Let me say, I enjoy and own many different types of music: classical, pop, rock, country. However, my affinity lies with music which melds music with words holding both in equally high regard. I prefer singer-songwriters to bands. I prefer a unique voice to a classic one. I prefer John Prine to John Denver; Tom Waits to Barry Manilow. I lean toward harder-edge folk, alt country, and bluesy ballads.
As with all art, there is no accounting for taste. If you like some of these on the list, you may want to try others you haven't heard, but I make no guarantees. I like Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore; I'm not a big fan of Joe Ely and Townes Van Zandt.
World According to Me: My All-Time Favorite Songs so far
Featured Performers: Rob Lutes, Amy Rigby, Jimmy LaFave, Steve Poltz, Jess Klein, Teddy Thompson, Paul Thorn, Vonda Shepard, Robert Burke Warren, Irene Kelley.
Featured Performer: (a feature designed to highlight a singer-songwriter who deserves much more attention than they are currently receiving and who may or may not have a new CD out)
Casey Donahew Band
From the stockyards and dog tracks of Forth Worth to the Red Dirt Scene to the fraternities of U Tex-Arlington, Casey Donahew soaked it all up and let's it roll on out in ballads of broken hearts, open roads, and unrequited hangovers. He yearns to as he says paraphrasing Bon Jovi, "sell out the desert" instead of playing smaller venues, and for years now he has seemed of the verge of breaking out big, but perhaps it's still best for us fans that he is still making music with his indie "Donahew-It-Yourself" attitude. He is one of only two artists listed on his aptly descriptive label, Almost Country Records.
I was sampling some music from recommendations linked to Mike McClure (who will be featured here soon) when I heard Casey's "Strong Enough" from his Moving On CD:
I'm not strong enough to watch her walk away,
Now I'm not strong enough to make her stay
And I was hooked. I had to go back for his previous CD, simply entitled, Casey Donahew Band where I found, among other great songs, "Hangovers and Memories:"
The things that you think will keep you sane
Are the things that’ll surely tear you down
An empty shot glass, a pocket full of pills
Until the love of a strange girl just don’t seem real
and When the man in the mirror becomes a blur
All you’re left with are hangovers and memories of her
I'm not as big a fan of Double Wide Dream, but it's hard not to appreciate songs like "Let's Not Say Goodbye Again:"
It's funny how the truth sounds different
You're hangin' on to every word
Do you remember when I said I love you?
How long has it been?
Well, I don't want this to end
Let's not say goodbye again
Or "Running Through My Head:"
Hold on, hold on just one more day
Let go, let go and walk away
You're gonna die lonely is what she said
But I don't feel lonely
with you runnin' through my head
His new CD, Stand Off is a little bit lighter in tone, but with great instrumental accompaniment and some very nice background vocals from Jaime Pierce among others. "Loser" is a fine example:
It's better to lose on love
Than love a loser like me
Deliver pizzas in my mom's car
I moonlight DJ at the booby bar
I play a mean air guitar
Pantera karaoke superstar
I met my girlfriend on the Internet
She's a model, drives a red Corvette
I haven't seen her in person yet
But she sends me dirty picture texts
I haven't had a chance to play the CD to death yet, but I have a feeling several other cuts will grow on me like "Not Ready to Say Goodnight" and "Missing You." As for the printed material on the inside CD cover, I suspect I prefer my militias a little more regulated than Casey.
This is a work-in-progress and I haven't organized the rest yet, but here are some others I enjoy for various reasons:
Cat Stevens (I don't care who he is now)
Early Rockers (made my heart melt):
Previous Featured Performers:
I dearly love his music and his songs and his songwriting, but there's something about Rob Lutes that burns me a little. He never comes around here. He came down out of Canada in 2001 to win the prestigious Kerrville New Folk Songwriting competition in Kerrville, Texas, and a couple other songwriting awards, one in Philadelphia and another in Nashville or some such, and then he went back to Canada. I can't blame him. I'd live there, too, if I didn't have a wife and a family in the formerly good old U S of A. And it probably isn't fair to be irritated at Rob Lutes alone. Seems so many of the best songwriters these days are from Canada (Corin Raymond, Justin Rutledge, Serena Ryder, and Joel Plaskett to name a few) and most of them never tour south of that border, and if they do, it's rarely ever to one of the midwest border states.
