By Brent Thompson
Rock & Roll Hall-of-Famer Dion has taken a career path similar to fellow stalwart Boz Scaggs by going to back to his love of the blues and no longer chasing radio hits. Dion’s latest, Blues With Friends [KTBA Records], could also be titled Blues With Legends given its stellar lineup of guest artists. Billy Gibbons, Jeff Beck, Joe Bonamassa, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison and Brian Setzer are but a few friends that stop in along the album’s 14 tracks. Shunning tired cover versions in lieu of original material, Blues With Friends only includes songs written or co-written by Dion. The material touches on several styles that meld together in a cohesive manner. As Dion himself says, “Great songs, great guitarists. What more do you need?”
By Brent Thompson
At this stage of his life, Jimmy Buffett doesn’t need to release new music in order to annually sell-out amphitheaters all over the country. But pop music’s most laid-back figure – who probably works much harder than any of us suspect – has consistently given us new songs throughout his career. His latest and 30th studio effort, Life On The Flip Side [Mailboat Records], is a 14-track collection that finds 11 of the songs written or co-written by Buffett. Equal parts tongue-in-cheek (“Cussin’ Island”), philosophical (“Oceans Of Time”), gritty (“The Devil I Know”) and self-congratulatory (“Mailbox Money”), Life On The Flip Side is another welcome entry into the singer’s Country-meets-Caribbean catalog. Along the way, Buffett is supported by guests including Lukas Nelson, Paul Brady, collaborator/fellow Alabama native Will Kimbrough and his ever-loyal Coral Reefer Band. If Buffett’s sound isn’t your thing, this album likely won’t convert you. But if his music is the soundtrack to your endless summer, Life On The Flip Side is a worthy addition to the fold.
By Brent Thompson
With an honest storytelling approach, searing guitar lines and crack backing band The 400 Unit, Jason Isbell has released a string of albums that have garnered deservedly positive reviews. And while the four-time Grammy winner could have released another collection of country-tinged, sobriety-centered tunes to the delight of critics and fans alike, Isbell instead takes a departure on his latest release, Reunions [Southeastern Records]. While keeping his partnership with producer Dave Cobb, Isbell opts for a more “produced” approach over the album’s 10 tracks. Politics (“Be Afraid”), Classic Rock (“Overseas”) and nostalgia (“Dreamsicle,” “Only Children”) are all sonically wrapped in a layered sound that can’t be heard on previous releases such as Southeastern and The Nashville Sound. Even rock icon David Crosby joins the fold, adding background vocals on opening track “What’ve I Done To Help.” A recent, must-read interview that Isbell gave The New York Times (written by David Peisner) offers insight to the personal and professional matters that plagued him during the album’s creation. Like Reunions itself, the article is a sobering reminder that Isbell – while seemingly sitting on top of the world – still faces the same doubts, fears and pressures as those listening to his songs.
Note: On Friday, May 15, Isbell and wife/collaborator Amanda Shires will celebrate the release of Reunions with a livestream acoustic performance on Fans.com. Showtime is 7 p.m. Central.
By Brent Thompson
Like most everyone else, Jack Sledge has seen his spring plans derailed. A slate of tour dates booked across the South – including a stop in Birmingham – must now be rescheduled. But while we won’t see the New Orleans-based Sledge live in the near future, we are fortunate to have his new EP, Notes of a Drifter, available to us. Offering a timeless musical sound that has drawn comparisons to Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle and The Band, the singer/songwriter’s style rings fresh and familiar at the same time. Recently, Sledge spoke with us by phone from his New Orleans home.
Birmingham Stages: Jack, thanks for your time. How are you holding up during this unbelievable situation?
Jack Sledge: It’s pretty crazy. I’m a teacher and I send the kids emails – I’ve still got a job thank God. I teach music at a small school – I’m just sitting by the computer and sending videos.
Birmingham Stages: We are enjoying Notes of a Drifter. Are the songs on the EP older compositions, newer ones or a combination of both?
Sledge: Usually, there’s about a year lag on songs. Typically, I’ll have songs ready about a year before they’re released just because the recording takes a while. Drifter is probably from 2016.
