‘It was pretty ballsy and was definitely a change in direction.’
Margo Price and her take on the opening single, ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ from her new album, ‘That’s How Rumors Get Started,‘ is an honest reflection on the track which probably raised a few eyebrows when it first dropped. The story behind it and Marty Stuart‘s question about life on the road, ‘Does the band hate each other yet?,’ is a great insight into how songs get written and why they matter.
On the AC we’ve loved Margo from the get-go. Initially flagged up to us by our great friend Bill Demain, we played Margo Price and The Pricetags a good few years ago and have followed her career with interest. She’s always been great value as an interviewee and held us all spellbound at C2C two years ago with stories of her duet with Willie Nelson as well as her strong articulation of women’s rights in the light of MeToo. Her performance at the festival itself was a triumph and it’s been great to see her following grow and her own music expand and develop.
What’s been interesting about Margo is (like Sturgill Simpson her producer on this album) she’s ‘cool’ because she has stayed true to her roots. Fashion and trends are fickle friends and I have learned to be distrustful of how they ebb and flow. In Margo’s case however she is oblivious to all of that and has essentially followed her own path. In much the same way (musically) as Amy Winehouse expressed only interest in music from pre 1960, so Margo too has championed the ideals of the country music she adored growing up. Within that however she has also revealed what might have happened next had we allowed those careers to grow and develop. The new album is a great listen; a rounded collection of songs which ask all the right questions and leave the impression that with Margo, you always get closer to the truth. Fame has brought with it some interesting fellow travellers and the record leaves you in no doubt of the conflicting emotions running through her own writing and ambitions.
So, a couple of weeks ago, I caught up with Margo in lockdown and we talked about her new daughter Ramona, that fame thing, her conversation with Marty Stuart and where America is now, in the light of BLM. It’s a conversation you can hear on this week’s AC and it’s one you won’t want to miss.
We’ve also been taken with Jonathan Wilson‘s new record where, as well as returning to his more country side, he’s covered a great Four Tops song. Inspired by this we thought we’d take you on a little country road trip where country goes soul and soul goes country. It’s a well trodden path, but really it’s one that goes back to the roots of country, rock ‘n’ roll and R ‘n’ B music. We think you’ll enjoy the ride.
All this as well as the usual clutch of great new releases in two hours of country music, our way, on BBC Radio Scotland this Tuesday from 8 p.m.
The Blog is taking annual leave from this week. It will return fresh with new thoughts and radio stories in August at some point.
It’s that time of year when pictures come up on my timeline reminding me what I was doing 12 months ago or two or ten years ago. As often as not it’s a gig and a summer gig at that. In last week’s blog (still available if you want to check it out) I gave you my conversion story. I told the tale of a poor unworthy festival loather turned into a festival believer. It’s an emotional story of love and redemption.
This week on BBC Radio Scotland we’re celebrating Festival Week. In the absence of Edinburgh and its associated celebrations, TRNSMT, Belladrum and all the other shindigs we’re having a celebration on the airwaves.
For me the real moment of missing the live experience came a few weeks ago when, by chance, I picked up a Ry Cooder live album off my shelf to play in the car. At the sound of the guitars being plugged in and the recognition of the musicians walking on to the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco something in me broke a little. It was a sound I knew. A feeling with which I was more than familiar; standing in the wings as the house lights come down and the noise comes up. No one who has experienced live shows and the terror and exhilaration of putting on a show can ever not know that noise. It’s wonderful, exciting and daunting all in one breath.
So…this week on Another Country I want to give you the gig we’d put on if we only could. It’s C2C, it’s Celtic Connections, it’s T In The Park and it’s a night at The Fallen Angels Club all in one. It’s a country baptism, exorcism and a bar mitzvah…we’re gonna do it all on this week’s show. You’ll hear artists playing in Madison Square Garden then we’ll cut to the quietest listening room in the world, The Bluebird. You’ll hear artists at the top of their popularity at the mother church of Country Music, The Ryman Auditorium and others performing some of the songs we loved best on TV. You’ll hear artists on tour, at one-off festivals and we’ll even drop into a beautiful live moment from a writing room when the song has just been delivered – fresh out of the oven!
