A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
December 22, 2006
It seems only natural that Solomon Burke, the under-appreciated ’60s soul man, would record a top-notch country album. After all, way back when, as he was making the transition from gospel singer to R & B star, he first charted with a cover of a country song “Just Out of Reach (of My Two Empty Arms).” And one of his early hits was a high-charged take on “Down in the Valley.”
So Burke’s new album, Nashville, is something of a homecoming for the gentle giant. Produced by Buddy Miller, this is an album of country and country-flavored rock backed by some cool pickin’ Nashville cats — including Al Perkins on steel guitar, Sam Bush on fiddle and violin, and Miller on guitar. The album features several impressive duets with the likes of Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and Pattys Loveless and Griffin.
It would have been an experience to be in the same room at the same time with Dolly and Solomon, such titans of American music. But Burke isn’t the type to be overwhelmed by mere mortal guest stars. It’s his vocal delivery that carries this album.
In fact, my favorite song here is the most stripped down — the opening cut, “That’s How I Got to Memphis.” This is a classic Tom T. Hall song. There are excellent covers of this tune by Kelly Willis and Miller. But, backed only by Miller’s acoustic guitar and Byron House’s stand-up bass, Burke makes the song his own. It sounds like a lonesome prayer.
But there are other breathtaking moments. The Dolly duet “Tomorrow Is Forever” is nice and churchy. Even prettier is Welch’s “Valley of Tears.” Gillian wrote the song, but she wisely keeps her background vocals low, letting Burke make love to the melody. “Everybody wants to send me down to the valley of tears,” he sings like a condemned man contemplating the lethal-injection table.
Burke seems to be having fun on this album. “You all done went hog crazy here,” Burke exclaims at the end of a riotous version of “Ain’t Got You,” (the Bruce Springsteen Tunnel of Love song) as the other people in the studio laugh. “What the heck was going on in this place here? Is you all got religion!”
But Nashville ends like it starts — on a somber note. “’Til I Get It Right” is a smooth countrypolitan-style song, complete with a string section. It’s about love, but on another level, it could be seen as a meditation on Burke’s career. “If I try my wings and try long enough, I’m bound to learn how to fly,” he moans.
He pretty much got this right.
*After the Rain by Irma Thomas. “My house is a lonely house, but it once was a happy house,” Thomas sings on the album’s first song, “In the Middle of It All.” When she sings this song, an old Arthur Alexander tune, it’s not just a metaphor. Thomas’ New Orleans house was severely damaged last year in the big storm.
The album was recorded in Louisiana a few months after Katrina. The liner notes insist that all but one of the songs were selected before the catastrophe — despite the words of the opening track and the obvious connection in the closing number, Stevie Wonder’s “Shelter in the Rain.”
But there is a song directly about the great hurricane. This is “Another Man Done Gone,” a rewrite of an old folk song. In its original form, this was a terrifying song about kidnappings and lynchings, sung by blacks of the rural South. But Thomas created new verses. “Another storm has come, the people on the run ... the water’s at his door, he couldn’t stay no more ... I didn’t know his name, so many fled that day ... another thousand gone, running away from home.” It’s a snarling rootsy blues rocker with Sonny Landreth on slide guitar and Dirk Powell on fretless banjo.
This album is full of great songs. There’s a down-home version of Skip James’ “Soul of a Man” (featuring a guest appearance by Corey Harris on guitar); an aching country weeper written by one of my current favorites Eleni Mandell (”Another Lonely Heart”); and even a sad DWI song, “Flowers.” Written by Kevin Gordon and Gwill Owen, “Flowers” has verses concerning the victims of a drunk-driving accident and one just as sad about the family of the killer drunk.
One of my favorites here is a cover of Nina Simone’s anthemic signature “I Wish That I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” This won’t replace Nina’s version in our hearts and souls, but Irma gives it her all. And that’s a lot.
(Photo of Irma Thomas from Robert Mugge's film New Orleans Music in Exile.)
*Rise by Chris Thomas King. King is another Louisiana artist personally affected by last year’s hurricanes. He lost his home in New Orleans. The album is full of tunes with titles like “Baptized in Dirty Water,” “Like a Hurricane (Ghost of Marie Laveau),” and “Flow Mississippi Flow.”
The first song — “What Would Jesus Do?” — is sung from the perspective of a man who’s seen his wife swept away in the flood. He’s starving but he’s having moral qualms about looting. “Standing outside of Walgreens with a stone in my hand, I ask myself would Jesus understand.”
King takes you right back to those days of “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” in the song “Faith.”
“President Bush flying around/Oh, looking down from us from the air/They say he pity the poor people/But does he really care?”
But the album ends on a strangely optimistic note — a sweet cover of Louis Armstrong’s pop classic “What a Wonderful World” without a trace of irony.
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