Saturday Soundtrack began as a diversion. Or perhaps therapy. But it has become a real labor of love. *
2021 was the second full year of my commitment to focus more on the music in my life and share those explorations with the readers of More to Come. This was another strange year for music and musicians. Not as bad as 2020, yet still confining and restrictive. Thankfully, there was a tremendous amount of creativity and energy that exploded in 2021, as if the music couldn’t be held back forever. I hope you’ve experienced some of that artistry along the way.
At this time of reflection and “best of” lists, we are going to turn to see what you — the readers and listeners — enjoyed by highlighting the ten posts with the most views from this year’s Saturday Soundtrack series, beginning with….
February is always the longest month of the year. As we rounded out a year of loss and lockdown, the 28 days of February in 2021 just seemed extra cruel.
The great Johnny Cash was one of the singers I featured in this post on being alone. He turns in his version of the Hank Williams’ hit I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry in a duet with rocker Nick Cave. This is Cash near the end of his life, so the voice isn’t as strong as it once was, but it aches and fits the tune perfectly, as only he can.
Then there are the times when loneliness isn’t the worst alternative. Jack White, joined here by country singer Margo Price channeling Dolly Parton, sings the White Stripes song I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet).
The plaintive yet hopeful American folk tune Wayfaring Stranger has long been a personal favorite. In this particular Soundtrack, I explored the interpretation of the song by some 18 different musicians or groups. Each one is unique, but in many ways the definitive version for me will always be Emmylou Harris from her Roses in the Snow album. I also very much treasure Rhiannon Giddens and her interpretation. Giddens performed Wayfaring Stranger, with the remarkable Phil Cunningham on the accordion, as part of a BBC Northern Ireland program.
This wonderful tribute band, formed by Jerry Douglas in 2013 with five of his friends who love the music of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, plays the classic music of the Foggy Mountain Boys pretty much straight up and with a real affection for these pioneers of bluegrass. I used to listen to Flatt and Scruggs in the mornings on WSM radio as we were getting ready to go to school, so this helps me recapture my past.
I’m Gonna Sleep with One Eye Open, as Douglas explains in the intro, was famously banned by the Grand Ole Opry after Flatt and Scruggs played it one Saturday evening.
Canadian Elise LeGrow has a wonderfully raspy voice that makes any tune she sings distinctive and unforgettable. She explained it this way to American Songwriter.
“I’m told that I have a lot of ‘sound.’ One of the challenges that I’ve encountered again and again is finding the right sound for the song. Ultimately, the song is the most important thing to me. It’s more important than the production, it’s more important than the show — it’s all about the song. So, for me, the vocal tone is there to serve the song. It’s one of many tools that tells the story. So, my vocal tone on this song (Evan) is really broken up, and I think that fits the sentiment of the song. Whereas, some of the other songs on the record have a completely different vibe, so you’re going to hear a lot of different tones coming out of me in the future. They’re all a little raspy! But, this song was much more intimate, it has a more intimate tone than you’ll hear on other songs of mine.
Her first full-length debut album, Playing Chess, was drawn entirely from the catalog of Chicago’s iconic Chess label, home to Muddy Waters, Etta James, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and so many more. You can hear her style on the acoustic version of You Never Can Tell.
In our second year of a Holy Week overlaid with the heartache of a worldwide pandemic, a Saturday Soundtrack with lamentations felt right for the season and the readers seemed to agree. Our son, Andrew Bearden Brown, was part of the program Lamentations: Music and Reflections for Holy Week from St. John’s Lafayette Square in Washington, DC.
The 38-minute program alternates between reflections by priests in the church on life in a year in quarantine and beautiful music by Tallis, Tomkins, and other beloved composers and arrangers.
- Reflection | Rev. Robert W. Fisher
- The Lamentations of Jeremiah I — Thomas Tallis (5:34)
- Reflection | Rev. Savannah Ponder
- When David Heard — Thomas Tomkins (18:49)
- Reflection | Rev. William Morris
- There is a Balm in Gilead — arr. William Dawson (26:40) **
- Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Chile — arr. Carl Haywood (31:14)
- This Little Light of Mine — arr. William Bradley Roberts (33:53)
For #5 of the countdown (he says, channeling his inner Casey Kasem), we find an old friend. The Steeldrivers‘ catalog shows how the band has made a living exploring the heartbreak of broken affairs (or what Dolly Parton calls “sad ass” songs.) In spite of personnel changes, they are still “Drinking dark whiskey, tellin’ white lies ” because “One leads to another, on a Saturday night” and you just know you’ll get a good song out of it.
