Willie Nelson – Willie and Family Live

There never has been, nor will there ever be, a better live country album than “Willie and Family Live”. Granted that is just my opinion, but I will tell you this: you will never sway me from that opinion, so don’t even try. I would even go so far as to rank “Willie and Family Live” in the top 5 of any live album of any genre. Then again, like much of Willie’s recording career, it really does it injustice to pigeonhole this record as strictly country music. Sure, that is what is at its core, but it’s so much more.

Willie Nelson is a true artist. Musically, he never tried to be something he wasn’t. Like the truest of outlaws, he rebelled against Memphis and Nashville pressures to sound this way or that. Once he had a following, Willie stuck to his guns and played what Willie wanted to play; what his fans wanted him to play. Willie Nelson was always there, first and foremost, for his fans.

“Willie and Family Live” is exactly what its name implies. Willie’s family was his band, his friends, and his fans. This is their album. This is their story told through the art of Willie Nelson. Some artists use a brush, some use chisel; Willie Nelson uses a Martin N-20 classical guitar that he named Trigger. From 1969 to 1978, when this album was recorded, Willie had used Trigger to create his art so often and so passionately that he had worn a hole right through the top of the guitar. Somehow, that made Trigger sound even sweeter. It’s funny how that can happen. Then again, maybe not. Maybe it was the personal connection Willie made between himself and his fans that got stronger with time that made Trigger sound even better. Yeah, listening to “Willie and Family Live” now, I know that’s what it is.

Leon Russell – Leon Russell

Leon Russell was a multi instrumentalist who is known as much for his songwriting as his performances. “A Song For You”, the very first song on his debut album has been recorded by over 200 different artists; the most popular version being cut to vinyl by the Carpenters who named their fourth album after the song. The song was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2018 as a recording of qualitative or historical significance.

Before recording his first solo album, Leon Russell’s had already been noticed by many notables in rock and roll and many of them helped him out on this record. George Harrison and Ringo Starr (The Beatles), Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman (The Rolling Stones), Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, and Joe Cocker are just a few who help to make this one of the best debut albums in rock and roll history.

The Lumineers – Cleopatra (deluxe vinyl edition)

Folk rock is a style of music that had fallen out of favor in the past decades, but the genre has been making quite a comeback in recent years. Leading the pack in the stripped down, rootsy Americana laden style of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen’s “The River”, and Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” is the Lumineers. “Cleopatra” is their second album.

I discovered The Lumineers a bit late compared to some. A friend of mine who is also into music told me about them after “Cleopatra” and its first single, “Ophelia” had already topped the Billboard charts. I was on a kick rediscovering some older records and not paying as much attention to some of the music coming out at the time. I checked The Lumineers out online and was really impressed. I also discovered that I was familiar with their first single “Hey Ho” from their eponymous debut. I guess I was paying a little attention.

Rather than their debut, I decided to pick up “Cleopatra” as my first album by The Lumineers since I had started to hear “Ophelia” and the title track from the album on the radio. I also ran across a good deal on a deluxe edition of it, which from a collector’s view, is always a bonus. The deluxe album comes in a die cut gate fold cover and is pressed on two slate gray records which go along with the cover art, a picture of silent film star Theda Bara, who played Cleopatra in the 1917 film. The second record contains four bonus tracks not included with the regular version of the album.

Like Petty’s “Wildflowers”, Springsteen’s “The River”, and early Dylan, this is an album I will enjoy at those times I want to chill out and listen to something simple yet melodically engaging. A truly wonderful album.

The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

Back in the day, when a friend told you how good an album was, it didn’t mean you would necessarily like it. It just meant they did. Unless they could play it or the local radio stations would promote it, you still took your chances when you bought it. One man’s trash is a nother’s treasure. But today, there’s the Internet, where you can easily check out almost any new band. So when I bought “A Deeper Understanding”, the major label debut by The War on Drugs last year, I knew I was going to love it.

The songs on “A Deeper Understanding” are mostly mid-tempo with a low-key feel to them. They have an edginess to them, but never go over-the-top. Easy to listen and relax to but exciting at the same time. Thoughtful and introspective lyrics are perfectly matched to the music by The Adam Granduciel’s slightly breathy, somewhat raspy vocal style. This is an album that can be motivating or relaxing; it depends on how you want to listen to it at the time.

After listening to “A Deeper Understanding” the first couple times I couldn’t help but wonder why music like this isn’t more popular. It seems to rarely achieve main-stream recognition or success. Then, a couple of weeks after buying it, I leaned it was nominated for Best Rock Album at the 2017 Grammys. It won. A well deserved award and a great achievement for te first major label album by a band.

I’m look looking forward to The War On Drugs’ second one.

Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits

Americana.

That’s perhaps the best way to refer to Willie Nelson’s music. Yes, you’ll probably have to tune into a country radio station to hear his songs, but Willie goes far beyond country. The songs he writes are so ingrained with the roots of what America truly was, is, and hopefully will be for years to come.

Willie Nelson has always written his songs from a place deep in his heart. And when he performs a song written by somebody else he always makes the song his own, like it’s the first time you’ve heard it. Even though you know he’s not the first to play and sing a particular song, his becomes a definitive version of the song.

Although Willie Nelson is considered to be a country music performer. Even to tag him as one the pioneering artist who defines “outlaw country” seems a disservice. Willie Nelson’s music is beyond that. It defines itself; just as it defines the innocence and pride, the trials and tribulations, the sentimentality and hope of what can only be referred to as “Americana”.

Hooters – One Way Home

When I think of underrated bands from the eighties, I think of first and foremost, the Hooters. Hailing from Philadelphia, the first two albums by the Hooters were pop/rock gems with a slick production that dripped of the ’80s. But anyone who had the good fortune to see them in concert knew this was not the true sound the Hooters represented. On “One Way Home” the Hooters captured a more rootsy, organic sound reminiscent of how they sounded live.

“One Way Home” still made use of synthesizers to create great pop hooks in a style that made their sophomore effort “Nervous Night” so successful, but they were mixed in with a wider array of other instruments. The guitar playing was grittier, especially with the solos, and there was more of a folk-rock/Americana feel to the songs. The lyrics are mostly meaningful and thought-provoking.

For reasons that elude me, “One way Home” did not fare as well in America as “Nervous Night” although it did still earn the Hooters another gold record. The album had better success in Europe, where The Hooters remain more popular today.

John Cougar Mellancamp – Scarecrow

You would be hard pressed to find an album with more heart than “Scarecrow” by John Cougar Mellencamp.

Growing up in rural Indiana, Mellencamp went back to his roots for the songs on “Scarecrow”, taking inspiration from his the changes he saw happening to his hometown and its nearby farms. Sometimes it was proud, as in “Small Town”, and at others it was sentimental, like on  “Minutes to Memories”. But the album was most moving with the scathing picture it painted of the family farms that were unable to survive against the huge corporations on the opening song, “Rain on the Scarecrow”. Where Mellencamp sings of a heartland that had lost its heart.

The songs on “Scarecrow” struck a chord across America and it became one of Mellencamp’s most popular and memorable albums.

Shortly after the success of “Scarecrow”, Mellencamp would form “Farm Aid” along with country star Willie Nelson. The non-profit organization put on a series of benefit concerts to raise money that brought financial relief to many struggling American  farms. He remains an active advocate to rural America to this day.