Gregg Allman: The Long Rider

Gregg Allman is no stranger to the blues. As singer, songwriter and organ player for the Allman Brothers Band, he has taken them about as far as they have ever gone, stretching skeletal 12-string Piedmont finger picking into swirling chromatic rhapsodies of psilocybin-sopped improvisation, his Hammond B-3 sloshing against thundering double drummers, dueling Les Pauls howling through 100-watt Marshalls, conjuring electric ghosts of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bob Wills, Jimmy Smith, Elmore James, Willie McTell—hour after hour, night after night, show after show, mile after mile, year after year, decade after decade, death after death. That’s the blues. But, whatever, call it southern rock if you must. File it next to Sun Ra.

Just don’t look for it in the stripped-down Low Country Blues, Allman’s first solo album in 14 years, featuring covers of artists such as Otis Rush, Amos Millburn and Muddy Waters and one Allman original. Produced by T-Bone Burnett with his usual level of finesse and perspective, the carefully crafted collection genuflects before the greasy majesty of the originals, approaching them respectfully, in time and in tune, spaciously arranged by Allman and intuitively played by a crack band that includes the great Dr. John on piano, guitarist Doyle Bramhall II, bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Jay Belrose. From the popping Memphis r&b of Bobby Bland’s “Blind Man,” to the eerie acoustic blues of Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” and Sleepy John Estes’ “Floating Bridge,” to the tremolo-drenched west side soul of Chicago’s criminally overlooked Magic Sam, the album serves as a primer on some of the blues’ bedrocks and best kept secrets.

There was only one problem.

“I didn’t like none of ’em at first,” Allman says. “T-Bone Burnett had sent me a disc of all these different songs and said, ‘Pick some.’ So I did. And then I kept arranging and rearranging them until they all meant something to me. They’re just great old songs. They bring me back to when I first started playing music. That’s what my brother and I were listening to—right, left and in-between.”

Allman’s brother—the truly incomparable guitarist Duane Allman, who formed the Allman Brothers Band in Georgia and then insisted Gregg join them—died tragically in a motorcycle accident at just 24. It was not the first sudden, awful loss that Allman had experienced—his father was murdered when Gregg was just two years old—and it was far from the last. Allman Brothers’ bassist Berry Oakley also died in a motorcycle accident, one year and just three blocks from the scene of Duane’s crash. For Allman, there have been many hard years and countless struggles since, but the connection to his brother remains strong. Particularly at the sessions for Low Country Blues.

“My brother felt like he was there,” Allman says. “I don’t want to get too spiritual, but a lot of times I can really feel him. And there were times where it felt like he was right there in the studio. These songs are the roots of what the Allman Brothers play. Before they came up with that name Allman Brothers—which neither my brother or I liked—we were playing rhythm and blues together.”

Still, the sparse soul of Low Country Blues is very different from the dense jams of the Allman Brothers and the raucous genre they are credited with inventing.

“I am always ready to try something new,” Allman says. “I have an open mind like the Grand Canyon. And I don’t know who came up with that term southern rock, but dig it: There were four kings of rock and roll—two black, two white. Little Richard Penniman; Macon Georgia. Jerry Lee Lewis; Ferriday, Louisiana. Elvis Aaron Presley; Tupelo, Mississippi. And Chuck Berry, who was from St. Louis, but majority rules. Rock and roll and the blues were born in the South. So saying southern rock is like saying ‘rock rock.’ But on the other hand, it did give them a section to put us in. And though you’ve got all those rebel flag fliers there—ahem, we won’t mention any names—it’s not a bad section to be in. I’ve heard it so long, it is starting to fade out. The term. Not the music. The music still goes.”

–Ari Surdoval

The Black Keys: Sitting on Top of the World

Back last February when the Black Keys nabbed two Grammy Awards, it was one of those rare moments when the parallel musical universe—you know, the one that ought to be—allows a quick glimpse of itself in the blinding white klieg lights and crush of cameras before it slips back into the long shadows and small rooms where it is forever born and dying.

It was in one of those small rooms in Akron, Ohio, that the Black Keys—drummer Patrick Carney and guitarist Dan Auerbach—first came together in the late 90s.

“I had this fascination with four-track recorders when I was in high school,” Carney told NPR’s Terri Gross earlier this year. “And that’s how the band started. Dan was just starting to play guitar, and I was just starting to get into this four-track recorder I bought. And Dan knew I had a drum set I couldn’t play. And our brothers encouraged us to get together and jam.”

A few years later, when Carney had upgraded to a digital recorder he was learning to use, he invited Auerbach over again.

“Dan came over and the rest of the band didn’t show up,” Carney said. “And we decided to just record some stuff anyway. That day we made a six-song demo and we sent it around and got our first record deal.”

From there the Black Keys followed the grand tradition of almost all American rock and roll bands. They crisscrossed the country in a van, chipping fans from the monolithic slab of belligerent, disinterested drunks, living on the nickel, sleeping on floors, half Kerouac, half Black Flag. Most bands, if they’re lucky, break even at best, then break up when they can’t take it anymore. But the Black Keys didn’t give up. Instead, they got better. 

With each release—from their 2002 debut The Big Come Up, which combined the gritty minimalism of Mississippi’s Fat Possum blues artists with a big Zeppelin wallop and sludgy Nuggets-style interpretations of the Beatles and Taj Mahal, all the way to 2010’s Brothers, the one that earned them the Grammy wins—the Black Keys have dug deeper into their sound, their playing and their writing. Every year, they sound like a better version of themselves, anchored by Carney’s thunderous drumming and propelled by Auerbach’s grimy guitar and truly soulful vocals.

Along the way, the Black Keys have found a surprisingly prodigious demand for their music—not from radio, but from brands. At first, beleaguered by the worn-out and totally obsolete concept of selling-out, often perpetuated by people who have never tried to make a living as a musician, Auerbach and Carney were conflicted. They turned their back on small fortunes before they came to their senses and started saying yes.

To date, their music has been featured in ads for Cadillac, Victoria’s Secret, Zales and Subaru, among many others.

