You can’t go far exploring the folk music tradition without stumbling upon your first murder ballad. The genre goes back hundreds of years and still plays a major role in blues, country, and Americana music today. Nirvana famously covered Leadbelly’s murder ballad “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” for MTV Unplugged. Johnny Cash sang murder ballads his entire career. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds recorded an album literally titled Murder Ballads, adding Cave’s own compositions to the canon.
We’re back! After a summer away on paternity leave (can a blog take paternity leave? well, we did), County Tracks returns with a supersized roundup of everything that went on while we were away.
This is, as always, “we” in the proverbial sense. It’s really just me, Ray Padgett. And I have my second book out this week! It’s about music, of course. Specifically the history of tribute albums, as told through the fascinating story of one in particular (1991’s I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen – which, even if you don’t realize it, is the reason you know the song “Hallelujah”). It’s in the great 33 1/3 series of small books on specific albums. Hope you’ll check it out! Preorder links and more info over here.
Now, onto the music…
Abby Sherman Band – The Road
“The Road” is the first song on Bandcamp that Vermont singer-songwriter Abby Sherman has billed as being by the “Abby Sherman Band.” A minuscule rebranding, but one that feels significant. Whereas her best song last year was a stripped-down dirge, “The Road” features a muscular alt-country backing group giving her melody some heft. Special props to whoever played the country-Mark-Knopfler guitar solo.
Elder Orange – Stella
Matt Scott, aka Elder Orange, wrote his new EP Stella inspired by his ’71 Stella parlor acoustic guitar. But despite the acoustic guitar-influence, singer-songwriter music this isn’t. Scott’s a producer and composer who builds immersive instrumental soundscapes incorporating that guitar here and there, but not beholden to it. In this case, he says, “Stella is a blend of a lot of my favorite sounds; dusty 60’s funk rock laced with boom-bap alt-latin vibes and gritty electro-fusion.”
Amelia Devoid – Counters
It’s not clear if this song was written in our current self-isolation, but even if it wasn’t, lines like this have a new resonance: “I’ve been wiping down counters / and counting down hours / ’til i can lay in the flowers again”.
Lotta train songs in the history of American music. “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” “City of New Orleans.” “Wabash Cannonball.” Johnny Cash did a whole album of train songs in 1960. Then, two years later, he did a second.
Train songs as a staple of American music pretty much dried up when riding the train here did. Unless Joe Biden records an album about his beloved Amtrak, our supply of new train songs is in short supply.
Critics of ranked lists like this see it as a bug that they’re entirely subjective and somewhat arbitrary. I see it as a feature. There’s not really any difference between #12 and #13. Frankly, there’s not all that much difference between #1 and #25. But my feeling has always been, everyone gets that. No one actually thinks you can mathematically rank works of art. But the trying offers a wonderful opportunity for music nerds to look back at the best of the year, and for the sort of vigorous debate on which such nerddom rests.
This Top 40 looks nothing like the actual Top 40. None of these songs charted, and I don’t think any of them aspired to. That is no knock against them, which probably goes without saying here – anyone reading music blogs knows that much. The adjectives “great” and “popular” occasionally attach themselves to the same track, but not often enough.
So just think of this as an alternate history of 2019 singles. It has no horses, and no town roads. It doesn’t teach love, patience, or pain, and isn’t 100% that anything. It also, as the headline says, only includes artists from one rather small state. But this wildly subjective, somewhat arbitrary survey of the past 12 months should serve as a small introduction to the wealth of talent in one community on the geographic fringe. There was a lot of wonderful music being made this year, much of it far from the big cities, or the Billboard charts. Duh.
Fifteen is a pretty stupid number for a list like this. I tried to get it down to a nice round ten, but some of the cuts to get to fifteen had been so painful that the idea of losing five more almost physically hurt (I realize I may take these lists too seriously). So fifteen it is. “A baker’s dozen,” as people who don’t know what a baker’s dozen is might say.
These days, composer and guitarist Michael Chorney is probably best known for his work with Anaïs Mitchell on her recent Broadway hit Hadestown, for which he won a Tony Award earlier this year (he plays in the band every night too). But a dive into his extensive discography wouldn’t uncover many other numbers meant for the stage. Half of his albums are ambient guitar instrumentals, and even the ones with “songs” tend toward the weird and woolly.
What is the titular castle the characters in Lowell Thompson’s Americana gem “Castle” plan to meet at? A music video – which might be fan-made, his website doesn’t include it – takes the word literally, using old footage of a knight and princess dancing in front of a castle (albeit one only two feet taller than they are). I doubt that’s what Thompson had in mind.