It’s two hours of the artists we love playing some of their greatest songs to their own audiences across the world. You’ll hear Tim McGraw, Beth Nielson Chapman, Tom Waits, Carrie Underwood, Shania Twain and that moment when Ry hits the stage in California. It won’t make up for missing all your favourite events this summer but it will be two hours when you can forget about what you’re missing elsewhere this summer. It’s The Perfect Festival, the best gig you’ve never been to and it’s all live on BBC Radio Scotland this Tuesday evening from five past eight. Join me if you can.
Like lots of folks I should have been at Glastonbury this last weekend. I hope this might be a trip I’ll be making next year though I should stress I’m not missing summer festivals as much as a few folk in music seem to be. It goes back a long way for me. In the seventies and early eighties live outdoor events were pretty sketchy and fans were often poorly treated and performers not much better.
By the time I got round to being involved in serious alfresco gigs towards the end of the eighties I fear my vote had been cast against the ‘festival’ as a great day out. I do realise (like on many other subjects) I’m in a significant minority here. People will wax lyrical about the great shows they’ve seen and artists too have been known to eulogise on the subject.(although I think they sometimes fib a little) The die was cast early having to watch the band I loved (Little Feat) make their joyous sound over the top of drunken, pugnacious locals who were only interested in seeing the Sensational Alex Harvey Band perform on a sunny afternoon at Parkhead. We were all of one voice by the time The Who headlined but a lingering loathing of having to suffer someone else’s audience really gave me a bad start with the whole escapade.
On reading Chris Difford’s autobiography recently I was startled to read that we had played at a festival with Squeeze in the late eighties too. It was only then I realised that this was the day when we’d decided that enduring a hail of piss-filled lager bottles did not a living make and decided the Reading Festival could go on merrily without input from us. It was one of the better decisions I ever made to say ‘thanks and goodnight’ fairly early.
However there was one lovely moment before all of that happened. A man who come a long way decided to put up with the wave of assaults and played on regardless. It was John Hiatt and I still have a warm memory of him singing Have a Little Faith In Me to the percussive effect of stage-bound missiles. I said hello to him afterwards and that, from memory, was the only time we met. I have enjoyed his music hugely over the years and his songs have popped up in lots of great places. So I was delighted when we were introduced to his daughter’s music a couple of years back by our good friend, Bill DeMain.
Lilly Hiatt is now on to her fourth elpee and it’s really sounding great. Like so many artists in this strange year she’s locked down instead of being out on the road promoting the record. I had a great chat with her last week and asked her all about life in East Nashville, her new album and how her Dad, John came to make an appearance on it. You can hear that conversation on Another Country this Tuesday evening. We’ll also play you some great new records by The Chicks (the Dixie has gone), Eric Church, Mo Pitney and Leif Vollebekk.
Finally…and I hope you festival goers got far enough to read this part….I had a Damascus Road experience with festivals. It happened in 2011 at ..Glastonbury…we played…I loved it and I’ve been back since, even taking my young lad camping the last time I was there. I’ve played outdoor shows in Dubai, Ireland, Spain, Jersey, England and Scotland and heck…I think I’m beginning to dig this festival thing at my ripe old age. Get this pandemic over and let’s do this all again soon. In the meantime join me on the wireless this Tuesday evening from 8 on BBC Radio Scotland.
There’s no getting past this; this is a time we’ll probably not get back again. As we watched the English football recommence this week we wondered how often these photographs of players with BLM logos replacing their names in front of empty grandstands would appear on future pub quizzes asking for explanation. Who knows, perhaps in a few years this will seem to be the norm, but we hope not.
So it is with a new Bob Dylan album. Much of my adult life has been peppered with the anticipation and reaction to such an event, but in reality, we have no right to expect many more Fridays like June 19th. ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways‘ came in at the time we needed it most. That it’s been greeted with such joy by critics and admirers alike really comes as no surprise. I listened to it all on Friday first thing and it really is Bob at his best.
