Category Archives: Music

Gospel Music Guide

A guide to gaining an introduction to gospel music (read: afro-american gospel music).  When you get down to it, gospel is the rosetta stone of american music, and there are few styles of american music that haven’t either influenced gospel or taken influence from it.  Hopefully the religious content of the music doesn’t keep people away.  You can be indifferent or even openly hostile to religion and still enjoy this powerful music.

 

Various Artists Collections
Broad overview sets:
Gospel: The Ultimate Collection
Gospel – The Ultimate Collection (2007)

All things considered, this may be the best historical overview of gospel music I’ve seen yet, rivalled or surpassed only by the Jubilation! series mentioned below.  There is definitely a good amount of material from the “golden age of gospel” in the 1950s here, which is something lots of other gospel box sets inexplicably omit.  At four discs, there is a ton of great stuff from a lot of different periods and styles.  This set does stop in the middle of the 1950s though, so you don’t get much if anything anything from the 1960s onward.  But you might want to decide if you like gospel enough first before delving into the 1960s and 70s stuff.  And for an introduction it’s probably best to avoid contemporary gospel anyway.

Jubilation! Volume One: Black Gospel
Jubilation! Great Gospel Performances – Volume 1: Black Gospel (1992)

Jubilation! Volumes 1 & 2 make up probably the best two-disc introduction to gospel available, and together are probably my number one recommendation for someone just beginning to listen to gospel.  Vols. 1 & 2 represent just about all of the major gospel talents, and the song selection is outstanding.  Truly a superb set.  The only caveat I would add is that the focus here is more on modern gospel, and little space is reserved for early 20th Century gospel, but that is actually a good approach for an introductory set like this.

Jubilation! Volume 2: More Black Gospel
Jubilation! Great Gospel Performances – Volume 2: More Black Gospel (1992)

Another great collection of material, similar to Vol. 1.  You will really want to investigate both Vols. 1 & 2, though you could easily start with either one.  There is a Vol. 3, but it focuses on country gospel, which is not the focus of this guide.

The History of Black Gospel Music: Volume 1
The History of Black Gospel Music: Volume 1 (2008)

The first of a seven-album series, apparently available only as a digital download (in the USA at least).  It features some great stuff from a variety of eras.  There is a bit more non-quartet, folk/blues material here than many gospel collections.

Gospel Music
Gospel Music (2006)

A great collection.  All awesome stuff.  Maybe the very best single-disc introduction out there.  The only complaint about this set, and it may be a significant one, is the lack of credits for personnel, recording dates, etc.  So you aren’t told which of the two studio versions of Dorothy Love Coates’ “Strange Man” is included here, for instance.

Nuggets of The Golden Age of Gospel 1945-1958
Nuggets of the Golden Age of Gospel 1945-1958 (2009)

Bob Marovich review: http://www.theblackgospelb…golden-age.html

Fire in My Bones: Raw + Rare + Otherworldly African-American Gospel (1944-2007)
Fire in My Bones: Raw + Rare + Otherworldly African-American Gospel (1944-2007) (2009)

Like Get Right With God (see below), Fire in My Bones focuses on great but lesser-known recordings.  In a way it’s a kind of alternate history of modern age gospel, documenting especially its vital and continuing tradition of do-it-yourself recordings.  This also covers quite a large time frame (more than six decades).  With some of the basics under your belt, this is a fun and exciting extension to delve deeper into the genre.  The obscurity of the recordings means there is little overlap with other gospel compilations.  A follow-up collection was released as This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel on 45RPM, 1957-1982, but definitely start with Fire in My Bones.

Goodbye Babylon
Goodbye, Babylon (2003)

This well-regarded, handsomely packaged collection covers an immense amount of gospel up to about WWII, as well as a select few retro-sounding post-WWII cuts.  That said, this set stops short of covering the modernization of gospel during and beyond its so-called “golden age”.  So despite its massive size, this is just the tip of the iceberg, covering only the early roots of recorded gospel music.  It covers country gospel in addition to afro-american gospel.  If you look into this, the Jubilation! discs mentioned above make for excellent follow-ups, focusing on more modern gospel.

Testify! The Gospel Box
Testify!: The Gospel Box (1999)

One of the few gospel collections I’ve seen that actually takes a crack at summarizing many different periods, including the difficult task of putting together a disc of contemporary gospel (at least through the 1980s I believe).  I haven’t heard this to judge well myself.  But this set cuts a wide swath through many different decades of gospel music.

