January 28 – Fresh Spins : Strictly A One-Eyed Jack

On this day in 1988, John Mellencamp was sitting at #22 on the charts with the nostalgic, cheery and slightly rustic-sounding “Cherry Bomb.” Well, John’s still seeming a bit nostalgic and rustic, but a lot has changed over the 34 years in between…as we clearly hear on his brand new album, Strictly A One-eyed Jack.

Now by definition a “one-eyed Jack” is a Jack of Hearts or Jack of Spades in a card deck; both are portrayed looking sideways so we only see one of their eyes. Metaphorically however, a “one-eyed Jack” is someone who only lets you see one side – the good one – of themselves. More and more as the years roll by we see Mellencamp was the one-eyed Jack with his early, reasonably happy-go-lucky rock star persona. As Rolling Stone noted, the cover of The Lonesome Jubilee (from which “Cherry Bomb” came) John was “sitting in a small-town bar next to a stone-faced farmer who looks like he’s been parked there since the Dust Bowl. Now Mellencamp has essentially become that guy.” Or as Pop Matters declare, by now he’s “dropped the rock persona entirely and stripped his songs down to scratchier, scorched earth, largely acoustic” ones. Clearly, …One-eyed Jack is a long way removed from “Jack and Diane”.

Although, perhaps not as much as we might guess. Remember, that single that made John a household name urges the young ‘uns to “hold on to 16 as long as you can” because “life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone.” Sentiments which set the tone for the new album. Strictly A One-eyed Jack is a bleak affair to listen to, lyrically and at times musically. But it’s also compelling, well-played and thoughtful. It’s a good album, but it’s not the one you put on while the party is roaring… it’s the one you go to when those last few drunks won’t clear out and let you get to bed. Starting with the starter, too. “I Always Lie to Strangers” is probably the bleakest of the lot, with Mellencamp sounding as old as his state of Indiana (as Rolling Stone note, he now “approaches Bob Dylan and Tom Waits territory in its rangy, weathered gravitas) as he wearily talks of lying and reminds us “this world is run by men more crooked than me.” It comes across a little like an endurance test… only the devout or daring are going to keep listening after such a downbeat entrance. And, yep, it’s only one of two songs with “lie” in the title. There are two about rain too, for good measure!

The album does pick up from there, however, and exhibits a surprising range of musical territory played through an underlying roots, Americana theme. “I Am A Man That Worries” sounds like a brooding old blues number from the Delta. “Streets of Galillee” more like a pop tune played by a bluegrass band. “Gone So Soon” sounds like it could be a Billy Joel number sung by Ray Charles. One wonders, listening to it if he was thinking of the many friends and family that have gone on to the after-life before him, or about his on-again, off-again girlfriend Meg Ryan, when he sings “all the plans we made are now being remade with someone new.” There’s even a ballsy rocker for old-times sake, albeit a blisteringly angry one, “Did You Say Such a Thing”, which not coincidentally is one of the three tracks that Bruce Springsteen worked on with him. And there are moments of brightness and light. “Driving In the Rain” is a folksy little waltz and “Chasing Rainbows” (a song which several, myself included have found to sound rather like The Band) offers up some smart advice : “at the end of the rainbow, turns out it’s not somewhere, look around it’s everywhere for anyone who cares.” After all the songs about lying and getting old it almost comes across like a Muppet Show ditty. But in a good way.

The best track though is probably the one that lends its name to the record. “Simply a One-eyed Jack” is instantly catchy and the most interesting song about a card game since Kenny Rogers boarded that train decades ago. It showcases his new band’s strengths, which in turn is the album’s real shining moment . Troye Kinnett in particular stands out on the accordion, traditional organ and piano while several players use violins and fiddles to great effect. About the only time you’re going to discern a Stratocaster or Les Paul in the whole effort is when The Boss happens into the room.

Strictly A One-eyed Jack. Not quite four aces, but I’ll give it a full house… 3.5 face cards out of five. It’s like a meal of steel cut oats and turnip greens – tasty, nutritious, a bit old-fashioned, but after awhile you might start craving something a bit lighter and sweeter for a break.

