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

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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

Patty Loveless: Holler Back

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With a voice like a wrecking ball made of honey, Patty Loveless tears into the opening lines of Harlan Howard’s 1962 classic “Busted,” the first song on Mountain Soul II, the long-awaited continuation of the critically acclaimed 2001 album that laid bare the Kentucky coal mining roots of the gold-selling, three-time CMA award winner.

“Well the bills are all due and the baby needs shoes, we’re busted,” Loveless sings, accompanied by seamlessly matched acoustic guitar, Dobro and fiddle. “We’ve had a hard time since they closed down the mines, we’re busted.” Singing Howard’s original lyrics, which Howard himself gave to Loveless’ husband and producer Emory Gordy, Jr., Loveless returns the song to the coal mines, away from the cotton fields in the versions sung by Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. But for Loveless, it doesn’t matter where the song takes place—she is seeing its relevance every night she sings it on tour.

“Whether it is about coal mining or cotton or the auto industry, or anything else, more and more jobs are being lost these days and there’s a lot of people facing being busted,” Loveless says. “I certainly have seen those days before. Sometimes you get so low you have to look up to see bottom. And sometimes it takes that to help you pick yourself up and dust yourself off.”

That straightforward spirit of faith and determination runs through all the songs of Mountain Soul II. Featuring an extraordinary collection of musicians—including Del, Robbie and Ronnie McCoury, Carl Jackson, Bryan Sutton, Mike Auldridge, Emmylou Harris, steel guitarist Al Perkins, and 16-year-old vocal powerhouse Sydni Perry—the album was cut quickly in Nashville, and retains the interwoven, swaying spontaneity of incredible musicians singing and playing together. “It was a wonderful four days,” Loveless laughs.

Cut at the behest of fans who wanted more of the bluegrass, Appalachian, country combination of the first Mountain Soul album, Mountain Soul II feels more like an extension than a recreation. Drawing from her childhood experience of singing in the Old River Baptist Church where her grandfather preached, Loveless leads the band with her time-stopping, powerful voice through the melodies of such classic spirituals as “Working On a Building” and the haunting, a capella “Friends in Gloryland,” which leads seamlessly into “(We Are All) Children of Abraham,” penned by Loveless and Gordy

Loveless follows the three-song gospel set with the rollicking good time of “Big Chance,” also penned by her and Gordy. “Oh, mama, daddy, can’t you see? Holler’s closin’ in on me,” Loveless sings. ”Cousins pourin’ down like rain. They’re runnin’ out of given names.”

Humble, raucous, spiritual and plainspoken, Mountain Soul II is a stripped-down tribute to the people and music that shaped Loveless from an early age.

“I find myself able to reconnect to that time and revisit this kind of music,” Loveless says. “It is stories about real people and real lives, and stories of history. I think if there is a song in your heart and your soul, it is a way of getting out of your worries and woes. It can be sorrowful but it can be uplifting to share about your life. And it’s a way for people to get away from their troubles. Early on in the tour, I would say, ‘Thank you for being here. I know times are hard.’ But then I thought, I don’t need to remind them of this. They don’t need to hear that from me. I just need to entertain them, let them escape for a while. What I need to do is give them the music.”

–Ari Surdoval

Alejandro Escovedo: Not Fade Away

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If life was fair, Alejandro Escovedo would probably be dead or in jail—and he’d also be recognized as one of America’s best songwriters. A last man standing of not just bands, but entire scenes and genres, Escovedo has survived nearly thirty years of near misses—with fame and death alike—to emerge, with a gracious sense of understatement and a punk rock grain of salt, as one of the truly great artists of the day.

One of the youngest of 12 siblings in a musically gifted Mexican-American family that includes percussionists Pete and Coke Escovedo and niece Sheila E, Escovedo grew up in San Antonio and later Orange Country, California. In the mid-70s, he drifted up to San Francisco and formed the Nuns. A seminal band of the nascent West Coast punk scene, the Nuns opened the Sex Pistols’ last show, where Escovedo got to see the self-defeating circus aspect of punk rock first hand. Later, in New York, he played guitar for cowpunk pioneers Rank and File, then moved to Austin where he formed the critically acclaimed True Believers with his brother Javier.

