Sunday, September 29, 2019

Country Music History: The First Star of the Grand Ole Opry

The Metro magazine, art by James Threalkill
During the past decade, many of the stars of country music have become household names on par with rock musicians or movie stars. To many fans, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville represents the history of country music. Superstars like Garth Brooks, George Strait, and Vince Gill are well-known members of the Opry, while hardcore fans would recognize artists like Skeeter Davis or Porter Wagoner, names from country’s past, as long-time members of this hallowed institution. Few country fans or historians remember, however, the first star of the Opry.

Who was the first star of the Grand Ole Opry? If asked, most people would think for a minute, then mistakenly name such country greats as Jimmie Rogers, Uncle Dave Macon, or maybe even Roy Acuff. Contrary to popular belief, however, the Opry’s first performer and, arguably, its first star, was none other than DeFord Bailey, an African-American performer born and raised in Tennessee.

Originally known as the WSM Barn Dance, the Grand Ole Opry was given its name by popular radio announcer George D. Hay in 1927. Nashville’s WSM radio had just become part of the fledgling NBC Radio Network and, in response to a network broadcast of conductor Walter Damrosch’s “Musical Appreciation Hour,” Hay quipped, “friends, the program which just came to a close was devoted to the classics. Doctor Damrosch told us that it was generally agreed that there is no place in the classics for realism. However, from here on out, for the next three hours, we will present nothing but realism. It will be down to earth for the ‘earthy’.”

DeFord Bailey: The First Star of the Grand Ole Opry

DeFord Bailey
Hay then introduced one of the Barn Dance’s most frequent and popular performers, a man he dubbed the “Harmonica Wizard,” DeFord Bailey, who performed his classic train song, “Pan American Blues.” After Bailey’s typically spirited performance, Hay mouthed the phrase that would become music history: “For the past hour we have been listening to music largely from Grand Opera, but from now on, we will present ‘The Grand Ole Opry’.” The legendary Opry and Bailey, its first star, were born.

Bailey’s road to the Opry was a difficult one. Born in 1900 in rural Smith County, Tennessee, about 40 miles east of Nashville, Bailey was the grandson of a freed slave who had fought for the Union Army during the Civil War. DeFord’s mother died when he was only a year old; his father’s sister, Barbara Lou, and her husband, effectively became his foster parents, caring for him throughout the rest of his childhood.

As a boy, DeFord grew up among a musical family, a passion he passed on to his own children and grandchildren, who are also musicians. His son, DeFord the Second, a multi-instrumentalist himself says, “it ran through the family.” DeFord learned the traditional tunes of what he would later call “black hillbilly music” from his grandfather, aunt and other family members. He learned to play the mouth harp while a child and it remained his favorite instrument. DeFord was a multi-talented musician, however, able to play a banjo, guitar, mandolin, and even a bit of violin. During DeFord’s teens, the Bailey family would often perform together at church gatherings and barn dances.

DeFord had toyed with the idea of actually making a living performing the music he loved so much; in 1925 he received his first big break. Radio had come to Nashville in the form of station WDAD, owned by a radio supply storeowner named L.N. Smith. The store – called “Dad’s” – was managed by Fred “Pop” Exum, a radio enthusiast and a fan of DeFord’s who quickly asked Bailey to perform on the air. Though the station was small by any standards, broadcasting at a mere 150 watts, its signal reached out hundreds of miles through the night air, drawing fan mail from such far-flung locales as Atlanta, Philadelphia, and New York.

Nashville’s WSM radio, owned by regional economic powerhouse National Life and Accident Insurance, went on the air a month later. It was here that Hay, lured to the station from WLS in Chicago, began the Saturday night show of authentic folk and country music that would become the “Barn Dance.” The line-up of musicians would often include many WDAD regulars, who would play at both stations on Saturday nights.

WSM Barn Dance

DeFord Bailey
One of these regulars, Dr. Humphrey Bate, a respected country doctor and well-known musician, talked DeFord into joining him up on the hill at WSM one night. Arriving while the show was already in progress, Bate told Hay that he wanted DeFord to play on the air. It was only with Bate’s insistence that Hay begrudgingly agreed to allow DeFord to play a couple of tunes. After Bailey’s performance, though, Hay was elated at the young man’s talents and added him as a regular to the show. DeFord appeared as a weekly regular, bringing in large quantities of fan mail, as well as telegrams and phone calls with special song requests.

As an Opry performer, DeFord helped to carry the show during its early years, offering an excellent balance to other performers such as Uncle Dave Macon and the McGee Brothers. Bailey’s popularity led the enthusiastic Hay to believe him ready for the stardom proffered a recording artist and chose him as one of the three Opry acts to be recorded by Columbia Records in an Atlanta session in early 1927.

These sessions proved to be ill advised and unproductive, leading Hay to cancel the deal and instead contract with the Brunswick label to record Bailey in New York. The two New York sessions would yield eight songs, including the classic “Pan American Blues.” The songs were released in 1927 as part of Brunswick’s Songs From Dixie series – the only recordings by a black performer among the series. They were also issued by Vocalion, Brunswick’s sister label, and several were also reissued in 1930, again by Brunswick.

Though evidence exists to support the contention that the records were commercial hits, DeFord saw little in the way of royalties (an occurrence not uncommon with black performers to this day). As David C. Morton relates in his excellent biography of Bailey, DeFord Bailey: A Black Star In Early Country Music, DeFord was supposed to receive $400 cash for the recordings, as well as 2% royalties on each record sold. George Hay took 25% of the cash payment for arranging the sessions, paying out the remaining $300 in weekly increments of $10 (which also supplanted the $7 he was paid weekly for his Opry performances). Bailey also received three royalty checks totaling $128 for the songs, less than half, by any estimates, than he should have been paid.