December 30 – Cigarettes & Cougars…John’s A Bit Of An Enigma

John Mellencamp was ending 1983 on a high-note. His song “Pink Houses” was rising up the American top 40 (at #27) while the previous single of his, “Crumblin’ Down” was still on the charts, falling to #24. It was a week away from the symbolic change in his life, when “Pink Houses” got higher on the charts. That, because “Pink Houses” was really where John changed gears. It was when he began to sound like he wanted; “Crumblin’ Down” was a bit of a throwback to the John his record label wanted, a radio-friendly rocker they called “Cougar.”  It marked “a giant leap forward, bounded him towards a musical landscape that was more developed, richer, and more substantive than the one he’d occupied.”

So declares Paul Rees in his biography of the Indiana artist, Mellencamp. We’d rank it as one of the best music books of the past year.

Rees sat down with Mellencamp for a few interviews through the years and is probably one of the few journalists Mellencamp would consider a friend. He writes an interesting story of the “Jack and Diane” singer that ultimately might well leave you liking John less but respecting him a whole lot more. Confusing, right?

Rees goes back a ways through his family tree, uncovering a whole line of strong, aggressive, hard-working men ever since his great-grandfather moved from Germany to rural Indiana in the 1850s. Mellencamps around there soon got a reputation as tough-as-nails, hard-working, self-sufficient types who didn’t suffer fools lightly. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree with John.

Mellencamp is something of an enigma, even to those who know him well. He’s gruff and apt to be rude, but also very loyal and generous. He eschews drugs and drinking but chain-smokes. When asked about how much of an honor it was for Republic Records to sign him to a life-time deal in 2010, he noted “well, I smoke four packs of cigarettes a day. I put out an album every five years. You do the f***in’ math!”. Working on records, he tends to be both a perfectionist as well as a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants guy. He isn’t one to do a hundred takes of a song, so if it doesn’t sound perfect, he’s OK with it. But, he expects his musicians, himself included, to be on top of their game. There’s no room for sloppiness or laziness in a Mellencamp recording session. He’s not tremendously educated school-wise, but is a serious student of the news, of American literature and the country’s musical heritage.

More than anything, you get the sense his life can really be summed up by two songs of his : “Pop Singer” and “Small Town.” On the former, he decries “never wanted to be no pop singer, never wanted to write no pop songs. Never had no weird hair to get my songs over…” . Of course, the latter proclaims “I was born in a small town, and I live in a small town. Probably die in a small town…” It’s pure Mellencamp. More than anything he is real.

The book documents his change through the years, which really isn’t so much a change in his way of looking at life other than a change in caring less and less about what the “music business” wants and more and more about maximizing the time he has left to do what he wants. And what he wants is to make roots music that reflects the country as it is, through the lens of Americana folk music and its heritage, and to paint. A major gallery owner in New York declares Mellencamp the only musician he’s encountered who is serious about painting and has a discernible style. John clearly cares more about more recent works like Plain Spoken and the play he co-wrote with Stephen King, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County or his recent duet with Bruce Springsteen, “Wasted Days” much more than he does songs like “Hurt So Good” that put him on the musical map. And while things like platinum discs seem to matter naught to him, he revels in praise when it comes from people he feels like his peers. Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, the Guthries. (One story recounts how Woody Guthrie’s daughter found him smoking at an event in a non-smoking lounge, so she walked up to him, pulled the cigarette out of his mouth and tossed it in his drink. He laughed. If some random security guard or kid starlet had tried the same, you get the picture that fisticuffs might have resulted.)

I’m colorful!” is how his daughter Justice says he sums himself up. That he is. Not always likable, but a great artist who gives a great example of how great things happen if you’re true to yourself.

October 23 – People Began To See The Real John, Uh-huh

Uh-huh, John’s no fool. John Mellencamp had been around for some time before he hit the big-time in 1982 with American Fool. And he’d had to make a lot of concessions to get there, first and foremost going by the name “John Cougar” (or prior to that even “Johnny Cougar”) to please his record label who thought no one would buy a record by a guy called “Mellencamp.” Riva, a division of Mercury Records, wanted him to be a photogenic, slick rocker but John was more of a down-home rocker influenced at least as much by country and bluegrass as East Coast hard rock. He’d played their game, but when American Fool topped five million in sales and launched him to the top of the charts with two massive hits (“Hurts so Good” and “Jack and Diane”) he suddenly had clout. He began to show it with Uh-huh, overall his seventh album (although only his fourth on a big label) which came out this day in 1983.