Enough grousing, positive grousing though it may be, I can take healthy solace in Rob Lutes' steady production of CDs filled with great songs. His songs are crafted and tight. The rhymes are fitting without being forced. He has a unique way of phrasing which often take the rhyming syllables off the natural accents. This is unpredictable and allows the melody to stick. The chorus of my favorite Lutes' song, "I Still Love You" (Ride the Shadows) is a good example:
And that’s in you forever and I mean permanent
Rocks in a river, roads through the hills don’t disappear
Through the lean and the hard times we’ve been learning that
This love could hold us together through the years
His lyrics express a desire to find, not necessarily the truth, but a truth, something that's true in all things. His last studio work is entitled, Truth & Fiction. My favorite song from that CD, "Bread," reveals that the truth is often a secret:
Oh you could fly
You got those wings
You tie them down with earthly things
And treat them like they don’t belong on you
Oh we’ve all learned to hide them well
The secret that we never tell
Is usually the one that makes us blue, all the way through
Flavored with rootsy blues, his voice is a warm mix of molasses and granulated sugar. His guitar work and arrangements bring to mind another virtuoso and a fixture on this website, Chris Smither. Even with all Lutes has to offer on disc, there are a few decent youtube videos which make me long even more to see him performing live.
Last Chance (Middle Ground):
The old crow’s flying high on the midnight sky
He’s not bound to land so baby don’t be shy
To let your voice ring like it cannot ring again
I’d be so relieved if I could just say what I mean
Before the curtain falls on the final scene
I'm late to another wonderful performer's
bandwagon again, but since jumping on, I have been absolutely captivated by her
and her music. She has been on recordings since 1987 with early groups,
but put out her first solo,
Diary of a Mod Housewife in 1996.
She has followed that up with six other recordings of her own, and two with her
current husband, a fellow billed as Wreckless Eric. I can highly recommend
Although her style is all her own, there's a mix of infectious pop, punk sensibilities, and provocative wordplay. Her songs deftly combine elements of wry humor, subtle pathos, and sharp insight. She layers these over a canvas of catchy tunes which lend themselves to multiple listenings and later singalongs as they run through my head at any time day or night.
The Trouble With Jeanie: Jeanie is my new husband’s exwife/It looks like she’s gonna be a part of my life...I even tried to hate her like I thought I should/But since we met she’s been nothing but good...And the trouble with Jeanie is she’s alright
Breakup Boots: Most of the time I’m well-protected/I move along from day to day/But the winter was so raw/I’m a victim of the thawAnd I’m gonna have to get myself through this some way...So I’m putting on my breakup boots/I’m putting on my breakup boot
And the best breakup song ever:
Keep It To Yourself: YOU SAY YOU’D LIKE TO KILL THE MAN WHO BROKE MY HEART/YOU DON’T THINK HE SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO LIVE/YOU SAY YOU WANT TO SHOOT THE DUDE WHO SCREWED ME UP/ME, I’M TRYING SO HARD TO FORGIVE...BUT HERE’S HIS ADDRESS, HERE’S HIS PICTURE/HERE’S THE MAKE AND MODEL OF HIS CAR/HE WORKS UNTIL 4:30/THEN HE HANGS OUT AT THE TOPLESS BAR/WITH A GIRL ON EACH ARM/IF HE SHOULD COME TO HARM/JUST KEEP IT TO YOURSELF
See for yourself. Pick up some Amy Rigby. No way you'll be sorry.
Cimarron Manifesto Blue Nightfall
Gifted with one of the most distinctive singing voices in the business, Jimmy LaFave seems to hit every note like a screaming drive off the tee, starting low and sailing higher until it falls away to land softly somewhere in the distance. Other singers who warble in the same tenor stratosphere do so with ethereal or brittle tones where as LaFave wails every syllable like it might be his last. It's 200 lbs. of power and passion straining its way out through a narrow throat.
