I'm still in a Valentine's Day mood, and I'm still listening to love songs.
Here are three more favorites, from three different eras.
COVER ME UP – written by JASON ISBELL (2013)
Every few years, someone comes along to "save" country music from the country music business and its lousy bands, cheesy stars, and empty radio. A few years ago, it was Jamey Johnson ("That Lonesome Song" and "The Guitar Song"). Right at this moment, it's Chris Stapleton ("Traveller"). But in the middle of those two was and is Jason Isbell.
The only child of a poor seventeen-year old mother in northern Alabama, Jason quickly found his vocation in music, working at the FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals at the age of 21. He spent six years (2001-2007) in the great American band The Drive-By Truckers, but that band was dominated by its founders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. It wasn't until Jason went solo with his band The 400 Unit, named after the psychiatric ward at a local Alabama hospital, and ultimately released his SOUTHEASTERN album in 2013 that his talent fully blossomed.
Jason apparently had big problems with alcohol and drugs but survived. SOUTHEASTERN is a strong, passionate cry from the heart, charting that path of survival. He made a clean sweep of the 2104 Americana Music Awards for Artist of the Year, Album of the Year for SOUTHEASTERN, and Song of the Year for "Cover Me Up." Critics and listeners agreed. The album scored an 88 on Metacritic (out of 100) and Jason became a star.
Whether the category is now called "country" or "alternative country" or "Americana" is immaterial. Jason is a singer-songwriter with a strong voice and vision, creating from American roots music. He's working the land that Bob Dylan pioneered, and he's doing it as well as anybody today.
Sample lyric from "Cover Me Up": "So girl, leave your boots by the bed / We ain't leaving this room / Till someone needs medical help / Or the magnolias bloom."
That's love in a song.
Jason Isbell – "COVER ME UP" – on Austin City Limits
Jason Isbell – on CBS "Sunday Morning" – The Fall and Rise of Jason Isbell
"Elephant" – Jason's masterpiece from SOUTHEASTERN about cancer
"Can't You Hear Me Knocking" – Jason's Stones cover – typically his last encore
"Cigarettes and Wine" – another instant classic by Jason and The 400 Unit
THE FEVER – written by BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (1973)
I've been listening to a lot of Springsteen lately in anticipation of "The River" tour that I now won't see in LA. I was shut out again for tickets that went on-sale for an added third night, and I'm not going to spend hundreds of dollars per ticket on StubHub or Ticket Liquidator, and I won't sit in nosebleed seats. The Tiny Goddess loves Bruce shows as much as I do. In fact, they are the only arena rock and roll shows that she'll go to. But I think I'll have to pass on this tour.
Oh well, I've seen Springsteen about 15 times. Not nearly enough, but I have dozens and dozens of bootlegs. I also downloaded a free "River" show from Chicago on January 19th that the Springsteen website offered when some New York shows were snowed out. And I've even watched a few chunks of the current tour on my Periscope phone app. Very strange experience, watching on someone's shakey phone. But it was free, and it was live, and it was Bruce.
Springsteen is known for a lot of things, but I especially value his blue-collar love songs. In his best love songs, he acknowledges the difficulties of everyday love. One of my long-time favorites is THE FEVER. It was originally from "The Jersey Devil," an EP from Bruce Records that was an essential, "Holy Grail" Bruce bootleg. THE FEVER was not released as an official release until 1999 when it was a bonus track on 18 TRACKS, a highlights-CD from the 4-disc box TRACKS.
THE FEVER isn't just classic Bruce: it's classic, early E Street Band. Jazzy, free-swinging but controlled, tight with big crescendos, perfect back-up singers, and a strategic Clarence Clemons vocal – "when he's got the fever for a girl" – dropped in. Recorded in 1973, you can hear Bruce and the band develop their unequaled give-and-take.
Later, I believe that Bruce got bored with song and "gave" it to Southside Johnny. No matter; I still think that it's an indispensable song in the Springsteen canon.