“We’ve probably done 25 pretty big TV ads and we have done a lot of movies as well,” Carney told NPR. “The first offer we ever had to have a song in commercial was from an English mayonnaise company, and they offered us a lot of money. Crazy money, especially at the time—it was insane.”

“We were touring,” added Auerbach. “But you have to keep in mind that we were touring in a mini van, just the two of us at that point. And then we got this offer for more money than our parents make in a year, combined.”

“And we were advised by our old manager that it wasn’t enough money and that we risked alienating all of our fan base in England, which at the time was maybe 5,000 people,” Carney continued. “And ruin our career and come off as a sell-out corporate rock band. And we were hearing this literally while we were driving around in a 1994 Plymouth Grand Voyager that smelled like pee, and going home to our modest apartments. And we were scared. We were 23 years old and we didn’t know what to do. So we passed on it. And more offers came in and they were passed on. And at certain point, we were like, why don’t we do one and see what happens? Because it was more money than we were making on a whole year of touring for one ad.”

“All we know is that it has helped us immensely,” Auerbach said. “Before ‘Tighten Up’ we had never had a real song on the radio. We didn’t have that support, and getting these songs in commercials was almost like having your song on the radio. ‘I’ll Be Your Man’ is the theme song to the HBO show Hung. That was from our very first record, and all of a sudden, when we went out on the road, people would light up when they heard that song. That record was how many years ago? And all of a sudden people were starting to react to this song because they heard it on TV. And we figured that must be what it is like to have your song on the radio.”

“A lot of people see a Nissan ad and they see a finished product in a record store or on iTunes and that’s the face of the band,” Carney says. “What they don’t see is that we made Brothers in a cinderblock building in the middle of nowhere in Alabama, with five microphones and a guitar amp and a drum set. I don’t know what that means, exactly, but I do know we didn’t spend a lot of money making this record, and it’s an honest way of approaching making music.”

–Ari Surdoval

Cee Lo Green: Love and Happiness

Profanity, schmofanity. When a singer as powerful and charismatic as Cee Lo Green comes out with an upbeat soul lament as catchy as “F–k You!,” no FCC indecency definitions are going to stop it. The strange saga of the global smash began last August, when just before the release of Green’s album “The Lady Killer,” the song popped up on YouTube in a low budget but strangely mesmerizing video—the lyrics, in large white kinetic type, rolling like modernized Mitch Miller against changing colored backgrounds.

Though nobody at Warner Bros. or Green himself had considered it as a single, for obvious reasons, the song instantly went viral, with more than 2 million views in the first week. Three minutes and forty-three seconds of glittering post-soul pop perfection, “F–k You!” sounds totally current and strangely classic at the same time, thanks to Cee Lo’s gritty Al Green phrasing and falsetto, the richly layered funk production, and of course, the F-sized dirty bomb that explodes just 13 seconds into the song. Boom!

With YouTube views of 8.5 million for the unofficial video, nearly 41 million views of the hysterically Technicolor official video, released two weeks later—and, worth noting, more than 150,000 views of someone’s sign language interpretation—it’s safe to say the song is a genuine, people-powered, new media–propelled hit. And that doesn’t even take into account the scrubbed but still great, and equally unstoppable, “Forget You” edit, which has garnered more than 3 million YouTube views, Billboard Top Ten status, certified Gold sales, a Gwyneth Paltrow cover version on “Glee” and—wait for it—Grammy nominations for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Urban/Alternative Performance and Best Short Form Music Video.

A mere 18 years into his career, Cee Lo Green is a bona fide overnight sensation, with the unlikeliest of hits.

“I’m definitely surprised,” Green laughs. “But not shocked. I’ve seen stranger things happen. I’ve seen a monkey ride a bicycle.”

The son of two ordained ministers, Green lost his father when he was 2 and was raised in Atlanta by his mother, who was paralyzed in a car accident when Green was 16 and died two years later. Having already discovered his distinctly powerful singing voice and his ability to compose rhymes while attending Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Georgia, Green sought refuge from the loss of his mother, and from the streets, in music.

Green formed the pioneering Southern hip-hop group Goodie Mob, releasing the critically acclaimed debut “Soul Food” in 1995. Green recorded two follow up albums with the band before recording a pair of ambitious, sprawling and acclaimed solo albums, “Cee Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections” and “Cee Lo Green … Is the Soul Machine.” Sales for both were modest and Green was dropped from his label.

Green went on to form Gnarls Barkley with DJ Danger Mouse, releasing the album “St. Elsewhere” in 2006, featuring the wildly popular single “Crazy.” The stark lyrics, delivered with Green’s plaintive and pained vocals—“I remember when I lost my mind / There was something so pleasant about that place / Even your emotions have an echo in so much space / Does that make me crazy?”—yielded an unexpected hit. The group offset the somber material with a flair for costume and comedy live. A performance at the 2006 MTV Movie Awards dressed as Star Wars characters (with Green as Darth Vader) gave a taste of the new possibilities offered by viral digital success. But for Green, it was a difficult time.

“I wasn’t able to enjoy the success of ‘Crazy’ that much,” Green says. “We created that album from a dark place emotionally. I was going through a lot when we were recording that. I was getting a divorce. I didn’t have a deal. We did those records out of pocket, independently, so there was something very urgent about it. But that sense of necessity and urgency caused it not to be as pleasant. This has been much more joyful.”

The period leading up to “The Lady Killer” found Green in much different spirits. He wrote more than 70 songs for the album, on his own and through collaborations, honing the collection down to create the album’s air of cinematic, funky happiness.

“’The Lady Killer’ is my directorial debut,” Green says—which makes its success that much sweeter for him. “Everybody thinks the title refers to me. But the title refers to the album itself, and the sound I was going for—edgy and elegant at the same time. It is a celebration, of life and love and youth and second chances. For it to succeed at this magnitude, as an extension of the positive space that I am in, is so gratifying.”

It also reflects the openness and universality he strives for.

“There are things that can only be communicated in song,” Green says. “Harmony and melody are very unbiased. They’re open to all. Everyone is welcome with a wonderful melody. So I’ve always had a desire to pair that type of sentiment and song together. And when I learned I was able to do that, everything began to feel very purposed and intentful—for my music and for my life.”