His albums and sets are always a strategic juxtaposition of plaintive ballads and driving rockers. Now, on his most recent recordings, he has added songs with a lush, mellow delivery aiming for charm and poignancy rather the sincere strangled lament of his ballads which are almost torch songs. The songs themselves are a distinctive compliment to the voice. Hearts breaking before a panoramic expanse of rolling hills, highways, neon signs, and the following afternoon's sun in your eyes. Obviously, my favorite LaFave CD is Road Novel.
There is no way I'm resisting falling for songs like "Vast Stretches of Broken Heart," "Long Ago With Miles Between,"The Open Space," and "Big Wheels:"
’Cause when the big wheels start to turn
There is a lesson to be learned
And I’ll take my educated guess
Loving you would always be the best
I also like lots of songs on Buffalo Return To The Plains and Texoma .
Though a native of Texas, Jimmy LaFave grew up in Oklahoma where he was influenced by and became a practitioner of what he calls "red dirt music." He is well-known as an inventive interpreter of the songs of two legends, Woody Guthrie, the original "red dirt music" man and Bob Dylan. His interpretations rely less on mimicry and more on making the songs his own.
Poltz's new CD is surprising, not because it is so good, but because it seems like such a natural progression in his songwriting development, and yet astonishes with an even wider array of songs and styles. Each one singularly Poltz, and at the same time inventive and audacious.
The best way to get a sense of Steve Poltz as a man and a musician might be to acquire a copy of the new CD and listen to track 7: "A Brief History of My Life," where you would learn a lot of the stuff included in his bio from his website. He trick-or-treated at Liberace’s house, planned a two-day stay in Amsterdam that ended a month later with him escaping the city under the cover of darkness, and was Bob Hope’s favorite altar boy. He co-wrote the second longest-running song in Billboard Top 100 history ("You Were Meant for Me" by Jewel), had a debut solo album that earned three and a half stars in Rolling Stone, and was awarded the title of “San Diego’s Most Influential Artist of the Decade” at the San Diego Music Awards.
Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, his parents up and moved him to Palm Springs. When he was old enough, he started playing bars and coffee houses around San Diego, eventually forming the college band, The Rugburns. The 'burns blended punk, pop, folk, and if you listen close enough, a hint of Swedish Christian Death Metal. They were so freaking good that they found themselves in a crappy old van 300+ days a year, playing clubs and bars all over the country. So there he is, more prolific than two rabbits on E, traveling the country playing songs about truckers feeding strychnine-laced granola to deer, and he starts writing achingly sweet love songs. What do you do with that? You go with it.
He soon found himself touring the world with Jewel, pulling double duty as her opening act, and then playing as a member of her band. This all landed Poltz a deal with Mercury Records, for whom he recorded his first solo effort, “One Left Shoe.” In typical Steve Poltz fashion, he followed that with “Answering Machine,” an album of 56 songs (plus several hidden tracks), all of which were outgoing messages on his answering machine while he was out on the road. So each song is 45 seconds long, with titles like “Sugar Boogers,” “Ken Follett Stole My Wallet,” and “Dog Doo Blues #48.”
So he started his own label, "98 Pounder Records,” his high school wrestling weight. Poltz re-recorded “Chinese Vacation," his first album for new label after moving to Austin, Texas. The title “Chinese Vacation” is the product of a songwriting game that Steve played while on the road with musicians Bob Schneider and Glenn Tillbrook. One person would introduce a theme, such as “Friendly Fire,” and everyone would have 24 hours to come up with a song involving that theme. So from this game came the titular track as well as “Friendly Fire,” which opens the album.
Along with starring as the shirtless, skinny guy in the
video for "You Were Meant for Me," Poltz has played with Bob Dylan, John
Mellencamp, Jewel, The Wallflowers, Bare Naked Ladies, Rusted Root, John Doe,
Bob Schneider, and Lucinda Williams. He has toured Australia,
Europe, Japan, Canada, and New Zealand.