Bad For You, the band’s fifth album, arrived in 2020 after a period of adaptation and change. The title track, shown here in a live video, opens the album. It sounds like a classic Steeldriver song, full of desperation and danger, with the harmonies and skill you’d expect from Nashville professionals.
John Lingan‘s appreciation for Yasmin Williams and her music in the Washington Post led me to explore more of the work of this 24-year-old bold acoustic innovator. Williams grew up in Northern Virginia and she recorded her most recent album, Urban Driftwood, at studios in Kensington, Silver Spring and Takoma Park, Maryland. As Lingan notes,
Anyone who approaches the acoustic guitar with a thumb pick or their bare fingers in suburban Maryland inevitably invites comparisons to Takoma Park’s John Fahey, whose experiments with country blues made his name in the 1960s and ’70s. After inventing the term “American primitive” to describe his spare style, Fahey founded Takoma Records, which released solo guitar records by such similar visionaries as Leo Kottke and Robbie Basho and influenced generations of younger players, including Jack Rose and William Tyler.
But her music doesn’t sound like Fahey’s, and it is certainly not primitive. She has “an unorthodox, modern style of playing,” notes her website bio. “Her music has been commonly described as refreshing, relaxing, and unique and has been called some of the most imaginative guitar music out today.” This live version of Restless Heart is a stellar example of her artistry.
After the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th — in which there was a riot incited by the sitting president — there was great despair for our country. Despair and concern that is appropriate.
In considering what to feature on that week’s Saturday Soundtrack, a simple country refrain from a gospel song written by the great Ralph Stanley in 1960 kept playing on a loop in my head. The first line of the chorus is pure country poetry: The darkest hour is just before dawn.
One doesn’t have to believe in the gospel context of the song to understand and appreciate the meaning of trial, loss, and rebirth. That week we all saw the inevitable culmination of our trial of four years; a period of lies, hatred, and division. As we came face-to-face with the fact of the fragility of the American ideal, our loss was clear. But in the special elections in Georgia, in the coming back of Congress after the insurrection to certify the will of the people, and in the beginning of the difficult discussions around what American democracy means, we see the glimmer of dawn and rebirth.
The definitive version of The Darkest Hour is undoubtedly by Emmylou Harris, with Ricky Skaggs singing harmony, from her 1980 Roses in the Snow album. When Skaggs comes in at the 2:00 mark to take the lead, it sends chills down your back.
One of the joys of writing Saturday Soundtrack is the discovery of new musicians and new bands that pop up unexpectedly in the research. I came across Low Lily in the fall of 2020 while catching up on the music of Matt Flinner.
In the “Gifts of new favorites” Soundtrack earlier this month, I focused on Low Lily’s vocal work. Yet the band is made up of strong instrumentalists, which you can hear on their tune The Good Part. That is followed by one of their signature vocal tunes, Nobody Knows.
Nobody told me that the road would be easy…but it is nice to have such beautiful music to take us along the path.
And now, for the top-rated post in the 2021 Saturday Soundtrack series…
I could tell by the number of times this title showed up in the “trending posts” list that it had a good chance to take the top spot this year. And I love that! I’ve been a long-time fan of gypsy swing (as you will read about in the post) and the Avalon Jazz Band, fronted by the ebullient and talented Tatiana Eva-Marie, plays in a style that comes across as both carefree and highly polished. (Yes, I am a believer in the power of paradox.)
Besides the vocals of Eva-Marie, another key element of the Avalon Jazz Band sound is the violin, played in most of the recordings in the post by co-founder Adrien Chevalier. Let’s end this collection from the year with several pieces of hot and sassy swing!
Thanks, as always, for reading and commenting on the musicians and music that pops up each week on the Saturday Soundtrack.
I can’t wait to see what you choose in 2022!
More to come…
*I enjoy all types of music but realized in 2019 as More to Come passed the ten-year mark that I was seldom finding time to really listen to new music, much less highlight musicians I loved through the blog. Announcing a weekly commitment to showcase some of the work of those who caught my ear was a way to push me out of the realm of posts around politics, work, life lessons, or leadership. The reaction? Well, I have one family member who confesses to “never reading the music posts.” Others — friends, business colleagues, and family members — regularly comment or send emails with thoughts and suggestions only about the Soundtrack features. Suffice it to say that enough people read them that I’ll continue to feed my soul though these explorations and highlights.
**If you are having trouble picking him out under the masks, Andrew begins this piece with the tenor solo.