Archives for category: Dan Penn

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, Mercy Lounge – Photo/ Brad Hardisty

Thursday night would mark three years since the first time I saw Jason Isbell (former Drive-By Truckers) and his then “new” band, The 400 Unit in 2009.  Jason was at Mercy Lounge last night at what he called his first “hometown” gig, I might be wrong, but, I think he said since he moved here.

Whether or not that is correct, Jason was playing a Nashville “insider” guitar, a session guy’s new secret weapon, a Duesenberg Gold Top with the futuristic looking German engineered vibrato arm. The retro looking euro-high tech guitars were first popularized by Mike Campbell (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers) but are making their way into Nashville via Rock Block Guitars in a big way.

Jason has always been known for tasty guitar licks, but, he has really developed some deft country licks without going pure Brent Mason. It still has that Muscle Shoals “where Soul meets Country thang” going on.

I was excited to see where he was at since hearing his new project back in 2009. Back then, it was like he was excited to kind of graft in the family tree of Muscle Shoals legends with something akin to The Band or The Heartbreakers (Tom Petty not Johnny Thunders) but now, three albums in and four years on the road, The 400 Unit (named after the former Psychiatric Ward at Florence, Alabama’s Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital) is a crackerjack five piece band, tight and lucid like the heir apparent to The Decoys, that features classic Muscle Shoals players, David Hood, Scott Boyer, Kelvin Holly and sometimes even Spooner Oldham on keys.

Jason has put a lot of weight on his shoulders by putting himself squarely in the middle of a heavy tradition with writers and players like Eddie Hinton, Dan Penn and Donnie Fritts. I have to say it is working out much better than the first time I heard him.  The set was great, the tone, the crowd and the band. I’m glad that he is doing what he is doing. He has refined the dynamics and is now digging a little deeper than the Gibson Les Paul into a Fender thing.

In fact, he pulled a 1970’s era classic Muscle Shoals tune out of his hat as well as a little “Stone Free” on the bridge of the last song before the encores. There was even an ounce of continuity or deja vu for me between that 2009 set at The State Room in Salt Lake City and the one in Nashville the other night.

Justin Townes Earle, The State Room, Salt Lake City, 2009 – Photo / Brad Hardisty

Justin Townes Earle opened for Jason Isbell back on that tour as he was taking off with The Good Life   then Jason Isbell played on Justin’s Harlem River Blues and  Justin was their last night for Jason’s set just catching it from the back.  It’s hard to miss Justin, he’s a tall presence, back then, he had a little Hank Williams style going on, now, it was an overcoat and fedora flair.

Hey, but, let’s get back to Jason. The Country music business is going about creating their own brand of country while there is this parallel universe where most of the Country Artists out of Texas, as well as newcomers, the august, and independent folks like Adam Hood and Jason Isbell pack them in when they come to Nashville.

Jason is some country, some soul and some heart wrenching lyrics, in reality, it’s all about Alabama, with a nod to Hank Williams-style sad lyrics, Duane Allman style ( Jason rocked on this, sometimes with a slide on two different fingers)slide guitar and a country boy from Greenhill, Alabama telling life stories that makes this worth listening too.  He has some solid fans in Nashville.

Dead Fingers, Mercy Lounge, 2012 – Photo / Brad Hardisty

Openers, Dead Fingers, Taylor Hollingsworth and Kate Taylor from Birmingham, Alabama got the invite and as Taylor said, “Alabama, represent!” Taylor has some of his own style going on, incorporating some Mississippi Hill Country Blues and rawhide Country into some Indie folk goings on.

Kate sang probably the strongest set I have heard her do so far; a real standout and an accomplishment at six months pregnant.  Kate has a great mix of Emmylou Harris and sixties vibe queens like Elaine “Spanky” McFarlane of Spank & Our Gang somewhere in that voce bella.

Dead Fingers were just at The Basement two weeks ago. Nashville is looking forward to hearing some more tracks in the future. You could say they are Birmingham’s Civil Wars, but, that would put them too much into a box after all the true Mississippi connections Taylor has made as well as his work with Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band.

Taylor’s slide playing was a standout last night. One of the fun things about Taylor’s playing is when you know his songs, you know when he is experimenting or seeing if the band will go wherever he wanders off too. He didn’t too much of that last night, but, he still looked like he was having fun and there were plenty of Nashvillians and probably some Bowling Green patrons wandering south for the night in the audience when they went on at 9 PM. 

Great Alabama-centric night at Mercy Lounge!

