I’m fascinated by the way current affairs are reflected in the arts generally and music in particular. The last few years have seen the resurgence of the protest singer and the protest song and, to use pandemic terminology, in 2020 the resurgence has been exponential as the time approaches when America has to make another choice of President and the majority of creatives are making it clear where their support lies. The trajectory of Tim Grimm’s trilogy of Trump singles (“Woody’s  Landlord”, “Gonna be Great” and “Gone”) reflects the response of many of the many American artists I’ve seen or heard over the last four years – from amusement at Trump’s candidature, through disbelief at the election result to horror and despair at results of four divisive and confrontational years.

“Gone” is where the rope runs out, in the middle of a botched response to a pandemic and the most unprincipled and vicious American presidential election campaign in living memory. This could have been a very angry song, but Tim takes a different path. “Gone” emphasises the despair felt by some Americans at the state of their country. It would have been very easy to push the highly emotive buttons, but Tim doesn’t do that, musically or lyrically. “Gone” is a sparse, slow, unshowy country-rock arrangement with lyrics that are allusive; no names are mentioned although we know it’s about Trump and we know that ‘And the man who brought us Paradise has laid down his guitar’ is about the loss of John Prine.

Subtlety is crucial here, probably as a deliberate contrast with the methods of POTUS. We don’t need to have everything hammered home in detail; we should be able to connect the dots and see the patterns ourselves. It’s an important message in an era where aggressive confrontation seems to be the accepted norm and it’s a welcome respite.

“Gone” is out now on Cavalier Recordings (CR255931).

And here’s the video:

Ags is a regular contributor to this feature, bringing a unique Ameripolitan twist to the proceedings. We always like to hear what he has to say about music in general, so here are some of his favourite things from 2016. Oh, and by the way, Ags has his second album coming out in February and it’s produced that other Riot Towers favourite Dean Owens.

In no particular order…

Show w/ Jack Grelle and Ryan Koenig at Off Broadway, St. Louis MO,  28th February

1-agsIn February this year I undertook a US tour with a full band, including co-headliners Jack Grelle and Ryan Koenig. Jack and I toured the UK and Ireland in 2015 so this was the ‘return leg’ for me. The band included Jack’s bass player Brice Baricevic, Pokey LaFarge’s drummer Matt Myer and Ryan himself, who is also an integral part of Pokey’s band as a multi-instrumentalist sideman. Jack played lead guitar when I was on stage. Needless to say the band were superb and over the course of 16 dates around the South and South East we honed our act until the final show of the tour – a homecoming for the band at Off Broadway in St. Louis. A nice crowd turned up including the other members of Pokey’s band (and the man himself) and we played our tightest and most enjoyable show of the tour. Probably one of my favourite gigs ever, in fact. I hope I’ll have the chance to play with these fellas again.

Jack Grelle – “Got Dressed Up To Be Let Down”

2-jack-grelleSpeaking of Jack, in October this year he released his second studio album (under his current solo guise). It may seem biased for me to include this in an end-of-year list but, having played countless shows with Jack and heard these songs many times, I think I’m well-placed to say whether they stand up to scrutiny or not. And they do. Along with the title track and all the other country/honky tonk/Cajun etc. sounds on this album, I love the song “Birthday Cards” about his Grandmother, which he’d mentioned to me during its writing. It could’ve been written by John Prine or any of the great country singer-songwriters you care to mention. Listen and find out.

Luke Bell – “Luke Bell”

3-luke-bellLuke is a guy I discovered a while ago, and later found out, as coincidence would have it, that he is a friend of Jack Grelle’s. His self-titled album released this year includes some of the songs that featured on his previous effort ‘”Don’t Mind If I Do”, presumably to ensure they reached a wider audience. Luke has one of the most engaging and natural sounds of all the new breed of country traditionalists. I was due to meet up with Luke in Nashville last year but he was too busy opening for Willie Nelson. If there is any justice he’ll be kept busy like that for a good while.

4-mo-pitneyMo Pitney  – “Behind This Guitar”

It’s not often the current young darlings of the modern Grand Ole Opry would make it onto any positive list of mine, but Mo Pitney is an exception. A young, skinny -as-a-rake lad in his early twenties, Mo is unquestionably the heir apparent to Randy Travis, Alan Jackson and every other neo-traditionalist that was left in the dust by pop music. His voice and the songs he’s put together with other excellent writers demand attention. His first album has been a long time coming but was worth the wait.

5-robbie-fulksRobbie Fulks“Upland Stories”

Robbie Fulks’ last album, “Gone Away Backward”, was one that grew on me and became one of my favourites. In fact, a lot of Robbie Fulks’ albums are my favourite albums. 2005’s “Georgia Hard” is a case in point. With “Upland Stories” Robbie revisited the sparse arrangements of “Gone Away Backward” and mixed it with his always exceptional songwriting. It was recently announced that this album has been nominated for two Grammy Awards, a better-late-than-never slice of recognition that will hopefully bring a new audience to this songwriter’s songwriter.

Ags is way too polite to mention this, but his second album “Nothin’ Unexpected” will be out on February 3rd on At The Helm Records.

Photo by Glenn Campbell

Photo by Glenn Campbell

Intimate doesn’t really do justice to the experience of a sold-out gig downstairs at Green Note; it’s way beyond cosy with an audience of twenty-five. In an ideal world Sam Lewis would be playing a bigger room, but sometimes you have to work with what you have. Fortunately, everyone in the audience has come particularly to see Sam tonight, so we can just relax into a great live experience. On Sam’s latest album, “Waiting on You”, he’s backed by the cream of Nashville’s studio musicians, but this is a solo acoustic gig, and the songs and voice stand or fall on merit alone. I’m not going for the suspense thing here, I’ll tell you straight; this man has a phenomenal voice and his songs are multi-faceted gems.

Sam’s voice and songwriting fall into an intersection between soul, blues and country that doesn’t see too many visitors, but that isn’t the only thing to make him stand out. His laid-back stoner stage persona creates an immediate bond with the small audience before he’s even sung or played a note and generates a rapport that strengthens as the gig goes on.

Maybe it’s a reference to the heat in the venue (it’s a bit like having thirty people in your living room) but the opening song is an interesting one; it’s John Prine’s “Mexican Home”. Once the tuning issues caused by the heat are out of the way, Sam enchants the audience with two sets that include songs from “Waiting on You”, including “Things Will Never be the Same” (written in the UK last year, apparently), “Little Time”, “Virginia Avenue”, “3/4 Time”, “Reinventing the Blues”, “Waiting on You”, a superb “Never Again” and a mix of covers and earlier material.

Sam’s digressions between songs have a tendency towards the surreal and work perfectly to dissolve any barriers there may be between performer and audience; on the surface it looks shambolic, but it’s a hugely effective approach. Towards the end of his first set he talks about the impact that Fred Eaglesmith has had on his writing, playing the wonderful “Bluesday Night” from his debut album as an example of Fred’s influence, which he follows with the heart-rending “The Rocket” from Fred’s 2003 album “Balin”; it’s one of many perfect moments during the set.

After the encore of “The Cross I Wear”, it’s all over and Sam Lewis found some new fans, including a group celebrating a birthday; that’s the kind of birthday party I would go to every time. It’s too late to see Sam Lewis on this tour, but watch out for him next year. Meanwhile I think you ought to have a listen to “Sam Lewis”, “Waiting on You” or both to start the weekend.