This morning on Music City Roots, it’s the AMA Showcase, featuring performances by the likes of Jimmy Webb, The Deslondes (formerly The Tumbleweeds), Bhi Bhiman, Josh Rouse, and Elephant Revival. Jim Lauderdale hosts.
About the artists:
The critical acclaim composer Jimmy Webb has received during his more than forty years of success is as remarkable as the accomplishments they honor: he is a member of the National Academy of Popular Music Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, and, according to BMI, his “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” has been the third most performed song from the 60s until 1990, with “Up, Up and Away” on the same list in the top thirty. Webb’s, “Wichita Lineman” has been listed in MOJO Magazine’s worldwide survey of the best one hundred singles of all time in the top fifty, and was singled out in the Oct/Nov 2001 issue of Blender as “The Greatest Song Ever.” Even singer/songwriter James Taylor was nominated for a Grammy in 2010 for “Best Male Pop Vocal” for his rendition of the song. The National Academy of Songwriters also named Jimmy as 1993’s recipient of their Lifetime Achievement Award, although TIME Magazine was early to acknowledge Jimmy Webb’s range and proficiency back in 1968 when it referred to his astonishing string of hits, and commented on “Webb’s gift for strong, varied rhythms, inventive structures, and rich, sometimes surprising harmonies.” In 1999 Jimmy was inducted by actor Michael Douglas into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame as one of the State’s most celebrated sons, he was inducted onto the Board of Directors for The Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in early 2000, and currently serves on the Board of Directors for ASCAP. In 2011 Webb was unanimously elected as Chairman of The Songwriters Hall of Fame, replacing Hal David’s ten year reign in the same position.
Though best known for the instant classics he provided for such artists as Glen Campbell (“By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “Where’s The Playground, Susie”), Richard Harris (“MacArthur Park,” “Didn’t We”), the Fifth Dimension (“Up, Up and Away,” “This Is Your Life”), The Brooklyn Bridge (“Worst That Could Happen”), Art Garfunkel (“All I Know”), Linda Ronstadt (“Easy For You To Say”), Joe Cocker (“The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress”) and so on, Jimmy Webb continues to write songs that are as carefully crafted and magical as the earlier ones. Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson hit #1 in the late eighties with another Webb standard, “The Highwayman,” a ballad which won him yet another Grammy for Best Country Song of the Year, and a CMA Award for Single Of The Year. Linda Ronstadt, who has recorded a multitude of his songs throughout her recording career, included four of his efforts on her double platinum album, “Cry Like A Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind.” With a discography that reads like a “Who’s Who” in the music world, Webb’s songs continue to grace a multitude of major recording artists’ albums, from Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney, to Urge Overkill, Reba McEntire, and Shawn Colvin.
Having five top ten hits within a 20-month period, Jimmy Webb concluded the 1960’s with an international name that was bandied around on the musical air currents as a “new genius.” Webb began the Seventies intent on launching his own performing career, releasing six albums in eleven years, including Words And Music (1970), And So: On (1971), Land’s End (1974), El Mirage (1977), and Angel Heart (1982), while writing hits for other recording stars. Throughout the years, he continued to hone his performance skills, and earned distinguished reviews and praise following his appearances in top cabaret venues (The Algonquin’s famed Oak Room in New York, NY’s “Feinstein’s at The Regency,” San Francisco’s “Fairmont Hotel,” Melbourne’s “Continental,” “The National Hall” in Dublin, London’s, “Ronnie Scott’s,” and “The Cafe Royal”) as he presented material which encompassed a new maturity and sophistication for his first album in over a decade. Suspending Disbelief, (1993) produced by Linda Ronstadt and George Massenburg, received enormous critical acclaim, and led New York Times critic Stephen Holden to state that this album, “may very well be the songwriter’s perfect moment.” His recording effort, Ten Easy Pieces, (Guardian-EMI)—which won rave reviews—is a collection of the songwriter’s hits as he performs them the way they were originally written, and his solo recording, “Twilight of the Renegades,” (Sanctuary) was released in 2005. In 2007 Webb released his first live CD, “Live And At Large,” which is available through cdBaby and his latest recording effort, “Just Across The River,” (E-One Music) teams Webb with some notable artists such as Billy Joel, Mark Knopfler, Lucinda Williams, and Willie Nelson in duets of some of Webb’s best-known works. Webb was also one of the few artists asked to perform in 1995 at Carnegie Hall’s “Celebration of American Music” honoring Frank Sinatra, and, at Billy Joel’s personal request, one of several artists (including Marvin Hamlisch and Garth Brooks) who performed for Congress in 1997 as Joel was presented with ASCAP’s Founder’s Award. Jimmy Webb’s recent tours (Australia/Japan 2000, The U.K. Tours ’11, and Australia and New Zealand, 2005, and Australia again in June, 2011) were sell-outs. His New York performances – one along with legendary songwriter Paul Williams— earned the distinguished headline of “A Bright, Soaring Delivery For Wild Romantic Fantasies” from the esteemed New York Times. His three, 2009 performances at New York’s famed, “The Cutting Room,” were complete sellouts, and he continued to use the venue as his “New York home” throughout its existence.
