Eleven years ago I posted a short series on More to Come entitled Five Albums for a Desert Island. It was a way to expand on a Facebook challenge at the time to list your five favorite albums. And while the original posts sound slightly dated, they nonetheless stand up pretty well in describing five albums that have shaped my musical interests.
I thought about these albums again in this time of global quarantine. If I had to choose only five albums to have on my live-stream for a long period of sheltering-in-place, how would these do? Well, I think I could more than live with these five…I’d still very much enjoy them! Yes, I would miss not having Nickel Creek‘s self-titled 2000 album to enjoy. (Click the link to read the recent NPR article about the album: “How Nickel Creek made Americana the new Indie Rock.”) And I love The Best of John Hiatt. Nonetheless, with the original five I would not only survive, but would thrive.
I’ll encourage you to go back and read the original reviews which go into some depth, but here are snippets about the five in the order I posted them. Feel free to use the comments section to let me know which albums would be on your playlist.
David Grisman Quintet (1977) — The David Grisman Quintet’s self-titled debut album blew me away the first time I put needle to vinyl back in the mid-70s and I still love to listen to the amazing musicianship of Grisman and his jazzy mandolin, Tony Rice on guitar, Darol Anger on fiddle, Todd Phillips on second mandolin, and Bill Amatneek on bass. CD Universe‘s review noted that the album “comes flying out of the speakers from the word go, crackling with the excitement of a group of musicians heading somewhere nobody has ever quite been before.” Watch a later version of the DGQ with Grisman, Rice, and Mark O’Connor — in a hideous pair of purple pants — play the album’s opening tune E.M.D.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken (Vol. 1) (1972) — I still remember coming home sometime in 1972 and putting Will the Circle be Unbroken on my stereo turntable. I had started focusing on acoustic music which led me to the record bin on that fateful day when I found this record with the funny looking cover by the country-rock ensemble The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. There was a little patter to start the record, with Jimmy Martin‘s comment on John McEuen’s banjo kick-off, “Earl never did do that….” But then Martin, the Dirt Band, and their musical guests were off with a rollicking version of The Grand Ole Opry Song and they didn’t stop until you got through all 3 LPs (6 album sides)! Decades before O Brother Where Art Thou, there was Will the Circle Be Unbroken, when some long-haired hippies and rockers took country, bluegrass, and mountain music on its own terms and showed how wonderful it could be. Listen to McEuen and Earl Scruggs play a masterful banjo duet on Nashville Blues.
Time Out (1959) — This was the first jazz album that really caught my ear, and that’s the reason it is on my top five list. Thanks to influences from my father and older brother Steve, I have come to love jazz. In Time Out I was captivated by the changes in time signature and rhythm. It all sounded so effortless and so cool. Paul Desmond was a wonderful soloist, and even my untrained ears could hear that he was special. The album was recorded when I was four years old, but the fact that I found it some ten years later — not to mention the fact that it is still in print and available — speaks to its staying power. Check out this live version of the band playing the signature Take Five with an amazing extended solo by Desmond.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)— There’s not much you can add to all the words that have been written about The Beatles and their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Wikipedia entry is one of those that drives people who hate crowd sourcing to rants, because it probably runs longer than the entry for World War II. (I haven’t actually checked that out, but it makes a good line so I’m sticking to it.) Sgt. Pepper’s has been a source of endless fascination since it was released, and I was certainly smitten as a young teenager. This is probably on my list as much for what it represents about my youth as for the album itself. The Beatles were constants in our house growing up, because Steve and I listened to them all the time. And since my kids learned about the album from U2 and similar versions, give a listen to Paul McCartney with Bono and U2 playing the title track from the Live8 concert in 2005.
Aereo-Plain (1971) — The last in my review of top five albums may be my all-time favorite. I’ve long loved John Hartford’s quirky, hippy-bluegrass Aereo-Plain album. What do I love about this album? Let’s start with the cover. My mother hated this cover when I was a teenager. But how could a scruffy 17-year-old guitar player who was getting into bluegrass not love a picture of a scruffy, hippie, banjo picker who had just made a fortune as the writer of the monster Glen Campbell hit Gentle on My Mind. Then there are the songs. The first thing you hear is a gospel quartet led by Hartford singing a snippet of A.J. Brumley’s Turn Your Radio On. This morphs into a set of the most amazing mixture of original Hartford tunes he’s ever produced. Next, I love the production values of Aereo-Plain. David Bromberg was the album’s producer and Hartford gave him almost total authority in putting this record together. The choices were inspired. Bromberg had the band play everything live, and it was all completed in a few short takes. Finally, I love the players. Besides Hartford on banjo and guitar, Aereo-Plain featured Norman Blake on guitar and mandolin, Vassar Clements on fiddle, Tut Taylor on flat-picked dobro, and Randy Scruggs on bass. They were among the best in the bluegrass business at the time, and I’ve heard their playing on Aereo-Plain compared to that of a jazz quintet. Unfortunately, only Norman Blake is still with us. For so many people who played acoustic music, Aereo-Plain gave them permission to try new things, as Hartford showed how to mix a hip, youthful sensitivity with a love for bluegrass music. Here’s an all-star band from the 1980s playing with Hartford and Clements on the title track Steam Powered Aereo Plane.*
So there you go…influential music from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s that still shivers my spine here in the 2020 pandemic. Go figure, but go enjoy.
More to come…
*Yes the spellings are different for the song and the album title. It was the 70s.