Here’s an interesting idea. Although the central figure in Old Californio is renowned songwriter Rich Dembowski, ‘Old Californio Country’ features ten covers and three band originals. There’s no reason why a songwriter shouldn’t do an entire album (almost) of covers; Bruce Springsteen’s just done it with his favourite old soul and rhythm and blues songs and the record-buying public is purring over that one. ‘Old Californio Country’ that’s packed with superb playing, beautiful lead vocals and harmonies and wonderful interpretations of songs by songwriters acknowledged as masters of their craft. It almost goes without saying that the playing isn’t showy, it’s just the playing that the song needs to make it shimmer.

Although the album’s heavily loaded with covers, the opener is a Rich Dembowski original played in classic country style and spiced with outlaw country sentiment – “shorten your give-a-shit list” is good advice for all of us. The covers range across a wide variety of country-related styles and interpretations, from Neil Young’s ‘Lotta Love’ that almost mimics Young’s ‘Comes a Time’ production but is turbocharged with perfect and powerful harmonies, to a rockabilly reworking of John Prine’s ‘Knockin’ On Your Screen Door’ that opens with a nod in the direction of Billy Joel’s ‘Still Rock and Roll to Me’. The Beatles’ ‘Because’ is transformed from a psychedelic piece to a banjo-led country song with soaring harmonies, while Lowell George’s ‘Willin’’ has all the edges and corners smoothed away to create a plaintive and beautiful ballad of life on the road made tolerable by “wed, whites and wine” punctuated by the reliably melancholy harmonica and lap steel fills – it’s the loneliness of the long-distance trucker.

How about favourites? Well two songs stand out for the quality of the song and the Old Californio interpretation. The Jason Isbell song ‘Maybe It’s Time’ (also covered recently by KB Bayley) is a classic example of powerful, evocative and economic songwriting highlighting indoctrination of the population underpinned by finger-picked acoustic guitars, lap steel fills and Nashville twang solo. The Guy Clark song ‘Stuff That Works’ is delivered in a minimal, laconic style with a resonator slide solo; it’s a hymn in praise of using the things that we actually need rather than the things we’re pressured to buy to keep up. Forget iPhone 14 and concentrate on that old shirt, pair of boots or guitar. On a personal note, I listen to my review albums on a fifteen-year-old MP3 player – if it ain’t broke…

‘Old Californio Country’ is out now.

Here’s a live version of ‘Willin’’:

OLD CALIFORNIO – WILLIN’ – Live at McCabe’s – YouTube

Malcolm Holcombe - 'Pretty Little Troubles' - cover (300dpi)“Pretty Little Troubles”; it’s a lovely example of irony. Malcolm Holcombe’s troubles are never little and they’re rarely pretty. The subjects of his songs may be everyday events, but they have huge significance to the protagonists. It’s fair to say that he’s revered by fellow artists and songwriters for both live and recorded work and this album’s another demonstration of the passion and unshowy skill of his songs. His style is firmly in the country/Americana tradition with hints of other roots showing through occasionally in the lilting Celtic- styled “The Eyes O’ Josephine” where the bass doubles up the guitar riff and the song’s completed with a penny whistle solo and the European-influenced story of an encounter with a female busker playing a concertina, “South Hampton Street”. Both songs evoke the setting perfectly without tipping over into pastiche. 

The transatlantic folk/roots community has almost unanimously distanced itself from the alt-right and Malcolm Holcombe’s affirmation of that stance comes in “Yours No More”, a hymn of praise to the immigrants that helped to build America. It’s not in-your-face radicalism, it’s a gentle reminder that we can all use a bit of historical perspective at times. His rough-hewn, two-packs-a-day voice rasps through the rockier numbers, but adds pathos to the more contemplative stories of the numbing grind of everyday existence, such as “Damn Weeds” and the album’s closer “We Struggle”; the problems may be small in the grand scheme of things, but they can seem like insurmountable objects when you get right up close and personal. 

