Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Jon Snodgrass releases a free kids record that will appeal to all ages

Posted By on Wed, May 27, 2020 at 1:00 AM

Jon Snodgrass, Prost Mijos, free download at
  • Jon Snodgrass, Prost Mijos, free download at

For many artists, especially those who are musically self-sufficient, recording a low-key collection of kid-friendly songs can serve as a rite of passage. For Jon Snodgrass, who’s best known as co-founder of the Colorado alt-country band Drag the River, it was mostly just a fun way to pass the time.

Living the sheltered-in-place life with his wife and kids in Fort Collins, Snodgrass decided to write and record his newly released Prost Mijos, which he describes as a “free record for kids, parents, and regular people.” With titles like “Clean Hands & Feet Too,” and “Jumpy Jumpy Whee & Whoo, Also,” it might be natural to assume that repeated listenings would fray adult nerves even more than they already are. But listen to songs like “Mama Tired” (a play on Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried”), and you’ll find that’s far from the case. In fact, if you set aside a handful of lyrics, and instead focus on the artist’s resonant tenor vocals, well-crafted melodies and understated arrangements, most of the music here would fit perfectly well on a Drag the River album.

“It’s not really a kids record,” says Snodgrass of the largely acoustic EP. “It’s as much for their parents as it is for the kids. I’ve had the idea for some of those songs for a long time. They’re just the silly things I always said I’d do if I ever wrote a kids record, a bunch of titles and maybe a little melody in my head. So that’s why I decided to do this minimalist lo-fi kids record type thing.”
Prost Mijos also features some between-song patter from the musician’s young daughter Tanner Lee and her brother Hopper “Rocket from the Crypt” Snodgrass. (And yes, Hopper’s middle name is a tribute to one of Jon’s favorite bands.) The record also conveys a generosity of spirit that reflects Jon’s current state of mind.

“Now that I have kids, my ego is just gone,” he says. “It’s such a small time that we’re here, and so many things just don’t matter, you know? That doesn’t mean I don’t care, it’s kind of like a positive nihilism.”

While family and music remain the artist’s No. 1 priorities, he also has a lifelong love for baseball. He recently wrote the theme song and bumper music for the Colorado Rockies-obsessed Purple Dinosaur podcast, which takes its name from the team’s mascot. He even books his solo tours to coincide with his team’s away games. It’s basically the baseball version of being a Deadhead.

“I was supposed to be in San Diego for opening day back in March,” he says of what now seems like the distant past. “And then I was going to go to Los Angeles to see them play the Dodgers that Monday and Tuesday. And exactly a month after that, I was gonna go back out and see them in San Francisco. So I’ll go to an afternoon game, and then I go and play a show that night.”

That didn’t happen, of course, but at least the musician was able to finish recording a full-on rock band album, with some well-known guest artists we can’t reveal, before the whole world moved indoors. Still, he’s going to hold off on releasing that one until there are live music venues to tour with it. “I just don’t want to put out a rock record,” he says, “until I can go out and rock.”

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Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Alicia Keys, Ben Gibbard, Neil Young and The Rolling Stones turn pandemic anxiety into art

Posted By on Wed, May 20, 2020 at 1:00 AM

Neil Young, in his Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young days — still telling the truth. - JOEL BERNSTEIN
  • Joel Bernstein
  • Neil Young, in his Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young days — still telling the truth.

Fifty years ago this week, Neil Young and his bandmates recorded “Ohio,” a haunting response to the Kent State shootings where Ohio National Guardsmen fired 67 rounds of ammunition into a crowd of anti-war demonstrators, taking four lives in the process.

A haunting anthem that captured the despair of the moment, “Ohio” was made all the more poignant by Young’s plaintive delivery, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s uncharacteristically mournful harmonies, and heart-rending lyrics like “What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground / How can you run when you know?” Listen to it today and you’ll still be hard-pressed to detect a single note of opportunism or exploitation.

Not all torn-from-the-headlines singles are quite so convincing. Tom Petty’s “Peace in L.A.,” which was rush-released to radio during the 1992 Rodney King uprising, didn’t quite hit the mark with its repeated “Stay cool, don’t be a fool” refrain, although he does deserve credit for donating the single’s proceeds to local charities.

All of which brings us, inevitably, to the rapidly increasing number of songs inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic. Just as Kent State brought the Vietnam War home to America, the virus that most Americans assumed would be confined to China is prompting many of us to reconsider basic assumptions about our government, our economy and ourselves.

This time around, the first wave of rapid responders went heavy on novelty tunes, taking to YouTube with amateur versions of pop hits like The Knack’s “My Sharona,” which became “My Corona,” a parody that’s fast-approaching 7 million views.

It wasn’t long before high-profile musicians followed suit. On “Corona Virus (COVID-19),” reggae’s controversial, i.e., homophobic, performer Sizzla took the opportunity to reprise the sentiments of his 2014 “Ebola” single, once again placing the blame on Babylon while encouraging proper hand-washing habits. American singer-songwriter Neil Diamond, meanwhile, reworked his “Sweet Caroline” hit to include lyrics like “Hands, washing hands, reaching out / Don’t touch me, I won’t touch you.”

But comic relief and novelty songs only go so far in a pandemic, which is why recent offerings from Alicia Keys, Ben Gibbard, The Rolling Stones, OK Go and, yes, Neil Young, deserve no less attention.

In the case of OK Go’s “All Together Now,” released last week as a single benefiting Partners in Health, the motivations are especially personal. Lead vocalist Damian Kulash and his family all contracted the virus, his wife severely enough to require a hospital stay. After she was released, Damian took care of their 2-year-old twins as his wife’s symptoms gradually subsided. “There were times when her breathing was so labored,” Kulash told Rolling Stone, “that I worried she just wouldn’t wake up.”

