The Highwomen Deliver Emotional Effort, Sheryl Crow Going Out with a Bang

One of the things that the world of music has gotten hammered on over the past few years is the paucity of female performers, both on the radios and satellites of listeners and in the awards process (Grammys, CMAs, etc.). It is a fair argument too; in country music currently, you have to go down to #11 on the Billboard Country Singles chart to find the first female entry (Carrie Underwood) and, on the Billboard Hot 100, although the first three slots are occupied by women or male/female combos (Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts,” Shawn Mendes & Camilla Caballo with “Senorita” and Billie Eilish’s mopey “Bad Guy”), there are only two other female contributors in the Top 20 (the Ariana Grande/Miley Cyrus/Lana Del Rey collaboration for the reboot of Charlie’s Angels entitled “Don’t Call Me Angel” and Ariana Grande with Social House). With two new releases out from top female artists, you might think that this situation would change, but you’d be surprised.

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First up is the rather ostentatiously named The Highwomen, who have come out with their eponymous CD Highwomen. The quartet, consisting of Grammy winners Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile and Amanda Shires along with Grammy nominated songwriter Natalie Hemby, are all very accomplished performers and songwriters in their own rights. Coming together for this record, however, they put their egos at the door and come up with an emotional effort that delivers across the board for their purposes as a female country supergroup.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first, however: they probably should have called themselves something other than “The Highwomen.” That name harkens back to the 80s when four of the titans of country music – the late Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson – joined forces as “The Highwaymen,” a country supergroup that brought each man commercial and critical success. By branding themselves as “The Highwomen,” it seems that Morris, Carlile and Company are equivocating themselves as equal to the legendary male artists who made the name famous (plus they’re putting a HUGE target on themselves). Even Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt – the closest thing there was to a female “Highwaymen” previously – didn’t have the audacity to call themselves “The Highwomen.”

If you can get by the quartet calling themselves “The Highwomen,” you’re going to find a very solid outing from the artists involved. Of course, they have to start off the album with their version of The Highwaymen’s “Highwayman,” and it is naturally called “Highwomen.” It follows the pattern that was set by Cash, Nelson, et. al., with a call-and-response song about repressed women in history. A woman subjected to and executed during the Salem Witch Trials; a Freedom Rider murdered in the South; and (poignantly starting the song) a refugee from Honduras who took the long walk to try to seek asylum with her family in the U. S before dying on the trek. It is an excellent update from the male oriented original and starts a very emotional trek that runs through the album.

“We are the Highwomen,
Singing stories still untold.
We carry the sons you can only hold.
We are the daughters of the silent generation,
You send our hearts to die alone in foreign nations,
And they return to us as tiny drops of rain
But we will still remain…”

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Going deeper in the album there are some jewels for the listeners. Perhaps for the first time ever, there is a lesbian “kiss off” song called “If She Ever Leaves Me” that tries to subtly tell a cowboy that the woman he’s looking at picking up – Carlile’s secret lesbian lover – “thinks your cologne’s too strong, she’s into perfume” and that he has absolutely no shot. Another song that is noteworthy is “My Only Child,” a song from a mother to her child about why she didn’t have any more children for her child to play with.

The songs aren’t long on Highwomen, roughly three minutes in length for the 12 songs on the record, but each one packs an emotional punch that doesn’t get displayed often in music. If you’re a fan of the women in the group – or you just want to hear some damn good country (or maybe “Americana”) music – you’d be well advised to pick up the record.

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In her over 30-year career, Sheryl Crow has pretty much done it all. Originally a music teacher, Crow would in 1987 become a backup singer for Michael Jackson on his Bad tour. She would eventually find success as a solo artist through her debut album Tuesday Night Music Club in 1994. Now, more than 25 years later (Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, are you listening?), it looks as though Crow is calling it a close for her album recording career with her CD Threads.

Why does it seem like the Missouri songbird is ending her recording career? Because it seems that she brought everyone and their brother out to play with her on the album! Both Morris and Carlile from The Highwomen make appearances with Crow and they rank as the MINOR players on the record. Artists such as Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, Mavis Staples, Eric Clapton, Gary Clark, Jr., Keith Richards, Willie Nelson, Joe Walsh, St. Vincent, James Taylor and Emmylou Harris all add their prodigious talents to the record, making it for a stellar outing. Let’s put it this way: if this is the way that Crow wants to bid adieu to her recording career, she’s done a hell of a job.

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There are several highlights on the record. “Prove You Wrong” with Crow harmonizing with Nicks and Morris, starts the record with a bang that sets the ever-increasing standard for the rest of the record. “Beware of Darkness” is an ode about falling too far down “the rabbit hole” and letting everyday news bring us down, brought to life by the guitar work of Clapton and the vocals of Sting and Carlile.

