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Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables fill the air! Can I get an amen?

As expected, Todd Snider‘s latest album – Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables (Aimless Records) – is full of surprises. I know that’s a bit of an oxymoron, but for years Todd Snider followers (lovingly referred to as Shitheads) have come to eagerly anticipate previously untouched subjects and style with each new release, and Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables is no exception. Snider’s peerless perspective of the world and it’s cast of characters is his alter, and his songs carry his slightly skewed sermons.

What better place to begin our services than with “In The Beginning,” a tale that takes us back to the kickoff of the race we call human, where it’s suggested that the pedestals the rich so proudly plant their asses on were already taking shape. When the poor considered rising up in solidarity to even the score (possibly by murder), the rich offered up a distraction – a hint to the mystical secrets of religion, the possibility of reward in their (after)life – all a gift from a supreme being named God (who oddly only seemed to speak to the rich). And as the rich man told them all about how good people could go to Heaven, but the insolent would spend eternity in the fiery pits of Hell, the people believed him (since no one could prove him wrong) as he smiled and said, “Who are you going to trust if you can’t trust me?” He told them all they needed to do was humbly serve him and they would be rewarded… but not by the rich man, as he put it, – “Of course, I could pay you a little bit of money / but… more importantly God would see / And if he sees you working humbly / someday he may give you what he’s given me.” So began the empty promises from “The Haves” to “The Soon-to-Haves” that the prosperity of the rich shall blaze the trail for the plenteous of the poor. Not much has changed, has it?

Snider effortlessly ties this timeless tale into our present day setting – high unemployment, uncertainty, fear, the rise of the 99%, and the Don’t get the people all worked up with the notion of class warfare attitude of “The Haves” – where we watch a bunch of rich politicians proudly wave their faith flags as they promise, “Support me and I will lead you to a land filled with good fortune! After all, who are you going to trust if you can’t trust me?”

If that first song didn’t piss you off, then maybe you’re not paying attention. That’s alright though, maybe your blood will hit the boiling point as Snider keeps the heat on it with a story told by a southern teacher who was set to retire only to find out that their pension fund was unwisely invested by a “New York Banker” who promised, “This kind of thing was even safer than gold.” You know how this is going to end, and that should piss you off.

A couple of years back during an interview with Todd, I said,  “When you do a cover song, you really make it your own.” At the time we were talking about his haunting cover of Robert Earl Keen’s “Corpus Christi Bay.” Now he has taken on Jimmy Buffett’s “West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown.” This tale about a girl escaping her former life and family was originally released by Buffett 38 years ago. Snider’s choices of instrumentation, dynamics, and phrasing have surpassingly rendered it into a composition with the texture and flavor of an Appalachian Folk classic; he made it his own.

Somehow Snider managed to tap into the vein of Rudy Vallée when he came up with the slow sweet jazz ballad “Precious Little Miracles,” a song that seemingly comes from the viewpoint of a well-to-do old-timer as he questions today’s youth. Why do they feel so entitled to luxuries that they didn’t earn or were born into? Why can’t they be satisfied being poor? There are so many other things they could be focused on – like entertaining the rich! And, in true Snider style, he delivers one of the most apropos questions – “Kids… their pants around their hipbones / Who wears their pants like that? / Come here kid, let me hitch up your britches / And while we’re at it, let’s fix that hat”. Kids… they’re a handful.

Remember back in 2006 when “Carla” left that guy that sang about her on The Devil You Know? Well, apparently the stupid shit took her back and she’s still kicking him square in the ol’ ball sack in “The Very Last Time” (co-written with Todd’s longtime friend Will Kimbrough). Come on pal, snap out of it! You obviously know what a bitch she is when you say, “I had a dream that you came to see me / You asked if I was okay / That’s how I knew that I was dreaming / You asked if I was okay.” That’s golden.

And speaking of sequels (were we?) the foreboding atmosphere of contempt and resentment that envelopes “In Between Jobs” (co-written with Todd’s loyal sidekick Elvis Hixx) along with its echoes of murderous thoughts (as contemplated in the opening track) are in stark contrast to the arrogant optimism of the ex-con narrator and his nothing-to-lose attitude in “Looking For a Job” from The Devil You Know. But six years ago Americans were more optimistic; time has changed all that. The abrasive structure and threatening tone of “In Between Jobs” rips at your skin, maybe in a desire to replicate the pain, desperation, and lack of self-worth felt by scores of  jobless and hopeless that cover our country.