Birmingham Stages: This is the second time you have lived in New Orleans. If you will, talk about your decision to return to the gulf coast.
Sledge: As a musician, there’s a lot more work not only in New Orleans but in the South. Believe it or not, you get paid better as a musician down here. There are more bars that have live music down here for some reason. That was part of it. Also, going to college down here, I have a lot of friends that play different instruments. I just have a network down here that I didn’t have in New York even though I’m from New York.
Birmingham Stages: I know that every region of the country has musical history, but there is something special about living in the South. The fact that New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Muscle Shoals and the Mississippi Delta are all within a few hours of each other is something that you can’t take for granted.
Sledge: Oh, yeah. My favorite music comes from here and I’ve always been drawn to it because of that. As a kid, my parents were obsessed with Elvis and we went to Tupelo and to Graceland – we did the whole Elvis pilgrimage in that area. So I was always drawn to it as a child.
Birmingham Stages: There will be a full-length album coming out later this year, correct?
Sledge: Yeah, it’s finished and the COVID-19 changed a lot of plans so we’ll see. I’ll probably put it out sooner because touring is going to be put on hold for a while.
Birmingham Stages: How do you feel about the state of music in the age of iTunes, Youtube, satellite radio and Spotify? Some artists tell me that it’s a great time given the ease of reaching listeners. Other artists say that the current model makes it difficult to be found among the crowd.
Sledge: I’m on both sides. Anybody can hear your music and connect with you and I think that’s great. But at the same time, it clutters the playing field. I guess I fall on the side of the gatekeeper argument – that there should be someone [to vet artists].
Birmingham Stages: How would you describe your writing process? Do you set aside certain times to write or wait until inspiration strikes?
Sledge: I guess I’m a little bit of both. Right now I’m writing every day because I’m working less. I try to be more disciplined about it than I used to. I used to do it when inspiration would strike, but in the last couple of years I’ve been more into drafting. I’ll write five drafts of the same song and work with it and not pressure myself into having this lightning-strike of inspiration.
Jack Sledge’s Notes of a Drifter is available at www.jacksledgemusic.com and across all digital formats. We will update readers when the rescheduled Birmingham show date is announced.
By Brent Thompson
When a 13-time Grammy winner produces an artist’s debut album, you take notice. Such is the case for Logan Ledger – a Nashville-by-way-of California singer/songwriter – in pairing with T-Bone Burnett on his eponymously-titled debut release [Electro Magnetic/Rounder Records]. Performing his self-described “Country Noir,” Ledger offers up traditional country music with darkened tinges. Burnett’s production style is the proper fit for Ledger’s vision as highlighted on the album’s first two singles, “Starlight” and “Imagining Raindrops.” Across the album’s 11 tracks, Ledger is aided by a cast of musicians that have backed Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. On his debut, Logan accomplishes the difficult task of sounding reverent and relevant at the same time.
By Brent Thompson
Though he has traveled the globe with the likes of Alice Cooper, Thin Lizzy and Black Star Riders, we still consider Damon Johnson to be one of Birmingham’s own. The Alabama native – and current Nashville resident – first put his name in the national spotlight as Brother Cane’s frontman. Since then, he has been active as a sideman, songwriter and solo artist among numerous other projects. On Friday, March 13, the vocalist/guitarist will return to WorkPlay. Currently, Johnson is touring in support of his 2019 release Memoirs of an Uprising [Double Dragon Records]. The Ladies Of… (featuring James Hall) will open the 8 p.m. show. Advance show tickets are $20 – Meet & Greet/VIP tickets are $50 – and may be purchased at www.workplay.com.
By Brent Thompson
Five full-length albums into his recording career, John Moreland remains a consummate “songwriter’s songwriter,” possessing the ability to craft indelible lyrics in plainspoken fashion. His latest release, LP5 [Thirty Tigers/Old Omens], is an 11-track collection that finds Moreland enlisting the help of an outside producer (Matt Pence) for the first time. Pence’s previous credits include projects with Jason Isbell, Nikki Lane and Paul Cauthen. Later this month, Moreland embarks on a nationwide tour in support of LP5. On Tuesday, March 17, he will perform at Saturn. Recently, Moreland spoke with us by phone from his Tulsa, Okla. home.