It is a couple of collaborations you don’t expect that seem to steal the record, though. First is a stunning “Redemption Day,” a duet with the late Johnny Cash. The collaboration took a version of her song that Cash recorded before he passed away and mixed it with her voice, delivering a performance for the ages. From Crow’s lilting voice to the gravely rumble of “The Man in Black,” the song that Crow wrote about the U. S. involvement in Bosnia gains new life in these times. Crow comments in the liner notes that “online trolls say ‘shut up and sing…’ I’d think no one would have the gall to tell Johnny Cash to shut up and sing…he’d probably respond with the famous photo Jim Marshall took of him at San Quentin, the shot taken ‘just for the warden.’”

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The other collaboration is surprising in the mixing of genres that comes together. Crow teams up with Public Enemy’s Chuck D, soul singer Andra Day and guitar wizard Clark on “The Story of Everything,” a song that, according to Crow, “was born out of the feeling of frustration with the state of affairs in America…so much hope accompanied our first black President into office, but that hope turned into fear and division.” The foursome power through the song, calling out those who continue to push the divisiveness in the nation today, and they aren’t shy about laying it at a certain politician’s door. Musically the song is evocative, lyrically it is a protest from the people…and a warning that the people better pull their heads out of their asses.

The record could have been called “Sheryl Crow and Friends” because, without the ample assistance from Crow’s pals, the record wouldn’t have been as impactful as it is. Crow’s steady, beautiful mezzo-soprano is accented by each and every performer and she’s smart enough to know when to get out of the way and let her guests do their thing. If it is goodbye to recording for Crow, this is one hell of a way to exit the stage.

Alas, it appears nobody is listening to these artists. The Highwomen are currently ranked #53 on the Billboard Album charts after peaking at #10 two weeks ago, while Crow’s record reached #30 on the Albums chart and #2 on the Country Albums chart before plunging off in a mere two weeks. This is a sad statement on the music industry today, but it is something that REAL music fans will appreciate by supporting these women.

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Turning Back the Clock with New Releases from Bruce Springsteen, Prince

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If it seems like you’ve stepped into the DeLorean from the movie Back to the Future when you look at the Billboard Album charts, you would be correct. Later this week, Madonna’s new record Madame X will ascend to the top of the charts. Likewise, veteran rocker Bruce Springsteen will be there in the second slot with a collection of western swing and acoustic tunes on his album Western Stars. Finally, the late Prince will make his own appearance as his estate releases his Originals CD, a collection of demos that the Purple One performed and gave to other artists for their own success.

All three of these artists were highly influential on the development of MTV – you know, that channel that used to show music videos before it devolved into a reality show hub of hedonistic and oversexed muscle heads from New Jersey and knocked up teenagers before they head to porn to make a living. And Madge and “The Boss” have been in this position before – in 1985, with her Like a Virgin album taking down his Born in the U.S.A. in February of that year. Since I’ve never had a great affection for Madge, however, we’re going to focus on the two men in this look back in time, Prince and Springsteen, and what they bring to the table.

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For better or worse, the late Prince’s estate is continuing to release materials from “The Vault,” which supposedly contained thousands of Prince’s outtakes from studio sessions that either he never felt should be released, that he didn’t consider good enough for release or that he felt he could still work on and improve. Last year, The Prince Estate released Piano and a Microphone 1983, a stark piece of work that showed Prince’s creative process but also highly early drafts of songs he could have made better. Reviews for that were mixed because of these facts and those arguments will be revived for his new CD.

On Originals, The Prince Estate has cobbled together 15 songs that Prince originally wrote and put down on tape, but then did the unexpected. Whether he planned on it (and, with some of the songs, it was planned) or whether it was out of the blue, Prince gave the songs and, perhaps most importantly, the credit for creation to other artists. This is unheard of in the industry; the most valuable right that an artist can have is the songwriting credit, which gives a lifetime of royalties for performance and playback.

The CD begins with two songs that were readily recognizable as Prince songs but were made famous by others. “Sex Shooter” (done in the move Purple Rain by Apollonia 6) and “Jungle Love” (performed OUTSTANDINGLY by Morris Day and the Time in the same film) sound as if they could have come off the movie soundtrack. While “Sex Shooter” sounds more come hither with Apollonia and her backing singers, Prince does give the structure of the song. The same can be said for “Jungle Love,” but it is arguable that Day and Jesse Johnson, the guitarist on the song, provided the swagger that it would eventually earn.

The third song on the CD is arguably the most noteworthy of the songs on the collection and shows how artists collaborate well. “Manic Monday,” which an infatuated Prince gave to Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, is a powerful piece of pop craftsmanship in the hands of the Purple One. All Hoffs and the Bangles had to do was fill in some blanks, changing some of the piano tracks and adding in the four-part harmonies that they were famous for.

What are the jewels of Originals, however, are the lesser-known tracks. Tunes that were recorded by Vanity 6 (“Make-Up”), Mazarati (“100MPH”) and – believe it or not – Kenny Rogers (“You’re My Love”) could have used a little support from their Creator, but he was happy to just be able to try to help his proteges/friends. And, to finish off the record, the simply amazing recording of his version of the song he would give not only to Sinead O’Connor (and would make her an international superstar) but also to The Family, “Nothing Compares 2 U” closes the album with a smash.