Over the years Jimmy Webb has also added his inimitable genius to a number of film and television projects. Beginning his scoring career in 1968, he wrote the title song and a midsummer hit (“Montage”) for the James Garner-Debbie Reynolds comedy, “How Sweet It Is!,” followed by an adventurous score for the 1971 classic Western, “Doc.” In 1973 he demonstrated his wit and musical breadth with a score for the provocative “Naked Ape,” followed by his music for “Voices,” in 1979. Webb provided a dazzling score for the highly successful animated film, “The Last Unicorn,” Germany’s second-highest grossing film in 1982, which also included his title song, “That’s All I’ve Got To Say,” later recorded by Art Garfunkel. That success was followed by the score for Cannon Film’s Vietnam sage, “The Hanoi Hilton.” Although he rarely collaborates, Webb and Carly Simon wrote the title track of her album, Film Noir and completed “A Dream Worth Keeping,” with Alan Silvestri for Twentieth Century’s 1992 release, “Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest,” recorded by Sheena Easton. His solo effort, “Christmas Will Return” was included in Disney’s smash hit, The Santa Clause, with Tim Allen. Jimmy Webb continues in his reign as one of the few masters of American music, leading one reviewer to comment, “There is something of a return to 1930’s glamour in Webb’s work, a suggestion of the great era of lush film scoring when velvet-sounding violins appeared seemingly out of nowhere and emotion erupted from the music itself.”
Webb’s earlier television projects included the theme music and songs for specials with Ringo Starr, Olivia Newton-John, and Amy Grant, in addition to providing the theme songs and music for RollingStone Magazine’s Tenth Anniversary Special. He has also scored for Steven Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories,” Shelley Duvall’s “Faerie Tale Theatre,” MGM Television’s “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers,” and the television series “E/R.” Columbia Records released a Jimmy Webb cantata, “The Animals’ Christmas,” featuring Amy Grant, Art Garfunkel, and the London Symphony Orchestra, with songs from the album featured on Grant’s Christmas Special in 1986. Webb also scored the 1991 premiere episode of HBO’s “Tales From The Crypt,” as well as another episode of ’Tales for the 1992 season. Webb was also commissioned by Oklahoma Events to compose a 16 minute piece celebrating the State’s Centennial, and “Centennial Suite” made its debut in 2007 with the Oklahoma Philharmonic.
