Not every talented artist becomes an Absolute Master and achieves universal global acclaim, riches, and immortality. In fact, most artists struggle. Here are five of my favorite recording artists who "shoulda been bigger." You might say that they've had fine careers, and you're right. All I'm saying is that they produce work of such a high quality that more people should know them. So much popular stuff is junk: these are really fine artists who are under-appreciated.
Here are five of my favorites:
I'm not the only person who wanted – and expected -- Shelby Lynne to be a big star. She was an early protégé of Willie Nelson and won the Country Music Association Horizon Award in 1991. She recorded six albums before she won the Grammy for Best New (!) Artist in 1999, so she had powerful people on her side. She has a great, smoky voice and she's absolutely gorgeous. So why isn't she a big star?
Well, music is changing, and Shelby is a very particular, hard-to-categorize artist. I suppose you'd find her CDs under "Country" in a record store (if record stores still existed), but her music is equally influenced by soul, rock, pop, blues, and gospel music. She was born in Virginia and spent most of her youth in the South, so her music is a personal gumbo of those influences. She's very hard to pin down, changing styles almost from album to album.
She writes most of her own songs; she's a good but not great songwriter. Occasionally, she'll strike songwriting gold (see below), but mainly she's a great singer: sultry and soulful, no matter she sings. Probably her closest thing to a hit record lately was "JUST A LITTLE LOVIN'," a tribute album to Dusty Springfield which stands up quite nicely in comparison to the work of the great British pop diva. Shelby's best overall album is "I AM SHELBY LYNNE." That's the one to buy.
Of course, the famous story about her is that her father shot and killed her mother and then committed suicide, right in front of Shelby and her sister, the country singer Allison Moorer, a performer in her own right and Steve Earle's seventh wife. That sounds like a country song right there.
Shelby's not a big star: she's a "cult" artist, with her small, but rabid following. She keeps changing record labels, changing styles to pursue her musical interests, and putting out her work. I hope that's good enough for her.
"Gotta Get Back" – from Austin City Limits -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6oJIRg55Ph0
"I Only Want To Be With You" – from her Dusty Springfield tribute album – a live version from the Craig Ferguson show
"Your Lies" – live on the Jools Holland show --https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkZOq0EG53A
"I Can't Wait" – Shelby with Chris Isaak – as he says: "Lookin' like an angel, singin' like an angel."
A very young Shelby rocking Mel Carter's "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me" -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QUqCw-b9Oo
Kim Richey has been releasing albums of smart, sensitive, tuneful country/pop songs for twenty years and doesn't seem to be getting anywhere. She started off with a full band and a big push, and now she's touring solo, or perhaps with an extra guitarist. For someone as massively talented as Kim Richey, it must be a grind. She keeps putting out record after record of good songs; someone should notice.
Again, her music is in the "country" bin, but her songs have moving more into the pop/singer-songwriter realm over the past couple of albums. She moved to the UK for a couple of years, but now she's back in the States. I'm glad to see that her songs were used on a lot of TV shows like "Angel," "Alias," and "Dawson's Creek"; that's good residual money for musicians these days.
Next month, the Tiny Goddess and I are going to see her at McCabe's, the famous music store/club in Santa Monica, and get her off my Bucket List.
"Those Words We Said" – live version – young Kim -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NCFSZuToo0
"I Know" – live on "Conan" -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0enEzQ30ro
"That's Exactly What I Mean" – live version from Austin City Limits -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9uH--EZBjBE
"Every River" – recent Kim -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0Jip4ur1rQ
"A Place Called Home" – used in many, many TV shows -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4axvOqxRu54
Mandy Barnett has one of the best pure voices in contemporary music and has a beautiful face to match it. OK, she's a little zaftig, but that shouldn't have prevented her from being a much bigger star than she is. The people who do know her recognize her as one of the best vocalists around, but she's too big a secret. This woman deserves a following outside of Nashville.
What made her career – and what limits it – is her voice's resemblance to Patsy Cline's. In fact, she played Patsy in the stage play "Always ... Patsy Cline," for many years in Nashville. It was a good payday, but I think it limited her. She's had important mentors over the years – Jimmy Bowen, the country producer, and Seymour Stein, the record mogul – but she's never put together the perfect record.
But listen to these YouTube cuts: she has a powerful, torchy, emotional delivery that just knocks me out. This is a real woman who can flat-out sing.