The first obvious change was that he got to add his real last name to his moniker for the first time: the cover read John Cougar Mellencamp. A couple of years down the road and he’d be able to drop the “Cougar” entirely. His friend, guitarist Mike Wanchic, who added some of the guitar work for it, says “John literally threw the record company president out of the studio (during the recording of American Fool)… but the success of American Fool forced them to let us do what we wanted on Uh-huh.” One of the things John wanted was a loose, spontaneous feeling. He recorded and mixed the album in just 16 days, in a house that was under construction in his Indiana hometown. He apparently offered to have the home completed on his dime if the owners let him use the shell of the house. He just threw up a few makeshift plywood walls and brought in the studio equipment and played. Wanchic says Mellencamp approached the music the same way he looks at his painting – “paint fast, make mistakes.”

If mistakes were made, they sounded quite at home and…right. Along with some of his usual local musician friends like drummer Kenny Aronoff, Wanchic and Larry Crane all adding guitars to Mellencamp’s own, and singer Jay Ferguson (of “Thunder Island” fame) adding some backing vocals, as well as producer Don Gehman, they got a loose but solid-sounding nine song album; most re-issues included a tenth track, an acoustic take on the great “Pink Houses.” Besides that other standouts included other singles “Authority Song” and “Crumblin’ Down” plus “Jackie O”, a song written with John Prine…mostly Prine, according to Mellencamp who says “I can’t take the credit” for it.

The result was an Americana album before that term had entered the mainstream music vocabulary; a rock album that sounded considerably less glossy than the output of Mercury Records other huge American rock act of the ’80s, Bon Jovi, for instance. Allmusic describe it as a “fusion of the Stones and Bruce Springsteen”, perhaps accurate if a dash of Willie Nelson or Neil Young (both future collaborators with John for Farm Aid, as it would turn out) was mixed in. Rolling Stone graded it 4-stars and later put it among the 40 best albums of the decade. Noting how it had been made in just 16 days they decided that despite having “rec room sound” its “spontaneity often wins out over endless production tinkering.” They too compared it to a Rolling Stones feel. Ultimate Classic Rock point out it “cemented his rock star status while flashing the fierce populist streak that would come to define his music” and allmusic sum it up as “portraits of broken-hearted life in the Midwest” put together in “his first terrific album.”

Crumblin’ Down” and “Pink Houses” were both major rock radio hits (both hitting #2 or #3, giving John four such hits in less than two years) with the latter also getting big-time AOR play and its video on MTV; “Authority Song” also rose to #15 on the singles chart. Overall the album hit #9 in both the U.S. and Canada, although Sweden was the only other place where it showed decently, hitting #24. But that mattered little. John not only found respect in the business, he had another multi-million seller on his hands. It went 3X platinum in the States, and even better, 5X platinum in the Great White North.

October 17 – Earle Was King Of Rebel Country-rock

Half of the best album of the year came out? That’s what some critics suggest, as Copperhead Road by Steve Earle was a bit of an uneven product. It came out this day in 1988.

The Texan redneck whose music had been variously described as alt country, bluegrass, country rock and any number of similar variations had been a successful, but not entirely popular, fixture in country music for a decade by then. He’d been moving back and forth between Nashville (where he was considered too rebellious and liberal by most of the movers-and-shakers) and Texas, writing hits for various artists and gaining good reviews with his first full album, 1986’s Guitar Town. Copperhead Road was difficult to pigeonhole but made a splash both on rock and country radio. The title track about a Vietnam vet growing pot in the tradition of his moonshining granddaddy made Earle a household name and has been downloaded over a million times. It helped the album be his biggest to date in the States and Canada (where it’s 3X platinum.) Four other “power twang” rants about failed Reagan policies (“Snake Oil”), the war on drugs, and the disrespect shown Vietnam veterans (both on the title track and “Johnny Come Lately,” a song noteworthy because of the Pogues playing on it) made the A-side a defiant piece of rebel rock, winning kudos and having feet tapping, but the B-side with less than memorable love songs and a Christmas tune (with Maria Mckee of Lone Justice) didn’t win so many plays or thumbs ups.

The New York Times called it “half of a brilliant album, with five smart, ornery story-songs” and Rolling Stone agreed, giving it 4-stars, noting the disparity between the B-side and A, which was “as powerful as any music made this year.” 

