My 2018 live music New Year’s resolution continued on Friday, (Jan. 19th), when I had the opportunity to see John Baumann live at The Blue Door, a great little listening room in Oklahoma City. I reviewed a Jason Eady show there last April, and I was excited to return to the venue.
I hadn’t known beforehand that this would be an acoustic show, but in a room like this, and with songwriting like that of Baumann, this turned out to be a very welcome thing. It became a really cool, intimate performance. Some of his songs are actually even better suited for this type of show. “Turquoise,” for example, already a highlight of his latest record Proving Grounds, actually sounded better stripped back with just the vocals and acoustic guitars. It takes a certain caliber of songwriting to be able to pull off this type of thing without it becoming “samey,” and John Baumann’s certainly qualifies.
But it wasn’t all the slow, thoughtful numbers you might expect from a show like this. There were nice lighter moments in songs like ‘bible Belt,” a story of growing up in the South and the first song Baumann says he felt like they wrote, and “Holding it Down,” a fun ode to Texas that he remarked should have been taken off the set list for a show in Oklahoma. There were also many breaks for humorous stories, like the inevitable butchering of his last name by concert promoters and his band’s fondness for puzzles. That ability to engage with the audience is great in any live setting, but it especially works at The Blue Door and listening rooms like it because in a small, intimate setting like this, it’s like John Baumann’s just gotten out his guitar and started performing in your living room. And why wouldn’t the guy performing informally in your living room take some breaks to talk about puzzles and Farkle?
I’ve seen two very different shows in two very different settings so far this year, and each one offered unique things to appreciate about live music. I’m only two into what will hopefully be at least twelve shows this year, but I’m already finding a deeper appreciation for the art of live music from these artists. Thanks, John Baumann, for another great live show to add to my 2018 concert series.
Best Live Acoustic Songs: “Turquoise,” “Here I Come,” “Bible Belt,” “Midland”
It’s taken me quite a few listens to put my feelings about this album into words. Even now, it’s one of the more difficult albums I’ve ever discussed, but it’s definitely worthy of discussion. For those unfamiliar with Rhiannon Giddens, she’s the wonderful voice on Eric Church’s “Kill a Word,” a song that speaks out against all the evil in the world, from racism to hate to loneliness. Giddens has also released an album of covers, but this is her first album of original material and my first exposure to her outside the Church song. The album she delivers is as complex in sound as it is in theme, taking us on a journey from the days of slavery to the Civil Rights movement to the racism and police violence of today. None of these are easy issues to address, but Giddens has brought us a record that can open our eyes and teach us much about our history, all in a way that is more observation than judgment, more storytelling than sermon, and at once grieved by the past but hopeful for the future.
The album opens with the slow-burning “At the Purchaser’s Option,” and right away, we are told the story of a slave whose owner has raped her; now she has a baby boy, and she can’t help but love him even though she knows someday he will be sold. It’s a great opener and sets the tone of the album well. Next is a cover of “The Angels Laid Him Away.” The acoustic instrumentation really allows Rhiannon’s voice to shine, and her ability to convey emotion is something that will be an ongoing highlight of the record. This is the first of several smart covers chosen for the album. “Julie” is a standout of the record; it’s another acoustic-driven track, this one another, more complicated slave narrative. Both Julie and her mistress sing here; it appears that they had a good relationship and may have even been in love, but Julie has found out the mistress has sold her children and leaves when the Union soldiers come. I applaud Rhiannon Giddens for recording a song as complex as this one.
