With his style being described as “sketchbook pop” the music of singer-songwriter, Robert Gray, combines elements of folk, jazz and blues. Playing in a variety of bands on the London live scene, he released in album in partnership with Australian singer-songwriter, Troy Utz, back in 2003. After a break from music and a subsequent move to Germany with his young family in 2012, Gray was inspired to begin writing and recording again.
Short Stories is his debut solo album. Some ten years in the making the album has been recorded at a number of home studios in Britain and Germany. The songs range from the highly personal: the birth of his son, a love-song to his wife on the theme of growing old together, his feelings as his young daughter lay in hospital for an operation – to the more political: a break-up song about Brexit, a young mother working in a sweatshop and Trump’s election to the White House.
“I think of my songs as little sketches of a scene”, he says “and in those two or three minutes I am trying to paint a picture for the listener.”
“When I look back on the album I have a lot of memories of things that inspired the songs and the places where I wrote or recorded them.”
A multi-instrumentalist who plays all the instruments on the album (bar two guest musicians on one of the track), Gray cites J.J. Cale, Richard Thompson and Chet Atkins as key influences
With an easy-going vocal delivery, some rather lovely guitar flourishes and consistently thought-provoking lyrics, Gray turns out some quality songs which make for a highly listenable album.
Carbonhobo is the alias for Neil McCartney’s latest solo venture. McCartney (who confirms in the accompanying press release he is actually related to his far more famous name-sake – but only distantly so) will be known to many folk-rock fans as the fiddle player with Merry Hell. Just as we witnessed with the solo album from Merry Hell’s Virginia Kettle last summer, the album is something of a departure from the parent group’s signature sound. In place of amped-up, rousing folk rock anthems we go down a far mellower singer-songwriter road with Carbonhobo.
What is fascinating about the songs on this album is that unlike many musicians who used the enforced down-time during lockdown to put pen to paper and create a whole load of brand-new material, many of the songs on this album go back decades – or at least were started back then.
Described as a “twelve-track wander through over thirty years of songs, written and lived around the world” Memoirs From The Crooked Road include the wistful ‘Seagull’, based on a tune McCartney wrote in his teens in Wigan back in the 1980s, to the infectious ‘Fifteen Miles To Buy Tobacco’ written in a cottage in County Mayo in the early 90s and completed in present day Wigan.
Between his teen years in Wigan and settling down there again later on, McCartney has enjoyed an adventurous life with stints in London, Ireland, the US and Thailand, all of which leave their mark on this album and the songs therein.
McCartney is effortlessly comfortable with the material, has an expressive, emotive voice, is a great storyteller, a fine musician and has an ear for a catchy melody. He takes us on quite a journey with Memoirs From The Crooked Road but it’s well worth joining him.
“We are two Americans living in Ireland doing original Americana which is folky and rocky at times.”
So stated the charming hand-written note that accompanied the CD and press release announcing Beki Hemingway’s latest album. Folky and rocky Americana does indeed sound just the sort of thing that Darren’s Music Blog should be investigating so I decided to find out more.
Working with her husband and musical partner, Randy Kerkman, since the mid-90s Hemingway has already released half a dozen albums, the last being Whins and Weather which came out in 2017. It was around that time, however, that the pair made some major changes to their lives. Leaving behind Denver, Colorado they emigrated to Ireland in late 2016, settling in Dundalk on Ireland’s east coast.
Channelling the spirit of the likes of Emmylou Harris, John Mellencamp and Hank Williams Earth & Asphalt serves up eleven tracks of gorgeous, sun-kissed, heart-felt Americana. And there is, indeed, some rocky bits. Kerkman is a greatly talented guitarist, whether turning in some achingly poignant guitar licks on the slower tracks like ‘Shape of My Face’ and ‘Hurricane’ or some Stonesy-type riffing on songs like ‘We’re Not Going Anywhere’, not to mention bags of gorgeous-sounding, upbeat Americana on the rest.