–Ari Surdoval

Jerry Lee Lewis: Great Ball of Fire

Against all conceivable odds, expectations, predictions, rumors, gossip and reason, Jerry Lee Lewis is 75 years old. He still sounds like he could hit the key of a piano with his pinky harder than most men could hit it with their right fist. His legacy—a smoldering trail of mayhem and musical masterpieces that stretches from here to Ferriday, Louisiana—was forged with the scorching barrelhouse piano and Pentecostal brimstone holler with which he has haunted and taunted country music and rock and roll for five decades. Slandered by scandal, hobbled by addiction, and fueled by a defiance that borders on vengeance, Jerry Lee has lived to stand his ground in the 21st century, playing the same music he has played since 1956, daring you to dismiss it.

“Mean Old Man,” Jerry Lee’s new album—which follows 2006’s hugely successful “Last Man Standing,” and utilizes the same formula of pairing Jerry Lee with conventionally recognized superstars for a set of covers—is no I told you so. It’s just Jerry Lee doing what Jerry Lee has always done. It is loose, spontaneous country, rock and gospel, delivered by one of the last living inventors of rock and roll on the instrument he taught himself as a poor boy growing up a thousand years ago in the pre-War south. That’s all. And if at times today’s stars seem like mosquitoes buzzing around the head of a lion (Kid Rock on “Rockin’ My Life Away”) or a little campy (Mick Jagger’s Broadway drawl on the Stones’ fake country classic “Dead Flowers”), they are to be forgiven—even admired for their willingness to get in there and do it.

There was a famous argument between Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Phillips recorded at Sun Studios in 1957. Late one night, after a long session—the bottles had been opened and emptied—Phillips wanted the band to cut a song written by Jack Hammer and Otis Blackwell that he thought would be perfect for Jerry Lee. Jerry Lee refused. He heard evil in the lyrics; to sing them would be a sin. Just 22, he had been kicked out of Southwestern Bible College a few years earlier for playing boogie-woogie in chapel and had made his way to Phillips in Memphis under the absolutely outrageous but remarkably accurate assumption that anybody who could make a star out of Elvis Presley could make a star out of him too. By the time session engineer Jack Clement had the good temerity to hit record that night, Jerry Lee had begun to testify.

“H-E-L-L!” Jerry Lee spells, furious. “It says make merry with the joy of God. Only! But when it comes to worldly music, rock and roll, anything like that: You have done brought yourself into the world and you’re a sinner! And no sin shall enter there. No sin! It don’t say just a little bit. It says no sin shall enter there. Brother, not one little bit.”

The older Phillips tries to counter with a professorial differentiation between faith and extremism, arguing that you can play rock and roll and do good, help people—even save souls. Jerry Lee explodes.

“How can the Devil save souls?” he screams. “What are you talking about? Man I got the Devil in me! If I didn’t have, I’d be a Christian!”

The tape cuts off, but somehow, eventually, Jerry Lee relented and recorded the song. It was “Great Balls of Fire.”

The point being: The guest artists on “Mean Old Man” are singing duets with someone who believes his music has served the Devil—and has played it for 50 years anyway. Cut them some slack.

Still, the best moments on “Mean Old Man” come when nobody is trying to out-Jerry Lee Jerry Lee, including Jerry Lee himself. Everyone shines on the country numbers, which—like Lewis’ impeccable, chart-topping late-60s and early-70s renditions of classics like “Another Place, Another Time” and “What Made Milwaukee Famous”—teeter with weariness, regret and soul.

Jerry Lee’s cracking voice betrays the sadness and futility in “Middle Age Crazy” and Tim McGraw wisely lets the mournfulness hang in the air. “Swingin’ Doors,” his duet with Merle Haggard—two men that for public safety probably shouldn’t be allowed in the same city, much less the same room—is a lighthearted, Saturday night sigh of relief. And the unlikely pairing of Jerry Lee and Gillian Welch on the Eddie Miller country standard “Please Release Me” creates a rural church harmony that serves as one of the album’s true gems.

After a version of the Carter Family’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” that finds Jerry Lee trading verses and sharing choruses with soul powerhouse Mavis Staples, “Mean Old Man” ends with a solo performance of “Miss the Mississippi and You.”

It is a resonant ending. First, the Staples duet: country and gospel, black and white, blues and honky tonk, secular and spiritual, combining to pine for a better home in the sky; then, the man alone at the piano, singing softly into the darkness, like its his only comfort in the world.

–Ari Surdoval

Benny Blanco: Filling In Blanks

Benny Blanco, the 22-year-old songwriter and producer with the string of hits to his credit, is driving through Los Angeles talking about how he has always loved music. Since he was a kid growing up in suburban Virginia—you know, pulling out the stereo in the middle of his parents’ dinner parties to lip synch Prince songs, bugging his big brother to buy him the CDs with the Parental Advisory stickers, scribbling rhymes inspired by Eminem and Nas and dreaming up beats instead of paying attention in class, skipping school to—“wait, I don’t want to say too much,” he says, cutting himself off. “My mom is actually sitting right next to me. I’m taking her to the Video Music Awards.”


Now, if this were a Benny Blanco song, that would be the breakdown, where the song locks on a lyric and stops for a second, just long enough to make you say, wait, what? before kicking back in with a huge sticky synth candy hook that sounds like a bubblegum 747 running on Red Bull taking off into your skull.

You can hear Blanco’s touch—from additional production to co-production to co-writing—on Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” and “California Gurls” and “Hot n Cold,” Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” and “Blah, Blah, Blah” and “Your Love is My Drug,” Britney Spears’ “Circus,” and 3OH!3’s “Don’t Trust Me.” To name a few. But despite the string of hits, Blanco prefers talking about the artists he works with more than himself.

“When I go in to the studio with an artist who is just so good and so talented, all I do is just fill in the blanks and try to learn from everybody. Like, Ke$ha always does these really cool things with her voice, these little melodies that I try to do even when I’m not with her. And Katy Perry is such an incredible singer and such a good lyricist. They’re all so talented in such different ways. They teach you so much. I definitely don’t get into a room thinking I am better than anybody else. I just really like being with an artist and making music together.”

