In New Orleans, jazz is king. This is, after all, the cradle of jazz itself, a town that was home to such titans of sound as Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, as well as the lesser known Buddy Bolden, a turn-of-the-century cornetist who left no recordings to the world but is said to have invented jazz when he created the Big Four beat – a variation on the standard marching band beat which added a healthy dose of razzle-dazzle to the mix.
Music tourists the world over flock to the Crescent City for its jazz and brass bands, whose sounds inhabit the French Quarter and Frenchman Street, day and night. You can hear the old standards at Preservation Hall, ground zero for Dixieland jazz, or skip over to Frenchman in the Marigny district and take in some hot new band at The Spotted Cat.
It’s an instrumental town, to be sure, a Music City of a different sort. Three chords and the truth has never been the mantra there. The poets of the town took to page or stage, not song. But that’s slowly starting to change, thanks to a new crop of songwriters who are writing original music that draws heavily off the city’s rich musical heritage. It’s modern music steeped in the old ways.
It’s a more succulent version of country than we have in Nashville, one that is more cabaret than honky-tonk. The distance between vintage country and New Orleans blues has never been that great. After all, it was Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne, a New Orleans-bred blues musician, who mentored Hank Williams in Georgiana, Alabama, and taught him to play “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It,” a tune first associated with Buddy Bolden’s band.
Hurray For The Riff Raff leads this charge of young guns in New Orleans. The group is the project of Alynda Lee Segarra, a Bronx native who left home as a teen and hopped trains as she travelled across the country, finally settling in the Crescent City years later. She cut her teeth busking in the French Quarter with several rag-tag music ensembles, starting out on Decatur Street and then graduating to the more esteemed corners of Royal, where the bigger dogs play.
While logging time as a street performer, Segarra grew steadily as an artist, soaking up various styles of American music, as well as the lessons and wisdom of her musical peers. Street performance is crucial to the city’s musical lifeblood. Unlike other American cities, busking in New Orleans is not considered a step up from panhandling. It is an art form, a test of endurance, a feat of entrepreneurial skill. It’s a great education for any musician, where one can expand their musical palette and, if good enough, can hustle up enough dough for food and rent.
Long-time New Orleans music writer Alex Rawls tells the story of Hurray For The Riff Raff’s rise and looks at Segarra’s songwriting approach. Her writing is steeped in tradition but, like Woody Guthrie and a young Bob Dylan, it takes on the topics of the day. She writes about Trayvon Martin, pens murder ballads from a feminist perspective, and tells stories about her life on the road and growing up in the Bronx’s Puerto Rican community. She connects the ghosts of old-timey American music with the Twittersphere. She is a troubadour with a smartphone.
We also look at the singer-songwriter scene in New Orleans and the new roots-music clubs cropping up in the Bywater and Carrollton neighborhoods. And we talk to artists like Luke Winslow-King, a Michigan transplant signed to Bloodshot Records whose tunes sound like they were shot out of your great-grandfather’s Victrola. New Orleans native Andrew Duhon, whose most recent album The Moorings received a Grammy nomination, tells us about his experience carving out a career as a songwriter, one who plays regularly in New Orleans but also tours a great deal.
Unlike some music cities, New Orleans is a town where a songwriter can develop on their own, away from the daily pressure of music business insiders and trend-setters. “You can get out of the machine [in New Orleans],” says Kristin Diable, a songwriter who moved to New Orleans from New York a few years ago, “or go right back into the machine.” For many artists, it’s the best of both worlds.
Editor’s note for January/February 2014 issue.
Brian Eno famously said that only 30,000 people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but every one of them started a band. The death of Lou Reed – the Velvets co-founder and solo artist who graced the cover of our Legends issue back in 2008 – has inspired countless tributes in recent weeks. Clearly, his influence extends well beyond what his sales figures might suggest.
In this issue, Reed tells Paul Zollo that his songs were beamed in from what he called his “permanent radio,” a non-stop barrage of music playing in his head. These sounds, both chaotic and tuneful, were set to Reed’s bare-bones street poetry, which told stories of characters living on the dirty boulevards of New York. Reed’s music crumbled walls, literally. Vaclav Havel, the dissident Czech playwright who later became president, once told Reed that his music helped pave the way for his presidency and the dismantling of communism in Czechoslovakia. How?