Expressive and emotive as a singer and a great story-telling lyricist and melodious song-writer, Hemingway’s vocals are the perfect fit for her husband’s playing. Bass, drums and keyboards from a succession of supporting players round out the sound nicely and it’s extremely well-produced with some rich-sounding harmony vocals.
What you won’t really find is much in the way of Celtic influences, however much they are soaking up the scenery and culture of their new lifestyle.
“It turns out that being here has only made us sound more American,” says Hemingway. I can’t disagree with that! Simply gorgeous.
Formed in Chicago almost thirty years ago Sons of the Never Wrong are an alt-folk trio with a signature sound of soaring harmonies and lush acoustic arrangements built around of thoughtful, witty song-writing.
Their ninth studio album, Undertaker’s Songbook is something of a celebratory release as the band approach their 30th anniversary.
Founder members Bruce Roper (vocals, guitar) and Sue Demel (vocals, guitar, djembe, dulcimer) along with long-time member Deborah Lader (vocals, banjo, guitar, mandolin) who joined the trio in 1998, replacing original member Nancy Walker, are joined by a range of musical guests and spoken word collaborators for this special release. Guests include Marc Kelly Smith, Karen Savoca, Anne Harris and Pete Heitzman helping bring colourful texture to Sons of The Never Wrong’s trademark blend of folk, jazz, pop and rock influences.
Opening track, the gorgeous gospel-tinged, soul-flavoured ‘Muddy, Muddy River’ with guest, Bob Long, on organ and piano is clearly destined to be a centre-piece of future live performances and is a modern-day classic in the making – absolutely gorgeous.
Elsewhere on the album, the melancholic, ecologically-themed piano and vocals number ‘Shorebird’ is another stand-out track, along with the Indie-ish anthem ‘Om Not This Time’. Tracks like ‘Everyone’s In The House’, meanwhile, take us into more classic folk singer-songwriter territory, evoking the genre’s golden age.
Beautifully presented with hand-painted cover art from Lader, Undertaker’s Songbook is a fine album to mark the trio’s thirtieth anniversary.
When I came to review Called Back the latest album from Scottish singer-songwriter John Hinshelwood recently, on checking out his biog I was struck by the high regard he held for the Byrds and the influence that they were to have on his own music. Moreover, it went beyond mere musical influences. As well as sharing a stage with Roger McGuinn, he was involved in putting together a tribute to ex-Byrd and ex-Burrito, Gram Parsons, and actually came to record with former Byrd, Gene Parsons, who was with the band in its latter period, playing on five albums from Dr Byrds & Mr Hyde in 1969 to Farther Along in 1971.
I mentioned all this in my review and said it was certainly recommendation enough for me that this was going to be an album worth exploring. After I published my review, John got in touch. This led to a more detailed chat about how the Byrds came to have such a profound effect on his career and how he came to record with Gene Parsons.
I have already talked about my own particular Byrds journey here. There was clearly a meeting of minds between John and myself and he very kindly sent me a copy of his album on which Gene Parsons appeared.
Titled Holler Til Dawn the album was released in 2002. Recorded in various locations, including Scotland, Tennessee and California the album features eleven Hinshelwood originals, plus three covers: Kathy Stewart’s ‘Your Secret Love’, Lowell George’s and Keith Godchaux’s ‘Six Feet of Snow’ and Gram Parsons’ and Chris Hillman’s ‘My Uncle.’
The album boasts an impressive line-up of guest musicians and singers including, Rab Noakes, Cathy Stewart, Colin Macfarlane and Cathryn Craig as well as the aforementioned Gene Parsons, who plays on two tracks.