The Essential Gospel Sampler
The Essential Gospel Sampler (1994)

Good selection of some of the most popular names in gospel.

Ultimate Gospel Supermix

My own “virtual” compilation.

More period-specific, stylistically-specific, or label-specific sets:
American Primitive Vol. I
American Primitive Vol. 1: Raw Pre-War Gospel (1926-36) (1997)

Awesome selection of early pre-WWII gospel.  Lots of this stuff straddles the line between blues and gospel.  Probably a less intimidating option than the Goodbye Babylon set, which seemed to borrow heavily from these selections because of the substantial overlap.  Pair this set with the Gospel Music one above and you’ll get a fairly good overview of both old and modern gospel.

A Warrior On the Battlefield: A Cappella Trailblazers, 1920's-1940's
A Warrior On the Battlefield: A Cappella Trailblazers, 1920’s-1940’s (1997)

A set that focuses on jubilee gospel groups.

Kings of the Gospel Highway: The Golden Age of Gospel Quartets
Kings of the Gospel Highway: The Golden Age of Gospel Quartets (2000)

A collection of songs from some of the great gospel “quartets” (they often actually had more than four members) from primarily the later part of the 1940s but also some from the 1950s and one Soul Stirrers track from 1939.   This actually picks up where the A Warrior On the Battlefield set leaves off, stylistically and chronologically.  The liner notes are also quite good in explaining various aspects of the music and the personalities behind it.

The Gospel Sound
The Gospel Sound (1994)

1927-66 sampler of material from Columbia Records (or at least acquired by them prior to this release).

Golden Age Gospel Quartets, Vol. 1 (1947-1954)
Golden Age Gospel Quartets, Vol. 1 (1947-1954) (1997)

Specialty was the premier label for hard gospel quartets in the 1950s.  I could quibble about some of the song selections here, but there is no doubt you get some great music and an introduction to most of the key groups on the Specialty label.  Continued with Golden Age Gospel Quartets, Vol. 2 (1954-1963).

Get Right With God: Hot Gospel
Get Right With God: Hot Gospel (1988)

Awesome collection of mostly obscure stuff from the golden age.  It’s all high-energy and really fun.  The way this is assembled definitely reminds me of Harry Smith (who created the Anthology of American Folk Music), and what a collection of gospel from this period would probably sound like if he ever got around to putting one together.

Golden Age of Gospel
Golden Age of Gospel (2001)

The premier gospel label of the 1950s was Specialty.  But Vee-Jay took over that role around 1959 and held the crown until the label went bankrupt in 1966, when HOB and then Savoy took over that role.  Of course there were other notable labels like Nashboro and Peacock operating throughout these periods too.  But for late 50s/early 60s stuff, you can’t go wrong with Vee-Jay.  The label represented another step in the ongoing pattern of changes in gospel styles.  The “hard” gospel of Specialty was giving way to smoother, more intricate arrangements with more pronounced instrumental accompaniment.

I mention this particular compilation because it is only one disc, but it may be somewhat hard to find and it seems at least some tracks included here are live ones instead of the original studio recordings.  A more extensive collection of Vee-Jay gospel is the four disc series that begins with The Best of Vee-Jay Gospel, Volume One.

Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966
Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966 (1997)

Gospel music played a big role in the 1950s/60s civil rights or freedom movement in the United States.  Here’s an interesting look at that role.

The Best of Nashboro Gospel
Best of Nashboro Gospel (1995)

Nashboro, and associated labels like Creed, put out a lot of good gospel over a relatively long period of time.  It was fairly common for big names in gospel to switch record labels through the years.  The demise of Vee-Jay records in 1966 sent many top stars to labels like Nashboro and HOB.

This Is Gospel Vol. 28: HOB Legends
This is Gospel Vol. 28: HOB Legends (2006)
Gospel's Finest
Gospel’s Finest (1992)

If you ask me, most contemporary gospel from the 1980s onward is not worthwhile.  But don’t let my views cloud your judgment.  Here’s a set of 1980s gospel.  Decide for yourself.  If you want more recent gospel, you can look into the “WOW Gospel” series that begins with Wow Gospel 1998 (though you want the “Gospel” series not “Hits”, “Worship”, etc.).

