Okay, so a little while ago Gordon announces he's doing a disc exchange with a law and order theme. I debated participating, because I thought I'd have a hard time dredging up enough stuff to fit the theme from my music collection.
Then it hit me: "You idiot! Most of what you listen to is Americana-ish stuff and most of it is about people making choices that get them in trouble." In about five minutes, I had a list of songs for the collection, without having to think very hard about it at all.
I still had a couple of concerns, but they turned out to be easy to deal with, for the most part. I wanted to make sure that I had a good showing of work by female artists, since I have so many of them in my collection. I also had to make sure that I got a local act or two in, since this is important to me.
My biggest concern had to do with audience perception. I was a little concerned that some of the recipients would find a mono-genre collection to be boring, even though the boundaries for Americana music are pretty broad and fairly flexible. I was also worried that Roger, Lefty, and Gordon, recent recipients of several "all Americana, all the time" discs from me, would be rolling their eyes and groaning "Not again! Someone please take his CD burner away!"
It's a valid concern. I love making mixes, but boring your audience is never good. Still, the seed had been planted, and I had to follow my muse. I promise some more musical variety next time around, guys!
One of the things that I love most about Americana music is the stories, especially the ones that don't end happily. Maybe I'm just a morbid old crank, but there's something about listening to the sad fate of someone who made some bad choices that really gets to me. Of course, some folks don't have to make a bad choice for things to go to hell. Life just turns out that way. Either way it can make for some good music. Hence, my title:
Hard Times, Rough Living, Bad Choices, Good Music
Long Black Veil (The Cheiftains with Mick Jagger): I just love this slow, mournful tune. The pipes that moan through the opening of this version gives me the chills, and Jagger's voice matches them, wail for wail. I thought it was a great opening. A man is hung for a murder he didn't commit because his alibi is the woman he's having an affair with--his best friend's wife.
Devil’s Right Hand (Steve Earle): Given Earle's many songs about outlaws and rebels, not too mention his personal clashes with the law, he was a given for this set. The problem was picking a tune. I finally went with this one because I thought the rockier beat was a good follow-up to the opening ballad. How was I to know that Tosy was going to decide he doesn't like Steve Earle?
Postcards From Mexico (Kevin Welch and Kieran Kane): I just love Welch and Kane! This is off of their newest release. I love the call and response format of the song. I wanted to use this one so bad, but I don't have the CD yet, so I actually joined iTunes to get it.
Camelot Motel (Mary Gauthier): Some of Gauthier's best writing is found in this song about the motely collection of losers, hustlers, lovers, and thieves who take rooms at the titular no-tell motel.
Pancho & Lefty (Emmylou Harris): This was a no-brainer. Emmylou's classic version of Townes van Zandt's classic outlaw song. In my mind it's one of the greatest songs ever written. I love the way he laid out the story of these two men without explicitly filling in all the details. We see the men through the blur of the legends that grew up around them. Emmylou sings this tragic tale beautifully.
1952 Vincent Black Lightning (Del McCoury Band): Okay, I apologize to Lefty, Roger, and Gordon, who now have this song on three consecutive discs from me, but it's a classic doomed outlaw love tale. I couldn't not use it! I promise it won't show up again for the rest of the year, even if the band did...well, you know. (I promise I'll stop talking about that one day too. It just won't be soon.)
Robert Ford and Jesse James (David Olney): Jesse James showed up a lot in the mixes this time. I like this take on the story, which tries to explain why Ford might have wanted to shoot his cousin in the back.
Milly’s Café (Fred Eaglesmith): Eaglesmith has become the new songwriter of choice in our home. His stuff seems to continually inhabit our music-playing devices. You can't do a disc like this without one story of a good girl who gets pulled into a life of crime by the bad boy. It never ends well.
Infamous Angel (Iris Dement): I imagine this one made Tosy cringe, but I love it. Another thing I love about Americana is the large number of songwriters with what I refer to as"voices with character." They're not as polished as others might be. Some of them are even a bit quirky in their tone or phrasing, but they inhabit and embody their songs perfectly. Iris Dement is a perfect example. I am madly in love with everything about her music, especially that wonderful lilt and twang that she has in her voice. It's lovely and perfect, especially for a song like this. We don't know exactly what Angel has done to become so infamous, but the song hints that she's been involved in quite a lot.
Sam Stone (John Prine): A classic, pure and simple. One of the first songs I thought of for this disc. Nobody can write a song like this like Prine can.
Best of All Possible Worlds (Kris Kristofferson): Except maybe for Kristofferson. I wanted this one because it's so tongue in cheek.
My Wife Thinks You’re Dead (Junior Brown): I originally had three or four songs like this one in the mix. Stuff that was a little lighter, and more humorous in nature. Sadly, I ended up not having room for them. I miss the texture they would have brought to the mix, but they'll be turning up on a future project.
Tecumseh Valley (Nanci Girffith): Another Townes van Zandt song. This time, it's the sad story of a young woman and the lengths she goes to support herself and her family. Arlo Guthrie sings along with Griffith.
Caleb Myer (Gillian Welch): A modern take on the classic murder ballad, which means that, for once, it's not the female character getting killed! I love Welch's haunted take on traditional music. (Note to Roger: Please do the murder ballad disc!)
Terrible Horrible Thing (Dan Gediman with Heidi Howe): Another modern murder ballad. This time, the man and the woman both get killed. Gediman and Howe are both Louisville-based artists. Gediman is the man behind the revival of "This I Believe."
Jesse with the Long Hair Hanging Down (Robert Earl Keen): I dismissed the more likely REK choice as being far too obvious. This lesser known tune is one of Keith's favorites. I like the fact that it actually has a happy ending!
You Think You Know Someone (Todd Snider): Haunting story about child abuse.
Murder at the Read House (Otis Gibbs): This was a late addition to the mix, as I really just discovered Gibbs on the Music Choice Americana channel right before I had to put it all together. Nevertheless, I love this song, because it's so overwhelmingly creepy.
The Sweetest Gift (Linda Ronstadt with Emmylou Harris): I had to include this one, for sentimental reasons. This is the song that introduced me to the wonder of Emmylou Harris. My mother was a big Linda Ronstadt fan, and I spent a lot of time listening to her albums as a kid. The first time I played this cut off of Prisoner in Disguise, I had to know who the harmony singer was. I found a copy of Blue Kentucky Girl at the library, and that was all she wrote. I wanted to wrap up the CD on some lighter, more hopeful notes, and this song fit that desire perfectly.
25 Minutes to Go (Johnny Cash): Only Johnny Cash can stand live before a bunch of hardened felons in prison and sing a song that makes light of waiting on death row and get away with it. I knew this would be the perfect closer for the CD, because it's not so heavy. I just wish I had edited out some of the applause and stage chatter at the end. It would have made for a tighter ending to the disc. I was in such a hurry to get the discs out before we left that I didn't think of it.
That's disc one. In a moment, we'll have disc 2.