Giddens does an excellent job with the cover of “Birmingham Sunday,” a song about the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church murder by the KKK. The perspective shifts to today’s issues with the funky “Better Get it Right the first Time.” This one is upbeat and somehow lighter on the surface in the midst of a dark album, but the lyrics are some of the most thought-provoking on the whole record. Giddens repeats the line, “Young man was a good man,” in between recounting the details of his life; he did his best to live right but went to one house party and ended up being shot by police. Rhiannon’s nephew, Justin Harrington, adds a rap to the song that elevates it, telling the story from the young man’s perspective. The conclusion is that for black Americans, there aren’t second chances, so “You better get it right the first time.” This is another highlight of the record. “We Could Fly” is another standout, speaking of the hope that comes after death and flying away from what the song calls “the bonds of earth.” It’s the opposite of “Better get it Right the first Time,” dark on the surface but one of the more uplifting tracks on a somber record.
Speaking of light moments, next is the fun, lighthearted “Hey BéBé.” I wouldn’t necessarily say it adds to the album, but it’s definitely catchy and serves as a break from the intensity. The horns in this are just cool. At the same time, as a song itself, it doesn’t stand out; it says more in the context of the album. “Come Love Come” is another slave narrative, this time about a slave couple waiting to be reunited. The woman waits for her lover in Tennessee. This is a solid song, but it doesn’t have the same impact as the other slave stories; I don’t know if it’s because this is the third one or if this one just doesn’t resonate as much as the others. The soulful “The Love we Almost Had” is another light moment about a love that could have been. This one works better than “Hey BéBé” as a diversion from the dark themes of the record because it is more understated, whereas “Hey BéBé” almost sticks out like a sore thumb. “Baby Boy” is my least favorite track; it’s another acoustic song about Mary watching over Jesus, or possibly also any mother watching over her son. It’s not a bad song, but it doesn’t add anything to the record. The instrumental “Following the North Star” follows, and I have to say, I think it would have been a nice prelude to “Julie,” but it works well here before the closer and title track, a cover of “Freedom Highway.” The album ends in more of a place of hope than it began, asserting that the quest for freedom is daily and ongoing.
This is a great piece of history and commentary, using storytelling to bring us a message that can’t be delivered by activists or preachers, but only through art. It’s an album that can teach us all something if we let it, and that’s one of the most compelling things about music. I will say that it is held back for me a little because it won’t hold up as well as other albums, especially the latter half. even the excellent front half won’t have the staying power of some other records because it’s not something you will probably pull out months later for some nice, relaxing music. But that’s not what this album was meant to do. It was meant to be respected more than enjoyed and to teach and preserve pieces of history in an effort to keep the same mistakes from occurring in the future. IN that regard, this record excels, and for that, Rhiannon Giddens should be praised.
Sometimes, when I listen to albums for review, it takes a few listens to form an overall opinion. Often, this serves the music well and allows me to appreciate things I had not first noticed, usually leading to better reviews. Often, on the first listen, certain songs stand out immediately; some above the rest, some that could have been left off the entire project. And then there are rare occasions when an album hits me on that first listen–these are the albums which deserve the highest praise because they take me out of a place of critical review altogether and leave me just enjoying the music. This is connection, and relatability, and it is at the heart of all music. I speak about production and instrumentation and songwriting, but at the end of the day, music is meant to make the listener feel something. With that in mind, meet Dori Freeman, a 24-year-old singer-songwriter from the Appalachian Mountains of Galax, Virginia, who brings us an album influenced by classic country, bluegrass, folk, and the Appalachian sound. You will certainly feel something when you hear this album–and it excels in production, instrumentation, and songwriting as well.
We are introduced to Dori Freeman with only her guitar and her voice, unheard of on any album in 2016, much less a debut. “You Say,” the opener, immediately hooks me with its first lines–“You say you can’t save me, but I never asked you to. Can’t you just believe that I only wanted to lie there with you.” In Dori’s voice, I hear the Appalachian sound that has long been lost in country music. It’s raw and honest, and makes you want to keep listening, accomplishing everything an opener should. It also tells me Dori Freeman is willing to take risks. “Where I Stood” is still just Dori and her guitar, although hear there are harmonies. This is a song about two people in a relationship who are reflecting that their love has died and that if they could do it again, they would not have chosen each other–“What happened to your dreams, what happened to mine? You’re wasting my love, and I’m wasting your time. I know you’d go back if you could, and you’d leave me standing right there where I stood.” “Go on Lovin'” is a classic country heartbreak song, with plenty of fiddle and steel, and more simple, honest lyrics–“How am I supposed to go on lovin’ when you left me feelin’ like I don’t know how.” Dori Freeman has a cry in her voice common to the Appalachian sound that really fits this song.
