A Lucky Star, Still Burning Brightly

Posted May 21st, 2013 at 9:01 pm (UTC+0)

By Ray McDonald


Last week, I noticed that Huey Lewis and the News were celebrating the 30th anniversary of their album “Sports.”  This got me thinking of all the other musical milestones from the year 1983, and once I started investigating, I was impressed.

Bon Jovi formed in 1983. So did Megadeth, the Flaming Lips, and Phish. Metallica released its first album in 1983, as did R.E.M., Pulp, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Michael Jackson electrified the world with his moonwalk at the Motown Records 25th Anniversary TV special. Of them all, however, the event with the most enduring cultural impact may have come on July 27, 1983. On that day, Sire Records released Madonna’s self-titled debut album. It opened in 123rd place on the “Billboard” album chart – can you imagine? One year later, Madonna was the hottest new star in the world and the album hit number eight.

A hard-charger from Bay City, Michigan, Madonna Ciccone started as a dance club favorite and ended up becoming the template for all subsequent female stars. Outrageous costumes – or lack of them…controversial pronouncements to the press…constant reinvention: Madonna showed us how stardom would look in the video age.  It’s all there on display in the clip for her breakout single, “Lucky Star.”



Madonna’s been a star for 29 of the past 30 years. You can read all about her here, but what I find especially intriguing is, why her? Was it her insatiable drive to be a star? A need to be loved? Natural charisma? All of them, perhaps, and more. Like many artists of her generation, Madonna has lost ground on the domestic music charts. As of December, her most recent album “MDNA” had barely edged the half-million seller mark here in the United States (although I should note it did reach number one in more than 40 countries). Madonna’s real strength lies in her live presence. Her MDNA Tour brought in more than 305 million dollars, becoming the year’s top grossing tour – and, in the process, making her a billionaire.

At age 54, Madonna’s seen it all, done it all, and remains the moving target her competitors still seek to match.

That’s Dr. Hootie to you…

Posted May 21st, 2013 at 8:55 pm (UTC+0)
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By Katherine Cole

Put down the keyboard, no need to send the outraged missive. I know that Darius Rucker was the lead singer of the group and there really was no one named “Hootie” in Hootie and the Blowfish. But there is a Dr. Darius Rucker and his latest hit is “Wagon Wheel.”

The rocker turned country star gave the commencement address to the class of 2013 at the University of South Carolina, telling graduates of the South Carolina Honors College and the College of Arts and Sciences to not just follow their dreams, but also to “find something that makes you want to give ’til it hurts.”  In return, Rucker received an honorary Doctor of Music degree from USC, the same school he and his former bandmates attended before dropping out to become full time musicians. Go here for excerpts from his speech, along with some cute shots of Darius Rucker in full graduation regalia, cap, gown, hood, the whole deal.

The Berklee College of Music in Boston handed out over 1050 degrees to students from more than 50 countries earlier this month. Those graduates, their friends and family, were treated to a speech by singer, songwriter and activist Annie Lennox. In her speech, the co-founder of the British duo Eurythmics, told the crowd “What a privilege it is to enrich our lives through music,” urging them to share their music with the world.

And in case you don’t have time to watch the whole thing right now, I’ll let you know that Lennox (who also received an honorary Doctor of Music from Berklee that day) sang a bit during her speech, quoting a few lines from songs that have influenced her. Among the writers she acknowledged was Carole King who, along with Willie Nelson, was also “hooded” during the graduation ceremony.

Annie Lennox, Willie Nelson, Carole King, and Berklee president Roger H Brown at Berklee’s 2013 Commencement (photo by Phil Farnsworth, courtesy Berklee)

Wynton Marsalis had the honor of addressing the class of 2013 at the University of Vermont May 19th. A friend who was in the audience told me the speech was a wonderful combination of humor and thoughtfulness.  The famed trumpeter included several comments about student life in the college town of Burlington, no doubt gleaned from visits to his son Simeon, who was a member of the graduating class.  As you might guess, there was a bit of music thrown into his speech, too!

We’re almost at the end of the graduation season here in the US, but our friends across the pond are just getting started handing out the honorary sheepskins. Singer Eddi Reader will be getting an honorary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh at the end of June (her fourth, if you’re keeping track) and Annie Lennox will be back in her cap and gown at the University of Essex in July, where she will be honored for her work in political and social activism and her long history of campaigning for social causes.

Have I missed anyone? If you spotted a singer or musician striding across the stage, either giving a graduation speech or picking up an honorary degree, let me know! And send a photo, if you have one!

Host of VOA's Roots and Branches, and world traveler extraordinaire! When I'm not listening to music, I'm probably talking about it or thinking about the next band I'm going to see. Or my next interview! Join me every week for the best in folk, bluegrass and all other forms of American roots music!

Eliane Elias Paying Tribute to Chet Baker

Posted May 18th, 2013 at 10:42 am (UTC+0)
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Brazilian vocalist, pianist, and composer Eliane Elias

Eliane Elias paying tribute to jazz legend Chet Baker

By Diaa Bekheet | Washington, DC Brazilian-born pianist, composer, and vocalist Eliane Elias is paying tribute to an American trumpet icon on a new album due for release on May 28.