September 30 – Bruce Gets Bleak As A Plains Snowstorm

Flying in the face of a sagging record industry” requires either a little stupidity, a touch of contrariness or a lot of belief in one’s work. In the case of Bruce Springsteen, all three might have been true in 1982…but mostly the latter. On this day that year he released his sixth album, Nebraska. The opening sentence was part of Rolling Stone‘s review of that album.

Nebraska was a very different album for The Boss, arriving about two years after his commercial-breakthrough The River. That one had helped him become a major presence on rock and Top 40 radio and one of the hottest live performers in the country. So, while many (including one would bet, Columbia Records) expected him to zig and produce another up-tempo, blue-collar rock record with his E Street Band, Bruce zagged. He put out essentially some downbeat demo tapes, and unlike his previous efforts, didn’t bother bringing in the E Street Band. The result was an album unlike anything he’d done, and quite unlike almost anything on radio in the glossy, early-’80s.

It hadn’t started out that way. Springsteen had initially planned to make this The River, Part II, so to speak. He had planned to use the band and make them more upbeat and rocking tracks. But he felt he previously had wasted a lot of time in the studio, writing and re-writing tunes so he wanted a batch of songs ready to go, ready to show the band more or less fully-formed. So he set up a four-track recorder in his New Jersey home, and recorded the demos of dozens of songs over a two-week period during the Christmas/New Year’s season of ’81-82. It’s said he recorded 15 in one night alone! And he did it himself, playing the guitar, mandolin, organ, even synthesizer (on “My Father’s House”) as needed. He didn’t play drums, expecting Max Weinberg to do his bit with those later. However, when he listened to the tapes, he began to feel that the sparse, dark, very analog sound fit the subject matter well. He did get together with the band in New York City that spring, and they recorded many of the songs “electric” style, including eight that would later go on to be re-recorded for Born in the U.S.A., including that title track. But most who heard it still felt the original demos were better, so that was what Columbia finally agreed to put out.

The ten songs are not very uplifting, but are rivoting. It kicks off with the opening title track, which is about Charles Starkweather, a teen who went on a killing spree in Nebraska and Wyoming in the ’50s before being caught and executed. There were songs about conflicted cops (“Highway Patrolman”) and street-level mobsters in a decaying city (“Atlantic City”). If much of his early work celebrated the rough-and-ready blue collar guys and girls having fun and looking for a better life, Nebraska shone a harsh spotlight on those with little prospect of that.

This took the public by surprise. Critics, by and large, loved the sombre release. The Village Voice, not one beholden to The Boss normally, graded it “A-” and ranked it as the third best record of the year. Rolling Stone graded it 4.5-stars, noting that he risked alienating radio with the record, but thoroughly enjoying the end product. In years later, that magazine would repeatedly place it among the top half of their “500 greatest albums of all-time”, suggesting it “established Springsteen as more than a mere rock star…a true heir apparent to Bob Dylan.” Q over in the UK voiced a dissenting opinion though, giving it just 2-stars when it came out, saying it “would simply have been a better record with the benefit of the E Street Band and a few months in the studio.” Even with that, they later ranked it as the 13th best album of the decade!

Some fans were indeed alienated, but enough stuck around to appreciate Bruce’s earnestness and different approach. The single “Atlantic City” failed to sell well, but did hit the top 10 in mainstream rock airplay and just cracked the top 50 singles list in Canada. And the album itself rose to #3 in the U.S., as well as Canada, the UK and New Zealand. It ended up going platinum at home and gold Canada, but sold only about a quarter of the amount of The River. But Nebraska showed a different side to Springsteen… and set the stage for his thundering return to stadium-pleaser two years later with Born in the U.S.A

May 17 – A Little Bit Blue Turned Gold For Missouri Band

One of the 70s’s enduring radio hits had its moment in the sun – “Jackie Blue” by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils hit #3 on Billboard, this day in 1975, making it by far that band’s biggest hit in their nearly 50 year career. The Missouri country-rock band was formed in 1972 – playing in a pizza shop in Springfield, often being paid in pizza and beer!