Half hustling, half self-effacing, Blanco started at just 13, pounding the social media pavement—MySpacing anybody he thought might give him a shot.

“I was hitting up everyone!” Blanco laughs. “I was e-mailing Polow Da Don. I was e-mailing Jimmy Iovine. I would write the dumbest e-mails. Nobody would ever reply. Except Disco D—he wrote back. I pretended I needed studio time. Then I got up there to meet with him and I was like, ‘I don’t really need studio time. I just want to work with you.’ So he listened to my stuff and he liked it. He said I could be his intern under one condition. He was going out of town and he said if I could book his studio for the whole three days, I was in. So I did.”

It was a big break, but not an easy one.

“It was horrible!” Blanco says, laughing. “He would take my CDs and break them! He would take my hard drive and erase everything on it and say ‘this is my hard drive now.’ One time, he threw my hard drive out the window and said start again. He definitely taught me a lot.”

Blanco stayed at the studio, running errands and doing scheduling, which eventually led to collaborations with Spank Rock and a deal with Downtown Records when he was just 18.

“It seemed to happen overnight,” Blanco says. “And I was totally happy and satisfied doing that. I was like, ‘I can do this for the rest of my life! Live on people’s couches! This is awesome!’ Then I had one publisher offer me a deal. My manager and I were both so new to the game. We didn’t know what a publishing deal was. All these people wanted to sign me, but I only had like two beats. I had two beats and one song and this album I did with Spank Rock. But I guess the stars just aligned. I didn’t know what was going on. I don’t even know what’s going on now! It’s just unexplainable.”

Well, maybe not totally unexplainable.

“I just want my stuff to sound like nobody else’s,” Blanco says. “Like you know those wine openers that look like a man doing jumping jacks? I was in the studio the other day and I used one of those, making it go woosh-woosh-woosh-woosh-woosh and it turned out to be a great part of the song. Or I’ll use one of those ‘Hava Nagilah’ keyboards, like the ones you got when you were a kid. I’ll use a VCR turning on, the kind that goes boop, you know? I’ll use anything. I hear music everywhere. There’s no stopping it.”

–Ari Surdoval

Allen Toussaint: The Insider

Nashville, 2010

Allen Toussaint—the producer, arranger, writer and regal living embodiment of New Orleans soul—sits alone at a piano onstage in the dark, empty theater. He plays leisurely, but he is focused and listening carefully. It is sound check and something isn’t quite right. The monitor is popping. To test it, Toussaint plays loudly.

“There’s a certain girl I’ve been in love with a long, long time,” he sings, the piano thundering in front of him. “What’s her name? Can’t tell you, no no.” Toussaint stops mid-song. He leans into the stage lights, his ringed hand above his eyes, peering out into the darkness for the soundman, who is adjusting levels on the board in the booth by the last row. He turns back to the keys, playing a soulful version of his “Southern Nights,” the 1977 No. 1 country hit for Glen Campbell. Then, a delicate minute of Duke Ellington’s “Solitude,” from Toussaint’s Grammy-nominated 2009 instrumental jazz album The Bright Mississippi. All this beauty, forty years of genius in just a few minutes, with hardly anyone here to hear it.

Toussaint stands and moves away from the piano as the soundman walks down the dark aisle to the stage to inspect the monitor. Toussaint’s road manager approaches. This might take a while. Toussaint smiles graciously, then walks through the wings and down the rickety stairs to the basement dressing room. He offers a bottle of water, motions towards a chair. He leans forward to greet the question, and then back as he takes it in. He sits quietly for a moment, thinking. Then, he answers.

I fell in love

“I grew up in a very humble neighborhood in New Orleans called Gert Town, full of shotgun houses and little single story doubles. Families lived side by side. The word ghetto was not thrown around then, so I’ll just say it was modest. After work in the evening, the old men in the neighborhood who had guitars would sit on their front porches and strum some old kind of bluesy song. There was lots of music everywhere, but I heard the radio first. I heard a lot of hillbilly music as a boy, which I love dearly. I grew up on that, and gutbucket blues. And my mother loved operas, so every Sunday, she played classical music on the radio, all day.

I started playing piano at age six. My parents bought one for my sister, and she didn’t take to it at all, but I loved it from as soon as I touched it. It wasn’t like picking up a trumpet for the first time. You touch a piano, you get the same thing out of it that the best pianists in the world get out of it. So I fell in love with this great big piece of furniture that was so kind to me at first touch. I fell in love! And I must say that early on I understood the structure of how it was set up. My sister was eight years old and she began taking piano lessons, and she was the first to show me that, ‘This E you are playing here is on the first line of the treble clef.’ And thus, theory started.”

Imitatin’ and emulatin’

“I was 15 when I first saw Professor Longhair. I was at a sock hop, a high school dance. This was before integration. I had been listening to him for years. I was already imitatin’ and emulatin’. When I saw him, he was playing a little Spinet piano. It looked like a toy. I had imagined him to be bigger than life. But I was totally awestruck. A couple years later, I saw him working as a stock room boy in One Stop Record Shop. I went to buy a record and they didn’t have it up front so they sent into the back to get it. And the guy who brought the box of records out into the store was Professor Longhair. It’s really weird to think that Professor Longhair was a stock room boy, but for some reason that didn’t matter to me. It was Professor Longhair! I left that store feeling very good.

I was around 19 when we actually hooked up and played together. The way he sounded on record is the way he talked, with that gravelly voice. And he took his music as seriously as the most serious classical musician. With the raggedy playing most of us do, a little mistake doesn’t matter much. But for him, to make a mistake was pretty bad. And it sounds like he is just wobblin’ all over the place, but he was always playing something in particular. He’s not just throwing it around to see where it sticks. He is sticking it wherever he wants it to stick.

He had a whole Professor Longhair way of life, in terms of philosophy and ideology and even vernacular, the way he talked. Music is about what’s going on inside you. All music can be written on paper. It really can. Everything can be written on paper—gravity forces, things out in the universe, even Professor Longhair’s music. But there is something that lives inside the people who are playing music. And the guys who let it live inside of them know it better than the people who are just trying to crowd the world with it.”