There area couple of great turnaround songs on the album as well. The uptempo “Good Old Days” feels like a nostalgic romp until the lyrics turn to exploitation, disease , alcohol and dead babies and “Bury England” paints a stark picture of life as a travelling musician, depicting all the minor frustrations (terrible coffee) which are displaced by hearing great music on the house PA (in memory of Guy Clark) then going on to play a great gig with Jared Tyler. Malcolm Holcombe has the songwriter’s skill of creating a perfect vignette from a seemingly mundane series of events and even the title is an ironic play on the phrase ‘Merry England’. 

It’s raw at times, but “Pretty Little Troubles” is packed with lovingly-crafted and passionate songs played in atmospheric and uncluttered settings. It’s a lovely piece of work. 

“Pretty Little Troubles” is released on Friday May 26 on Gypsy Eyes Music.

The album that kicked started the year here at MusicRiot was “Carnival of Hopes” by Jane Kramer. We loved it at the time and we still love it, so we were delighted when Jane made a contribution to keep the High Fives train a-rollin’ for another day, and give Malcolm Holcombe his third mention in the feature this year. Read about her top five gigs here.

I’m honored to be included in this wonderful list! I’m sharing with you the top 5 live shows that I’ve attended this year that a.) Made me want to keep writing better, deeper, braver songs. b.) Made me glad to be alive and wearing skin and c.) Knocked me on my bum and helped me realize that music is more powerful; it’s bigger than all of us. It’s a language we mustn’t be afraid to speak and share.

Three Women and the Truth at the Altamont Theatre in Asheville, NC

three-women-and-the-truthThis tour consists of…wait for it…Mary Gauthier (a friend and mentor of mine), Eliza Gilkyson AND Gretchen Peters. Three of the most brave, unabashed, TALENTED, accomplished, truth-telling songwriters that live. They are each so passionately authentic and so advanced and graceful in their craft. Besides the fact that each of their songs floor me, they have a wonderful friendship and their shows together are full of hilarious, witty banter and stories. The reverence they have for each other’s art is also very moving and the amount of talent on the one stage is staggering. I loved watching Mary’s face when she was moved by certain lines in her peers’ songs, and I loved the way they would chime in on harmonies for one another off the cuff because they were moved to and didn’t worry if it was polished or perfect. Mary put me on the guest list for the show, and I hung out in the green room with the ladies before they performed. They were just as authentic and warm as their songs. The venue has wonderful sound and only seats 150, so it was nice and intimate. I left so humbled and inspired!

Malcolm Holcombe at the Grey Eagle in Asheville, NC

malcolm-holcombeMalcolm is the real, raw, gruff yet shiny, deal. I’ve spent almost 20 years now in this little corner of the world; the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, and Malcolm (a local fixture here who is also known internationally) and his songs represent home to me. Like, if you could bottle up the wild woods here and the divey bar rooms and the rivers and the hollers and the way the blueish mountains make you yearn, it would look and sound like one of Malcolm’s songs. I remember going to see him at the Town Pump, a serious dive bar, when I was in college. I was floored. I was a young songwriter and knew I was in the presence of greatness. He gave no sh*ts about the audience or social conventions. He smoked his cigarettes and his dentures would fly out of his mouth sometimes while he was singing. His eyes flutter-rolled into the back of his head while he sang and played like he was in some kind of snake-charmer trance. I remember thinking: “This is how it’s supposed to be. He is not playing us his songs, he IS his songs.” It was very formative for me.

I even got to sing a duet with him once and it was a crowning moment in my career. I have loved keeping up with Malcolm over the years and never miss an opportunity to see him play. This show at the Grey Eagle was intimate and perfect. Just Malcolm, his fierce finger picking and beautiful growling vocals and poetry, and he had a great dobro player accompanying him. It was, apparently, a release show for his new album, but you never would have known it from him – he never mentioned it. The only story he told was about a dog. He just kept the songs of life hard-lived and hard-loved rolling and he was authentically himself and the crowd drank him in with reverence. I was so happy to be there. I never want him to stop.

