Written for All Eyes Media.
Like the great river that flows through Memphis, the music of Lucero keeps rolling on, twisting and turning through the years, the same dark and brooding steadiness always at work.
Since forming in late the ‘90s, this group of Memphis road-dogs has mixed heartfelt lyrics with the sounds of early rock and roll, classic punk, country-folk, and deep-fried Southern soul. It’s a sound that stands on the pillars of American music, born more of feeling than technique, delivered night after night to legions of fans in dive bars and theaters, and on stages as august as Red Rocks Amphitheater and the Ryman. In short, it’s music that is built to last, impervious to trends.
For their tenth studio album, When You Found Me, the band continues its natural evolution, this time tapping into a more atmospheric, widescreen vision (one that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Reagan-era FM dial) while still staying tethered to its roots.
“I wanted a very classic rock sound for this album,” says songwriter and front man Ben Nichols. “I wanted it to sound like stuff I heard on the radio growing up. I didn’t want to make a retro record at all, but I did want to reference some of those sounds and tones and moods. I think we struck a nice balance between nostalgia and something that still sounds like contemporary Lucero.”
Long-time fans might be surprised to hear the ghostly tinge of a synthesizer on a Lucero record. But the new direction is not as far afield as one might think. Rick Steff, the band’s piano and organ man of ten years, collects vintage synthesizers, so this new sonic twist was a natural detour for him. With these flourishes, Steff helps conjure an aural world of classic tracks with a firm foot in the present. Nichols’s long-time fondness for film soundtracks likely contributed to the album’s feel as well. The band has also recorded music for every movie made by Ben’s brother, acclaimed filmmaker Jeff Nichols, whose credits include Mud, Midnight Special, and Shotgun Stories.
Lucero recorded When You Found Me over two weeks in July of 2020 at Sam Phillips Recording Studio in Memphis. Matt Ross-Spang, a long-time friend of the band who also produced 2018’s Among The Ghosts, signed on again as producer and engineer. “I don’t think he often records with a lot of synthesizers,” Nichols says, “but he’s a natural and was able to get all the sounds we wanted on the album while making sure we stayed true to ourselves.”
During the recording session, Lucero wore masks the entire time, quarantining among themselves and managing not to get sick. The band had not rehearsed since Covid-19 took root. As such, Nichols’ demos were more fleshed out this time around, complete with drum machine, synth, and fairly elaborate guitar parts, which gave the guys more of a playbook to go by when they entered the studio. “The band did an excellent job of taking those parts and making them their own,” Nichols says. Now a fairly stripped-down five- piece shorn of a horn section, Lucero — in addition to Nichols and Steff, the group comprises Brian Venable on guitar, John C. Stubblefield on bass, and Roy Berry on drums — has been able to explore new sonic avenues in its latest form, as the leaner version has opened up more space in the band’s sound.
In its time, Lucero has sung many a tune about whiskey, heartbreak, and loss — constant occupational hazards for a rock and roll band. But four years ago, Nichols became a husband and father, a major shift in his life that found its way into his songwriting. Nichols says his daughter Izzy, now four, is the center of his universe and influences everything he does. But Lucero fans need not worry: family life hasn’t turned Nichols into a more sanitized, “Dad rock”-type; if anything, it’s made him more expansive and ambitious with the pen, without sacrificing any of that characteristic raw edge.
Family, one of the central themes of When You Found Me, is hardly a new subject for the band. Earlier Lucero albums feature songs about Nichols’ childhood in Arkansas, about his brothers, about his grandfather fighting in World War II (“The War”), about his mother worrying over the fate of her prodigal sons (“Mom”). On a subconscious level, Nichols thinks the new album is about transitioning from being a son into the role of being a husband and father.
Beginning with the band’s last album, Among The Ghosts, Nichols began writing more third-person, character-driven songs, as opposed to just penning the first-person tales of misadventure that were once the group’s stock in trade. The new record’s opening track, “Have You Lost Your Way,” is a case in point, invoking a mythical world that was inspired by the bedtime stories Nichols had been reading to his daughter. “This is my grown-up Lucero-version of a fairytale in a way,” he says. “The protagonist is a young girl and there is something evil chasing her … The song doesn’t say exactly how the story ends, but you know she is going to put up a fight.” The tune is bathed in synthesizer, letting the listener know from the jump that something new is coming down the pike.
The album’s next track, “Outrun The Moon,” is another tune written from the perspective of a young girl. An avid reader of history and fiction, Nichols says he had the work of Mississippi novelist Larry Brown in mind when he penned it. “Coffin Nails” tells the story of Nichols’ grandfather dealing with the death of his own father, a veteran of World War 1. “I weigh my deeds on my father’s scales” sings Nichols, giving the song a multigenerational arc. “City On Fire,” originally an attempt by Nichols at social commentary when U.S. domestic unrest reached a fever pitch this summer, ended up morphing into a more timeless, apocalyptic number, a grand rock song featuring an explosive drum part by Berry.
