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The Saturday Soundtrack 2020 top ten

Mavis Staples

In October of 2019, the realization hit that blog posts around music had slowed to a trickle on More to Come. To push away from always writing about politics, work, life lessons, or leadership issues, a commitment was born to write a new post each Saturday to focus on music and musicians that had caught my ear.

Soon it became clear that people were actually reading these things! One dear friend, who has since passed away, commented on the obscure musicians that “only Oakley Pearson (a mutual friend) and David Brown have ever heard of.” Yet a family member on my wife’s side wrote to say that an album by one of those obscure musicians just discovered was on his “Best of 2016” list. Sometimes I’m ahead of the pack and sometimes a bit behind. A friend and former work colleague from Chicago suggested he was finding all sorts of new music, although some of it “had a bit too much twang” for his tastes. A retired lobbyist and friend here in DC commented on a singer’s Amy Winehouse sensibilities. It helps that we have young adult children to keep us cool. A lawyer in Cleveland mentioned at the end of a business-related call that our musical sensibilities were very similar, and we found a shared love for Darrell Scott. (Post coming soon.) And then a former colleague wrote to say she would follow my playlist on Spotify, if I had one. Whew! All high praise that keeps me going.

So 2020 was the first full year of that commitment. At year’s end, we are going to turn to see what you — the readers and listeners — enjoyed by highlighting the top ten viewed/listened to posts from the Saturday Soundtrack series, beginning with….

#10: This Land is Your Land

The July 4th post was a pitch to change the national anthem from the unsingable and militaristic Star Spangled Banner to the Woody Guthrie song that no less an authority than Bruce Springsteen has said is “one of the greatest songs ever written about America” because it “gets right to the heart of the promise of what our country was supposed to be about.” Listen to Springsteen’s live version and see if you don’t agree. “With a country, just like with people, it is easy to let the best of yourself slip away.”

#9: Tyler Childers

Country musician Tyler Childers is from Kentucky, having grown up with a father who worked in the coal industry and a mother who worked as a nurse. Like many a country musician, he began singing in church — in his case the local Free Will Baptist congregation. His grandfather gave him a guitar, he absorbed the music of the 1980s, and began writing songs. To my taste, Childer’s best work to date is the solo acoustic work you find on the Red Barn Radio sessions and on YouTube videos. White House Road may be one of the best of these songs, as the singer from Paintsville, Kentucky — famous for its lawlessness, religion, and booze — puts his own spin on life in rural Appalachia.

#8: Rhiannon Giddens

Posts during the five Saturdays in February highlighted different musicians at the forefront of the work to reclaim the African American contributions to folk, old-time, country and roots music. Giddens is the woman who has one of the most visible roles in leading, in Rolling Stone’s words, the “movement of 21st-century singers, artists, songwriters and instrumentalists of color who have been reclaiming the racially heterogeneous lineages of folk, country and American roots music.” From another post this year which featured Giddens, enjoy her haunting version of Wayfaring Stranger.

#7: I’m With Her

“When you go to heaven and hear singing, it will sound like these three women.” That’s a quote from mandolinist Chris Thile, and apparently a lot of readers agree with his assessment of the overall wonderfulness of the Grammy-award winning roots music trio I’m With Her comprised of Sarah JaroszAoife O’Donovan, and Sara Watkins

Watkins, Jarosz, and O'Donovan
I’m With Her – Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan – at July 2015 Red Wing Roots Music Festival

Having heard this band live on multiple occasions, in 2020 I featured them in the Soundtrack series as both a trio and as individual musicians. Call My Name was awarded the Grammy for 2020’s Best American Roots Song, and their performance on Thile’s Live from Here show is a great example of the beautiful harmonies that are integral to their work. 

#6: Roots music for ghosts, goblins, and other things that go bump in the night

It was great fun selecting grim and scary songs for Halloween. The best of the Halloween songs have been hiding out in the roots music bin, just as the great, old folktales were ones that really hit the mark when it came to ghosts, goblins, and other things that go bump in the night. This led to many views and some great feedback. The song that took me down this spooky path is the Del McCoury Band’s title track from the album It’s Just the Night, with backing vocals by the classic gospel group Fairfield Four.

#5: Sturgill Simpson

Sturgill Simpson is the hard-to-classify, but always intriguing singer and songwriter who sounds like Waylon Jennings or Merle Haggard (take your choice, as both were great singers); writes about topics not often heard on contemporary country radio; has outspoken progressive politics sure to rub many country music fans the wrong way; and who has a gift for surprise. Two examples of the many routes his music has taken can be found in his performance with the Dap Kings of All Around You at the Grammys and the anti-war rocker Call to Arms from his Saturday Night Live show.