More than any other of Escovedo’s bands, the True Believers seemed poised to reach a larger audience. They landed a deal with EMI/Rounder and Los Lobos, early and enthusiastic supporters, offered the band the opening slot on a long tour. But long stretches on the road allowed the band to delve into rock and roll decadence, which took a toll on the relationships inside and outside of the band. In a label merger and shuffling, the True Believers were dropped before the release of their second record.

In 1989, Escovedo—bandless and working as a clerk at Austin’s Waterloo record store–took his first tentative steps as a solo artist. He formed two distinctly different bands—The Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra, a free-form collective of some of Austin’s best musicians; and Buick Mackane, a raucous guitar-heavy combo with a name cribbed from T. Rex. Escovedo played around town constantly over the next couple years, experimenting with different styles, genres and line-ups. It was a period of extraordinary growth in Escovedo’s skills as a songwriter and performer.

In 1992, he released the acclaimed solo debut Gravity that welded the raucous energy of the True Believers (“One More Time”; “Pyramid of Tears”) with the lovely and fragile melodies of songs like “Gravity/Falling Down Again” and “She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” He followed it with the intensely personal and lyrical Thirteen Years. A harrowing and heartbreaking look at love, death and loss propelled by mournful cello and violin, and Escovedo’s unaffected, haunting voice. For the world outside of Austin, it was the announcement of a staggering talent.

In 1996 Escovedo released With These Hands, his third great solo record in a row, and then two revealingly titled albums—More Miles than Money and A Man Under the Influence. Out on the road, touring heavily, he lived up to both.

It was not a pace that anybody could sustain, and in April 2003, Escovedo collapsed after a show in Phoenix and was rushed to the hospital. Ever the overachiever, Escovedo was suffering from severely untreated Hepatitis C, cirrhosis and internal hemorrhaging. Recovery was long, slow and expensive—especially for a gifted but broke musician with no health insurance.

Friends, fans and family contributed to offset the costs with a series of concerts and a tribute album, Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo, featuring the likes of Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Los Lonely Boys, and Escovedo idols Ian Hunter and Lenny Kaye. It was a gesture of tremendous caring and generosity that revealed not only the greatness of Escovedo’s songs, but also the breadth of respect and admiration he commands as a songwriter.

After a period of reflection and recuperation, Escovedo returned with 2006’s somber The Boxing Mirror, produced by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, and last year’s amazing Real Animal, produced by the great Tony Visconti.

On Real Animal, perhaps more than any other album, Escovedo seems at peace with himself and comfortable with who he is as an artist. The album looks back—lyrically and musically—at his entire life in music, going back all the way to the Nuns with the sneering “Nuns Song.” The crisp acoustic rocker “Sister Lost Soul” balances the introspection and strings of his solo work and “Always a Friend” is the kind of brilliant, melodic rock song that seems to drop from the Austin air like grackles. It’s the kind of song, and album, that reveals all the promise and potential of Americana to carry on the great traditions of post-Dylan rock and roll, and these days Escovedo does it better than nearly anyone.

It’s no surprise that Escovedo has been nominated for Artist of the Year by the Americana Music Association, with Real Animal up for Album of the Year. What is surprising, though, is that Escovedo is around to receive the recognition he deserves. Through sheer faith, determination and talent, Escovedo has managed to beat the odds. He has lived to tell the tale. What could be more rock and roll than that?

–Ari Surdoval

Alejandro Escovedo jumps onstage in Houston to lead some bar band through his great “Always a Friend.”

T-Bone Burnett: True Believer

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In the digitized computerized compressed treble-drenched fluorescent 99-cent disposable downloadable candy-coated cookie cutter MSGed MP3ed airtight televised stifling stalled casino elevator that is generously referred to these days as modern music, it can get a little hard to breathe. Somebody needs to open the window—preferably with a well-thrown brick—and let a little sun and wind in. Luckily, every once in a while, somebody does. More often than not lately, that somebody is T-Bone Burnett.

A truly brilliant producer, and a gifted musician and songwriter, he was born Joseph Henry Burnett in St. Louis in 1948 and raised in Forth Worth, Texas. At just 14, he started wandering out on to the Jacksboro Highway, headed for the dilapidated Skyliner Ballroom to catch performances by the likes of Junior Parker and Bobby “Blue” Bland.

