Freedom Highway

By Rhiannon Giddens
Nonesuch Records
Reviewed by: James L. Dickerson

It has been a long time since a recording artist has excited me the way Elvis did when I was a youngster, or the way the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals, and the Beach Boys did when I was in college. I have listened to a lot of good music since then, but beginning in the mid-1970s I have found the music scene to lack originality.

Now comes Rhiannon Giddens, a member of Carolina Chocolate Drops, a Grammy-winning group that incorporates folk, jazz and blues into its unique style. Gidden’s solo album, Freedom Highway, crackles with new music that features the same blend as the group, but with more energy and artistry. She wrote or co-wrote all but three of the twelve songs on the album.

“At the Purchaser’s Option” is a mesmerizing story of a slave who cries out “You can take my body, you can take my bones, you can take my blood but not my soul.” The song, written by Giddens, references an auction sale for a “Negro Wench” who has a 9-month-old old child, who is available “at the purchaser’s option.” It has a bass-heavy track on which Giddens sings and plays minstrel banjo. It is an addictive song, primarily because of the raw emotions involved, but also because of the soulful vocal groove. I have probably listened to it several dozen times, finding something new to explore with each listening.

Also grabbing my interest was another song co-penned by Giddens, “Better Get It Right The First Time,” a lyric-driven song that is brought to life with Giddens banjo, Dirk Powell’s electric guitar, and the addition of a trumpet, trombone, tenor sax and rubboard. Then there is “We Could Fly,” a folk influenced country song written by Giddens and Powell and ”Hey BeBe” and “The Love We Almost Had,” both with jazz trumpet runs. Pop Staples’s “Freedom Highway,” allows Giddens and the band to slip into an intoxicating  Hammond B3 and horn groove that will send your mind racing back to the Stax Records years and your feet dancing, even if you are in church listening through earphones.

If country radio played her music—which it currently is NOT doing—she would be embraced by listeners as the new Hank Williams, who also blended folk with blues to create a memorable sound. Country radio do us all a favor—open the door and let Giddens in. She just might be your salvation. After all, how many more whiney songs about trucks and drinking can you air without retching yourself senseless?

James L. Dickerson is the former producer of a country music radio syndication, and the publisher of the former Nine-O-One magazine, at one time the third largest circulation music magazine in the U.S.

Forever Words

The Unknown Poems
By Johnny Cash
Edited by Paul Muldoon
Blue Ridge Press / 2018
Reviewed by: James L. Dickerson

One of the first times I met Johnny Cash was in a recording studio. He brought several songs to the sessions. The producer liked one more than the other. Cash liked the other song, so he asked him to play his favorite for me. Why? Because I was a music journalist who was supposed to know something about music. The producer played both songs. I sided with Cash. His choice was more vibrant and bristled with raw energy. The producer ponder a moment, his face showing displeasure that his artist and a journalist he had invited into his inner sanctum had sided against him—and he went with the song he had picked.

Cash shrugged, used to dealing with the mercurial whims of his producer.

Down the road, Cash sent me one of his tour jackets.

Johnny Cash was a lot of things to a lot of people. But first and foremost he was an artist. He is best known for his music, of course, but he could have expressed his artistry as a prose or poetry writer if he had chosen. In private, he chose to write poems. Whether they were written to be adapted to music or meant to stand alone, we really don’t know. What we do know is that the rhythm and imagery of his writing is striking.

Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, who wrote a foreword for the book, writes: “The music will endure, this is true. But also, the words. It is ultimately evident within these words that the sins and sadnesses have failed, that goodness commands and triumphs.”

In his poems, Cash addresses the eternal issues that any self-respecting poet would tackle: life, death, love, compassion, passing time. But he also surprises, as in “The Things We’re Frightened At.” And he shows his good humor in “Don’t Make a Movie About Me.”