So how did he go about getting Gene Parsons to play on his album? John fills me in on how the two came to connect:
“I got to know Gene through Chrissie Oakes in Bristol, who used to run the Byrds Appreciation Society. I have known her since the early 70s and have kept in touch with her right up to the present. She contacted me back in 1995 to ask if I would be interested in organising a gig for Gene in Glasgow as part of his UK tour. Despite never having promoted a gig before, I agreed, and indeed had him back again a few years later. On both gigs, we did support, and agreed that on his next tour we would do some stuff together. Unfortunately, that tour has never happened, but I still live in hope.”
Prior to going on to record with Gene Parson, John was also able to bag himself a support slot for none other than Byrd’s founder, Roger McGuinn:
“The McGuinn gig came about as part of a roots festival in Glasgow in the late 90s. I knew the promoter, the late Billy Kelly, who was a great and genuine guy. I was really chuffed when he asked me to do an opening spot, not least because a lot of much better-known folk were desperate to do it. He knew how much it would mean to me as a Byrds fan, and he kept his word and gave me the gig. I must admit that it was somewhat surreal to be sitting in the dressing room pre gig, and listening to McGuinn practising ‘Eight Miles High’ next door!”
Reflecting on Gene Parsons contributing to the Holler Til Dawn album, Johns notes:
“As is the case with lots of recording nowadays, I wasn’t actually present when Gene added his contributions to the two tracks on Holler Til Dawn. Things have even changed a lot since 2001 when ‘Holler’ was recorded. Today, it is done by emailing files back and forth, but then I had to send the tracks by post to California where Gene recorded his parts, then posted them back to me!”
“The first track we did was the Gram Parsons/Chris Hillman song ‘My Uncle’ which appeared on the Flying Burrito Brothers debut album “The Gilded Palace of Sin” in 1969. The basic tracks of Alasdair Kennedy (mandolin), Tim Clarke (acoustic bass), and myself on acoustic guitar and lead vocal were done in Glasgow, then sent to California where Gene added two banjo tracks and two vocal harmonies.”
“The second track was one of my own songs “We’re all in this together” and has just myself and Gene on it. I play acoustic guitar and sing lead and harmony vocals, and Gene did banjo, acoustic guitar and harmony vocals. Again, I recorded in Glasgow and Gene in Albion, California.”
“Recording in this way requires a lot of trust, as I could not be present to direct and produce, but with Gene’s track record and wonderful musicianship, I was confident that all would work out well, and that did indeed prove to be the case.”
Our respective Byrds journeys
As a non-musician with no discernible musical ability whatsoever I can’t really claim anything so grand as ‘musical influences’. However, the Byrds were certainly had a big influence on me in terms of expanding my musical tastes and interests. I explained in my own post here about how listening to the Byrds as a teenager led me to start exploring the words of American folk-rock and English folk-rock and eventually English folk as well as Americana and country.
John chips in his own two-penneth:
“Your Byrds story is interesting, and I can relate to much of it. I also love Fairport and have seen them more times than any other band. The Byrds also got me listening to folk music, and a lot of our gigs are in folk clubs. It was also “Sweetheart of The Rodeo” that got me interested in country music which, like most ‘rock’ fans I thought I hated. I have, in fact, been in quite a few country and country rock bands over the years, including The City Sinners, which played the music of Gram Parsons.”
Holler Til Dawn is a fine album of first-rate Americana and picked up many favourable reviews at the time. Whether you’re a Gene Parsons fan specifically or a lover of Americana more generally it is well worth checking out.
John Hinshelwood is a Scottish singer-songwriter from Lanakshire. As a teenager in the 1960s the likes of The Beatles and Bob Dylan made a big impact and he was also profoundly influenced by those US West Coast bands, like The Byrds. Indeed, as well as sharing a stage with Roger McGuinn, Hinshelwood has actually recorded with late-period former Byrd, Gene Parsons, as well as putting together a tribute to ex-Byrd and ex-Burrito, the late Gram Parsons.
That was certainly going to be recommendation enough for me and I was anxious to check out Hinshelwood’s latest album. With a long career he’s got a number of albums to his back catalogue, both individually and as collaborations, mostly in the folk/country/Americana vein where he’s built his reputation.