Even though I am an unabashed Prince fan, I STILL feel a sense that we aren’t supposed to be hearing these pieces, however. Much like when Microphone came out last year, it almost seems as if you’re infringing on the private thoughts and noodling of an artist in a creative process, not someone who was laying down a track for the public to hear. On these songs, Prince was giving the framework to the performers who would later make them smashes. He WASN’T doing it for himself and he probably never intended for them to be heard, content in staying in the shadows and allowing his friends to shine on their own.

Does this mean I am going to stop purchasing the new releases when The Prince Estate puts them out? HELL NO! Originals is an outstanding piece of musical history and, arguably, should have been released last year instead of Microphone. It shows that Prince was quite altruistic with his creative output (for whatever reason that may be) and it did help some artists become big and big artists become huge because of his involvement. It also shows that he could have made these songs hits on his own, but he decided they were better in the hands of others – truly a man who knew his boundaries.

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Another performer also known for letting other artists make hits out of his songs is Bruce Springsteen. Such artists as Patti Smith and 10,000 Maniacs (“Because the Night”), Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (“Blinded By the Light”), the Pointer Sisters (“Fire”) and even the late Natalie Cole (“Pink Cadillac”) have recorded his songs, entrenching him as one of the great songwriters of our time. But artists are going to have a hard time remaking anything from “The Boss’” most recent work.

Western Stars is a love letter from Springsteen to the “California sound” of music from the 70s that fused country and rock into a softer sound. To be honest, though, it misses the mark in that area. It isn’t an ode to the sounds of Fleetwood Mac, Jackson Browne, the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt; in fact, it’s difficult to determine just WHAT sound Springsteen is going for on the CD.

Springsteen uses way too much orchestration for it to be a “country rock” album in the vein of those 70s artists. But it doesn’t quite reach all the way to country music nor western swing music. There seems to be but one reason for the CD to be in existence…Springsteen’s gravitas as an artist.

It isn’t like Springsteen hasn’t done some off the beaten path material in the past. After the success of The River, people were expecting a massive smash from “The Boss.” Instead, Springsteen gave them a stark, four-track album of acoustic material that was artistically outstanding in Nebraska. He would repeat this style of acoustic music a little more than a decade later on The Ghost of Tom Joad (the title an homage to John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath about the western dust bowls of the 1930s).

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But this effort from Springsteen lacks something. On both Nebraska and Tom Joad, there was a heart and a passion to the music that made it sound like Springsteen was invested in the work. With Western Stars, it sounds like Springsteen is going through the motions, not really putting his all into the music and content to tread the same musical boards he’s walked before.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some good pieces among the 13 tracks on the CD. “The Wayfarer,” “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” and “Chasin’ Wild Horses” evoke some of what Springsteen might have been attempting to do with the album. The rest, though, have an overdone quality, especially with the sweeping orchestral arrangements that you never heard on a Jackson Browne or Warren Zevon (another troubadour responsible for the “California sound”) song.

At 69, Springsteen has earned the right to do whatever the fuck he wants to do when it comes to his music. And, if you’re like me, you’ll be there to pick it up when he puts it out for the public. But for those who were looking at Western Stars as an album in the strain of the Eagles or some other stalwart of the “California sound,” you’ll be a bit disappointed.

Why Record Store Day Means Nothing to Me

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For the twelfth year in a row, Record Store Day has come and gone. Since 2007, there has been one day in April, usually a Saturday, when the nation’s independent record stores – you know, those dying outlets that sell CDs, DVDs and, shock of all shocks, VINYL!! – throw a big party to celebrate their industry. Normally during these special days there are special releases, discounted materials, giveaways and other fun had by all that make it one of the most special days of the year for those who frequent independent record stores.

There’s only one problem…I’ve never been to one of them.

It isn’t because I don’t like music. Quite the contrary…I LOVE MUSIC! Looking back to my youth, my best high school friend DJ and I would cut out from field trips to Champaign, IL, to peruse the stacks at the local “mom & pop” outlet. Often we would walk out of those trips with bags brimming with new LPs – vinyl albums – that were ahead of what was on the radio in those days, much to the consternation of our chaperones on the field trips and, then, our mothers.
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After high school, that collection of albums kept growing. After I entered the Marine Corps, my late mom was more than willing to get the crates of albums out of her house and they traveled with me. At one point, I owned more than 1500 albums, across all genres, and played them frequently. When the advent of CDs dawned in the mid-1980s, I was on it and gradually began seeing my CD collection grow alongside my LPs.

We will avoid the story of where all these priceless treasures went – except to say I hope the bitch choked on them or whatever she bought with the money for selling them – and fast forward to today. I have been able to recreate my former stacks and keep up with the music of today. I am always on the hunt for new material and probably will always be looking for the latest from music, of any genre or generation.

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There is one thing that I won’t do, however. I cannot embrace the vinyl movement again.

