Living Room Songs

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Living Room Songs — Track 14: “Buckin Horse Rider” by Corb Lund from Five Dollar Bill

Corb Lund is someone whom I will try to promote whenever I have a chance. I think he’s great and, in general, I like his songs better the more I listen to them. His songs are frequently immaculately crafted and often clever, but that never gets in the way of them feeling true.

This is definitely an example of that, a song written from personal experienced, but one in which every line is perfectly constructed but in an understated way.

This song was actually important in helping me clarify my sense of this mix. Very early on I knew that I wanted to include something by Corb (of course) and probably something off of Five Dollar Bill. As I was listening through the album to select a song I realized that several of the songs that I liked, such as “(Gonna) Shine Up My Boots”, had drums on them and that just didn’t feel right. So I went with this track partially because it didn’t have any drums and then, thinking about it, I realized that, of course people don’t generally bring a drum kit when they’re going to play music at somebody’s house, and that was when I really started thinking of this as “living room songs.” The irony is that the person who’s invitation got me to put this mix together is a drummer, so I feel slightly bad about then making a mix with no drums on it.

This is a good opportunity to say that I recently found a complete Corb Lund house concert on youtube starting here. It isn’t necessarily his best performance, the setting is very casual, it can feel low-energy rather than intimate, and some of the songs suffer from the absence of a band. But I really liked hearing him perform earlier material next to more recent songs and it made me like the newer stuff better than I had. It also brings the anti-war elements of the songs from Horse Soldier to the surface in ways that I appreciate.

Appropriately for this track his performance of “Buckin’ Horse Rider” is great and very personal and if you watch the video to the end he introduces the next song, from Horse Soldier, “Student Visas” and both the introduction and the song have more raw emotion than the album version. His singing on the chorus, “There ain’t no fun in killing folk and I don’t want to do no more.” is heartbreaking.

Living Room Songs — Track 13: “I’ve Always Wanted to Sing (In Renfro Valley)” by Mac Wiseman & The Osborne Brothers

This track is a guilty pleasure, so there’s not too much to say about it.

The song has obvious flaws; the lyrics are hokey and somewhat blandly nostalgic (except for the line that I’ve quoted as the title of the post, which seems like a weird thing to say).

But the singing and playing are so gorgeous and have such energy that I can’t complain. I took this track off a greatest hits compilation and from that CD it was, by far, the song in which the performances were most lively and full of pleasure.

It’s sort of irresistible.

Pure

Living Room Songs — Track 12: Leather Britches by Wayne Henderson from Made And Played.

I’ve mentioned Wayne Henderson once before, and I will recommend this album to anybody who thinks they might be interested. There are a couple of things that impress me about Wayne’s playing. The first is that it’s so relaxed, there is never any sense of effort impeding the sound. Secondly, an related, he can play quickly without being rushed. This track doesn’t particularly show off that aspect of his playing, but it sounds like he can fit as many notes as he wants in a line, without any of them being cramped. There’s always plenty of time for each note, however short, to be complete, fully formed, and precise. Finally, his sound is so clean and pure.

As the title of the album implies (and the associated book explains) Wayne Henderson is famous for his ability as a guitar builder, and is playing a guitar that he made. I don’t know whether to give more credit to his ability as a craftsman or a musician for the tone, but listening to it, it seems impossible to imagine that this sound could be in anyway something other than exactly what he wants.

Nothing more to say, really, except that the whole album is that good, and worth getting a copy of.

Living Room Songs — track 11 “Memory Of Your Smile” by Mike Seeger, Dave Grisman, & Maria Muldaur from Hills of Home

I’ve been hesitating somewhat about writing about this track because I have a certain ambivalence about it. One one hand it’s a very good song — very good spirited with lively playing, good singing, and a sense that everyone involved is having fun. On the other hand this is one of the songs that barely made the cut for this compilation, and that fact both makes me more conscious of the ways in which it doesn’t quite fit and is an interesting illustration of the selection that goes into a compilation like this.

A bit of background, the song is originally from the album Third Annual Farewell Reunion in which Mike Seeger works with different musicians on every track. AMG says, of this album, “The diversity at work in this collection is an impressive testament to the depth of America’s folk music, and the cohesive, seamless flow of the sequencing is also a testament to Seeger’s ability to see the full field as an acoustic musician. To his credit, nothing here is treated like a museum piece, and each track is allowed a chance at a living, breathing vitality.” In keeping with that description of the album, I think that one of the important virtues of the performance is how friendly and genuinely collaborative the song is.

The first thing to notice about the track is Maria Muldaur’s vocals, and how much fun she has really digging into a line like, “I wandered from one bar to another . . .” The second thing is the way that she steps back (about 1 minute in) to allow Mike and Dave to play together.