In contrast to OK Go’s clever indie-pop singles and stunt-driven videos, “All Together Now” is musically stripped down and undeniably heartfelt. “All those harmonies we sang yesterday, they all sound so different now,” sings Kulash. “Though they’re all still the same, everything’s untouched but forever changed.”

Alicia Keys’ new “Good Job” single pays direct tribute to health care workers and others who are battling on the front lines. Taken from her forthcoming album Alicia, the song is also part of a campaign encouraging people to send thank-you messages to the essential workers in their own lives.

Meanwhile, The Rolling Stones have released their first single in eight years. “Living in a Ghost Town” is a welcome return to form, though its topicality is a bit contrived. The song was written before the virus hit, with Mick Jagger subsequently tweaking the lyrics to suit the moment: “Life was so beautiful, then we all got locked down,” he sings. “Feel like a ghost, living in a ghost town.”

Unlike the Stones, Ben Gibbard’s “Life in Quarantine” was actually written under quarantine. Musically sparse and lyrically poetic, the Death Cab for Cutie frontman’s moving ballad describes everyday life in the new normal, from its opening lines — “The sidewalks are empty, the bars and cafés too / The streetlights only changing, ‘cause they ain’t got nothing better to do” — to its closing evocation of the National Guard being on their way to protect us from our neighbors.

Which brings us back, appropriately enough, to Neil Young. His in-your-face rock anthem “Shut It Down” is as emotionally powerful as “Ohio,” with an accompanying video that artfully edits footage of empty streets and bridges, the pope alone in Saint Peter’s Square, and health care workers wearing trash bags as improvised hospital gowns. “Have to shut the whole system down,” Young chants between lyrics about people working in meat factories and our need to save the planet from an ugly death.

Ironically, the song itself appeared on Young’s album Colorado, which was released last October. Its prescience is altogether eerie, a stark reminder that our current condition calls for systemic changes that, as Young put it back in 1970, should have been done long ago.
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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Western Jubilee Recording Company acquired by Smithsonian Folkways

Posted By on Wed, May 13, 2020 at 1:00 AM

Western Jubilee founder Scott O’Malley, left, with cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell.
  • Western Jubilee founder Scott O’Malley, left, with cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell.

One great legacy deserves another, and Smithsonian Folkways’ newly announced acquisition of Colorado Springs’ Western Jubilee Recording Company underscores that point. Both labels have a long and storied history of preserving and expanding upon musical traditions that might otherwise be lost to history.

For the past 25 years, Cowboy-Western music devotee Scott O’Malley has run Western Jubilee out of a former railroad warehouse in downtown Colorado Springs. During that time, the label has released some 75 albums by a prestigious roster that includes acoustic bluegrass legend Norman Blake, yodeling Country-Western balladeer Don Edwards, singer-songwriter Katy Moffatt, and cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell.

“I can’t think of a better home for our artists,” enthuses Dave Olsen, who has managed Western Jubilee for the past nine years. “I’ve been hearing the word ‘perpetuity’ mentioned throughout the three-year process the acquisition has taken. And the idea that the music and poetry will live on, and be made available to the public long after we’re all gone, well, that is perfect.”

Western Jubilee’s new parent label boasts an enduring legacy that dates back to 1948, when producer Moses Asch launched a nonprofit label in order to document and preserve what he referred to as “people’s music.” Over the course of the next four decades, he would put out more than 2,000 records, ranging from cantorial synagogue music to Angola prison work songs. Other historic releases included an album of readings by pioneering African American poet Margaret Walker, early recordings by Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, and sprawling heritage collections like ethnomusicologist Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.

After Asch passed on in 1986, his family donated the entire Folkways catalog to the Smithsonian, which has continued to build upon that legacy. In the last month alone, the label has released a new album by Abigail Washburn and Wu Fei, a collection of bilingual children’s music by José-Luis Orozco, vinyl reissues of three experimental electronic albums, and a collection of previously unreleased music by Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton that was privately recorded back in 1946.

Smithsonian Folkways marketing manager Jonathan Williger echoes Olsen’s view that the two labels are a perfect pairing.

“When we look at bringing new labels into the Smithsonian Folkways family, we always ask how it will complement our already extensive catalog,” he explains. “Western Jubilee’s incredible catalog of cowboy music epitomizes a certain vision of the American experience that we felt would be a valuable addition to our collection and would also be well loved by our fans.”

Currently, the full catalog of Western Jubilee albums, most of which had long been out of print, are available in all digital formats on the Folkways website. The label has also released a 20-song compilation called Take Me Back to the Range: Selections from Western Jubilee Recording Company.

So what happens next? “In August,” says Williger, “we’ll be releasing a new album by Norman Blake through Western Jubilee and its old-time offshoot Plectrafone Records. We’re very excited and we’ll be sharing more details on that in the coming months.”

In other good news, O’Malley’s railroad-side studio will go back to hosting concerts for live recordings, as well as holding vintage collectible sales, once it’s safe to do so. We can also expect at least a few Western Jubilee releases to start showing up on vinyl. After all, Folkways is the label that made its debut with Drums of Haiti, a collection of field recordings that were pressed onto four 10-inch shellac discs.

“Scott says that Smithsonian Folkways Recordings are famous for their love of vinyl, so I’m hoping it’ll happen,” says Olsen. “I would get a solid sense of joy holding Western Jubilee and Plectrafone LPs in my hands. Everyone knows yodeling sounds so much warmer on vinyl.”
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