A year later, Hay had set up the first recording session to ever take place in what would later become the “Music City,” luring the Victor label (later RCA) to town to record his Opry performers. DeFord took part in this historic session, cutting eight new songs in four and a half-hours. Three of these songs would later be released by Victor, the last, “John Henry,” was released in 1932. Reissues of the material were released as late as 1936.

Although DeFord saw little gain from these recordings – his entire catalogue of commercial releases weighing in at just eleven songs – their influence on a generation of harp players can still be felt today. No other harmonica player during those early days of recording and radio was captured so well onto vinyl; Bailey’s success led to a rash of field recordings of other Black harmonica soloists and paved the way for popular artists such as Sonny Boy Williamson. After the disappointing pay-off of recording (DeFord received a lump sum of $200 for the Victor sides), Bailey never really tried to record again after 1928.

Unhappy with the money he was receiving from WSM, and with George Hay, Bailey was lured to Knoxville by W.C. “Pay Cash” Taylor to appear on WNOX radio (for $20 a night, nearly three times what Hay was paying him!). Bailey’s debut performance was a smash success, running two hours past the scheduled ending time and prompting dozens of long distance calls to the station from satisfied listeners. His regular appearances drew fan mail from several states to the small station. DeFord soon began to itch for something else, though, even considering a trip to California to try his luck there. Convinced by Taylor and Hay into returning to Nashville, Bailey, after insisting on the same money he was making in Knoxville, rejoined the Opry in 1929.

Roy Acuff & Bill Monroe

David Morton's DeFord Bailey: A Black Star In Early Country MusicDuring the 1930s, Bailey toured constantly with several bands, playing tent shows, county fairs, and theaters across the country, always returning to the Opry stage for Saturday night’s performance. Being a black man in a white man’s world presented many problems as segregation forced DeFord to find other places to eat and sleep than his fellow performers. The old shibboleth of money also raised its head again, as the five dollars a day DeFord received for performing barely paid his travel expenses and was often significantly less than that which his fellow (white) performers were paid. Often times Bailey was cheated in the amount paid him, or offered whiskey as payment (which Bailey, a teetotaler, politely refused). His was the star that attracted crowds out to the shows during the depression as people paid fifty cents apiece to see DeFord and the other Opry performers in person.

By the late ‘30s, DeFord had befriended a young fiddler from East Tennessee by the name of Roy Acuff. Acuff came to the Opry in 1938 as an unknown; realizing the popularity of the harp player, he asked DeFord to tour with his band. DeFord did so, helping publicize Acuff’s “Smoky Mountain Boys” with his drawing power over the next couple of years, directly lending a hand to Acuff’s future stardom. Bill Monroe, the King of Bluegrass music, also utilized Bailey’s talents and drawing power on tour to publicize his band.

The spring of 1941 saw Bailey start his sixteenth year with the Grand Ole Opry and its radio broadcast. Even though his airtime had been cut back, he still appeared as frequently as any other artist, including thirty weeks during 1939, and remained one of the show’s most popular performers. Within a couple of months, though, in May of 1941, Bailey was fired by the Opry, a mystery often covered up or neglected by country music historians. Although authors through the years have come up with many theories or facts, claiming racial reasons or, as the official party line stated, the fact that DeFord wouldn’t learn any new songs, the truth behind his dismissal probably lies somewhere in betwixt the two.

According to George Hay, the Opry’s founder and guiding light through the early years, as written in his account of the Opry, “like some members of his race and other races, DeFord was lazy. He knew about a dozen numbers, which he put on the air and recorded for a major company, but he refused to learn any more, even though his reward was great…” Bailey biographer David C. Morton believes that Bailey was merely caught up in an industry-wide boycott of songs administered by the ASCAP licensing agency. Prohibited for legal reasons from performing many of his best-known songs on the air, DeFord lost his value to the Opry. After leaving the Opry, Bailey opened a shoe shine stand in downtown Nashville that he worked until his death in 1982.

Actually, DeFord knew dozens of traditional songs that he had grown up playing and had written many more. Of his refusal to learn any new songs, his son DeFord the Second says, “that part I know is wrong. The songs that I know today that he taught to me, he learned to play different after I had grown up.” According to most accounts, DeFord had the soul of a jazz artist, often improvising on the spot, with each performance being slightly different and equally special.

Country Music Hall of Fame

The Legendary DeFord Bailey CD
Bailey’s role as the Opry’s first performer and an important factor in the show’s future success, as well as his role as country music’s first African-American star, has been sadly overlooked by the Nashville establishment. To this day Bailey remains an obscurity, a footnote in the history that he helped create. Even at the Opry, his status has been forgotten, as observes DeFord the Second, “all these stars have gold and bronze framed pictures on the wall, Dad’s picture is nowhere to be seen.” In 2001, the Academy of Country Music got a lot of press out of the nomination of Charlie Pride as the first African-American member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Bailey remains the only founding member of the Grand Ole Opry refused this great honor.

Although racism has certainly played a part in denying this musical pioneer his place in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and thus a permanent place in musical history, many industry insiders dismiss Bailey as an insignificant artist. The simple fact however, is that black or white, people loved DeFord Bailey. He was a musician of considerable talent, depth and charisma, drawing large audiences with his live performances and creating a legion of dedicated fans with nearly two decades of radio appearances – people who cared not of color, but came to hear the music that DeFord Bailey loved playing so well.