As for why I hesitated to include it, my first reason was that I worried that Muldaur’s singing had too much of a blues feel. I wanted to avoid traditional music which was directly related to the blues because I feel like that’s a style with which most people are already familiar, and I wanted to highlight a specific and different genre of traditional music. I don’t know whether anybody other than me would care about that distinction in regards to this compilation. My other reason for concern was that I didn’t think this track exhibited any unique virtues, it isn’t exceptional in the quality of the recording, the intimacy of the performance, or the imagination of the instrumental improvisation (if you compare this track to the Stacey Phillips/Paul Howard track, for example, the playing isn’t even close to as good). It’s solidly good in all of those areas, but it isn’t exceptional.

Ultimately I included it because I did find that it got stuck in my head after I listened to it, and I wanted to emphasize the catchy side of traditional music.

But it makes me reflect on my specific approach to mix-making, which is to try to make, as best I can, a statement about the styles of music that I’m working with. I do have a bias towards selections which exhibit a specific excellence, and I feel like in some ways that’s limiting and that I would improve as a maker of compilations if I worried less about that. In many ways I find the same dynamic at work writing this blog. It’s easy for me to write about music which I consider to be superb (which is a lot of music), but I’m never quite sure how to write about songs that are just fun, and that I want to share — other than saying just that. So there are a large number of songs that I would like to share, at some point, that I don’t post because I’m trying to find an angle from which I can find unique virtues to highlight.

Incidentally, some of you may recognize that this track is off of the same collection as Sweet Lucy.

As a second incidental note, I have to say that, on this particular track, there is a noticeable loss of sound quality in the conversion to .mp3.

Living Room Songs — track 10 “Feast Here Tonight” by the Stanley Brothers from An Evening Long Ago: Live 1956

I was recently told by a friend of mine that the album that this was taken from was, by a significant margin, his favorite CD of those that I had given him. It’s a very cool recording, AMG describes how it happened:

Larry Ehrlich was at end of a long day in a studio in Bristol, VA. Carter and Ralph Stanley as well as Ralph Mayo and Curley Lambert entered the studio in front of one microphone, and Ehrlich, after seeing them play hog callings, a couple of radio shows, and a barn dance, asked the band to sing some of the traditional songs they had been recording for the past 16 years. The results, completely unearthed until now, are no less than stunning. This is the Stanleys as listeners have never heard them: laid-back, relaxed, and full of recollection and goodwill, singing and playing songs as familiar to them as their upbringing. . . .

This track is one of the faster songs on the album, so it isn’t typical in that way, but the fact that it isn’t extended at all is. On several of the songs they’ll just play the tune a couple of times though and then stop. It’s very casual.

This was a track that I decided on late in the process. I had already read Bob Coltman’s line, “this is one of those [songs] I love, that just entangle you deep in the brush and mire and dust and deep woods of somebody’s intensely felt locality.” and that made me think that I couldn’t resist the line, “I’m goin down the track with a chicken on my back” in this song.

It’s interesting, listening to it know, how early in the career of the Stanley Brothers (in particular Ralph) it was recorded, since it sounds so experienced. Ralph and Carter Stanley were, respectively 29 and 31 years old at the time of that recording. Ralph Stanley was well known in Bluegrass circles, but received much wider recognition after his recording of “O Death” from “O Brother Where Art Thou” released in 2000, 44 years after this recording. Not that the Stanley Brothers were novices, according to Wikipedia, had released about 30 singles at that point and were clearly experienced performs. But, as it happens, they were also comparatively youthful.

Living Room Songs — track 9 Cherokee Shuffle by Stacy Phillips & Paul Howard from Stacy Phillips / Paul Howard

I don’t have that much to say about this except that, like Bash Bish Falls it’s an instrumental cut to which I hadn’t paid that much attention prior to looking for things to include on this mix which ended up completely winning me over. It’s not surprising that it’s great, I really like the album that it’s taken from. Stacy Phillips is a bona fide dobro hot shot, and I have less of a sense of Paul Howard, but he’s a fantastic guitar player and they enjoy playing together (here’s a video of them playing live).

It starts with the guitar setting a very solid rhythm and there’s a moment when it might be a completely standard straight up tune, and then they start to play around. What I find impressive is that it never gets too strange but, a minute into it, I have no idea what’s going to come next. It’s just such creative playing (in addition to being virtuoso) there are so many music ideas that come and go that it’s obviously the result of two people that are very comfortable improvising together.

Living Room Songs — track 8 “Let Him Go On Mama” by John Hartford from Mark Twang.

(The complete mix is here in case you want to get caught up again after the break.)

