Posted in On Air

Laura Benitez Talks Politics, Denial, and Breakups via California Centuries

Politics and denial can both be helpful for mankind if used correctly. People can vote for representatives who promise competent and efficient government. Even denial has its purposes. Laura Benitez, who performs with a backing band called the Heartache and who penned their album California Centuries, explained that we make good use of denial every day. 

“It’s best that you don’t think of your chances of dying in a car accident as you’re driving down the road,” said Benitez. “It’s fine to know those things, but it’s not helpful.”

Unfortunately, politics and denial are not so helpful when they mix. In the incisive “Bad Things,” Benitez channels her pre-pandemic angst into a warning that those of us lucky enough to live in America still need to vigilant. The last verse describes a crisis in which doctors and lawyers flee an increasingly terrifying strongman.

“A lot of people have talked about it as me talking about a refugee crisis,” Benitez explained. “I’m not not talking about that, but what I meant to say is that the refugees are us. In this country, we have this idea that we’re wealthy and first world and we can rest assured that truly terrible things don’t happen here. But I don’t think we can, and the past few years have truly taught that to me in stark terms”

The thought isn’t comfortable for many of us. The other kind of denial that shows up on California Centuries is all about that notion of discomfort. Conversations about topics like race, guns, and police brutality are difficult for people invested in a right-wing world view and downright terrifying for those trying to maintain an unjust status quo for their own ends. So the conversations are deemed inappropriate. Pundits say it’s too soon after a mass shooting to talk about guns; governors say that children are too impressionable to read about the experiences of minority groups. “Gaslight (We Shouldn’t Talk About It)” takes on that attitude by pointing out the reason for interrupting those conversations is to prevent any empathizing from taking place.

“They know when the conversations happen, we come together and we find solutions for the most part,” Benitez said. “If we have the conversation, we’re going to realize that this isn’t the problem. The problem is the people in power. I think we forget how much power we have in organizing, in getting together. That is our superpower.”

There are some non-political standouts as well. In “Plaid Shirt,” Benitez uses a left-behind article of clothing as a profound and amusing way to example a breakup. It’s one thing to be left for another person, Benitez explained. 

“I think we all understand wanting to be with someone else,” Benitez said. “If you’re in a long term relationship, it’s not like you don’t have attractions to other people. We’re all human. That’s all normal. But if they are just a different person, it’s way weirder for sure.” 

But for someone to change, for that person to no longer exist, that’s not as easy to grasp. For this man to have failed to take this plaid shirt when he moved out meant that maybe his tastes had changed, or he was only putting on a sort of costume for his ex. Or maybe, it’s just that his new woman prefers to dress him another way. 

“It’s also just a little bit of country pettiness to be like ‘Oh you’re going to dress all differently now,’” Benitez said. “You gotta have that.”

To close the interview, I asked Benitez to name her favorite California country song. The Bakersfield sound seemed almost certain to make an appearance, but Benitez quite literally had the city show up in the title of the song. As someone who lives in an area with congested roads, I’m partial to CALICO the Band’s “The 405,” which uses the infamous traffic of Los Angeles as a metaphor for that one giant problem standing between a couple and their happiness. It seems like they live a few miles apart, but the distance between proves to be a lot more impressive when all those brake lights come into view.

Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Laura Benitez and the songs we discussed, starting with Bad Things, which also kicked off California Centuries. Our California country songs conclude the playlist. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit http://www.WUSB.fm and http://laurabenitezandtheheartache.com for more. Photo by Emily Sevin

Posted in On Air

Lindsay Lou’s you thought you knew: A Busy Mind Contemplates Existence and Change

“Everything changes when it needs to.” Those words are oft repeated on “Ancient Oceans,” an unusual but clever song that documents geological transformations as a way of easing the listener into the comparatively small changes going on in their life. Lou has undergone quite a few changes of her own over the years, including moving through two backing bands and from a raw acoustic grassy sound to something more mainstream Americana.

Lou and I had an in depth conversation about change and human nature. Everyone has to change to survive, she explained, but everyone has an immutable part of themselves, their essence, that will remain consistent. On standout track “Still Water,” she essentially says that there are people whose minds will always be still water and others who will experience the rush of a river. We both identify as rushing river types, although Lou has made attempts to quiet her mind through meditation, a practice she explains as focusing on the breath.

