded heart. And that heart, Lile’s heart, was worn quite visibly on his sleeve as he sings of loving, leaving and being left.
Lile found that fading love doesn’t always fade evenly, and that its slow decay may not even be noticed until realizations are past due and apologies are rejected. Resignation to sad truths permeated Lile’s life, and in turn, his best songs. It led him to recoil from opportunity and sabotage possibilities for success. By the time his solo album was ready he said “Every time I’ve tried to get out of town – with Field, with Soul – something’s gone wrong. Every time I turn around an older musician is telling me his plan for making it. But nothing so far has worked. I think it’s better not to plan.” That feeling of futility suffused his songwriting, even as he spent years honing his lyrics and melodies to perfection.
The productions include many terrific touches, including congas on “If You Stay on Solid Ground” and phased fiddles on “Rag Muffin,” and there are several optimistic songs of love on the horizon (“She’s More to Me Than a Friend” and “After All”) and in full bloom (“Oh Darling” and “Rag Muffin”). But it’s the sad songs that will haunt you, especially after you’ve viewed the accompanying biographical documentary. “Will You Hate Me When I’m Gone” offers a prophetic echo as Lile’s daughter speaks of his passing, and “After All” could be a memo from Lile to himself as he sings “so tell me how you’re feeling today, tell me if I got in your way.” As the documentary shows, Lile’s alcoholism often got in his way as the industry tried to help him capitalize on his talent.
Lile had a knack for sabotaging himself, starting with his momentum-killing solo contract, and extending through numerous fumbled opportunities. Worries about his marriage and his duty as a father – a hangover from his parents divorce – kept him from touring, and a chance to play FanFest in 1973 fell prey to one-too-many nerve-calming drinks. Follow-up meetings with Waylon Jennings’ staff also suffered from the rough shape in which his alcoholism often left him. Even an accident that landed him in the hospital with broken bones and a lacerated liver didn’t deter his drinking. His world narrowed to a home studio purchased with the royalties from Jennings’ single, and then to a custom van in which he lived the last few years of his life. He died alone in the van, estranged from his family, at the age of 44.
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