“Pull Me Close Don’t Let Go,” a droning, hypnotic tune, was inspired by words spoken to Nichols by his daughter. The final song on the album, “When You Found Me,” as well as the song “All My Life,” are unabashed love letters to his wife and daughter. The last song is a proper bookend and full-circle moment for a record that begins with a song titled “Have You Lost Your Way.”
“I’m not sure how much longer I would’ve been around if it wasn’t for my wife and daughter and the family I have now,” Nichols says. “I feel like they saved me, and they keep saving me every day. Izzy likes me to sing “When You Found Me” to her now at bedtime after we read the fairytales. She says, ‘Sing me the I’m gonna be okay song.’”
As a band, Lucero is doing more than okay; in fact, they’re at a creative high-water mark. In a time of great uncertainty and change, the band continues to persevere and adapt, making music that still means a hell of a lot to a loyal and ever-growing fanbase.
— Caine O’Rear
Written for All Eyes Media.
Langhorne Slim didn’t write a song for more than a year. A battle with clinical anxiety disorder and prescription drug abuse, which came to a head in 2019, had dimmed the light within. The man who once seemed to ooze spontaneity was now creatively adrift, stumbling along in the fog.
In December, he entered a program and, for the first time in a long time, a path toward healing began to emerge. He began to see that inner peace was possible, even with the world outside raging.
A few months later, in February, a tornado came and decimated East Nashville, his adopted hometown. Covid-19 took root just days later, changing lives forever. In the early days of his recovery, a different reality was beginning to take shape, both within and without. New worlds were being born; old worlds were dying.
Knowing he was struggling to write songs and make sense of it all, Slim was finally able to flesh out a throwaway ditty one afternoon. His close friend Mike then suggested he try penning a song a day. Slim didn’t like the idea, but he gave it a shot.
To his surprise, the songs came. In a flurry of stream-of-consciousness writing, the new tunes tumbled out, one after another, like little starbursts of joy, gifts from the gods you might say. Slim was tuning out the noise and finding beauty in the madness of a world coming undone. Over the course of a couple of months from March to May, Slim penned more than twenty that were certified keepers. Out of this bumper crop came the songs that make up his new album, Strawberry Mansion, which is being released this winter on Dualtone Records.
“I wasn’t sitting on the songs and I wasn’t overthinking them,” Slim says of the writing process of those months. “Something cracked open with the slowing down and the stillness of quarantine.
After finishing a song, whether he liked the tune or not, he’d call Mike, a videographer, and they’d record it and post it to Instagram. It was a form of therapy, he now realizes. “There was nothing precious about the process and it was a bonding thing between me and Mike as much as anything else,” Slim says. “It also gave me a release and maybe some potential form of healing, and was an opportunity to not always listen to the shitty thoughts in my head. I wasn’t ever thinking that I was writing songs for a new record.”
Prior to this creative outburst, Slim’s anxiety had grown so acute there were times when he actually feared picking up his guitar and trying to write. With the help of therapy and friends, he was now learning to confront his demons rather than run from them. So, in the midst of a panic attack one day, he picked up his guitar and the song “Panic Attack” was born. It’s a raw, off-the-cuff number that rises above the dark subject matter with spirit, irony and humor. “I called a healthcare professional/ Wanna speak to someone confidentially/ Don’t know just how I’m feelin’/ But I’m feelin’ feelings exponentially,” he sings.
Album-opener “Mighty Soul” details a world beset by Biblical-grade plagues (coronavirus, the Nashville tornado) and government malfunction. It ultimately calls for healing through community and the recognition that we can all make a difference. It functions as the album’s spiritual center, a secular gospel number for all mankind.
“Morning Prayer” is inspired by the songwriter’s effort to pray for the first time in his life. “It’s not in the key of any one religion,” Slim says of the number. “For this, I’m grateful that my guitar was unknowingly yet appropriately out of tune. It’s a song to help me practice compassion, surrender, connection to nature, the spirits and beyond.”
The second part of “Morning Prayer” is one of the most affecting moments on Strawberry Mansion, with the singer reaching out and offering prayers for his loved ones who are struggling, for all of humanity, really. “For my friends who suffer/ For my mother, father and brother/ For a world down on its knees/ I pray for thee,” he sings with great poignancy.
The road to Strawberry Mansion, which was recorded at Daylight Sound in Nashville with longtime compadres Paul DeFigilia (Avett Brothers) and Mat Davidson (Twain), began in 2019 with Slim’s decision to get sober. Even though the singer-songwriter kicked alcohol years ago, the insidious monster of addiction had crept back into his life in different guises. The last straw came during a road trip with a friend, who, at the end of the journey, let it be known that the man he knew and loved was no longer recognizable. So Slim called his manager and loved ones and soon checked into a program. That experience and his ongoing recovery program have given him a framework for grappling with the personal demons that have always skulked in the shadows, and helped him find light in the void. “It’s important for me to talk honestly about these things, because I feel it gives me strength, and it might help others along the way.” he says.