This was the gateway song for John Hartford for me. I happened to hear it on the radio, and I couldn’t couldn’t believe how good it was. In some ways it’s no longer the first song that I think of when I think of Mark Twang, because it is less experimental and wild than several of the songs, but you’d be hard pressed to argue that any of the other songs are clearly better. “Let Him Go On Mama” is a remarkably well constructed song, that embodies an essentially nostalgia vision with real and grounded emotion (the basic emotion isn’t that different from something like, say, “City of New Orleans” but the song feels less clever and more lived in). How can you appreciate the loving appreciation in a verse like:

At the inspection office in Louisville at a desk for a very short time
And he played in a band on two different boats working for the Strackfus line
And long ago he smoked reefer and he even made home brew
And the reefer came in through New Orleans back before World War II

(I just notice, copying the lyrics, that each line after the first begins with “And” which looks odd on paper but works to give it a conversational rhythm.)

I feel slightly bad about where I ended up placing this song in the context of the mix. I’ve said before that one of my goals for the perfect mix is that it should do a better job of selling each song than the song would do if you just played it by itself. As much as possible I want the flow of the mix to arrive at each song in such a way as to prepare the listener to appreciate the strengths of that song. I feel like I failed to do that for “Let Him Go On Mama.” It follows two powerhouse vocal performances and, in contrast, feels subdued rather than casual. Not only is the style different, it’s also a drop in volume from the previous song, which always makes for a slightly unflattering comparison (louder almost always sounds better). Ultimately however, I knew that I needed a change of mood and rather than finding a throw-away song of some sort to make that transition I just decided hope that it was a strong enough song that it would catch people’s attention even in a slightly non-optimal position in the mix.

For those people who have listened to the mix I would be curious if my sense of that matches your experience as a listener.

Living Room Songs — track 7 “You Tried To Ruin My Name” by Wilma Lee Cooper from Hand Picked.

If that didn’t catch your attention then, as they say, “Jack, you’re dead.”

I’d never heard of Wilma Lee Cooper, before this song caught by attention but apparently she was bluegrass royalty.

[S]he met and married guitarist Stoney Cooper. For the next 40 years the two performed as one of country music’s most popular duos. Their performances, including a ten-year stint on Wheeling, WV’s Jamboree and another decade performing at the Grand Ole Opry, led to recording contracts with both Columbia and Decca. Wilma, a skillful banjoist, guitarist, and organist, wrote or co-wrote several of their most successful compositions, including “Cheated Too,” “Loving You,” “I Tell My Heart,” and “Heartbreak Street.” After Stoney’s death in 1977 Wilma continued to perform, once again joining the cast of the Grand Ole Opry.

This track was released in 1981 when she was 60 and she sounds completely confident and forceful as a performer. In fact it could suffer from the fact that she doesn’t really sound devastated or weak to match the lyrics of the song. She has fun putting some bite of anger in a line like, “the eve tried to put the blame on me when all along was you. . . ” but mostly the song is very good natured, despite the lyrics.

But what fun it is. She has so much energy, and sounds like performing is still a pleasure; the energy isn’t just for the audience she clearly loves the music.

At this point in the mix, I’ve now had three energetic songs in a row, the next song offers a bit of a breather, followed by two more high energy tracks after that, and then it eases off after that. So this song is really the center of a very high energy section in middle of the mix.

Living Room Songs — Track 6 “BoozeFighters” by Gandydancer from The Appalachians.

I don’t have a lot to say about this one. At some point, working on the mix, I started pulling CDs off the shelf that I didn’t know well, but that looked promising. I’d picked up this collection a year or two earlier but hadn’t been in the right mood and didn’t listen to it much, but this mix was the perfect occasion to go through it. I thought this was an awfully charming song.

It was an interesting challenge to put in the sequence, however, because it (a) has a lot of energy (b) is short and (c) doesn’t have an into our outro to speak of. So there isn’t any way to easy into or out of it, you have to be able to transition into its mood immediately. So it works well following “Bash Bish Falls” which also has a lot of energy, but doesn’t have great emotional force.

Incidentally, I apologize for the break in posting, but I was sick last week. I’m feeling better now and looking forward to getting back into the mix.

Living Room Songs — track 5 “Bash Bish Falls” by John Reischman and the Jaybirds from Stellar Jays.

The first instrumental track, and a change of pace. The three proceeding songs were all pretty serious, and the song immediately prior to this one, “I Wish To The Lord I’d Never Been Born” was very patient and internal, and it felt like time for something more lively.

This track certainly is lively. I don’t have a lot to say about it, except that I think it’s great and that, even though it’s very fast, they all really seem to be listening to each other throughout. They way they trade off playing lead works well (you can see that visually in this live performance), nobody has to keep up full speed for the entire song.

It’s very fun, and a nice pallet cleanser before the mix heads into a different mood.

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