Birmingham Stages: John, thanks for your time. If you will, tell us about the creation of LP5.
John Moreland: Most of [the songs] were pretty new when we started recording. “When My Fever Breaks” and I think maybe one or two others were older – or had parts from older songs that I kind of reworked – but I’d say 70% or so of the album was written in the last few months prior to recording it.
Birmingham Stages: Do songs still evolve even after you take them into the studio?
Moreland: It depends. On this album, we were recording at a really nice studio down in Denton, Texas working with a really good producer named Matt Pence. As far as how we are going to do everything, I don’t know and I want to leave that open. But as far as lyrics and the chord progressions and the structure of the songs, that stuff is pretty much done by the time I go in there.
Birmingham Stages: For the first time in your recording career, you brought in an outside producer for this album. How did you choose to work with Matt?
Moreland: I was just a really big fan of his and of his old band, Centro-Matic, and I really liked his drumming and the records that he had engineered – they always sounded really great. We didn’t know each other before we worked together. I knew we had mutual friends and I just thought that, musically, it would be a really good fit. When we got down there, it all kind of clicked and fell into place and he ended up producing the album.
Birmingham Stages: With several albums now in your catalog, how are you constructing your set lists for the current tour?
Moreland: That’s what we’re doing right now. We are having rehearsals and figuring out what we’re going to play and how we are going to play the new songs. Most of the time we can only play 20 of my songs, so it’s just picking out which 20 of those are going to be for this tour. I see bands and people request songs from 10 years ago and they’ll just bust it out and play the song, but I get wigged out if I don’t know exactly what’s going on in the set [laughs]. I like to feel like I have it planned out and know what’s going to happen.
Birmingham Stages: How does your writing process work? Do you typically write at home, on the road or wherever inspiration strikes?
Moreland: I definitely write a lot more at home. I don’t think I really write at all on the road, other than I’ll maybe think of a line or two and write it down. But as far as sitting down, working on music and putting it all together, I always do that at home. I used to be the kind of songwriter that didn’t really make myself do it that much – I just did it when I felt like it, but back then I felt like it all the time. Nowadays, it’s a little more like work. I have to show up for work every day, but it’s work that I really love. When I start making myself do it on a regular basis, inspiration starts to come a lot more frequently so it kind of fuels itself.
Birmingham Stages: When you are writing, do you typically start with a lyrical or musical idea first?
Moreland: There really isn’t a pattern – it can be anything. I never really sit down and write a whole song’s worth of lyrics without any music – I don’t really do that. Sometimes two or four lines come first and that starts the music from there and I’ll build from those lyrics. Sometimes I’ll have a whole musical composition with no lyrics and I’ll just write words to it.
Birmingham Stages: You are still based in your hometown of Tulsa. It seems that a lot of artists I interview have chosen – like you – to stay home in lieu of relocating to music industry hubs such as Nashville or Austin.
Moreland: It’s where I’m from and it’s where I can afford to live. It’s nice to come home from a tour and be in a place that really has nothing to do with the music industry at all. If I had to come home from tour and be in Nashville, I don’t think that would be good for me.
Birmingham Stages: Some artists applaud the musical climate in the era of iTunes, Youtube, satellite radio and other outlets that provide instant and worldwide access to listeners. Others say the current model makes it difficult for artists to be heard among the crowd. How do you feel about the current climate?
Moreland: I think it’s both and I’ve definitely felt both ways. Now that things are working out well for me, it’s a lot easier to say, “What a great time – anybody can take their phone out of their pocket and hear my music.” But when I was struggling to get noticed, it felt like, “There are just so many people out there. It does feel hard to get noticed.” But I think if you write songs that people are going to notice, then they’re going to notice it. You just have to make the best music you can and you can’t control anything else.
John Moreland will perform at Saturn on Tuesday, March 17. Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster will open the 8 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $20 and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com.