Just having a good time making music

“I love Fats Domino. He was inescapable for everyone in the world, and we were glad and proud he was from New Orleans. We all played the Fats Domino songs, because they were popular, and he had a formula that was easy to imitate. See, the doowop groups played the triplets—tink, tink, tink—up here. But in New Orleans, we played the triplets down here. That’s a big difference.

So we all played Fats Domino, but when Fats sat down and played, we all went, “Oh! That’s how it’s supposed to really go!” Dave Bartholomew called me in to play on a couple Fats Domino records and I played on three songs like Fats would have played. One of the highest compliments in my life was eight months later, after the record had been out for a while, Fats told me one day, ‘I don’t know whether that is you or me!’

There was no way for us to know the impact we were having. For one thing, most of us were just having a good time. I was 15, 16, 17 when me and Dr. John, Mac Rebennack, were playing in the studio. He was always playing guitar. And I was just having a good time. And a little later on, I got to be in charge. I wasn’t just a sideman. I was really calling the shots, but still just having a good time and making music, with no idea the impact it would have on the world.

When ‘Mother in Law’ became a hit, I didn’t pay any attention to it. We lived the same way every day. We were just doing what we were doing, and it was out there. And I would hear every now and then, ‘Oh, it’s doing really good.’ And I sort of knew it was out there, but me and Willie Harper and Calvin LeBlanc and all of us, we would all be in the same room the next day, drinking Coca Cola and having potato chips and doing some more songs, with Irma Thomas or someone else. Irma Thomas was the only girl in that room with us. And like the rest of the artists, I would write a song for her, or whoever was in there, Aaron Neville or Benny Spellman or whoever else, and then we would record it just like it was. Just like that. We did the same thing every day. I felt a very special connection to the artists I worked with, but I didn’t pay much attention to what happened after the record left us.”

We never tried to keep up with any America

“I haven’t ever lived anyplace else, but I’ve always thought that in America, these special pockets are everywhere. There is something very special happening in Memphis. And there is something very special happening in Nashville. And in Texas. But I do know we feel very special in New Orleans as well and very tight knitted. I think one thing that has held New Orleans closer to each other than some other places is our stubbornness about the pace we move at.

We never tried to keep up with any America, or how fast things were going, or how big the amps were getting. We like the acoustic world very much, and I think the brass bands have something to do with that. When you march up and down the street, that has to be acoustic, of course. So we have stayed closer to an earthier concept than some other places that plugged into the big hum. And I’m not saying that is better or worse. It’s nice to have all these different gardens in America, and New Orleans is one of them. And I am glad that I was fortunate enough to be from that one.

Today, New Orleans is great. New Orleans is up for the task. The guys are in front of Jackson Square right now, jamming, and the trombone is sliding and the hat is on the ground with some dollars in it and they can have a second line band parade any time. In fact they had one a few days ago. We are up for it and the spirit is very high. The spirit didn’t get drowned. The spirit got baptized. Very solid things got drowned, but not the spirit of New Orleans. Everyone didn’t come back on the same train–never does. But everyone is coming back. One way or another.”

A knock on the dressing room door stops Toussaint mid-thought. The road manager walks in. Time’s up. Toussaint stands. He offers his hand. He walks up the stairs to the stage and takes his place at the piano. The monitor is fixed. Everything sounds great.

–Ari Surdoval

Mose Allison: Straight, No Chaser

Everybody quiet down for a second please. Turn off your cell phones and your BlackBerrys, logoff your Facebook and Twitter pages, hold that blog post, fold that laptop, stop and listen: The great Mose Allison has a new album out. Coaxed back into the studio by producer Joe Henry, the 82-year-old jazz pianist songwriting legend has recorded his first collection in ten years. Ten years! In this insufferably long moment of constant communication—all of us in love with the sound of our own digital voices, blathering our status every ten seconds—a stretch of silence like that is positively heroic. What could be a more appropriate response to a babbling world than keeping quiet, and who better than Mose Allison to deliver it? This is after all the man who wrote the 1976 classic “Your Mind is on Vacation”: “If silence was golden, you couldn’t raise a dime / Cause your mind is on vacation and your mouth is working overtime.”

It’s great to have Allison back, though, no matter how hard Henry had to drag him. Especially since The Way of the World, the sparse and spacious gem of a record, released March 23 on ANTI-, sounds just like a Mose Allison record. And bless Allison, Henry and ANTI- alike for resisting the pressure or temptation to have it any other way. The result is an album that, song after song, makes you shake your head and think, “Remember when music sounded like this?”

Allison surely does. In fact, he is one of the reasons it did. Since his first record in 1957, Allison has drawn from the music that surrounded him growing up in Tippo, Mississippi to weave a thread that connects American music from Delta blues through bebop to rock and roll. A widely and wildly influential songwriter, Allison has been covered and cited by everyone from the Who to the Yardbirds to Blue Cheer to the Clash to Eric Clapton to Bonnie Raitt to Elvis Costello to Ray Davies to the Pixies. There is something astounding about Allison’s ability to make plain the absurdity, frailty and insanity often referred to as being human in just a few lines of blues.

The Way of the World is no exception. If anything, time has sharpened Allison’s fascination and bemusement. He gives it to you straight, no chaser. With that great laconic deadpan, Allison effortlessly drawls lines like, “I know you didn’t mean it when you stole my coat / It just happened to be the logical one / I know you didn’t mean it when you slit my throat / You was just out with the fellas trying to have some fun.” He then mumbles and hums along just off mic as he delivers a swinging, delicate, improvised solo that recalls Thelonius Monk and Charles Brown. He follows it with the lines, “I know you didn’t mean it when you blew us up / You just happened to think it was a good idea / Ungrateful people tried to interrupt when you were just trying to make your viewpoint clear.”