Traveling is strong from song one to eleven. Not that there were any real clunkers on his previous records:
Chinese Vacation was particularly strong as well, highlighted by the title track, "You Remind Me, and "Friendly Fire." "I Killed Walter Matthau" hinted at some of the unreserved possibilities realized on Traveling.
One Left Shoe is required listening for "Silver Lining" and "The Great Mystery" which are classic Poltz and are in the discussion for my favorite songs from any artist on this page.
After independently releasing her first two albums, she was spotted and signed to Rykodisc in 2000 for her first release for Ryko, "Draw Them Near." Her second solo effort for Ryko, "Strawberry Lover," was produced by RCA recording artist Marc Copely. Klein's newest album, "City Garden" puts her soulful, passionate voice up front with lyrics both searing and heartbreakingly vulnerable.
My first impression of Jess Klein remains my most lasting. She is not alt. country as many reviewers have tried to peg her. She is not a rocker or folkie nor does she fit the customary parameters of the singer-songwriter. There is certainly a bit of all those in her repertoire, but how do you find a niche for all the punk, soul, torch and blues so evident in her heartfelt songs.
It is the songs which stay with you. As always, I tend to really like the songs the critics don't mention. I was enthralled with "I'll Be Alright" from Draw Them Near; "Willing to Change" from Strawberry Lover, and "Alone" from City Garden.
Of course, I also love the favorites like "Shootout at the Candy Shop" and "Little White Dove."
I am still not sure quite what to make of this little waif of an artist, but she is enchanting like any good artist, and I try not to let "why" interfere with that.
It's been awhile since I've been this bushwhacked by a CD and a performer in general. "Separate Ways" is the sort of CD you can listen to the first time and be blown away and then listen to it again a thousand times and be just as blown away, often by the same songs, often by finding something you didn't catch the first 999 times. Thompson's songwriting is acerbic, moving, and relevant. He layers precise lyrics over infectious, raucous tunes which have you humming along until you learn them all. It is also one of those collections which is uniformly fantastic. There doesn't seem to be a weak selection on the list.
"Separate Ways" "Teddy Thompson"
In addition, Thompson is surprising because he is a rare case of a son of performer(s) who carves out a place of his own rather than tagging along in the shadow or the wake of the parent(s). The list of offspring who were re-treads at best or made it on their name alone is lengthy. Teddy Thompson joins, and in my opinion, exceeds the work of a shortlist of distinctive offspring including the likes of Arlo Guthrie, Jakob Dylan, A.J. Croce, and few others.
"At a certain point in your life," Thompson notes, "you realize that your habits aren't really habits, they're who you are. There's a horrible realization that you're an adult now, and that all the quirks that you thought would change as you grow older aren't going to.
Born in 1976 in the London commune where his parents, Richard and Linda Thompson resided, Teddy took to music naturally, forming his first band in his early teens. After finishing school at 18, he moved to Los Angeles, where he eventually began to pursue a musical career in earnest, writing songs, recording demos and playing live solo gigs that won him a reputation as an up-and-coming talent.
"It does feel a bit more real now, like 'This is me and this is what I do,'" Thompson concludes. " I'm really proud of this record. I poured a lot of myself into it, and I feel like I've made a big leap towards getting where I want to be as an artist."
Music, like all forms of art, is at the mercy of the tastes of the consumer, and in my case, the tastes of my inner critic. It is extremely rare that I run across what I would call a "perfect song." I am blown away that my featured performer this month, Paul Thorn, has two such tunes, one on each of these two CDs. "I'm a Lucky Man" on Mission Temple Fireworks Stand and "I Don't Wanna Know" on Are You With Me?