Strawberry Mansion is the singer-songwriter’s seventh full-length album. He released his first record, Electric Love Letter, back in 2004. Since then he has graced the stages of Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Newport Folk Festival, and the Conan O’Brien show, winning fans over with his heart-on-a-sleeve sincerity and rousing live shows.
Born Sean Scolnick in 1980, Slim took part of his artistic moniker from his hometown of Langhorne, Pennsylvania, a place he’s still very much connected to despite making his home in Nashville. Since the advent of Covid-19, he has been traveling back to PA once a month to see his mother and grandmother, and, like many Americans, finding strength in his origins and family bonds. The title Strawberry Mansion refers to the neighborhood in Philadelphia where both of his grandfathers grew up, a place he calls “dirty but sweet, tough but full of love, where giants roamed the earth and had names like Whistle and Curly.” That idea of a mythical wonderland informs the new album from head to toe. Strawberry Mansion is not so much about nostalgia for the past as it is about the possibility of better days ahead in this world. These are songs that remind us we’re all part of a collective “Mighty Soul,” united in one journey, just like the characters in that old Philly neighborhood. It’s a life-affirming album for these times.
— Caine O’Rear
A widescreen tour-de-force, a sonic blast of psychedelia and indie-rock, Antlers In Velvet, the bold, arresting new album from Leon III, sounds like a relic from another age. In a time when so much of today’s music seems as disposable and temporal as a tweet, Leon III is standing athwart the tide; and here, the band conjures the spirit and ambition of Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead. Make no mistake, this is an album with the potential for a serious shelf life – and one that begs for an immersive listening experience. So sit down, pour a whiskey, let the needle find the groove, and prepare to float downstream.
Even though this is only the second effort from Leon III, the project can trace its roots to the late ’90s when Andy Stepanian (vocals, guitar, songwriter) and Mason Brent (guitar, bass, banjo) started a band in Charlottesville, Virginia called Wrinkle Neck Mules, a honky-tonk outfit that made six albums, had a song featured in a GEICO commercial, and built up a dedicated and far-ranging fan base. Stepanian and Brent also collaborate in the form of Howler Brothers, a popular outdoor clothing line based in Austin, Texas, which they operate and which bears their artistic imprimatur.
Stepanian and Brent grew up in Richmond, Virginia, where country and roots music informed much of their musical development. But the two have always been drawn to the progressive, exploratory ethos of the psychedelic masters, as well as left-of-center folk artists like Vic Chesnutt and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. This new record, Antlers In Velvet, is the consummation of that vision.
For the band’s debut, Stepanian enlisted the services of producer and engineer Mark Nevers (Silver Jews, Lambchop), who worked on some of Stepanian’s favorite records. Leon III made the first album at Nevers’ Nashville home studio, Beech House Recording, before it was torn down and Nevers decamped to South Carolina. “I had a bunch of songs and a concept, but Leon III had never played a show and, for almost all purposes, didn’t even really exist,” Stepanian says of that maiden project. “So, the entire first album seemed like an experiment and a learning experience. When it was all over and the album was finished, Mason and I already knew we wanted to work with Mark on another one.”
Stepanian and Nevers stayed in touch and the two met up in South Carolina over beers and fishing to discuss making another album. Nevers’ studio in South Carolina was still being built, so he suggested making the record at Panoramic House in Stinson Beach, California, an idyllic location on a mountain near San Francisco that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Nevers proposed a sort of “live-in” recording scenario a la The Band and Big Pink, where everyone would sleep, eat and make music together for the entire week. Stepanian jumped at the idea. “There were wildflowers, a rusted-out tractor, and many deer in the yard,” he says of the locale. “The place really looks like a sort of forgotten castle, complete with a turret. Inside it doesn’t look at all like a traditional studio, because the engineer’s control room is downstairs and directly beneath the tracking room. But the place feels cozy and well-suited for laying back and making an album.”
Nevers and the band recruited some of Music City’s best players for the session. One of those was Kai Welch, a member of Kacey Musgraves’ touring outfit and a talent whom Stepanian calls “a wizard on synths and keys, but who can probably hold his own on about 20 different instruments.” William Tyler, a Nashville wunderkind who now lives in L.A., joined the ranks as guitarist for the sessions. Matt Pence, formerly of Centro-matic and now an in-demand engineer, signed on for drum duties. Brent, who normally handles all guitar work, agreed to play bass during tracking now that Tyler was aboard, but would add guitar overdubs later.
The recording transpired over five days in March 2019. The sessions were loose, collaborative, and free flowing, with everything recorded live in the same room. “I remember the sessions pretty well, but when you’re knocking out song after song, certain things blend together,” Stepanian says. “I remember thinking that this was the first time that there seemed to be a complete absence of country-feeling influence in my songs. None of the songs or players were coming from that place and, to me, it was a positive.”