Now that is something you don’t hear every day. Allison gives it to mankind right in the kisser like nobody else. But on a song like “I’m All Right,” he turns his attention closer to home with an intimacy carried by the kind of mundane, specific details most songwriters overlook. Did he just say “tube socks”? Was that “dental floss”? Right and real and strange, Allison’s heartbreak doesn’t traffic in clichés, instead chronicling the small things it actually takes to get through a day. The songs on The Way of the World are so efficiently and precisely written and produced, and so sympathetically accompanied by the musicians Henry has assembled, that it all seems to work. As the time between records, his vocal delivery and his playing show, Mose Allison is no hurry. It’s beautiful. Listening to him helps you slow down a little too. Like all of Mose Allison’s brilliant records, The Way of the World is the sound of a truly great artist coolly wrestling some semblance of sense into the world around him. Allison is so good he makes it sound like it’s no big deal. Just an old genius breaking the silence with music.

–Ari Surdoval

David Broza: For the Sake of the Song

David Broza and Townes Van Zandt met just once, in 1994 at the Main Street Theater in Houston, Texas, where they shared the stage at a writers-in-the-round night. It was an odd pairing.

Broza, a multi-platinum Israeli singer-songwriter and classical guitarist, was a huge international star, though relatively unknown in America. Van Zandt—the brilliant and troubled Texas songwriter who has been hailed as both a genius and an influence by such artists as Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark and even Bob Dylan—was relatively unknown everywhere.

Without doubt one of America’s greatest songwriters, Van Zandt pursued commercial success reluctantly, and it mostly eluded him. In 1981 Emmylou Harris had a hit with “If I Needed You” and in 1983, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard took a version of Van Zandt’s “Poncho and Lefty” to number one. But Van Zandt’s stunning dedication to his own destruction, fueled by heroin addiction and alcoholism and aggravated by manic depression, confined him to the cold comforts of a songwriter’s songwriter.

Throughout his life, he played mostly small bars and clubs, where he could hold even the rowdiest crowd spellbound with breathtaking, precisely fingerpicked ballads like “To Live is To Fly,” “No Place to Fall” and “Be Here to Love Me.” His songs were nearly flawless—intense, powerful, delicate—and Van Zandt sang them with fearless honesty, his voice devoid of any affect or put-on. But as his mental and physical health deteriorated, he could just as likely find himself onstage incoherent and babbling, struggling to hold himself upright in a chair, his voice ravaged as he fumbled with the simplest chords. It was a long slow losing battle that ended on January 1, 1997, when Van Zandt died at the age of 52.

That night at the Main Street Theater, though, Van Zandt was on. Broza remembers it vividly.

“I wasn’t a fan at the time, though I was aware of him.” Broza says. “But after that night. I wasn’t just a fan. He infected me. He played for four hours and I was totally mesmerized.”

The respect was mutual.

“I was playing my work, which has always been putting music to poetry, whether it was Israeli or Spanish or American,” Broza continues. “And I was telling him about working directly with a poet, and how strange it is for poets to write lyrics to an existing piece of music. Townes said, ‘Hey why don’t you take my number? I can write poetry to your stuff.’ So we were going to meet. I was going to fly over and meet with him, but it didn’t work out.”

Soon after Van Zandt’s death, Broza was stunned to learn that Van Zandt had left behind ten poems that he had wanted Broza to have. “I met this man once,” Broza says. “And his wish is to have us work together.”

The result of that wish is the strange collaboration Night Dawn: The Unpublished Poetry of Townes Van Zandt. An at times eerie high wire act that equally balances the voices of two distinct and distinctly different artists, Night Dawn features 11 songs with lyrics penned by Van Zandt, which Broza put to music, accompanied by G.E. Smith, who also helped produce. It is Broza’s first American release in more than 15 years—and it took him more than eight years to write the music.

“I was so moved to have actually received these song poems,” Broza says. “They were such treasures. It took me a year to write the first melody. I carried them with me in a little satchel and when I would arrive somewhere, at a hotel or before a show or a sound check, I would pull them out and look at them. I’d put them on the table by the bed so I’d see them when I woke up. For me, it was about living those lyrics for a long time, and understanding the inner rhythms and intricacies, the sounds of the consonants and the vowels, the way the lines are put together.”

The songs—many of which return to themes of death and leaving—can sound at times more haunted by Van Zandt than written by him. But for Broza, the point was not to recreate Van Zandt’s sound, but to truly collaborate with the work he left behind.

“I wrote the music,” he says. “So it fits right in my hand and it came naturally for me. But I am hearing his playing in the back of my mind. I wrote it in such a removed way from him, but it is really for the people who loved and appreciated his art. I’m just trying to do it justice. I only wish he could hear it.”

For those who love and are influenced by Van Zandt’s art, Broza offers a note of caution.

“The thing is not to take things literally,” he says. “His art was not the result of his depression or his drug and alcohol abuse. It was the result of his genius. And in spite of all his pain, he created all that beauty. Today, I see pain all around, from the tellers at the bank, to the policeman on the street, from big people to small people. There is a lot of pain everywhere. Thank God I have the music.”

–Ari Surdoval

Second Line: Hard Times in the Big Easy

Four years have not lessened the horror of what happened in New Orleans during the first week of September, 2005. Spared a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina, which veered to the east and dropped from a Category 5 to a Category 3 storm before making landfall in southeast Louisiana, the city was decimated when the levees and federal flood protection system failed in more than 50 places. Eighty percent of the city flooded, killing more than 1800 people, leaving tens of thousands more stranded for days—trapped in attics up to their chins in toxic flood water, abandoned on highway overpasses and rooftops in the sweltering heat, packed into the storm-ravaged Superdome and Convention Center. The vision of hell unfolded in real time as global media captured the images of bodies in the street, orphaned children, and the elderly and the sick, slumped in wheel chairs, waiting for rescue and fighting to hold on.

Today, the people of New Orleans are still fighting—wracked by psychological trauma and the devastating Diaspora of a city destroyed, not to mention the corruption and cronyism that have marred the no-bid contract recovery efforts. And just as the long, painstaking struggle to heal the deep wounds began to make headway, the city was struck again—this time by the global economic crisis that hobbled the city’s crucial tourism industry. It was an unexpected and quietly devastating blow. Today, the city is reeling from job losses, rising costs of living and a disturbing escalation in violent crime. But the people who returned to claim their home are determined to preserve the city’s deep roots and extraordinary culture. Leading that fight, in many ways, is New Orleans’ tight-knit and hard-hit music community.