Individual Artist Selections
People totally unfamiliar with gospel music may want to listen to a various artists collection first, but here are some single-artist selections that I find to be particularly worth checking out:
The Golden Gate Quartet Collection

The Golden Gate Quartet

The Golden Gate Quartet Collection (2005)

The Golden Gate Quartet represents a different era than lots of other music on this list.  They had jazz-inflected rhythms that stretched gospel beyond earlier forms, but compared to more modern acts the tempos were slower and there were not really any lead solos.  But this is still great music.  There are certainly plenty of different Golden Gate Quartet compilations available.  This two-disc one seems to capture a lot of their best recordings, though in some ways it’s still incomplete.

He's My Rock: Their Early Sides

The Soul Stirrers

He’s My Rock: Their Early Sides (2003)

The early Soul Stirrers with R.H. Harris were the single most influential gospel group.  Ever.  More than any other group, they blazed a trail away from the jubilee style that had dominated gospel for many decades–a style epitomized by The Golden Gate Quartet–and toward hard gospel of the 1950s.  R.H. Harris made lead soloists the stars of gospel “quartets”, which had been expanded past just four members.  This collection features a tremendous amount of really great music.

Journey to the Sky: The Legendary Recordings 1946-1950

The Dixie Hummingbirds

Journey to the Sky: The Legendary Recordings 1946-1950 (2001)

The best gospel of the 1940s is right here.  Lead singer Ira Tucker was just unbelievably good.  He was sort of gospel’s first “rock star” in my book.  Maybe he was just the first rock star period, running down the aisles, jumping off stages…

Love Lifted Me/My Rock

Swan Silvertones

Love Lifted Me / My Rock (1991)

Though maybe I have a sentimental attachment, I would say The Swan Silvertones were the single greatest gospel group ever.  They had it all.  This set of hard gospel from the 1950s is absolutely essential.

Oh Lord, STand By Me / MArching Up to Zion

The Blind Boys of Alabama

Oh Lord, Stand By Me / Marching Up to Zion (1991)

Another great set of hard gospel from the 1950s.

Gospels, Spirituals & Hymns

Mahalia Jackson

Gospels, Spirituals & Hymns (1991)

Probably the single most famous gospel singer ever.  A voice so powerful few could ever come close.  This collection makes a good introduction even though it does not cover recordings from the early part of her career (for that, look to How I Got Over: The Apollo Sessions 1946-1954).

Books
The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times by Anthony Heilbut
How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel by Horace C. Boyer
Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music by W.K. McNeil (ed.)
Blues and Gospel Records: 1890-1943 by Robert M.W. Dixon, John Godrich, and Howard W. Rye
Gospel Records: 1943-1969 by Cedric W. Hayes and Robert Laughton
Web Links
Just Moving On Blog
The Black Gospel Blog
Holy Ghost Blog
Sinner’s Crossroads Radio Show
Black Gospel Collector’s Forum

The Rolling Stones – The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones

The Rolling StonesThe Rolling Stones Decca LK 4605 (1964)


The eponymous debut album by The Rolling Stones (renamed England’s Newest Hit Makers for subsequent U.S. release) is a somewhat inauspicious affair.  It is full of energetic takes on American blues.  The group plays with enthusiasm.  Yet aside from a few hints at guitar prowess, there aren’t a whole lot of highlights here.  Still, there aren’t any great missteps, and the effort to reach out across racial lines is admirable.  This was about taking essentially rural music and making it more urban and palatable for middle class youth desperate for a new music to call their own.  Perhaps that wasn’t the precise intent, but it was the ultimate effect.  They got better quickly.  What is stunning is how there are scarcely any cues here to indicate just how good they would get — or how fast they would get there.

Ultimate Gospel Supermix (Part I)

American Primitive Vol. I

Here is my take on a “virtual” single disc gospel overview compilation.  Neophytes, I dare you to listen to this and not become a fan.  I’ve tried to link up more readily available CD collections rather than hard-to-find LPs.  Will be continued with my Gospel Mix, Part II, Gospel Mix, Part III, Gospel Mix, Part IV and Gospel Mix, Part V lists.  In the interest of full disclosure, I am an atheist.