[Note: The story of DeFord Bailey was brought to me by my late musician friend Aashid Himons, who was a friend of the Bailey family and an outspoken advocate for the artist’s induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Nothing happened for better than a decade after our article on DeFord was first published in 1993 by Nashville’s The Metro magazine. Reprinted by my friends at Big O magazine in Singapore the early 2000s, however, the article caught the eye of country music fans in Australia, who reportedly deluged the institution with letters asking why Bailey wasn’t a member, often accompanied by copies of this article. Curiously, Bailey was subsequently inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.]

Buy the book from David C. Morton's DeFord Bailey: A Black Star In Early Country Music

Friday, September 27, 2019

Archive Review: The Wildhearts' The Wildhearts Must Be Destroyed (2004)

The Wildhearts' The Wildhearts Must Be Destroyed
Long before the Darkness were credited with reviving the spirit, if not exactly the substance of “glam rock,” British bands like the London Quireboys, Dogs D’Amour, and the Wildhearts kept that glittering flame alive. Drawing on influences such as the Rolling Stones, the Faces, and Marc Bolan’s T-Rex, the riff-happy Wildhearts and their brethren created some of the most energetic and lively rock music of the ’90s. Unfortunately, outside of the U.K. only a few hardcore American Anglophiles knew squat about these bands, none of which made a dent on the Seattle-dominated mid-’90s rock scene. After enjoying almost a decade as the monarchy’s favorite bad boys of debauchery, the Wildhearts called it a day...

After a handful of years pursuing the brass ring with other bands, Wildhearts’ mastermind and frontman “Ginger” decided to reconvene the original band line-up in 2001. Ginger reunited with guitarist Chris Jagdhar and drummer Andrew “Stidi” Stidolph, recording the tentative Riff After Motherfucking Riff EP for release in Japan. The experiment must have paid off as the band released its official “comeback” CD – The Wildhearts Must Be Destroyed – in England in 2003. After years of being ignored by American audiences, the disc was released stateside earlier this year. A successful U.S. tour opening for the Darkness increased the band’s profile among American rockers, and the subsequent release of the newly-minted, full-length Riff After Riff on Gearhead has the Wildhearts primed for a potential breakthrough.

The Wildhearts Must Be Destroyed is a transitional album. The band works hard to find a balance between its Glam-rock roots – a mix of Slade-styled bombast and Sweet-flavored riff-rock – and the harder-edged influences of the Stones, pub-rockers like Dr. Feelgood, and various “new wave of British metal” bands. The pop/rock side of the band wins out here, broadcast-friendly tunes like “Vanilla Radio” and “So Into You” seemingly written specifically to appeal to radio audiences. “There's Only One Hell” offers some stellar guitar interplay and a killer hook, Ginger’s vocals sounding like Nick Lowe while the band sounds like Cheap Trick, or maybe Rockpile. The engaging “Top of the World” opens with Jagdhar’s razor-sharp six-string work before tumbling into a joyous blend of vocal harmonies and driving rhythms.

There are few bands that can mix hard rock and pop melodies as successfully as the Wildhearts. Even so, many of the songs on The Wildhearts Must Be Destroyed, enjoyable as they may be, are missing a certain “joi de vivre” that made previous Wildhearts’ albums a crucial part of every rocker’s music library. As such, The Wildhearts Must Be Destroyed serves as a bookend with the recently released Riff After Riff – which itself showcases the harder-rocking, metal-edged side of the band’s personality. The Wildhearts are clearly working towards a future album that will include both sides of the musical dichotomy that made the band so attractive a decade ago. In the meantime, check out The Wildhearts Must Be Destroyed and get a taste of the rock ‘n’ roll cheap thrills that you've been missing. (Sanctuary Records, 2004)

Buy the CD from The WildheartsThe Wildhearts Must Be Destroyed

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2004

Archive Review: Bob Mould's Body of Song (2005)

Bob Mould's Body of Song
Enigmatic to a fault and refusing to relive past glories, Bob Mould is an artist in the truest sense of the word. The guiding force behind the legendary and influential mid-’80s punk trio Hüsker Dü and groundbreaking early ’90s alt-rock threesome Sugar, Mould’s subsequent solo work has been varied and, for fans expecting carbon copies of his early band efforts, problematic. Mould’s muse remains his integrity, though, and Body of Song provides few clues to the artist’s past or future beyond the songs displaying his current musical vision.

Regarded as Mould’s first “rock” album in seven years (following 2002’s electronica-dominated Modulate), Body of Song does represent a significant return to form for one of rock music’s most electric and intriguing creators. Picking up the guitar again after a long hiatus away from the instrument, Mould has managed to regain the incredible six-string skills he once displayed, pushing beyond his trademark droning chords to incorporate big riffs and jazzy flourishes hidden beneath the constant sonic assault. Mould has not given up on his enchantment with electronica and rhythm-fueled tunes; instead he has found a way to incorporate elements of the dancefloor into the guitar-driven three-to-four-minute rock song format. In doing so, Mould has made the material palatable, as it were, for the hardcore rocker adverse to anything showing even the slightest hint of electronic tinkering.

