I'm always on the lookout for new musical sounds – Anderson East, anyone??? – but I always go back to my old favorites, the singers whose voices just seem to fit most comfortably into my ears, heart, and soul.
Here are a few musical masters who enrich my life all the time:
I'm not the only person who loves Alison Krauss. Vince Gill called her voice "perhaps the purest that I've ever heard" and James Taylor says that she is "the very best singer in the world. I know of no other way to introduce her."
She's tied with Quincy Jones for the most Grammys in history (27), except for Sir Georg Solti's 31 classical wins, and she should pass both of them in the near future. She is the most awarded singer and the most awarded female artist in Grammy history.
The Tiny Goddess and I have seen her a few times – with her amazing band Union Station and with Robert Plant on the "Raising Sand" tour – and a few is not enough. Alison's voice is even better in person! No matter what the show is like, the highlight is always Alison's version of "Down To The Valley To Pray," sung with just the barest accompaniment.
Except for the particulars, Alison's story is not that much different from that of any musical genius. Fiddle contest winner at ten, first band at twelve, first recording contract at fourteen, first Grammy at seventeen, member of the Grand Ol Opry at twenty-one, etc., etc. She is also an excellent producer for her band and for other artists. She produced a wonderful album for Alan Jackson called "Like Red On a Rose," which is one of the best things Jackson has ever done. She's remained with Rounder Records for more than twenty years, despite greater offers from larger companies. I think she knows who she is as an artist and is determined to go her own way.
I skipped her last concert in LA. She was opening for Willie Nelson and apparently only doing a one-hour set. From what I hear, all of Willie Nelson's audiences are drunk and rowdy (especially in the summer), and I didn't want to go to hear just a little Alison. I'll wait for a full tour. I know that she's had some vocal problems (nodes), but she's evidently recovered. She likes to conserve her voice, and I can't blame her.
If you've had a bad day – or if you've had a good day – listen to these:
Alison singing "Down To the River To Pray" with her band Union Station
Alison at Carnegie Hall singing Patsy Cline's "She's Got You" -- sublime
Alison singing "Ghost In This House" (one of the TG's favorite's) with full orchestra
Alison goes disco with the Jerry Douglas Band, absolutely killing with Thelma Houston's dancefloor anthem "Don't Leave Me This Way"
I love bands that bend genres. I try to bend a little genre myself. When the New Traditionalists (George Strait, John Anderson, Clint Black, Dwight Yoakam, etc.) came into prominence in country music in the 1980s and early 90s, I was very happy to hear the Mavericks join their ranks. But just a little listening made me realize that Raul Malo's Miami band had many more weapons in its arsenal than just neo-traditional country.
The Mavericks' music is an ever-changing mix of real country, Latin, pop, rockabilly, soul, Tex-Mex, and whatever kind of music they feel like playing. "Once a bar band, always a bar band," says lead singer Malo, and he isn't kidding. Besides all their originals, I've seen the band cover Beatles songs, Springsteen, lots of Elvis Presley, Dean Martin (!), Tom Jones, the Hollies, Slim Whitman (!!), and all kinds of other artists.
The TG and I have seen the Mavericks several times – and Raul, solo, a couple of times, too – and the beauty and versatility of Raul's voice never ceases to amaze. He is also a relaxed, engaging performer. I think it comes from the confidence that he knows – and everybody knows – that he is a great singer, and he has nothing to prove. He just has to do it.
The Mavericks have had their ups-and-downs. They broke up a couple of times. They've changed line-ups a couple of times. They had to fire founding member Robert Reynolds. But now they are back, touring with a horn section, and better than ever.
In a world of uncertainty, there is no question that Raul Malo can sing.
The Mavericks on BBC-TV – "O What A Crying Shame" – their first hit – so young!
The Mavericks – "Come Unto Me" – slaying the audience at the 2012 Americana Awards
Raul sings the classic Cuban song "Siboney" – almost acapella
Raul sings "Let It Be Me" with a full orchestra
The Mavericks' full set from the 2015 Strawberry Festival
Van is a genre all to himself. I've blogged about my love for his music before, but I'm not ashamed. I'll probably blog about him a few more times after this one. Van is the singer I've seen most often (in the low 30s; I lost count years ago), whose records I own the most of (virtually all his studio releases, though I passed on a few "deluxe" re-releases), whose bootlegs I own the most of (more than 120 shows and 20 compilations), and whom I listen to most often. At least, of all pop artists.
Van has released more than forty studio albums since he started his career with Them. (First album, first cut? "Gloria" – a 100%, stoned rock-and-roll classic.) He had a long stretch of very-good-to-very-great albums at the beginning of his career, but his batting average has fallen off lately. He released a string of ill-advised genre albums: "country," jazz, skiffle, Mose Allison covers – none of which added luster to his legacy.
But he has enough great songs for several careers. I have my Van Morrison station set up on Pandora, but I always go back to ASTRAL WEEKS ... MOONDANCE ... INTO THE MUSIC ... NO GURU, NO METHOD, NO TEACHER ... ST. DOMINIC'S PREVIEW ... TUPELO HONEY ... HIS BAND AND THE STREET CHOIR ... VEEDON FLEECE ... and my stash of the major bootlegs: "From Dublin Up to Sandy Row," "Norwegian Wood," "Moonlight Serenade," "Got to Go Back to the Greek," "Spring In My Heart," and all the others.
Van's music is unique. He combines rock, jazz, Celtic, blues, country, folk, and soul into a new musical substance. His music is deeply felt and uncompromising. He's a brave artist, unwilling to follow any muse but his own.
I can listen to him anytime, anywhere.
Here are a few examples of his amazing talent:
"Into The Mystic" -- one of Van's most beloved songs, from German TV
"Celtic New Year" – live on Jools Holland's UK TV show – Van's last great song
"Caravan" – my favorite song – not the famous version with The Band from "The Last Waltz"
"Sweet Thing" from the Hollywood Bowl in 2008 – I was there, and it was spectacular.
"Listen to the Lion" – Van's epic song about his own voice
These artists are constant sources of pleasure and inspiration for me. They have made my life better. I'm grateful for their artistry and hope that someday someone feels just a little bit that way about my efforts.
So I need my comfort listening – to give me rest, relaxation, and inspiration for the Writing Wars still to be fought.