Akira Satake in his pottery studio in the River Arts District of Asheville, NC

akira-satakeAkira, in my opinion, is one of those humans who got ALL the GREAT genes. He is brilliant. He is a mind-blowing potter. He is an exquisite banjo player. He’s produced records for Tim O’Brien. He grew up in Osaka, Japan and discovered the banjo and mountain music from his brother’s Flatt and Scruggs albums. He’s become a master of shamisen (Japanese banjo) and played all over the world. He has a pottery studio in the River Arts District of Asheville, NC, and his pieces look just like his banjo playing sounds: earthy, wild, sturdy; a mystical fusion of the sounds of Japan and the sounds of the old-time mountain music of this region. It’s really something. I haven’t made it to a formal Akira concert yet, but I stumbled into his pottery studio on an open-gallery Sunday and there he was,

sitting at a little table in his studio (that also houses an adorable tiny cafe that his wife operates), and he was casually playing his banjo with his Altoid Mints box full of picks open in front of him. I have never in my life heard anything like it. It was effortless and every note showed how dear these two disparate lands: Japan and the NC Mountains, are to him, and filled the gaps between them. Pure magic.

Shovels and Rope at the Reeb Ranch (Hendersonville, NC)

shovels-and-ropeWhat a breath of fresh air these saucy, raspy, young southern rabble-rousers are. How can you even begin to not love a young woman who belts out soulful poetry in harmony with her husband WHILE banging on the drums?! These guys are on the rise for a good reason. They are the whole package: songwriting, musicianship, unique voices and humility. I got to see them in a lovely festival setting, under the stars, cuddled up on a blanket with my honey. Doesn’t get much better than that. They were gracious and funny with the crowd, and gave such fire in their performance. They walked on and off stage holding hands and somehow manage to play and tour and do business together and still be in love. I’m in awe. They closed with the song “Birmingham”, tender and achey and one of my favorites.

Darrell Scott at the Altamont Theatre, Asheville NC

darrellscott32I never miss a chance to hear Darrell perform. I even was so lucky as to be his student in a songwriting intensive workshop a few years back. With the heartbreaking loss of so many of the masters of the songwriting craft over the last few years: Guy Clark, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, to name a few, I believe that songwriters such as Darrell Scott are carrying their torch forward. Not only is he an exquisite songwriter; he is an incredibly accomplished guitar player and an amazing vocalist. The full package. He commands the stage with quiet grace, and seeing him in this intimate venue was beautifully special. His son’s band, ‘A Boy Named Banjo’ opened for him, and it was incredibly sweet to see Darrell swell with pride for his bass-playing son. They did some numbers together and I loved watching Darrell be the band leader in such a paternal (but not patronizing) way. He would gently nod to each boy, trusting them to solo, and nod again as if to say “you got this. Play out!”

Darrell was reflective and well-spoken and performed a staggeringly beautiful version of his dear, departed friend Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train”. I left with quiet resolve to write a song of my own that I’d be proud to share with Darrell.

From the Stillhouse scrollerWell I have to admit it’s an interesting idea. Not just an album of songs on one theme; this is much more ambitious than that. Murder Murder want to write, record and play nothing but murder ballads set in their own corner of southern Canada. Murder Murder is a six-piece bluegrass/string band from Sudbury, Ontario comprising Jon Danyliw (vocals, guitar and mandolin), Sam Cassio (vocals, guitar and mandolin), Geoff McCausland (fiddle), Barry Miles (vocals, banjo, dobro), Kris Dickson (upright bass) and Steph Duschene (percussion) and there’s no doubt that they make a glorious noise and have a lot of fun in the process (just listen out for fiddle and mandolin making train noises in the opener “Sweet Revenge”).