There are reviews out there spouting Snider’s upbeat love-song  “Brenda” – about an unlikely couple who “met on a train going somewhere fast” and hit it off right away. She was driven, him not so much. But together they built an empire that conquered the world with each new endeavor. Their tumultuous relationship eventually scarred and they went their separate ways, only to return to their destiny… each other – as being all about the musical duo of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Seriously? What makes you think that? I hope it’s not just because of those lines Todd threw in near the end of the song – “Mick Jagger was born on a Monday morning / Keith Richards was born on a Saturday night / It was true love.” Isn’t it possible he may have tossed those lines in just to fuck with us? I mean, shit, we’re talking about Todd “The Grand Imagineer” Snider here! He loves to play with the lyrics and mess with our heads!

Listen to “Brenda”

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Okay, after listening to it again… I’ll admit, there are some vague similarities between Jagger and Richards and this couple. Mick and Keith were childhood friends back in the early 1950s until their families moved apart. They didn’t cross paths again until 1960 at a Dartford, Kent train station… just a coincidence. Mick had some Muddy Waters records on him that day which revealed their shared taste in music, and they formed a band. From there on, they shook up the world. You couldn’t stop the flow of songs that poured out of them. Okay, but their relationship was good, right? Wrong. They were more brothers-of-different-mothers than friends. Eventually, they got away from each other – Mick into the jet-setter’s life; Keith fell deeper into drugs. They found their way back to each other. Have you read Keith’s book – Life? Turns out one of Keith’s nicknames for Jagger was Brenda. I’ll be damned. See, what did I tell you? Snider likes to mess with our heads.

Sometimes a man can only take so much of deceit and lies. They’re pushed to the edge of a cliff where all that’s within their grasp – to keep them from falling off – is revenge. This is where we find the narrator of the jaggedly driven song “Too Soon to Tell.” A dark cloud hangs over him and he’s headed to a place he doesn’t really want to go, but knows he has no choice. His disconnected thoughts, desires, and regrets seem to fly past us like so many pages ripped from the spine of a book and fed to the wind.

Digger Dave and Todd Snider

Todd & Digger Dave back in the day

If you’ve been to a Todd Snider concert lately then you’ve probably heard some of Todd’s damn-near-unbelievable stories about his old Alaskan pal, Digger Dave. If you haven’t been to one of his shows… what the hell are you waiting for? Anyway, “Digger Dave’s Crazy Woman Blues” tells one of those tales about, well… the title pretty much says it all. If there’s trouble, there’s a woman somewhere close by watching the shit she stirred up hit the fan. And Todd swears that this is the truest story he’s ever told, and we know that almost all of the stories he tells are true.

That brings us to – one of my favorites – the final track “Big Finish” (How does he come up with these catchy song titles?), a churning bluesy number that has reflective lines like “If I could do all this all over / I wouldn’t do nothin’ the same” and “I try to remember / It helps me forget.” The soulful instrumentation of “Big Finish” has Amanda Shire’s violin, along with Chad Staehly’s B3, weaving their way around Todd’s grinding guitar, and over the solid rhythm of Paul Griffith’s drums and Eric McConnell’s bass. My favorite moment in this tune is one of ponder – “The older I get, the more I worry that the more I worry, the older I’ll get… and yet I still worry. Ain’t that about a son-of-a-bitch, I tell ya.”

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Tommy Womack is feelin’ good on Now What!

Tommy Womack - Now What!

The title of Tommy Womack’s latest CD – Now What! – may describe what went through his mind after the unexpected success of his 2007 release There, I Said It! (an album that almost never found its way to the record rack). As Tommy told me, “I thought I was done, and I almost pulled that record. I almost pulled the plug on it because I thought, No one wants to hear me confessing all this stuff. Thankfully I found out that by voicing my fears, I echoed the fears of a whole lot of people of my generation… It was far and away the most successful record I’ve ever had… It totally turned my career around.” The title of that album came from words that Tommy had written years earlier, and later took shape as a track on There, I Said It! called “I’m Never Gonna Be a Rock Star” that tells the tale of Tommy’s realization and reluctant acceptance that his rock star days were over. From 1985 to 1992 Womack had played lead guitar and sang lead vocals for the post-punk band Government Cheese. He may not be the rock star of yesterday, but Womack’s career as a must-be-heard singer/songwriter of today is thanks to that nearly shelved self-therapy project.