Months later, Stepanian, Brent, and Nevers traveled to Nashville for overdubs at the Sound Emporium. Seasoned vets like steel player Paul Niehaus (Calexico, Justin Townes Earle) and keys-man Tony Crow (Lambchop) offered their services. Jordan Caress (Ponychase, Caitlin Rose) recorded backing vocals in a Boston studio, and Dana Colley (Morphine) contributed horn parts from his home studio in Boston as well.
“When it was all over, Mason, Mark and I felt like we had an album that was interconnected,” Stepanian says. “The songs blend and the whole thing is intended to have a dream-like quality. We want it to be consumed as a full album.”
Featuring eight tracks, the album clocks in at just under 43 minutes, with opening-track “Fly Migrator,” with it’s Dead-like guitar preamble, stretching over nine minutes and establishing the sonic ground for what’s to follow. Next up is “Faint Repeater,” a slow-burner anchored by Pence’s martial snare and haunted by Caress’s backing vocals. “The Whisper Is Ours,” an eerie Gothic chorale, was inspired by a macabre incident in Houston (Stepanian’s current residence) where a couple hired a hit-man to murder each of their former spouses, except the hit-man turned out to be an undercover cop. The song was remixed by Jamaican reggae and dub legend Lee “Scratch” Perry, who also contributes vocals. “Divining Rods” and “Rumors Of Water” were conceived as companion pieces, with the former being inspired by all the jazz Stepanian had been listening to of late. The latter takes off like a rocket from its gentler sister before flowering into Steely Dan territory. “Skeletal Pines,” with its barroom piano and Sunshine Daydream feel, recalls Elton John during his trippier Goodbye Yellow Brick Road days. “Tigris,” a more discordant number, throws gravel in the eye of its marmalade sky predecessor. It’s a comedown moment that wipes the slate clean for the closing title track, “Antlers In Velvet,” a song about the passage of time and the cycle of death and rebirth. “Tell me, crow, where does the old growth go?/ Flying by and acting like you don’t know,” sings Stepanian, who counts the song as one of the best and most personal he’s written. It’s a cryptic ending to a challenging album.
The advent of Covid-19 and the “safer at home” mantra has disrupted the supercharged tempo of 21st – century life. As difficult as it’s been, the period has also been a time for reflection, for patience, for a new way of looking at things. With that in mind, Antlers In Velvet is the perfect album for an imperfect time – a song cycle that allows for a deeper dive into some of the darker and more complex corners of American music that speaks coherently to the very strange times in which we find ourselves.
Written for All Eyes Media.
On his new album Born Against, Amigo the Devil – the artistic moniker of Danny Kiranos — has established himself as a multifaceted artist with a kaleidoscopic vision. The new record follows Kiranos’ beloved 2018 debut Everything Is Fine, an album that was chock full of doubt, mayhem, and despair — and one that augmented his long-gestating cult following. Kiranos’ new collection of songs reveals him to be more than a one-trick pony stylistically as he opens up the creative channels and delves deeply into thematic and musical influences as august as Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Fiona Apple.
“Every new record is an opportunity to sit and think about how much has changed in your life and the world around you,” Kiranos says. “It’s a new opportunity to bring in both new and old influences. I really wanted to dive into ideas that I’d either been avoiding or ignoring within myself and figure out ways to align them with music I grew up listening to. Influences that may have been set aside in our older recordings.”
Kiranos, who lives in Austin, decamped to Dallas to record the album at the venerable Modern Electric Studio with Beau Bedford (Texas Gentlemen). This marked the first time Kiranos had explored some of the world music he had grown up with, from Eastern European folk to Australian bush ballads, all the way to both Spanish and Cuban Bolero traditions, amongst many others. Kiranos felt Bedford was the only producer who could draw those sounds out of him. Together they entered the studio with the skeletons of the songs Kiranos had written. One by one, they fleshed them out in wildly inventive fashion. To say they threw the kitchen sink at this album would be an understatement; these guys threw the whole damn shack. From tossing knick-knacks across the strings on the back of the piano to dropping heavy objects on the floor to create odd-sounding crashes, clicks and clacks, Kiranos doesn’t deny there was a bit of Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits worship involved.
As for the songs themselves, Born Against finds Amigo the Devil embracing a more widescreen narrative form in his writing, moving slightly away from the dark-night-of-the-soul diaristic tone of the first album. Whether it’s getting revenge on a daughter’s murderer, a final love letter from a death-row inmate, or an ode to one’s own flaws and mortality, the songs on Born Against pack an emotional wallop and manage to accord dignity to the darker aspects of humanity some of us would rather turn our eyes from. But at the end of the day, Kiranos understands that’s it’s stories – even the darkest of ones – that connect us through it all. And he’s worked hard to get better at telling those stories.
“It’s been a goal to become more efficient writing songs,” Kiranos says, adding that “this was a very conscious attempt to promote imagery through sentiment.”