Although Body of Song isn’t quite the masterwork that alt-critics desperately wanted it to be, it’s a good, strong album with many memorable moments and, at times, it rocks every bit as hard as Hüsker Dü ever did. Strangely enough, for this old school punk rock fan, the tunes that bite these ears the hardest are also those that show the most electronica influences. “(Shine Your) Light Love Hope,” with its vocoder-altered vox, benefits from the constant rhythms of Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, showing remarkably fluid timekeeping, while Mould uses his multi-layered and processed vocals as the lead rhythm instrument. “Paralyzed” walks the closest to Mould’s past, highlighting the singer’s vastly underrated vocal skills and wonderful sense of melody, chiming guitars augmented by a wicked recurring synth riff. “Always Tomorrow” benefits from modern studio wizardry, its technologically-dependent texture supported by Mould’s almost whispered vocals.

True, Bob Mould’s music doesn't make quite the splash that it once did, with the impact of the man’s talents diminished somewhat by time and familiarity. Mould’s talents as a songwriter, singer, and musician remain as sharp as a razor, however, and if his unpredictable artistic nature puts off those expecting “Dü II,” then the loss is theirs to suffer, not Mould’s. As shown by Body of Song, Mould still has quite a bit to say, even if his musical vocabulary has become less caustic and more subtle with age. (Yep Roc Records, released July 26, 2005)

Buy the CD from Bob Mould’s Body of Song

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2005

Friday, September 20, 2019

Archive Review: Dead Kennedys' Frankenchrist (2001)

Dead Kennedys' Frankenchrist
Although they’re often underrated when mainstream pundits revise the history of punk rock, the Dead Kennedys were nonetheless one of the most influential and important bands in hardcore America. They provided a voice of sanity during the Reagan era and set the lyrical stage for other politically-oriented bands like Rage Against The Machine and Corporate Avenger.

This CD reissue of 1985’s Frankenchrist is part of Manifesto’s overall revamping of the Dead Kennedys’ catalog; this being the band’s third and, perhaps, most notorious album. The original vinyl release included a fold-out poster by Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger that led to the arrest of DK frontman Jello Biafra on obscenity charges. Although Biafra eventually won the case, the attempted censorship and subsequent legal trials and tribulations broke the DKs apart.

Strangely enough, Frankenchrist is long way from being the band’s best album (a spot still reserved by Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, their debut). Frankenchrist may be the most politically-strident release in the DKs catalog, but it eschews the satirical good humor of earlier efforts in favor of more poisonous lyrical barbs. Musically, it is perhaps their most accomplished effort, with guitarist East Bay Ray, bassist Klaus Flouride, and drummer D.H. Peligro coming into their own as instrumentalists. The album kicks off with a mutant surf guitar riff, “Soup Is Good Food” documenting the early days of corporate “downsizing” and the hidden costs of consumerism.

Biafra’s “Chicken Farm” offers a wicked raga-flavored guitar riff beneath a chilling tale of life during wartime. “MTV - Get Off The Air” points out the enervating, soulless corporate nature of “music television” while the pedestrian lyrics of “At My Job” are matched with a brilliantly martial undercurrent courtesy of some strange time changes and recurring rhythms. Biafra’s “Stars and Stripes of Corruption” would later be revisited in spoken word form but here it sports an unrelenting guitar attack punctuating Biafra’s unique and powerful vocals.

At the time, the Dead Kennedys were a perfect fit between Biafra’s often-brilliant social commentary and the player’s hardcore punk assault. Biafra’s manic performances are legend, the energy and passion that he and the band brought to the material unmatched by any punk band in the decade and a half since. (Manifesto Records, released September 11, 2001)

Buy the CD from Dead Kennedys' Frankenchrist

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2001

Friday, September 13, 2019

Spotlight on R.E.M.

R.E.M. photo by Anton Corbijn, courtesy Warner Bros. Records
R.E.M. photo by Anton Corbijn, courtesy Warner Bros.

R.E.M. Select Discography

Reckoning EP (I.R.S. Records, 1982)
Murmur (I.R.S. Records, 1983)
Reckoning (I.R.S. Records, 1984)
Fables of the Reconstruction (I.R.S. Records, 1985)
Lifes Rich Pageant (I.R.S. Records, 1986)
Document (I.R.S. Records, 1987)
Green (Warner Bros. Records, 1988)
Out of Time (Warner Bros. Records, 1991)
Automatic For the People (Warner Bros. Records, 1992)
Monster (Warner Bros. Records, 1994)
New Adventures In Hi-Fi (Warner Bros. Records, 1996)
Up (Warner Bros. Records, 1998)
Reveal (Warner Bros. Records, 2001)
Around the Sun (Warner Bros. Records, 2004)
R.E.M. Live (Warner Bros. Records, 2007)
Accelerate (Warner Bros. Records, 2008)
Live At the Olympia (Warner Bros. Records, 2009)
Collapse Into Now (Warner Bros. Records, 2011)
Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions (Rhino Records, 2014)
R.E.M. At the BBC (Craft Recordings, 2018 box set)

R.E.M. mini-bio

For almost three decades, from 1983 until their break-up in 2011, R.E.M. was one of the biggest and most beloved bands in the world. Formed in Athens, Georgia in 1980 by singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry, the band would grow beyond its status as college radio superstars to become one of the leading progenitors of 1990s-era “alternative rock.” Over the course of their lengthy career, R.E.M. would release 15 studio and four live albums, selling better than 85 million records worldwide, and inspiring artists like Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus. Unusual, for a band with such a large commercial presence, R.E.M. also enjoyed significant critical support through the years.

