June 23, 2016

Album Review: Kris Kristofferson - The Cedar Creek Sessions

Back when Kris Kristofferson used to take the stage alongside his comrades in the Highwaymen, he was the relative young gun of the group, his stature overshadowed by the outlaw legends of Waylon and the Red Headed Stranger and the Man in Black. Sure, he’d written songs that each of them had recorded and performed, but he hadn’t yet put in the years, the hard time and bitter tears it took to become such a larger-than-life figure. Well, now he’s 80. And in listening to him sing a batch of his own classics on the newly released double-disc set, The Cedar Creek Sessions, it’s clear he belongs in their rarified company. 

Recorded over three days in June 2014 at the album’s namesake studio in Austin, Texas, these performances reflect Kristofferson’s craft and bone-dry conviction with the sort of integrity that can only be achieved when such a seasoned songwriter revisits his own history. 

His voice, grizzled with age and hard-won experience, imbues these songs new character and insight, his gruff inflections now revealing flashes of stoic resignation. He wrings more pathos from “For the Good Times” than have seemed possible in the classic’s countless other incarnations. He delivers “Sunday Morning Coming Down” like a dirge. And when he aches out the opening lines, “Busted flat in Baton Rouge…” in “Me and Bobby McGee,” the enduring image is of man down to his soul’s last ounce of will and resilience. Thankfully, Kristofferson’s maverick spirit still thrives. 

April 29, 2016

Song of the Week: Haley Reinhart - 'Better'

As American Idol veterans go, Season 10 finalist Haley Reinhart has proven among the most compelling. First, she established a retro-pop groove with her stellar 2012 debut LP, Listen Up!, as standout single “Free” demonstrated mightily. Next, Reinhart collaborated with Postmodern Jukebox for a string of sultry, jazzed-up covers (like the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” and Radiohead’s “Creep”), her performances oozing old-school charisma and vivacious sass.

Now she’s got her sophomore album, Better, with its exuberant title track picking up where her debut left off while infusing select influences (from R&B to torch-song bravado) she’s embraced since then. Reinhart deserves bona fide accolades at this point, not just for delivering on the promise she displayed on Idol but for challenging herself with decidedly wild-card projects along the way. Put simply, she was good to begin with, and now she’s—yep—better.

April 20, 2016

Vulnerability is Powerful: An Interview with Kylie Odetta

Eighteen-year-old singer/songwriter Kylie Odetta emerges from the din of pop stardom to reveal a serious talent with her most recent EP, High Dreamer, having consciously pared down its production by complementing her vocals with discreet, often piano-based arrangements.

Moments like “Let Me Love You” and “I Can’t Erase It” are intoxicating, conjuring the sort of hushed intimacy that artists like Norah Jones and Corinne Bailey Rae have cultivated so well in recent years. Put another way, Odetta commands the listener’s rapt attention in ways that are at once empathetic and achingly tender.

“Being vulnerable is a very powerful thing,” Odetta said recently, calling while traveling with her family from her home in Greenville, South Carolina to Augusta, Georgia. “I don’t have a fear of being too vulnerable. I think that can only allow me to connect with people more.”

For her music to reflect and resonate with such emotional honesty, Odetta acknowledges the need to be honest with herself. “I’ve found that I cannot write good songs when I’m happy,” she conceded. “I have to be feeling something that’s really digging at me. Songwriting is a way to get it out of me, and then I’m happy again.”

Of course, as plenty of other artists have discovered the hard way, what’s good for creativity may not always be good for maintaining a healthy day-to-day existence. As Odetta explained, however, her darkest moments are balanced by her spiritual beliefs, wherein she finds solace. “I believe in God,” she said. So there’s always a battle going on inside of me, of the artist in me wanting to just live in that sad or angry state and stay there for a while and look at all those emotions and indulge in it; and the other side of me that knows that everything’s okay in the end and that I’m going to be okay.

“Sometimes,” she added, “it’s difficult to choose which mental path I want to take.”