 

1 The Stuff That Dreams Are Made of
Rev. B.L. Wightman with Lottie Kimbrough & Congregation – “Live the Life”

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of: Super Rarities & Unissued Gems of the 1920s and 30s (2006)

2 Anthology of American Folk Music
Rev. Sister Mary Nelson – “Judgment”

Anthology of American Folk Music (1997)

3 The Complete Blind Willie Johnson
Blind Willie Johnson – “John the Revelator

The Complete Blind Willie Johnson (1993)

4 American Primitive Vol. I
Blind Roosevelt Graves & Brother – “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind on Jesus)

American Primitive Vol. 1: Raw Pre-War Gospel (1926-36) (1997)

5 The Golden Gate Quartet Collection
Golden Gate Quartet“Bedside of a Neighbor”

The Golden Gate Quartet Collection (2005)

6 The Harmonizing Four 1943-1954
Richmond’s Harmonizing Four – “Everytime I Feel the Spirit”

The Harmonizing Four 1943-1954 (2006)

7 Milky White Way: The Legendary Recordings 1947-1952
The TrumpeteersMilky White Way

Milky White Way: The Legendary Recordings 1947-1952 (2002)

8 Journey to the Sky: The Legendary Recordings 1946-1950
Dixie Hummingbirds“Move On Up a Little Higher [alt. take]”

Journey to the Sky: The Legendary Recordings 1946-1950 (2001)

9 I Want to Know
The Silverlight Quartet (with Brother Cecil L. Shaw) – “Jesus Lend Me a Helping Hand in Your Name

I Want to Know (2006)

10 Love Lifted Me/My Rock
The Swan Silvertone Singers – “Trouble In My Way

Love Lifted Me / My Rock (1991)

11 Oh Lord, STand By Me / MArching Up to Zion
The Blind Boys of AlabamaLiving For My Jesus

Oh Lord, Stand By Me / Marching Up to Zion (1991)

12 Sam Cooke With The Soul Stirrers
The Soul Stirrers – “It Won’t Be Very Long

Sam Cooke With The Soul Stirrers (1991)

13
1947-1954
The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi“(I’ll Be) In the Wilderness”

1947-1954 (2007)

14 The Best of the Sensational Nightingales
The Sensational NightingalesA Closer Walk With Thee

The Best of The Sensational Nightingales (1991)

15 When Gospel Was Gospel
The Davis Sisters – “Jesus Steps Right In”

When Gospel Was Gospel (2005)

16 Get on Board
The Original Gospel Harmonettes – “I’ll Be With Thee

Get on Board (1992)

17 Get Right With God: Hot Gospel
Sister O.M. Terrell – “I’m Going to that City”

Get Right With God: Hot Gospel (1988)

18 The Best of the Vee-Jay Years
The Staple SingersI’m Coming Home (Parts 1 & 2)

The Best of the Vee-Jay Years (2007)

19 Gospel Train
Sister Rosetta Tharpe“Cain’t [sic] No Grave Hold My Body Down”

Gospel Train (1956)

20 The Best of The Caravans
The Caravans“Your Friend”

The Best of The Caravans (1998)

21 Give Me My FLowers / Heart Warming Spirituals
The ConsolersWaiting for My Child

Give Me My Flowers / Heart Warming Spirituals (1993)

22 Gospels, Spirituals & Hymns
Mahalia Jackson – “In the Upper Room

Gospels, Spirituals & Hymns (1991)

23 Oh Happy Day: The Best of the Edwin Hawkins Singers
The Edwin Hawkins SingersOh, Happy Day

Oh Happy Day!: The Best of the Edwin Hawkins Singers (2001)

 

24 Speaking in Tongues
The Holmes Brothers“I Shall Not Walk Alone”

Speaking in Tongues (2001)

 

Beck – Stereopathetic Soulmanure

Stereopathetic Soulmanure

Beck Stereopathetic Soulmanure Flipside FLIP60 (1994)


Some bag on Stereopathetic Soulmanure as an inferior Beck release, but I think it’s easily one of his best albums.  It’s a little rough in patches, but the eclectic songwriting is usually good and there is even some fairly good guitar playing.  Beck is all over the place.  From found sounds, to noise rock, to country, to folk, he tries a little of everything.  But he manages to pull it off.  In fact, Mellow Gold was a big step down from the creativity on display here.  Beck hadn’t yet hooked up with hip-hop producers but it’s no real loss with what is found here.  Is this juvenile?  Yes, of course.  But it manages to faithfully capture the sense of looking for something that resonates and finding the process of the search at least as interesting as anything found along the way.  This has the feel of bored Southern California kids making their own entertainment — not unlike what Ariel Pink would do a few years later.