It isn’t because of some deep-seated hatred of vinyl that I make this statement. It isn’t the same listening to Miles Davis on a pristine CD or hearing an old Muddy Waters or B. B. King track on MP3. The experience you would get hearing those jewels on a crackly old vinyl album is beyond reproach. The problem lies in the fact that the latest move back to vinyl is a simple money grab by the record industry, not some nostalgic journey back for those today who are too young to remember those days.

I came up through virtually every evolution of the recorded music industry. In the 1960s, it was vinyl albums and singles (called “45s” for those of you who aren’t aware). In the 1970s, the eight-track tape began to take hold, most likely because people couldn’t take a turntable into their vehicles with them and they wanted a way to play music…hence, the eight-track cartridge. The heyday of the eight-track morphed quickly into cassettes, loved because they were smaller than the eight tracks carts and you could bring more with you.

The 80s brought the big switch, one which basically killed vinyl. The compact disc, or CD, became the norm as people ditched their bulky turntables for sleek CD players. The CDs lasted for nearly 20 years before the digital format – MP3s – began to take over. Now, music is pretty much consumed in singular song tracks, either through download or streams. When it came to full-length album purchases, the CDs had to battle it out with…hey, look at that! VINYL ALBUMS!… which made their comeback to challenge CDs for dominance with full-length album purchasers.

Therein lies my problems with vinyl nowadays. Remember those 1500 albums that I used to have? In many cases when I purchased those records, the cost was as low as $3.98 for NEW records. For a 45, it could be as low as $.99. Fast forward to today’s record stores and those very same albums that I once owned are being sold for upwards of $17.99 or more. Likewise, the “turntables” that are offered are nowhere near the technical grade we had back in the 70s and 80s – seriously, your little sister normally had a shitty turntable to play her Leif Garrett 45s on that is about par for what is available today.

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Now you can tell me, “Well, the costs to produce a vinyl record have gone up,” or “Well, there aren’t as many vinyl producers today, so they have to charge more for the product.” In both cases you’d be mistaken. The costs are no higher today to produce a vinyl record and, while there may be fewer production outlets, to produce the minimal content that comes out is a mere pittance compared to vinyl’s heyday.

The reasons that vinyl is done today are many and diverse. There is an air of nostalgia about having a “vinyl” copy of one of the legendary albums in musical history (arguable…wouldn’t it be better to actually have the ORIGINAL legendary album on LP?). Some would say there is a purism to playing some musical formats from the vinyl format (and that would be a fair argument). But the vinyl record resurgence is simply another way for the record companies to scrape more money out of the customers, the listeners, and it is possibly a way for “hipsters” to show they are “legit”…by spinning their music on vinyl rather than CDs or MP3s.

Which brings us back to Record Store Day. I looked at the list of special releases and reissues that were set to come out today and I really wanted some of the pieces on the list. That was until I saw that they were on vinyl or, for fuck’s sake, COLORED vinyl (like I am going to get high and watch the COLORED vinyl spin on the turntable for hours on end). And it immediately turned me off from even being interested in Record Store Day for another year.

I know the logic of Record Store Day is to support the local, independent operators who have, against all odds, stuck it out with formats for music that may seem archaic. These stores do need support and, with the box stores like Best Buy, Target, and FYE all but ending the sale of CDs in their stores, the independent record stores become an even more important part of an audiophile’s life. But don’t continue to do a disservice to your customers by demonstrating a bias to one format over another one simply in a chase for the almighty dollar.

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Here’s a novel thought for 2020, independent record store owners. How about evening out the product between CDs, LPs and whatever else you might desire (hell, if you want to do reel-to-reel, knock yourself out)? Not everyone wants to go “back in time” to the days of vinyl and you alienate much of the customer base when you prize those vinyl purchasers over those who purchase CDs. Besides, you and the record companies took away vinyl once…what stops you from doing it again?

100 Essential Albums of All Time – Queensrÿche, Operation: Mindcrime (1988)

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One of the greatest purposes of music is its ability to tell a story. Even if you go back to the times of Beethoven or Mozart, the purpose for their creations was to entertain an audience with a tale through musical composition. There is a modern-day equivalent to the masters of yore and their symphonies: the concept album.

Concept albums have been a part of the music landscape since the 1940s, believe it or not. The idea behind such creations is that the whole of the songs together on an album tell a larger story, rather than the individual songs themselves standing alone with different tales. It is thought that the first “concept album” was the 1940 release Dust Bowl Ballads from folk legend Woody Guthrie and crooner Frank Sinatra’s works through the 40s and 50s had elements of a concept album in their creation. To be honest, however, the concept album has been best done by the world of rock music.

There are several legendary rock groups that can potentially lay claim to the creative idea regarding the concept album. The Beach Boys (Pet Sounds), the Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) and The Who (Tommy) are some of the groups that are credited with bringing the concept album to rock music, with the term “rock opera” being bandied about, in the 1960s. As the 70s came, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage and Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway carried the torch.