Once Covid began to take root, Kiranos says the pangs of cabin fever set in. His entire professional life over the last decade has revolved around touring, and he was feeling boxed in. He was suffering creatively and having trouble tapping into the old wellsprings that had previously birthed songs. Writing in the third person allowed him to immerse himself in other characters’ stories, which he presents on the record in first-person for more immediate effect. These are vivid, sepia-toned snapshots of lives on the brink. Mini movies, if you will. And they have a horrifying familiarity in the year that was 2020.
“There was a girl at the bar/ She overdosed in a photo booth/ Nobody found her body until last call/ The pictures all showed her terrified and a loner/ while everyone cried what a great friend she was,” Kiranos sings on “Quiet As A Rat.”
The new writing approach proved to be fruitful, and one Kiranos hopes his fans will embrace. Since he began touring nearly ten years ago (often playing sets in bathrooms at music festivals he couldn’t get booked on otherwise), Amigo the Devil has steadily amassed a fanbase whose devotion to his music is unstinting. Kiranos says he knows of thousands of Amigo the Devil tattoos. There is also “The Fellowship”, a Facebook group that was started by and has grown out of his coterie of family-like fans that has now become a strong community support forum for those finding themselves at a low point, whether due to depression, addiction, or simply grief. “The energy this family brings to the shows is incredible, and they are what makes the environment so exciting. Sometimes, I can’t even hear myself over the system because [they’re singing the lyrics so loud].”
As is the case with any artist who has great success with a certain sound or specific album, making a shift to something new can prove daunting. But it’s a step Kiranos feels he has to take as an artist. “I hope this album can start to shift the lyrical expectations and people just don’t consider me ‘the death guy’ and ‘the serial killer guy,’ and that people can start to see different avenues we can take together. I hope it opens up the project of Amigo the Devil so that people understand it’s not a specific sound-based project, and that if we go in different directions, it’s okay.” The artistic strength of Born Against lets us know that Kiranos’ new direction is more than “okay.” It’s a major mile-marker for a creative soul whose work will only continue to evolve and grow.
— Caine O’Rear
Written for All Eyes Media.
Every once in a while, a veteran artist manages to tap into a new creative wellspring, discovers an exciting sound, and the floodgates open. Such was the case for Mando Saenz on his latest release, All My Shame. On this dynamic new album, Saenz fully embraces his pop and classic rock influences for the first time in his career – while still staying true to his Texas songwriting roots. It’s a bold new statement for the Nashville-based artist, and the culmination of his career as a journeyman writer and musician.
“This record was always about making something new as opposed to just being my next record,” Saenz says of the new album, which was produced by former Wilco co-founder and drummer Ken Coomer. “I wanted to take chances creatively with this one, and we knew fairly soon into the recording process that Ken and I were catching something special that was a departure for me but held true to my artistry.”
Having spent nearly fifteen years as a professional musician, Saenz knows the highs and lows of the songwriter’s life as well as anyone. He’s seen his industry — and adopted hometown — radically transformed during the last decade, as gentrification and the streaming music economy take hold and musical preferences change. Yet you can still find him holding court and playing live at old Nashville haunts like Bobby’s Idle Hour.
Saenz, who grew up in various locales across the US as an Army brat, cut his musical teeth in the Houston alt-country scene of the early aughts, writing in the story-song tradition of Lone Star luminaries like Guy Clark, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Jerry Jeff Walker. His first three solo albums — Watertown (2005), Bucket (2008), and Studebaker (2013) — leaned toward the country-folk stylings of his Texas heroes while sporting an occasional rock tinge. All My Shame retains the sharp, detailed lyricism of those early albums, while confidently moving into the poppier, more melodic realms of Tom Petty, Big Star, Ron Sexsmith, and indie stalwarts the Shins. “I didn’t realize how many other influences I had that would help shape this project until after the fact,” Saenz says.
For this project, Saenz, who was one of Carnival Music’s first artists to land a recording and publishing deal, has worked with several Music City songwriters, penning tunes for the likes of Miranda Lambert, Lee Ann Womack and Aubrie Sellers, among others. Regarding his choice of producer, Saenz had worked with the Grammy-nominated Coomer before on various side projects. He knew Coomer had a knack for taking a song, tweaking it, and then catapulting it to another level. Such is the case with standout track “Cautionary Tale,” a tune Saenz co-wrote with acclaimed singer/songwriter Zach DuBois. “Ken turned the bridge into an unexpected post-chorus towards the end, and it might be my favorite moment of the record,” Saenz says of the song, which warns about the hard knocks that often attend the musician’s life this day in age (“I’m just another part of a big machine/ Where lights are bright the streets are mean/ And the talk is smooth when it wants to be/ It’s a cautionary tale”) he sings with unapologetic sincerity.