– Brad Hardisty, Nashville, TN     thenashvillebridge@hotmail.com

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Hayes Carll Americana Fest 2011 Mercy Lounge

After the Americana Music Association Carnival pulled out of Nashville, the big question is, what does Americana sound like? A friend of mine said that it would have at least one acoustic instrument in the mix, to give it that authentic roots thing. Jim Lauderdale as he hosted the Americana Awards did a spoof show tune, “That’s Americana!” It was hilarious and it was great because Americana is not a particular sound.

Americana is one of the strangest music references ever, at least when the word “grunge” came along, it meant one of the bands that came out of Seattle at a certain time. Americana is like a radio format for everything that doesn’t fit the current formats, yet, it is getting some of their artists like Mumford and Sons into the mainstream. Not to mention Will Hoge.

A mention was made by one of the show reviewers in Nashville Scene that they were glad that the “old farts in flannel shirts singing post Grateful Dead stuff” were gone and they could have the Exit/In back.

I get the feeling that a lot of people are stumbling onto Americana artists and not even knowing it, in Rolling Stone or when their friend says “listen to this” and pulls up something on their IPod by The Civil Wars or The Avett Brothers.

If you haven’t heard about these artists in the last year, then you live in a bubble. Americana is not only an award at the Grammys now, but, a launch pad, much like Indie format radio, where artists can get their “legs” as they mingle with legends like Gregg Allman and Robert Plant who are flying the banner.

One thing that Americana is not is electronic. Americana may have some roots in any American genre such as Blues, Soul, Gospel, Country, Folk and on and on, but it is definitely not about Kraftwerk or the modern Pop that is all made up on an Apple computer.

Blind Boys of Alabama Americana Fest 2011 Cannery Ballroom

Americana is as much about Red Dirt singer/songwriters like Hayes Carll as it is the roots gospel of The Blind Boys of Alabama.

Blind Boys of Alabama, Alabama Music Tribute at Cannery opening night

I guess if you are looking for a root to Americana you would probably have to go back twenty years in Nashville when about sixty California transplants started gathering to Nashville. Some of them became mainstream songwriters like Jeffrey Steele or Darrell Scott (most recently, Robert Plant & The Band of Joy). The one thing that did happen is they shook up the system.

Kenny Vaughan Americana Fest 2011 Mercy Lounge

Back in those days, Rosie Flores and Lucinda Williams would hang out all night, shutting down two or three bars only to meet up with Billy Block for breakfast.  A good chunk of these people bucked the Country music machine at the time or made some changes to it. They stayed true to themselves and this whole Americana thing has kind of caught up with them and now they are riding a jetstream of new found respect and popularity.

People like Jim Lauderdale who can go from playing straight up bluegrass to roots country to writing Robbie Robertson style music with a Grateful Dead lyricist represent the diversity of what is currently happening. It’s like the alternate universe of “the music business as usual” with a handmade vibe.

Most of what Bob Dylan does nowadays such as Modern Times could be classified Americana.  Many of the Americana Artists really jump from box to box, especially Mumford & Sons and Justin Townes Earle, who have as much Indie respect as they do Americana clout.

Kenny Vaughan packed it in then packed it back up at Mercy

The most interesting thing is that the genre has strong roots outside of the U.S. in places like Australia and Europe. Many of the artists make more money over there when they tour. This is nothing new, we as Americans many times pass on what is really cool about our culture and opt in for the corporate sell, “the spin.”

Americana is mainly artist and fan driven; it is really Indie at its core. If you like the Muscle Shoals era Dan Penn written songs alongside The Avett Brothers, more power to you. It really is the old saying, “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.”

Robert Plant, Entertainer of the Year, The Ryman acceptance speach

You don’t have to buy into acoustic singer/songwriters or flannel shirts and old farts to find something there for yourself. Chances are you are listening to some Americana format music without realizing it. If you’re not sure where to start then it might as well be Buddy Miller, Robert Plant said he heard Buddy the first time when he toured with Emmylou Harris a few years ago and he seemed to embody everything American music, blues, gospel, rock, you name it. Robert said that Buddy will always be a part of whatever he does in the future. Emmylou Harris, at this year’s awards at The Ryman, said, they should call the Americana Award “The Buddy” because he has won so many of them.

By the way, a note to the Nashville Scene writer, when you refer to a group of music fans as old farts, just realize that you are probably being referred to as an old fart by somebody, it could be an 11 year old on a skateboard listening to some punk band out of California and thinking the same about you.

 – Brad Hardisty, Nashville, TN     thenashvillebridge@hotmail.com

New Jersey Cat, , Sam Cooper, has been busy criss-crossing Nashville, splitting time producing, co-writing, hosting or playing songwriter rounds at The Bluebird Cafe, Commodore Grill and Douglas Corner, where he gets nuttin’ but the best entertaining songwriters on his tilt-a-whirl sets as well as gigging with Mary Hartman and The Mistakes.