Vijay Iyer Trio – Accelerando

Accelerando

Vijay Iyer TrioAccelerando ACT Music (2012)


A more mature Vijay Iyer offers something the younger Iyer did not.  He melds angular, modernist attacks with smooth, easy sensibilities in a way that avoids both stilted transitions and empty new age chamber jazz posturing–sometimes the nagging limitations of his early work.  Accelerando features all his strengths and none of his weaknesses.  It certainly helps that bassist Stephan Crump provides a very prominent drive to the music.  Covering some pop music (“Human Nature”) also reveals a grounded sense of humor.  Such little touches evidence the magnanimous spirit imbuing the proceedings.  This is music that is as accessible as it is vibrant.  It may well be Iyer’s best offering yet.

The Swan Silvertones (Part I)

Love Lifted Me

A twelve song tribute to one of my favorite musical groups, The Swan Silvertones.  This isn’t a “best-of” list or anything of the sort.  I just feel that this group, which was capable of just about reaching musical perfection from my point of view, is sadly unknown and as a result too many people are missing out.  So, enjoy!  This list will be continued with The Swan Silvertones, Part II, The Swan Silvertones, Part III, The Swan Silvertones, Part IV and The Swan Silvertones, Part V.  Maybe I should also mention that I have zero interest in the religious content of this music.

Trouble in My Way / I'm Coming Home

1. “Trouble In My Way

As The Swan Silverton Singers; single (1953); available on Love Lifted Me/My Rock (1991)

It may have a sentimental attachment, being the first Swan Silvertones song I ever heard, but this version of “Trouble In My Way” is what I consider the definitive Swan Silvertones recording.  It is hard gospel, with a syncopated rhythm, tight backing harmonies and soaring lead vocals on the top.  The two leads trade back and forth, and play off each other by contrasting coarser shouted vocals and smoother ones that effortlessly leap into falsetto range.  I sometimes listen to just this song over and over and over again.If music has gotten better than this, I haven’t heard it.

How I Got Over / Jesus Is a Friend

2. “How I Got Over

As The Swan Silvertone Singers; single (195?); available on Love Lifted Me/My Rock (1991)

A great song that provides lots of space for impressive melisma early on, and a pronounced call & response passage later on too.

Love Lifted Me

3. “Glory to His Name”

As The Swan Silvertone Singers; single (195?); available on Love Lifted Me/My Rock (1991)

Claude Jeter is without a doubt my favorite singer.  There are few songs that highlight his vocals better than “Glory to His Name”.  The first ten seconds alone should be enough to convince a few other people to become fans too.

Pray for Me

4. “The Blood of Jesus”

From Pray for Me (1975)

A track that relies more heavily on guitar accompaniment than usual.  The laid-back mood here always reminds me of “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay“.  I love Louis Johnson’s cracking vocals early on.

Singin' in My Soul

5. “Swing Low

Single (1960), and on Singin’ in My Soul (1960); available on Singin in My Soul/Blessed Assurance (2002)

The opener from the group’s best album is a fantastic slow-moving number that draws you in to the pristine vocal harmonies.  Then the subversive guitar accompaniment, from Linwood Hargrove I’m assuming, keeps you in it all the way.  Here’s a track that shows how The Swan Silvertones could just do it better than anybody else.

The Swan Silvertones

6. “Mary Don’t You Weep

Single (1958), and on The Swan Silvertones (1959); available on The Swan Silvertones/Saviour Pass Me Not (2001)

The improvised lyric “I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name” from this song inspired Paul Simon to write “Bridge Over Troubled Water“, which is a bit of trivia that has probably brought quite a number of new fans to The Swan Silvertones’ music through the years.

The Day Will Surely Come / Jesus Changed This HEart of Mine

7. “Jesus Changed This Heart of Mine

As The Swan Silvertone Singers; single (1952); available on Love Lifted Me/My Rock (1991)

I love the line Claude Jeter sings that goes “I’m gonna eat at the welcome table”.  His phrasing is amazing.  The harmonic resolution at the very end is classic too. When the group went to the Pittsburgh radio station WPGH to record a number of tracks, this one among them, Art Rupe of Specialty Records sent along a letter to chief engineer Ralph Ketterer that said, “This type of performance may be foreign to you, but essentially we want the singers to sing out freely.  PLEASE DO NOT HOLD THEM BACK IN ANY MANNER.  If they want to shout, let them shout.  If they want to cry on the recording, let them cry.”  I hate to think what might have happened without that letter!

Working on a Building / Depending on Jesus

8. “Working On a Building

As Swan’s Silvertone Singers; single (1948); available on 1946-1951 (2005)

The Swan Silvertones’ earliest singles found them merely warming up, in a way.  Supposedly their label didn’t support them in recording hard gospel, pushing instead for a more folk or hillbilly sound.  Their earliest sides tend to fall more or less into the “jubilee” gospel style, and the arrangements are reminiscent of recordings by The Soul Stirrers and The Blind Boys from the same time period.  As the 1950s rolled around, you can hear them pushing the boundaries a bit more, with the lead singers going out further and further from the backing harmonies.