They’re still rolling with three original members and are oft-considered One Hit Wonders although they actually scored a top 30 hit prior to this one, with “If You Want To Get to Heaven (You Gotta Raise a Little Hell)”. That one was on their debut album, recorded in London with star producer Glyn Johns, who was famous for working with the Rolling Stones, and Eagles amongst others (and would later go on to work with the Clash on Combat Rock.) The band recall that it was like being “Alice in Wonderland”, being Midwestern kids suddenly recording in the famous Olympic Studios and seeing a foreign country, but Johns “was a real pro who kept us focused.” He was back with them for the second album, It’ll Shine When It Shines, this time recorded close to their mid-Missouri home. He again aimed to bring out their “raw” blend of country, rock and what would soon be termed “Americana” sounds.

The lovely “Jackie Blue” was written largely by Larry Lee, who sang lead on it, with a little help from Steve Cash…and Glyn Johns. The great song’s original lyrics saw Jackie as a “drugged-out guy” but Glyn figured it would be much better if Jackie was a mysterious, reclusive young lady, so they re-wrote it for the better. Although it stalled at #3 in the U.S., by 1985 BMI had reported it already had amassed over a million plays on radio, and to this day it remains one of the more played songs from the entire decade. It came even closer to #1 in Canada (it hit #2 there) and was later recorded by Smashing Pumpkins, a band which has been noted for being unabashed fans of ’70s AM radio hits. Their version is rare but can be found on some obscure compilations.

Allmusic compare the Daredevils to the Flying Burrito Brothers with a sense of humor and note that this single was “the least countrified song on the album (yet) it embodies the casual under-stated groove of the band.” The band still tour at times, more for the fun of it than reaping large profits; by 1980 Steve Canaday of the band noted that fans liked elaborate stage shows and they just got up and played, and with a crew of 18 to travel around, the record label was getting hesitant to bankroll big tours.

By the way, there’s one ditty that Steve Cash wrote that might be heard even more often than “Jackie Blue.” If you hear an ad for O’Reilly Auto Parts – with that “O-o-oh-O’Reillys…” chorus… that was Steve. “My biggest hit,” he laughs. Before the band signed a record deal, he wrote commercial jingles on the side.

March 20 – Blue Rodeo’s Second Was A Diamond In The Rough

One of Canada’s great musical secrets put out one of their best works 32 years ago. Ending the ’80s by foreshadowing the growing roots rock or Americana movement of the ’90s, Toronto alt-rock/country band Blue Rodeo released their sophomore album, Diamond Mine on this day in 1989.

The group fronted by duel-guitarists/vocalist Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy had built up an impressive following around their hometown through the past five years by way of almost constant shows, and had established themselves nationally with their 1987 debut, Outskirts. Diamond Mine built upon that by drawing on, and expanding, the strengths of their live shows and of the first album – energy, melodic songmanship and a seeming casualness.

An album designed for CD, it rambles through 57 minutes of material, with many of the songs segued together with piano ramblings from their original keyboardist Bob Wiseman. The result gives the effect of a live piece recorded straight to tape, slightly looser than their debut but less-shiny than their next work (1990’s Casino). The band left their Toronto comfort zone to record it in New Orleans, with the help of fellow-Torontonian producer Malcolm Burn (who’d later win a Grammy for his work with Emmylou Harris and had just finished off working on a solo album for his friend, super-producer Daniel Lanois).

The album had what would become the band’s trademark mixture of slower, usually hurting pop ballads sung by Jim Cuddy, such as “House of Dreams” and “Girl of Mine” with more uptempo, country-rockers typically fronted by Keelor, such as the title track and “How Long?” (this one actually with Cuddy on the lead and Keelor adding harmony) , both top 30 hits in Canada. The duo’s writing skills have seldom shone brighter than on tracks like the witty breakup song “Florida,” the heartfelt country ballad “The Dime Store Greaser and the Blonde Mona Lisa” or the protesting “God and Country.”

Reviews at home were good, although it went largely unnoticed elsewhere. Rolling Stone did write about them a little while later, noting that they are “often compared to another Canadian institution, The Band” and adding they “developed a strong roots sound that draws from a charismatic mix of American pop, country and blues” and name-dropped Graham Parsons, the Everly Brothers and even the Beatles in their story. Allmusic would later grade it 3-stars and consider it “Dylanesque.”