The album’s opening track, “Deep End,” recalls late-era Dwight Yoakam with its heartland rhythms, shimmering guitars, and irresistible hooks. “As I Watch You Slowly Drift Away” is a poignant ballad about a love that is slowly slipping away which holds special significance for its creator. “We brought in a harmony singer who I’d never met before and who had never heard the song before,” Saenz says of the recording process for the tune. “We gave her a lyric sheet and let her get to know the song while she checked her mic in another room where we couldn’t see her. We eventually started recording. Somewhere during maybe the third pass, her voice kept cutting out … As it turns out, she was pausing because she was getting a bit choked up emotionally. From then on, the song has had extra meaning to me.” Indeed, it’s a moving moment on a very emotional record.
“All My Shame” finds Saenz stretching into more psychedelic pop territory. He also thinks his love of Radiohead may have subconsciously crept into the song’s creation. “A friend of mine told me that ‘All My Shame’ reminds him of The Hollies song ‘The Air that I Breathe,’ which makes sense because that song to me sounds like Radiohead long before Radiohead existed,” Saenz says.
“Talk Is Cheap” is another key track, one that wouldn’t sound out of place on a classic ’90s power-pop album. But perhaps the album’s biggest — and most satisfying — surprise is the closing number “Rainbow In The Dark,” a cover of the early ’80s heavy-metal standard by Ronnie James Dio, formerly of Rainbow and Black Sabbath. The song, which was Coomer’s idea to record (“It’s a heavy metal song, but also reads Townes Van Zandt,” he told Saenz) reimagines the metal banger as a sensitive dark-night-of-the-soul ballad that gels perfectly with Saenz’s original songs on the record. “I cry out for magic, I feel it dancing in the light/ It was cold, I lost my hold/ To the shadows of the night,” he sings with a melancholy air, making you feel like you’re hearing the MTV hit for the first time in your life.
All My Shame sounds like a synthesis of everything Saenz has learned and loved throughout his musical journey. It merges the old and new, and gives us a fresh, green blast of infectious, melodic rock wedded to his ever-thoughtful songwriting. “I think this record is more reflective of those influential [pop and rock] artists than my past records, which leaned more to my Texas roots,” he says. “But at the end of the day, I like to think that there’s more of me in there than anything. A Texas folky at the heart of it all.” With one foot in tradition and one in the future, Saenz’s career is a testament to perseverance. And in his case, he just keeps getting better.
— Caine O’Rear
Written for All Eyes Media.
For Juni Ata to happen, it took ten years and a global pandemic. But it has often been the case that out of great difficulty, great art emerges. Of the ten years themselves, the result was worth the wait.
The first seeds of Jesse Daniel Edwards’ musical life were sewn in a field as rich as it is American. Raised first in a small mountain town in Southern California, his was a deeply religious household headed by a career Navy man that his siblings called “The Captain.” There was daily prayer, the study of Scripture, and as it often goes in such homes, very little popular music — Jesse would not hear his first Bob Dylan song until his early 20s. But it was a home of great musicality all the same, for among the wildflowers and mountain streams of this idyllic California scene, Jesse often sat at the feet of his grandfather, listening in awe as the old man performed the songs of The Sound of Music on a battered ukulele.
During those adolescent years Jesse studied guitar, banjo, mandolin, oboe, saxophone, piano and clarinet. By age ten he had begun composing songs of his own along with his six brothers and sisters, recording some of those efforts in the family’s coal cellar.
Years to come found Jesse living the life of a military brat and moving around the world. After making several home recordings with his family, Jesse formed an acoustic duo with his brother. The group disbanded when Jesse’s brother left to start a family and business and it was then that Jesse began performing solo while working at a summer music camp in the mountains east of Los Angeles. He later moved to Nashville and came under the tutelage of the late Al Bunetta, long-time manager of John Prine. More than a mentor, Bunetta became a close friend and father figure, and was someone who always believed in Jesse’s talent. Al’s death in 2015 was crushing to the musician.
It was also around this time that Jesse’s mother passed away after a sudden illness. And then there was a romantic breakup with a once-in-a-lifetime kind of love. In the swirling events of so much loss, the emotional weather hit hard, never really leaving. “Something snapped and it really broke me,” Jesse said. “It was a combination of losing all those things. I felt like I aged twenty years in one, during 2017. All the songs are about those losses.”
At this time Jesse no longer had designs on a professional music career. He worked in tour management while based in Nashville, spending one five-year stretch on the road with Morrissey, and later working with songwriting icon Lucinda Williams. “Just being able to listen in the corner while these artists divulged the wealth of their experience was such a treat,” he says of his touring jobs. But all this time he continued writing, albeit only for himself. He just didn’t think his music gelled with the currents of mainstream American music. “The industry had changed so much, and I felt like I didn’t really fit anywhere,” Jesse says.
Then something happened. In 2018 Jesse was spending some time in West Virginia with his friend and touring associate Jake Rosswog when the two got drunk together and Rosswog persuaded him to record one of his new songs. “I saw that his writing had really grown in that two or three years,” said Rosswog, who became the galvanizing force behind the whole Juni Ata project.