“The way that room sounded is the sound I’ve been going for on every record I’ve ever done,” Burnett told Mix Magazine in 2006. “I’ve just learned more and more about how to do it. It’s been a long time of figuring out how to make it sound as exciting on a record.”

Burnett put together his own recording studio while still in high school and spent his free time recording his friends, and occasionally himself. He stops far short of calling himself a prodigy, though. “I was really bad. That’s what would distinguish me from a prodigy.”

In the early ‘70s, Burnett left Texas for Los Angeles. By 1975, he had landed a spot playing piano and guitar in Bob Dylan’s legendary Rolling Thunder Revue. At the tour’s end, Burnett formed the Alpha Band with fellow Rolling Thunder veterans David Mansfield and Steven Soles and released three critically acclaimed albums before calling it quits.

After a solo career that found Burnett creating albums that generated universal critical praise but modest sales, he dedicated himself to producing. From the crisp roots rock of Los Lobos’ How Will the Wolf Survive? to the gorgeous, fragile acoustic ballads of Elvis Costello’s King of America, Burnett brought a deep breadth and a refreshing sense of space, tone and timing to his production.

Eschewing the heavily synthesized, compressed production process so popular and prevalent in the 1980s and ‘90s, Burnett helped create music that now seems timeless. He did it with young artists inspired by heroes Burnett shared—the Wallflowers, Counting Crows, the BoDeans, Sam Phillips, Gillian Welch—and he also did it with the true heroes themselves. Burnett is responsible for the Roy Orbison concert film masterpiece A Black & White Night and Orbison’s Grammy-winning last album Mystery Girl, and also later albums by legends like Ralph Stanley and Tony Bennett.

It is Burnett’s ability to make music resonate with tradition, without using that tradition as a gimmick or some kind of shtick, that led to two of the most artistic and commercial pleasant surprises of the past 20 years.

In 2000, Burnett composed the score and produced the soundtrack for the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou? Featuring such artists as Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanly and Gillian Welch delivering stunning interpretations of traditional American folk, blues and bluegrass songs, the album was a massive, grassroots-driven smash hit. It sold more than 7 million copies, earning a Grammy and awards from the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music, introducing a new generation of music lovers to the rich hidden history of American music.

Just as surprising is the oddball pairing of Alison Krauss with Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant on last year’s terrific Raising Sand. Burnett produced and plays guitar on the album as Krauss and Plant weave incredible harmonies through songs by Townes Van Zandt, Mel Tillis, Tom Waits, Gene Clark, the Everly Brothers and Doc Watson. Even after going platinum, being heralded as one of the best albums of the year and winning the 2009 Grammy for Album of the Year, it still seems like a weird idea. Who would ever think to pair one of rock’s grittiest and most legendary lead singers with one of the most beautiful voices in bluegrass, much less propel them with slapback echo, reverb and swaying vibrato through a set of obscure songs written by some of music’s greatest unsung heroes? You’d have to be a genius to pull that off. Luckily, there was one on hand.

“What I am shooting for is to make music that is as good as music gets,” Burnett told Charlie Rose last year. “Why not?”

–Ari Surdoval

Alison Krauss and Robert Plant doing the Everly Brothers’ “Gone Gone Gone” from the Burnett-produced Grammy winner Raising Sand.

Sweet Dreams: Roy Orbison and the Birth of the Pop Masterpiece

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Roy Orbison—rock and roll’s greatest singer, a crooning rockabilly Caruso who brought opera’s high drama to the malt shop jukebox, broke the hearts of bobbysoxers, and redrew the emotional power and possibility of pop—started out in a dust-covered oven called Wink. He was a West Texas sensation by the time he was 17, playing to crowds as big as 10,000 in 100 degree heat, hosting his own radio show, and fighting his friend and rival Buddy Holly for gigs in towns like Odessa, Lubbock, Midland and Amarillo. Pale and wiry, with thick glasses, Orbison had a voice big enough to fill the flat scorched emptiness that stretched out all around him. When he welded it to his mean, skittering electric guitar, he shot sparks. Orbison knew what he had, and he rode it like a rocket all the way to Memphis. He graduated from Wink High in 1954. By ’56 he was in Sun Studios, crying, Hey baby, jump over here, when you do the ooby dooby I just gotta be near, as Sam Phillips, rock and roll’s wild-eyed prophet, watched from the other side of the glass.