The work paid off -at home. It got to #4 on the Canadian charts (and actually hit #2 on country charts while getting airplay on rock radio simultaneously) and would soon hit triple platinum, one of 11 platinum or better albums they’ve racked up domestically. The following spring, Blue Rodeo won the Juno (Canadian Music Award) for best group on the strength of the CD. Outside though, like Tim Horton’s coffee and maple glazeds, it remains pretty much an unknown pleasure.

March 9 – Sunny & Stormy ‘Summerteeth’ Brought New Season To Wilco

Evolving at a remarkable speed, according to allmusic, Wilco put out their third album, Summerteeth on this day in 1999. The band which had been the leading light in the American rootsy alt-country movement earlier in the decade veered sharply away from the country to brighter (superficially at least) pop sounds on this one, which might be surprising since it was mainly recorded at Willie Nelson’s studio in Texas.

One thing the Midwesterners did on this one was greatly expand their range of instruments and techniques. Lead singer Jeff Tweedy, a guitarist by nature, used all sorts of electric as well as acoustic guitars, slide guitars, as well as bass and synthesizers on some tracks, while his main writing partner, Jay Bennett, played piano, other keyboards, various guitars, and basses including the rare “slide bass” on one song (“My Darling.”) All of which left the other half of the band feeling a little unappreciated, according to drummer Ken Coomer. “John (Stirratt) and I felt left out,” he said, “It was Jeff and Jay feeding off each other, not just musically but other vices.”

High on the list of those vices were addictions, or near to, to prescription painkillers for both the main men. This, as well as Tweedy’s bouts of depression, dislike of the constant touring the band had done for several years and troubled marriage helped shape lyrics that weren’t overwhelmingly as bright as the tunes tended to be. The books he was reading also tended to the downbeat, and played a role in his lyrics as well. “Via Chicago” for example was derived from a Henry Miller book. “I definitely wanted to get better at writing,” Tweedy says, “and those things happened simultanesoulsy with trying to read better…songs on Being There (the previous album), I don’t think I ever wrote lyrics down.”

The result was an odd but likable set of 16 songs (including two “hidden” ones after 23 seconds of silence at the disc’s end) spanning a full album and pointing the way towards even more experimental pop sounds on their next album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. A big part of that was a deliberate attempt to do more in the studio and record more tracks and use overdubs. Among the tracks which became staples of the band’s live set and discography were “A Shot in the Arm,” the ponderously long-titled “Nothingsevergonnastandinmyway” and the one the label, Reprise Records, hoped would be the breakthrough hit for them, “Can’t Stand It.” They even had the band edit and remix it to make it more palatable for radio, something they were loathe to do but finally agreed to.

Reviews were, and still are, good for it. Their hometown Chicago Tribune picked it as the Album of the Year. Across the ocean, The Guardian in London rated it a perfect 5-stars. Entertainment Weekly noticed it and graded it “B”, while Rolling Stone gave it 3.5-stars. They thought it “the roots rock answer to Beck’s Odelay,” a “dire bunch (of songs) yet the multilayered textures that snake around Tweedy’s troubled voice are often uplifting.” In later years, allmusic would give it a perfect 5-stars, tied with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for their best, while pointing out it “marked the spot where Wilco almost entirely abandoned the country influences” which initially shaped them. Nonetheless, they consider it “brilliantly constructed pop music with a dark and troubling center.”

Perhaps the public found it too troubling. Although they suddenly and surprisingly became popular in Norway (where it got to #5), and opened the door for them a crack in Britain, where it hit #38, the best they’d do in their first 15 years, at home it only rose to #78. Despite good reviews and spending a fair bit of the summer opening for R.E.M. in large venues, Summerteeth sold less than its predecessor – about 275 000 copies in total. The upbeat single “Can’t Stand It” did fine on Adult Alternative stations (where it got to #4 according to Billboard) but they represented a small portion of the total market, and the single failed to hit the sales chart.

When Reprise heard the follow-up, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they bought Wilco out rather than put the record out…but that’s a story for another day.

February 6 – Howard Shook Up Southern Rock Scene

This day in 2012 marked an important date for an Athens band…but unlike REM, the B-52s and others, this is an Athens, Alabama band. Alabama Shakes released their first record on this day in 2012, the single “Hold On.”

