Tag Archives: Gillian Welch

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


T-Bone Burnett: True Believer

tbone

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.