I especially liked “I’ll Still Love You” in which he writes about going to Heaven, promising a loved one, “I want you to know/for what it’s worth/I’ll still love you.”

One interesting aspect to the book is that it contains facsimile reproductions of Cash’s original handwritten poems, typically expressed on the type of notepaper used by school children. These samples are also of interest because they indicate where the book’s editor, Paul Muldoon, a Pulitzer-winning poet in his own right, took liberties with the manuscript, such as when he decided to relocate the occasional verse within a poem. It is a permissible editing option in literary publishing, but not one I imagine that would have been suggested to the author with him sitting at the table.

James L. Dickerson is publisher of NEW ORLEANS REVIEW OF BOOKS.

 

Forever Words

By Johnny Cash
Sony Legacy,
CD-Vinyl-Digital

Duration: 57 Minutes
Reviewed by James L. Dickerson

There is nearly an hour’s worth of listening pleasure from this all-star collection of recordings that focus on the lyrics of Johnny Cash’s poems. My favorites are Rosanne Cash’s “The Walking Wounded,” with a wonderful vocal; Jewel’s “Body on Body,” T Bone Burnett’s “Jellico Coal Man,” Carlene Carter’s “June Sundown,” and Elvis Costello’s “I’ll Still Love You.” The songs were all recorded at The Cash Cabin Studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee, and were co-produced by his son John Carter and Steve Berkowitz.

Other artists who recorded songs based on the poems include Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, Brad Paisley, John Mellencamp, Alison Krauss and Union Station, and Chris Cornell. Also of note is Kris Kristofferson reciting to Willie’s Nelson’s guitar accompaniment, “Forever/I Still Miss Someone,” the last poem Cash ever wrote. Although not all the recordings are of equal quality, the collection is highly recommended for Johnny Cash fans.

Miz Sally’s Yellow Cat Song Book

By Rambling Steve Gardner
Blues Cat Records / 2018
Reviewed by John “Whiskers” Washington

Dementia is an insidious disease that robs individuals of their memories and their attachments to loved ones. It usually comes on slowly, so slowly in fact that it is often overlooked until it has become a problem. After Tokyo-based musician Rambling Steve Gardner learned that his mother, known lovingly as Miz Sally, had been diagnosed with dementia he made a deliberate effort to communicate with her through his music. Taking guitar in hand he played song after song, noting her reactions to each. He learned within a short time what it has taken researchers decades to figure out. Namely, that music is a vehicle through which family members can communicate with loved ones with dementia.

In 2015 Colorado researchers created a program named B Sharp. It selected 30 individuals with dementia and arranged for them and their caregiver to attend five Fort Collins Symphony Masterworks concerts to measure the impact of the music on the participants over a period of time. Many of the dementia participants showed “statistically significant” improvement in cognitive function after attending the concert series.
On a more personal note, Gardner learned that sharing his music, which mostly is derived from 1920s and 1930s songs, struck a chord with his mother, enabling them to communicate in ways that previously been strained or awkward.

Miz Sally’s Yellow Cat Song Book is a tribute album that contains more than a dozen songs that may or may not be familiar to listeners. All were impeccably recorded in New Orleans, with Gardner providing the vocals and guitar and harmonica work, Bill working the saw and Banjo Uke, Nick Vitter on piano, and Courtney Blackwell on cello. Joining in with background vocals are Steber and Libby Rae Watson.

Highly recommended is the haunting “Bluebird Memory,” the encouraging “Get Along Home Sally, Sally,” and a blues standard first published in 1922 and recorded by Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” Gardner does a modern version with harmonica that harkens back to another era that Miz Sally may or may not can remember, but she can certainly tap her toe to—and when it comes to dementia that is something indeed. This CD, which includes a DVD and examples of Miz Sally’s artwork, can be ordered from various online websites, including cdbaby.com and sartorisliterary.com.

John “Whiskers” Washington is a retired mental health professional who has memories of playing in a blues band in his youth.