It would earn them gold records in the States as well as Canada. The roots rock/soul outfit had played the club circuit at the base of the Appalachians for a couple of years with singer Brittany Howard teaching herself guitar, bass and drums and writing by night while working as a short-order cook by day. They recorded an album in 2011 in Nashville. It was a gutsy move by the foursome since at the time they didn’t have a contract. Luckily for all, the internet helped word spread about them and soon they were on Sirius XM stations and began fielding offers from several labels. They ended up going with ATO, a small label owned by Dave Matthews.

The record ended up platinum in both the U.S. and Canada – astounding for this day and age and an “indie” label – and won them an Americana Music Award for the best “emerging” act. Their second album, Sound & Color debuted at #1 on Billboard in 2015.  Currently they are listed as being on “hiatus” but since they haven’t done anything since 2017 and the band’s website appears to have been taken down, it might seem a safe bet to suggest they’re history.

However, Brittany seems to have a promising solo career. She recently put out her first album, Jaime , which Pitchfork calls “a thrilling opus (which) pushes soul to new extremes.” It’s nominated for Best Alternative Music album at this year’s Grammys.

February 1 – Album Earned Neil A Bountiful Harvest

He might have perturbed Lynyrd Skynyrd and many other southerners, but Neil Young had grown a great crop of songs in the early-’70s. He got to reap the rewards beginning on this day in 1972 with Harvest, his fourth solo album and to many, the high point of his long and lauded career.

The Reprise album might seem a wee bit of a hodgepodge, not a surprise since it was recorded over most of 1971 in studios in Nashville, England and California...the great “Needle and the Damage Done” was actually taken from a live performance in L.A. Ol’ Neil had a vision though and pulled the tracks together into a fairly cohesive – and terrific – album, largely with the help of co-producer Elliot Mazer, who’d done work previously for such contemporaries of Neil’s as Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan and Linda Ronstadt. Linda, as well as James Taylor, appeared on the album’s two big hits, “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold.” They recorded that pair quickly in Nashville after meeting up to appear on an episode of a Johnny Cash TV show. Not that they were strangers – Neil and Linda lived next door to each other for awhile! On other tracks his old bandmates David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash offer up backing vocals (although never all three on the same track, but Nash and Crosby can both be heard on “Are You Ready For the Country?”) He even enlisted the London Symphony Orchestra to help out with the controversial “A Man Needs A Maid.”

The latter didn’t earn him any prizes from Helen Reddy or the Women’s Lib movement, but was probably meant more as an ode to loneliness more than a declaration of laundry and dishwashing being women’s work. It wasn’t the only controversial ditty on Harvest. “Alabama” was rather a companion piece to his stronger earlier song “Southern Man”, and it likely didn’t win him fans in Birmingham or Mobile, with its references to “white robes” and “banjo playing through broken glass.” Of course the pair of songs famously inspired Lynyrd Skynyrd to rebuke him with their hit “Sweet Home Alabama”…which Young didn’t mind. He later would say of “Alabama”, “I don’t like my words when I listen to it. They are accusatory and condescending…not fully thought out.” “The Needle and the Damage Done” was better thought out, a song about his Crazy Horse bandmate Danny Whitten, and all the other musicians he knew who’d died from heroin.

Critics at the time were of mixed opinions. Robert Christgau at the time noted “Young has his charms (but) rhythmically it’s a little wooden and Young is guilty of self-imitation.” Which might be true, and makes his long and varied career since all the more surprising. Rolling Stone then also thought the album a “retread” with “an unmistakable resemblance on nearly every song to another, earlier Young composition.” They’d change their opinion over the years though, with it routinely being in their list of the 100 greatest albums of all-time by the time the 2000s rolled around. They note that it “helped set the stage for the soft rock explosion” of the mid-’70s and helped popularize Americana with its “stripped down” sound.

That it did. It was the biggest-selling album of 1972 in the U.S. and it made #1 on the charts there, in Young’s home country (Canada) as well as the UK, France, Australia and other lands. At 4X platinum in the States, it remains his biggest commercial success, and landed him his only #1 hit song in North America, “Heart of Gold.” “Old Man” (with “Needle and the Damage Done” on the b-side) got to #4 in Canada, his last top 10 hit there until the ’90s…when the sequel to the album, “Harvest Moon” made it to #4.

Neil’s 75 but still active, touring quite regularly (in non-pandemic times) and putting out a new album with Crazy horse, Colorado, in 2019.