Favorite Roots Music Albums of 2015

Muscle Shoals Recordings

The SteelDrivers: Muscle Shoals Recordings

I’m not going to pretend that this is a “best of” list for roots music in 2015.  With so many things thrown on my plate this year, I  haven’t had the time to sample as widely as I would like.  (Come to think of it, the last time I felt comfortable enough to publish a “best of list” was 2013!) But I’m very comfortable with a favorites list that just says, “Hey, I like these and I hope you will too.”

So with that caveat, let’s see what’s made the cut.

The SteelDrivers:  The Muscle Shoals Recordings – I’ve loved this Nashville-based bluegrass band for years, even as they have moved through personnel changes that included their lead singer and main songwriter.  (More on that later.)  The Muscle Shoals Recordings is really the first album where Gary Nichols stepped out on his own as the lead voice for The SteelDrivers – no longer in Chris Stapelton’s shadow.

Singer-songwriter Peter Cooper describes it this way:

Right there, at two minutes and ten seconds into the first song, “Long Way Down.” The part where Gary Nichols sings, “Girl, we both know where your soul is bound.” Only he bleeds it as much as he sings it. He sounds murderous, maniacal. Her soul is bound for nothing skyward, for nothing heavenly. And he’s fine with that.

Richard Bailey’s banjo plays funky, little Kentucky-goes-to-Memphis rolls. Tammy Rogers’ fiddle soars. Brent Truitt’s mandolin chops time, and Mike Fleming’s bass pounds the downbeat. And all that is righteous and right-on. Elevated, even. But Nichols—he lets loose something the opposite of righteousness. It’s a howl, full of hurt and anger and life. Starts on the highest E note that 99.9% of male singers can hit, then ascends into a sweet falsetto, and then opens up like the gates of Hell, into a reeling screech.

“That made me dizzy for a second,” Nichols says, remembering the moment he sang the line. “Really, I almost passed out. There are certain lines in SteelDrivers songs that require a little bit of Wilson Pickett.”

As you can see, The SteelDrivers aren’t your normal bluegrass band.  While the instruments are bluegrass staples – played by some of Nashville’s best players – there is no “high lonesome” sound here.

Besides “Long Way Down,” there are other fine offerings on The Muscle Shoals Recordings.  “Drinkin’ Alone” fits in the catalog of great SteelDriver drinking songs.  “Here She Goes” is a heartfelt song about divorce.  “California Chainsaw” allows the band to show off their considerable instrumental chops.

This is a fine project, through and through.  Give it a listen.


Watkins Family Hour

Watkins Family Hour

Watkins Family HourSean and Sarah Watkins are well-known as the brother and sister founding members of Nickel Creek with mandolin phenom Chris Thile.  They are less well-known for their monthly show in Los Angles where they invite friends to join them in a wide-ranging exploration of American music. A friend who has seen that show calls it magical.

For those of us who can’t get to LA on a regular basis, the Watkins have given us the next best thing, with the release of 2015’s Watkins Family Hour. 

All the songs on the album are covers, and the incredible musicians play them at the high level you’d expect.  But that description really doesn’t do this project justice.  Everyone showcases their talent in ways both expected and surprising.

In the latter category, check out Sara Watkins’ vocal on Hop High.  You won’t hear anything like that vocal range on a Nickel Creek album. The range of musical styles includes country (“Where I Ought to Be”), folk (“Early Morning Rain”), New Orleans-style blues (“Prescription for the Blues”) and more.  Recommended.

Sara Watkins

Sara Watkins at Red Wing Roots Festival 2015


Happy Prisoner

Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions by Robert Earl Keen

Happy Prisoner:  The Bluegrass Sessions by Robert Earl Keen.  If this was a “best of” list for 2015, I probably wouldn’t include this set of 15 bluegrass standards by Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen.  But there’s enough on this valentine to the music that fits Keen’s free-wheeling style and sensibilities to ensure that it can easily make a “favorites” list.

The album begins with one of my favorite Flatt and Scruggs tunes, the silly “Hot Corn, Cold Corn.”  The duets with Lyle Lovett and Natalie Maines – especially “Wayfaring Stranger” – are terrific.  In addition to his regular band, Keen brings in banjo-picker extraordinaire Danny Barnes and fiddler Sara Watkins to fill out the sound.  When Keen sings “99 Years for One Dark Day,” his boozy voice is a perfect fit for the tune.

