I've been getting in the habit of making seasonal playlists as the years pitter-patter along, collecting songs as the calendar days go--new singles by favorite musicians, first “whoa-what’s-this” tunes from new-to-me folks, songs I can’t get out of my head, etc. There’s no reason, in the moment, for a choice, but there is certainly a theme, in retrospect. I thought I’d pop a favorite lyric & a little tweet-I-didn’t-tweet-because-I-don’t-tweet for each song. You can find the full playlist here. You can leave me thoughts on these tunes or recommendations for good tunes that got you through this winter. I would like that.
“The Ways of a Woman in Love” by John Prine
“Now when I come to see you, you're sittin' in the light / Doin' all those things I'm dreamin' of / You've got the ways of a woman in love”
FYI: an old John Prine singing a young Johnny Cash song is a good formula, really unleashes the tenderness of the lyrics.
“Be at Rest” by Possessed By Paul James
“For there are battles o in these classrooms, there are battles o in these hearts, if we don’t start to work together, man, this whole damn thing will fall apart”
Normally, it is his feet stomping & his voice howling that excites me most about PPJ’s performances, but this song hoots in its call for camaraderie & hollers through its insightful compassion.
“Texas Sun” by Khruangbin, Leon Bridges
“Wanna feel you on me, can't wait to get back there again / That Texas sun”
On them days when my soft heart yearns for my old Texas life, blurring in this forward momentum & Midwestern cold, I pop this song on.
“Untitled (Play It On Repeat)” by Courtney Barnett
“Tell me, would you even know? / Would you even care? / If you never see me again?”
Then on those days the distance & the paranoia commingle, I rest in the plucking melancholy of this song. Not only is Courtney Barnett (in the words of my wife) “a total badass rockstar,” but stripped down tunes like this showcase how well-knit her structures are.
“That’s Enough” by Janelle Monae
“Let's make new memories / Think of schemes that we can hatch / Make magic out of simple things”
I don’t care if it is a cover of an old song for the new adaptation of Lady & The Tramp, you can just send me every Janelle Monae track here till I’m dead.
“Single Girl” by Charley Crockett
“Fellers, if you’re listening / better not do like I did / just show the world you love her / instead of keeping it all hid”
This is how a good artist puts his own twist on a traditional tune, retaining the antique spirit while still updating some sense of the perspective, this time singing from the husband’s point-of-view.
“It’s Cool” by Lula Wiles
“Don't act like this doesn't matter / 'Cause I know it fucking matters”
It is like if First Aid Kit tried to write a Sarah Shook song, which is to say, “This song is awesome.”
“Sixteen Years” by Vandoliers
“Sixteen years / I've been working for sixteen years / Yeah I'm gonna make it if it takes another sixteen years”
The album cover is a yellow-tinted upside-down photo of some old train tracks & that tells you everything you need to know about this band’s ethos.
“Dead of Night” by Orville Peck
“See, see the boys as they walk on by / As they walk on by, as they walk on by / As they walk on / It's enough to make a young man”
It’s official: everyone’s favorite masked Canadian cowboy has become the soundtrack to both my dreams & nightmares--one where I couldn’t seem to reach my house returning from a walk across the family fields as the sun was setting & another where I sat on the patio of Savage’s Ale House & here comes people I’ve lost touch with.
“Stuck in a Head” by Mean Jeans
“Stuck in a head / How'd I end up this way? / Ding dang dude / I don't know what to say / I'm paralyzed”
Is there a way to find out if I’m the only person that owns multiple Means Jeans records & is a subscriber to the Waking Up app? Asking for a friend.
“Jingle And Go” by Ryan Bingham
“I got the struggle / I got the hustle / Got your lowdown blues and country shuffle”
I had to get over a psychological hump with this feller (he looks a lot like an old friend that drunkenly came to my house in the middle of the night & threatened to kill me), but this has become a go-to song for what we call “the daily dog dance,” the dogs & I bouncing around the property while a boogie plays.
“Neon Moon” by Brooks & Dunn (with Kacey Musgraves)
“If you lose your one and only / There's always room here for the lonely / To watch your broken dreams dance in and out of the beams / Of a neon moon”
Thank you Kacey Musgraves for bringing one of my favorite songs & favorite duos of my childhood back to relevance with your patented electronic hum rendition.
“American Childhood II: Bad Kiss” by Terry Allen & The Panhandle Mystery Band
“It’s just the war/Same fucking war/It’s always been/Never ends.”
In terms of the intersection of expansive concepts & country execution album-to-album, Terry Allen has few peers in the last fifty years of country music. No kidding.
“The Dead Don’t Die” by Sturgill Simpson
“There's a cup of coffee waiting on every corner / Someday we're gonna wake up and find the corner's gone / But the dead will still be walking 'round this ol' world alone / Oh, well after life is over the afterlife goes on”
I saw The Dead Don’t Die (the movie) like what six months ago & I still have "The Dead Don’t Die" (the song) popping in my head-radio daily. If having my favorite Sturgill song be a movie soundtrack tune makes me less-country, then send me back to the city, dude.
“I See A Darkness” by Bonnie “Prince” Billy
“And then I see a darkness / And then I see a darkness / And then I see a darkness / And then I see a darkness / Did you know how much I love you? / Is a hope that somehow you / Can save me from this darkness”
In the darkness of winter / psychological illness / elsewhere, I returned to this thick version of my favorite BPB song (which I just discovered is ((another)) Johnny Cash cover! WTF!) when I awoke from a dissociative spell in my underwear, ankle-deep in snow, mid-scream at the overcast sky.