Now What! is an all-embracing collection of songs pulling influences from musical styles diverse as blues, Dixieland jazz, and classic rock, with just a pinch of rap. Womack lyrically sheds his skin with an equally assorted batch of subject matters. Tommy defends his diverse topics and says, “It’s really not a skitzo record at all!” There’s no need to defend his choices that, once again, a lot of people will relate to:  dealing with life on the road (or the road of life) and some of its pitfalls; the warmth of home and family; the past and how it can show up unannounced and bite you in the ass; the mortality we reluctantly realize as we grow older; and finally – love, simple and real.

The upbeat opener “Play That Cheap Trick, Cheap Trick Play” sets the optimistic tone – cheerfully declaring  “Another dollar, another day / I shouldn’t look back but I do anyway / Dad’s in the ground, Mom’s on the way / Play that Cheap Trick, Cheap Trick play” – while also giving us glimpses of Tommy’s undying love of his family, and his ever-haunting self-doubt. It’s all good in the end though as he borrows some favorite lines from Cheap Trick’s Surrender to sum it all up – “Momma’s alright, Daddy’s alright, the boy’s alright, we’re all alright.”

Listen to “Play That Cheap Trick, Cheap Trick Play”

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Continuing with the “we’re all alright” good vibe, comes “It Doesn’t Have To Be That Good” carrying the message that life needn’t be filled with gloriously rewarding moments. Sometimes it is what it is – ups, downs, paying bills, and mowing the lawn (and all that can happen in one day). The tune also reminds us “No matter what your life is like – it beats the pants off death.”

Have you ever run into an old flame and wish you hadn’t because all those old memories – good and bad – came flooding forward from their long-time hiding place way back in your mind? In the gentle ballad “Bye & Bye” (one of my favorite songs from Now What!) Tommy shares a story of when he bumped into, as he put it, “A real girl that I had a fling with back in the 80s.” As he explained further, “She was a real girl… well, she still is a real girl. We’d bumped into each other in the grocery store one day. It happened pretty much as it’s described in the song, except we didn’t end up at the checkout line at the same time”. Lyrics of remembrance came out of that encounter – “Your body still makes me a young man / Your brain’s still a bomb you can throw / I had me a nice hard decision to make / All those years ago.”  But in the end, the admission is made, possibly justifying that hard decision made so many years earlier – “I’d have made you a miserable husband / You’d have been a high maintenance wife.” But ardor seems to still linger in the air at that Harris Teeter. (Being from the west coast, I had to Google “Harris Teeter.”)

Listen to “Bye & Bye”

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The flip-side to “Bye & Bye” – “I’m Too Old to Feel That Way Right Now” – has Womack briefly trying to fan the old flame but realizing he isn’t quite up to it as “The touch of your hand leaves me inspired / But I’m set in my ways and kinda tired.” Getting old sure is a bitch.

In the slow-paced shuffle “On And Off the Wagon”, with a comical arrangement that cleverly pairs pedal steel guitar with a tuba,  Tommy confesses “I’ve learned to know my limits / I’ve learned to pass them by.” The lesson here – Maybe it’s best to say you’ve paused instead of quit.

In the few of the tunes on Now What! you might get the sensation that you’re on the road with Womack as he shares his witty tales. But in the hard-driving Rap-esque “90 Miles an Hour Down a Dead-End Street” you feel like there’s a pissed-off drunken maniac behind the wheel, and you’re trapped in the passenger seat clutching a bottle of Chianti for dear life as the driver – looking a lot like a creation of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth – barks at you, “Don’t spill any of that shit!” At this point, you may wonder if jumping from this crazy ride would be better than the possible ending – but you choose to stay because it’s so damn fun!

The lyrics in the jazzy bop number “Guilty Snake Blues” shuffles near-carelessly over a wide topical stretch of lustful land, but somehow it all ties together like a cool ribbon of random thoughts punctuated by Jim Hoke’s smokey soulful sax.