Her faith doesn’t explicitly inform the music she makes, as Odetta says she hopes to reach more listeners than perhaps she would if she were a quote, unquote Christian artist. Indeed, facilitating a fundamental bond with an audience was Odetta’s main goal for High Dreamer all along, she said, “and it transformed into something that I feel is so true to myself as an artist and the most real thing I’ve put out yet.”

For more information, please visit Kylie Odetta online.

April 08, 2016

In Memoriam: Merle Haggard - The Lost Interview

Merle Haggard (Photo Credit: Travis Huggett)

Merle Haggard never said he was immortal. Still, the country music icon, who died this week on his 79th birthday of complications from pneumonia, knew as well as anyone that his music would endure. He’d lived not only to see so many songs he’d written be appreciated as classics, but to perceive his influence on succeeding generations of artists who, frankly, owe him everything.

In 2010, Haggard was riding especially high with a new album, I Am What I Am, his first since beating lung cancer the year before and one of the most optimistic works of his entire career. Drawing on themes of love and trust (with moments of uncertainty along the way), the album is the unsparing testimony of a man humbled by his blessings.

Calling from his Northern California ranch that year, Haggard (73 at the time) echoed much the same sense of positivity. Still, as he proved throughout the conversation—unpublished until now—discontent had by no means eluded his thoughts altogether.

This album could have gone in a completely different direction. 

You know, I’m glad you pointed that out. I hadn’t really thought about it. I haven’t written any “poor me” songs, but you’re right. It could’ve went in that direction.

A lot of artists have had health scares and their subsequent works were kind of dark.

It’s easy to fall off to that side of things, but it really don’t do no good. As bleak as it may look, coming out of lung surgery with your life and no chemo and no radiation is quite a joy if you look at it from the right perspective, I think.

In the overall themes of the album it seems you’re not only expressing love and gratitude, but also relief—relief that you’ve found this contentment.

I think that if you believe in yourself and if you believe in love and happiness, then the assessment of my life would be that I’ve come pretty close to that mark.

In a sense, you also seem like a man still learning about love. Or is this just something you’re more willing to admit now, that you still have things to learn?

Well, I think that love is something that you give. I’m not sure that love is something that you get.

Are you still learning about how to give it?

I don’t think you have time to worry about getting it. I think you have to give it and it has to be unmerited. There’s no judgment on it. There’s no saying how much you’ll give, how little you’ll give. You’ve got to just keep giving. If you ever change your attitude about that and look around and start looking for something to come back in your direction you’ll probably leave, throw your stack and start writing blues.

I’ve heard people say they’re only so many chords and, after a couple hundred years of people making music, to find something original to say lyrically as well as musically is a challenge.

Well, there’s three main chords. From there you can go anywhere, but you’ve got to come back sometime in the future to those three chords.

It’s what you do in between that distinguishes you.

I guess so. I don’t think there’s any end to it. I don’t think that there’s a time when we’ll use it all up. I think there’s just as much available… Ah, man, there’s more available than is being used. I’ve found that the melody depends on the story, and the attitude of the story. That’s where I come with the melody, in trying to present that.

As far as your songwriting is concerned, is everything you experience fair game for you as a lyricist? Do you fear giving away too much of yourself or of those you may write about?

There are songs that I write that are too profound to release. And they’re good and they’re probably hit songs, but because of better judgment I don’t release them. I write into an area that I’d be too involved with my belief and probably shouldn’t get into that area too much. Then again my belief says I should be overflowing with that.

There’s a lot of illness with a person my age. I’m 73 years old and I could tell you some sad stories. I had a friend die yesterday at five o’clock, a buddy I’ve had here the last three or four years, Sonny Langley, passed away with stomach/liver cancer yesterday. Ex-pug, had 141 professional fights, lost one fight. He fought people like Willie Pep, some of the greatest fighters of all time. He died yesterday at five o’clock. God, it’s just everywhere I look. My best friend died last May. It’s in that period in my life and to find something happy, you really grab onto it and if it’s a subject worth writing about you’d just kind of write too many songs probably.