This latest album Called Back, is something of a departure. Lyrically, the album adapts the writings of nineteenth century American poet, Emily Dickinson and transforms them into fourteen songs. Poetry adaptations into songs is not particularly unusual in the folk/singer-songwriter genre – and I’ve reviewed plenty such examples here. Where Hinshelwood attempts something really ambitious and fairly unique, however, is in deploying a range of very different musical styles across different genres with the aim of creating music that matches the sentiment of each particular poem. We therefore get a lovely range of styles from bluegrass and Americana through to jazz and traditional folk.
The album definitely benefits from repeated listens as there is always something more that reveals itself to the listeners each time. He’s put together a fantastically diverse bunch of musicians to see him through this project, too, from members of his own regular touring band, to veteran LA session percussionist, Steve Foreman, to BBC Young Musician of The Year, David Bowden, plus many more.
An ambitious project, brilliantly executed and well worth a listen. Fans of country-tinged, folky Americana will love this album but there’s much, much more besides.
L.A. Moore is a US-based singer-songwriter. Alongside two albums he’s recorded with folk rock influenced band Not Broken Yet, Late Bloomer is Moore’s first solo release.
Originally transferred to Florida from Canada for a job in corporate marketing, he found himself out of work in the economic collapse of 2008 and started attending open mic evenings in the Tampa/ St. Petersburg area. Over time L.A. hooked up with two other local musicians, John Stone and Paul Cataldo forming the folk rock band Not Broken Yet.
“When COVID came along the band slowed down its live schedule but I was fortunate to have the opportunity to sit in with The Joe Milligan Project and John Alan Carmack, both great songwriters in their own right”. “Of course the big challenge was to go out and play on my own. At that point you question whether you or the songs are good enough, but I thought, this is something I really want to do and I’m not getting any younger.”
I caught up with him recently to talk to him how he first got into performing, his inspirations and his musical influences, as well, of course, as his new album. Late Bloomer is an album of pithy, engaging, thoughtful original songs and some deft acoustic guitar-playing. I was keen to find out more.
Firstly, tell me a bit more about your musical background.
I was largely a” hobby” player, up until 2008. Guitar had always been a serious hobby and I did get out to play when I was living in Canada, but it was not until I was out of work in 2008 in Florida, that I really started to go out and perform. There is a significant and emerging music scene in the Tampa St. Petersburg area and there are wonderful opportunities to both play and interact with other local musicians. I ended up in a “Folk Rock” trio, Not Broken Yet, which has produced two original CD’s. (Not Broken Yet 2, being released as we speak). Sonically we are often compared to CSN and the Eagles.
And your main musical influences?
Being a child of the mid-sixties music scene, I was fortunate to be influenced by the great music of the time, Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Cream, Hendrix, with sprinklings of the other Brit Invasion bands. The first “album” I ever bought was the Butterfield Blues band, which of course lead me to The Blues Breakers, Mayall, Yardbirds etc. Motown was big too, so there is all of that.
‘Folk Music’ was still in its evolutionary phase coming out of the late 50’s, but as an acoustic guitar player I was influenced by Dylan, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and local hero Bruce Cockburn who often played at the college I attended.
As my tastes and interests matured, I discovered Pentangle, Jansch and Renbourn, and later, John Martyn and Nick Drake. As I looked to improve my acoustic chops I discovered Geoff Muldaur, who had a very strong influence on my current style. Geoff also influenced the type of guitar I play, that being 12 fret models, once I discovered the unique qualities of acoustic 12 frets, I started to play them exclusively.
What were the key inspirations for the songs on the album, and your song-writing generally?
Well, “Late Bloomer” is pretty self-explanatory. I got out of the gate pretty late with performing and songwriting, but now I am making up for lost time with an enthusiasm and confidence I did not have in my youth.