Love Lifted Me

9. “Prayer In My Mouth”

As The Swan Silvertone Singers; single (195?); available on Love Lifted Me/My Rock (1991)

Another classic track recorded in the 1950s.  Solomon Womack (Bobby Womack‘s uncle) takes the first lead.  Womack passed away in the mid 1950s, and the band suspected it was because the demands of touring had taken quite a toll on him.  The bass vocals on the second lead (Henry K. Bossard I think) are a cool change of pace before Rev. Robert Crenshaw launches into his wild shouting in the final lead.  I have seen Henry K. Bossard credited as the songwriter of “Prayer In My Mouth”, but it is essentially the same song as “Guide My Hand” that The Dixie Hummingbirds had recorded a few years earlier.

Let's Go to Church Together

10. “Search Me Lord”

From Let’s Go to Church Together (1964)

Let’s Go to Church Together is perhaps the most subtle Swan Silvertones album.  It might be live judging from the sound, but I can’t confirm that guess.  It’s not the place to start, but it’s great place to end up.

Saviour Pass Me Not

11. “Bye and Bye”

From Saviour Pass Me Not (1962)

The arrangements on The Swan Silvertones’ full-length albums had grown quite complex by the early 1960s.  From their eclectic Saviour Pass Me Not album, “Bye and Bye” is just another great, upbeat song of which The Swans had no shortage.

Blessed Assurance

12. “He Saved My Soul”

From Blessed Assurance (1963)

The Swans could do it all.  This song finds them singing against a pronounced rock ‘n’ roll backbeat.  Not much of a leap between this and soul music.  The group’s sound would increasingly move in this direction, especially after about 1966 or so.

Scott Walker 101

 

This is...Scott WalkerA “virtual” single-CD overview of the music of Scott Walker.  He most definitely has more than one disc of great material, so this necessarily leaves off a lot.  I’ve tried to make sure important aspects of his music are represented somewhere, though not always as fully as each one deserves.

  1. “Prologue” from ‘Til the Band Comes in
  2. “The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)” from Scott 4
  3. “Track 3” from Climate of Hunter
  4. The Walker Brothers “People Get Ready” from Portrait
  5. “The Lady Came from Baltimore” from Scott
  6. “Duchess” from Scott 4
  7. “Thanks for Chicago Mr. James” from ‘Til the Band Comes in
  8. “Joanna” (single)
  9. “I’ll Be Home” from Stretch
  10. “The War Is Over (Epilogue)” from ‘Til the Band Comes in
  11. “Montague Terrace (In Blue)” from Scott
  12. “It’s Raining Today” from Scott 3
  13. “Sons of” from Scott 3
  14. “We Came Through” from Scott 3
  15. “The Seventh Seal” from Scott 4
  16. “Hero of the War” from Scott 4
  17. “Rhymes of Goodbye” from Scott 4
  18. “Farmer in the City” from Tilt
  19. “Bouncer See Bouncer…” from Tilt
  20. “Jesse” from The Drift
  21. “Blanket Roll Blues” from Climate of Hunter

Insurgent Country Primer

A primer highlighting the development of Insurgent/Alt Country music, meaning the genre that blended country with punk, alternative rock and the like.  While primarily a phenomenon of the 1990s and early 2000s, it can be traced further back, and its roots extend even further back into the closely related but still somewhat different “country rock” genre.

 

Roots and Influences:

 

Rising Sons

Rising Sons

Rising Sons featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder (1992)

One of the earliest country rock bands.  They didn’t record much, and released almost nothing during their existence.  Nonetheless, a talented group that influenced many through their live performances.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo

The Byrds

Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)

Not the first country rock album (at the least, International Submarine Band beat them to it).  But this remains the most popular early country rock album.

Guilded Palace of Sin

The Flying Burrito Bros

The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969)

Probably the pinnacle of the country rock genre.  Note that Gram Parsons is starting to be involved with a lot of these albums.

Workinman's Dead

Grateful Dead

Workingman’s Dead (1970)

The Grateful Dead took a surprising turn with Workingman’s Dead and developed a bluegrass and country inflected sound.  They played a key role through the years in maintaining an interest in country music amongst rock audiences.

