Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #880:
The Louvin Bros. – Tragic Songs of Life
Best known for their 1960 album Satan Is Real (and its campy fire-and-brimstone cover image), Charlie and Ira Louvin were a popular country gospel group until Ira’s death in a 1965 car accident (ostensibly running from the law – he was wanted on a drunk driving warrant). They’re also the group responsible for one of the earliest nuclear apocalypse anthems, The Great Atomic Power. This album gets the nod over the rest of their catalog because it’s more accessible, minus all the proselytizing that a lot of people find off-putting. A lot of these songs were already country/bluegrass standards when the album was issued in 1956 – and they’re not all as gloomy as the title might indicate. The Louvins play to the crowd with the home-state anthems Alabama and Kentucky (the latter a delicious mandolin-and-guitar picking party), get maudlin with a seven-year-old who misses his sweetheart on A Tiny Broken Heart, and go back in time with the traditional Mary of the Wild Moor, Let Her Go, God Bless Her and the gold-digger cautionary tale What Is Home Without Love. But their versions of In the Pines, My Brother’s Will, Take the News to Mother and the murder ballad Knoxville Girl (a big hit for the Blue Sky Boys in 1937) are as grim and evocative as any rural music ever recorded. The album was reissued in 2007 as a twofer along with Satan Is Real, easily downloaded. Here’s a random torrent.
The Jack Grace Band is at Rodeo Bar every Sunday this month at about 9:15, and this is a residency you should see. As the Dog Show said, Saturday nights are for amateurs, so it follows that Sundays are for the pros. Seeing the baritone country crooner/guitarist and his cohorts onstage with such a small crowd in the house was bizarre: in fact, being able to see everybody in the band without standing on tiptoe behind a bunch of people was weird. But good. This residency is born of tragedy: Grace is trying to put together a new sound without the services of his longtime lead player, lapsteel genius Drew Glackin, whose sudden, unexpected death at a young age last January caught everyone he played with (and that’s a LOT of New York musicians) completely off guard. But Grace is an excellent lead guitarist, with a terse, incisive, bluesy style, and armed with his new Telecaster, he let loose a lot of searing, even raging solos, getting the new axe to scream like his trusty old hollowbody Gibson can’t. It’s clear that this is somebody who’s still furious about losing his good friend and bandmate (Glackin had a rare thyroid condition that, if he’d had health insurance, would almost surely have been diagnosed long before it killed him). Although the anger doesn’t make it into Grace’s voice: his smooth, soulful delivery was as sly as ever, as he and the band kicked off the set with a new song, the swinging drunk-driving anthem The Worst Truck Driver in the World, a dead ringer for Junior Brown at his most entertaining.
Grace didn’t have his usual bassist, his wife Daria with him onstage tonight, but the sub guy held up his end admirably (drummer Russ Meissner, a jazzcat playing country music, made it easy). Piano player Bill Malchow added a New Orleans blues feel, especially on the darker, minor-key, somewhat Tom Waits-inflected numbers, and sang in a Dr. John-style N’awlins drawl when Grace gave him a lead vocal.
The band mixed upbeat party anthems including This Hangover Ain’t Mine and 7:30 in the Afternoon (a wise, knowing guide to how to kick a really bad hangover: sleep!) with several eerie, bluesy tunes including Kick off Your Shoes Moonshine, an older song that Grace has yet to record. Grace’s lyrics are craftsmanlike and imbued with great wit. He knows that the best country music is anything but unsophisticated: in the pre-rock era, if you wanted really good lyrics, you either had to listen to blues or “hillbilly music.” This sophistication came to the forefront on the dark, haunting, minor-key Cry, from Grace’s most recent album The Martini Cowboy, which begins as the blissed-out, wired narrator offers a girl coke, knowing fully well that the blow will only keep the angst away for so long.
Late in their first set, they segued out of a song into a long, meandering, somewhat swampy interlude that could have been vintage Little Feat. And then they played (Let Your) Mind Do the Talking. It’s Grace’s best song, a haunting, backbeat-driven blues tune about a drunk slowly losing it, and his version tonight was nothing short of transcendent. “I got a dream for a dog but it always needs walking/When you’ve got nothing to lose you let your mind do the talking,” Grace intoned ominously, building to a crescendo at the end with a screaming, noisy guitar solo while the piano and drums pounded out the beat. Grace and his band have a pretty Herculean live schedule, so you always have several chances a month to see them, but if this residency is anything like tonight’s show, it could be something special.
By the way, in case there are any deep-fried pickle enthusiasts out there, Rodeo Bar is one of the few places in town (other than, say, some stand at the San Gennaro festival) that sells them. They come with a sour cream and onion dipping sauce – and if you ask, the waiter will bring you some freshly chopped jalapenos as well – and are enthusiastically recommended.
It’s hard to believe that such a good band would have been playing such a small room in New York City. Although a lot of bands use small-room shows for rehearsals, and since Reckon So have a gig coming up at Rodeo Bar a little after the first of the year, that might have explained it. Saying that they might be the best country band in New York might be like saying someone else might be the best country band in Cairo or Buenos Aires, but tonight they played as if they were onstage at the Ryman. Guitarist Danny Weiss, late of Buddy Woodward’s excellent Nitro Express, is instantly recognizable for his warm, soulful use of the lower frets on the guitar, but tonight he didn’t do that. Instead, he showed off his jazz and western swing chops, and the whole band followed suit, drummer Bruce Martin punching in hard occasionally on the offbeat to make sure everybody’s on the same page, brilliant steel player Jon Graboff playing five on four, bedeviling his bandmates, and frontwoman Mary Olive Smith singing her North Carolina soul out. They did a couple of George Jones/Tammy Wynette covers, the best of which was a slow, sultry blues. They also played a very fetching version of the big Jones/Wynette hit Something to Brag About, which takes on some pretty heavy significance when you consider that Smith and Weiss married shortly after he narrowly survived what could have been a lethal assault.
Led down the trail by Smith’s heartfelt, heartwarming vocals, they did justice to Jean Shepherd’s Cigarettes and Coffee Blues, as well as a Gillian Welch song. But as good as their covers were, the best song they played all night was Weiss’ original, possibly called I’m the Lucky One (which would be pretty apt, actually), a swinging number that takes an unexpected turn into the minor key at the end of the verse. Wilco would have collectively died to have written that song. There’s nothing better than a country band playing at full tilt on a rainy night where you can get a seat at the bar and a couple of whiskies and enjoy the sound, which was actually excellent, by comparison to the disaster it was last Sunday here for the Inbreeds’ show. Reckon So play Rodeo Bar on January 3, they’re doing two sets starting around 10:30 PM and you should go see them.