Tommy Womack & Sheba the Wonder Dog (Photo by Gregg Roth)

One of Tommy’s personal favorites on the record is “Pot Head Blues.” It’s a quiet heartfelt acoustic tune that has him recollecting and somewhat regretting  time lost while stoned. But he doesn’t let it hold him back, stating “Nobody ever made me do it / No time to turn around, you blew it, get to it / Lay it down, you got nothing to lose.”

“I Love You to Pieces” is Tommy’s playful, flirtatious love letter to his wife, Beth. But feel free to use it on someone of your choice. It’s got plenty of Stones-like jamming filling it up with nothing but fun.

“Over the Hill” had been bouncing around in Tommy’s head for years, and he’s finally let it out. It’s a blend of feeling your age and spreading your love in the spirit of Donavan – complete with sublime horns.

The peacefully haunting “Wishes Do Come True” (sweetened by Lisa Oliver-Gray’s vocal talents) intrigued me as I tried to get the underlying meaning of it. To me the lines – “All through the day you used to want me / You used to need me now you just haunt me / I sold my soul for one night of your touch / How could I know when too much was too much” – spoke of Womack’s up and down relationship with the music industry. When I told Tommy my thoughts on this he laughed and said, “You know, I’m not sure what all “Wishes Do Come True” is about. That one has ambiguities in it that escape me. I wrote that with Irene Kelley. There are lines in there that we really liked, but there are lines in there that I’m not sure what they mean to this day. It could be about the music business. If it works that way in your interpretation, then I’m not going to say that it’s not about that. Who knows, maybe subconsciously it is about that. Like I said, I’m not sure what it’s about. You could take it as meaning infidelity.”

Listen to “Wishes Do Come True”

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The album wraps up with “Let’s Have Another Cigarette” which made me ask Tommy if he still smoked (even though it wasn’t any of my business). “No, no,” he said, “I haven’t smoked in about two and a half years. I’ve got a snuff pouch in my mouth right now. I still do those.” Getting back on the subject at hand, I then asked him how “Let’s Have Another Cigarette” came about. “I don’t remember writing it,” he said. “One day – I had it, the day before – I didn’t. It’s based in fact to a degree. I got a speeding ticket in Ohio one day where they were convinced that I was transporting drugs. So they took everything in the car apart, and I didn’t have anything in there… thank goodness. So I always see that as being a song about being in Ohio going from one gig to another, and it just seemed to call out to be the album closer. You know, because I’m leaving somewhere and going somewhere else. Also, in that song – I’m sober. There are other songs on that record where the character of me is not sober, but in this one I make it to the end of the record, and I’ve sobered up, I’m going on to the next gig, and life continues on. A nice way to close out the record – on an optimistic note.” Now What! comes full circle, ending as it began, cruising along in Tommy’s car, taillights fading into the night, he’s fully aware of where he’s at – “I got about a half a tank of gas / I’m a pimple on Dylan’s ass” – and he couldn’t be happier. Hopefully, we haven’t seen the last of Tommy Womack.

There, I Said It! was a tough act to follow, but Tommy Womack took himself to the next level and did not disappoint with Now What!.

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A Hoe-Down Feast (with Drums on the Side)

The following article is about a recent Eugene, Oregon appearance of The Emmit-Nershi Band, Great American Taxi, and Danny Barnes. All  fine musicians with deep bluegrass influences.
But before I get to that article I want to share a related personal story of – something that happened over thirty years ago – the weekend I lost my virginity to bluegrass music. I’ll admit I was nervous, after all… I’d seen Deliverance.

Drums on the Side

Who Cares! - (L to R - Wayne, me, Felix)

Back in the early 80’s I was the drummer in a three-piece (sometimes four-piece, sometimes five-piece band – depending on who brought beer and a guitar) called Who Cares based out of Mountain Pass, California, Sorry, no hyperlink to that band – we were way ahead of our time and the internet. My band-mates Felix Lenox and Wayne  Elliott – both excellent guitarists – were talking one night about the Bluegrass in the Spring Festival, an annual event held in Calico Ghost Town, California. Wayne and his dad, Don, would be performing there as The Mountain Pass Drifters. Felix and I decided that we should pack up the van and head out to Calico and take in the Festival.

