Singer Songwriters from Home: Americana Album Defines Itself as ‘True Gem’
In 1965, Elektra issued what would become for many years a rare collector’s album that was most notable for perhaps popularizing the term “singer-songwriter.” Featuring tracks from four obscure troubadours from the budding Greenwich Village folk scene, the “Singer Songwriter Project” was released without fanfare. Yet it captured the sense of both the spirit of the genre and the direction it was heading.
The album project featured Patrick Sky; Bruce Murdoch; David Blue (nee Cohen), who went on to write the Eagle’s hit “Outlaw Man” and joined Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review in 1975; and Richard Farina, who penned “Birmingham Sunday,” a song later recorded by his future sister-in-law, Joan Baez.
While the “Singer Songwriter Project” was never considered a seminal recording, it did capture the imagination of Swedish music industry veteran Peter Holmstedt, whose independent A&R, promotion and marketing company Hemifran has worked with artists ranging from Jack Bruce, Jackson Browne, Judy Collins, Sid Griffin, Elliott Murphy and Gary Wright.
Fifty years from the original project, Holmstedt has just commemorated the work with the release of “Singer Songwriters from Home,” a collection of songs from four distinct artists whose 18 tracks flow seamlessly through a collection of well-told stories put to song.
The players hail from different parts of the country – Keith Miles from Nashville, Barry Ollman from Denver, Greg Copeland from Los Angeles and Bob Cheevers from Austin. They don’t appear on each other’s songs. They’ve never played together before. But a listen through this album, which is available only through digital download, creates a feeling of four old friends sitting in at a writers-in-the-round show in a small club “somewhere in America.”
The first four songs set that stage well. Copeland opens with “Wait for Me,” a plaintive ballad of powerful prose backed by a sweetly strummed acoustic guitar, uilleann pipes and an Irish fiddle. Miles powerfully and beautifully sings “Playing Your Guitar,” an ode to the memories that can be found in an old six-string, a song he co-wrote with good friend and Nashville guitar store owner Kim Sherman.
On “These Are My Words,” Cheevers, singing in a distinctive Willie Nelson-esque vibrato, weaves a songwriter’s confessional that his fictional tales of love are indeed real. Ollman follows with “Longtime Friend,” a melodic story about true friendship that includes a well-turned shout out to Righteous Brothers: The search is on for that loving feeling, in the end it’s true we are on our own, I think it is better walking there together, step by step into the great unknown.
As should be expected when this many songwriters independently work on a project, the cuts run a gamut of styles, both in terms of the stories they tell and the music behind them, which makes them Americana at its best. Miles’ “Homeland,” which he co-wrote with longtime collaborator Jack Sundrud and was later recorded by Kenny Rogers, and Ollman’s “Murmuration” are both soaring and deep-felt homages to prairie life and starlings in flight, respectively. In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Cheevers throws in a delightful homespun musical interpretation of Washington Irving’s famous tale.
Miles is at his best on “Kerouac Days,” which captures the carefree spirit of the great beat writer, and on the smile-inducing toe-tapper “Ask Me Tomorrow,” which cautions his muse: I ain’t got time for you to wait to take a chance, when I move you know I like to hit the gas. I like my tea with gin and lots of sassafras, staying one step in front of sorrow.
Cheevers is wistful on “Progress,” capturing what many of us think: that “fool’s gold” is sometimes disguised as change. Copeland brings along a couple of friends David Lindley and Jackson Browne on “Are You Here” and a recorded-live “Pretty Girl Rules the World,” which Browne says is like a Beach Boys song if the Beach Boys had been political.
It just works.
The beauty of the “Singer Songwriters from Home” album is in its sequencing, a production feat that allows each song to stand fully on its own while gelling together to form a unified work of music. That sequencing, and the quality of each individual piece, is what allows the album to continue getting better with each run-through as it takes the listener through these stories from home.
“Singer-songwriter” is a hard term to clearly define. It’s not actually a genre; neither is it just someone singing the songs they wrote. Perhaps in the end it is a state of mind, both of those doing the writing and singing, and those of us doing the listening. Most would agree, however, that the key ingredient is storytelling – through words and music, with each driving the other. On this measure, “Singer Songwriters from Home” defines itself as a true gem.
— Roger Shirley
BEYOND THE HEADLIGHTS: A JOURNEY THROUGH THE LANDSCAPES
New Keith Miles CD Finds Nashville Artist on Familiar Roads
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Nashville songsmith Keith Miles changed gears a few times on his way to making the follow-up album to his highly acclaimed 2006 debut, “What It Was That They Became”.