Lost in the Ozone

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen

Lost in the Ozone (1971)

Though Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen tend to be associated primarily with the “outlaw country” movement, songs like their version of “Hot Rod Lincoln” were starting to inject a little more crazed rock ‘n roll energy into country rock.

Hi, Low and In Between

Townes Van Zandt

High, Low and In Between (1972)

Townes Van Zandt is probably the earliest example of the attitudes and sentiments that would dominate much of the golden age of alt/insurgent country.  Much of his material is fairly called straight country, or at times even of a folky singer-songwriter variety, but on High, Low and in Between he started using more rock-oriented instrumentation.

One Road More

The Flatlanders

One Road More (1980)

The Flatlanders took what Townes Van Zandt suggested and ran with it.  They paired a more retro early country flavor (think Carter Family era) with a lyrical sensibility that suggested they were also listening to the psychedelic rock the hippies were playing.  Their first recordings didn’t see a proper release for eight years, after member Joe Ely had hooked up with The Clash — which is a testament to how the sensibilities of insurgent country represented the common ground between rural folk and urban counterculture of the punk era.

Don't Cry Now

Linda Ronstadt

Don’t Cry Now (1973)

It would be unfair to ignore the contributions of both mainstream acts and female artists to country rock.  Linda Ronstadt blended country with pop (and rock) into a smooth, professional “L.A.” sound that bore many similarities to later insurgent country acts like The Jayhawks, Cowboy Junkies and even Alejandro Escovedo, particularly through an emphasis on detached expressions of personal identity in music that rarely appeared in “straight” country.

Grievous Angel

Gram Parsons

Grievous Angel (1974)

Gram Parsons was all over many of the earliest country rock albums.  His contributions, both solo and in various groups, cleared a space in which the foundations of insurgent country were laid.  He had a well-heeled, if somewhat troubled upbringing, and was something of a problem child who strayed from the most probable career path his elitist educational background would suggest, which actually says a lot about the social milieu that developed and gravitated toward country rock, etc.

Elite Hotel

Emmylou Harris

Elite Hotel (1975)

Emmylou picked right up where the late Gram Parsons left off, and brought an even more exquisitely sensitive voice to achy, twangy American folk music played over rock rhythms.

American Stars 'n Bars

Neil Young

American Stars ‘n Bars (1977)

Coming within a stone’s throw of insurgent country is this “black sheep” of the Neil Young catalog.  It’s not all country, but the parts that are inject a particular type of bleary, raucous rock sensibility that would carry forward into the actual insurgent country era.

 

Insurgent/Alt Country:

American Music

The Blasters

American Music (1980)

Although not exclusively “insurgent country” in sound, The Blasters were part of the earliest efforts to bring the energy of punk together with country music.  Many L.A. groups were involved with the evolution of the music.  American Music was one of the first examples of a recording you could start to clearly differentiate from country rock.

Reckless Country Soul

Jason & The Scorchers

Reckless Country Soul (1982) [EP]
Meat Puppets II

Meat Puppets

Meat Puppets II (1984)

Further efforts to explore country music alongside punk and psychedelic influences.

Fear and Whiskey

Mekons

Fear and Whiskey (1985)

Punk legends the Mekons delved into what some call “cowpunk”.

Guitar Town

Steve Earle

Guitar Town (1986)

Sort of the curmudgeon of the genre, Steve Earle also is frequently cited as one of its best songwriters.  After some substance abuse problems, he bounced back in the 1990s during the heights of the movement (I Feel Alright, etc.).

Prison Bound

Social Distortion

Prison Bound (1988)

Not as talented as songwriters or performers as many other alt-country types, Social Distortion still did connect a lot of punk rockers with country influences.

Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams (1988)

Lucinda Williams was one of the more critically acclaimed singer-songwriters of the golden age of alt country.  Her self-titled album from 1988 helped introduce country trappings to a “college rock” audience; later albums like Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998) were even better.

The Trinity Session

Cowboy Junkies

The Trinity Session (1988)

Insurgent/alt country was for the most part under the radar through the 1980s.  But Cowboy Junkies definitely raised its profile.  The more pop leanings of the group helped in that regard.

No Depression

Uncle Tupelo

No Depression (1990)

Although by no means the group’s best album (that would probably be Anodyne), No Depression really was the clarion call for the golden age of insurgent country.  Band members Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar later went on to form other influential groups.  The name of the album comes from a song (“No Depression in Heaven”) popularized by The Carter Family, and the leading magazine of the genre took the same name.  From this point on there was no denying that there was a broad and distinct “insurgent country” movement underway.

