Song Challenge Week 23 — A Song You Want Played At Your Wedding

The latest entry in my 30 Day Song Challenge weekly project.

Song Challenge Week 23 — A Song You Want Played At Your Wedding

“Witness to Your Life,” Lori McKenna

Have you ever noticed that I really like hedging on these things? I mean, like, almost every single one I start by saying how there’s not really a real answer, but I’ll provide some sort of context in order to give some sort of response. How many times have I just said, “It’s this”?

So, anyway, a song to play at my wedding.

I had a wedding, once. The music was pretty traditional wedding-y music. I remember more the song that wasn’t played. Nicole really wanted to play Shania Twain’s “You’re Still The One” (we got married all of 13 months after our first date. But it was a long 13 months, I guess) but I was deadset that there would be no country music played at my wedding. Oh, sure, she wanted the pop version of the song, but, dang it, Shania Twain’s a country singer, and it’s not going to happen.

In the last few years, I’ve been to concerts by Lady Antebellum a couple of times, Sugarland a couple of times, Tim McGraw, Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Trace Adkins, Sara Evans, etc. etc. etc. But it was something then I wasn’t willing to budge on.

If I had it to do over again, I might handle it differently.

If I had it to do over again, I would handle a lot of things differently.

I’ve thought a few times since then I was going to have another wedding. There was the time we were going to have a Braveheart wedding at an outdoor mall. Or the time I was going to perform the service.

My favorite idea is still the one where I send out invitations asking people what they want to do in the wedding so that nobody was offended. The problem with that one is that it requires someone else who also wants that wedding.

So, getting back to hedging, the song kind of depends on the wedding, you know? I don’t know that the same music would fit all those weddings.

But to pick something to honor the request: Lori McKenna’s “Witness To Your Life”

It starts with a wedding — “Someone was crying and the bells ring” — and is still one of the most beautiful promises of partnership I’ve ever heard — “YOu should never have to be alone, someone will always call you home…

“… and I will be that witness to your life.”

Review — Lori McKenna, “Massachusetts”

lori mckenna massachusetts

Two years ago, singer/songwriter Lori McKenna released an album titled “Lorraine.” The title — her given name and that of the mother who died when she was young — captured the personal nature of the album. McKenna here was telling stories that were intimately her own, baring emotions that were clearly heartfelt.

The choice of title for McKenna’s latest release, “Massachusetts,” might seem a little more opaque at first; the album doesn’t make direct reference to the state. But in choosing to name her sixth full-length album after her home, McKenna is making a similar statement to the one made by “Lorraine” — if the last album were personal to Lori McKenna’s life, this one is deeply personal to Lori McKenna the artist.

“Massachusetts” is the work of a singer/songwriter at the height of her powers. Appropriately enough, in “Massachusetts,” McKenna is truly at home. The album is a celebration of who she is as an artist.

A prolific songwriter, McKenna is also a prodigious collaborator. Incredibly talented on her own, she loves the shared experience of writing with others who share her passion. With “Massachusetts,” she embraces that, including contributions from favorite writing partners.

After three “Nashville albums,” McKenna comes back home with the production of “Massachusetts,” as well, which was produced by long-time collaborator and fellow Massachusettsian Mark Erelli in a barn studio.

The result strikes a middle ground between her last two full-length albums. After the polished, major-label Nashville production of “Unglamorous,” the often beautifully sparse “Lorraine” highlighted McKenna’s distinctive voice. “Massachusetts” features arrangements that are richer and fuller than “Lorraine,” but still have a rawer edge than “Unglamorous.” The music here provides a complement to McKenna’s vocals while still allowing her voice to soar above them.

And, of course, McKenna is very much at home in the songs she’s written for this album. McKenna loves creating songs that make her listeners feel something — a task for which both her voice as a writer and her singing voice are ideally suited — and her favorite way of doing that is through gut-wrenching heartbreak.

“Massachusetts” showcases just how adept McKenna has become at doing that in a variety of ways. While both the opening track, “Salt,” and “Make Every Word Hurt” draw from the demise of a broken relationship, they evoke very different emotional landscapes — the plaintive heartache of “Make Every Word Hurt” is a far cry from the rousing pride of a woman leaving a man not “worth the good advice written on a dirty bathroom stall.”

Love and loss take a different form in “Susanna,” the tale of a widower making his way through the world when “there’s nothing down here for the left behind but a bed too big and too much time.” In McKenna’s hands, there’s a beauty even in the sadness, a sweetness in the sorrow.

Home does get a nod in “Smaller and Smaller,” a wistful tribute to a community whose spirit is diluted in the inevitable march of progress but not quenched; a story being played out in towns around the country.