The murder theme doesn’t make the album monotonous, far from it. The songs are mainly uptempo bluegrass, with a couple of exceptions, “Bridge County ‘41” a story of moonshine turf wars and “When the Lord Calls Your Name”, a slow ¾ time hellfire sermon from a reformed killer turned preacher. The lyrical themes vary widely from the fairly standard runaway song “Movin’ On” with its beautiful keening harmonies through the infatuated teenager of “Evil Wind” to the very unusual gay love triangle of “Duck Cove”.

Besides the ten originals there’s even a cover of the Guy Clark song “The Last Gunfighter Ballad”. It wasn’t intended as a tribute, but it seems to have worked out that way. The album can be a lot of fun at times, with plenty of variety and some very good songs, but I still have reservations about the single theme running through it, and presumably through however many albums the band make in the future. It seems a slightly strange choice to commit so completely to one particular sub-genre to the extent of enshrining it the band’s name; who knows? It’s certainly worth forty-five minutes of your time and checking them out live next time they come to the UK.

“From the Stillhouse” is released on Friday June 24th.

Meanwhile, have a look at the video for “Movin’ On”:

The next contributor to 2015’s High Fives is on one of my favourite independent UK labels, Drumfire Records, along with Dean Owens and Phil Burdett. Ags Connolly has had a pretty good year as word has spread about his 2014 debut “How About Now” and he’s played just about everywhere. As Ags hasn’t said anything about this in his contribution, I’ll just mention that he supported Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal in Leeds earlier this year.

Doug SeegersDoug Seegers – Live at Southern Fried Festival, Perth, 1st August

I’d already been enjoying Doug’s album “Down to The River’” so I was glad to see his UK debut would be at Southern Fried, a few hours after my set opening for Dean Owens. Doug’s live show was, in my view, even better than his star-heavy, Nashville-produced album. An interesting line-up of bass, drums and fiddle behind vocal and guitar gave a surprisingly big sound and Doug’s vocals were excellent. Doug is absolutely huge in Sweden and I tried to persuade him and the band to try the rest of the UK soon. Let’s hope they do.

J1545closed_GLUEohn Moreland – “High On Tulsa Heat”

I’ve been aware of John Moreland since his album “In the Throes” began to bubble under in 2013. He is easily one of the best new songwriters I’ve heard in years. I was excited to hear his new effort, “High on Tulsa Heat” and it didn’t disappoint. It’s filled with strong melodies and excellent lyrics. I do think his previous album was marginally better, but that’s a bit like comparing a massive box of sweets with another massive box of sweets. Looking forward to seeing John open for Jason Isbell over here in January.

Grand Ole OpryGrand Ole Opry show, 27th February

In February I made my first trip to the Grand Ole Opry and I picked a pretty good date. A country radio seminar was keeping a lot of the more modern acts busy that week so we were treated to a show including older legends such as Ralph Stanley, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, John Conlee, Bill Anderson, The Oak Ridge Boys and Jim Lauderdale. It was a very enjoyable experience and showed, reassuringly, that country music as we used to know it is still alive in some corners of Nashville.

Justin TrevinoJustin Trevino – “Sings Johnny Bush

If you put a gun to my head and asked me to name the best traditional country singer alive today I’d say Justin Trevino. I’d probably say it without the gun, to be honest. This new album of him singing songs he learned from his hero, Texas legend Johnny Bush, is possibly his best. The opening track is the self-penned “One Night at a Johnny Bush Dance” and it fits perfectly with classics like “Whiskey River”. Trevino is about as staunchly traditional as you can get, and this album is one of my favourites this year.

Jeremy Pinnell and Max FenderJeremy Pinnell and Max Fender – UK tour, October

This October I had the pleasure of hosting and playing two shows with Ohio/Kentucky artists Jeremy Pinnell and Max Fender (lead singer of the band Alone at 3am) on their UK and Europe tour. I was already a fan of both guys but seeing them live was special. Jeremy reminded me of Guy Clark while Max was somewhere between Jon Dee Graham and REM. Both deserve a wider audience and I hope they make it back soon: credit to their road manager and label owner Mike Montgomery for getting them over here this time.