Tomorrow the Green Grass

The Jayhawks

Tomorrow the Green Grass (1993)

The Jayhawks were one of the more polished alt country groups.  Like The Blasters, their interests went beyond just country, but The Jayhawks had a more mellow pop sound.

New West Motel

The Walkabouts

New West Motel (1993)
Trace

Son Volt

Trace (1995)

Jay Farrar started Son Volt after the breakup of Uncle Tupelo, and carried on with a similar sound.

Wrecking Ball

Emmylou Harris

Wrecking Ball (1995)

Emmylou moved away from Gram Parsons-style country rock toward more straight country in the 1980s, but then made a comeback within the insurgent country fold in the mid-1990s.

Old Paint

Freakwater

Old Paint (1995)

Freakwater focused on “old timey” country, with more modern lyrical sensibilities.

Sackcloth 'n' Ashes

Sixteen Horsepower

Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes (1996)

16 Horsepower played goth country.

Too Far to Care

Old 97’s

Too Far to Care (1997)

Old 97s were one of the most loved insurgent country groups among audiences traditionally associated with “college rock”.  They were capable of better songwriting than most.

Strangers Almanac

Whiskeytown

Strangers Almanac (1997)

Led by Ryan Adams, Whiskeytown brought smooth pop and “heartland” rock sounds into the fabric of country music, with a laid-back demeanor but still capable of rocking a little harder too.  Adams went solo in short order.  Strangers Almanac was one of the more accomplished album-length statements in the genre.

Since

Richard Buckner

Since (1998)
American Water

Silver Jews

American Water (1998)

Among the more left field alt country groups (a territory also inhabited by Calexico and others), Silver Jews were sort of like country plus krautrock.

I See a Darkness

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy

I See a Darkness (1999)

Will Oldham, a/k/a Bonnie “Prince” Billy, was another of alt country’s oddballs.  He makes clear the connections between that genre and indie rock.

Exposed Roots: The Best of Alt. Country

[Various Artists]

Exposed Roots: The Best of Alt. Country (1999)

Imperfect, but if you must have a sampler set this might satisfy you.

Nixon

Lambchop

Nixon (2000)

Lambchop are somewhat of an oddity, not clearly aligned with the insurgent country movement, but present throughout it.  Kurt Wagner’s enigmatic vocals have made them a favorite of fans lucky enough to discover the group.

Furnace Room Lullaby

Neko Case & Her Boyfriends

Furnace Room Lullaby (2000)

Neko Case arrived during the height of the insurgent country movement, and won over a lot of fans with her voice and songwriting.  Her later material is more indie rock than country though.

Tarbox Ramblers

Tarbox Ramblers

Tarbox Ramblers (2000)

A sometimes overlooked gem from sort of the tail end of the insurgent country golden age.

Heartbreaker

Ryan Adams

Heartbreaker (2000)

Though perhaps fame went to his head, Ryan Adams was surely among the better songwriters of the alt country world.  Heartbreaker is indicative of much of the last throes of the golden age of alt country, with more slower tempos and torch songs.  He would, however, still occasionally kick things up a notch, as he did later on Jacksonville City Nights, for instance.

The Magnolia Electric Co.

Songs: Ohia

The Magnolia Electric Co. (2003)

As insurgent/alt country shifted further towards a twangy version of indie rock, few acts had the earnestness, pathos or songwriting abilities of Jason Molina and Songs: Ohia — a band that subsequently assumed the name of this album.

Por Vida

Alejandro Escovedo

Por Vida (2004)

Alejandro Escovedo was named by insurgent country magazine No Depression as the musician of the decade in the 1990s.  It’s a fitting title, as he was one of the most talented and consistent voices of the movement.  His studio albums have tended to fall a bit short of the energy of his live performances, though Por Vida comes closest to the feel of his shows — which were hardly ever the same twice.  It bears mentioning that one of Alejandro’s studio albums like Thirteen Years, Gravity, or A Man Under the Influence might be a better starting point though.

For a Decade of Sin: 11 Years of Bloodshot Records

[Various Artists]

For a Decade of Sin: 11 Years of Bloodshot Records (2005)

A look back from the leading record label of the movement.

Neil Hamburger Sings Country Winners

Neil Hamburger

Neil Hamburger Sings Country Winners (2008)

A joke, surely, but a meta-joke above all.  This is the country album William Shatner never made.