We’re all disappointed that we don’t get to see our favorite bands right now. Of course, there’s been lots to see online, with bands working hard to replace those live concerts. And, there are loads of archived concerts to watch as well.
If you’re done with the watching, I’ll propose something more radical. Listening.
Those of us of a certain age remember buying vinyl, or later on, CDs, and then playing them front to back, dozens, if not scores of times. I sometimes listened to the few albums in my collection so many times that when I heard a song on the radio, I expected the next song from the album to come on. I knew what song followed what. Indie and college radio stations often played entire albums — a great way to fill air time, but also to dive deep into an artist’s work.
In the 1980s, the ‘random play’ function on CD players began to take the focus off of albums as single works of art, and put it more on top tunes. Then, the advent of streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, in spite of their clear value in allowing broad access to music, continued the fragmentation of albums into playlists of individual songs, cherry picked from lots of different albums, and then put together based on themes. Kind of like those “Greatest Hits” albums of yore that used to garner no small bit of scorn from true music aficionados. (Don’t get me wrong; I love playlists and have dozens of them myself.)
A good album is a concept, not just a collection of songs. Thoughtful artists have chosen a particular order of songs—from which comes first to which comes last. Listening to an entire album lets you get to the deep cuts, those tracks you will never hear on a ‘best of’ playlist.
If you’re finding yourself with some extra time, listen to an album from the first song to the last. Consider its whole story, and not just its greatest hits. If you are a musician, reflecting on how the breadth and depth of a single collection can help you think about the span of your own repertoire.
So, pull out some of your old CDs, or bring up an album on a streaming service. And, once you’ve exhausted your own collection, here are some new albums to investigate (warning: not all bluegrass!)
Gaslighter, The Chicks, their first album in 14 years, when they were performing as the Dixie Chicks.
First Rose of Spring, Willie Nelson, this is Willie’s 94th studio album. This has one of my favorite songs on it: “I’ll Break Out Again Tonight”
Chicago Barn Dance, Special Consensus. You’ll find some familiar material, like “City of New Orleans,” but a lot of the deeper cuts are Chicago-themed, and the swingy “I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music,” is great fun.
The Dawg Trio, Danny Barnes, David and Sam Grisman. If you like “It’s a Long, Long Way to the Top of the World,” you’re going to love the final cut on this album.
Tall Fiddler, Michael Cleveland. This album, a Grammy winner, is a who’s who of bluegrass and beyond, including Sam Bush, Tommy Emmanuel, Del McCoury, Tim O’Brien, the Travelin’ McCourys, Béla Fleck, and Dan Tyminski. Every cut deserves a listen.
World on the Ground, Sarah Jarosz. Jarosz has always explored interesting nooks and crannies of music. This album continues to showcase her incredible talent.
There are other ways of listening—audiobooks and podcasts.
Willie Nelson’s memoir, It’s a Long Story. The audio version of his book has a song written especially for the audiobook. Willie is not the narrator, but he does read the introduction.
Allison Moorer memoir, Blood. This is not a happy tale, but told by Moorer herself about the life of her and her sister, country star Shelby Lynne, after their father killed their mother then committed suicide.
For podcasts, Toy Heart
is sponsored by the Bluegrass Situation, and features podcasts with Tony Trischka, Alison Brown, Alice Gerard, and many others.
The Bluegrass Byway
has just a year’s worth of episodes, but there are some good ones, including ones featuring Junior Sisk and Becky Buller.
Finally, the Walls of Time
bluegrass podcast has featured Skip Cherryholmes and Larry Stephenson.
Put your listening ears on, and you’ll find a great world of music and words to explore.