In the late ’60s, Havel smuggled one of the early Velvet albums back into his country. It began making the rounds through Prague’s underground arts scene, eventually landing in the hands of the psych-folk band Plastic People of the Universe, which fell hard for the Velvets and began taking its musical and ethical cues from them. The government eventually banned the Plastics from performing in public, and several of its members ended up jailed for subversion, an act that led to the publication of Charter 77 – a declaration of human rights published in the mid-’70s that was authored mostly by Havel. When the Communist government resigned from power, in ’89, the event was dubbed the Velvet Revolution. Not a bad legacy for a man who said he wrote songs simply for fun, because “he got a major-league kick out of it.”
Reed once interviewed Havel during his presidency and asked him if art had the ability to change things. Havell said ‘No,’ but countered that it could change people. And it was up to people to take it from there.
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Uncle Tupelo is another band whose true legacy can only be measured by the depth of its influence. The songwriting team of Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy would release four albums over its career and split in 1994, never really graduating beyond the world of small clubs and college radio. But the group’s potent blend of vintage country and folk – married with the energy of hardcore punk – launched an entire movement and spawned a host of flannel-clad imitators. So much of what is now called Americana – middle-class indie music with strong folk roots – seems like it can traced back to Uncle Tupelo.
In our article, Stephen Deusner talks to Jay Farrar – one of the most inspired and idiosyncratic lyricists of the last quarter century – about the band’s newly reissued debut record, No Depression. Deusner paints a grim picture of Belleville, Illinois, the Rust Belt town that birthed this pre-Internet band of young twentysomethings, who were desperate to leave a place decimated by closed-up shops and factories. This urgency to fleeinforms every track on No Depression. Farrar and Tweedy would eventually get out. After the band’s split, Farrar went on to form Son Volt and Tweedy would start Wilco. You know the rest.
We also check in with Jimmy Webb, now the chairman of the Songwriters Hall Of Fame, who authored such classics as “Wichita Lineman” and “The Highwayman.” And for our cover story, Elvis Costello talks with Alan Light about his new album, Wake Up Ghost, a stellar collaboration with famed hip-hop band The Roots that finds the Englishman pushing his songs into new frontiers.
Editor’s note for Sept/Oct 2013 issue of American Songwriter.
Three years ago I saw Jason Isbell perform aboard the deck of a Carnival cruise ship. He played one muggy evening just as our ship made the turn around the northwest tip of Cuba, on its way to Grand Cayman island. The turnout for that night’s show was weak. Maybe five or six people on deck. I watched with two American Songwriter colleagues and a central Florida version of Snooki from Jersey Shore.
Isbell did not seem to be enjoying himself. At one point during his set, he clamored for a drink, so we brought him a double Jack Daniel’s on the rocks. He then launched into “Goddamn Lonely Love” from his Drive-By Trucker days and said the song was about his ex-wife. He followed that with the amped-up “Go It Alone” from Here We Rest. If you said “lonesome” was a theme that night, you would not be wrong.
Isbell and his band the 400 Unit were one of a dozen or so acts playing the “Sailing Southern Ground cruise,” a four-day floating music festival put together by the Zac Brown Band. This quixotic, maritime voyage took us from Tampa to Grand Cayman and back over Labor Day weekend in 2010. American Songwriter pulled duty as the media sponsor.
By day three AS had come to know the pangs of sea life. Snookies multiplied like Gremlins in the oversized hot tubs. Midnight buffet raids lost their magic. Guitar solos began to sound like caterwauls. One night we lost all grip on reality and conducted a series of on-camera interviews with hapless cruise-goers that we called “Experiments In Journalism.” Those videos have since been deleted from all recording devices.
Isbell’s performances that week on the ship – I think we caught three or four – proved to be our only relief, and they would have been enough had we only heard “Decoration Day” and “Outfit.”
The former Drive-By Trucker’s career has come far since that week on the Inspiration. His new album, Southeastern, has been met with near-universal acclaim. As a friend put it, “it just makes all other records look bad.” And as this issue goes to press, Isbell is about to play a sold-out show at the Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of country music.