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By the 1980s, however, the “rock opera” seemed to be a dying art. With the advent of Music Television (MTV), though, it became a prime opportunity for the concept album to make a return. Duran Duran did it well with an unofficial concept album in Rio (the songs weren’t necessarily telling a story, but the videos supporting the album were all filmed in Sri Lanka and Antigua, giving them an exotic feel and a common thread).

The concept album would make its biggest return in the world of hard rock/metal in the mid to late 1980s. Foremost practitioners of the concept album was the Seattle band Queensrÿche. Building a growing following with their early releases, the band was searching for a story that they could bring to their stage performances. They would come up with one of the classic albums in the history of heavy metal and a definitive entry into the concept album/rock opera Hall of Fame with the record Qperation: Mindcrime.

Operation: Mindcrime is the story of Nikki, a recovering addict who hates the corrupt, totalitarian society that he lives in. As Nikki lies in a near amnesiac state, memories slowly come flooding back to him. As a result of his dislike of the current socioeconomic state, Nikki joins a group that is thought to be “revolutionary” but, in reality, is a team of political assassins. Nikki is used by the leader of the group, the mysterious Dr. X., who looks to use certain members of the group for his own nefarious purposes. Dr. X uses Nikki’s heroin addiction to get him to submit to brainwashing techniques that, upon Dr. X uttering the word “mindcrime,” puts Nikki in a submissive state. This is what enables Dr. X to use him for whatever purpose he desires, in particular using Nikki to kill on command.

Nikki’s humanity begins to creep through, however. A corrupt priest who works for Dr. X gives the services of a prostitute-turned-nun named Sister Mary to Nikki. It is this relationship with Sister Mary that Nikki begins to question why he is doing the evil that Dr. X orders him to do. As his love for Mary grows, Nikki begins to assert himself, first killing the priest and then telling Dr. X that he no longer wants to work for him. Dr. X threatens to withhold his daily fix of heroin from Nikki to keep him in the fold, but Nikki refuses.

As Nikki returns to the church to tell Mary what has occurred, he comes upon her lifeless body. Not knowing whether he killed her or not due to his blackouts from his addiction, he slowly begins to go insane. The story ends with Nikki in a mental hospital under suspicion of killing Mary, now fully recovered from his amnesia but not knowing how he became the person he is today.

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Pretty intense stuff, huh?

When it was released in 1988, it WAS pretty intense stuff, especially for what some considered a “hair metal” band. But it was also hailed as one of the greatest concept albums ever done, put up beside The Who’s Quadrophenia and Floyd’s The Wall. The album made Queensrÿche superstars in the music world, spawning a sequel in Operation: Mindcrime II in 2006 (in which we learn that Sister Mary actually committed suicide after Dr. X threatened to kill Nikki to keep them apart) and sparking a musical career for the band that still exists today (albeit not with the same lineup; Tate left the group after Mindcrime II and Queensrÿche continues as a band without him).

What makes the album incredible is the story that is told. Sometimes you have to stretch to be able to grasp what an artist is trying to do with their work. With Operation: Mindcrime, however, there is absolutely no question of right or wrong in the story; it is entirely the case that Dr. X, with his evil organization, is attempting to use Nikki and, by extension, Mary, for his criminal ways. Another great thing is that, with Queensrÿche and Operation: Mindcrime, you can pick up at any point in the album and immediately know where you are in the story. The album also captures your attention, from Geoff Tate’s outstanding soaring vocals to the dual guitar attack from Chris DeGarmo and Michael Wilton, with the combination forming an all-out sonic assault that seems fitting for the story that is being told.

Operation: Mindcrime is not going to be for everyone’s taste. Some people won’t like the raw edge of the hard rock sound of Queensrÿche. But if that’s the only reason that people have for not hearing one of the most outstanding rock operas/concept albums of all time, then it is their fault for closing their minds.

Previous entries in the 100 Essential Albums of All-Time

Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968)
The BusBoys, Minimum Wage Rock & Roll (1980)
Rockpile, Seconds of Pleasure (1980)
Metallica, …And Justice for All (1988)
Rick Wakeman, Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1974)

New Prince Album Reveals the Creative Process; Slash Just Rocks the Joint on His Return

In the world of music, there is nothing that is more interesting than the creative process. Hell, with ANY artistic endeavor, the most interesting thing is the process of bringing disparate parts together into a cohesive and entertaining form. The late Prince Rogers Nelson were arguably one of those people that had a tremendous artistic process, something that he often kept in secret for simply privacy’s sake. With his new CD, Piano and a Microphone 1983, we see the artist just before his big explosion on the musical scene, working out the kinks on some compositions that would go on to be huge for his career and some that have never seen the light of day. On the other side of the dial, Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash is continuing on without Axl Rose (again) and his new collaboration, his third time teaming with Alter Bridge singer Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators, just flat out rocks.