“Tell Me” is a pop-influenced track, but it’s not the pop country of 2016; it’s the vintage pop sound of Lynn Anderson and reminds me of something Whitney Rose might record today. Here, Dori is trying to convince a man to admit he wants her; it seems to be apparent to her that he does. The production actually really fits this, and if anything adds to the album as a whole–it proves that Dori Freeman knows how to interpret a lyric. Vintage pop worked better here than traditional country, and this speaks to Dori’s understanding of music in general. “Fine Fine Fine” is an upbeat song about catching a man cheating, but it’s “fine, fine, fine, if you wanna walk that line, but you’ll be leavin’ me behind if you do.” This one is also reminiscent of a Whitney Rose track, although with more country than “Tell Me.” There is some enjoyable piano on this track; we need more country piano playing. “Any Wonder” again carries the Whitney Rose-like influence of vintage pop and traditional country, although this is more country than the last. This is about two people falling for each other, and all the emotions that come with it–happiness and fear and anticipation. It’s a more complex song than the rest, capturing the various emotions perfectly.
And then there is “Ain’t Nobody.” I said that Dori is not afraid to take risks–and here is a song with only her voice and her snapping fingers. This is an Appalachian-influenced song if ever there was one; it’s an ode to the workers in the Appalachian coal mines, the farmers, the mothers, and the prisoners–“I work all night, I work all day, well, I work all night, I work all day. I said, I work all night, I work all day, cause ain’t nobody gonna pay my way.” Dori Freeman’s voice is raw, honest, and incredible, and it is absolutely remarkable that this is a cappella. If you choose one Dori Freeman song to listen to, pick this one, because it will make you a believer, and you will have to listen to all the others. It is one I will post here. “Lullaby” is another classic heartbreak song, this one about a woman who is up at night thinking of a man who is with someone else. This song brings back the country piano playing, and it fits the song perfectly. In fact, I cannot readily think of an album I have reviewed here where every song was so well-produced, with the possible exception of Kasey Chambers’s Bittersweet. “Song for Paul” returns to simply Dori, her guitar, and harmonies. This is another heartbreak song, and once again the lyrics are wonderful; Dori is telling Paul that whenever he should get lonely, “somewhere I’ll be thinking of you.” The album closes with “Still a Child,” a song about a man who won’t commit or grow up; “You say you need me, but I need a man, and you are still a child.” It’s an excellent way to close an incredible album.
If you haven’t figured it out, you need to hear this album if you consider yourself a fan of country, Americana, bluegrass, folk, or music. This is one of the best albums I have reviewed, and it makes me glad to help introduce the world to an unknown artist like this who deserves to be heard. This is an album of simple, tasteful production; every song is produced as it should be. The songwriting is excellent, and Dori Freeman has a unique and incredible voice carrying the nearly forgotten Appalachian sound. To add to all this, Dori took risks, like singing a cappella and with only a guitar–and this is her debut; she stands only to improve. But more than any of that, it’s a raw, honest album, that does everything music is supposed to; it evokes emotion in the listener, and it’s simply relatable and enjoyable music. Dori Freeman is a name you should know–and this is an album you should hear, and hear again.