By Isbell’s account, his personal life seems to be at an all-time high, thanks in large part to a recent marriage and newfound sobriety. Southeastern documents – with a poet’s eye and without a trace of maudlin sap – his comeback story. It is not a confessional album per se. Themes of loss and redemption are woven into a larger tale, featuring a mosaic of characters that include killers on the run and cancer victims. There is a multi-dimensional quality to the writing that other songwriting “legends” would stumble in vain to capture.
I met the album’s producer, Dave Cobb, at a party recently and said closing track “Relatively Easy” was my personal favorite. He was surprised. “Really? That was the first song we cut. And those usually don’t make the album.”
The speaker in “Relatively Easy” recounts the suicide of a close friend, his own personal breakdown, and then curiously ponders the life of a stranger he passes in the street, wondering whether this man is alone or in love. He punctuates all this by telling his girl that “… compared to people on a global scale / Our kind has had it relatively easy / Here with you, there’s always something to look forward to / My angry heart beats relatively easy.”
It’s a sentiment worth remembering.
I learned to lose early in life.
I have the Atlanta Braves to thank for that.
I grew up in the 1980s in the wilds of south Alabama. The Braves were the only professional team anywhere near there. They were my team, and my devotion to them was unconditional. Their games were broadcast on TBS everyday during the baseball season, usually at 6:05 p.m. CST, right after the combo-punch of the Brady Bunch and the Andy Griffith show. You could say I pledged allegiance to Chief Knockahoma, the Braves mascot who lived in a teepee out in the right field bleachers.
I watched most of the games on TV from 1985 through 1990. During those years they either finished in last or second-to-last place in the National League West. They stunk like Bourbon Street on a Sunday morning in August. All these years later I wonder about the psychic toll of those beatings, which came day after day, year after year, from April ‘til September.
My hero was Dale Murphy, the Mormon golden boy from Portland. He played left-field when I first became a fan and they switched him to right-field a few years later. He’d won the MVP in 1982 and 1983. The numbers started falling a little bit after that but he still managed to hit 30 or more home runs on average for the next couple years.
I wore his jersey around the house – he was No. 3 – with my own last name stitched across the top. I had all his baseball cards, including his rookie card from 1978, when he was drafted in the first round as a catcher.
I tried to emulate Murphy’s style of play on the diamonds of the YMCA during the formidable coach-pitch years. Murph had a habit of slinging the bat frequently after a strike out. I used to let the bat fly myself in this fashion and one day walloped my brother in the head while I was making him retrieve balls in the backyard. My mom was watching through the window that afternoon as she did the dishes and saw the incident unfold. I recall that she came running out of the house, screaming, “What have you done?” as my poor brother just lay there, half-conscious and sprawled on the St. Augustine grass.
If Murphy was the Braves captain during those years, then Bob Horner was the first mate. He was a slightly chubby first baseman with blonde jerry curl locks who eventually ended his career in Japan. As my middle brother had blond hair he adopted the character of Horner during our battles on the sandlot. I still remember the time Horner hit four home runs in one game against the Expos, becoming the fourth player in MLB history to accomplish such a feat. I got to meet Bob at an autograph session at JC Penney’s one summer day in Panama City Beach, Florida, and he signed my Bob Horner special edition Sports Illustrated poster. It was rad.
My littlest brother was too small to wear a regular jersey so we dressed him in Braves pajamas for a few years. We assigned him the persona of Chris Chambliss, a used-up overweight bench warmer with a somewhat creepy mustache. Sorry about that. You deserved better.
Every summer, usually in August, our family made its pilgrimage to mecca, or should I say Atlanta Fulton County stadium, an uninspiring edifice built in the ‘60s that sat right off the interstate. We always sat in the left field bleachers. Attendance was dismal during those years so we basically had the entire section to ourselves. We wore our Braves jerseys, made signs in hopes of getting on TV, and took our gloves with the dream of catching a home run ball.
I probably went to eight or ten games during those five years and I doubt if the Braves won two of those. Shortstop Raphael Ramiriez would invariably make two or three errors, catcher Bruce Benedict would strike out four or five times, and bearded hurler Gene Garber would usually cough up three or four home runs. But I always believed the Bravos would come out on top, and that Murph would homer, if only because I was there.