Clarifying himself as a romanticist, Webb’s use of vivid imagery simultaneously captures and involves his listeners’ emotions, which should come as no surprise to the songwriter who states, “I like words. I like the way they clash around together and bang up against each other, especially in songs.” In a progression of his celebrated talent as a lyricist, Webb continued in the 1990’s furthering his enormous range of interests by completing a best-selling book, Tunesmith: Inside The Art of Songwriting, a Hyperion ‘98 release. Released in soft-cover in the fall of ’99, “Tunesmith” is still considered by many to be the “Bible of songwriting.” Warner’s, United Kingdom, released Archive (1993), featuring twenty tracks from earlier Webb recordings and PolyGram U.K. released Someone Left The Cake Out In The Rain, (1998) a compilation of the greatest Webb covers in January, 1998. Raven Records released a combination CD of the Richard Harris/Jimmy Webb recordings from A Tramp Shining and The Yard Went On Forever in their Richard Harris: The Webb Sessions. Jimmy also co-produced Carly Simon’s Film Noir album and contributed his vocals, orchestration and piano skills to the project which was filmed for an AMC documentary (which premiered in September of ’97). Rhino also released a 5-CD boxed set (limited edition) called “The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress,” which was an instant sell-out, and Warner, U.K. followed with “Archive & Live,” a 2-CD set in 2005. Webb also co-produced Carly Simon’s CD, “This Kind of Love,” for Starbuck’s “Hear Music (2008). Jimmy’s recording efforts with Glen Campbell have been reissued and extended on a Raven-import album entitled Reunited (2000), and his week-long performances with Glen at New York’s “Feinstein’s At The Regency” in June 2005 were sold out. In September, 2009, Jimmy and Glen reteamed with the Nashville Symphony for three nights of concerts in a special series, and Jimmy was proud to be one of the guest artists along with Keith Urban, Vince Gill and Brad Paisley to honor Glen in 2011 at the CMA awards in Nashville. Jimmy is currently recording his follow-up to “Just Across The River” with another great collection of his songs for E-One with special guests including Joe Cocker, Keith Urban, Amy Grant, Marc Cohn, etc. for a 2013 release.
Jimmy Webb’s accomplishments as a composer, arranger, and producer demonstrate beyond question that he remains as important and vital a cultural figure today as he was over thirty years ago. Embraced by his peers, Webb has influenced and affected some of the finest musical talents of our time. Frank Sinatra declared “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” as “the greatest torch song ever written,” and said he enjoyed singing Jimmy Webb tunes because “he has been blessed with the emotions and artistic talent of the great lyricists.” The late Sammy Cahn commented, “I think one of the real, real geniuses is Jimmy Webb. His “MacArthur Park” is a major piece of work, major. I’d almost compare it to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in size and scope.” Michael Feinstein, who recorded Webb’s “Time Enough For Love,” for his 1993 album, Forever, and included another Webb track (“Wasn’t There A Moment”) on his Such Sweet Sorrow, says he’s “interested in the work of the great masters from any era, and certainly, Jimmy Webb is a master of this era, of today.” Feinstein also recorded an “all-Webb” album for 2002 and premiered the track, “These Are All Mine” at Carnegie Hall with Jimmy as his special guest in April, ’01. Billy Joel credits Jimmy as a major influence on his own foray into the music business. “When I was starting out as a songwriter,” says Joel, “I looked to Jimmy Webb as one of the most innovative and musically proficient songwriters of our generation.” His songs transcend their precedent-setting critical and commercial acclaim to achieve the level of true classics – a permanent part of the American musical landscape, the soundtrack of an era. In his book about songwriting, Webb states, “the paramount joy of the craft is that, however simply it is begun, it can take the songwriter on a lifelong voyage across many distant and wondrous musical seas.” For Jimmy Webb, that’s a spectacular series of events indeed.
The elusive Sam Doores & Riley Downing with the backing band The Tumbleweeds are a honky-tonk, old country-blues, early R&B, and gospel-influenced New Orleans band. The band has toured the U.S. and Canada, often performing alongside New Orleans’ Hurray for the Riff Raff. In May 2012, Sam & Riley played New Orleans’ Jazz & Heritage Festival, while Riley was tapped to open for the Alabama Shakes’ 2012 fall tour. In October 2012, the band released Holy Cross Blues, which was recorded at Nashville’s Bomb Shelter with Andrija Tokic, who co-produced Alabama Shakes’ Boys & Girls and Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Look Out Mama. Holy Cross Blues reaches a bit further back into American history to early blues, gospel, folk, and country. Here you’ll find the call-and-response-style field song “I Got Found”, Downing’s old west lament, “Throw Another Cap on the Fire,” and a ‘60s folk/doo-wop version of Abner Jay’s “I’m So Depressed.” Holy Cross Blues seems to capture some of the “thin, wild mercury” of Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde sessions –the sound of 3:00 a.m. The band’s live show is a must see for fans of Shovels & Rope, Alabama Shakes, and the Felice Brothers.