This is a heartfelt romp through some of the greats of the bluegrass repertoire, and I always get a lift when one of the tunes comes up on the playlist.  What more can you hope for in a favorites list.

Robert Earl Keen, July 10, 2015

Robert Earl Keen performs at Red Wing III


Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn – I realize that this album was released in the fall of 2014, but I didn’t buy it until earlier this year…and it is my blog so I can list any thing I want!

This is a wonderful album from two musicians who have taken the banjo down wildly divergent paths.  Fleck, known for his incredibly complex jazz-influenced improvisational flights, connects on so many levels with his wife and musical partner Washburn, who is best known for her beautiful, simple playing and singing that draws from folk and world music traditions.

The reworking of the traditional “Railroad” (as in, “I’ve been working on…”) opens the project on a high note which continues all the way through to “Bye Bye Baby Blues.”  There are so many gems here, that I could just go down the set list.  “What’cha Gonna Do,” “Pretty Polly,” “And Am I Born to Die,” and “Banjo Banjo” are personal favorites.

Bela Fleck

Bela Fleck, performing at Merlefest, 2012

There are so many good online videos of Bela and Abigail playing together that it was hard to choose just one.  (I especially hated to drop the version of “Banjo Pickin’ Girl” they did to support public transportation in Nashville.) But their “Shotgun Blues” demonstrates the percussive and melodic tones that come from these two banjo masters.  Enjoy!


Pokey LaFarge - Something in the Water

Pokey LaFarge – Something in the Water

Pokey LaFarge – Something in the Water – For something completely different, I encourage you to give Pokey LaFarge a listen.  This is his Rounder Records debut, although he’s been touring and recording for a decade.  LaFarge is a witty and gifted songwriter, and his live shows are infectious.

This 2015 project expands on his previous work and includes not only his regular combo, but members of various groups including NRBQ, the Fat Babies, the Modern Sounds, and the Western Elstons.  But as he notes on his website, the sound remains “Midwestern.”

The Midwest is at the heart of this record,” LaFarge asserts.  “The people playing on these songs are from Wisconsin and Illinois and Chicago and St. Louis, and there’s a certain attitude that comes across in the songs and the way that they’re performed.  I’m born and raised in the Midwest, and my family’s been here for generations.  This is where I’m from and how I think, and that’s reflected in the music I make. 

The title track gets the joint jumping, about his girl “who does her makeup and hair, to cook fried chicken in her underwear.”  “Wanna Be Your Man” has a New Orleans ragtime feel, while “Underground” has a distinctive Pokey perspective on the end of the world.  The whole thing wraps up with the infectious “Knockin’ the Dust Off The Rust Belt Tonight.”

Pokey LaFarge at Red Wing 07 11 14

Pokey LaFarge at Red Wing II

Makes me want to drive to St. Louis for his New Year’s Eve Show!


And now…a bonus selection!

Chris Stapleton - Traveller

Chris Stapleton – Traveller

Chris Stapleton –  Traveller – I’m not sure how an album that was named Country Music Album of the Year counts as roots music these days…but when that record is from one of the best pure country voices to come along in years singing incredible music, it just does.  Trust me.

Stapleton was the founding lead singer and primary songwriter for The SteelDrivers from 2008-2010, adding a new take on bluegrass that has helped reinvigorate the genre.  He also spent the past few years writing hits for country stars all over Nashville.  Finally, he went into historic Studio A (God, am I glad we were able to help the community save that place!) and recorded his “debut” album.  Which promptly won him awards as Best Male Vocalist and New Artist of the Year, in addition to the CMA Album of the Year award.

Every song on here is terrific.  If you want a sample, go to You Tube, type in Stapleton’s name, and spend the evening listening to him sing.  To my mind, the album’s best song is “Fire Away.”  Just listen to that voice and guitar.  Oh my…


I hope you found something new to explore and enjoy.  Here’s to a musical 2016.

More to come…


Observations from the Road: (The Family, Friends, Community Edition)

Brown Children - Advent 2015

DJB (at left) with his brothers and sisters: Debbie, Steve, Carol, and Joe

This is a tale of family gathering to grieve in the best way possible – by telling stories.  It is a tale of being part of a community. It includes guitars.  (Always guitars.) And it includes a haircut in a mini-United Nations.

Hang with me.  I’ll try to be brief.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I received a call early in the morning from my sister Debbie.  She called to tell me that our brother-in-law Raouf – husband of my younger sister Carol – had passed away suddenly as a result of a heart attack.  Their two boys had come home from college the day before and the family had shared a meal together on Tuesday night.   By mid-day Wednesday, their lives had changed forever.