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In 2016, the music world lost one of its greatest voices and one of its greatest creative musicians when Prince passed away from an opiate overdose. But back in 1983, Prince wasn’t the icon he had become by 2016; Prince was still a man looking to make his mark in the music world. Coming off a highly successful double album in 1999, the man known as the Purple One was considering his next step. One night, with only a microphone and a piano as accompaniment, Prince put some of those ideas onto a simple cassette tape.

The result of the recording session was the latest release from “The Vault,” the treasure trove of Prince material that was locked up for decades in his Paisley Park home. Entitled Piano and a Microphone 1983, the nine-song CD clocks in at less than 40 minutes (37, if you’d like the exact number). But what Piano and a Microphone 1983 shows is the artist in the midst of the creative process as well as some of the genius behind that process.

Leading off the album is “17 Days,” one of your typical Prince-type songs that one would expect but, stripped down to just the piano, is riveting. The fact that it is a “Prince-type song” isn’t surprising as Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin, who were part of The Revolution, helped in the writing of the song (along with Revolution keyboardist Matthew “Doctor” Fink). From there, Prince goes into a little noodling of what would become “Purple Rain,” but the version found on this album is melancholier then you might expect. Other songs that Prince would become known for – “International Lover” from 1999 and “Strange Relationship,” which would show up on 1987’s Sign O’ the Times, also make their experimental debuts here.

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It is when Prince delves into new material that the CD takes on a life of its own. Prince performs a cover of the African-American spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep,” with a blues styling for the song bringing out so much emotion you can actually feel what Prince is trying to say. The song was used in director Spike Lee’s latest film BlacKKKlansman because Lee felt it was perfect for the film. After unveiling the emotions for “Mary Don’t You Weep,” Prince then goes back into his “funky era” with a song called “Cold Coffee & Cocaine,” complete with James Brown-esque yelps and howls. He wraps up the compilation with a beautiful song called “Why the Butterflies,” an amazing coda to a short practice session.

Even though it is fascinating to listen to the creative process that Prince is going through with the creation of this music, I’m still a little bit disappointed. It is obvious that Prince never meant for these tapes to be released; at certain points in the recording, he clears his throat, speaks directly to the technician in the studio recording this session (surprisingly, Prince tells him to turn the tape over, as if he knew how long he had been playing) or clears his throat with a cough. For Prince’s family to release these songs from “The Vault” as the first posthumous music from Prince, I feel it takes a little bit away from not only the man himself and his tremendous process in creating such wonderful music but also cheapens what should have been a grandiose occasion.

Even with this criticism, Piano and a Microphone 1983 is a priceless piece of music from what was one of America’s greatest artist. Prince may not be with us anymore, but “The Vault” should provide us with decades of music to come. Just imagine what jewels await us from Prince? Piano and a Microphone 1983 is simply the first chip off the diamond that Prince and his music was.

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Somebody who may be as prolific as Prince in the musical output department is Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash. While Axl Rose was sitting around for the decade or so after Guns N’ Roses’ last release in 1993, Slash would go on to do his own music with a dizzying array of talent backing him up. Counting the five albums he did with the Gunners, Slash has also put up two albums with Velvet Revolver, two with Slash’s Snakepit, and one straight solo album, not to mention guesting on several songs by such artists as the late Michael Jackson, Lenny Kravitz, Bad Company’s Paul Rogers and Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies, Alice Cooper and Rhianna. Slash’s latest album is Living the Dream (technically his 13th studio release) and it features some of that talent in vocalist Myles Kennedy from Alter Bridge and an array of talented musicians called The Conspirators, who are joining Slash for their third album together.

Although his time in Guns N’ Roses has made him a hard rock and metal icon, Slash goes into his own style when he picks up with Kennedy and The Conspirators, a simply hard driving, blues-based rock and roll approach that you really don’t hear much of anymore. From the start with the song “The Call of the Wild,” Slash and Kennedy groove together instantly, with Kennedy’s soaring vocals only outdone by Slash’s crunching guitars. This continues on through such songs as “My Antidote”  and “Mind Your Manners,” but there are two songs in particular that deserve mention from this record.

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First song of note from Living the Dream is “Lost Inside the Girl,” a very good up-tempo rocker that is a love song about a lady that has entranced Kennedy. The song that is really the piece de resistance on the album is its first release, “Driving Rain.” It is a typical trope for rock musicians – a song about being out on the road and having to come through a whole lot of pain and torture to get to the one that you love  – but it displays both Kennedy and Slash at the top of their game. Both of these tunes are well worth the price of admission for Living the Dream.

Whether you’re looking for the remembrance of a great artist that has passed far too soon or you’re looking for something from a rocker who is still cranking it out at 53 years old, you can’t go wrong with these two releases.  Piano and a Microphone 1983 from Prince and Living the Dream from Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators, while offering greatly diverse material, will give you plenty of enjoyment if you’re willing to take the ride.