THE FEVER also takes me back to my feverish days in the pursuit of recorded music. When I was younger, I used to spend so much time in record stores. (I bought "The Jersey Devil" in the 70s at Bob Caruso's store in White Plains where he taught me about doo-wop and collecting Springsteen bootlegs.) Later I got involved in burning and trading shows on CD by mail. That is how I accumulated my uncountable collection of "Brucelegs."
But my acquisitiveness for music has somewhat faded. I didn't buy HIGH HOPES, Bruce's last album, and I survived. I am no longer a completist, not that I ever really was. There are people out there with insane collections. But I have enough music to last me a lifeime. I'm too busy now – writing and blogging, writing and blogging – to spend all that much time in pursuit of different music. I have so much in my collection already, and so much music comes to me effortlessly on Sirius Radio, Pandora (where I have a Bruce Springsteen station), and Deezer, a French music service, that I've gone into semi-retirement as a music collector. I have the ears; I just don't have the time.
THE FEVER – from "The Jersey Devil" EP
Bruce sings "The Fever" from Houston – December 9, 1978
Bruce singing "The Fever" at the Spectrum in Philadelphia in 1999 – the first time he sang the song since the 1978 Darkness on the Edge of Town tour
Live "The Fever" from the The Spectrum – October 13, 2009
I REMEMBER YOU – written by JOHNNY MERCER (lyrics) and VICTOR SCHERTZINGER (music)(1941)
I had to put in a Johnny Mercer song. (I've blogged previously about Mercer -- http://peterseth.com/blog/113-johnny-mercer-great-american-master.html
-- so you can look there for more information.)
Not only is he an idol of mine, but he's now a constant presence in my life since the TG got me a very cool Johnny Mercer autographed playbill (from "Top Banana," one of his lesser Broadway shows, which starred Phil Silvers, one of my father's absolute favorites) to add to our small but choice collection of literary/musical autographs.
Even within Mercer's astounding canon (more than 1,200 songs, written with 230 different composers), I REMEMBER YOU is special. He wrote it for the love of his life Judy Garland on the weekend that she married another man (David Rose). Mercer said that he wrote the lyric quickly – "very fast, ten minutes, half an hour at the most."
The song was so obviously about his love for Garland that Mercer's bitter, jealous wife Ginger had the song omitted from a book she edited of Mercer's lyrics, even though the song had been a hit many times over: for Harry James, Jimmy Dorsey, and Australian Frank Ifield whose lilting, yodeling version reached #5 on the Billboard Pop charts in 1962.
Mercer did and could write with any composer. He had lasting partnerships with some composers like Harold Arlen and Richard Whiting, but often wrote with people on a project-by-project basis. In this case, it was Victor Schertzinger for the 1942 movie "The Fleet's In." Schertzinger was an interesting, talented man. He was a violinist, a conductor, a composer, a songwriter, a film director, film producer, and a screenwriter. He directed the first two Bing Crosby/Bob Hope "Road" pictures – "The Road to Singapore" and "The Road to Zanzibar" -- and died suddenly at age 53 from a heart attack. And he wrote a beautiful melody for Mercer to hang one of his greatest lyrics on.
As the British jazz critic and musician Benny Green wrote, "As for sheer rightness in the placement of words, the last stanza of "I Remember You" is as fine as anything in the popular repertoire. This may be my purely subjective twitch, but 'When my life is through and the angels ask me to recall the thrill of them all' seems to be one of the definitive lines of the 1940s."
Ella Fitzgerald did only one of her great "Songbook" albums devoted to a lyricist. It was "The Johnny Mercer Songbook," and I think Ella's version is definitive.
Ella Fitzgerald – arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle – "caviar for the general" -- with a lovely video tribute to the great Mr. Mercer
Nat King Cole's excellent version
Frank Ifield – "I Remember You" – a big, friendly hit – with a yodel
Slim Whitman's version – introduced by a stunned Andy Kaufman on "The Midnight Special"
the original version from the 1942 movie "The Fleet's In" sung by Dorothy Lamour – (with quick shots of William Holden and Cass Daley, plus a Jimmy Dorsey clarinet solo)
a very persuasive version by Helen O'Connell – with the other (and bigger!!) hit from "THE FLEET'S IN" that Mercer and Schertzinger also wrote: "Tangerine"