My older brother Steve and I spoke.  We were not able to get to the funeral, but quickly agreed to find a mutual time to travel to Tennessee to see Carol and the rest of the family. Our father – he of the recent 90th birthday – had just moved into an independent living facility.  We wanted to see him as well.

Which led to this weekend.  I flew into Nashville on Friday, and then – after some work on Music Row – I picked up Steve at the airport.  (The Music Row visit included the first guitar connection…but I’ll get to that later.)

I had written my father to tell him we were coming, and I said, “Let’s bust you out of that place and go to City Cafe” – the local meat and three place on East Main Street where they know “Mr. Tom.”  While the food at his new home is very good, he misses the freedom to go to his local haunts whenever he wishes.

Daddy, Carol, and DJB

My father and sister Carol, in my Dad’s new apartment

This is where the first community part kicks in.  All of my brothers and sisters (except for Debbie, who was practicing Christmas choral music) converged on City Cafe with my dad in tow. The staff was happy to see us.  (Our waitress went and got a Christmas card for him.) We saw the pianist from Daddy’s church and her husband.  Others stopped by to say hello. We scarfed down our friend catfish (I know, I was only there for one set of meals!) and began to tell family stories.

After stopping by Dad’s house and then dropping him off at his new digs, we headed home – for a nap! But all my brothers and sisters and the spouses in town came over to Debbie’s house for a family meeting (blessedly short) and a meal (a much longer and enjoyable experience).

Joe's Taylor T5

Joe with his new Taylor T5

Joe had brought along his new Taylor T5 electric-acoustic guitar for the evening…my second chance over the weekend to play a bit.  While I used the old flatpick on Joe’s guitar, on Friday afternoon I had the chance to fingerpick on a beautiful 1920s Martin O-style.  It is a great day when you can play While Roving On a Winter’s Night in a room in the Studio A building that has housed Nashville’s music royalty.  I have a wonderful job!

But I digress. Saturday night was all about sharing stories, laughing, and filling in gaps in our memories.  We had an extended riff on Cedar Lake Camp – where Steve, Joe, and I spent portions of our summers.  All three of us were members of the “Polar Bear Club” (where you went for a dip in the mountain lake at 6 a.m.). My other memory of camp?  Well, you had to know the books of the Bible to get into the mess hall.  As I told the family, you certainly didn’t want to get stuck in line around the minor prophets!  (Does Zechariah come before or after Zephaniah?)  I always tried to get there early for the Pentateuch, as I could always remember Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy!  We laughed…and agreed to keep some tales to ourselves.  And then we captured it all in the photo at the top of the post.

Family and community are so important, and I was reminded of that again today.  After flying home, I walked up to Raphael’s for a haircut.  I’ve been going to this neighborhood barber shop for years.  But this time, the owner – Tamara Kalandadze – wanted to know if I had “seen the news?”  Huh?  Then she handed me a John Kelly’s Washington column from Thanksgiving Day’s Washington Post.  With Tamara’s picture staring out at me.

Tamara at Raphaels photo credit John Kelly of Washington Post

Tamara at Raphael’s Barber Shop in Silver Spring (photo credit:  John Kelly of the Washington Post)

I love it!  Now the entire city knows what a great place this is.  I’ve often said this is a mini-United Nations, and John Kelly used the exact same phrase.

The shop is in the Metropolitan Building in downtown Silver Spring. The building turned 50 this year. So did Raphael’s. It’s an original tenant.

Raphael’s has weathered the neighborhood’s ups and downs. It’s booming now. A sign in the window announces that Raphael’s is hiring. Tamara needs two more barbers to fill all seven chairs.

The staff is a mini-United Nations.

“There are five languages spoken here,” Tamara says before reeling them off: Farsi, Arabic, Georgian, Russian, Vietnamese.

Oh, and English, of course. That’s what the barbers — Ebrahim and Sonny (Iran), Jalal (Iraq), Anna (Vietnam), Tamara (Georgia) — speak to one another.

The TV is tuned to a news channel. A voice rises above the snip of scissors and the blare of hair dryers: An announcer is saying, “You can see him dragging bodies behind a truck in Syria . . .”

I ask Tamara if the staff gets along. Even the guys from Iran and Iraq?

“People get along,” Tamara says. “It’s politicians who don’t get along.”