2015 has come with much discussion about the lack of female representation on the country airwaves. As the concern has grown, we have seen several new female artists breaking onto country radio, most notably Maddie & Tae, Kelsea Ballerini–who is anything but country–and Cam. After Saladgate in May, Bobby Bones and On the Verge selected Cam’s “Burning House” for promotion, and the results have been unprecedented. This second single off Cam’s debut EP, Welcome to Cam Country, has been certified gold and is currently #6 on Billboard Country Airplay. These are remarkable achievements for any new artist, especially for a female country artist. Cam’s label has given her the completely laughable release date of December 11th, a statement of lack of faith in Cam’s music that will ultimately hurt the album’s sales and chances on end-of-year lists. Cam fans should be outraged, and if Cam were a more established artist, she would be fighting this release date. With all that said, despite the terrible release date, I was excited to see more from Cam, as “Burning House” made Country Exclusive’s Essential Songs of 2015
list. I was hoping this album would give us more incredible music from Cam. So, did it live up to my expectations?
The album opens with crickets and a harmonica, which immediately got my attention. The song that follows is the title track, “Untamed,” which is pretty much a female bro country track: dirt roads, moonshine, etc. I think most people hearing this song will hate it, but surprisingly I don’t–in and of itself, it’s not a bad song. The production and instrumentation are decidedly country, and the lyrics aren’t bad either–it’s just that I’ve heard this particular song before at least a thousand times. Having said that, if I hadn’t, I’d probably enjoy “Untamed.” As it is, it’s tolerable. Next is “Hung Over on Heartache,” a nice blend of pop, rock, and country that fits Cam’s unique style rather well. I feel the lyrics could have gone a little deeper, but this song grows on me with each listen, and it’s interesting to hear an upbeat heartbreak song. “Mayday” and “Burning House” are next, and I group them together because their track placement is brilliant. “Mayday” is a pop country song in which the woman is trying to tell the man she’s no longer in love, but she’s finding it difficult. She’s trying everything she can to leave, but she can’t seem to. The relationship is compared to a sinking ship; Cam is begging the man to “abandon ship with me.” “Burning House” is the mirror opposite of this–here, the narrator is trying desperately to hold onto a love that is slipping through her hands. “I’ll stay here with you until this dream is gone,” Cam sings. I still prefer the acoustic production on “Burning House,” but the pop country style really works for ‘Mayday,” and together, these songs show two distinct and real sides of failing relationships. If you already loved “Burning House,” you will love it even more after “Mayday.”
“Cold in California” is the first song that is completely ruined by production. Lyrically, it’s beautiful; it’s a song in which Cam sings of missing a man who left her to pursue his dreams in California. But this song leaves the good balance of pop and country for an overproduced, distracting pop sound that pulls this listener away from the lyrics. Following this are the other three songs from Cam’s EP. Country Exclusive didn’t exist when the EP came out, so I will share my thoughts on these now. The first single, “My Mistake” is a pretty solid pop country song–not anything remarkable, but certainly not filler. This song about a one-night stand after meeting in a bar should have done better at radio and was a good single choice. “Runaway Train” was my favorite from the EP besides “Burning House.” The production here is an excellent blend of country, rock, and pop that suits Cam excellently. This is the sound I would like to see her develop. “Half Broke Heart” has grown on me quite a lot since the EP–this is a heartbreak song in which the narrator is upset over the sudden ending of a relationship that had started with no strings attached. “I wasn’t looking for a ring, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting when you cut and run so soon,” Cam sings. I think this might make a good future single.
The next song is the only truly terrible moment on the album, and I have no idea why the singer of “Burning House” would stoop to recording it. It is a pop song called “Want it All” that is so unremarkable I’ve listened to it three times and can’t quote a single word. Cam sounds as bored singing it as I am being subjected to it. It’s filler of the worst kind. The last two songs are two of the best, however. The hilarious, upbeat “Country Ain’t Never Been Pretty” could be an instant hit if Cam released it. It’s the perfect blend of pop and country, comparing city girls who are “singing about the country” and “putting out them hits” to women who actually live in the country on farms. “Instead of hairspray and curls, you got hay and dirt, slam your unpainted nails in a barn door. But it’s all right to look kinda shitty, cause country ain’t never been pretty”–this is excellent, and a great message to send to young girls who are listening to Cam. “Village” closes the album on a somber but hopeful note–it’s a song about a dead brother telling his sister he is still there watching over her. “Your whole heart’s a village, and everyone you love has built it, and I’ve been working there myself.” This is the closest thing to the acoustic production of “Burning House” on the entire album, and you can really appreciate the rawness of the lyrics.