Sam with Jamey Johnson on "Orange Man" Set

Things are getting interesting on this side of The Cumberland River, Sam may get his first official Nashville cut with his co-writing partners-in-crime Chris Gantry, Alex King, Brenda Enderson and Kate McCoy’s Dark Horse Hip Hop Country flavored “Orange Man” which features cameos by Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson and others may see the light of day with recording artist, Alex King.

Getting a significant cut in four years is a big accomplishment, but, the coffee percolates when he talks about playing with Mary Hartman and The Mistakes. “Billy Block posted a mention on his Facebook page to play drums. I called him up and he didn‘t hesitate to join. We are really excited to work with Billy. He does so much for musicians with The Billy Block Show and he was Lucinda Williams’ (Back in her Nashville days) drummer”. “I can’t say enough about Mary Hartman she oozes personality and sexuality, she is magnetic, a great performer.”

Billy Block

Being a performer comes from what he learned watching acts like The Bruce Springsteen Band opening for Cactus before they became The E Street Band. “One of the things missing here sometimes is presentation. I’m use to a song being a performance. A lot of songwriters just sit and play and could use some vocal coaching but they don’t bother.” Performance of the song is as integral as the lyrics to Sam. 

In fact, Sam comes with a background touring that includes the Northeast chitlin’ circuit soon after he and his father had an argument.  Dad told him to pack his bags back in 1971. He left Virginia not long after starting his sophomore year of college in Richmond with nothing but the clothes on his back and headed to New Jersey where he found a room to rent with some friends for $100 a month.  He eventually settled near the ocean in the Asbury Park area where he remained until 2006, when he discovered “home”–Nashville.

Sam had a background as a radio DJ, concert security, announcing bands and even started playing guitar and trumpet in the fourth grade but he never thought about actually being in the music business professionally and writing songs regularly until that move to New Jersey. He joined a bar band and hit the road. He got the bug performing many genres, but especially “soul” music.  “The Beatles were a huge influence on me especially when “A Hard Day’s Night” came out, but soul music is something that you just can’t fake.  My biggest influences are Ray Charles, Delbert McClinton, Stevie Wonder, Dan Penn, Isaac Hayes and a lot of horn-flavored desert island soul. I was really upset when I heard that Solomon Burke had died”.

Sam brings his own Jersey Shore rock and soul roots to songs like “East Nashville Girls”. Many of his songs are a celebration, a party; in fact he has a song called “Time to Party”. He has a wide palette that comes from his formative radio listening days. “The first three songs that I got hooked on were Ray Stevens’ “Ahab the Arab”, “Speedy Gonzalez” by Pat Boone and Bobby Darin singing “Dream Lover”. Anybody who has worked with Sam can’t help but laugh about that.

It makes sense since Sam can go from the romantic cinema “You Bring the Sunshine”, where one can envision sharing smiles and kisses with a sun tanned babe in the Florida Keys and then turns around and writes “Lee Ann Womack Truck” which he affectionately calls his “Bless your little heart” song to Music Row.

In a town where you get what you bring to the table; Sam is a Muscle Shoals laden Beatle beat master. One of his strongest songs “Red Bulls and Caffeine Pills”, an ode to the modern trucker or just commentary on a late night ride back to see his wife, Dawn,  in New Jersey veers with bounce- in- your- car seat rhythm ala “Get Back” to Preston Starr-ing in a McCartney Bass boogie thriller of a hook.

When Sam works, which is almost all the time, it’s like he is running his own club house, signing up memberships on his mailing list and getting friends out to shows like it was Madison Square Garden or at least CBGB’s when Blondie, The Ramones and The Talking Heads were breaking and making new rules. He always thinks about presentation whether it is a song sampler or sitting on a stool playing at The Bluebird Café. 

Sam not only thinks of himself, but those he admires, keeping everybody in touch with up and coming news through his website and social networking pages.  The most important thing is he can sing his songs breaking bread with an Eddie Hinton– Dan Penn- Donnie Fritts kind of gravel and whiskey excess and turn around and deliver what the song asks for, whether it is Tom Waits or Peter Tosh.

This year seems to be playing out like so many well-placed notes in a melody, a culmination of years of bar band covers and the last few putting pen to paper where songwriting and publishing are an art. If there have been any setbacks for Sam in his Nashville life, he has taken them like the Pinball Wizard getting a match for an extra game on a Kiss Pinball Machine.

Mary Hartman

Sam has a couple of upcoming gigs; John Carter Cash will warm up for Mary Hartman and The Mistakes at The Rutledge on Oct. 26th, followed by a show at Douglas Corner Cafe on November 20th.

– Brad Hardisty, Nashville,  TN     thenashvillebridge@hotmail.com