What I love most about this record is Dylan’s connectedness to the world. There’s still that sense we got on Time Out Of Mind that this is someone more than aware of his own mortality yet, in Yeats words, casts ‘a cold eye on life and death.’ This time we’re twenty three years down that road and the artist is in his eightieth year with no intention of pretending otherwise. These were lines that poked out on that first listen through:
‘I sleep with life and death in the same bed,’
‘the city of God is there on the hill’
‘Mother Muses wherever you are, I’ve outlived my life by far.’
Then there are the references. The Rolling Stones, Indiana Jones, the back catalogue of songs and artists mentioned on Murder Most Foul, writers, poets, blues men, saints and …. well….Liberace. Julius Caesar creeps in more than once….
What are these dark days I see?
In this world so badly bent
I cannot redeem the time
The time so idly spent
How much longer can it last?
How long can it go on?
I embrace my love, put down my hair
And I crossed the Rubicon
Why is any of this important to me, to us? Firstly this is the very heart of what Americana must be. A writer who is steeped in the traditions of American song. The ghosts of all the souls we once loved are scattered in and around this record. It’s a compendium of traditions, styles and echoes of all that we have known and come to accept as the foundations of roots music. But secondly, and maybe importantly, it’s Bob Dylan at 79. I think I’m not being entirely doom-laden here when I say that there won’t be many days when the world stops for a few hours and over different time zones we, as one, consume a new Bob Dylan record. So we need to celebrate that he has made one of the records of his life, plotted every curve, produced and directed the entire enterprise…and lest we should forget, sung it all with panache, wit and style. He’s made us laugh, shocked us a little and again broken our hearts in all the right ways.
Hours have not passed without me tapping into this record over the weekend. I intend not to break that pattern on Tuesday evening this week. There will be more too. Expect records from Phoebe Bridgers, Nadia Reid, Jeb Loy Nichols and something wonderful from Bill Kirchen, Paul Carrack and Nick Lowe as they take on Merle Haggard. It will be two full hours starting at five past eight this Tuesday evening on BBC Radio Scotland. Join me if you can.
I knew very little about songwriting with or for other artists. The truth is perhaps even more blunt; I knew very little about songwriting. Writing for oneself there are no rules, and perhaps that’s something songwriters shouldn’t try to change. Ignorance is bliss. I’m guessing that many of the songs we adore were written by people unaware of any structural rules of stylings set by others. The charm of songs on debut albums is often the lack of adherence to form. The shock of the new is what draws us in.
It occurred to my publishers however that some collaboration would be helpful and before long I was invited down to co write with an established song writer. That first trip resulted in a life long friendship and with one of the UK’s best. Charlie Dore is that and more. An accomplished and successful artist, prolific catalogue writer, actor and impro artist…there’s probably a few things I’ve forgotten.
She impressed me early on by being funny and being able to deal with all my fears and concerns about the business of allowing artists to trample all over our ideas when we are bringing in our best shot. She simply smiled gracefully, and with the tact of a royal retainer would offer … ‘yes….but we could also say this’ so deftly the artist in question barely noticed. I, on the other hand, would woefully wail post-session that this surely was not how songs should be written. However I had a lesson coming. We also had a writing session which involved the two of us working on a song. Inspired by our day I went back to my hotel that night and wrote out a complete lyric. ‘That’s good,’ Charlie said next morning over coffee at her kitchen table, ‘But let me photocopy it and we can both go over it a little.’ Half an hour later, whatever song I thought it was had been corrected, edited and vastly improved by Charlie. There was, I realised, much to learn.
Since those days I’ve watched Charlie return to her artist roots as well as continue to write for others. Over the last few years she’s made a series of beautiful folk/altcountry/americana records which showcase her unique ability to tell stories that will gently break your heart. On her new album, Like Animals, Charlie again takes you on journeys of human frailty and joyous inquisition.
This Tuesday night you can hear a conversation I recorded with her last week where we talk animals, humans, anxiety and memories of a songwriting life going back to the late seventies. It was a conversation I really didn’t want to conclude. Fortunately for you we’ve edited some of that and included some beautiful cuts from the new album.