Initially, Miles planned to cut a CD exclusively using songs he’d co-written with friends over the years. But in the end, the just-released “Beyond The Headlights” (House of Trout) includes not only several inspired collaborations but also some of Miles’ favorite solo-penned tunes, a cover of a song that harks back to his old coffeehouse days and a toe-tapping interpretation of a public domain number that discerning ears will recall from the likes of the Rev. Gary Davis and the Grateful Dead.
The result is a masterpiece of songwriting that’s tightly backed by a stable of stellar musicians, and a production by Miles’ longtime friend and musical co-conspirator Jack Sundrud that’s big without being overdone.
Miles certainly found his voice on “What It Was That They Became”, but his vocals on “Beyond the Headlights” are even stronger, offering a pitch-perfect delivery for the stories that unfold in the songs, from relationship regrets to carnival scams to driving around in the Texas night.
As was the case with his previous CD, it’s impossible to put a single style stamp on “Beyond the Headlights”, which serves up a gumbo of Americana and country, Western swing and roots, with some folk overtones, a dash of jazz and a subtle hint of blue-eyed soul. And like his previous effort, Miles takes listeners on an easy-going, enjoyable journey through the landscapes of his life – both real and imagined.
From the opening “This Road I’m On”, an upbeat number about leaving the past, to the closing “Memories of You”, a heartfelt ballad about longing for the past, Miles and friends chronicle the everyday ups-and-downs that provide life’s spice.
On “The South”, Miles and co-writer Sundrud capture that truth every Southerner feels, that “you can go but you can’t leave”, while “Maybe I Shoulda”, another Miles-Sundrud collaboration, pretty much nails the sentiment shared by those who know they blew it.
One of the most likeable numbers on the CD, “I Like to Drive”, is a perfect blend of music, lyrics and vocals that make listeners feel they are in the backseat with Miles and co-writer Steve Blazek as the driver “(taps) out a rhythm on the steering wheel with (his) wedding ring”.
“7-Cent Cigar Blues” is a fun, horn-backed romp through less complicated times at a “two-bit tent outside of town on the wrong side of the tracks”, while “Who’s That Girl?” all but invites you to shout along with the chorus in this ditty about a woman who catches our narrator’s eye.
On “Sweet Waters”, Miles is at his songwriting best as he zips through a jazzy-sounding number about a time when, “I held the future like I’m holding this drink in my hand”.
When I awoke you were staring at the ceiling
Suddenly it was clear what you were feeling
Oh, how would you know
Things wouldn’t change if we took it kinda slow
And went down where the sweet waters flow
It’s hard (and perhaps pointless) to try to pick out standouts in a CD packed with such strong tunes, but Miles cover of “Samson and Delilah”, an old song he first heard on a Rev. Gary Davis LP, is certainly one of them. With big percussion, tight slide guitar solos, soulful vocals and gospel-style back-up on the chorus, it’s the CD’s top toe-tapper and one of its strongest offerings.
For different reasons, so is the other cover song, “Them Dance Hall Girls”, penned by Allan Fraser in 1971. The melancholy song about women who “give you their bodies, but you never reach their mind” and “who really know how to make a man feel alone”, is an excursion down memory lane for Miles, who said he couldn’t resist putting the song on this CD.
“I used to perform that song many years ago in coffeehouses and bars in East Tennessee, and it has always been a favorite of mine”, Miles said, adding that he often shared those back-in-the-day stages with Alan Webb, who plays guitar and contributes background vocals on “Beyond the Headlights”.
Likewise, “Iola” is an old friend that Miles penned with Sundrud and Sue Braswell during a time when the Midwest was gripped by drought. The song – a nod to a suffering farm family – was included on an album by Great Plains, a group Sundrud formed with Russ Pahl in the mid-90s.
Pahl and Braswell are among a lineup of musicians and backing vocalists that give “Beyond The Headlights” a foundation strong enough to hold songs this big and honest. Others include legendary Nashville session man Billy Sanford, whose timeless style on the guitar adds subtle notes that help pull the stories together, and mandolin picker Brent Truitt, who also supplied his East Nashville studio for the recording sessions.
“This album turned out a lot differently than I envisioned when Jack and I first started talking about doing another project last summer”, Miles said. “But it all feels so familiar that I think it’s exactly what I intended, even though I didn’t quite have my finger on it”.