The conversation on change and consistency is especially relevant given Lou’s transformation in sound toward something more polished and with percussion. “If you love an artist, even if something about what they’re doing changes, you will see and you will feel, and you will be able to connect with something in there that is still them,” Lou said. “But maybe you’ve changed. The beautiful thing about music is sometimes you’ll go back to it years later and realize that the essential thing in me that connected to the essential thing in that that was an extension of the essential thing in the person who made it is still there. I just needed to go through something.”

I’m all there for Lou’s change in sound. While this EP was more grassy than some of her recent efforts, her more Americana sound remains enjoyable. Her voice is strong as always, both literally and metaphorically, and some of the songwriting is top-notch. Her 2018 rendition of her and her friend Maya De Vitry’s co-write “Shining in the Distance” stands out as an example of how rich her new sound can be. Still, you though you knew is a welcome return to some of her original vibes.

“Freedom,” a co-write and duet with Billy Strings, is, to use a word that was tossed around often in the interview, essential listening. The lyrics are somewhat modern but the sound is a call and response take on a traditional bluegrass hymn. When I tried talking about genre with Lou, she defined the word as non-existent or fluid. But she did acknowledge that learning the bluegrass repertoire gave her a tool with which to express herself and that it takes many tools and some original thoughts to make a song. If that’s the case, Lou and Strings are excellent handymen.

Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Lindsay Lou and the songs we discussed, starting with Still Water. We also discuss a concert she is performing with Sierra Hull that takes place in New York on September 22, 2022. If you’re reading after the tour and didn’t get a chance to attend one of the shows like I did, I’m sorry you weren’t able to make it. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit http://www.WUSB.fm and https://www.lindsayloumusic.com for more.

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Andrew Duhon’s Words of Wisdom on Emerald Blue

Andrew Duhon has traveled the world as a folk singer and he’s learned a lot in doing so. He’s learned to trust less in money, that he’s more of a human being/citizen of the world than a person tied to a particular country, and the importance of learning to slow down and enjoy the moment. These aren’t things he’s been taught per se, just some things he’s picked up from experience. Drawing wisdom from experience has always been who Andrew is.

As a child in Catholic school, Duhon learned about the beauty and validity of religious plurality by coloring in a picture of Jesus. No, really. Each child created an image of Christ with different colors and patterns. They all went up on the wall and they were all considered valid. “None of them would be right or wrong, we would just learn from what we interpreted,” Duhon said. “Perhaps that is the most important lesson Catholic school ever taught me. Unintended, likely. Certainly unintended.”

He has since rejected the dogma of religion and decided to focus on what makes people similar. Our differences are important, sure, but it’s more important to focus on unity, Duhon argues. Stories like this give me tremendous hope for the future. No matter what nationalism and intolerance is hurled at children, some of them are going to notice a small detail and learn the right thing anyway. It’s especially beautiful if they’re unlocking truths most adults can’t grasp just by looking at the pages of a coloring book.

Andrew Duhon’s album is called Emerald Blue. The rest of the album features standouts like “Slow Down,” which Duhon quite literally slows down for the final chorus. In taking his own advice, he creates a memorable track and a minute’s worth of a sweet slow jam. “Emerald Blue” and “Down From the Mountain” follow in the great tradition of American roots music in that they use the beauty of the natural world to portray an emotion.

“Down From the Mountain” especially works as reentry to the world following the pandemic lockdown. Duhon, a resident of New Orleans, told me he’s looking to get a cabin in the mountains of the Northeast or Pacific Northwest to escape to during the summer and just sit back and fish. It seems that even for a musician who travels the world, there’s a desire to climb back up the mountain from time to time and ‘slow down.’

Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Andrew Duhon and the songs we discussed, starting with the first half of our interview. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit http://www.WUSB.fm and http://www.andrewduhon.com for more.

Posted in On Air

Haroula Rose’s Catch The Light: A Filmmaker Sings Folk

I must admit that I don’t understand a whole lot about directing, at least when compared to the folk music Haroula and I discussed. But I think her cover of Chris Stapleton’s “You Should Probably Leave” shows that she’s superior at directing a song. Rose takes Stapleton’s lyrics and adds sadness, resignation, and a one voice/one piano soundscape. After hearing this song about being used and abandoned sung from such a solitary place, Stapleton’s version with a band and harmony vocals just doesn’t sound the way the video of that song should look. I should see someone lying in bed without anyone to comfort them. I should see one singer on stage hunched over a piano. The song should be “naked,” as Haroula puts it. Perhaps that’s the advantage of producing music after having directed a few films.