Overall, Cam has given us a solid debut album. Some songs are more traditional, but more of them are a good, tasteful blend of pop, country, and sometimes rock. However, I think this style suits Cam, and the production only hurts a couple songs. I think Cam has found a great balance of radio relevancy and traditional appeal. “Want it All” is inexcusable, and many will feel the same about “Untamed,” but most of this album is pretty good. Some of it is great. I think Cam will only get better, and I look forward to more from her. In the meantime, give this album a listen.
I’ll start here by being honest–when this album came out on June 9th, I had not even heard the name Courtney Patton. So this review comes late for two reasons; firstly, Country Exclusive did not exist then, and secondly, when I did hear of her, I wanted to take my time really listening before reviewing her. For anyone out there like me, Courtney Patton is a Texas country artist, the wife of better known Texas singer/songwriter Jason Eady, and So This is Life is her third album.
So This is Life is characterized throughout by acoustic arrangements and excellent songwriting. I say this now to avoid having to say “the instrumentation and songwriting are excellent” over and over–just assume so unless I say otherwise. “Little Black Dress” tells the story of a one-night stand, and the woman being left alone and brokenhearted. I immediately fell in love with Courtney’s voice here–she tells a story perfectly. “War of Art” is another great story, this one somewhat autobiographical, of a wife and mother struggling with her passion for songwriting and performing. She sings
And I’ve heard it all before Singin’ to a whiskey-soaked dance floor Ain’t no job for a mother and a wife So I try to do things right But at what cost is it worth the fight I just couldn’t let that war take my life.
“Her Next Move” is a lyrical low point for me (still good, just not great) about a woman seeking attention from her husband by threatening to do things like “take their daughter across state lines.” “Need for Wanting” is my favorite track on the album; here Courtney again discusses a one-night stand, asking the man in the bar not to “misinterpret my need for wanting tonight.” She says she won’t leave with him but at the end we hear, “But if you like, come in, since you understand my need for wanting tonight.”
“Twelve Days” was written about Courtney missing her husband Jason Eady while he is on the road–“I can make it twelve days, I’ve waited longer.” “Killing Time” is more upbeat, and tells about a woman’s husband “killing time” in prison for stealing money. “Maybe it’s You” is another low point for me lyrically; it is a love song about being forgiven after making some mistakes in the relationship. “Sure Am Glad” goes back to the one-night stand material, this time between two friends–“You caught me off guard when I heard that knock on my door, but I sure am glad that I’m not alone anymore.”
The title track was written about Courtney’s parents. “So This is Life” tells the story of a marriage that wasn’t what they pictured–the wife watches TV and wishes for someone to talk to, while the husband works days and nights trying to get by. They end up divorced after he takes a lover in a midllife crisis. This song is painfully accurate and is my second favorite track. “Battle These Blues” is another lyrical low point for me (again, still good) where a wife deals with a husband who drinks too much and stays out late. By contrast, “Where I’ve Been” is excellent, and here the wife says she’s not getting the love she needs, so she’s being unfaithful. She says, “If you ever decide that you ever want to try again, I’ll be here in the mornin’ just don’t ask me where I’ve been.” “But I Did” closes the album with an autobiographical track about Courtney’s life–“I was born the oldest one with patience like my mother, the fire and heart of my father, and a spirit of my own.”
This album is musically excellent. All twelve songs are good, and most are great. The only thing I wished for is that there were one or two more upbeat songs because listening to the album as a whole sometimes makes it feel slow. All the same, Courtney Patton is a force to be reckoned with, and I highly recommend So This is Life.