When I first started going out to play in the local Florida music scene, there was a great emphasis on original song writing. Several of the venues, which did not have ASCAP licenses at the time, did not allow cover songs, so you had to write. The first of those songs was Little Miss Hurricane, influenced by my first weekend in Florida sitting in an empty house, waiting for my furniture to arrive and watching Hurricane Jean, rip the screen lanai off the back of my newly purchased home! Welcome to Florida!!
Naturally other songs followed and the themes ranged from suicide of a friend (‘Reach Out’) to ‘Home’ – which begs the question, where is home? Where you are from? Where you live? Or somewhere in the mind?
‘Rum Punch’ is also clearly influenced by the southern lifestyle. I was never a fan of Jimmy Buffet, but he is a HUGE influence in Florida and my not-so-secret wish is to one day have a crowd of sun worshippers singing ‘Rum Punch’.
As I moved forward with the songwriting I went back to some of those early acoustic influences and started to explore the great sonic opportunities of open tunings. Several of the songs on Late Bloomer are played in open D tuning.
And tell us a bit about the accompanying musicians you assembled?
Late Bloomer has a small “who’s who” of local talent. Largely produced and engineered by Stephen Paul Connolly at his Zen Studios here in St. Petersburg Florida, Stephen is a local guitar hero who toured as the lead guitar player for Roger McGuinn, when he pursued his solo career. “Steve” is highly respected for his production skills and draws the best local songwriters to his recording studio. He plays guitar, pedal steel and keys on several of the tracks.
Douglas Lichterman is a local guitar teacher and member of the Joe Milligan Project band. I have had the pleasure of playing with Douglas on several occasions and was honoured to have him play on Late Bloomer. TJ Weger is a local legend, playing guitar, mandolin, pedal steel, dobro etc. TJ was fundamental in bringing the “Americana” vibe to many of the songs. Sam Farmer is a very talented local drummer and solo musician. John Stone plays bass with me in Not Broken Yet and John Alan Carmack who sings backup on ‘Rum Punch’ is the hardest working musician in Tampa/St. Petersburg with his own exceptional CD Kentucky Motel.
Late Bloomer can be obtained via lamooremusic.com on CD and most digital platforms
Ronan Gallagher has the sort of rich, seasoned, easy-going vocal delivery that makes it sound like’s he’s been performing around the pubs and bars of Ireland for decades. Married to some irresistibly catchy melodies, some thoughtful every-man style lyrics and a great cast of supporting musicians who deliver a fine blend of Celtic-infused Americana, it’s a sure-fire winner. Incredibly, however, Gallagher did not begin singing or learning to play the guitar until just over five years ago.
Clearly a natural, Time Waits For No One is Gallagher’s second album, a follow-up his debut Always Broke Never Broken released back in 2019.
Describing his songs “as gritty, passionate, raucous, lyrical, and at times political” they mostly tell stories of everyday life.
There are ten such gems on this album. They range from the title track, a jaunty number about living life to the full whatever your age, to the imposing ‘The World Is Burning’ a soul-infused, bluesy flavoured epic on the theme of environmental destruction. ‘Miss You’ meanwhile is a slow, sentimental country track with bags of character and bags of steel guitar. There’s no shortage of humour either with a US televangelist-style hellfire preacher making an appearance on one track.
There’s nothing about this album I don’t like. I just absolutely love it – incredible work and deserving of a much wider audience. Check it out!
Born in Salford and initially embarking on a career as a professional footballer until injury forced a change of career plan, Danny McGaw’s first forays into the world of music began in the pubs of Greater Manchester before eventually leaving the UK for the US.
Swapping Salford to Santa Monica, McGaw relocated to California – busking at the Santa Monica Pier and building up a reputation as both a writer and performer. Back in 2013 McGaw formed a band Wells the Traveller, who recorded two albums before McGaw relocated back to the West Coast.