Bhi Bhiman is an American original, and yet he seems transported from an era when songs were more important than the pretty faces that delivered them. His rich, bellowing tenor can soothe or explode at a moment’s notice. His lived-in, knowing delivery belies his years. His songwriting, too, is quick to captivate. Bhi’s mix of humor and deep empathy puts him in the company of distinguished (and much older) lifelong songsmiths like John Prine, Nick Lowe and Randy Newman. And Bhiman’s technical, emotive guitar playing rises to the challenge that his striking voice presents.
It’s fitting, then, that there truly is—as far as anyone can tell—only one Bhi Bhiman. His parents, emigrants from Sri Lanka, named the songwriter after Bhima, a central character in an ancient Indian text called The Mahabharata. But Bhiman’s own American experience was markedly less exotic than his name would imply—he came of age in the ‘90s in St. Louis, reared on Soundgarden and Nirvana, and later relocated to the Bay Area, where he lives today. Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder may have first inspired him to write songs, but Bhiman’s approach—comical, curious, whip-smart—remains wholly unique. As a songwriter, Bhi consistently exceeds the expectations that should rightly rest on the shoulders of a well-adjusted twenty-something: He can inhabit any number of disparate characters and make them his own.
On his forthcoming disc, BHIMAN, he sings from the perspective of a North Korean prisoner (“Kimchee Line”); a happy-go-lucky redneck (“Ballerina”); a railroad-riding hobo (“Guttersnipe”); a jealous lover (“Eye on You”) and a hopeful retiree (“Take What I’m Given), among other characters. The wide stylistic range Bhiman covers—without losing the cohesiveness of his sound—is just as impressive: “Guttersnipe” is a sprawling, nearly seven-minute epic folk testimonial with a deep empathy for the downtrodden; “Mexican Wine” is an instrumental that sounds like Simon & Garfunkel jamming in West Africa; “Crime of Passion” is buoyant murder ballad—as unlikely as that seems. Through every deviation of style, Bhiman’s love of wordplay and that jaw-dropping voice carry the listener through to a new track and a compelling new story.
Of course, it helps Bhiman’s fine songs to have expert help in crafting his sound. While some of the more minimal tracks on BHIMAN were recorded by the artist on his laptop, the bulk of the disc was tracked at John Vanderslice’s famed Tiny Telephone studios by engineer Jay Pellicci and produced by Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter, Langhorne Slim), who also contributes instrumentation the album. Together, they have created a deep, layered record that is urgent enough to grab listeners at first listen and deep enough to keep them coming back to hear the subtle, soulful shifts in both instrumentation and that powerful human voice. BHIMAN is Bhi’s first truly great album, but one gets the impression that he’ll be singing his stories for a very long time to come.
“Songwriting for me is something I have to do to stay on the sunny side of life. It’s my therapy. I pick up a guitar from time to time and it spills out. I feel lucky in that, after years of being blessed by their presence, the song spirits are still moving through me”
It may have been 15+ years – from roots in rural Nebraska, through time in ‘Music City’ Nashville, TN, and to the current day relocated to a new home in cosmopolitan Spain – but it seems that the song spirits have been constant companions for Josh Rouse. And maybe no more so than on the singer-songwriter’s latest record, The Happiness Waltz, an album that marries both his past, and present – revisiting an earlier era, where his music was heavily influenced by the ‘soft rock’ of the 70’s, and combining it with lyrical tales drawn from the here and now – his modern day-to-day life, one deeply enriched by his children and family.