R.E.M.'s Chronic Town EP
As the legend goes, Michael Stipe met Peter Buck in 1980 at Wuxtry Records in Athens, where Buck was working at the time. The two hit it off, discovering that they had similar taste in music, both favoring artists like Patti Smith and the Velvet Underground. Stipe and Buck were introduced to Mike Mills and Bill Berry by a mutual friend, and the four decided to make some music together. They quickly developed a unique musical style based on Stipe’s distinctive vocals and obscure lyrics, and Buck’s jangly guitar sound. They would record their first single, “Radio Free Europe,” along with a handful of other songs, at producer Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studios in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. They originally used the four-track demos to promote the band, but would release “Radio Free Europe,” with the B-side “Sitting Still,” as a single on the local indie label Hib-Tone.

The single’s first pressing quickly sold out, and popular demand forced the label to press thousands of additional copies. R.E.M. returned to North Carolina to record songs that would be featured on their Chronic Town EP. Originally planned for release by the band’s manager’s label, I.R.S. Records signed R.E.M. on the strength of their demo tape and released the five-song Chronic Town in 1982. The band followed it up less than a year later, recording their full-length debut album Murmur with producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon. The album would inch into the Top 40 of the Billboard magazine charts, mostly due to early support by college radio and the band’s constant touring and electric live shows. Although clearly inspired by 1960s-era rock ‘n’ roll, Murmur’s enigmatic sound and texture – based on Stipe’s often-incomprehensible vocals, Buck’s unique guitar playing, and Mills’ melodic bass lines – was unlike anything released by any other band at the time. The album was eventually awarded a Gold™ Record for better than a half-million units sold.

R.E.M.'s Reckoning
R.E.M. returned to North Carolina to record their sophomore album, Reckoning, working once again with Easter and Dixon. The album sported an original cover by Georgia “outsider” artist Rev. Howard Finster, whose association with R.E.M. would bring his work to a much wider audience. The album would receive almost universal critical acclaim and would peak a few notches higher on the charts than its predecessor, at #27 on its way to Gold™ Record status. For their third album, Fables of the Reconstruction, the band traveled to England to work with famed producer Joe Boyd, who had worked with British folk legends Nick Drake and Fairport Convention. The band hated the experience, and nearly broke up over it, and while Fables of the Reconstruction stumbled a bit commercially in comparison to its predecessor, it actually grew the band’s audience in the U.K.

In an effort to take their record sales to the next level, R.E.M. enlisted John Mellencamp producer Don Gehman to record Lifes Rich Pageant at Mellencamp’s Belmont Mall Studios in Indiana. Gehman sanded down some of the band’s rough edges and provided them with a tougher, harder-rocking sound but ultimately the album charted only slightly higher (#21) than the band’s previous two efforts. Still searching for something that they probably didn’t know they needed, R.E.M. hooked up with producer Scott Litt for what would be the band’s last album for I.R.S. Records, 1987’s Document. Litt had worked with artists like Ian Hunter, the dB’s, and Matthew Sweet as an engineer and producer and his efforts on behalf of R.E.M. would ensure not only his own career but that of the band.

R.E.M.'s Document
Document would be the first of six exceedingly successful albums that R.E.M. would co-produce with Litt, their initial collaboration resulting in a Top 10 hit single in “The One I Love” and minor hits with “Finest Worksong” and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” earning the band its first Platinum™ Record for over one million units sold. The release of Document fulfilled the band’s contract with I.R.S. Records and, frustrated that the label’s distributor didn’t consider R.E.M. a priority, they left the label. Shopping around, R.E.M. took less money to sign with Warner Bros. Records in exchange for total creative freedom. Some fans saw this move as “selling out,” an accusation that was soon rendered moot by the 1988 release of Green, the band’s major label debut.

An authentically-eclectic mix of songs, Green benefitted from the better distribution and marketing muscle afforded the band by Warner Bros. and resulted in a Top 10 hit in “Stand” and Modern Rock chart hits in “Orange Crush” and “Pop Song 89,” the album eventually achieving Double Platinum™ sales status. Unlike many of their contemporaries, who were overwhelmed by the steamroller that was “grunge” in the 1990s, R.E.M. weathered the commercial tsunami created by an “alternative rock” movement that it helped create. The band’s 1991 album, Out of Time, would propel R.E.M. to international stardom, yielding three hit singles in “Losing My Religion,” “Shiny Happy People,” and “Radio Song.” Out of Time would earn the band three Grammy® Awards and go on to sell better than four million copies in the U.S. (over 18 million worldwide), topping the charts stateside and in the U.K. as well as in new markets like Canada, Italy, Holland, and Austria.

R.E.M.'s Automatic For the People
A little more than a year later, R.E.M. returned with Automatic For the People, another chart-busting effort that, fueled by radio hits in “Everybody Hurts,” “Drive,” and “Man On the Moon,” would also sell over four million copies in the U.S. and over 15 million worldwide. Much as they did with Out of Time, however, R.E.M. decided not to tour in support of the album. They would switch gears again for 1994’s Monster, delivering a louder, less complex set of songs that nevertheless resounded with audiences, topping the charts in the U.S. and the U.K. on the strength of hit songs like “Crush With Eyeliner” and “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and selling over four million copies stateside. The band launched a worldwide tour in support of Monster, their first in six years, with Sonic Youth and Radiohead as opening acts.

