2013 Albums of the Year (Part 1)

In a departure from our usual format, today we are going to recap some of the records we particularly enjoyed this year, many of which contain not a single train song. This makes no claim to be a definitive list – we listen to an assortment of music that in no way is comprehensive or systematic in its approach. This is the first in a series of year-end posts grouped roughly by genre. Today let’s cover some choice selections from the alt.country/americana side of the spectrum.

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Jason Isbell – Southeastern
We’ve been fans of Isbell’s work for a long time – indeed many of our favorite Drive-By Truckers songs (“The Day John Henry Died,” “Decoration Day,” “Outfit,” etc…) were Isbell creations. Southeastern is a powerful step forward for him, full of songs that hit the listener straight in the gut. As a testament to his songwriting skills, he shifts effortlessly between characters as diverse as a friend of a cancer patient, a 19th century brigand, and semi-autobiographical tales dealing with his newfound sobriety.

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Futurebirds – Baba Yaga
Few bands evoke the sense of murkiness of the South, and the weirdness at the margins of this seemingly straight-laced region, than this group out of Athens, Georgia. A proper heir to the southern gothic-laced sounds of early R.E.M., or perhaps an example of what My Morning Jacket would have sounded like if they soldiered on in the vein of their early records, and kept the reverb dial turned up to 11. This one is more of a slow boil, and more of a grower than their impressive first record. So come for the immediately striking atmosphere, and stay for revelations of stunning moments like the second half of “Dig.”

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Mount Moriah – Miracle Temple
Boasting what is probably our favorite album cover of the year, this North Carolina group’s sophomore record builds on the successes of their 2011 self-titled debut. Twisting and turning guitar lines from the mastermind behind one of our favorite metal groups Horseback, merge with melodic bass work, and the compelling vocals of front-woman Heather McIntyre, who first cut her teeth in the punk scene. The flaming barn on the front is a perfect encapsulation of band’s musical and lyrical tension between Old and New Souths. Perhaps this group resonates so strongly with us because the members have walked a similar path of musical growth – from metal/punk/heaviness to rural-inflected americana. Or maybe its just our move – “Swannanoa” in particular has been on repeat since our relocation to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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Austin Lucas – Stay Reckless
Yet another punk-Americana hybrid, Lucas has made a smooth shift from hardcore to acoustic bluegrass, and on the new record he turns up the electric guitars (with the help of backing band Glossary). Great stuff and a nice step forward in Lucas’s sound.

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Doc Feldman & the LD50s – Sundowning at the Station
The buzz on this one by some bloggers I follow, was so heavy I had to check it out, and the hype is well-deserved. Utter bleakness translated into acoustic musical misery. Its not for the faint of heart, but its hard to find a better soundtrack to

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Divided & United: Songs of the Civil War
We realize that as a music-obsessed 19th century historian we fall squarely within the target demographic for this one. But the care that went into curating this collection and the skillful execution should give this resonance outside the historical profession. Its a diverse set of songs, encompassing multiple viewpoints of the war, and performed by a variety of artists, including some real heavy hitters. Put this on and spend an hour or two in the 1860s. Sam Amidon’s “Wildwood Flower” and Old Crow Medicine Show’s rousing rendition of “Marching through Georgia” are immediate standouts, but the whole collection is even more powerful in one full run-through.

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Amanda Shires – When You Need a Train it Never Comes

Amanda Shires and her husband Jason Isbell have certainly been on a tear as of late, both releasing critically acclaimed albums that are deservedly bringing their talents to a wider audience. Isbell has already been featured here for “The Day John Henry Died,” one of my all-time favorites, and months after its release, I still cannot stop listening to his new album Southeastern. In light of the release of her excellent new album last week, it seemed worthwhile to revisit a great train song from Shires’s last LP, Carrying Lightning.