It’s a harrowing experience to endure.

It is. And everybody has to. And everybody has to have two sides to their life. You’ve got to have this business side and go on and if you intend to succeed you probably should portray a positive attitude.

When you’re not going through positive or uplifting times, do you owe it to yourself as a songwriter to convey that?

Probably do. Probably do. And when I die there’ll be an archive of material that will come out that will be probably more personal than this album here. It may not be as happy, but it’ll be more personal. I think that’s one element of the reason why this album’s doing well is because of the personal. It gets down into the part that most people don’t talk about.

In “Bad Actor,” for instance, you convey a lot of self-consciousness. When you're in love you’re not always cocksure and confident. 

When you’re in love it’s a fight to stay afloat. It’s something you’ve got to work on every day. People are so different and people change. Life’s a bitch and then you die, really. [Laughs]

Do you approach songwriting with the feeling of, “I have something to prove,” or perhaps, “I have something to say?”

I write from all perspectives, from all urges that you might have, but I usually eliminate things that I regard as out of the realm of usability. You know what I mean? There are some things that are too sad, some things too personal, some things overbearing, that with good sense after evaluating you just discard.

What perspectives do you bring as a songwriter at 73 that you didn’t have at, say, 43? 

At 73 you bring more wisdom than arrogance, and at 43 it’s the flip-flop.

That reminds me of an interview Bob Dylan gave on 60 Minutes during which he said there were things he couldn’t do anymore as a songwriter, but that there were also things he could do that he couldn’t have done when he was younger. 

That sort of says what I said about arrogance and experience. One’s on one side when you’re 43 and it flip-flops when you’re 73. I’m a little older than he is, but I think he’s more intense about his writing than I am. He’s Bob Dylan—he’s number one. He’s very serious about his writing, I can tell you that. He’s very much to himself. He doesn’t do anything except work and write. Work and write.

As songwriters you each present your aesthetic in different ways. You write in rich, almost literal narratives and Dylan uses a lot of metaphors and obscurities.

I’m not sure there’s any paragraph to describe what he does different, but I understand what you’re saying and we both know what we’re talking about. But there may not be a way to sum him up. [Laughs]

What was the original catalyst for you to write your own lyrics as opposed to being a musician who covered other people’s songs? 

I don’t think it was any intelligent thing that I developed in my life. I think it’s a gift. I know in my conscience I can remember realizing that Johnny Mercer wrote “On The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe” and I knew that Hank Williams either stole or wrote the songs that he claimed he wrote. Over the years it’s been debatable about some of them. I feel certain that Bob Dylan has written all of his songs. Then there’s other great writers. Paul Anka comes to mind, and then Hank Cochran and Fred Rose and Tommy Dorsey. Somebody said to me, “Merle, singers come and go, but writers live forever.”

Other than your memoirs, have you ever had the desire to expand into other areas of writing like prose or poetry? 

I’ve written a lot of poetry. I’ve written some really good poetry, I think. Probably come to the surface when I’m gone. I had a little old book that I stole on the road, don’t know what happened to it, but it’d be wonderful to have around now on the website.

That you wrote in?

Yeah, I remember writing something about catching a big bass. It was all about this fight between this bass fisherman at night and he had this big bass on and he fooled him with a live waterdog. He had him hooked deep in his throat, and with one minor lunge he was gone and pulled him about half out of the boat. And it goes on like that.

Then there was a thing that I was involved in writing, this really poetic—I guess poetic’s the right word—called The Four Dogs. It was where I impersonated an Irishman. I said [in thick, Irish accent], “Hi, lassies and laddies, I’m the man in the hills with four dogs, and recently in from the old country with different speech and we make customs and all. Makes me appear strange when they see me on the mountainside with me four dogs.” That thing’s nine minutes long and each dog... One dog is Love, one dog is Hell, one dog is Hope, and one dog is Faith. Faith is blind, and he doesn’t use much Hope. Finally Love goes away and Hell is the only thing that’ll stick around. That’s kind of chilling. Hell stuck around.

