Tom McDonald

I grew up and got schooled in New England, hitch-hiked on a whim to pre-Grunge-era Seattle, never left. Took to designing software for authors and publishers. Raised two kids and quite a few chickens on a island in Puget Sound. Taught myself guitar and banjo and formed a covers band. I help run a map store; here’s an issue of our newsletter. I favor British tv comedies and novels by Cormac McCarthy.

Jun 262020
 

John HartfordOn the Road: A Tribute to John HartfordSongwriter, banjo-picker, old-time fiddler, dancer, tv star, radio dj, and, perhaps most importantly, professional riverboat pilot. Welcome to the weird, wide world of John Hartford.

Hartford was a cross between Bill Monroe and Mark Twain—he titled one of his albums Mark Twang. He was among the first to join hippie sensibilities with hillbilly ways. During the late ’60s and early ’70s, Hartford was both a vivid reminder of America’s past musical heritage, and also a harbinger of things to come; he shaped contemporary music almost in spite of himself. “Newgrass,” which in turn fed into the jam band phenomena, is basically Hartford’s concoction (though mandolinist Sam Bush gets some credit too). Even Americana, as it is currently defined, is impossible to imagine without him—the blockbuster O Brother, Where Art Thou project has Hartford’s fingerprints and spirit all over it.

So a new John Hartford Tribute album is most welcomed, and now we have one in hand: On the Road, from LoHi Records. It’s a dang good tribute album, too, starting with the opening cut (by Hartford’s co-conspirator Sam Bush), and never letting up.
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Jun 262020
 

They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with covers of his or her songs. Let someone else do the work for a while. Happy birthday!

Happy Birthday to Harriet Wheeler, lead-singer and co-songwriter for the 90s alternative band, The Sundays. Wheeler’s angelic voice and understated presence always seemed like the perfect vehicle for the band’s sometimes devilish lyrics.
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Jun 202020
 

Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.

It’s the longest day of the year, so we have time to explore one of the longest songs we’ve ever celebrated in the long history of this website. Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” clocks in at 23:31. It occupies all of side two of their 1971 album Meddle, and it occupies the minds of the many Floyd fans who consider it the band’s peak achievement.

Thanks to several decades of live recordings, a kind of connoisseurship has developed around the song in its different iterations. Devotees weigh the pros and cons of the early-to-mid-70s concert recordings that feature “Echoes,” and compare/contrast those with the shows from the band’s post-Roger Waters period, and how they all stack up against the original studio version.
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Jun 142020
 

In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.

The recent rioting and violence in U.S. cities forms the backdrop to this remembrance of the much-loved Irish blues-rock guitarist Rory Gallagher, who died on this day in 1995–making this the 25th anniversary of his death. The connection is simply this: in the early ’70s, when Belfast, Northern Ireland was a war-torn site of terrorist bombings and assassinations with rival paramilitary units roaming the streets, Rory defied the fear that kept other performers away. Gallagher returned repeatedly to the shattered European capital, playing sold-out shows that brought Catholics together with Protestants, Loyalists together with Nationalists, healing the region’s division with music. For a few magic hours, anyway.

The Irish still remember his bravery and of course his music–on this day especially–though both Belfast and Ireland have transformed dramatically since. The peace agreements between the warring sides were signed in 1998, just three years too late for Rory Gallagher to witness the achievement.
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Jun 122020
 

Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

Beginning around 1990, a major mountain range began forming along the fault lines where country music, punk-influenced rock, and traditional folk music meet. Call it the Alt-Country range, or the Roots/Americana mountains, or whatever you like. The range includes material from then-new artists like Uncle Tupelo (and its offshoots, Son Volt and Wilco), and the work of not-so-new figures, Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt among them. Bedrock that was long covered over–songs by the Carter Family and the Stanley Brothers, say–got brought to the surface again and mixed in with the new. The formative period for Alt-Country ended by 2000 or so, with the final uplift being the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou, a project that help usher southern-style folk music beyond certain enclaves in Austin and Nashville.

Looking back, most would agree that among the most prominent peaks in the entire mountain range is Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. The album is over 20 years old, but time doesn’t wear it down, and in the rear view mirror it still looms large. Let’s pull over to admire the achievement.
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Jun 012020
 

Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.

son house and friends

The biography of delta blues musician Son House reads like an old blues song, composed of familiar fabrics borrowed from others, a patchwork quilt of “bluesman” tropes. See if you’ve seen these patterns before:

  • He made his first recordings in 1930, quickly and under shabby conditions. They didn’t sell.
  • He became a street preacher, and rejected the blues as “the devil’s music.”
  • He served time in Mississippi’s Parchment Farm penitentiary (on charges related to a shootout in a juke joint).
  • He migrated north along the Mississippi to escape farm labor and to find an industrial job (working in an East St. Louis steel plant for a time).
  • Field recordings of his songs were captured by Alan Lomax in 1941 and ‘42, becoming part of the Library of Congress folk song collection. (Congress stopped funding folk song collection in 1942, not that this stopped Lomax.) Thereafter House became a railroad porter and quit music.
  • He was rediscovered by young white audiences in the early ’60s and lured back into a music career.
  • He played the Newport Folk Festival in ‘64, gigged around Europe and North America, and wrote new songs and issued new recordings until ill health sidelined him once again.

Although those early Son House recordings didn’t sell, they influenced younger players like Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, as did Son House himself, on a personal level. Howlin’ Wolf was yet another House protege of importance.

The Son House song we turn to today, “Death Letter,” doesn’t stem from his early days, but from his rediscovery period, specifically the 1965 sessions for Columbia. As often is true with folk music, the song’s actual history is a little murky. A couple of its verses appear on the 1930 song “My Black Mama, Part II.” The Lomax recordings from the ’40s also include snatches of the lyrics, but not the song itself. Then there’s the fact that Son House never established the definitive version; he performed the song extensively after his rediscovery, but rarely played the same set of verses.

Any artist who covers the song in his wake is left to draw from their favorite verses–or repeat the ones they know from the recording they happen to know. And of course they are free to bend the music itself to suit their mood. The three artists presented here don’t just change things up, they each make something distinctive from the commonplace blues progression that forms the song’s backbone.
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