Many of the musicians I write about each Saturday are like old friends who have been in my life for a long time. Yet I began Saturday Soundtrack, in part, to discover musicians who weren’t playing in the ’70s (that’s 1970s). So occasionally I highlight musicians new to me, recommended by friends, You Tube, Sirius XM, the Fretboard Journal, or Pandora. They are gifts, if you will. So for this holiday version of Saturday Soundtrack, I want to revisit a few of those “new favorites” that may be well known, but that I just discovered in 2020.
We’ll begin with the very first Soundtrack of the year, which featured Amythyst Kiah. This native Tennessean is a self-described “Southern Gothic” singer of “alt-country blues” who has been receiving rave reviews and was nominated for a 2020 Grammy in the Best American Roots Song category for her spell-binding “Black Myself.” When you listen to Kiah sing that tune live with Our Native Daughters — a song which is a perfect kick-off for a year when Black Lives Matter moved to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness — you’ll be up and rockin’ in no time.
Another member of Our Native Daughters, Leyla McCalla, was relatively new to me as well. McCalla grew up in the cultural mix of New York City but relocated to Accra, Ghana for two years while a teenager. She returned to the States to study cello performance and chamber music at NYU. Taking that knowledge—and “armed with Bach’s Cello Suites”—she left to play cello on the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans. There she sang in French, Haitian Creole, and English, and played cello, tenor banjo and guitar. McCalla spent two years and gained greater fame as cellist of the Grammy award-winning African-American string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, alongside bandmates Rhianna Giddens and Dom Flemons. She left the group in 2013 to pursue her solo career. Money is King is from her 2018 album Capitalist Blues. The song highlights McCalla’s incorporation of traditional Creole, Cajun and Haitian music into her contemporary work.
Eric Skye came to my attention through the pages of the Fretboard Journal. Although new to me, the Portland, Oregon-based acoustic guitarist certainly has a devoted following, and not just from Richard Hoover and the folks at Santa Cruz Guitars who made his beautiful instrument.
Skye has a very broad minded approach to music, which he explains came in part from a classical guitar teacher who turned him on to blues and jazz as well. As his website notes, while often billed as an acoustic jazz guitarist, “Skye actually occupies a unique niche between traditional acoustic music, modal jazz, folk, and blues. Give a listen to him play Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man.
Hawktail came to me as a gift one day via a Sirius XM acoustic music show. Although I knew some of the members of the band — which is composed of fiddler Brittany Haas, bassist Paul Kowert, guitarist Jordan Tice, and mandolinist Dominick Leslie — this particular configuration was one that I had not encountered before they were featured on Sirius
Hawktail plays some of the most beautiful, complex yet accessible music from the American contemporary acoustic music scene you’ll ever want to hear. After beginning life as a trio, this band’s first album, Unless, was released in 2018, and earlier this year their second offering, entitled Formations, hit the streets. Both are excellent, but in Formations the band really hits its stride. Give a listen to this medley of Polly Put the Kettle On / Say Old Man, Can you Play a Fiddle? / Johnson Boys. Brittany Haas and Paul Kowert shine throughout, with a special mention of their work in Johnson Boys.
Brooks Williams is a Statesboro, Georgia- born/Cambridge, England-based country blues guitarist who gets a wonderful groove going on You Don’t Know My Mind and never lets it go.
Williams is a talented singer and guitarist who has a devoted following. For something completely different, check out this 2014 slide version of the traditional tune Sitting on Top of the World, played on an electric cigar box guitar!
When I was calling for This Land Is Your Land to be our new national anthem, I came across a version of the Woody Guthrie tune by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings that blew me away. Good Gawd! Where has this wonderful musician been all my life? Jones, unfortunately, died from pancreatic cancer in 2016, but her music lives on. Give a listen to some of her other tunes when you have a chance. You will not be able to sit still!
In my Halloween Soundtrack entitled Roots music for ghosts, goblins, and other things that go bump in the night I uncovered a wonderful acoustic version of Who Do You Love by Elise LeGrow. She howls about her “tombstone hand and a graveyard mind / just 22 and I don’t mind dying” in a way that makes you feel it in your bones.
I’m planning on doing a full Soundtrack on LeGrow’s acoustic work in the coming weeks, but this wonderful version of Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell should whet your appetite until I can get the whole post together.
And we’ll end with Dutch singer Clara Bakker, who I featured in the Soundtrack Women Sing Waits. Her cover of Tom Waits’ Temptation is a bit more distinctive than Diana Krall’s better known jazzy version of the same tune.
Rusted brandy in a diamond glass / everything is made from dreams / time is made from honey slow and sweet /only the fools know what it means / temptation, temptation, temptation / oh, temptation, temptation, I can’t resist!
I can’t resist the chance to hear musicians who are new to me. I hope you’ve found gifts of music this year and have enjoyed getting to know some of my favorites — old and new — from 2020.
For next weeks Saturday Soundtrack, I’ll highlight the top ten posts in this series, based on readers’ views. It is a great list!
More to come…