That’s a classic Tamara line.  And it is so true.

Instead of blocking immigration, let’s put together more neighborhood barber shops with wonderful people from all parts of the world. Let’s worry less about where those minor prophets fall in line.  And let’s get together and tell more stories. That’s how community works.

More to come…


A Republic, If You Can Keep It

The QuartetWhen asked, following the Constitutional Convention, what kind of government had been created, Benjamin Franklin made a now famous reply.  “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Those words have been on my mind a great deal in recent weeks.  I wonder why?

Could it be the calls from those who want us to seal the borders, shut off all immigration into the U.S., and deport 11 million individuals?  Could it be presidential candidates saying – when a decision is made that recognizes that we are a secular nation and not based on religious law – that we have “criminalized Christianity?” Could it be the calls to register Muslims and to reopen the internment camps of WWII?  When I hear these speeches, I’m reminded of the late great Molly Ivins’ quip about Patrick Buchanan’s famously combative “culture wars” speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention:  It probably sounded better in the original German.

But that’s not why I sat down to write.

I’ve read three books over the past couple of months that all bring a different perspective to my thinking about the future of our republic and our political system of governance.  They are very different works, and all three have flaws.  But in the end all were worth reading.

I began a couple of months ago with the most recently published of the three:  The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 by historian Joseph J. Ellis.  Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Ellis writes in a beautiful and highly readable style. There is much to learn from the interactions of George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay leading up to and during the Constitutional Convention. This is also the type of “famous man” history that misses so much going on around it.  Those flaws are called out in the New York Times review in the link above and in other commentary found on-line.

From my perspective, there are two passages which capture what is good and useful about this work.  Ellis’ observation that the most important part of the Constitution is the framework to support discussion – and ultimately – lawmaking, is among the most powerful insights to come from the historian’s work.

In the long run – and this was probably Madison’s most creative insight – the multiple ambiguities embedded in the Constitution made it an inherently “living” document.  For it was designed not to offer clear answers on the sovereignty question (or, for that matter, to the scope of executive or judicial authority) but instead to provide a political arena in which arguments about these contested issues could continue in a deliberative fashion.  The Constitution was intended less to resolve arguments than to make argument itself the solution.  For judicial devotees of “originalism” or “original intent,” this should be a disarming insight, since it made the Constitution the foundation for an ever-shifting political dialogue that, like history itself, was an argument without end.  Madison’s “original intention” was to make all “original intentions” infinitely negotiable in the future.

Writing near the end of the book, Ellis returns to this theme:

It has endured not because it embodies timeless truths that the founders fathomed as tongues of fire danced over their head, but because it manages to combine the two time-bound truths of its own time: namely, that any legitimate government must rest on a popular foundation, and that popular majorities cannot be trusted to act responsibly, a paradox that has aged remarkable well.

American NationsOne theory as to why we – as a country – are so good at arguments around immigration, civil rights and civil liberties, the role of religion in government, and so much more is put forward by Colin Woodard in American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. In this 2011 work, Woodard – an author and journalist – explores how different sections of North American were settled by different cultures that exist to this day.  I read this work immediately after The Quartet, and if Ellis is focused on the famous man theory of history, Woodard delves into the cultural cores of eleven different regions of the country, which he labels nations.

Woodard outlines his thesis of our fractured country and explains why “American values” vary sharply from one region to another

…how an idea like “freedom” as understood by an East Texan or Idahoan can be the polar opposite of what it means to a New Englander or San Franciscan.  

There isn’t and never has been one America…but rather several Americas. The original North American colonies were settled by people from distinct regions of the British Islands, and from France, the Netherlands,and Spain, each with unique religious, political, and ethnographic characteristics. Some championed individualism, others utopian social reform. Some believed themselves guided by divine purpose, others freedom of conscience and inquiry. Some embraced an Anglo-Saxon Protestant identity, others ethnic and religious pluralism. Some valued equality and democratic participation, others deference to a traditional aristocratic order. All of them continue to uphold their respective ideals today, with results that can be seen on the composition of the U.S. Congress or the county-by-county election maps of most any competitive presidential election of the past two centuries.

This is a very interesting thesis, and Woodard makes a compelling case. Having grown up in the South, I have seen much of the cultural distinctions he calls out for that nation.  However, I have also seen major shifts in how parts of those regions behave politically over time – sometimes for the good, sometimes not. Woodard tends to gloss over movements of people between the regions and the impact that has on those areas.  In the end, he never makes his case in a way that takes me from “yes, this is plausible” to convinced that these regional differences outweigh other factors that have shaped who we are as the United States.