That’s not one of the ones you lost, is it? 

No, I have that. It was recorded less than perfect. It’s nine minutes long and it’s a classic. It’ll come out someday. They’ll have some magic way of fixing it all.

One of my favorite songs of yours is a duet you did in the ‘80s with Ray Charles, “Little Hotel Room.”

Oh yeah. It wasn’t a hit but it was an interesting recording.

Did you record that in the same studio with him?

We were together on that, as best I remember. Things run together. I’ve been in the studio a couple times with Ray and I don’t remember whether it was when we’d done that. We might have done it at two different places and still been together a couple times in the studio. I’m not sure. Seems to me like we were together we we’d done that. We’re talking about thirty years [ago].

That song as well as your early Epic hits were when I first discovered your music as young kid. On a personal note, you’ve been my father’s favorite artist since the ‘60s, and as I grew up I learned to appreciate your music through him—and it’s been so rewarding. You’re such a wonderful talent.

Well, it’s a wonderful gift, and I just try to maintain. I have this wonderful family and I have this wonderful career, and they don’t mix very well. I have a son graduating June 4th [from high school], and I’ve got this beautiful date that they want me to play, this spa down here in Santa Barbara. They want to give us all golf games and facials, all that stuff. It’s one of the greatest spas in the world. They want me and Bennie [Haggard] to come down and play for them. I said, “No, we can’t do it. It’s his graduation.” He’s got things two days in a row. He graduates on the fourth, and on the fifth we’ve got a party for him. Then the Prairie Home Companion wants me on the fifth. They don’t want me on the eighth. They want me on the fifth. Both of them are extremely prestigious jobs that people would kill to get, and I’ve had to turn both of them down.

When you have to draw a line between the two, your kid’s going to win over another gig.

You bet. I’ll never be sorry that I did that.

Merle Haggard (photo: Donald Gibson)

February 23, 2016

Still Swingin': An Interview with John Anderson

Country music maverick John Anderson anticipated changes in the industry long before they came to pass.

The veteran singer/songwriter recently recalled, “I told people on different boards and different committees back 20 years ago, ‘You better figure out a way to split the genres and call one of them traditional country and one of them new country or whatever, or else you’re going to run into problems.’ Of course, they wouldn’t listen to someone like me.”

Why not? Since hitting the big time with “Swingin’” in 1982, Anderson has not only forged a first-rate career (with such hits as “Seminole Wind,” “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal,” and “Straight Tequila Night”), but maintained his artistic integrity while doing it. He continues to invest that same craft and conviction throughout his latest LP, Goldmine, writing or co-writing 12 of the album’s 13 songs while, with the flirtatious “Magic Mama,” recording a Merle Haggard original.

How did you get to cut a Merle Haggard song that Merle Haggard hadn’t even cut?

Well, actually, he ended up writing it for me. I could tell you the story, or the basics of the story. He called me one day and said, “I’m writing this song and the more I write it the more it sounds like you.” He kind of chuckled, and I said, “Well, man, just finish it and I’ll do it, no questions asked.” I mean, what do you say when Merle Haggard says he’s writing a song and thinking about you? I was very flattered, to say the least. Indeed, I saw him about six months later, and I said, “Did you finish that song?” He looked at me, smiled, and pulled a piece of paper out of his back pocket. It was that song, “Magic Mama,” the lyrics. He called for a guitar and played it for me. That was one of the highlights of my life, just having Merle play me that song that he’d written with me in mind. 

You wrote or co-wrote all the other songs on Goldmine, and a lot of these songs are story songs with characters and narratives.

I like those kind of things. 

As a songwriter, how do you find your way into those kind of songs?