Rouse has been lauded for his special talents – creating little slices of heaven with words and music that have captured the hearts and minds of both critics, and fans, the globe over, whether it is the New York Times talking about his “pop-folk introspection”, Filter lauding the “wide-eyed ‘thank you, ma’am’ songs that could have grated in their earnest angle if they weren’t so damn wonderfully executed” or Uncut raving about the music as “warm, molten gold, a long bath in the serenity of well-gauged bittersweet balladry” and proclaiming him “a talent to outrank Ryan Adams or Conor Oberst.” Over a storied career, from the engaging debut Dressed Like Nebraska, through his ‘golden era’ with 1972 and Nashville, and right down to the 2011 latin-bossa nova-tinged release …and the Long Vacations, Rouse has created a series of unique, and distinctive records, filled with sparkling melodies and enchanting lyrics.
And there is no disputing that The Happiness Waltz again proves that he stands apart from the crowd, producing yet another set of delicate, intelligent, nuanced pop songs, all destined to become fast favorites. An album of twelve radiant new tunes, from the upbeat “This Movie’s Way Too Long” to the jangle-fest that is “Simple Pleasures”, a cohesive whole that should please fans both old and new.
After a number of years influenced by his changing world – new surroundings and a myriad of fresh influences, moving to Spain and starting a family – which were wonderfully reflected in albums such as Subtitulo and El Turitsa, in 2012 Rouse has naturally gravitated to what he does best, creating old-time warm AM radio-friendly songs that will stick in your brain and not let go. Breezy, summer-y… call it what you will – it’s an elegance that has been favorably compared to the Laurel Canyon/Southern California scene of the early 1970’s. But at the same time, far from being retro, it is anchored in the most important part of the songwriter’s modern life – family.
“Having children is the most meaningful and beautiful thing I’ve done. However, it’s left almost no time for my wife and I to communicate, or do anything else for that matter. Without that time to lock myself in a room and create I can get quite melancholy. All these things put a relationship to the test but we’re growing and learning everyday. I’m writing about it. Life… swinging from joy to pain, that’s what this record is all about.”
There is no song where this is more evident than Our Love with its lyrics detailing the hum of life – getting older, “the sun hides the grey in our hair”, the minutae of daily modern living with work (“Calling on Skype while I’m out on tour”) and commitments and money and family – but all bound together by love.
“It’s Good to Have You” echoes that sentiment, detailing a morning getting up & starting the day, a day which is made all the more worthwhile by having someone to share it with. And the lyrics are encased in a musical bed that enhances the feeling – a pulsing keyboard and delicate vibes adding a luminous richness to the song.
On “A Lot Like Magic” Rouse sings, “I met a man and he gave me advice… he said you live each day like your very last one. So I took that down and wrote this song” – a sentiment that we should all take to heart, and one that is further realized with its upbeat horns and buoyant rhythm.
“Julie (Come Out of the Rain)” is a reminder of what made Josh Rouse a pioneer of the alt-country movement with its honest and poignant lyrics, the post-Gram melodies and an atmospheric steel guitar. Meanwhile “The Ocean” takes the pedal steel work of Paul Niehaus in a whole new direction – its aching tones enhancing the themes of longing and emotion embodied in Rouse’s words.
Then there is the title track, the striking “The Happiness Waltz” with its lilting piano melody and subtle harmonica – the most melancholic track on the album, and one of its most distinctive.
In looking to record this new set of songs, to capture the images Rouse had in his head, there was no choice but to once again recruit Brad Jones as producer. Jones, of course, whose resume includes work with everyone from Matthew Sweet, Jill Sobule, Marshall Crenshaw and Ron Sexsmith, to Justin Townes Earle, Yo La Tengo and Chuck Prophet, helmed those two aforementioned acclaimed releases 1972 and Nashville. So in revisiting that era, there seemed no one better to help craft another album in that vein.
“I thought this set of songs would turn out best if Brad was behind the board arranging, adding his touches of harmony and superb piano playing.”