For Mississippi blues artists, departing trains formed the conduit of the Great Migration, and the trains that appeared in blues songs often symbolized escape from the repression of the Jim Crow South and the hope of a better life up north. Of course, there is a darker side to a leaving train, as this blog has featured a whole host of southbound trains carrying away lovers and causing romantic destruction. “When You Need a Train it Never Comes,” is a sly inversion of this usual train song trope. In this case the narrator waits desperately for a train that never comes, and the absence of a train speaks to the trapped situation the narrator has found herself in. Beyond playing with this classic theme, the song is a veritable railyard full of train imagery – from Shires dreaming she “was tied to a train track, twisting in the sun” to the noise of the train itself, which distracts from the screaming thoughts and haunting voices of a relationship gone south, and to the reference of the historic transcontinental Union Pacific.

Every Americana artist worth their salt needs a good train song, and its safe to say Shires nails her rendition of the genre. Cleverly written songs like this, which invokes a long lineage of train songs and railroad imagery, are why Shires has been rising to the top of the Americana heap. Though her new record Down Came the Doves is sadly bereft of train songs, it continues in this tradition of smart and powerful songwriting so check it out if you’re into this kind of stuff.

Drive-By Truckers – The Day John Henry Died

I have been on a major Jason Isbell kick lately, mostly because I’m gearing up for his new solo record Southeastern, which comes out next month.  If the advance singles for this are any indicator (here is a particularly poignant new track streaming at Garden & Gun), its going to be one hell of an album.  So in honor of this recent Isbell binge, today we have one of my all-time favorite train songs. Before his illustrious and productive career as a solo artist with his backing band the 400 Unit, Isbell was an integral piece of the Drive-By Truckers line-up that cranked out classic after classic in the early 2000s.  Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day and The Dirty South, stand as a three-album run unmatched in quality by hardly any other band. Part of the strength of these albums comes from the triple-threat songwriting prowess of Isbell, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley.  The three frontmen traded off songs on Truckers albums, though the Isbell ones always were my favorites.

As someone obsessed with trains, it should thus come as no surprise that The Day John Henry Died is my all-time favorite Drive-By Truckers song.  Written by Isbell, its off of The Dirty South and like much of the Truckers repertoire, it deals with the dark underbelly of the South. The legend of John Henry, the convict laborer literally worked to death while digging a railroad tunnel in West Virginia, fits right in with the bootleggers, crooked lawmen, feuding families, deadbeat fathers, and down-on-their luck working-class men and women that populate the Truckers’ world. The song is mostly a basic retelling of the John Henry legend, but there are so many great lyrical turns of phase in here I don’t know where to start. Isbell describes, “that big machine that ran on human hope and steam,” and he contrasts the plight of John Henry with the men who ran the railroad – “he knew the perfect way to hold a hammer, was the way the railroad baron held the deed.” In my day job, I study industrialization and the spread of capitalism in the 19th century south, and its hard to find a more poignant encapsulation of this sweeping historical transformation than the line “an engine never thinks about his daddy and an engine never needs to write his name.”

John Henry remains such a powerful figure in American culture for the way he speaks to these universal struggles of the industrial age. His story resonates for any worker displaced by mechanization, this century or the last, and for anyone who feels crushed by the weight of larger forces outside their control or beaten down by large corporations. Indeed, the last stanza of the song speaks to the modern day relevance of the John Henry story, as Isbell compares Henry’s saga to the plight of the modern-day musician, shipping across the country with no sleep to play a show in LA, and ground up by the gears of the music industry machine. Its also a story that speaks to the plight of the modern-day southern working class (“they changed the way his job was done, labor costs were high”) – a common topic of the Drive-By Truckers discography.

Despite the tragic subject matter, I have always found the song to be uplifting. Perhaps this is due to the universality of the John Henry story – we have all at one time felt crushed by the machine of modern life. The fact that the song also rocks really hard, with a driving drumbeat, and the always-excellent guitar heroics of the Truckers, also helps lend an element of hope to this sad tale.

This live acoustic version is also pretty good. Without the backing band takes on a more mournful tone, which changes the tone of the song, but I think it fits well. Sadly, the song never made it into the setlist in the two times I have seen Isbell live in Gainesville. Incidentally, in this version Isbell says the song was written after the death of his grandfather, which lends another layer of meaning to this excellent song.