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.

TheHighwomen

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…”

TheHighwomen2

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.

SherylCrow

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.

SherylCrowThreads

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.’”

JohnnyCashFlipsBirdWarden

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.

Advertisements

A Treatise Remembering the Thin White Duke

Many years ago, I was but a wee one who was still trying to forge my identity, my signature, my own style, if you will. At that age perhaps it was a bit young to even think about things like that, but everything you go through at that age would help hammer you into what you will become. I always had an interest in the space program – this was a time after NASA had landed astronaut Neil Armstrong on the moon, but also just after the failure of Apollo 13 put the kibosh on moon missions for a period. I also was beginning to build an interest in music, although in the beginning only one format was made available.

My mom and father were both avowed country music fans – to the point of using that line from The Blues Brothers where Joliet Jake and Elwood ask the woman what type of music was played in the honky tonk bar they’ve arrived at and she says, “Both types:  country and western” – so there wasn’t much beyond the staples of the time in the house:  Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn…you know, the basics. If there was some “renegade” country music played, it was George Jones or perhaps Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings or something along that level. I always knew that there was something else out there, especially when I poked around through my mom’s album collection and saw bands that looked nothing like the country artists she listened to, folks like The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Jefferson Airplane…I knew someday I had to hear those groups.

Fortunately, that day came much sooner than either my mom or father ever thought would be possible. My father had another son by another woman, my half-brother Monty, who sometimes came around when he was “in the area.” On one of those trips, my half-brother and I ended up riding around in his Monte Carlo, for no apparent reason, when he finally said to me, “Hey, you like space…here’s something you should check out.” He pulled out a cassette and popped it into the player. After a few moments, the intro to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and its fade-in synthesizers gently entered my mind for the first time.

From the first listen to that song, I was hooked not only on the artist but on the music. The guitars, the lyrical storytelling, everything was there that was in country music, it just seemed better in this format. Monty would move on a few days later – leaving the cassette with me – and I would wear it out. I only saw him a few more times over my young life and, to this day, do not actually know whether he is alive or not.

When I heard about the death of David Bowie this morning from cancer at the age of 69, I remembered that time long ago in my life and how much that Bowie had been interlaced with my existence. The days of “Space Oddity”, of course, begat the Ziggy Stardust Era of Bowie’s work, where he took on the persona of an outer space alien that came to Earth. The music that emerged from that era – “Starman,” “Jean Genie” and “John, I’m Only Dancing” being particularly memorable – seemed to be something that others in what was called “rock music” weren’t doing.

Then came the stage of Bowie’s career that I particularly enjoyed. Blending the sounds of rock, soul, German and synthesizer music, the Thin White Duke epitomized the cool of the 70s. Supposedly an offshoot of his character from the film The Man Who Fell to Earth, the Duke was a distantly cool but always in tune person. Unfortunately, Bowie probably was able to draw the ability to conceive such a character – as I learned later in life – because of massive amounts of drug use (while drug use can help artistic performance and development, it can also be the destroyer of those same worlds).

Fortunately for Bowie, he was able to emerge on the other side for what was arguably his greatest phase of his career. Following a few Brian Eno/German influenced albums (especially Low and Lodger), the 80s would be where Bowie would truly bloom. Perhaps because of the video element added by MTV – or perhaps because of his own development as an artist – Bowie would crank out his finest work in this decade. Scary Monsters (and Super Freaks), Let’s Dance, Tonight and his work with Queen on “Under Pressure,” his Live Aid performance and his duet with Mick Jagger on “Dancin’ In The Street” all gave Bowie the credit as an artist that he truly deserved. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and, over the two decades since then, has simply delighted us fans with everything he ever did (and this is completely glossing over all the work he did in films and on stage as an actor).

And I’ve been fortunate enough to have been there for most all of it.

Bowie was formative in my early years and during my career in radio. That era of the 1980s was his heyday and was the apex of my career in Album Oriented Rock (AOR) radio and, in reflecting back on those times, it always seemed as if Bowie was just ever so slightly ahead of the curve, as he had been since his days of “Space Oddity” and Ziggy Stardust. Even after I left the radio business, his later work still had that artistic edge, looking forward to the next big thing, that was always the benchmark of Bowie’s life and career, whether it was in music, acting, art or a myriad of other areas he would dip his fingers into.