Thorn began a career as a boxer before deciding music was his true calling:
"The area I come from is very rich in music tradition," he says of Tupelo, Mississippi, the birthplace he shares with Elvis Presley. But, before he was in his teens, a new passion overtook music...for a while. With the help of Uncle Merle, himself a professional fighter, Thorn was taught the art of fisticuffs. "I was just a kid, 10 or 12 years old, I bugged my uncle to teach me how to box. We started out in the backyard, then they had a local boxing tournament and I talked him into letting me enter. I fought and won by a knockout. I was 14 or 15 at that time, and after that, it started to snowball. I won some amateur regional fights, turned professional, and became a fairly decent fighter. The highlight of my career was in 1987 when I fought Roberto Duran in Atlantic City that was televised nationally in 1988. I didn't win the fight, but then again, few that entered the ring with Duran did." (The song "Rather Be a Hammer than a Nail" was inspired by this event.)
Thorn has opened for Sting and toured with Mark Knopfler, Jeff Beck, John Hiatt, Richard Thompson, Robert Cray, Marianne Faithfull, and John Prine. I saw him open for Prine in Madison, Wisconsin, in May of 2006, and after his short set, it was so crowded in the lobby by the little table where Paul was signing and selling copies of his CD that they had to delay the start of Prine's show so that everyone could get back to their seats. And that was after hearing only six or seven of Thorn's songs.
Thorn is also a frequent guest on the always funny, always informative syndicated Bob and Tom radio show.
I'd also like to put in an additional plug for Back Porch Records which along with putting out Paul Thorn CDs has also improved the music scene by releasing recent efforts by The Subdudes, The Bodeans, and Over the Rhine.
Just before “Ally McBeal” was cancelled, I got an e-mail from a friend complaining about the show always using Vonda Shepard to sing classic ‘60s soul and pop tunes instead of the original recordings. His tolerance for Vonda Shephard’s covers had been worn down. I couldn’t disagree, but I was adamant in my recommendation that he check out Vonda Shepard’s CDs consisting primarily of her own songs. Particularly, I pointed him to “7:30” and “It’s Good, Eve.” He has been eternally grateful. Her extraordinary voice and phrasing are even more effective when interpreting her own tunes.
Now, comes “Chinatown” and “Vonda Shepard Live: A Retrospective.”
In her own words from her website, Ms. Shepard says:
"What I did before Ally McBeal was write songs, record albums, and tour," she explains. "And during the time that I was on the show I kept very focused on writing. I learned so much working on Ally but at the same time I dwelled in a parallel creative universe with my writing."
"One of my goals when I write is to create a world of my own in the music, to capture a space where I can feel completely lost."
The daughter of artistically gifted parents, Vonda began playing piano at the age of six; by age fourteen she was practicing more than six hours a day and playing local gigs in Los Angeles. As a seasoned 21-year-old singer and keyboardist she hit the road with Rickie Lee Jones, and shortly after that dueted with Dan Hill on his top-ten single "Can't We Try." She has also worked with Jackson Browne, Al Jarreau, Julia Fordham, and other headliners.
All helped build a reputation in southern California clubs that led directly to TV producer David E. Kelley's decision to hire her as musical producer and featured singer/songwriter/actress on Ally McBeal.
"Over the past couple years, I've said no to everything except Ally and to writing Chinatown," she says. "I love slice-of-life movies about the small problems and joys that real people have, and I want to get even more of that into my music."
Robert Burke Warren:Update: Robert Burke Warren to donate all profits from Lazyeye and Uncle Rock: Here We Go! to Hurricane Katrina relief effort.
...to this day (2000)
UNCLE ROCK: Here We Go! (2005) RBW also performs adult-friendly kid rock, freewheelin' family folk, and boo boo ballads as a character named Uncle Rock.
I was first intrigued by the cover photo of "...to this day." I thought it was the performer dressed in hundred-year-old clothing and photographed in mock tintype sepia tones. Turns out it was his grandfather (the family resemblence is striking) and many of the songs on the disk were inspired by his family history. The songs are powerful and unique. I knew I liked them, but wasn't sure how much. Before I played it much, the disk got filed in alpha order way at the end of the rack, but it kept drawing my eye every time I surveyed my collection for something different to listen to.