Here are two versions of her signature song "Hurt" (which no longer belongs to Timi Yuro)
"Hurt" with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nMfZAkRTlI
"Hurt" with a combo at 3rd & Lindsey in Nashville -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FIToyqizxD8
Roy Orbison's "Crying" -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VU2Re-cWFRg
"Sweet Dreams" – with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra – (at 2:54) -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hf-Wrkm3478
Gene Pitney's "A Town Without Pity"
Everyone has a group that they love that they feel should have been huge and never quite made it, and the Jayhawks is mine. I understand why they didn't quite make it – bad timing, bad luck, bad studio production, lack of charisma – but their virtues: wonderful songwriting, singing, and playing make me and lot of other people wonder: why weren't they Big Stars?
The history of the Jayhawks is checkered: players dropping in and out, changes of production and direction ... the regular ups-and-downs of the music business, I guess. (After all, most bands don't make it.) Fortunately, I had a hobby for quite a few years of collecting and trading bootleg concerts, and I accumulated a huge collection of Jayhawks' shows. And despite whatever problems they had commercially, the Jayhawks were always a great band in concert. In their rush to become a Big Band, they fell in with Big Producers, some of whom made them sound good (George Drakoulias, Ethan Johns), and some who made them sound not-so-good (Bob Ezrin), and wound up with over-produced records. But in concert, the talents of Gary Louris, his songwriting and sweet singing, come through purely. There's nothing to get in the way.
I have dozens of wonderful Jayhawks' shows. They're an odd group to track because they actually got better when founding member Mark Olson left the group. Olson was a good songwriter and the 'sour' complement to Louris' 'sweet' sound, in the Gram Parsons/Chris Hillman mix they were pursuing. But outside of the studio, Olson can't stay on key (sort of like Gram Parsons on heroin), and he was replaced by much better singers: Tim O'Regan, Mark Perlman, etc.
There are too many up-and-downs to chart. They broke up, got together, Louris and Olson toured as a duo, then they got back together. They were a fine group who got really good when they added a female keyboard player/singer.
They're still out there. Find their concerts. This is just some of the best music out there.
"Waiting For the Sun" – the official video of one of their most famous songs -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zMFtkubNF4Q
"Blue" – the song that should have broken them – on young Jon Stewart's show -- 1995 -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GUVVGQjWFg4
The Jayhawks in 2015 – as good as ever -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6iIPogL69hw
A great cover of Grand Funk Railroad's "Bad Time" – the Jayhawks could always make cheese sound glorious
"Until You Came Along" – a Gary Louris song from his side project Golden Smog -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4g6d7eJ3Rg
"I'd Run Away" – from German TV – just another great Jayhawks song -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xAjOfDm-_mw
I spent a lot of time in the 90s listening to Nanci Griffith. Some people can't get past her sugar-sweet voice. (Maybe that's why she never really broke through commercially despite a huge push in Nashville.) But I think she's one of the best, smartest, and most accomplished performers I know. Nanci is not only a wonderful songwriter, but she's a great "song finder." She was the first person to record "From A Distance," the song that Bette Midler later made a hit, and owns the publishing on it.
Her career is waning now; she has arthritis in both hands (ironic, considering the lyric in one of her most famous songs, "Love at the Five and Dime"), so I'm glad that "From A Distance" can take care of her as she stops touring and recording. Her official website lists no new shows planned, and the last posting was from April 26, 2013.
But her early albums are superb, filled with intelligent, perceptive, sensitive songs, played by some of the best musicians around. A look at the credits on her albums is like a Who's-Who of great pickers from Austin and Nashville, and she's been produced by masters like Tony Brown and Jim Rooney.
The TG and I saw her several times in concert, and she was always excellent on stage.
I think her music just might be too smart for the average audience. No matter: she made her mark and left behind some excellent music.
She shouldn't be forgotten.
"Love At the Five and Dime" – from Austin City Limits -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GK462XnRjQ
"From A Distance" – from Irish TV -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jF4BralTQW8
"Speed of the Sound of Loneliness" – a John Prine song -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNBeP8dzYdg
"Trouble In the Fields" – with full orchestra -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7IVI4AvGG0
All five of these artists have produced first-class work for many years. I wonder how well known they are to the general public.
Which all goes to show that as an artist, you can't worry about widespread commercial success. Either it comes or it doesn't.
The best bet is to follow your Muse ... if you're lucky enough to have one.