“After The Gold Rush” by Jeff Rosenstock & Laura Stevenson
“I was lying in a burned out basement / With the full moon in my eyes. / I was hoping for replacement / When the sun burst thru the sky.”
Why am I falling in love with so many covers these days? I don’t know & I don’t care. What a joy to both be reminded of a classic song & too feel swept away by something completely fresh.
“Barbara’s Song” by Ian Noe
“Well, oh my / I'm a train in the sky / Sweet Lord, let me feel no fear”
I get it, there’s a whole bunch of these rambling, scratchy-throated folk singers that aren’t Dylan. I get it & still I can’t get enough. Screw off.
“Pearl Cadillac” by Gary Clark Jr. (featuring Anda Day)
“I remember when I left home in that pearl Cadillac / I was searching for some kinda way to pay you back / For your love, your love, your love / Your love, your love, your love / Your love, your love, your love / Well, I won't let you down, I'ma make you proud”
I was listening to the new Ringer podcast Music Exists & the hosts (Chris Ryan & Chuck Klosterman) asked, “Can a song sound like a place?” This is Exhibit A for me. I’ve never heard a song that sounds so much like contemporary Austin, TX.
“In The High of Morning” by Twain
“In the high of the morning / I discover it’s fine / to be gentle & kind / to myself & my mind”
Yes, I wish Mat Davidson was still the booming-voiced fiddle boy for Spirit Family Reunion, but if we can’t have that, at least we have this: Twain’s singular songs of bearded self-reflection.
“Hard To Be” by David Bazan
“You expect me to believe / That all this misbehaving grew from one enchanted tree / And helpless to fight it we should all be satisfied / WIth the magical explanation for why the living die”
There’s nothing like seeing David Bazan exhale into the mic--”it’s hard to be a decent human being”--& see 100 strangers nod in unison.
“Gates of Heaven” by PR Newman
“Better mind your manners while you’re living it easy / soon you’re gonna have to share”
If the world does me one music-related favor this spring, let PR Newman play a live show while I’m visiting Austin in March so I can see them play this live. Absolutely one of the top-5 bands I stumbled upon in my Austin days.
“Brightest Star” by Lilly Hiatt
“And don’t worry about that other guy / he’s just got the right tattoos / the brightest star in my whole sky / is you”
Maybe I am a skeptical prick when it comes to contemporary country music (I blame the onslaught of Luke Bryan bro-country bullshit), but Lilly Hiatt took some time to break through my thick skull. This song did it for whatever reason, maybe the Loretta shimmer of her voice or the fuzzy-bop-bop of the chorus.
“My Broken Arm” by Futurebirds
“Take the best outta me / Take it as far as your eyes can see / But don't leave me with my broken arm”
It is probably clear by now that I believe the title of the playlist I’ve been working on for close to seven years now--Contemporary Country Music Doesn’t Have To Suck--& songs like this are why, simultaneously recognizable as country music but sticky enough to bring with it several elements from the progress of the music of the last fifty years. See here: the emo-induced crackly voice & chugging guitar of the chorus.
“Milwaukee” by Maritime
“Everyone knows you were going / But I couldn't tell you when / You bought a postcard, your hands were new / And I knew I couldn't take you there”
Can we please band together & get Davey von Bohlen a lifetime achievement award of some sort? The dude was the man in both The Promise Ring (I’ll argue with anyone that they’re on the Mount Rushmore of emo bands) & Cap’n Jazz (noisy sensitive punks that are still influencing people today), & he continues to make incredible true emo songs with Maritime.
“Other Side of Town” by Sam Doores (featuring Alynda Segarra)
“Everybody’s having a party / I’m all alone / I ain’t got no body”
The Deslondes might’ve been the main musical ligament that stitched Diana & I together, so when I heard they are “indefiinitely on-hiatus” (can someone tell me what the heck that actually means?), I was very very bummed. This sad-ass song is somehow a perk-me-up tune, as it signals we get to keep on keeping on with Sam Doores’ good grooves & smoky voice.
“Pick Her Up” by Hot Country Knights
“If you really wanna rock the world / of a pretty little country girl / just remember when you pick her up / pick her up in a pick-up truck”
This is how you use your power & pull for good! Dierks Bentley is bringing 90’s country, roughneck hair metal’s little cousin, to the forefront in 2020. Thank goodness!
“Dust on the Bottle” by Curtis Chambers
“There might be / a little dust on the bottle / but don’t let it fool you / about what’s inside”
I am gonna be honest: I moseyed up to a video of this cover of one of my Mount Rushmore 90’s country male country songs when I was stoned & alone in the garage in the middle of the night & I’ve been addicted ever since.
“Nice to Meet Ya” by Meghan Trainor (featuring Nicki Minaj)
“Sweet, but I get rough, just what I wanna be / What I wanna be, just what I wanna be / I don't know you, but I'm just what I wanna be”
We’ve self-actualized the term “guilty pleasure” out of existence, right? Thank goodness! I’ll sit through the worst pop song (& this ain’t that!) for a NM verse any day
“Easy Money Down in Texas” by Ray Wylie Hubbard
“Roll into Austin about sun-up / Two Torchy's tacos and a Shiner six-pack”
Remember earlier when I was yapping about that question “Can music sound like a place?” For a state, Ray Wylie Hubbard has Texas on lock--the direct Texan references, the blues guitar riffs, the Lone Star-breathed vocals. I rest my case with this Hubbard track.
“Are You Thirsty” by Jonny Fritz
“Are you thirsty? / Are you angry? / Is there something I could do to help you through?
You know how they say humor is the sincerest form of honesty? I don’t know if they actually say that. Jonny Fritz writes some of the most haha country songs that still sincerely pack a pang. I spent January sober with this song as my neverending entrance music.