There is light in the darkness, sometimes peering through the cracks and sometimes on full display. On those occasions when Lori McKenna writes a love song, it tends to be every ounce as raw and genuine as her sad songs. “How Romantic Is That” — which, like “Make Every Word Hurt” has sat on a shelf for years awaiting release — is one of the best examples of that, incredibly honest and incredibly touching.  And then there’s “Better With Time,” which offers a similarly unvarnished celebration of the joys of a shared journey of years together, the comfort that comes from the sort of familiarity that just seems to belong.

And ultimately that’s not an inapt metaphor for the album; wherever you’re from, at least some part of “Massachusetts” is going to feel like home.

Song Challenge Week 16 — A Song You Used To Love But Now Hate

OK, I started this quite a while back and then dropped the ball, but I’m going to try picking up the 30 Day Song Challenge again as a weekly project.

Song Challenge Week 16 — A Song You Used To Love But Now Hate

“Sway,” The Perishers

Hate’s an awfully strong word.

To be honest, while I’m sure there are songs I used to love but now hate, I really can’t think of any.

But can think of a group of songs that fairly quickly fell from “can’t listen to them enough” to “don’t listen to them.”

I encountered The Perishers a few years ago; if I recall, through a free iTunes download and through an excellent duet with Sarah McLachlan on their song “Pills.” From those introductions, I downloaded a couple more of their albums, and liked them OK.

And then came my divorce, and their mopey collection largely of failed/failing relationship songs provided a handy sonic and emotional landscape for where I was at the time. The Perishers started popping up on Facebook and elsewhere when I listed my favorite musical acts.

Time passed, as it does. And healing gradually came, as it does. And the mopeyness subsided, as it does.  And The Perishers started disappearing from my usual playlists.

Eventually, I came across one of their songs, and realized it had been forever since I’d heard it. And, to be honest, I probably skipped it.

Which is nothing against the band. Their music is great stuff, and really resonated with me for a time. It’s just that today, they still really resonate with that time. And it’s not that I don’t want to think about that time, or something.

It just amuses me to remember being that mopey. I mean, a divorce is a hard thing to go through, and depressed emotions are part of the game.

But, wow, that’s some saccharine mopeyness there.

Song Challenge Week 17 — A Song That You Hear Often On The Radio

OK, I started this quite a while back and then dropped the ball, but I’m going to try picking up the 30 Day Song Challenge again as a weekly project.

Song Challenge Week 17 — A Song That You Hear Often On The Radio

“How Far We’ve Come,” Matchbox 20

It’s sad, really, how long it took me to figure it out.

They went high-tech this year at Santa’s Village. To have the same Christmas music playing throughout the Village, they hooked an mp3 player up to a small radio transmitter. Boomboxes were then placed in various spots where people would be spending time. The mp3 player was, of course, filled with Christmas music. Thus, the same songs were playing everywhere, and it was a long enough mix of music that visitors weren’t going to keep hearing the same song. Ingenious.

Save that on the first or second day, I’m walking through the Village with one of the EarlyWorks managers, and we notice that the song that’s playing is definitely not Christmas music. It’s easy for a transmitter/radio combo to get out of sync, so we adjusted the dial in tiny increments until it finally went back to playing Christmas music.

The next day, same thing. Walking through, one of the radios, instead of playing Christmas music, was playing a pop song instead. This radio has a digital tuner, so it’s clearly set to the right frequency. The manager’s there again, and suggests adjusting the antenna. Apparently there’s a radio station on that frequency that the radio is picking up over our broadcast. I play with the frequency, and, sure enough, get it back on Christmas music.

The same thing happens fairly often, and it makes no sense why. Then I noticed something — it was always the same song. You’re walking along, Christmas music is going, and then all of a sudden, one of the radios is playing Matchbox 20’s “How Far We’ve Come.”

I’m just glad that I didn’t get a chance to share my theory that, for some reason, the signal of that song was particularly suited for overpowering our radio transmitter before someone told me that the song had accidentally been left on the mp3 player when the Christmas music was loaded.

On the flip side, after days of non-stop Christmas music, “How Far We’ve Come” is now the favorite song of several Santa’s Village workers for the brief break it provided.

Addendum: I hadn’t actually seen the video for this song until I was embedding it in this post just prior to posting it, and it turns out it’s all space-riffic, winning bonus points.

Song Challenge Week 14 — A Song That No One Would Expect You To Love

OK, I started this quite a while back and then dropped the ball, but I’m going to try picking up the 30 Day Song Challenge again as a weekly project.