The rest of the album works just as fantastically with imagery and small details. “Happenstance” captures a moment at a funeral when all the people gossiping about the subject’s drug habit sit in stunned silence. “Summer Storm” uses a combination of low bass and sparse high notes on a piano to create a wide open and foreboding soundscape that matches the feeling of standing in the titular storm.

There’s a sharp tension between “The Nature of Things” and “Time’s Fool.” “The Nature of Things” is hopeful and mature, realizing that life moves in cycles and that this might be a low point. “Come close then pull away/Maybe we’ll come back around some day,” Rose sings. “Time’s Fool” is not ready to accept that reality. It’s a vulnerable gut punch that may be aware that nothing is permanent but isn’t willing to concede such a hard-won relationship to a silly little thing like the passage of time. I subscribe to the world that the former presents, but I’m drawn both to the fantasy and the songwriting of the latter.

Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket including both my interview with Haroula and the songs we discuss, starting with the track Happenstance. You’ll also get to see a music video Haroula directed. It features swimming in the nude, which is something Haroula believes is something deeply embedded in the human experience. I guess I do enjoy baths. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit http://www.WUSB.fm and http://www.haroularose.com for more.

Posted in On Air

Edie Carey Faces Life After The Lifting of The Veil

For Edie Carey, it was a car accident that shattered the veil. Carey told me that she’s used to having her guard up on cross-country tours but not so much driving around her neighborhood with her kids in the backseat. One violent impact later, that’s all changed. Many of us have had our veil incident in the last few years, be it a pandemic that invaded our country and our lungs, or the January 6th insurrection revealing to even the most apathetic just how tense our politics have become. Ironically, Carey has come to view her song “The Veil” from a place of determination. In her eyes, George Floyd’s murder has lifted the veil on racism and police brutality. Her original statement that we can’t go back anymore has changed from a negative into a call for progress. While it seems to me that many in this country are working as hard as possible to go back, I admire her optimism.

Change, vulnerability, and optimism summarize much of the album. “Hold on a little longer/holding on doesn’t mean that you can’t cry,” Carey says on the inspirational but realistic “Rise.” Tracks like “Who I Was” and “The Old Me” yearn to recapture lost magic, whether in a relationship or just in life.

“I Know This” is a pandemic era song if I’ve ever heard one, but one written from the perspective of a parent rather than that of a bored touring musician. The shift in perspective makes song devastating instead of cute. Of trying to raise her children through an era of COVID, mass shootings, and political turmoil, Carey sings: “They look to me to tell them what to do/But you can’t train for this/Blind shots in the abyss/I’m terrified but I’m supposed to be bulletproof.” Learning how to slow down may have been a universally relatable experience during the pandemic, but I can’t place in my mind any of the dozens of songs I’ve heard on the topic as easily as I can the above lyrics.

“The Cypress and the Oak” carries the strongest melody on the album and draws inspiration from a poem that describes a symbiotic relationship in nature. Carey wrote the song as a commission for a couple and changed a few details to make it more “universal” when releasing it on the album.

Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Edie and the songs we discuss, starting with the album’s title track. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit http://www.WUSB.fm and http://www.ediecarey.com for more. Photo credit Tim Carey.

Posted in On Air

Musician and Lawyer Paula Boggs on Janus, Trump, and Hope

Paula Boggs wrote a song about her enslaved ancestor that ended on a note of hope. King Brewster was born to an enslaved woman and the white man who claimed to own her before being set free following the Civil War and the passage of the 13th amendment. He made a life for himself: he owned property, had a number of children, and registered to vote. When reconstruction ended, his hard-earned gains were stripped away by a newly emboldened white supremacist movement in the south. When I heard the song, I saw parallels to today. The Supreme Court gutted the voting rights act and unsurprisingly, white Southerners are working to wrestle basic rights back from people who look a lot like King.

But Boggs is steadfast in her belief that tomorrow could be better. That hope seems out of place to me, but Paula is informed, intelligent, and has her reasons. Slavery was ended, she explained, because the tools to make positive change were built into our admittedly imperfect system of government. Crazy as political times may seem, that same constitution that finally recognized King as a free man and a citizen still exists, and in a much stronger form than it did back in the 1860s. Boggs, who definitely understands more about the law than I do, thinks we can use those tools to do the right thing. I sure hope she’s right.

Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Paula and the songs we discuss, starting with the aforementioned King Brewster, which features the great Dom Flemons. Boggs also speaks about what outrage led her to resign from her government post to protest Donald Trump. She’s a real inspiration. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit http://www.WUSB.fm and https://www.paulaboggs.com for more.

Posted in On Air, Reviews

The Singing Butcher Kills It On Debut EP

I’ve thanked many artists for writing a song during my years hosting a radio show and for the most part I’ve gotten ‘thank you’s back. My conversation with Timothy George, who performs as The Singing Butcher, went differently in the most delightful way.

“That’s awesome,” George said. “I don’t have dreams of singing that song in front of 20,000 people. I have dreams of someone sending me a Facebook message to the band page and saying ‘Holy shit. That song really helped me.’”

“It also makes you feel a little less crazy,” George added after a brief pause.

George’s ambitions are made clear on his debut EP The Butcher Papers, a collection of five introspective songs with complex arrangements and deeply felt vocals that at times bordered on unconventional.

“I’m not classically a great singer,” George admitted. “I’m pitchy and gravelly, and I can be a bit nasally. But I don’t think those songs would’ve had the same effect if they were sung a different way. I don’t think you can convey the same emotion without sounding like every long note is destroying you

He had just been discussing his vocals on “Big Two-Hearted River,” a six-minute Western centered around a prisoner arrested for doing some butchering on something more human than the meats at the job George, as his moniker suggests, continues to work. He did have one critique for his vocal work, though.

“I feel like my performance on the record would’ve been a lot better if I hadn’t been so hungover every time I tried to sing vocals,” George said.

During an interview for the April 3rd episode of Country Pocket on WUSB, George was also frank about his struggles with anxiety. He wrote “Whatever Keeps Your Love Around” after seeing the effect his anxiety had on the women he’s dated. In the song he struggles with a significant other’s compliments, ultimately deciding to accept them while disagreeing with them.

“It’s whatever keeps you here. I need you. I don’t know what I’d do without you. But you probably shouldn’t be in this relationship.” George said of the song’s message.

The Butcher Papers has an unusually full and varied sound for a debut EP from a singer-songwriter. “Indiana Gal,” originally about a woman from Louisiana, features Dixieland horns in its second half. “Whatever Keeps Your Love Around” switches from fingerpicking to electric with backing singers. It’s only the wanderlust-driven “Early Morning Heat” that sounds conventional and entirely within George’s vocal range.

“I knew I was going to be performing predominantly as an acoustic artist for a while, but that wasn’t serving [my songs],” George said. “So I wanted to try to create different flows and different feelings and different movements to one song, so it’s not just one thing.”

George succeeds here. The five tracks feel as fleshed out as an album, and not just because they total 26 minutes long. Each is fully realized, and together they make The Singing Butcher a compelling act to watch as he gets ready to record his next project.

Posted in On Air, Reviews

Robert Randolph Talks “Got Soul” and Keeping Listeners Feeling Up

Pedal steel guitar innovator Robert Randolph’s latest album is jubilant and energetic, full of reverb and motivation. It’s a jolt of positivity that comes at the right time for many.

“Everybody’s sorta depressed with a lot of stuff going on in the country and the world,” Randolph said during an interview for the April 3 episode of Country Pocket on WUSB. “People are just looking for something like this to pick them up.”

Count Darius Rucker among those who received this boost. His guest vocals on the track “Love Do What It Do” are among the best in his career largely because it’s so obvious he’s having the time of his life jamming along with Randolph and the family band.

Randolph knew he wanted a soulful country vocal on the track and auditioned the track for an incredibly receptive Rucker over the phone. The fun song with down-home charm provided both Randolph and Rucker with plenty of opportunities to dig into riffs with their respective instruments.

“I’ve collaborated with other people before, and they weren’t too excited,” Randolph said, describing the collaboration process as one some musicians view as more of a job or a favor than an expression of their art. “But [Rucker] kept saying ‘Yeah man, yeah man, I can’t wait’ and while he was in the vocal booth, he was just really excited about it.”

Cory Henry, someone Randolph described as a “great soul” who’s on the path to be “the next Herbie Hancock” also turned in a spirited guest vocal on a cover of Sam & Dave’s “I Thank You.”

“I always had that song in the back of my head to record it one day,” Randolph said. “It’s about time we really start learning to appreciate what others do for us and the joy that someone can bring to us. It’s alright to tell them ‘thank you.’”