Elsewhere we’ll hear from Lori McKenna, Brian Fallon and Teddy Thompson. We’ll introduce you to The Son(s) and remind you of some of the music made by Boudleaux and Felice Bryant. It is their songs I’ll be exploring this Wednesday in the last ‘Ricky Meets’ of this series. It’s a very special hour in the company of their son Del Bryant from his house outside Nashville which we visited a couple of years ago to gather the stories of one of the greatest pop/country songwriting teams of all time.
Join me this Tuesday when you can get a taste of all of that, a chat with Charlie Dore and enjoy two hours of country music…our way from 8 p.m. on BBC Radio Scotland.
One of the saddest and most telling images of the last week was the current US President holding the Bible aloft outside an Episcopal Church in Washington. For the millions who saw it, the picture held so many conflicting statements. For him it was his message to his supporters that there had, once more, been a reset. Everything was, once more, as it was. The POTUS was in charge and his people – Bible loving people – were going to demonstrate their power over the mob outside the gates. For those outside the gates who had been violently removed so the photo-op could take place the message was also clear. What they saw was not a Bible, but a white symbol of authority once more proclaiming that his world-view was somehow endorsed by a higher power. God and America; it’s a strange old dance.
As I looked through the newspapers I thought of the good Christian folk I met recently in Rwanda and The DRC who must have been confused by the shot when they saw it pop up on their TV or news feeds. For them it must have felt as if the book they’d been reading all their life had been stolen and many of the important pages ripped out. For many Americans too there would be a sense of shame that the book they hold so dear was being used in such triumphalist fashion….though, heaven knows, that has been a common theme with the good book over the centuries.
Bible mythology and folklore is written into the DNA of so many Americans. That it transcends the racial divide is both consoling and confusing. A visitor to this planet might well be surprised that Pat Robertson and Al Sharpton find their inspiration and instruction coming from the same source. For those of you of no faith and deep love of music I apologise for the religious pre roll…I’m coming to my point.
Popular music and country music are steeped in Bible imagery. The Bible itself has been wedged into country songs appropriately and inappropriately by Keith Urban (even quoting a specific verse… John 3:16), Brooks and Dunn, George Jones and of course Ashley McBryde....you can add your own names here. My lasting impression of Nashville after my first visit there thirteen years ago was of a city with a surplus of ostentatious steeples. The Churches stood on every corner taking up the best real-estate and imposing an image more steeped in privilege than compassion. There was little doubt in my mind that Tennessee was still the buckle on the Bible Belt.
It’s true too that the country audience know the references when they hear them. So when Sarah Jarosz starts her new album, ‘World On The Ground.’ with a reference to a woman called Eve, we understand where the story has come from. Sarah’s new album is centred around the idea of home and a return, in at least her imagination, to a town in Texas where she grew up. The beautiful tale in ‘Maggie’ of driving across the desert in a Ford Escape is not necessarily about any one person but, as you’ll hear in this week’s special conversation, the car has a special place in Sarah’s affections.
I spoke to Sarah last week about the new album while she was locked down in Nashville. It’s a beautiful piece of work all produced by John Leventhal and it’s a great progression from where we last found her. We spoke about John, her side project ‘I’m With Her’ and her hopes for the future in these troubled times.
At the time I spoke to Sarah the news of George Floyd was just breaking over in Minnesota so there was no time to get a reaction from her that day. It’s interesting however to hear so many country artists and commentators being so vocal about how America needs to address its record on race relations. It’s also very telling that what has happened there has caused such an outpouring of anger and self reflection in this country. Our conversation on the US is often filled with a certain degree of schadenfreude. On this occasion we are more inclined to protest but also understand that there, but for the Grace of God, go we.
To that end you need to hear a song my old Chicago radical pal, Johan Mrvos recommended to me this week. Jovan said in his email of Dion and Paul Simon singing ‘Song For Sam Cooke,’ that it….absolutely destroyed me…one of my true boyhood heroes singing about another man who changed my life…I’m still crying and sobbing…this country must change or it will die..The song is also called Here in America and you’ll find out why it’s the song you need to hear right now on this week’s show.