“I certainly didn’t plan on ever doing anything with those songs,” says Jesse, but it was that one recording that got the ball rolling. When the two friends got back to Nashville, they started hatching plans for a full-length album. Jesse continued to write and polish songs for the effort, and Jake, who helped with some of the songwriting, started focusing on the big picture. As the project’s producer, Jake was able to enlist the support of Steve Cropper, the legendary Stax Records guitarist, who at the time was leasing RCA Studio C and agreed to come aboard for some additional production. “He was writing poetry and his true-life story,” Cropper said of Jesse’s songs.
“I learned so much from working with Steve Cropper,” Jesse says. “He really took the time to listen to what I was doing and weigh in.” From there Jesse and Jake recruited a cast of musicians and settled on Juni Ata as Jesse’s nom d’artiste. Initial tracking was conducted at RCA Studio C in 2018, and there was born the album Saudade, which is a word of Portuguese origin that is loosely translated as a “deep, emotional longing.”
The sound on Saudade is lush; one might even say it’s an organic, acoustic version of Phil Spector’s Wall-of-Sound, and it forms the perfect vehicle for conveying the yearnings within the music. Before recording began, Jesse was thinking that he’d simply perform solo acoustic in the studio, because that is what he’d always done, but Jake had different ideas. “The wall of sound was all Jake’s vision,” says Jesse, “so I could just go in there and focus on the words and the story, and everything else orbited around that.”
The melodies on Saudade are instant earworms, but they are natural and fresh — none of them register as programmatic, though they do come with some radio-ready hooks. If there is any precedent to the sound of Saudade, it might be the work of ’90s bands like Travis and Keane if they were coupled with the melodic dexterity of a singer-songwriter such as Michael Penn.
Opening the album is “Philadelphia,” a song about finding the strength to move on, which sets the tone for the rest of the story. The following track, “Fight Hard, Run Fast,” explores the fight-or-flight instincts that come with the arrival of life-changing events.
Many of the songs deal with downtrodden themes, yet the music is filled with a vibrant buoyancy, coming off like a deep kiss to the possibilities of life. “All My Tomorrows (Are Mondays)” recalls prime-era Ron Sexsmith, while the get-up-and-go of “Good Enough Ain’t Bad” summons the FM radio anthems of Gin Blossoms. “Room With A View of A Room With A View,” which features vocal assists from Matthew Ryan and Madi Diaz, sports a slowly building orchestral crescendo and is one of the many album highlights. “Jesse has a way with words and seems lit by the real roots of music, the true music,” says Matthew Ryan. “With our culture as it is, and how often brand seems to come before soul, it was a good fire to see that. He’s got a bit of a Van Morrison thing about him.”
Saudade was recorded in the fall and winter of 2018 yet there were no initial plans for a release in 2020, and then Covid-19 hit. The entire touring industry was shut down and both Jesse and Jake were stuck at home, and Jake felt this was the perfect time to get Saudade out. He was absolutely right — it is the right album for the moment. After all, it’s an album that reckons with a decade of heartbreak and loss, and yet, it’s not a cry of defeat, for these are spirit songs, full of courage and catharsis, pointing to a better tomorrow.
— Caine O’Rear
Written for All Eyes Media.
When people first meet Daniel Donato, they’re not fully braced for this walking tornado of creative energy. “They think there’s something that tips the scale in ways they don’t understand,” says Donato about his over-the-top, slightly manic vibe. “But what actually tips the scale is the amount of thought and analysis I put into my work and art, all of which is taken from the lessons of my life.”
Donato, a 25-year-old Nashville native, has distilled those life lessons into his debut album, A Young Man’s Country, his proper introduction to the general musical audience. Recorded at Nashville’s Sound Emporium in a mere two days and produced by guitar-ace Robben Ford, the record weaves outlaw country, Grateful Dead-style Americana, and first-rate songwriting into a singular form Donato calls “cosmic country for the 21st century.”
It might surprise some that the Telecaster-wielding wunderkind, who at 16 became the youngest musician to regularly play the iconic honky-tonk Robert’s Western World while gigging with the Don Kelley Band, began his musical journey in a purely millennial fashion. Before he ever picked up a guitar, he discovered he had an aptitude for music via the video game Guitar Hero. At the time, he didn’t feel compelled to try his hand at the real thing until one day, about the age of 12, he heard the electric perfection of Guns ‘N’ Roses’ “Paradise City” blast from a set of speakers and his world was changed forever.
“It was the first time I ever had a vision for my life,” says Donato, who was partly drawn to music because he sucked royally at skateboarding. “I then took one of my dad’s old guitars…and I literally fell in love with it.” From then on, Donato lived and breathed music, practicing his chops around the clock. He’d play before school, during his lunch break, and in the evenings at home, sometimes falling asleep with the six-string in his hands.