The birthplace of jazz and Louis Armstrong, New Orleans is a musical hot house that has incubated and nurtured the greatest traditions in jazz, blues, soul and rock and roll. From Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver, to Fats Domino and Professor Longhair, to Dr. John, the Neville Brothers and the Meters, the Marsalis family and Harry Connick, Jr., to Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey and Louis Prima, to influential lesser known legends like Snooks Eaglin, Ernie K-Doe, Earl King, Guitar Slim, Willie Tee, and others—not to mention Dixieland, brass bands, Zydeco and a vibrant hip-hop scene—the problem with listing the incredible musicians of New Orleans is that you can never stop without fear of a glaring omission. Their contributions to American music seem almost infinite. Not bad for a city of less than 400,000 that sits below sea level and the poverty line.

“It’s a different place here,” says four-time Grammy Award-winning producer John Snyder, the program director for the music industry studies program at Loyola University. “It’s a certain thing in the air. I don’t know what you’d call it. A soulfulness and an earthiness. It’s got that tropical vibe, where people seem to be conserving energy all the time. It is more about conserving energy than expending energy. It’s in the music and it characterizes all efforts—academic, entrepreneurial, legal, you name it. A lot of effort has to be expended just to get to the point of doing something. It has lived in a different century every century it has been in, and it is never the future. It’s always in a historical context of culture and booze and music and architecture and dilapidated elegance. But after Katrina, everything changed.”

“The music community in New Orleans was so neighborhood based,” say Reid Wick, senior project coordinator for The Recording Academy, who helped administer MusiCares’ Hurricane Relief Fund and Music Rising’s instrument replacement program. “So much of it was learning how to play in the bars and churches of your neighborhood. After Katrina, that was totally disrupted. Some entire regions of the city are vast wastelands, still—and not only poor areas. Everything from the neighborhood where you used to live, to the club you used to play on Saturday night and the church you played on Sunday morning, are just not there anymore. So when those clubs aren’t there, and those neighborhoods aren’t even there, a lot musicians are just going to be struggling and out of work.”

But even in the darkest days after the storm, the musical community worked together to help each other, and their city. They were matched with a vast outpouring of compassion and support from life-changing assistance programs like MusiCares and Music Rising. Following Katrina, the city had the sympathy of the world, and while volunteers streamed in to help rebuild, the city’s musicians found themselves in greater demand than ever before.

“The storm brought a lot of attention to the music community,” says Snyder. “It created work as well as displacement. It created new opportunities as well as destruction and loss. It is like everything else. It is not all one thing. In this situation you have to look for the good and make the best of it.”

“Many musicians were able to come back and for awhile there was actually more work than there had been in the past,” agrees Scott Aiges, director of programs, marketing and communications for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. “You had places tripping over one another to hire New Orleans musicians to help support them. But that has died off now. The number of gigs has decreased significantly and the pay scale has gone down significantly, so it is much harder to make a living as a musician—much harder. And it has always been challenging. It’s a city so famous for its music that people think musicians here have it made—but musicians by no means have their livelihoods guaranteed in New Orleans. In fact, we did a study back when I was working for the mayor’s office before the storm and musicians were making on average about $21,000 a year. So we referred to the musicians a lot of the time as the working poor. They are working very hard. They are most often parents and they struggle extremely hard to make ends meet.”

Compounding the destruction and displacement wrought by the storm and its aftermath was the long-term damage done to New Orleans’ tourism industry, a vital part of the city’s economy and the economic lifeblood of the music community. While the city’s struggles to attract visitors began to pay off a few years after the storm, they were suddenly and dramatically undercut last year by the global financial crisis.

“It seemed like we were really starting to see some improvement in the local economy,” says Mark Fowler, manager of Tipitina’s Music Office Co-Op in New Orleans. “The local tourism industry was really starting to get back into good shape. And then we had this big economic crash that just derailed everything. People just aren’t having conventions like they did. And a big convention isn’t just about the people in town going out and spending money—there is all the auxiliary support business, whether it is people in restaurants or cab drivers or audio-video tech guys, all the people whose work is related to that stuff. So all the people in the local economy don’t have money to go out and do stuff either. It impacts musicians on a lot of different levels.”

“The convention business drove so much of the economy of New Orleans, in particular the music industry,” says Wick. “It just hasn’t really come back to the level of what it was. It could be ten years if it ever comes back. And it is hard to track that—a restaurant that would hire a trio or a pianist, when the tourism dollars stop coming in, the first thing they are going to cut is the music budget.”

In addition, the wealth of talent in New Orleans seems to compound the problems. Though the community is surprisingly uncompetitive and supportive—just listen to the warmth and respect when musicians talk about each other during interviews on the incredible WWOZ, one of the best radio stations in the country—their sheer number drives down the fees they can command.

“Music is everywhere,” Snyder says. “Everyone is a musician. The way up North people carry briefcases, down here they carry instruments. But musicians have never made money here. People don’t like to pay for music. They might pay a little bit, but not enough to support it. If you go out in New York City and go to a jazz club, it’s going to cost you a hundred bucks for two people. Nobody would pay a hundred dollars to hear music here. If you ask for ten, you might get people to go. So there’s no money in playing music and there is no infrastructure to speak of, no publishing companies or record companies or management companies.”

“The money thing is very problematic,” says Fowler. “There are so many people competing for the same jobs. It is a buyer’s market. The pay at a lot of places is probably $25 a set, so $25 an hour, which for a day job is pretty good. But when you think about potential income, it is a job more than anything else.”

Of primary importance for those fighting to preserve and protect New Orleans’ musical traditions is to pass along an understanding of the business of making music—from marketing to publishing to legal issues—and a greater understanding of the income potential of licensing.

“One of the things we are trying to do at the Co-Op is to get people to not think just about gigs but all the other things you can do with your music,” Fowler adds. “Get stuff licensed to be used in films and advertising, television shows, more lucrative situations. That is where the bulk of the money is made these days, because there is actually money there. We’re like, ‘We all love playing gigs, but you gotta think of this other stuff.’”