Randolph’s signature steel guitar playing is the primary draw on Got Soul. He plays it the way he would in the Pentecostal church he grew up in on “Heaven’s Calling.” The pedal steel rarely makes an appearance outside of country music, and on this track, the sound is quite similar to something you’d hear played at the Grand Ole Opry. On other cuts, like the title track “Got Soul,” Randolph uses it much like a traditional electric guitar, except of course with more reverb and the ability to sound more comfortable at higher notes.

Higher octave and even falsetto harmonies on tracks like “Shake It Off” and “I Want It” sound excellent and contribute to the joyous energy central to the album. The brief “Lovesick” stands out for Robert’s shredding and cousin Marcus’s remarkable drum playing.

Randolph chose to end “Gonna Be Alright,” a song he retooled from a message to a depressed friend to one with a wider audience.

“It just seemed like it should have a little bit of a wider message for the time that we’re in with everyone freaking out and thinking that it’s the end of the world, World War III… So we wanted to re-tweak the lyrics to fit what’s going on today.”

With those changes, it became the best choice to end the album.

“I’m always looking for the positive ending. It’s always to keep people’s minds up. It’s one of those things I carried out of the church. The slogan was you come in here feeling down, but you’re supposed to leave here feeling up.”

Posted in Uncategorized

Sunny Sweeney Hands Country Music Fans a Real Prize with Trophy

Just about every song has multiple layers and meaning on Trophy, the latest from Sunny Sweeney, which turns name calling, regrets, and even gossip into country gems.

Trophy is the fourth record and second independent release for Sweeney, who became a Texas country favorite with 2014’s Provoked. The album’s title comes from a track that turns an attempted insult into an opportunity to brag. Sweeney delivers the lyrics with a taunting swagger: “Yeah, he’s got a trophy now/For putting up with you.”

“I heard that one of my husband’s exes was calling me names and I thought it would be funny to write a song about it instead of getting mad,” Sweeney said in a phone conversation for the March 20th episode of Country Pocket.

Sweeney teamed up with the influential Lori McKenna on that track and three others, including the uncharacteristically sentimental “Grow Old With Me,” which covers Sweeney’s relationship with her second husband.

“I don’t ever have love songs, but I really liked that one for some reason.”

Sweeney is one of the few songwriters who regularly acknowledges in her music that her husband is not her first.

“I think people don’t want to talk about their first relationships failing. They kind of pretend that it didn’t happen, but it did, and you wouldn’t be where you are if it didn’t.”

Sweeney captures the same energy as she did on her Texas radio number one hit “Bad Girl Phase” with “Better Bad Idea,” a rare song made better by a lack of detail. Wine and weed are specifically mentioned, but for the most part, the singer is only playing up her potential to be wild and challenging her companion to come up with the details. It’s as much a statement of rebellion as it is an over the top act of seduction.

“Unsaid” also leaves a few words out for emotional impact, this time while conveying the pain of being on bad terms with someone who unexpectedly passes away. The first three lines mention church bells and headlights in describing a funeral procession. We hear about a name written in stone early on, but the word “heaven” doesn’t appear until after the second refrain. It’s a strong indicator that the singer is struggling to accept the death, just as the decision to end the song by leaving out the third note of a repeated three-note guitar part had the effect of conveying the suddenness of the tragedy. It’s also Sweeney’s strongest vocal to date.

“Pass the Pain” and the Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay penned “Pills” play around with the idea of judgment and self-awareness in satisfying ways. “Nothing Wrong With Texas,” which came from Sweeney’s move to New York City, is most notable for its fiddle work and the impressive rhyme scheme of perspective/respect is/Texas. The Jerry Jeff Walker cover “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” uses the title as a great double entendre.

“I’ve always wanted to record that song. I think it’s one of the greatest country songs ever written.” Sweeney said of the cover song.

“Bottle By My Bed” takes on even more meanings. The risky track is on its face about wanting a child, but also about reaching a new stage of maturity. Underneath is a feeling that perhaps a deeper, more heartbreaking problem exists for the singer. She says she only calls her husband baby “because I like the word” and describes watching the news at night alone with some beers while he suggests waiting to have a child. Her friends are all busy raising kids, so it’s easy to get the sense the singer feels little in the way of support and companionship.

It’s hard to imagine this review isn’t missing at least one layer of meaning on even the songs described in depth. As enjoyable as these songs are to listen to, Trophy is an album best thought about deeply and played repeatedly. Sweeney’s songwriting will undoubtedly hold up to that level of examination.