There is poetry in history—especially in the strange, explosive symmetry of early rock and roll. Around the same time the great Muddy Waters was introducing a young part-time hairdresser and housepainter named Chuck Berry to Leonard Chess in Chicago, a failed vacuum-cleaner salesman named J.R. Cash appeared on Roy’s radio show in Texas. Dubbed “Johnny” by Phillips himself in order to young him up a little, the novice Cash was touring behind his first single on Sun, “Hey Porter b/w Cry, Cry, Cry.” Cash and Orbison hit it off, and Cash passed along Phillips’ phone number at Sun. When Orbison made the long-distance call to introduce himself, and pass along Cash’s recommendation, Phillips screamed, “Johnny Cash doesn’t run my company!” and slammed down the phone. Soon after, though, Phillips changed his mind, thanks to some demos Orbison had recorded at Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico, where Buddy Holly had cut his chart-topping early singles.

Just like he had with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Cash, Charlie Feathers and Carl Perkins, Phillips signed Orbison reluctantly, and only after changing the name of his band from the Wink Westerners to the Teen Kings. Phillips’ heart belonged to artists like the 300-pound blues powerhouse Howlin’ Wolf—who Phillips championed as the most significant artist he ever recorded, proclaiming Wolf’s music “where the soul of man never dies.” But with the gale force of Elvis howling all around him—and with Wolf gone to Chicago to join Waters and Berry at Chess—Phillips knew he could make lightning strike twice in his slapback-slathered Memphis echo chamber. And he did—again and again—but not with Roy Orbison.

It was not for lack of talent. Or trying. Orbison unleashed a string of blistering Sun singles that to this day stand as rockabilly Rosetta stones. “Ooby Dooby,” “Go! Go! Go!” “Domino,” “Rockhouse,” “Claudette,” “Devil Doll.” Just saying the titles out loud feels like dancing.  But where Elvis and Jerry Lee were perfect matches for Sun—their white shoes stomping mercilessly on the pent-up sexual and racial repression of the 1950s—something feels a little out of place on Orbison’s cuts. His voice sounds trapped inside all that rockabilly clatter, like it’s yearning to fly into the otherworldly edges that Elvis flirted with on “Blue Moon” and Charlie Rich skirted in “Who Will the Next Fool Be?” But that’s not what Sun was about—and plus, he wasn’t charting. “Ooby Dooby” scooted up to No. 59, but that’s about it. His days at Sun were numbered.

Orbison left Memphis in 1958 and moved to Nashville, where he landed a job as a songwriter for Acuff-Rose publishing and a short-lived contract with RCA. When the RCA deal fell through, it seemed like the Texas teen king, who started out at just 13, would be washed up at 23. Nobody seemed to know what to do with Roy Orbison.

Enter Fred Foster. In the spring of 1959, Wesley Rose of Acuff-Rose, Roy’s defacto manager, called Foster and asked him to sign Orbison to his fledgling Monument label as a personal favor—and what’s more, Rose wanted an answer immediately. Foster wasn’t sure; all he knew about Orbison was the two or three Sun singles that had stalled on the charts. But then—in one of rock and roll’s pivotal but lesser-known moments—Foster said one word that would change the sound of popular music forever. He said yes to Roy Orbison.

Foster heard the power and depth in Orbison’s voice, knew nobody had been able to capture it, and decided to frame it with the sweet, string-heavy Nashville sound pioneered by Chet Atkins at RCA. It’s a production style that could smother a singer, but it was time for Orbison to take some chances, and he trusted Foster. After a couple cuts that bridged the sound of Sun and what was to come (“With the Bug,” “Pretty One,” “Uptown”), it became clear that Orbison had about one more chance with radio and the public. Foster told him the next song would be the most important of his career. He was right.

On March 25, 1960, Roy Orbison entered the RCA-Victor studio in Nashville for a session with guitar greats Hank Garland and Grady Martin, pianist Floyd Cramer, the Anita Kerr singers and a full string section. It was a far cry from his stripped-down Sun sessions. But the song they were cutting bore little resemblance to his earlier material.

Over a happy dum-diddy-doo-wah vocal, bouncing guitar and sugary strings, Orbison steps up to the mic and sings like a man coming out of a dream. His voice is thick with honeyed sadness as he sings one of rock and roll’s most famous opening lines.

Only the lonely know the way I feel tonight.