The next morning we started loading all the essentials – beer, peanut butter, beef jerky, sleeping bags, and beer. Felix put a couple of his guitars into their cases, grabbed his amp, took them out to the van, snatched a beer out of the cooler and sat in the open back-end of the van.

“Hey, Blake,” he yelled into the house, “you about ready to hit the road?”

“Almost, man,” I said as I came out the side door of our single-wide mobile home carrying my bass drum. “I’ve just got a few more things to load.” I hadn’t noticed Felix’s puzzled look as I set the 20″ drum into the van. I headed back inside, returning shortly after with my toms and cymbal bag.

Felix sat there, his beer bottle – not quite up to his open mouth – seemed blocked by the question that hung on his lips… “What the fuck are you doing?”

Now I had the look of bewilderment. “What the hell does it look like?” I said. “You’re taking your axe; I’m taking mine.”

“I really don’t think you should,” he explained, “Bluegrass people don’t like drummers.”

I smiled, “Shit, everybody loves a drummer.”

It was about a three beer drive (one and a half hours) to Calico Ghost Town from Mountain Pass, California. We staked out a spot in the campground, grabbed a couple more beers from the cooler, headed out to join the crowd and enjoy the music. There were a ton of guitarists, along with more mandolin and banjo players than I had ever seen in one place. As far as I knew, I was the only drummer around.

Mountain Pass Drifters (Wayne is front and center)

Felix and I watched the Mountain Pass Drifters compete with some other very good bluegrass bands. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you if they won or not; the day was long and hot, many beers were consumed. After Wayne finished with the serious music, he joined us on the streets of Calico as we performed some bluegrass standards for tips and beer. I armed myself with my snare, hi-hats, brushes, and a pair of sticks (in case I felt the need to get loud). We entered a talent contest at a theatre – that looked like it came right from the set of Gunsmoke – and we won FIRST PLACE! Maybe I read too much into it, BUT, we were the only group with percussion. Don’t tell me these people don’t like drummers.

The nightlife in the Calico Ghost Town campground was a real treat. Everywhere we turned – musicians jammed. Felix and Wayne joined in when it struck them. After making the rounds, we made our way back to the van. As Felix and Wayne picked their way through some tunes, I opened the back doors of the van, pulled my drums out – piece by piece – and quietly assembled them. What’s the worst that could happen? I was surrounded by fellow musicians… drunken bluegrass musicians that – I was told – didn’t like drummers . In my twenties, I didn’t always think things through.

For the most part, it went pretty well. We jammed and people listened. We played bluegrass, country, and rock (we may have even slipped in an acoustic version of B-52’s “Planet Claire”). After a couple of hours of jamming, we took a break. A tall kid in blue jeans and a cropped-sleeved t-shirt approached me at the back of the van. He looked to be about 15 or 16. He asked me if that was my kit and asked if it was okay if he sat down at them. I said, “Sure, go ahead,” figuring he came from a drum-deprived bluegrass family and had never actually seen a drum kit up close – I was wrong.

He tapped around on the skins, then turned around and asked, “You have a tuning key on you?”

I was a bit skeptical at first, but thought I could always re-tune them later. I dug the key out of my pocket and handed the key to him. I watched and listened as he tuned and tapped, tapped and tuned, until my drums sounded sweeter than ever.

He handed me back the key and said, “You mind if I play them a bit?”

“Hell no,” I said, “Thanks for the tuning. Knock yourself out, kid.”

His solo started out slow and unassuming and – as a crowd gathered around our little piece of the ghost town night – gradually built into a complex, melodic, piece of percussive expertise that would have made Neil Peart himself say, “Damn, That kid’s good!” He ended with an explosive crescendo of metal and taut skin that shook the air. The crowd cheered loudly as the young drummer handed me back my sticks and simply said, “Thanks, man.”

I talked to him just long enough to learn that he was 16 and had been playing since he was 8. I thanked him and then he disappeared into the campfire-lit night. Felix and I stood there silently for a bit until Felix said, “You want to play some more?”

“What?” I said, “I ain’t following that.”

“Yeah… me neither,” Felix said.

I thought – Don’t tell me bluegrass people don’t like drummers.

