Juke Joint Jumpin’ is a recurring feature in which we loosely go through some of what has been in our respective listening rotations lately, with the primary purposes being to discuss various eras in country music history, offer recommendations, and to talk anecdotally about why these songs connect with us.
Yes, it has been a while since we’ve compiled one of these features. There’s only so much time in the world, and I’ll admit that this is the time of the year where I personally go back rigorously through favorites of the year in preparation for year-end list season. Of course, that also means I’m less inclined to check out new projects (my backlog this year is pretty much down to a few projects), so with the year winding down and the holiday spirit kicking into gear, Andy and I wanted to do our first collaborative edition of this series. Let us know what you’ve been listening to lately, too! – Zack
Sundy Best, “Mean Old Woman” (written by Nicholas Jamerson)
Introducing this first group is more interesting than I thought it would be. For context, Sundy Best is a Kentucky-based act that broke out in 2012 through the mostly acoustic Door Without a Screen, found an even bigger breakthrough with 2014’s Bring Up the Sun, released another album that year that somewhat underwhelmed, and released a final album in 2016 before breaking up. And now, after a few solo projects from one half of the duo, Nicholas Jamerson, the duo is apparently back together, and while I have no clue what that will bring, their crowning jewel for me will likely always be Bring Up the Sun. It’s an album I’ve always described as a summer project for people who may not normally like summer projects. It’s one-part deliriously catchy and upbeat one minute and surprisingly heavy the next, and yet it all blends together well because it’s mostly meant to be pulse-pounding either way, save for the brutal closer, “Painted Blue.”
This is a prime example of the latter, a murder ballad that’s meant to be taken metaphorically and pretty much works off pure primal energy alone. The greatest asset has always been that thunderous cajón that carries the heart and soul of the project – percussive or otherwise – and it’s arguably at its best here. Considering that I could have easily seen some tracks from here work at country radio and that this was the era of the Florida Georgia Line, I can also see slaying the titular mean old woman as an extended metaphor for the industry at large, but that’s me reading too much into it. It’s just a fantastic song. – Zack
Alison Krauss & Union Station, “It Doesn’t Matter” (written by Harley Allen)
My recent deep-dive on Brad Paisley’s career inspired me to run back through Alison Krauss’ discography over the weekend, enough to where I can see a feature on her in the near future. Lonely Runs Both Ways – with Union Station – is her most well-known project, a Grammy-winning effort that came, surprisingly enough, after the roots music boom and revival of the late ‘90s and very early 2000s. But if I had to pick a quiet favorite that revolutionized her sound and bluegrass in general, I’m going with So Long So Wrong, and I’m going with her take on an old Harley Allen song as another quiet favorite.
Krauss is arguably the first performer within the genre to place more of an increased emphasis on songwriting and vocal interpretation than pure instrumental prowess (though Union Station has that, too), and that’s all the more evident on this hauntingly dark number about having to confront a breakup where only one partner truly wants it and the other has to just begrudgingly accept it. It’s a song that could come across as mean-spirited or clingy in lesser hands, but Krauss, as always, delivers it with such aching conviction, that despite the circumstances surrounding it, you feel more like rooting for her than the other partner. – Zack
Joe Nichols, “Man With a Memory” (written by Charlie Black and Rory Michael Bourke)
Joe Nichols is set to release a self-described traditional country project early next year, and while at a glance it looks like a very obscure covers project, it’s at least a good fit for him – even if lead single “Home Run” isn’t quite, well, a home run. Anyway, it prompted me to revisit his finest collection, A Man With a Memory, with my unlikely favorite being a title track that shouldn’t work as well as it does. For one, the production seems to pull more from dated ‘80s-inspired pop-country than anything resembling the 2000s at first (fitting, given that both writers are known for their respective ’80s work), but it evens out pretty quickly. In a way, the low-key, languid groove helps to establish a song about diving into the common country music cliché of songs about bars and their patrons. What I’ve always loved, though, is how even-handed the framing is in sketching out how two broken characters can find each other in suxh an establishment … and find their way back to it after realizing they’re just using each other to ease the pain – back to being just a man with a memory and a woman with a past; a way of saying the same thing differently and capturing how two people can experience the same pain differently. At six minutes long, I can see why it was never a radio single, but it’s honestly a song that doesn’t quite feel that long. It’s just storytelling magic and an underrated gem. – Zack
Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Stones in the Road” (written by Mary Chapin Carpenter)
Here’s something most music writers – professionals, hobbyists, or otherwise – don’t want to admit: we don’t know everything by every artist ever. While I do believe every writer should have a working knowledge of what they’re covering to at least a certain degree, sometimes there’s a discovery process involved with that, and that should be encouraged, more than expected or forced. So, I’ll admit that my knowledge of Mary Chapin Carpenter extends to a few albums and pretty much all of her singles. But, if you only know her biggest hits, I don’t think you’re getting the bigger picture. Not that I don’t love her uptempo, hook-driven songs like “Shut Up and Kiss Me,” “Passionate Kisses” or the song that inspired my deep-dive after randomly hearing it the other night while out, “Down at the Twist and Shout,” but she was such a detailed storyteller in her prime who probably couldn’t have released her more challenging hidden gems to radio – even in the early ‘90s.