So do listen in to this week’s Another Country for that interview with Sarah, a celebration of significant birthdays for some great artists and new songs to get you through these troubled times. It all starts at 8 p.m. on BBC Radio Scotland this Tuesday evening. Listen in live and/or on BBC Sounds if you can.
It’s always the way of things. I leave our AC HQ on a Tuesday night and think to myself, ‘Well we’ve played a lot of the things I really love right now…what the heck are we gonna play next week?’
Then it comes, slowly, but in they creep, the songs you just need to hear again and immediately I think I need to share them on the airwaves. What’s interesting and exciting for me is finding tracks in so many different ways: playlists, blogs, mentions and shares; all ways in which we find three minute gems we think you’ll love. Of course we have a great many folk plugging us new music all the time and this week I was really taken with a new record I was sent by White Tail Falls, aka, Irwin Sparkes who was so fed up with the music he was hearing sounding so anodyne he set up microphones in an array of locations to make his debut album. Hugely inspired by Josh T Pearson, whose album, The Last of The Country Gentleman, we enjoyed a few years back Irwin has made a beautiful debut which will intrigue and delight.
Of course what determines any week’s playlist is events. Like many folk in country music we were saddened to hear of the death of Bucky Baxter towards the end of last week. You’ve probably heard Bucky’s music quite a lot on the records of Steve Earle, Kacey Musgraves and Bob Dylan. He was a man who took to pedal steel playing mid-career and was reputed to have joined Bob’s band on the basis that he would teach Dylan how to play the instrument. Intriguingly we’ve never found out where that conversation went, but Bucky maintained he stayed in the band as long as he did because he never tried to become ‘mates. “I just worked for him. And we had a good working relationship … but I never went to his house for Thanksgiving or anything,” We’ll play you some wonderful records which feature the playing of Bucky Baxter including a great recording he made on his son, Rayland’s 2018 album, ‘Wide Awake.’
Another album I’ve loved recently is Eliza Gilkyson‘s 2020. It’s 50 years (Fifty!) since her debut album and she really keeps getting better. We want to play a song she has written based on a letter written by Woody Guthrie to the US President’s father, Fred Trump. If ever there was a time to hear the thoughts of Woody on the Trump family I think we might have found it.
A week in politics is a long time as a wise British PM once observed. Stuff happens and songs will always get you through. Gather round the wireless this Tuesday evening if you are able and we’ll try to make life a little more bearable. We’re on BBC Radio Scotland and you can tune in from anywhere in the world on BBC Sounds.
Nashville’s Lower Broadway during lockdown, the regular stomping ground for our correspondent Bill Demain.
This Tuesday it will be 80 years since the birth of songwriter Mickey Newbury. Ideally we would have welcomed Gretchen Peters into the studio with her husband to celebrate his life by performing some of his songs. Gretchen has just released her own take on some of her favourite Mickey Newbury songs with her new album, ‘The Night You Wrote The Song.’
So, who was Mickey Newbury? Like Jerry Reed, Harlan Howard, The Bryants or Tom T Hall, Mickey Newbury is one of these names that comes up in conversation when you start talking to great songwriters about the ones they admire the most. Gretchen, of course, is the consummate songwriter. Her songs have been memorably covered by others but she is also a troubadour who (in normal times) would be out on the road on tour for a good part of any given year. Like Mickey Newbury, she has ploughed her own furrow, and although they both share a love and deep understanding of country music, their own art has to be understood in a wider context.
Mickey Newbury arrived on the song writing scene in the sixties after a short career in the military. He moved from Texas to Nashville and was signed up to the most famous and successful publishing house on Music Row, Acuff-Rose. His first big country hit by Don Gibson, Funny Familiar Forgotten Feelings went top ten but that success was superseded when Tom Jones made it a world wide hit record. By 1968 he had Top 5 hits on 4 separate US charts: Pop/ Easy Listening/ Country and R ‘n B with four different songs. No one would ever surpass this success. In fact it’s all the more remarkable as Mickey Newbury wrote 100% of these songs. There was no collaboration. Even as I write this I’m double checking the facts as it’s so remarkable.