Song Challenge Week 14 — A Song That No One Would Expect You To Love

“Alla Luce Del Sole,” Josh Groban

Somebody asked me recently what kind of music I listen to. I had no idea.

At this point, I really couldn’t say. If I have a norm, I’m not sure what it is. I could tell you things I don’t like, but not really any unifying guides for what I do. (Save that, in general, the artists I like, regardless of genre, tend to be songwriters.)

Without a grasp of the rules, I don’t know the exceptions. I asked Rebecca, and none of her surprising songs seemed surprising at all — Shawn Colvin’s cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” any Indigo Girls, “Lose Yourself” from 8 Mile. “Crazy” (the original at least) and “Lose Yourself” were big hits, and everybody in college when I was knew Indigo Girls.

So for the sake of argument, I’m going with Josh Groban. To some, it might be seem less surprising — I wouldn’t be shocked to discover people would be less surprised by the high-brow stuff than all the low-brow stuff I like, but there you. But, to me, Josh Groban is a women’s singer, and so liking one of his non-English songs seems kind of outlying to me.

And, after all, the only Tenacious D song I would actually post on my blog is too mainstream to qualify.

Song Challenge Week 11 — A Song From Your Favorite Band

OK, I started this quite a while back and then dropped the ball, but I’m going to try picking up the 30 Day Song Challenge again as a weekly project.

Song Challenge Week 11 — A Song From Your Favorite Band

“Jenny Says,” Cowboy Mouth

I don’t have a lot of favorite bands.

Most of my favorite acts are solo artists. Don’t know why, that’s just the way it is.

Every once in a while, a band sneaks through the filter. U2 is probably the elder statesmen of bands I like, not the first, but probably the band with the most staying power on my favorites list.

In the last couple of years, some country acts have made the list — Sugarland and Lady Antebellum come to mind.

But my favorite band? I’d have to say that, at the moment, that honor belongs to Cowboy Mouth. I love their music, and I greatly love seeing them live. It’s more than a concert, it’s an experience.

So, I’m going with Cowboy Mouth for favorite band, which pretty much makes “Jenny Says” the song.

Song Challenge Week 9 — A Song You Can Dance To

OK, I started this quite a while back and then dropped the ball, but I’m going to try picking up the 30 Day Song Challenge again as a weekly project.

Week 9 — A Song You Can Dance To

“Twiggy Twiggy,” Pizzicato Five

I know how I first heard “Twiggy Twiggy.” I have no idea why.

My senior year at Ole Miss, my roommate Jay Morris started doing a show on the  student radio station, 92.1 Rebel Radio. Helping him with the show, “The .88 Magnum Radio Hour,” was our friend, Lain Hughes, who had previous DJ experience.

I have no idea how they came across “Twiggy Twiggy.” I assume it was part of the station’s collection, which, belonging as it did to a college radio station, included many many unusual things. But what caused them to find it in the first place and then prompted them to put it in the CD player, I haven’t a clue.

But they did, and discovered that it lent itself well to dancing wackily around the studio. Lain and Jay playing the song and dancing became a regular feature of the show.

And thus, to this day, the song makes me want to dance in a silly manner, which is good, since that’s the only manner in which I’m capable of dancing.

Fire Flew From His Fingertips — Another CDB Exegesis

In the arena of contemporary music, a lot of fluff exists.

Let’s face it, there are a lot of songs recorded in the last 75 or so years that serve no purpose beyond mindless entertainment.

But then, there are the songs with depth, the songs that mean something, the songs that beg to be analyzed and discussed.

Songs like “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.”

I would hope you’re familiar with this American classic. But, if you’re not, you should be. Take this moment to listen to the video below. I’ll wait.

OK, welcome back. Don’t you feel better now?

I’ve read any number of good analyses of the song, like this post looking at the silliness of the bet and disputing the outcome. Or this one that, at greater length, reviews the performances of the two competitors, and also concludes that the devil won.

I’ve dipped my toe into those waters before myself, in a post in which I argued that the golden fiddle was just a loss leader to win more souls.

But I had the song stuck in my head the other day, and had a different thought.

Maybe the point wasn’t really about the bet at all. Maybe the song is really all about artisanship, about integrity.

Because it’s true — it’s hard to make a case that Johnny’s overall performance was indisputably that much better than the devil’s. I mean, really, enough that THE DEVIL, lord of evil, would just say, without contest, without any other judge, that Johnny had won? It’s hard to buy.