David McCullough has talked about the way we are a nation founded on ideals and not on a common ethnicity, language, or culture.  One particularly in-depth reviewer of American Nations put it this way:

Say whatever you want about how the United States operates in practice, the idea of the United States is a beautiful thing.  The idea of the United States is that anybody – anybody – can be an American.  We don’t care about your skin color, your religion, your accent, your beliefs, or where you’re from.  To be an American, all you have to do is agree to abide by our laws and our Constitution, agree to respect the principles of representative democracy, and recognize those special “carve outs” for individual rights that may not be trampled on by the majority:  freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of consciousness, equality before the law, etc.

The idea of America functions almost as a national, secular religion (if that isn’t too blatant a contradiction in terms), and I’ve long believed that it provides the necessary glue, the commonality that we all need, to hold us together as a people.  As much as I complain and cavil about my country and the things done in its name, like everyone else I know I’ve never stopped being proud of the ideas for which it stands.  And the unifying nature of those ideals, to which we all consciously pledge our allegiance, vastly outweighs the more instinctive cultural differences found in the United States.

The question we are facing today is whether the strains of nativism, aristocratic rule, the Know-Nothing movement, and domestic terrorism as primarily seen through our treatment of African-Americans  – which have always run through our politics and history – are, in our new world of instant communications and the highly partisan 24/7 news cycle, threatening to take us places we’ve always stopped short of visiting in our past.

Healing the Heart of DemocracyWhich leads me to the third book in this exploration of our political life today: Parker J. Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy. I read a review of this 2011 book early in the year, and decided to add it to my list of works on politics and our future as a country.

This is a very personal book, and I won’t attempt to delve into Palmer’s personal journey.  It is important to note that he writes this from a “season of heartbreak” – both personal and political.  From the prelude:

The politics of our time is the “politics of the brokenhearted” – an expression that will not be found in the analytical vocabulary of political science or in the strategic rhetoric of political organizing.  Instead, it is an expression from the language of human wholeness. . . .  If we cannot talk about politics in the language of the heart – if we cannot be publicly heartbroken, for example, that the wealthiest nation on earth is unable to summon the political will to end childhood hunger at home – how can we create a politics worthy of the human spirit, one that has a chance to serve the common good?

The prelude is as good a place as any to capture the essence of Palmer’s book.

It is well known and widely bemoaned that we have neglected our physical infrastructure – the roads, water supplies, and power grids on which our daily lives depend.  Even more dangerous is our neglect of democracy’s infrastructure, and yet it is barely noticed and rarely discussed.  The heart’s dynamics and the ways in which they are shaped lack the drama and the “visuals” to make the evening news, and restoring them is slow and daunting work.  Now is the time to notice, and now is the time for the restoration to begin.

For those of us who want to see democracy survive and thrive – and we are legion – the heart is where everything begins:  that grounded place in each of us where we can overcome fear, rediscover that we are members of one another, and embrace the conflicts that threaten democracy as openings to new life for us and for our nation.

Ellis and Palmer have written hopeful books about our future as a nation, while my reading of Woodard is that he feels we face irreconcilable differences that could lead to dissolution. I am not as hopeful at the moment as Palmer, but historian that I am, I know we have faced difficult challenges as a people in our past. Our nation was not forged from a natural unity, but found a unity in spite of differences.  We fought one declared Civil War to begin to address the enslavement of African-Americans (which – as Bryan Stevenson has eloquently put it – then simply evolved into other forms of slavery).  We fought an undeclared Civil War to take over western lands from our native peoples. We went through a Gilded Age of great income inequality and the suffering that resulted, and we appear determined to repeat the sins of that era today.  We have incarcerated immigrants and others who don’t fit our preconceived notion of an American.  We have allowed corporations to take over our government and wrest power away from the people.

But so many of our parents, and their parents, and their parents before them have also fought for our idea of America.  I have to believe that the spirit to fight for that idea remains and – like Ellis – I believe that if we see our Constitution as the framework for having those arguments – instead of a piece of literal scripture with the answer for every issue – we can continue to thrive.

And finally, we need to focus in this work on e pluribus unum as opposed to the official U.S. motto that corporate America gave us when they invented Christian America in the era of the 1930s to the 1950s to push back against New Deal reforms:  In God We Trust.  But that’s another post.

More to come…