Just when I decided I really liked the CD, Warren seemed to disappear. I searched the Web for tour info and any mention of a new CD, but RBW seemed to have given it up. Then while researching several of my favorite lesser-known songsters for these features, I ran across Uncle Rock, a children's performer who was identified as Robert Burke Warren who also had released a relatively new CD under his adult performer name. "Lazyeye" is quite different in tone from the first CD, but often just as powerful. As Warren explains it:
My debut had more southern gothic elements, as well as a mixture of organic and synthetic instruments, and without a core band, I ended up playing a lot of stuff and overdubbing. This time out I used more musicians, so Lazyeye has much more of a live band feel to it, with a couple of songs having been tracked with few or no overdubs. It rocks more than ...to this day, but it does have its share of intimate ballads.
Warren is masterful at a seemingly endless variety of musical styles. He changes tempos, time signatures, and musical genres from song to song and sometimes inside individual songs. He sounds as comfortable with acoustic as he does with electric, with country as with rock or blues or straightforward folk. Although he cannot be pigeonholed as a folkie or a twanger or whatever, he still has a distinctive RBW tone.
Given RBW's professional background, his versatility shouldn't be surprising. Early on as not much more than a teenager, he played in a band fronted by the infamous drag queen, RuPaul and a short time later hooked up with the garage rock titans The Fleshtones as their bass player for almost two years, touring Europe and the US. While in England, he auditioned and was cast as the lead in the West End production of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story. For a year, he performed 17 songs a night, played a Stratocaster, and did some acting.
He returned to the U.S. and a songwriting workshop with Rosanne Cash which helped him develop his debut CD ...to this day, released on his own label, Jackpot Music. Meanwhile, a song, "Sudden Strangers" from his new CD got placed in the WB series Felicity. He also co-wrote "44 Stories" with Rosanne Cash which became the second cut on her Grammy nominated Rules of Travel CD.
Wonderful voice! Expressive, emotional. Very good songwriter. I don't remember a recent CD that I has been just a joy to play. When I first got this CD, I would go to my CD rack to make a selection and the songs, especially the opening songs, on this CD would come to mind, and I would invariably toss it into the player. I still never tire of listening to this CD: A Simple Path
Latrobe, Pennsylvania is known more as the home town of Arnold Palmer and for
brewing Rolling Rock Beer than as a hot musical breeding ground which might have
produced a delightful talent such as Irene Kelley. She did little to endear
herself to the local metal heads when she committed the unpardonable sin of
doing a Dolly Parton song with her first rock band Quite headstrong for a
little lady who didn’t start picking guitar until she was 19 years-old. One of
the first songs she wrote was "Pennsylvania Is My Home," which she sang in a PBS
documentary in 1982. The song wound up being nominated for the
Pennsylvania state song.
She didn't win but did discover songwriting could be a "career." She dove full time into raising her two children while honing her writing skills. The girls grew and her songs were recorded by: "Second Chance" Trisha Yearwood, Inside Out, MCA; "A Little Bluer Than That" Alan Jackson, Drive, BMG; "You Are A Rock (And I’m A Rolling Stone)", Carl Jackson – CBS; "Don’t Waste My Time" Little Big Town, SONY; "Not So Different After All", Brother Phelps - Asylum Records; "You're Gonna Need This Memory" Pierce Pettis Compass.
In 1999 she wrote, recorded and co-produced her own album titled "Simple Path". When Alan Jackson recorded "A Little Bluer Than That," he asked Irene to add her lilting harmonies to his version of the song.
In 2004, Irene put out her new CD: Thunderbird
Although not quite as good as "A Simple Path," it is still a fine piece of work. According to her website, Irene poetically distills an optimistic wisdom on the other side of dizzying change and heart-crushing loss. As only she could attest, "I have been through extreme changes and loss since Simple Path. I get to write about my life in songs that other people can actually relate to and sometimes find comfort in...now that is a blessed life for sure!"