In June 2020, Simpson posted a video of a live-streamed one-hour concert held on Friday, June 5th, at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium — the mother church of country music — with an all-star bluegrass band in anticipation of his fall release of two albums of his own music in the bluegrass style. It is wonderful! If you have the time to pull up a chair and crack open a cold one, I won’t stop you. If you don’t have time for the entire concert, give a listen to Breakers Roar from his Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 1 album.

#4: Holy Week

Suffice it to say that my son Andrew and I share a deep love for unaccompanied vocal ensembles singing beautiful and intricately-crafted compositions from the classical canon. Realizing that one of the Saturday Music post in April would fall on the final day of Holy Week, I reached out to Andrew — who was in his London flat, sheltering in place during his final year at the Royal College of Music  — and asked for some help. He was all in! His curated collection of beautiful and moving vocal music was a big hit with readers, coming in #4 on this year’s top ten list of Soundtrack favorites.

Tenebrae, under the direction of Nigel Short, is one of the world’s leading vocal ensembles renowned for its passion and precision. Their version of Like as the Hart by the English composer Herbert Howells is a beautiful and thoughtful rendering of this classic, which is based on Psalm 42 vv. 1–3. Howells taught composition at the Royal College of Music for almost 60 years, and this particular composition has long been a favorite.

#3: Lift Every Voice and Sing

Coming in at #3 on the countdown — God, I feel like Casey Kasem — is a musical celebration of Juneteenth. On the post one can find various versions of the song known as the “Black National Anthem.” Here it is in a classic setting from late November 2016 — an especially auspicious time — at Abyssinian Baptist Church.

#2: Andrew Bearden Brown

The Soundtrack that took the #2 spot in the top ten list for 2020 has a real family focus.

Andrew Bearden Brown (© 2015 | Kristina Sherk Photography |

In November, our own Andrew Bearden Brown was a part of the concert series Music at Emmanuel in his program Dream & Escape. Featuring works by Samuel Barber, Mozart, and Gerald Finzi, the program was inspired by the vivid and strange dreams many of us were experiencing at the beginning of the lockdown. Christian Lane is the pianist, and the concert was beautifully edited by Max Kuzmyak. The recital was taped in historic Emmanuel Episcopal Church in downtown Baltimore. I may be biased, but the program and music are lovely.

#1: Mavis Staples

If anyone had to knock Andrew out of the top spot this year, he can’t complain because it was that incomparable national treasure, Mavis Staples. The picture at the top of the post may have given it away!

There was no better musical artist to celebrate during The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend than Staples. Readers seemed to agree, and kept coming back week-after-week. This post often ended up on the “trending” list.

Her reach and impact as a once-in-a-generation artist has been astounding. Staples is a member of both the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a Grammy Award winner, a Kennedy Center honoree, and a recipient of the National Arts Lifetime Achievement Award. As someone who began singing during the civil rights movement and marched with Dr. King, her longevity in the spotlight is a testament to her magnificent talent. Mavis Staples performed at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and sang at President Barack Obama’s White House.

Let’s salute her work with one of her best-known songs, I’ll Take You There and with her great cover of Bob Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody.

BONUS: Paradise

Music is a language that helps us process loss. Throughout 2020, Americans have had to call on that language time and again as more than 300,000 of our fellow citizens have lost their lives to COVID.  Overall, “25% of U.S. adults say they or someone in their household was laid off or lost their job because of the coronavirus outbreak, with 15% saying this happened to them personally.” On top of this health and economic crisis, we are facing the potential loss of our democracy to minority rule.

So many have suffered personal losses during this year, holes in their lives that shake their soul. For those who find nurture in roots, country, folk, and acoustic music, the death of singer/songwriter John Prine to COVID early in the pandemic still creates a void that is difficult to fill.

When a tribute to Prine’s song Paradise came in just outside the top ten, the More to Come editors decided to add it as a special bonus to help sum up the year. This celebration premiered October 3rd on, “Let The Music Play On”: A Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Broadcast, featuring many of John’s friends. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is a Bay Area institution in San Francisco and Prine was a regular. His full sets from 2014 and 2017 are available to watch on the HSB website.

The artists in the tribute range from a handful of our most cherished roots musicians to some of the youngest and most innovative performers of our times. These are the type of people who are attracted to John’s music and his sensitivities as a songwriter. Bonnie Raitt — who had a huge hit with Prine’s Angel from Montgomery — takes the lead on the song’s final verse.

When I die let my ashes float down the Green River / Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam / I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’ / Just five miles away from wherever I am.”

[Chorus:] And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County / Down by the Green River where Paradise lay / Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking / Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

Paradise is, of course, a song about loss. Loss of youthful innocence and the loss of our environment. In accordance with Prine’s wishes, half of his ashes were spread in Kentucky’s Green River. The other half were buried next to his parents in Chicago.

It is a wonderful tribute to someone whose loss still stings.

Thanks for listening during this most difficult of years. You chose some exquisite music for your 2020 favorites. Let’s look forward to sharing more great musicians and their craft in 2021.

More to come…

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