Notable Notes: Barrett Davis, Dr. John, & Jake Blount
As we march toward 2023, I thought I would share a few notable releases that struck me as this year comes to a close. You’ll hear many of these songs played on JPR’s Open Air, a program we consider a home for music people -- a place where you can hear the latest indie rock/pop and Americana, plus blues, jazz, world, and folk music.
Barrett Davis – The Ballad of Aesop Fin
After the break-up of his band The Foxfire in the early 2010’s, Barrett Davis, a North Carolinian, thought about giving up music. He started his own construction company got married and had kids. All the while, he felt he was leaving behind his singer/songwriter dreams. Being his own boss, however, helped him free up time to write music. He credits stories told by his employees and co-workers at work for many of the ideas he later turned into the songs for his debut The Ballad of Aesop Fin. Moonshine is a central theme throughout the eight-song collection. The title track tells the tragic story of a fictional character whose family made moonshine. Carolina Still, is dedicated to Davis’ great grandfather who often told the story of a dust-up with law enforcement that involved moonshine and duck hunting. Hwy 64, is a story about running moonshine. Davis says the record portrays the sometimes-harsh realities of life in Appalachia. Woody Platt of Steep Canyon Rangers lends a hand on the song Quiver. The album has elements of bluegrass, Americana and classic country delivered in a laid-back style. Davis says he has a couple more albums worth of tunes so we can expect to hear more from him in the coming years.
Dr. John – Things Happen That Way
The day after Dr. John died in 2019, I was on a long road-trip driving to Washington. I chose a Dr. John playlist for the day. Ironically, as I crossed the Columbia River and entered Washington my GPS said, “Welcome to Washington” just as Mac (as he is often called) sang, “I was in the right place, but it must have been the wrong time” from his song Right Place, Wrong Time. Though a little disturbing, it felt like Dr. John was joking with me. At the time of his death, he was working on a record that explored his love of country music. The posthumous album Things Happen That Way came out in October. The title track is a classic by Cowboy Jack Clement. Dr. John wrote two new songs for the record—Sleeping Dogs Best Left Alone and Give Myself a Good Talking To—both delivered in the soulful jazz and blues style that defined his career. Elsewhere on the album, he covers the Hank Williams Sr. classics Ramblin’ Man, and I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, Willie Nelson’s Funny How Time Slips Away, and the Traveling Wilburys’ tune End of the Line. Willie Nelson joined him on vocals and guitar for the traditional gospel song Gimme That Old Time Religion with keyboards by Jon Cleary. Though a bit road-weary, Dr. John’s voice is unmistakably his, full of soul and grit. His piano playing is somewhat understated leaving room for his backing band including his long time bandmate, guitarist Shane Theriot who also co-produced the album. My favorite track after a couple of listens is the remake of a less country, swampier Dr. John track from his Night Tripper days, I Walk on Guilded Splinters. Joining him is Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real. It’s shorter than the original by about half, the production is more modern and Nelson’s guitar replaces the horn section, but the new energy makes it every bit as good. Though we no longer have Dr. John, this is a fine follow-up to a storied career.
Jake Blount – The New Faith
Jake Blount, the 27-year-old folk singer and multi-instrumentalist from Rhode Island and recipient of several folk music awards just released his first record for the Smithsonian Folkways label. On The New Faith, he imagines what traditional black music might sound like if climate change renders most of the world uninhabitable, and tries to answer the question, “What gods would a community of climate refugees praise, and what stories would they tell?” The result is a concept album with re-imagined African-American gospel presented like a religious ceremony with spoken word, prayers and rap (by rapper and banjo player Demeanor), African-inspired percussion, and Blount playing banjo and violin. It’s a survival story a little like a musical version of The Walking Dead, with a climate crisis as the catastrophic event. Source material comes from ancient spirituals, Alan Lomax’s field recordings for the Library of Congress and 20th century gospel and blues from artists like Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Vera Hull, Fannie Lou Hamer and Blind Willie McTell. In spite of the heavy concept and outside of mainstream sound, this is an accessible album and among the more unique recordings I’ve heard in quite a while.
Listen also for new releases from Bonny Light Horseman—a supergroup featuring Anais Mitchell, Josh Kaufman, and Eric D Johnson. The latest from Beth Orton—The Weather Is Real, shows the veteran singer-songwriter expanding her atmospheric sounds. Lastly, Here It Is: A Tribute to Leonard Cohen is a collection featuring tracks by Sarah McLachlan, Norah Jones, Iggy Pop, Mavis Staples and Nathaniel Rateliff among others.