Maybe the devil was just his own harshest critic. He clearly took his fiddle playing seriously and was proud of his skill. Maybe, in that contest, he realized he wasn’t where he wanted to be with his playing. Maybe he’d gotten complacent. The overall performance was great, to be sure, but maybe Satan realized he’d become too dependent on his band of demons. No doubt they were a great combo at hell banquets, but the contest was supposed to be purely about the one-on-one fiddle playing, and the devil’s calling in his session musicians. That’s fine if it’s about the musical end result, but if it’s supposed to be about pure fiddle-playing virtuoso skills, it’s crap.

Maybe the devil gave Johnny the golden fiddle because he was disappointed in himself. I hope that after the song ended, the devil went back to hell, rosined up his bow, and started practicing again, playing purely for the love of the instrument, getting his skills back where he knew they should be.

And, after all, after that, you never hear about anyone else beating the devil in a fiddle contest.*

*Ignoring the, to me, non-canonical “The Devil Comes Back To Georgia,” which doesn’t really say what happened in the end anyway. The video is kind of awesome, though.

Review — Cowboy Mouth’s “This Train…”

Four years after their last album, “Fearless,” Cowboy Mouth is back, and very possibly better than ever.

With its tenth album, 20 years after its first, the band, with “This Train…” has captured in a single album a perfect Cowboy Mouth primer, capturing what the band is all about with songs that measure up with any they’ve recorded.

The album begins with the high-energy, rocking title track. While Cowboy Mouth is a excellent studio band, they are unparalleled as a live act, a fact that’s hinted at in this, the only live recording on the otherwise studio album. To be sure, it’s a restrained and focused live performance for the band, absent of lead singer and drummer Fred LeBlanc’s interplay with the audience, but its a recording that makes it easy to imagine that the song will become a cornerstone of Cowboy Mouth concerts for quite a while. Energetic and catchy, “This Train” is an instant Cowboy Mouth classic.

“Blues At Bay” is Cowboy Mouth at play, a creative and fun song that, as the title implies, brings in a blues-y feel while still remaining quintessentially Cowboy Mouth. While the two songs are very different, “When It Rains” does something similar, mixing in an exotic melody while keeping the Cowboy Mouth feel.

“All The Way To Austin” is the newest album’s proof that Cowboy Mouth are not only reigning masters of Southern rock, they’re darned proud of it.

“Be Alive Tonight” is as distilled a version of the Cowboy Mouth gospel as the band has ever recorded. The band’s concerts are not only a virtuoso musical performance, they are a call for the audience — the congregation — to celebrate life. “Be Alive Tonight” is the perfect altar call for that message.

“I Believe” is not a new song, having been included in the band’s last album, but it measures among their best, and the inclusion of the “This Train Version” of the song on this album just helps to secure its place as the perfect introductory Cowboy Mouth album for new listeners, and a modern masterpiece for long-time fans.

The album is currently available exclusively from the band’s web site for $5.99, and the band is currently on tour supporting it.

Radio Song

(From a prompt: “Do you ever listen to the radio anymore?”

Car Radio

Ah, radio. My old friend. We do have our moments, don’t we?

I tend to go through phases with radio. At times, I listen relatively frequently. Other times, I don’t listen at all.

My relationship with radio at this point is centered entirely around my car. I do not remember the last time I turned on the radio in my house. If the radio’s on, I’m driving. That’s all there is to it.

But even then, it varies from time to time. For the longest time, I had two or three radio stations that I listened to regularly. If I was in the mood for country or contemporary Christian, I was probably listening to the radio. If I wasn’t, I wasn’t.

In cars past, a lot of my driving time was spent listening to the iPod. My current car, unfortunately, was made in an unfortunate point for iPod-listening — too new to have a tape deck for an adapter, too old to have an audio input line to hook up to. I can listen to my iPod, but I have to do so through a radio transmitter, and that requires enough set-up time to be a commitment.

Which means, in this car, the choices are radio or CD, and that gets into a mood thing. The CDs are a known quantity. If I’m in the mood for one, I listen to it. If I’m not, I don’t.

The latest development in my love/apathy relationship with radio is the launch of Journey 93.3.

Back when I was in high school, 93.3 was one of the two leading rock/pop stations, and I listened to it frequently. Then it became the Possum, and at the time I had no interest in country, so it dropped off the dial as far as I was concerned. By a few years ago, it had changed a time or two since, and was a different country station, the Wolf. I was listening to country then, so I listened to 93.3.

And then, one day, I turned on the radio, and they were playing songs that had no place on the Wolf. The first one I thought was a fluke, but after the third one, I realized 93.3 had changed formats yet again.

Now, it’s what once would have been called a classic rock or oldies station, playing stuff that’s 10-30 years old.

Meaning that 93.3 is once again playing a lot of the same music it did when I was in high school. And, embracing the fact that I’m apparently officially old, I’m listening to it now just as happily as I did then.

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