Part of that is just writing country music, and doing it for a long, long time. To me, that was… Those songs used to be a big, big part of country music.... Things have changed, is what I’m trying to say. Actually that kind of writing — that kind of song — is virtually on the way out, I’m sad to say, because I still like it. That’s why Goldmine sounds the way it does, because I still like that kind of music. And, you know, we still have several fans that still really like it. So, indeed, when they tell me, “Well, those 17-year-old kids don’t like that. They said it sounds old.” Well, I really ain’t playing it for those 17-year-old kids. I’m playing it for the people that want to hear it, because I like it. I’m not doing it because somebody else might like it. I’m doing it because I really enjoy it, and we still have enough fans to sustain us while we do it. Right there is the answer to all the questions in the music business: Can you go out and draw a big enough crowd doing your songs to pay the bills? And yeah, after 40 years, I can say that we already did. 

Of course there are also younger generations, too, that appreciate your music.

We do have that, and again, I’m very flattered. When the young people do come out and enjoy the shows and enjoy the records, that’s always a wonderful feeling. There again, for the folks that don’t care for it or don’t like that kind of music, with a very simple apology, we don’t play anything else. 

That says something about your integrity, that you’ve remained so consistent.

Oh yeah, we have to be true to what we do because, like I say, it’s been true to me. We do pretty good out there on the road each and every year playing these old songs as well as the new ones. But there again, it’s that type of country music that’s causing us to grow in popularity instead of decline because folks know they can actually come and hear real country music when they come and hear myself with the band or even me by myself.

Considering the climate of country music today, do you still see a place where you and your music can fit in?

Well, it seems only on the classic country stations as far as radio, but as far as social media and YouTube, oh yeah, there’s many, many places where we still fit in. And like I say, we have a wonderful young crowd also. I sure don’t think anything against any of our young fans for listening to other young folks. Music changes, and it should. 

But over time you’ve found a way to combine rock and traditional country into your own voice.

Yeah, and it is what it is. It was a heartfelt thing, and we weren’t joking. It was serious. Our music was then and has been since then — pretty much my whole life — writing those songs and performing them. So, what was meant to be was meant to be. We were coming up with “Swingin’” during the same kind of time that, for instance, the Eagles were doing “Lyin’ Eyes” and such. There was a lot of people wanting to be country-rock musicians at the time. And me, I was just country, but some of our rocking stuff sounded a little bit on the edge for them. But looking back, what would you call “Swingin’” now? It sure wasn’t too rock for country. 

It’s not too rock for country now either.

Not at all. And it wasn’t back then or it wouldn’t have sold three million copies… or four, whatever. 

Speaking of the Eagles — and in light of Glenn Frey's passing earlier this year — you recorded a version of “Heartache Tonight” back in 1994.

Yes, indeed.

How did that take shape?

Of course the Eagles, a very influential American music group, and of course Glenn Frey was a big, big part of that as far as the writing and vocals. On their earlier hits he did most of the singing, and I believe he’s credited as a songwriter on just about everything. In this particular case, though, on the Common Thread project — of course I always loved the Eagles — but when I got the news that this was happening, that they wanted me to be on the project and they sent me a list of songs, “Heartache Tonight” was on that list. Conway Twitty had had a Number One record, I believe, on “Heartache Tonight” in the country field. Back when they had a rock hit, he had the country hit. And when I got the news about the Common Thread record, it was at a time when Conway had just passed away a few days prior. So when I saw “Heartache Tonight” I thought, I’m going to do that in honor of Conway and the Eagles. Because it already was the song that that whole album was talking about, the Common Thread. Actually, if Conway Twitty could have a Number One record on it, and the Eagles could have a Number One record on it, surely it was a common thread. 

I think it shows that good music is just good music.

I think so too, and that’s like the song “Swingin’.” I’ve heard “Swingin’” now really rocked up and over, I believe, five or six different languages. So, music is music. You know what I’m saying? It’s all depending on each one’s different take of it.