I graduated from college in 2013, meaning my school days are over for the foreseeable future. However, that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped learning. Really, it just means I get to choose where I use my cognitive surplus now that I don’t have to fill it with things I care little about.
I’ve chosen to fill it with musical knowledge. What follows is a brief description of some of the more significant discoveries I’ve made in the last year.
I don’t include any new albums or modern musicians in here, because that list will be coming later in the month.
If you are an expert or know any of these artists pretty well, you won’t learn too much from their section. I’m giving an outline of what I’ve learned in order to drive others to study on their own.
In no particular order…
I’ve written about this already this Summer, so I’ll summarize what I’ve learned this year. After spending quite a bit of time with the very early blues of Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Robert Johnson earlier this year I moved into the 60s and 70s and the “Kings of the Blues”. Having already heard enough of B.B. King, I listened to Freddie and Albert King (no relation between any of them). I also spent time listening to their contemporaries Albert Collins and Luther Allison.
My favorite by far is the East Texan Freddie King, born in Gilmer. His playing style was driving, his vocals were powerful, and his energy was undeniable. Playing with a plastic thumb pick and a steel index finger pick, his sound is distinctive and hard to mimic. He was the perfect mix of the Chicago and Texas blues. Freddie King, the Texas Cannonball, might be one of my favorite musicians that I’ve discovered this year.
This is without a doubt the most important musical discovery I made this year. I had heard a little about The Band before this year, but mostly it was due to their strangely obvious name and not due to their place in music history. It started with the death of the great Levon Helm in April 2012. I saw many people post on Twitter about his death. So, I gave some of his most recent albums a listen after his death and liked them, but they didn’t send me into listening to The Band until early 2013.
Once I did start though, it was very difficult to stop. The Band came to fame as Bob Dylan’s backing band on some of his most popular albums, but they had an extremely successful career apart from Dylan also. The Band has to be one of the finest collections of musicians to have ever been assembled. From Garth Hudson’s virtuosic organ playing, to Robbie Robertson’s bluesy gutar, to the combined vocals of bassist Rick Danko, drummer Levon Helm, and pianist Richard Manuel, The Band was hard to top in talent.
Their rockumentary, The Last Waltz, should be required viewing for any music fan. Directed by Martin Scorcese, it captures The Band’s epic final concert in between interview clips of the group talking about their time together. Featuring guests from all corners of music royalty, the film is highly entertaining. Guests like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton (watch as Clapton’s guitar strap breaks and Robertson picks up his solo without missing a beat) and Dr. John join the group to play their own hits with The Band. There are numerous other guests, the final concert lasted from 9 pm to 2:15 am. I beg you to check it out when you get the chance.
Oh, and by the way if you saw this Rolling Stone poll, my answer is “Chest Fever” although, in reality the greatest is “The Weight”.
I’ve been a peripheral fan of Bob Dylan for years. I’ve loved “Like a Rolling Stone” (watch that video that was released last month, unreal) since high school, but I’ve been almost afraid to dip my toe in the water that is Dylan’s massive and expansive career. I gave Highway 61 Revisited a shot a while ago and liked it, but then when I tried “Blonde on Blonde” I checked out, afraid that I would just never get Bob Dylan. It wasn’t until I fell in love with The Band and Woody Guthrie that I tried again and realized how much I’d been missing.
I tried again, this time starting from the beginning. I’m fascinated by the career arc that Dylan’s career took. His first album sounds like a Woody Guthrie fanboy trying his hand at sounding exactly like Woody. And that’s not to say it’s bad, I actually quite like it. I haven’t listened all the way through Dylan’s career, and I don’t think I’ll ever get to all of it. I’ve gotten through “Blood on the Tracks” at this point. My conclusion so far: although his early albums are amazing and powerful, Dylan had to go electric. There is almost no better combination than Bob Dylan and the Band. Which explains why I liked “Highway 61” (with the Band) and disliked “Blonde on Blonde” (without). Of course, I could write 5 pages about Dylan and not even scratch the surface of the depth and importance of his career. Luckily, thousands of others have done this and you can go read their better and more informed writing.
Woody Guthrie may be one of the most under-appreciated figures in modern times. His fingerprint is stamped all over folk, country, rock, blues and numerous other genres. I lived in Oklahoma for four years and never once heard someone talk about Woody and I saw little evidence of his impact in and around the state. After listening to him, and reading about his life and impact I’m saddened by this. Maybe I looked in the wrong places, but I don’t believe Oklahoma does enough to promote what should be one of their favorite native sons.
Woody Guthrie is the definition of a vagabond, traveling from town to town on rail cars learning and playing local songs. Without Woody, many of these songs would be lost to history, just like their original composers. Woody’s singing and playing had a massive influence on Bob Dylan, and much of this impact can be heard on Dylan’s first album. The only thing that is heard of Woody today is that he influenced Mumford and Sons* and of course, that he wrote “This Land is Your Land”. I honestly don’t understand why the Pride of Oklahoma doesn’t play that song before games instead of “You’re a Grand Old Flag”. Either way, Woody is awesome and he hated Fascists, which is also awesome.
Basically all I knew about Neil Young before this year was that he gets called out in a negative way by Lynyrd Skynyrd in “Sweet Home Alabama”. His career, so massive and in depth scared me in the same way Dylan scared me. I started listening to him because of The Band also. His appearance in The Last Waltz intrigued me as he and The Band played a stirring version of his song “Helpless” despite the fact that Neil was stoned out of his mind.
Neil’s songs have an emotional depth to them that can be betrayed by the lack of words in some of them. Where Dylan can write a million words in a song and make it sound great, Young succeeds most in songs like “Helpless” and “Hey, Hey, My, My” with less, but powerful words. His musically adventurous nature resulted in him making some truly terrible albums, but it also created some classics that will continue to live on and impact musicians for decades.
I believe Otis Redding possessed the greatest male voice of any human being who has ever lived. So raw and passionate, Otis made music that makes you feel good. Even his sad songs have a certain warmth that don’t let you feel too down on yourself. Everyone knows “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay” and thanks to Kanye and Jay-Z a lot more people know “Try a Little Tenderness”, but Otis has a number of other songs that are just as good. His live albums capture a bit of the passion that he put into everything he did, from his cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” to his original song “Respect” (covered more famously by the greatest female singer of all time, Aretha Franklin).
Johnny Cash – I rediscovered this amazing man and artist this year. Already knew quite a bit about him, but I can never listen to too much of the Man in Black.
Elvis – I grew up with a dog named Elvis so I’ve heard him all my life. However, I’d never really heard his earliest stuff, “That’s Alright Mama” and “I Got a Woman” which were blues covers. After learning more about the blues, I was able to appreciate how different his style really was from these blues standards. He really did create something completely new.
Steve Earle – I wrote last year about my love for Justin Townes Earle, so I figured I had to listen to his father to understand where all his anger and frustration, tempered by admiration, comes from. Steve is a natural progression of Townes Van Zandt, who I believe was the natural country progression of Woody Guthrie.
Big Mama Thornton – Probably could fit in the Blues category, but she deserves her own mini-category. An earlier version of Aretha Franklin, Big Mama’s powerful vocals can shake you to your core. She is mostly noted for having the first popular recording of “Hound Dog” before Elvis Presley.
Uncle Dave Macon – The Grandfather of Country music and the first star of the Grand Old Opry, Macon is a fascinating character. I’ve mainly become obsessed with his song “Down the Old Plank Road” with the chorus of “won’t get drunk no more”. Pretty much every moonshiner’s anthem.
*Which really shouldn’t even be a surprise since he has directly or indirectly influenced just about everyone who plays folk music.