A Hoe-Down Feast

Drew Emmitt (Leftover Salmon) and Bill Nershi (String Cheese Incident) – both founders of popular jam bands – have done the sold-out-stadium, prestigious rock ‘n’ roll thing flawlessly. Over the years they developed a strong friendship as the paths of their bands crossed at shows and festivals. From that kindred-spirit bond grew the idea of forming a project together and returning to their roots as The Emmitt-Nershi Band. They didn’t waste much time focusing on the band’s name; instead, they focused on the music – some of the finest examples of modern bluegrass music you’ll ever hear. Their latest collaboration, New Country Blues, is like a cornucopia filled with the succulent fruits of their love of the music.

Great American Taxi

Great American Taxi

Bring Emmitt and Nershi together with their old friends of Great American Taxi – one of the best-known headliners on the jam band circuit – and you’ve got one hell of a show. Former Leftover Salmon singer, guitarist, and mandolin player Vince Herman is one of the founding members of Great American Taxi. The band’s music – a recipe of swampy blues, progressive bluegrass, funky New Orleans strut, honky-tonk country, and good old fashioned rock ’n’ roll – has been self-labeled “Americana Without Borders.” Their latest release, Reckless Habits, captures the raucous enthusiasm of which their live shows are legend.

Danny Barnes

Danny Barnes

If that’s not enough, genre-bending banjo man Danny Barnes will join them on stage. While incorporating digital technology and multiple effects pedals, Barnes takes the banjo where it has never been musically. His skill as an instrumentalist has ushered him to share the stage and record with countless multi-genre artists including Leftover Salmon.

This article was originally published in Eugene Weekly, November 4, 2010

 

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That Classic Country Sound Lives On…

It’s encouraging to hear young acoustic performers out there that are still strongly influenced by some of the greats of country music. Crooked River band mates Teri Jacobs (guitar/vocals/harmonica), Lana Dishner (guitar/vocals) and Rob Jacobs (mandolin/guitar/vocals) are old friends who, over the years, have shared laughs, food and their love of the classics – Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Marty Robbins to name a few. Less than a year after Rob taught Lana to play guitar, the three of them (with Teri on harmonica), were performing their treasured classics for friends and at summer garden parties.

Once bitten by that performance bug, Teri learned guitar, began writing songs like a woman possessed while Rob and Lana continued to polish their musical skills and also write songs. Rob also picked up mandolin, adding a crisp fresh layer to their already true-to-the-classics sound. Soon they had an impressive assortment of original songs.

The collection became their debut album – My Troubled Heart – which is filled with tales of anguish that a broken heart holds from the title track’s lonely story of betrayal, to the blithe account of loss (but just leave the beer) in “6-Pack,” closing with the tranquil journey of “I’m Home.” Staying true to their inspirations – Crooked River recorded My Troubled Heart in mono, giving it the warmth of a candle-lit living room performance. Join Crooked River as they celebrate the release of My Troubled Heart.

This article was originally published in Eugene Weekly, November 11, 2010

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A Voice All Her Own

After spending ten years as the “sultry” voice of the Canadian female trio The Be Good Tanyas, Frazey Ford launched her voice to the forefront on her debut solo album Obadiah, released earlier this year. Proving that Ford is capable of delivering a solid album on her own, the smoldering Obadiah sounds more ambitious than any of her work with The Tanyas. Her palette expanded, Ford’s comforting voice – weaving easily from soothing jazz, smoky soul and somber country – brings new colors to light.

Obadiah has the spontaneous feel of a live performance full of honesty and heart, rich with stories about love, loss and life that unravel at their own colorful pace. Ford’s writing has matured, touching on subjects that come with experience of life’s ups and downs. Her long list of influences are an eclectic collection – Joni Mitchell, Bessie Smith, Al Green, Sean Hayes, Pauline Lamb, Prince, Ann Peebles and Joan Armatrading just to name a few.

A true teller of tales with an incomparable voice, Ford’s finest talent is her skill to take on the embodiment of her song’s characters. This is evident on the opening track “Firecracker,” where she’s a hard-drinker that talks to angels with an artful grin. On “Gospel Song,” she looks back on her family life through the eyes of country preacher. In a nod to one of her early inspirations, she covers Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee” and makes it her own.

This article was originally published in Eugene Weekly, December 2, 2010

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