Such was the scale of Newbury’s success that, on the back of these hits, he began a solo recording career. It’s here the story becomes a little less clear except for one ever riding fact: Mickey Newbury pursued a very singular style. There really are very few artists of that or any other time who sound like him. Gretchen herself would say there’s something of Leonard Cohen about his work. It’s true too, there’s poetry and a lyrical expansiveness in Newbury’s songs that separate them from most of that post Laurel Canyon generation. When I listen I think more of Rod McKuen and Jimmy Webb, but I’m scratching my head to find other parallels.
So it really is great that in 1977 while studying at college, the young Gretchen Peters fell in love with an album called, Rusty Tracks and that her discovery led to a life long love of Mickey’s music. You’ll probably want to know if Gretchen ever met Mickey or if Mickey ever heard Gretchen. For that you’ll need to listen in to a very special conversation I recorded last week with her from her lockdown location in Florida. It was there she and Barry Walsh (her husband and musical co conspirator) recorded some special versions of tracks from the album and Gretchen told me all about the record and her love of the songs. We’ll play all of that out this Tuesday evening.
When all of this started I was in the process of bringing out a new record. One of the loveliest things a few people said to me at the time was that the songs on our new album were speaking to where people were at as they listened. It was one of the loveliest things to hear that in the dark days of March, even before we knew the fullness of what we were facing, but with a sense of dread very much in the air, people were taking comfort from songs we’d put out into the world.
Over the next few weeks that thought has occurred to me too. I was playing a song in the kitchen and my wife said – that is a song for these times. It was, and as the weeks have passed so too have there been many moments when songs have come on the radio or popped up on a playlist and I’ve wanted to turn it up a little louder as it seemed to be speaking to me.
All of us over the last few weeks must have felt fear, loneliness and a little despair. At the beginning of all of this, when I was ill myself I remember looking out from my isolated bedroom on the first night of the lockdown and unable to countenance the magnitude of the profound silence that seemed to fall on my home city of Glasgow that night. I didn’t get out of that room for a week or so and drove a short distance as if driving through a dream. The world had changed and there seemed to be very little on the horizon to give us hope.
In the first days the only music I wanted to hear was classical and a day or two passed when Radio 3 would be the only thing I could listen to. Perhaps it allowed me to inhabit another world and my imagination was allowed to roam to different places and other centuries, finding myself inside the mind of great musicians whose own imagination was much bigger than anything I’d ever be able to dream up. Perhaps too it was gentler, slower less loud that rock’n’roll & soul & country and all the pop music mostly on my radar. However my first date back for any official work was my first New Tradition show on Radio 2. My dear friend and long standing producer of anything musical I ever do for the radio, Richard Murdoch said to me I should simply play the songs that are getting me through. It was the best suggestion he has ever made. That night on the radio I felt the love coming in from all across the UK as people felt strengthened, excited and happy because of music. To be in the middle of that was like doing a gig for me. The show ran itself, I merely let it all go on and rejoiced to be part of it.
A week ago I felt the sense that this lockdown has gone on a long time. We’re all struggling to see this through and it’s lucky we’ve had some compensation from fine spring weather to ease our journey. But I think we need a musical blow-out; a short but loud burst of joy to help us over the line. So this Tuesday night we’re going to do just that. We have gathered from your generous feedback the songs you feel will help your fellow listeners breast that finishing tape. It’s A Country Jukebox where we play you songs to get you through, to get you going and most of all; songs for these times. It’s going to feel urgent, positive and a little bit emotional in all the right ways. I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts as we go live this Tuesday evening from eight o’clock on BBC Radio Scotland. Join me on text, twitter and Facebook if you can. This one’s from the heart.
All year round I present a weekly program called Another Country which goes out every Tuesday evening at 8 p.m. You can find the show on BBC Radio Scotland.
Occasionally you'll find me on BBC Radio 2 with my New Tradition.
I also make special programs about artists whose music has inspired me; Ricky Ross Meets... is on BBC Radio Scotland.
You can listen to previous versions of all these shows via BBC Sounds.