His latest single ‘On The Outside’ was released on 19th April. A brooding, smouldering intro builds up in a striking guitar anthem that acts as a showcase for McGaw’s powerful lyrics. He tells Darren’s Music Blog:
“On the outside is about knowing when to move on. To have the courage to break it apart so that it can be rebuilt.”
“There are a lot of stories in my songs,” he adds.
A prolific journal his entries provide inspiration for his lyrics:
“It’s somewhat the diary of a soul. I’ve written every day for a long time. I’ve always been able to attach the emotion to the sound of the melody; I learned that pretty young. It was always about learning enough guitar to be able to support a song…that’s somewhat the rhythm of my life now.”
“My music—if I may—is timeless. It spans all genres, really, and It spans all feelings. And it’s always rooted in the story of my soul, our soul.”
McGaw previously released ‘Eccles Road’ in 2012 and ‘Lion Street’ in 2015. After forging a friendship through Danny Hutton, Three Dog Night’s vocalist, McGaw frequently tours with Three Dog Night.
Matt Steady is a singer-songwriter from Leicester. His music is most closely identified with blues and folk but he pulls in a wide range of influences. Even within the confines of those two genres, however, he traverses a refreshingly broad spectrum: on the blues front going from the blistering electric variety to the mournful acoustic type and on the folk side there’s everything from contemporary singer-songwriter to Celtic soundscapes to traditional balladry. Classically-trained, Matt Steady is a highly talented and naturally expressive player, whether that’s guitar or violin, and he’s an evocative lyricist, too.
Steady has a brand new album out New Buryin’ Ground on 27th April. Prior to that though, he released a compilation album featuring highlights from his previous six albums which he launched with a very generous and fairly unique offer. If you fancy the album, you can order it online and he’ll send out the CD to you direct to your door absolutely free of charge.
The Echoes Remain is a very fine compendium of Matt Steady’s work – eleven tracks in all – and something I’m very pleased to now have in my CD collection.
What on earth possessed him to make it completely free of charge, though, I asked him:
MS:“I’m all about the win/win. This compilation album is a win for listeners and a win for me too! Firstly, as an independent artist, the main challenge I have is getting people to listen to my music. Our attention spans on social media are so short that posting up songs, no matter how good they are, is not a strategy that works particularly well. People are unlikely to stop scrolling to listen to a whole song from someone they’ve never heard of for sure! However the people who enjoy my eclectic style of music often still have CDs player, and often love listening to music in their cars or while working. It costs me very little to have CDs made these days, and with the postage paid for I’m not generally out of pocket on them. And actually any shortfall is made up by some generous folks who either leave a tip or buy an extra CD with it. So the win for the listener is obvious – a free CD delivered to their door; a menu of tracks from my other albums to introduce them to my music. And the win for me is that more people are listening to my music, more people are messaging me and having conversations with me, more people are discovering my other albums and enjoying those too. It’s a win/win for everyone!”
“And for those evolved people who don’t have CDs … it’s available as a free download as well. I don’t want to stop anyone from listening from lack of a piece of equipment. And for streamers, this compilation isn’t up on Spotify etc., but all my albums that the tracks come from are, so that’s a way of listening too.”
I also asked Matt to tell us a little more about the new album that’s due to be released next week:
MS: “My new album is called New Buryin’ Ground, and this time rather than releasing it under my own name, it’s being released under the band name “The Grace Machine”. Alongside my vocals and guitar work, I am frankly astounded to have playing with me two very sought-after musicians – Terl Bryant on percussion and Matt Weeks on bass. I’ve been listening to their work since I was a teen (ahem that’s quite a long time ago now), and I’m still in shock that they wanted to form this band! The music itself is rocky gospel blues. Many of the tracks are interpreting old spirituals and slave songs, bringing them up to date for a modern audience. We owe so much of our musical lives and heritage to black music, crafted under such dire circumstances, and this album is a homage to those often unknown musicians. The album is full of joy and angst in equal measure, and I can only hope that we’ve done the songs justice.”
New Buryin’ Ground available from Matt Steady’s website here