It wasn’t long before he was busking on lower Broadway in Nashville, playing eight hours a day on weekends for tips. It was after one of those day’s sessions that he got a wild hair and snuck into Robert’s on a night when house act the Don Kelley Band was playing and his wig-dome was blown. “It was the first time I ever saw a band that was that good up close,” Donato said. “So I’m literally watching them play and I’m crying. I decided right then that I wanted to be the best guitar player in the world.”
Donato continued busking outside arenas before John Mayer and Phish concerts and on the streets of Nashville and it was then, while playing on Broadway, that he’d give Don Kelley his business card every Saturday night, hoping for a chance to audition. One day, while still a junior in high school, he got the call to come play. Donato was more than ready, and he delivered the goods in spades. He was so good, in fact, that he became a regular member of the band, performing four nights a week for more than 450 shows with the group.
Playing nightly with the Don Kelley Band was a formidable education for the young musician. Jamming regularly with Nashville’s most seasoned players, stalwart pickers who may have played in Buck Owens’ band, or Dolly Parton’s, or Alan Jackson’s, expanded his musical vocabulary while honing his stage presence. Along the way he was soaking up stories of adventures on the road and learning about the ups and downs of the music business. In short, he was gaining priceless life lessons and a musical education from wells that run deep into the musical history of Nashville.
Around the time he turned 18, one of Donato’s high-school teachers, a serious music lover who had seen his student play at Robert’s, gave him over 200 Grateful Dead live bootlegs and other live series releases. It was another eureka moment for the guitarist. His love for the Dead may have been ignited much earlier by virtue of the fact that his mother was a bona fide Deadhead who followed the group on tour when she was pregnant with the future guitarist, but it was that collection that changed the way he looked at music. “It gave me a tie to all of the classic country gold I’d been working down at the honky-tonks each weekend,” he said. “Grateful Dead and Merle Haggard had always lived in my heart, but now, the link was made, and I had a vision on how to keep it alive for this generation that I am coming from.”
During the days of his Robert’s residency, Donato continued to busk at various locales, even playing the Grand Ole Opry, and it is the sum of all these gigs, experiences any teenage musician would kill for, that inform the sounds on A Young Man’s Country.
“Ain’t Living Long Like This,” one of three covers on the album, is a song by Waylon Jennings, who was recording at the Sound Emporium the day Donato was born. “Angel From Montgomery,” a song Donato learned on the fly while busking for tourists, pays tribute to the late John Prine. Donato recorded his unique take on the tune before Prine’s death. The Grateful Dead’s “Fire On The Mountain” is tacked on to “Meet Me In Dallas,” a tune Donato wrote while on the road with Paul Cauthen. The other seven songs, all originals, showcase the promise of a young songwriter coming into his own, one of the highlights being “Luck of the Draw.”
The message of these songs contains the central tenet of Donato’s “Cosmic Country” ethos, which is about finding the courage to blaze your own path. As such, it is an ethos the artist extends beyond music into the channels of social media, where he’s built up a huge following of devoted “DD Heads,” as his fans call themselves. His podcast, “Daniel Donato’s Lost Highway,” brings together like-minded creatives to get at the heart of what makes artists tick, for which he’s interviewed Brothers Osborne, Brent Cobb, Orville Peck, and Garry Tallent of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.
Incubated to the sounds of the Dead, educated by some of Nashville’s finest players, and having more than 2,000 shows under his belt and a social media presence, Daniel Donato is indeed a millennial whirligig of creative fire. He’s been dabbling in professional music since the age of 14 and yet he’s just getting started. A Young Man’s Country is the portrait of a restless artist as a young man, one whose story is singular and is still in its exciting, early chapters – and as this effort shows, the future is indeed cosmic.
— Caine O’Rear
A writer, naturalist, and filmmaker, Ben Raines has been reporting on environmental affairs in Alabama for most of this century. As a former journalist for the Press-Register, he served as our region’s foremost environmental watchdog. Since leaving the paper, he has worked in film, authored books and scientific papers, and served as the executive director of the Weeks Bay Foundation, an environmental non-profit. His 2017 documentary about an ancient underwater cypress forest in the Gulf of Mexico, The Underwater Forest, was broadcast on public television, and other footage he’s shot has appeared on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic TV. In 2018, Raines made history when he discovered the remnants of the Clotilda, the last American slave ship, at the bottom of the Mobile River near Twelve Mile Island.
On December 12, Raines will release his latest offering to the world, Saving America’s Amazon, via New South Books. The book, which includes a foreword by eminent biologist and Mobile native E.O. Wilson, examines the rich biodiversity of the Mobile River Basin (a.k.a. “America’s Amazon”) and the environmental threats it faces as a result of pollution, increased development, and unscrupulous decisions by industry and elected officials. Yet despite a poor environmental record, Alabama still boasts more species per square mile than any other state.
Read my discussion with Raines over at Mobile Baykeeper.
I recorded an audiobook for Victor Cabas’s Postmodern Blues in 2020. You can stream the book on Bandcamp.