It is a mission in which Brad Jones has been successful, superbly complementing the vivid imagery of Rouse’s lyrics with a perfect musical foundation. There are the vibes on “Start Up a Family”, delicately adding depth and meaning to the words, and horns on “The Western Isles”. Jones helps build the album into a three dimensional roadmap of Rouse’s life and loves, enhancing the moods with multiple layers of extra musical touches. Once again recorded at Rouse’s Rio Bravo studio in Valencia, Spain, uniting his cast of supporting players from ‘The Long Vacations’ – Xema Fuertes and Cayo Bellveser with a few older members like Jim Hoke on the flutes and saxes that give it that 70’s sound.
And so here we are in 2013 – reflecting on a lyrical development & personal growth that has occurred over Josh Rouse’s more than ten albums so far – from his early introspective catalog through his coming out period where the world discovered his talents, and more recently on releases created since starting a new life in Europe – a creative arc that has led to The Happiness Waltz – a perfect distillation of the old and new, and maybe his most perfectly realized record yet.
In an era where singer-songwriters appear to be a dime-a-dozen, he seems to be more than average, yards ahead of just a ‘run-of-the-mill guy-with-a-guitar’. When Rouse sings on “The Happiness Waltz”, “It’s good to have you in my life”, one can only think, when it comes to his music and this album, no truer words have been spoken. Yes indeed, Josh Rouse. Yes indeed.
“Where words fail… music speaks.”
That simple line atop Elephant Revival‘s Facebook page contains only five words, but reveals volumes about the band’s reason for being. Music unites us in ways that no other medium can. Even when we don’t understand one another’s languages – we can be moved by a rhythm, soothed by a song. Brought together by a unified sense of purpose – the spirit of five souls working as one, in harmony, creating sounds they could never produce alone.
The five souls in Elephant Revival are Sage Cook (banjo, guitar, mandolin, tenor banjo, bass and fiddle); Bridget Law (fiddle, octave fiddle); Bonnie Paine (washboard, djembe, musical saw, stompbox); Daniel Rodriguez (guitar, banjo, bass); and Dango Rose (double-bass, mandolin, banjo). All share vocals and write songs. Paine delivers additional beats via footstomps on plywood, her stockinged feet doing near jigs as her hands, encased in antique leather gloves, rub silver nickel against corrugated metal.
This Nederland, Colorado quintet are, needless to say, quite a sound to be experienced – especially when they fall into the pocket of a groove containing elements of gypsy, rock, Celtic, alt-country and folk.
The Indie Acoustic Music Project simply labeled their sound “progressive edge.” At least, that’s the category in which it placed the band when it gave their Ruff Shod/Nettwerk Records release, BREAK IN THE CLOUDS, a best CD of 2011 award. It’s as good a label as any to convey what Rose has described as their mission: “to close the gap of separation between us through the eternal revelry of song and dance.”
Elephant Revival also shares a commitment to responsible stewardship of the planet and its inhabitants, working with organizations such as the Conscious Alliance, Calling All Crows, Trees Water & People, and other nonprofits supporting humanitarian causes. Their very name was chosen out of empathy for a pair of zoo pachyderms who, upon being separated after 16 years, died on the same day. The band related that heart-rending story during their April 2012 debut on fellow Coloradoans Nick & Helen Forster’s internationally syndicated “eTown” radio show – like Elephant Revival, a blend of music and social consciousness.
Sitting in the audience during their performance, one music blogger was moved to write, “Elephant Revival serenaded the crowd with arabesque melodies, harmonies and rhythms that braided and coiled into a sublime aural tapestry. Their instrumental dynamics, verse, and even the harrowing story that inspired their appellation, invoked the majesty, mystery and sorrow of Mother Earth.”
Campout for the Cause festival organizers put it this way in an affectionate shoutout on their Facebook page. “We love Elephant Revival so much,” they wrote, “not just for their incredible music and conscious lyrics, but for their commitment to living up to the standards they set forth and setting positive examples.”
It’s a paradigm worth spreading, and that’s what Elephant Revival members intend to continue doing as they carry their music around the world, speaking one song at a time.