100 Essential Albums of All Time – Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968)

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If it has something to do with music in the States of America – be it country, rock, gospel…pretty much anything short of opera – the legendary Johnny Cash has to be, if not in its Hall of Fame, then pretty damn close to it. One of only two people that is in both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame (the other is Elvis Presley, although an argument could be made that there are three with Sun Records owner and producer Sam Phillips), Johnny Cash is without a doubt one of the icons of music in this country. But can you believe that there was a time when Cash was on the verge of being shunned by the music industry?

After making his name in country music and, alongside his wife June Carter and the Carter Family, to a lesser extent in gospel music, Cash was at a crossroads in 1968. Battling the demons of drug and alcohol abuse, his record label, Columbia Records, was very wary of what would come next out of the “Man in Black.” Cash had a controversial idea for what approach he wanted to take for his next record:  a live recording at a state prison in California, from the man who in 1955 penned and sang the song “Folsom Prison Blues.”

The idea for this live album had been in Cash’s mind even before he wrote that famous song. Cash, while in the Air Force Security Service in 1953, saw a film called Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. It was that film that inspired Cash to write about his views of what prison would be like. The results of that inspiration was “Folsom Prison Blues,” which became a staple of the Cash library along with “I Walk the Line,” and “Ring of Fire.”

While Cash thought that a live album at a prison would be an outstanding move, Columbia Records wasn’t as wild about the idea. It wasn’t until Cash was teamed with producer Bob Johnston from Columbia that someone from the label embraced the idea. It is rumored that Cash and Johnston contacted two prisons, Folsom State Prison and San Quentin State Prison, with Folsom winning out because they replied first.

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The result, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, became one of the benchmarks of Cash’s career despite little investment from the label and even less promotion. Cash and Carter, along with the Tennessee Three (Cash’s backup band of Luther Perkins, Marshall Grant and W. S. Holland), Carl Perkins (no relation to Luther but an occasional member of the “Tennessee Three”), the Statler Brothers, Cash’s father Ray and Reverend Floyd Gressett (who counseled inmates at Folsom), journeyed to Folsom Prison for a day of rehearsals and a day of performing. After the rehearsals and back at the hotel for dinner, then California Governor Ronald Reagan heard that the entourage was in the building and came by to encourage the group and wish them well for the performance the next day.

On January 11, 1968, the group hit the stage at Folsom State Prison. There were two shows scheduled for the day, one at 9AM and one at 12:40PM, just in case there were any issues that arose from the first show. After performances by Perkins and the Statler Brothers, Cash took the stage and blew away the prisoners in attendance with a scintillating performance. Of course, he would lead off with “Folsom Prison Blues,” but he also mixed in other tales of woe and sorrow such as “Cocaine Blues,” “25 Minutes to Go (about being on death row),” “The Wall,” “Dark as a Dungeon,” and the Tennessee Three stretched their legs with a classic version of “Orange Blossom Special.”

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When it was released in May 1968, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison was hailed for Cash’s realism with the songs. Al Aronowitz of Life stated that Cash’s songs sounded like “someone who was…one of the people that the songs were about.” The emotional grip of the songs was emphasized and the audience – the inmates of Folsom Prison, whom the warden had been worried about possibly being unruly during the shows – were grateful for the performances and responded enthusiastically to seeing such acclaimed musicians considering where they were.

For Cash himself, the album marked a “rebirth” of sorts and, arguably, MADE him the legend that he would become. “(The album) was where things really got started for me again,” Cash would note in an interview with Rolling Stone. It would lead to a second “prison album,” Johnny Cash at San Quentin (1969), where a man by the name of Merle Haggard would hear him and vow to change his life so he could perform like Cash. Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison would also be the kickoff point for the remainder of Cash’s career, which ended sadly with his death in 2003.

The laurels that Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison has received are almost too numerous to mention. Along with being chosen by the Library of Congress for its National Recording Registry, the album has also been named one of the top 100 albums of all time by such outlets as Rolling Stone, Time, and Blender and was named the #3 country music album of all time by Country Music Television.

What makes Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison so special? First, it was a “live recording” in an era that wasn’t exactly embracing the format. Second, Cash’s career at that point was sputtering – some would say on life support – and his record label’s lack of support for the record could have spelled the end of his career. Finally, it was a stroke of genius to do such a record for such an audience, displaying to music fans that the people in this situation WERE actually people, people that deserved respect. It was a “liberal” idea for the time, breaking the tradition of country musicians being considered “conservative” (and something shown of late by another country music legend, Willie Nelson in his support of Democrat Beto O’Rourke in the current Texas Senatorial race).

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The music world – ANY music world – was greatly enriched by Johnny Cash. But without Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, it is conceivable that the “Man in Black” could have disappeared from the annals of music history.

100 Essential Albums of All Time – The BusBoys, Minimum Wage Rock & Roll (1980)

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The history of rock and roll – hell, the history of recorded music, be it country, pop, or otherwise – is replete with those groups, bands and singers who didn’t quite make it into the cultural mainstream. For every group like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or Aerosmith (or virtually any other member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame), there are literally thousands of other bands who didn’t quite reach their level of popularity. Sure, some may have had that proverbial “cup of coffee” with the music industry – here’s a salute to you, One Hit Wonders! – but there are many more who never even achieved that level of success.