Although shows on the Monster tour sold out consistently, the tour wasn’t without its obstacles. Three of the four band members experienced serious health issues over the course of the year and underwent surgery, sidelining the band for months at a time. R.E.M. used their time on the road widely, though, writing and performing a number of new songs. They taped shows on an eight-track recorder and based their 1996 album, New Adventures In Hi-Fi, on those recordings. Although the album was moderately successful, it sold a quarter of the band’s previous three blockbusters, which was attributed to alt-rock fatigue on the part of audiences. It would be the last album with founding member Bill Berry, who left the band on good terms after its release, and it was the last they’d record with producer Scott Litt.

In the interim, R.E.M. re-signed with Warner Bros. for a reported $80 million, a contract that included the band’s early, and still consistently-selling catalog of albums. Carrying on as a three-piece without Berry, and enlisting friends like drummer Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees) and Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows), R.E.M. closed out the tumultuous decade with 1998’s critically-acclaimed album Up, produced by the band and Irish producer Patrick McCarthy (The Waterboys, U2). McCarthy would also work with the band on 2001’s Reveal and 2004’s Around the Sun albums as well as the soundtrack to the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic Man On the Moon. Although the band’s commercial peak was clearly in the rear-view mirror and the recording industry was undergoing drastic changes, two of the three studio albums that R.E.M. recorded with McCarthy would achieve Gold™ Record status.

R.E.M.'s Accelerate
The band released the hard-rocking album Accelerate in 2008, recorded with Irish producer and punk rocker Jackknife Lee. The album was deemed “a return to form” by many critics, and would top the charts in several countries (peaking at #2 in the U.S.). Bookending the band’s 14th studio album was 2007’s R.E.M. Live (a collection of 2005 performances) and 2009’s Live At the Olympia (capturing a 2007 performance). The band’s swansong would come with 2011’s Collapse Into Now, co-produced by the band working again with Lee and recorded in Berlin, Nashville, and New Orleans. The album fulfilled the band’s contract with Warner Bros. and the three band members decided to call it a day.

R.E.M. had considered hanging up their spurs years previous, after the lukewarm critical and commercial response received by Around the Sun, but decided to continue, Mike Mills telling Rolling Stone magazine’s David Fricke “we needed to prove, not only to our fans and critics but to ourselves, that we could still make great records.” R.E.M. has continued to live on through a series of deluxe reissues, live album releases, and various compilation albums and their influence extended beyond the 1980s-era bands that rose in their wake like Dream Syndicate, Sonic Youth, and the Smiths to include ‘90s-era rockers like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Coldplay, among others. Finishing on a high note, R.E.M. left behind a catalog of music of unparalleled artistic quality that, for a brief shining moment, managed to balance commercial and creative success unlike any band before or since.

Archive Review: Webb Wilder's About Time (2006)

Webb Wilder's About Time
It’s been nearly nine years since Webb Wilder last came ’round these parts with a new phonograph recording and we’ve all been that much poorer for his absence. Heck, during the great one’s hiatus we’ve suffered through nu-metal, modern rock, Britney Spears, boy bands, and Geo. Bush – a veritable cultural famine of Biblical proportions. You don’t have to tie up that noose and throw it over the rafters just yet, bunkie, ’cause our year is about to get a whole lot “wilder” and this scribe can only exclaim that it's “about time!”

Rounding up his “A” Team of veteran players, musical monsters like guitarist George Bradfute, bassist Tom Comet, and drummer Jimmy Lester, Webb Wilder has again hooked up with his long-time partner in crime, the “Ionizer,” R.S. Field to record About Time. As comeback albums go, it’s really like ol’ Webb never left; you can’t really call these grooves a “return to form” because Wilder has never abandoned his pure, untarnished vision of rock ‘n’ roll with a touch of country and blues. Sure, Wilder spices up the brew now and then with some fine brasswork courtesy of Dennis Taylor and Steve Herrman, the band sounding like some R&B revue of old. Overall, old time fans of the “last full-grown man” won't be disappointed by the track selection found on About Time.

Webb Wilder’s About Time

For those of you unfamiliar with Webb Wilder, or those who only know him through his XM satellite radio program, About Time will hit you like that first kiss in the backseat of your daddy’s jalopy. The songs on About Time stand as tall as the singer, a fine combination of roots-rock and Southern-fried influences. “Scattergun,” for instance, is a somber, Marty Robbins-styled old west tale of tragedy while “Battle of the Bands” is a ’50s-flavored rockabilly rave-up with rollicking horns and swinging rhythms. “I Just Had To Laugh” is a typical, old-school Field/Wilder lyrical collaboration about the trials of romance, offering plenty of clever wordplay, Wilder’s magnificent baritone, and some mesmerizing fretwork from Bradfute.

“Miss Missy From Ol’ Hong Kong” is a roadhouse rocker with Steve Conn channeling the spirit of a young Jerry Lee on the ivories. As Wilder speaks of Missy’s many attributes, the rest of the band teeters on the edge, blowing the roof off the mutha with instrumental interplay as tight as a fist and honed to a surgical-edge by 1,001 nights spent performing on the road. Wilder reworks Tommy Overstreet’s early ’70s country classic “If You're Looking For A Fool” with a heartbreaking, bittersweet tone that is punctuated by Bradfute’s sadly weeping guitar. Kevin Gordon’s excellent “Jimmy Reed Is the King of Rock and Roll” is provided a bluesy, ethereal reading that brings to mind John Campbell’s voodoo king, knee deep in the swamp, howling at the moon while Hank’s ghost-driven Cadillac careens around a corner, down Broadway, and away from the Ryman.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

