Saturday, November 2, 2019


The name of Stephen Bruton may be known to fewer than those who have heard his songs, and, if and when then, possibly when sung by others rather than by him. I was sort of amazed he hasn't previously had a shout here, given the love of roots oriented musics: blues, folk, country, in the many and various scribes who have written for the site over the past decade and more. If you like a bit of Willie or Kris Kristofferson, the chances are that you are familiar with his work. With a style that effortlessly bridges the oeuvres above, it is when he plays his own that the class really outs, aided and abetted by his lifetime perfecting his precision on guitar. Perhaps it was the experiences of working as Kristofferson's right hand man for nigh on twenty years, ahead of a similar role with Bonnie Raitt, that imbued him with such apparent ease with a song. And I can't help but feel, had he not died from the throat cancer that beset his last few years, that he would have become better known. But he did, in 2009, aged 60.

Spirit World is both the name of the featured track, and of the record it comes from, his fourth solo release, in 2002, on the prestigious New West record label, always a reliable home for quality americana and roots. Especially if you happen, like Bruton, you come from Texas. If you like a loping swagger down dusty byways, perhaps stopping to slake your thirst in a beat-up roadhouse, this is probably music you will like, and his other records have more of the same. Live? Well, his would be the sort of band booked to actually play that roadhouse. Here's the same song in a live setting.

Something I didn't know about him was his involvement with the soundtrack of Crazy Heart, the award winning film about a down and not quite out country singer, wedded to the bottle, ahead of being rescued by the love of a good woman. So far, so cliche, except it wasn't quite that simple, the good woman being a music journalist and happy ever after remaining, arguably, elusive. But, with Jeff Bridges, who blagged a deserved oscar for his portrayal, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, any tawdry sentiment is transcended. Based on a book, itself based loosely on singer Hank Thompson, many of the set pieces in the film are embellished with the real life experiences, on the road, of Bruton, himself a recovering alcoholic. (And, even if this weren't true, the character Deacon Clayborn, in the TV series Nashville, actually was certainly based upon him.) The job of the soundtrack was given to T.Bone Burnett, his first call being then to enrol his life-long buddy Bruton to the task, despite already his cancer biting hard. The bulk of new material for the movie was written by the pair of them, although Bruton was not to see the official release. He died at Burnett's home, so closely were they working, even right up to the end, this being six months ahead of the opening.( Here is one hell of an article, telling his tale so much better than can I. And please note the comments around his becoming, on attaining sobriety, a tireless rescuer of livers, rather than any lasting pitiful drunk.)

Somebody Else/Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart soundtrack)

Somebody Else(instrumental)/Stephen Bruton (Crazy Heart soundtrack)

There are a host of similar artists I love, dependable names in, usually, second billing, or third, to more lauded souls, yet providing the ballast that boilers the bigger name. Sometimes the accolades come, often they don't. I am thinking of Sonny Landreth and the late Neal Casal, journeymen players and singers, often overlooked in the chase for a bigger story. Do yourself a favour. Look 'em out.

Get Spirit here.
And Heart there.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Spirit: The Spirit of Radio

Rush: The Spirit of Radio

I’ve openly discussed my love of prog-rock in on this blog, so you might be surprised to discover that I’m not a big fan of Rush. They are one of those bands who I’ve never particularly gotten into, maybe in part because I have never spent much time really listening to their substantial output, but there are a handful of Rush songs that I like. One of them is “The Spirit of Radio,” from the 1980 album Permanent Waves. Why this Rush song as opposed to any other? I can’t give you a good answer, but I think that it is probably a combination of the song’s relatively straightforward structure, the somewhat surprising reggae touch at the end, and most of all, its message.

When I first got interested in music, you could still find relatively free-form radio stations that weren’t afraid to play deep tracks and long songs, and there were still DJs creating thematic sets and talking, knowledgeably, about the music. I learned so much about music from listening to, mostly, WNEW-FM during my high school days. The three members of Rush are all 8 or 9 years older than me, and came of music listening age during a time when radio was even more wide open.

But like so many things, once someone realizes that money can be made, people, or more likely, companies, with big bank accounts step in, and the distinctive character of whatever it is gets lost in favor of standardization and the profit motive. The days of free-form radio are mostly over, at least on the commercial part of the dial, and that’s a shame. Most stations play a very circumscribed set of songs, narrowly formatted, and often the DJs are just people with good voices, without the knowledge, or love, of the music that they play. At the time that Rush released “The Power of Radio” this trend was speeding up, and it was certainly something that I, sitting in the dorm-basement studios of WPRB, was acutely aware of.

As Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson said about the song:

That song was really a statement of where radio was going, where it had been. Growing up in the early 70s, FM radio was such a free forum for music; you’d have DJs who would play stuff for an hour. They’d just talk about the songs; there were no commercials or anything. So free-form, really a platform for expanding music at the time. And then it was moving more towards a format, and away from that freedom, becoming more regulated, more about selling airtime. It just speaks about that, really. 

The irony was that the song that attacked radio became a hit, and presaged a move by the band toward more radio friendly music, at least for a while.

Not only is “The Spirit of Radio” a shot at radio programmers, it is also an attack on bands that Rush believed were more in the business for the money, and not the art. In one of the most well-known lines from the song, which consciously echoed Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence,” Lyricist Neal Peart wrote: ‘The words of the profits are written on the studio wall, concert hall/Echoes with the sounds of salesmen.’ The salesmen, in his opinion, being the disingenuous front men of bands who told each city that it was the greatest, or that its fans were the best.

These days, of course, we don’t have to rely on radio stations to discover music anymore. There are tons of other places to hear music—streaming services, the Internet in general, satellite radio, and so on. On one hand, that’s great, because access is now in the user’s hands. But on the other hand, this model has made music much less profitable, preventing some artists from having the resources to create their art to the fullest (although it also has probably cut back on a good deal of excess). Maybe worst of all, though, is that this model makes it easy for listeners to stay in a rut. Most Sirius XM stations, for example, play a small slice of music, and when you choose music on streaming services, it is easier to pick music or artists that you already like, than to search for something new and good in the mass of available songs. That curatorial service that a good FM DJ provided, which allowed me to simply tune to 102.7 (or to have listeners tune to 103.3, when I was on the air….) and have my musical horizons broadend is mostly gone.