Much like the musical traditions the community is trying to preserve, the recovery and relief efforts are marked by an intense level of creativity, generosity, humility and versatility. Wick’s deep ties to the hardest hit members of the community allowed him to see the need for an organization to help coordinate relief efforts, which lead to the founding of Sweet Home New Orleans.

“Sweet Home New Orleans is an umbrella organization for 14 different relief agencies,” Wick says. “There are probably 5,000 musicians in New Orleans and many of them live in a totally cash world. They’ve never had a checking account or a credit card, so they have no credit history established. With Sweet Home we tried to help with housing issues, and wound up being a case management and application service to streamline the application process for 14 different relief agencies, like MusiCares, Society of Singers, the Jazz and Heritage Foundation, the Musicians Clinic, and three of four other agencies that were springing up. We’re still going strong three or four years later.”

“Still going strong three of four years later.” It perfectly encapsulates the hope and heartbreak the community balances. How extraordinary that there is the generosity, dedication and compassion to keeps these relief efforts alive—and how painful to realize they are still so necessary so many years after the tragedy.

Today, there are still many, many ways to help the city’s citizens and musicians. From financial donations to instrument donations, there is still tremendous need and many devoted organizations to contact for a better understanding of how to contribute. But for Aiges, one answer is simple.

“Come to New Orleans,” he says. “Bare witness. Understand there is still a struggle going on, but the culture of New Orleans remains intact and it remains a tremendously joyous place to experience. Everyone who comes to New Orleans takes a little piece of it with them when they go. And the more that is spread throughout the world, the more people are aware of how special New Orleans is. And you can’t predict how that will resonate and how that will change things for the better.”

–Ari Surdoval

You can help. Click here:

Sweet Home New Orleans

Tipitina’s Foundation

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation

New Orleans Musicians Clinic

Listen to WWOZ!

Waylon Payne Walks the Line

Waylon Payne is hitting Nashville early on a hot July morning. He’s driving a new used gold Mercedes Benz and he needs a shave and a shower and a couple cups of coffee. He’s been up late seeing old friends, which by his own admission is not a wise decision. He looks a little strung out and a lot like James Dean in Giant, in the scene just before Dean strikes oil. But this isn’t the movies, where even the messes are beautifully framed and everything seems to work out in the end. This is Payne’s life and he’s trying. “Lord, I’m trying,” he sighs.

It isn’t easy, though. Payne’s got bad habits, and he’s dragging around a family legacy straight out of a Tennessee Williams play, by way of Hee Haw. He’s had more lucky breaks than most, but he’s been kicked a lot harder too. The son of country singer Sammi Smith, of “Help Me Make It Through the Night” fame, Payne was raised by his conservative Christian aunt and uncle who disowned him when he was kicked out of seminary for having an affair with a monk, leaving him homeless and on the streets while still a teenager. He pulls down his shirt to reveal the man’s name tattooed over his heart. “I know who I am,” he says, defiantly. “I wear it proudly.”

Payne is sitting at a table outside a packed café when the member of a very successful country act—it would be hard to call them a band—walks past and glances at him. “Is that…?” Payne mutters. And then curses under his breath.

And what else could he do? Waylon Payne can write a better song walking back and forth to his weed dealer’s apartment than half the writers on Music Row could in a hundred years. In fact he has—listen to his 2004 debut The Drifter, a throwback to Guitar Town-era Steve Earle, forged during Payne’s days in L.A.’s honky tonk scene. On songs like “Her” and “Jesus on a Greyhound,” Payne writes with an incredible eye for detail and sings with all his might, sounding like a cross between the Replacements’ Tommy Stinson and Wayne “The Train” Hancock. You probably won’t be able to find it though. According to Payne, the label only printed 7500 copies and then sent him a bill for $150,000, which forced him into bankruptcy. Today, he disowns the record as “not real.”

Real is everything to him, and he comes out with it in rapid bursts, almost with a vengeance against the cold world of Southern euphemisms he knew growing up. When he speaks, half the time it sounds like a sermon and the other half it sounds like a confession. He veers between traditional country grandiosity–“Put me in the Opry, dammit! What else do they need? I got a hit record and I’m in the movies!” and “I’d like to have my own show on CMT, like a variety show, with an orchestra”—to things someone who wants to be in the Grand Ol’ Opry should never, ever say into a tape recorder. In the stereo of the Mercedes is a burned CD of four songs from his new album, Needles, that he is writing slowly down in Austin. There are stories behind those songs that Payne will tell you in full detail. But he shouldn’t.

He’s got new management that believes in him and a publishing deal. He’s also got a sleeper hit creeping up the charts with Lee Ann Womack’s “Solitary Thinkin’,” written by Payne in less than an hour in a Los Angeles bar. “A prostitute bar,” he laughs. “But I didn’t know it was a prostitute bar. I was just wondering why the drinks were free all night.” He’s heard rumors of a Grammy nomination for it. It’s sure good enough. “See, I initially started out as just a singer, because I didn’t think I had anything to say. I was wrong. If you have something to say, baby, sing it loud and sing it true. It will never hurt you. You can get away with a lot singin’ it in a song.”

Gay, high and possibly brilliant, Payne makes you wonder how much more he is going to get away with. With a voice that makes you believe every word he sings and an eloquence for heartbreak that harkens back to the classic country ballads he fell in love with as a kid, he’s the kind of guy you want to shake out of his own way. What’s he doing in a town like this, in a business that makes the hack who just walked past a millionaire and makes Waylon Payne plead to cut the record he hears in his heart and writes on slow lonesome walks wherever he finds himself?

Payne waves off questions like that. He truly does not care. Like he says, he knows who he is and he wears it proudly. “And I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I can walk onto any stage in any room, alone, with just a guitar and I’m great. I’m great.” The trick now is letting everyone else know. So he shows up for the meeting with his new manager, and later he swings by his publisher’s to play some of the new songs. He may not care, but he does have something to prove—and a head full of songs to prove it with. The question is will he slow down long enough to write them, or will he die trying.

–Ari Surdoval