By Brent Thompson
Since 1972, George Winston’s music has provided musical solace to generations of listeners. Along the way, the Grammy-winning artist has sold 15 million albums. Though adept on guitar and harmonica, Winston is best known for landmark solo piano recordings including Autumn (1980), December (1982) and Summer (1991). His latest release, 2019’s Restless Wind [RCA/Dancing Cat Records], is an 11-track collection that blends original material with interpretations of songs by The Doors, Sam Cooke and Buffalo Springfield among others. On Wednesday, March 4, Winston will perform at The Lyric Theatre. Recently, he spoke with us by phone while en route to a performance in Austin, Texas.
Birmingham Stages: George, thanks for your time. Is it hard to believe that your recording career is closing in on 50 years.
George Winston: The albums just kind of happen from time to time. I notice that there are some songs coalescing together and feel like a certain theme. I wait for it and it gets completed when other songs emerge. I don’t push it – I just kind of observe it all.
Birmingham Stages: Restless Wind includes your interpretations of songs from a variety of artists including Gershwin, Buffalo Springfield, Sam Cooke and The Doors. How did you go about specifically selecting the material?
Winston: They just kind of seemed to work together. You go by feel and take a lot of time to do it, as much time as needed. If you rush it, it’s a recipe for “Why did I do it?” [laughs]
Birmingham Stages: When interpreting, is there a challenge to retaining the integrity of the song while placing your own stamp on the material?
Winston: There are basically three elements when you’re interpreting: The original song or wherever I heard it from, the instrument – be it guitar, piano or solo harmonica. Sometimes all the notes are there, but it sounds like a clever transcription – it doesn’t breathe or anything. The third element is what I want to do. When you’re interpreting, you become the composer. If you’re playing it, in a way it’s your song. You’re the one that has final say on everything. It’s those three things that go into it.
Birmingham Stages: With a large catalog of songs under your belt, how do you select material for your live performances these days?
Winston: I’ve got two shows – the summer show and the winter show. I just go by what I’m currently playing. Most of the songs I record are just for the record – I don’t play them live. Well, maybe 25 percent.
Birmingham Stages: You have witnessed a lot of changes in the music industry over the course of your career. How do you feel about the current climate in the era of iTunes, Youtube, streaming and satellite radio?
Winston: I never really think about the climate – I just think about the playing because things change all the time. Everything’s got advantages and disadvantages. If [I was] looking f0r a song, sometimes it used to take months. I sent letters to used record stores and now it takes 15 seconds. So, if I was going to play “Georgia On My Mind,” I can find 15 versions of it. So, it’s great to be able to get to those and study them. The music business has been fighting ever since it’s been in existence. Music and money were never meant to be married to each other – it’s not how music came out of the ground. It is what it is, but the bottom line is I always think about the music. I’m lucky because I don’t have big expenses – it’s just me and there’s no band and no crew so I’m lucky that way. I didn’t do that for economic reasons – it’s just what I do.
Birmingham Stages: How would you describe your writing process?
Winston: It’s a lot of trial and error. Something emerges and I’ll keep it around. I couldn’t try to compose something – it wouldn’t work. I have done soundtracks when I really liked the projects, but I already had all of the pieces. If I don’t already have the music, I refer people to folks who do that really well.
Birmingham Stages: It seems you have carved out a career on your own terms and that’s rare.
Winston: I always take a travel day between shows. I’ll make half the money and not hate my life. There’s nothing like wondering if you’re going to make the show or not. I don’t want to wonder if I’m going to make the show. I’ll do two in a row if they’re in the same town. Burning out is a long-term process. There are all these little things you can do to not burn out.
George Winston will perform at The Lyric Theatre on Wednesday, March 4. Tickets to the 7:30 p.m. show are $38 – $42 and can be purchased at www.lyricbham.com. Please bring a canned food donation to benefit Community Food Bank of Central Alabama – collection baskets will be placed at the theatre’s entrance.
By Carey Hereford
Of all of the opportunities Railroad Earth has been afforded since forming in 2001, the band’s 2019 release, The John Denver Letters, presented a most unique project. Denver’s estate asked the quintet to record backing music to two unreleased songs, “If You Will Be My Lady” and “Through The Night.” The band’s new album, All For The Song (produced by Anders Osborne), is slated for release in 2020. Two of the album’s singles – “It’s So Good” and “The Great Divide” – are already available. On Thursday, February 27, Railroad Earth will perform at Iron City with Kyle Tuttle Band opening the 8 p.m. show. Recently, Railroad Earth violinist/vocalist Tim Carbone spoke with us by phone.