Orbison starts softly, almost sighing along with the production. He rides the dry, cheerful sway of the music, waiting for his moment. Suddenly, it comes. With full force, Orbison hits the high falsetto in the line “That’s the chance you have to take…” and jolts the song to a standstill. The sound of that “you” is stunning. It stops time and transcends everything else in the song, everything else Orbison had ever done. It is equal parts heartbreak and hope, a cry of pure musical freedom, bursting past the strings and the singers and the whole Eisenhower era for one incredible time-stopping moment before floating back down as the song ends humbly, shuffling to the fade with no fanfare or even acknowledgement of what just happened.

On playback, everyone knew what they had captured. Everyone except Orbison, that is. Foster offered to pay him for a million copies upfront if that’s all he’d ever owe on the song, but as a friend, urged him not to take the deal. Within weeks, “Only the Lonely” was a hit all over the world.

It was a magical session, but perhaps the most extraordinary moment happened with no tape rolling. Early in the day, as the musicians were learning their parts, bass player Bob Moore suggested they needed to put the song into meter so kids could dance to it.

Orbison responded: “I don’t want people to dance to my songs.”

What a declaration. It was 1960. Rock and roll—watered down and on the wane after a series of deaths, arrests and scandals—was and had always been dance music. With one sentence, Orbison revealed his artistic vision: This music could be about more than dancing; it could move people emotionally as well as physically. With the string of singles he recorded after “Only the Lonely,” he proved it. “Running Scared,” “I’m Hurtin’,” “In Dreams,” “Crying,” and perhaps the song that most seamlessly combined Orbison’s ability to rock and pine at the same time, “Oh, Pretty Woman.”

These are the seeds that would bloom into popular music as we now know it. While Chuck Berry begat the Rolling Stones and punk, and Howlin’ Wolf begat Led Zeppelin and metal, and Johnny Cash begat Merle Haggard and outlaw country, it was Roy Orbison who inspired the next generation to write rock and roll that reached for the heart’s limits. If you listen, you can hear Roy Orbison everywhere: From the Beatles—whose “Please Please Me” was directly inspired by “Only the Lonely” and who claimed that Roy Orbison was the only artist they never wanted to follow onstage—to Bruce Springsteen, who listened to Orbison every night before recording the epic Born to Run and who pays tribute to him on the album’s very second verse (Roy Orbison singin’ for the lonely, hey that’s me and I want you only.) Orbison’s influence can also be heard in the great writers of the Brill Building—it is not far from “Only the Lonely” to “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”, performed by the Shirelles but written by Carole King, who would go on to recut it on her groundbreaking album Tapestry. All this incredible pop and rock, sweet and stark and sad, dreamily plunging headfirst into lost love and loneliness: It all started with Roy Orbison.

But don’t go measuring Orbison solely by the weight of his influences. That’s not what makes “Only the Lonely,” “Oh, Pretty Woman” or any of his other songs jump from the speakers nearly fifty years later. His music lives today, just as vibrantly as the day it was cut, because he was an unbelievably powerful singer, writer and performer. Who else could lead a band featuring Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, James Burton, and k.d. lang—as Orbison did in the incredible Black and White Night concert, filmed when he was in his 50s—and hold both the audience and the band spellbound, not just with his voice, but with his very presence? And who else could form a band with the likes of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and George Harrison, and provide the vocal hook that rocketed the band’s song to the top of the charts, as Orbison did in the Traveling Wilburys? 

That vocal hook that Orbison sings on the Wilbury’s “Handle with Care” is, I’m so tired of being lonely, I still have some love to give. Sadly, Orbison died soon after, in December 1988. But that line he sings, like all his heartfelt music, is utterly devoid of irony. His last album, Mystery Girl and its single “You Got It,” were released after he died. They were both hits.

Today, the classic look of Roy Orbison: skinny, with a slick-backed black pompadour and dark sunglasses, is one of rock and roll’s truly iconic and timeless images. But it is his music, the amazing songs he wrote and performed, and his haunted and haunting, beautiful singing that allow him to live forever as one of the most influential and powerful artists of all time. Once you hear Roy Orbison, his voice never leaves you. Just close your eyes and listen, you’ll hear him now.

–Ari Surdoval

Roy Orbison, “Only the Lonely” from A Black and White Night, 1988