Perhaps it is a sign of age, or the passing of time, when we begin to lose our heroes, be they athletic, musical, acting or even familial, that it begins to hurt the worst. Even from my time in radio, I’ve been unfortunate to see men younger than me pass away:  Jani Lane of Warrant and Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots are two who come to mind off the bat, but their deaths were from their own problems and issues. Even some of the greats that I thought I’d have in my old age, like Stevie Ray Vaughan, were unable to join me in potentially making it to my rocking chair. Lemmy just passed and some of the others, like Bruce Springsteen and others, are on the other side of 60; hell, Bono only has a few years on me!

David Bowie led one of the most remarkable lives that mankind can even imagine. He was at the forefront of his generation, but he was also mindful of his place in the world. He was an artist, but he also appreciated the beauty in the work of others. The world is a much darker place without the visage of the Thin White Duke looking down upon it.

So Who SHOULD Be In The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?

Last week, the nominations came out for the 2016 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and, at the very end of my thoughts, I posited the question, “Who should have been nominated?” Mind you, the list of nominees was outstanding overall: longtime overlooked acts such as Chicago, Deep Purple and Yes getting nominated again (and three bands that I believe are long overdue the honor), newcomers like Janet Jackson, The Cars and Cheap Trick (all no votes) and outside shots such as The J.B.’s (another vote in from me), Chic (no) and N.W.A. (yes). However, there were several other artists that should have been on this year’s ballot if not already inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is personal to me because of my long love affair with music. Despite the factor that I could never play an instrument with any high level of competence, I admire those that can create art out of music, words, melodies and thoughts. While it could be said that writing is something like that, the songwriter and/or musician is an artist that encompasses different aspects, pulling them into one cohesive idea. Thus, I’ve always been a huge fan of music overall and rock music in particular.

My first introduction to rock music dates back to someone who, unfortunately, I don’t know if they’re still alive. The year was 1971 and, riding around in a car with my half-brother Monty (his real name could have been Montague, don’t really remember) on a hot summer day, saw him pop a cassette into the tape deck. Suddenly the mystifying tones of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” came pounding out of the speakers and, as I listened to the words and music, I was transported (you have to remember, these were the heady days of NASA’s Apollo space program) to being “Major Tom” and traveling through space myself.

From there, it was a quick indoctrination into the world of music. My mother had the classics – Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon and Willie and others – from the country music side, but she also had such gems as The Temptations, The Supremes and other R&B acts from the 60s in the record cabinet. My investigations in the rock music genre touched on Santana, The Who, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and James Taylor, then began to branch out into the harder edged rock of ZZ Top, KISS and Led Zeppelin, among others (on a personal note, was always more of a Rolling Stones guy than the Beatles).

As the mid-70s passed, punk rock became the next touchstone. The Sex Pistols, New York Dolls, The Ramones – these were the gates to pass through on the way to adulthood. As I reached high school, not only was it the disco era but it was almost time for the double shotgun-blast of the New Wave from England and MTV, opening the world even further (and we cannot go on without also recognizing the New Wave of British Heavy Metal). As I had to be a part of the music scene, I did the only logical thing a person with little to no musical talent could do – I became a DJ.

Through the 1980s and well into the 1990s, I plugged along as a DJ at pretty much every radio format that you could think of doing. Album-Oriented Rock (AOR), Top 40, easy listening, R&B, adult contemporary, news/talk – about the only thing I didn’t do was country (much like “country” music today, there’s a thin line between what was country music then and pop music). Along the way, there were some great times had in the conduct of my job and…well, let’s just save those stories for another time.

Hopefully you see that who gets in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is important, at least to me. It isn’t “live or die” important, mind you, but it is something that I want to show my son one day and say, “Yeah, I saw them, they were great.” Maybe we will sit down and listen to a CD or, pray tell, if we still have vinyl by then, an album, and talk about music and its history. He’s got a great musical ear, however, so he may be entertaining me with his music rather than our just listening to it.

OK, getting sappy here…

My criteria for putting someone in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame would be somewhat along the lines of what poker uses for its Hall of Fame. These are the criteria that I would use in putting someone in the Rock Hall:

1. Length of career with sustained critical or commercial excellence
2. Influence on a genre of music or on several artists
3. Respect from fellow musicians

Pretty simple, wouldn’t you say? Alas, there are some glaring errors in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. How about some of these artists, bands and contributors?