Arguably one of those who falls into one of the categories above – and which category is almost as difficult as categorizing their musical stylings – is the California group The BusBoys. Founded in Los Angeles in the late 1970s as disco was beginning its demise, The BusBoys featured singer/keyboardist Brian O’Neal and his brother, Kevin (bass), as the driving force behind the group. Joined by singer Gus Louderman, who handled most of the lead vocals for the band, Mike Jones (additional keyboards), Victor Johnson (guitars) and Steve Felix (drums), The BusBoys made inroads into the music world – and, in particular, the rock music world – although something wasn’t quite what some would expect…maybe you can identify it.

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That’s right. The entirety of the band was black save for Felix, who was Hispanic, and the band played driving rock music with both a rhythm and blues feel as well as tidbits of new wave tossed in. Lyrically the band took on some rather touchy subjects – even more then than they might be now – such as working for less than what one deserves, nuclear annihilation, minorities moving into the suburbs, the Ku Klux Klan, where blacks “should be,” and a host of other charged issues. Just as you would think there were too serious, then The BusBoys would break out the party time tunes and just rock your ass off!

The BusBoys released their debut album, Minimum Wage Rock & Roll, to resounding critical acclaim. Feted for their efforts at combining diverse musical genres as surf rock, new wave, doo wop and rock and pop stylings, Minimum Wage Rock & Roll didn’t have a weak point on the entirety of the album. The first song off the record, “Dr. Doctor,” was a stomping rock and roll song sung with gusto by the bluesy Louderman while the O’Neal brothers and the rest of the ‘Boys jammed behind him. “Minimum Wage” brought a Clash-esque vibe into the mix while discussing what someone had to do to make a living.

The BusBoys weren’t done yet. The group hit its stride on the record with “There Goes the Neighborhood” (not the version done by Ice-T and Body Count, let me assure you), a tune about how “the white folks movin’ in/there gonna bring their next of kin” – or a juxtaposition of what many suburban communities say when minorities come into their previously sacrosanct areas. “Johnny Soul’d Out” could be The BusBoys’ autobiography and an ode to Chuck Berry’s Go Johnny Go – about a singer/musician who is “into rock and roll and giving up the rhythm and blues.” The first side is rounded out by the Ramones-blitz of “KKK,” a recital of how a black man is good enough to do such things as go to war, but not allowed to fully be a part of the “American” culture.

The second side featured some strong material also. “D-Day” focused on the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, while “We Stand United” and “Respect” reflected on the desires of many just to be accepted for what they are. There’s even a bit of a R&B/new wave influenced “grinder” called “Anggie” (the first sexual experience) and a song about being an athlete and ready for their starring moment (“Tell the Coach”) to add to the excellence of the album.

What made Minimum Wage Rock & Roll such an essential album was the racial comportment of the band – blacks just didn’t DO rock music in this era (Bad Brains were about the only other black rock band of this era as it was a few more years before Living Colour would reach prominence) – and the myriad of musical stylings that were featured on the album. Trying to include such a mixture of musical stylings would have been a failure in the hands of a lesser group; The BusBoys made it sound like it was all in a typical Friday night of partying with the band.

The BusBoys, alas, were like the proverbial Roman candle, rocketing into the stratosphere in a blur of flashing colors only to flame out or crash rather quickly. The band was featured in the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte classic 48 Hrs. as the bar band playing in Murphy’s “black” bar, and they contributed the title track, “The Boys are Back in Town,” to the soundtrack of the movie. Just as it seemed that they were ready to take off, however, The BusBoys crashed to earth.

The second album, American Worker (1982), for some reason did not feature “Boys” on it (although it featured another song that The BusBoys performed in 48 Hrs. called “New Shoes”). It did feature, however, a version of “Heart and Soul” that would be more successful for Huey Lewis and the News a year later. Although it reached the charts in the U. S., it wasn’t nearly as successful as Minimum Wage Rock & Roll and would signal the end of the run for The BusBoys, although they have continued recording (two more albums, Money Don’t Make No Man and (Boys Are) Back in Town, which finally corrected the error of The BusBoys not being able to put “The Boys are Back in Town” on one of their albums earlier) and are still active today.

Part of the reason that we all love music is its abilities to be able to surprise you. When you’re not even able to drive and discover that there are rock bands that aren’t lily white (I knew about Hendrix but hadn’t discovered Phil Lynott at that point) that are just as good if not better than what you’re being told is “rock & roll,” it has a way of sticking with you. The BusBoys to this day are a band that remains one of my favorites and their opus was Minimum Wage Rock & Roll. If you’ve never heard it or the band, you’d be well advised to check them out.

Previous entries in the 100 Essential Albums of All Time:

Rockpile – Seconds of Pleasure

Metallica – …And Justice For All

Rick Wakeman – Journey to the Centre of the Earth