There’s more, but you’re just going to have to pick up a copy of About Time for yourself and discover the mystery, the madness, and the magic of the man called Wilder. Giants standing proudly above lesser talents, Webb Wilder and the Nashvegans deliver a tonic for these troubled days and times in About Time. Welcome back, boys! (Landslide Records, released April 24, 2006)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2006

Archive Review: Gary Moore's Live At the Marquee (2002)

 Gary Moore's Live At the Marquee
One of British rock’s greatest secret weapons, Gary Moore has never received the attention or props that he deserves as one of the Emerald Isle’s wildest and most talented guitarslingers. It is certainly not his immense skills that have prevented him from gaining more than a token stateside audience, although his penchant for skipping from project to project might provide some reasons for his obscurity. After fronting the early ’70s British blooze-rock outfit Skid Row, Moore banged out hard rock with Thin Lizzy, flirted with jazz/fusion as a member of Colosseum II, and played on solo albums by folks like Cozy Powell and Greg Lake. Moore’s own solo efforts have run the gamut from heavy metal to improvisational jazz to hardcore blues. For all of his genre hopping, Moore might be pegged as a dilettante but for the fact that no matter the style of music, he plays it so damn well...

Live At the Marquee is taken from a 1980 show captured at London’s Marquee Club and is probably as good a representation of Moore’s six-string skills as one might find. Although this critic personally prefers the blues bashing Moore practiced during the ’90s, the metal-tinged rock and jazzy fretwork found on Live At the Marquee is nevertheless impressive. Fronting a band that includes journeyman MVP drummer Tommy Aldridge, the Irish guitar wizard runs through a set that includes the hard-driving title cut from his 1979 solo album, Back On the Streets and the wonderfully sublime “Parisienne Walkway,” Moore’s first U.K. hit. “Run To Your Mama” rocks with a rabid ferocity, Moore’s lightning-quick runs highlighting an otherwise generic “kiss-off” song while “You” plays like melodic new wave pop. The soaring, operatic “Nuclear Attackv and the thrash-and-bash instrumentation of “Dallas Warhead” (with Aldridge’s manic drum solo) close out Live At the Marquee with a proper showing of Moore’s heavy metal skills.

Although Live At the Marquee probably won’t win Gary Moore any new fans, standing miles away stylistically from his latest release – the bluesy, bone-rattling Scars – the album does serve as a solid documentation of Moore’s early work. Hopefully this reissue will herald a complete revamping of Moore’s ’80-era hard rock catalog by Sanctuary, which very well might attract listeners searching for a new guitar hero in this age of limp, lifeless “modern rock.” Gary Moore is a guitarist of unusual skill and dexterity, a six-string virtuoso capable of great subtlety, power and speed. He deserves a much wider hearing in the United States. (Sanctuary Records, 2002)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2002

Friday, September 6, 2019

Archive Review: Eric Gales' That What I Am (2001)

Eric Gales' That What I Am
Like most African-American guitarists who dare to cross over onto rock ‘n’ roll turf, Eric Gales has suffered from comparisons to guitar legend Jimi Hendrix. Like Hendrix, Gales is a left-handed guitarist with a taste for hard rock. Early acclaim laid the dreaded “guitar hero” mantle on the young artist, Gales recording his self-assured, self-titled debut album in 1991 at the tender age of fifteen. He followed it up with Pictures of A Thousand Faces just two years later. Although both albums were heady efforts, the sides show that Gales was prone to overextending himself, jumping headfirst into a song with youthful abandon, six-string Hendrixisms flying off the grooves recklessly.

Since the early days of his career, the young Memphis guitar prodigy has honed his skills, worked with a diverse range of musicians, including former Warlock babe Doro, new wave popster Howard Jones, and hardcore rappers Eight Ball & MJG. As shown by That’s What I Am, the experience has done Gales well. A knowledgeable rock ‘n’ roll veteran in his mid-twenties, Gales is more restrained these days, but not afraid to put the boot to it when it's time to kick out the jams. Just the first two songs on That’s What I Am – the title track and “Hand Writing On the Wall” – contain more fretboard gymnastics and six-string pyrotechnics than you'll hear from a dozen hard rock bands.

The difference is that Gales weaves his solos more carefully these days, incorporating them into the groove rather than allowing them to dominate the song. The result is a looser set of songs that allow Gales’ other musical influences to shine through the mix. “Down Low,” for instance, is a slipping-n-sliding chunk o’ Sly Stone-inspired funk that will have your toes tapping while “Blue Misty Morning” takes a page from Robin Trower’s playbook with spacey, multi-layered guitars sharpening the edge beneath Gales’ soulful vocals. With half-spoken, half-rapped vocals laid down on top of a staccato guitar riff, “Insane” is crazed with bold braggadocio and hometown name checking. Gales leaps into “Black Day” with both feet, notes falling from the fretboard like lightning hitting a Kansas cornfield. “Can’t Go On” is a gentle ballad with tasteful background vocals from, of all people, Josie Cotton (check early ’80s new wave pop obscurities for mention of the talented Ms. Cotton).