Birmingham Stages: Tim, thank you for time. What made you choose ”It’s So Good” and ”The Great Divide” to be the first two singles off of the new record?
Tim Carbone: Well, we felt like they were good choices.The first one was ”The Great Divide” – The song kinda has an uplifting, inclusive theme. It felt like a lead-off single so we decided to go with that one. “It’s So Good” is just, you know, a great feel-so-good song. It’s something I think people can identify with and it’s a fun song. We didn’t put a ton of thought into it – we just felt like those were two good openers.
Birmingham Stages: Where did the writing inspiration for the next Railroad Earth album come from?
Carbone: The songs were mostly written by our lead singer and songwriter, Todd Sheaffer. His inspiration kinda varies, but the whole sound, general concept and feel came from New Orleans. There are horns and a slightly more bluesy feel to this particular record. We are not really venturing far from what we normally do, but back in October of 2018, we lost one of our founding members, so we went down to make the record with that on our mind. We all felt his spirit with us. While some of the songs are not overly about Andy [Goessling], it was a way for us to heal and get together and work through what had just happened to us. He had worked with him for almost 20 years and I personally had been working with him for 40 years – the vast majority of my life I had played music with this fellow. So, going to New Orleans and getting away and keep driving us into the music was a good way to reconnect and make our way through the situation.
Birmingham Stages: How would you define the genre of Railroad Earth?
Carbone: Completely impossible – I’ve tried it many times. We are pretty much just rock-n-roll in a way or Americana if you really wanna put a fine point on it. We are definitely not straight bluegrass because we have drums and keyboard, but we have bluegrass elements. The band is song-based. We serve all of Sheaffer’s songs and try to add something new to each song every time we play it, so it is not always the same.
Birmingham Stages: How do you find a balance between being a producer and being a touring musician?
Carbone: That’s a really good question. There is so much involved in producing a record. First of all, I love producing records so I try to make time for them. I have a very outstanding wife, so I have stretched boundaries. For instance, when I come home from a two and half week tour and I’m home for three days and then I’m out again for a week with another band. So it takes planning and a lot of discipline. When I’m on the road and I know there is a record coming up, I’ll have the demos with me and I’ll make pre-production notes, so I’ll have a pretty good idea of where the songs should go on the record. Ultimately, it’s their record I’m making and it’s my job is to make sure their vision gets translated to the record. But, a lot of times they need help to focus that vision in a way. I love making records and it is my favorite thing in the world to do.
Birmingham Stages: When does Railroad Earth plan to release the new record?
Carbone: We are done recording.We are in the midst of doing some very simple revisits to the mastering of the record. I would probably say that the record would come out sometime this summer – I’m gonna guess like July or August. A firm date has not been given to us from management and everyone else involved. But I would think sometime at the end of the summer this year.
Birmingham Stages: How does Railroad Earth keep old music fresh after playing it night to night?
Carbone: Well, every night we try and visit how we transition from one song to another. We usually do two sets and each set we will try to do at least two or three fairly detailed segues. We will come up with ways to change from one song to another that is interesting and takes the listener on a journey into the next song. We also have a couple of brand new members of the band like, Mike Robinson is playing guitar, pedal steel, and banjo. Matt Slocum, from Jimmy Herring’s band, is now playing keyboards. There’s a much bigger sound, it really is quite exciting. We’ve really had a jolt in the arm from these two great players.
Birmingham Stages: How do you view the current climate with Spotify, Youtube, and Soundcloud making it easier to listen to and put out music?
Carbone: It is what’s going on now, I think financially it is hard to quantify it in a monetary way because it is sorta like the new radio in a way. Ultimately, I think that musicians are getting the short end of the stick as far as getting paid for the music. I kinda view it as you can stand along with the parade route and watch the parade go by, or you can get in the parade and march along. I think it is better to be marching along than to be watching the parade go by.
Code-R Productions presents: Railroad Earth and Kyle Tuttle Band at Iron City on Thursday, February 27. Advance tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $25 and can be purchased at www.ironcitybham.com.