Warren Zevon – The singer-songwriter born in Chicago has been overlooked for far too long when it comes to the Rock Hall. Responsible for writing such songs as “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” (covered by far too many artists to list but most notably by Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Linda Ronstadt), Zevon was a part of the California scene in the mid-70s, working with such people as Jackson Browne, Neil Young, members of the Eagles and counting Bruce Springsteen amongst his admirers.

When it came to his own efforts, Zevon was beyond compare. Along with his iconic “Werewolves of London,” Zevon penned and performed such classics as “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Accidently Like a Martyr,” and “Keep Me in Your Heart,” which was nominated for a Grammy after Zevon’s death in 2003. With a career that spanned more than 30 years, commercial and critical success and the respect of your fellow musicians, there’s no one more deserving than Zevon for induction into the Hall.

Jimmy Buffett – Another product of the singer-songwriter era of the early 70s, Buffett is notable for forging his own path in the music industry. When I say his own path, I mean he created a whole GENRE of music that didn’t exist before – let’s call it “tropical rock,” music with a Caribbean/calypso/reggae/country feel that didn’t fit neatly into any of the “categories” of music in the 1970s (and still doesn’t today, to be honest). Buffett himself has said about that period, “I wasn’t country enough to be played on those stations and I wasn’t rock enough to be played on AOR.”

The way to beat that? Write a song like “Margaritaville” that transcended any charts, genres or radio stations. Today that song has led Buffett into the world of literature, casino and hotel ownership and a “40-year summer job” that the man still enjoys to this day as he approaches 70. He’s influenced a host of country musicians (the Zac Brown Band is a prime example) and, as owner of a recording studio and a record company (Mailboat Records) is ensuring that the “tropical rock” he created will have outlets for the future.

The Runaways – While Joan Jett went in with The Blackhearts last year, she really should have gone in with The Runaways because, without them, there is no Joan Jett.

The Runaways were “created” by producer Kim Fowley who, having drummer Sandy West and guitarist Jett in the fold, was looking to create a “jailbait” band of teenaged girls who could rock out just as well as any group of guys. First found by the group was Micki Steele, who didn’t last long but went on to join The Bangles, before gold was struck with guitar virtuoso Lita Ford, vocalist Cherie Currie and bassist Jackie Fox to fill out the roster. With the group lineup set, The Runaways broke ground as one of the first female hard rock/metal acts to ever have any success in the recording industry.

From the seminal track “Cherry Bomb” to other tunes such as “Queens of Noise” and “I Love Playin’ with Fire” (covered by Jett during her Blackheart days), the band earned a great deal of attention and respect in the industry. The members of the group went on to arguably better success as solo artists or in other creative endeavors, but they were the ones who helped to get such groups as The Bangles, The Go-Gos, Vixen and rock “chicks” like Pat Benatar, Chrissie Hynde and Deborah Harry (among many others) in the door. It is arguable that, without The Runaways, some if not all of these women wouldn’t have gotten into the industry.

Judas Priest – This is one of those omissions by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame that is inexcusable. A band that has sold 45 million albums, generated rock anthems such as “Breaking the Law,” “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’,” “Heading Out To The Highway,” “Living After Midnight”…I could go on, but you get the point. So what has kept them out?

Over the years, the band has been targeted in various arenas outside of music. They were accused of using subliminal messages in their album British Steel that allegedly caused two men to try to kill themselves. They’ve been targeted by conservative Christian groups for their musical content and singer Rob Halford has taken some sabbaticals from the band over the decades. But when you have a list of bands that were influenced by you such as Metallica, Megadeth and Pantera (among others), you’ve done your job well.

There are a slew of other artists that could be held up for consideration – The Carpenters, Kate Bush, Slayer, Bon Jovi, Thin Lizzy, Motorhead – and maybe they are just waiting for their time. There are also those “pop” artists that I am overlooking, but this is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, after all. If you’re waiting for a time that “works,” however, take it from someone who watches how these Halls of Fame work – if you don’t get in within your first couple of years of eligibility, your chances of getting in get worse as time goes by. All the artists listed here deserve to have their place in the pantheon of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame…now will anyone listen and induct them?