Hendrix comparisons be damned, Gales tackles the master’s “Foxey Lady” with a joyful playing that redefines the song, bringing a more contemporary sound to the rock classic. That's What I Am’s other cover, of ZZ Top’s “Just Got Paid,” takes the blues-grunge of the original to new heights, sounding even dirtier and funkier than the Texas trio’s worst nightmares, Gales’ six-string razor roaring out of your speakers. That’s What I Am benefits from the production skills of Geza X (Black Flag, Dead Kennedys), who brings a hard edge to the songs that frames Gales’ skills perfectly. The result is a rocking and rollicking disc, That’s What I Am a guitar-lover’s dream come true. In one final nod to the ghost of Hendrix, Eric Gales is also the first artist signed to Nightbird Records, the new label formed by the Hendrix estate. (Nightbird Records/MCA Records, 2001)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2001

Sunday, September 1, 2019

New Music Monthly: September 2019 Releases

We’re finishing up Q3 of 2019 and, from a business perspective, the label levees are about to open as they flood your local record store with new titles vying for your holiday sales attention. No matter, ’cause that means more great music for you and I, and September promises new tunes from folks like Chrissie Hynde, Black Star Riders, the Pixies, Iggy Pop, Opeth, Temples, and the almighty NRBQ, among many others! If you're a blues fan, you’ll rejoice over fresh albums by talents like Janiva Magness, Tad Robinson, Toronzo Cannon, and Rick Estrin and the Nightcats.

There’s honestly not nearly as many archival releases this month, but a whopping four-CD live box set from the Allman Brothers Band should scratch any fan’s itch. If you’re interesting in buying an album, just hit the ‘Buy!’ link to get it from’s just that damn easy! Your purchase puts valuable ‘store credit’ in the Reverend’s pocket that he’ll use to buy more music to write about in a never-ending loop of rock ‘n’ roll ecstasy!

Allman Brothers Band's Fillmore West ’71

Allman Brothers Band - Fillmore West ’71 [4-CD box]   BUY!
Bat For Lashes - Lost Girl   BUY!
Black Star Riders - Another State of Grace   BUY!
Chrissie Hynde - Valva Bone Woe   BUY!
NRBQ - Turn On, Tune In   BUY!
Iggy Pop - Free   BUY!
Status Quo - Backbone   BUY!
Those Pretty Wrongs - Zed for Zulu [Luther Russell & Big Star’s Jody Stephens]   BUY!

Tad Robinson's Real Street

Devendra Banhart - Ma  BUY!
Janiva Magness - Change In the Weather   BUY!
Mike Patton & Jean-Claude Vannier - Corpse Flower   BUY!
Lee “Scratch” Perry - Rootz Reggae Dub   BUY!
The Pixies - Beneath the Eyrie   BUY!
Gruff Rhys - Pang!   BUY!
Tad Robinson - Real Street   BUY!
Leeroy Stagger - Strange Path   BUY!

Toronzo Cannon's The Preacher, the Politician or the Pimp

Toronzo Cannon - The Preacher, the Politician or the Pimp   BUY!
Bruce Cockburn - Crowing Ignites   BUY!
Rick Estrin & the Nightcats - Contemporary   BUY!
Fitz & the Tantrums - All the Feels   BUY!
Liam Gallagher - Why Me? Why Not   BUY!
Hiss Golden Messenger - Terms of Surrender   BUY!
Keane - Cause and Effect   BUY!
Michael Schenker Fest - Revelation   BUY!

Temples' Hot Motion

Hellyeah - Welcome Home   BUY!
Opeth - In Cauda Venenum   BUY!
Steel Panther - Heavy Metal Rules   BUY!
Temples - Hot Motion   BUY!

Album of the Month: With Change In the Weather, Janiva Magness tackles the John Fogerty songbook. If ever there was a songwriter with a wealth of undeniably great songs, it’s Fogerty, and it will be pure pleasure hearing Magness – a former Blues Foundation “B.B. King Entertainer of the Year” award winner – bring her enormous talents and bluesy vocals to the riches of Fogerty’s material.

New Book: Fossils, Relics of the Classic Rock Era v2

Fossils, Relics of the Classic Rock Era v2
Back in the day, record labels didn’t have a network of blogs, artist websites, and social media to help market new music. They only had FM radio, cash ‘payola’ to DJs and, if the budget allowed, advertisements in a handful of music rags like Creem, Trouser Press, and Rolling Stone to help provide hype for a new release. Much like album cover artwork, advertisements created for new album releases were often works of art in themselves.

Creative record label graphic designers often came up with ads that cleverly promoted the artist and their work; just as often, corporate hacks cranked out copy with little or no relation to the album being promoted. With this second volume of Fossils, award-winning rock critic and music historian Rev. Keith A. Gordon takes another look at these “relics,” album advertisements found in frayed and graying copies of cherished old music magazines. Offering insightful and informative commentary on over 60 ads, the ‘Reverend of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ explores this overlooked artistic aspect of the classic rock era.

The “Reverend of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Rev. Keith A. Gordon has been writing about music for almost 50 years. A former contributor to the All Music Guide books and website, and the former Blues Expert for, Rev. Gordon has also written for Blurt magazine, Creem, High Times, and The Blues (U.K.), among many other publications, and has written two-dozen previous music-related books, including Blues Deluxe: The Joe Bonamassa Buying Guide, The Other Side of Nashville, and Scorched Earth: A Jason & the Scorchers Scrapbook.

Fossils v2 is a 140pp 5.5” x 8.5” paperback with B&W photos and is only available in paperback at $11.95 (no eBook version of this one, kids!). Get your copy through the handy link below or buy an autographed copy direct from Excitable Press:

Fossils, Relics of the Classic Rock Era, Volume Two: The 1960s-'80s 

Buy an autographed copy direct from Excitable Press ($11.95 postpaid, PayPal):