Granted, even I have a lot of work to do in unearthing even more of those gems, but the ones I do know come from what many claim to be her best works (a claim I can’t disagree with, at least thus far): Come On Come On and Stones in the Road. The latter has actually been a quiet favorite of mine for several years, a detail-rich album that fans of great songwriting will immediately gravitate toward. And the thing is, it’s also got the hooks and optimism to carry it beyond that. Really, the hidden strength of this collection is how optimistic it is in knowing that today’s failures can lead to tomorrow’s lessons learned. That’s not quite the case with the title track, which I’ve always interpreted as how our younger, innocent perspectives of the world help us to appreciate what’s around us and see it with a rare sort of magic we’ll inevitably lose in adulthood in our hurry to grow up and settle down. Really, it’s the way Carpenter mostly frames this from a child’s point of view that adds weight to its sentiment, even despite the self-aware world weariness attached to her delivery, where she remembers every detail and every moment of her childhood, however minuscule, only to note how we all – herself included – fail to observe those metaphorical stones in the road and focus solely on that path, rather than, say, revel in how those paths we take don’t have to be straight ones. There’s beauty in the twists and turns, but there’s sadness in failing to enjoy life. – Zack
Jerry Douglas ft. Travis Tritt, “A Marriage Made in Hollywood” (written by Paul Brady and Michael O’Keefe)
Zack and a few others have tweeted out recently how much they love the dobro, and I couldn’t agree more. It made me think of Jerry Douglas, one of the world’s preeminent dobro virtuosos. He’s probably best known as member of Union Station with Alison Krauss, but he also has an extensive solo career. I enjoyed 2012’s Traveler a lot back when it first came out (seriously, listen to “So Here We Are“), so I randomly decided to check out his 2008 album Glide. The picking is sublime, especially on tracks like “Two Small Cars in Rome” and “Bounce”. Bluegrass legends like Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck, and Tony Rice also lend their talents to the proceedings.
To my pleasant surprise, there were a couple of songs with vocals involving guest stars. Rodney Crowell provides a fine reading of his own “Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream)”, which the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had a hit with, and Travis Tritt joins in with a cover of Irish folk singer Paul Brady’s “Marriage Made in Hollywood”. The latter song was new to me, and I found it to be really insightful lyric about the world’s negativity bias, and the fact that tragedy and pessimism attract far more attention than good news or positivity – a message made all the more salient by today’s social media-dominated world. This song also provides the rare occasion to hear Tritt’s soulful vocals paired with bluegrass instrumentation. Good stuff all-around. – Andy
Jerry Jeff Walker, “Where Was I” (written by Anne Graham, Billy Maddox, and Paul Thorn)
I’ve been a fan of Jerry Jeff Walker ever since I saw a Youtube video of him performing Chris Wall’s “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” (which Sunny Sweeney also did an excellent job with a few years ago) about a decade ago. To me, his ’70s run is pure gold and is about as good as country music gets. I’ve been gradually making my way through the rest of his discography in a haphazard manner, and last year I randomly decided to listen to 2001’s Gonzo Stew. It’s a pretty unremarkable late-career set overall, but it does include a fine reading of Guy Clark’s “The Cape”, and I submit that his take on Todd Snider’s “Alright Guy” is every bit as good as the original or Gary Allan’s famous cover. I even saw my dad, who is mostly indifferent to country music, jamming along with it when it came on Outlaw Country on Sirius XM one time.
However, there is one track on this album that moved me greatly. Despite its nondescript title, “Where Was I” stunned me by its originality when I first heard it. I can’t really talk much about it without spoiling it – yeah, it’s one of those instances – but I will say the recent twenty year anniversary of 9/11 a couple of months ago made me think of it, and this song was written before and is not directly related to 9/11. It was co-written and originally recorded by musician Paul Thorn, and was also covered by Sawyer Brown on their 2002 album Can You Hear Me Now, but I happen to feel that Jerry Jeff’s plaintive vocal fits the lyric the best, and that the other versions are a tad overproduced. – Andy
Lucinda Williams, “Six Blocks Away” (written by Lucinda Williams)
Zack mentioning Mary Chapin Carpenter’s cover of “Passionate Kisses” put me in the mood to revisit some of Lucinda Williams’ work. While 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road probably receives the bulk of attention, it’s always been 1992’s Sweet Old World that’s been my personal favorite set of hers. I view this album as an absolute songwriting clinic and could talk about any number of songs, but today I’ll choose to highlight the opening track, “Six Blocks Away.” It’s a sharply-written account of unrequited love, describing a lonely, ordinary man who’s been turned away by the object of his affections for unspecified reasons, and the lyrics detail the way he goes about his day dealing with the pain of being so close but so far away from true happiness.
In the second and final verse, he decides to send another message expressing his feelings – implied to be one that is much more direct than his initial attempt. It’s left open where things go; sometimes I’m a little annoyed when songs introduce a provocative premise but then fail to provide any sort of conclusion, but I think the decision to not provide a clear resolution is absolutely the right call here, as it perfectly reflects the messiness and ambiguity of these kinds of situations. Williams’ scraggly, beautifully imperfect voice is a perfect match for the material and her achingly desperate vocal performance is entirely on-point. The lively, jangly production might seem at odds with the depressing subject matter, but it also hints at the potential positive outcome of the situation. Overall, it’s a short shorty that is straightforward and affecting. – Andy