“This recording is a tribute to Chet Baker and to cool jazz,” said Eliasin an interview with VOA’s Jazz Beat. “Chet Baker had a special way of phrasing, not only with playing but with singing as well, that had influenced the bossa nova.”


Making the connection between the cool sounds of Chet Baker and the cool sounds of the bossa nova has become a welcome trend: Last year Brazilian singer Luciana Souza released a Baker tribute, “The Book of Chet,” emphasizing how the singing trumpeter inspired the creators of bossa nova, such as João Gilberto.

Elias brings to the concept her distinctive style — both vocally and at the piano — which blends traditional Brazilian music, bossa nova, and straight-ahead jazz. The 14-track album, “I Thought About You: A Tribute to Chet Baker,” features a group of acclaimed musicians, including her husband bassist Marc Johnson, trumpeter Randy Brecker, guitarists Steve Cardenas and Oscar Castro-Neves, drummer Victor Lewis, and percussionist Marivaldo Dos Santos.

Listen to more music and interviews here on Jazz Beat

Diaa Bekheet
Diaa Bekheet has worked for a host of media outlets, including Radio Cairo in English, ETV News, Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa) and the Associated Press. He joined VOA in Feb. 1989 as an International Broadcaster, hosting a variety of popular news and entertainment shows such as Newshour, Radio Ride Across America, Business Week, and Jazz Club USA. He has interviewed a number of Jazz celebrities, including the legendary Dizzy Gillespie, Ramsey Lewis, Wayne Shorter, and George Benson. Diaa is currently an editor for our main English site, VOAnews.com.

Devon Allman’s Solo Flight

Posted May 13th, 2013 at 2:46 pm (UTC+0)
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By Doug Levine

I recently interviewed singer, songwriter and guitarist Devon Allman about his first solo album, “Turquoise.”  Devon is the oldest son of Gregg Allman, co-founder of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame greats The Allman Brothers Band.  Devon talked about growing up without his father and what it was like to meet him for the first time.

Devon led the band Honeytribe before forming Royal Southern Brotherhood, a first-rate group of blues-rock musicians currently on tour in the US.  The songs on “Turquoise” are based mostly on Devon’s life on and off the stage, like his flashback to the “good old days” on the jazzy “Time Machine.”

Acting Like Musicians

Posted May 10th, 2013 at 4:14 pm (UTC+0)
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By Ray McDonald

Hugh Laurie is one heck of an actor. Famed for his roles in the British TV series “Blackadder” and “Jeeves and Wooster,” he burst onto United States TV screens in 2004 as irascible M.D. Gregory House. His show, “House,” earned him multiple awards and the distinction of being among the highest-paid actors in television.

As it turns out, Hugh’s also a musician. He loves the blues, and two years ago his salute to New Orleans music, Let Them Talk, went platinum and multi-platinum worldwide while doing very well in the charts, both here and abroad. This week, Hugh Laurie released a second album of blues tunes, Didn’t It Rain. Here’s a clip of him in action on the current single, “Wild Honey.”



Laurie’s venture into music got me thinking about all the other actors and actresses who’ve recorded singles and albums…and believe me, the list is long. I’ve picked out three of my favorites, and then I’ll ask you for your suggestions.


Jeff Bridges has been a celebrity from birth – he and his brother Beau are the sons of noted actor Lloyd Bridges. In 2000, he released an album, “Be Here Soon.” Nine years later, he earned a Best Actor Oscar for his role as country musician “Bad” Blake in the film “Crazy Heart.” In 2011, Bridges  signed a contract with Blue Note Records and released his second album, Jeff Bridges. Producing was his “Crazy Heart” collaborator, T-Bone Burnett. Here he is singing “What A Little Bit Of Love Can Do.”



You may know Minnie Driver from her roles in movies like “Good Will Hunting” and “Grosse Point Blank,” but did you know she has a musical background? She worked as a jazz singer and guitarist in London, and briefly sang in a group called Puff, Rocks And Brown.  She performed at the well-known South By Southwest Festival in 2000, and four years later released her debut album, Everything I’ve Got In My Pocket. Here’s Minnie Driver singing the title track.



In 2007, Minnie Driver released a second album, Seastories.

Finally, let’s talk about Scarlett Johansson.. While actors who attempt a recording career are sometimes viewed with suspicion, Johansson had no such issues: in 2007, she performed with the influential rock band The Jesus and Mary Chain at their reunion concert in California. Later that year, she journeyed to Louisiana to record her debut album, Anywhere I Lay My Head. Consisting primarily of Tom Waits cover songs, it featured guest vocals from none other than David Bowie – further proof of her multi-media star power. Despite receiving mixed reviews, the album fared pretty well in the marketplace and topped “Billboard” Magazine’s Heatseekers chart. Here’s a clip of the first single, “Falling Down.”



In 2009, Scarlett Johansson recorded Break Up, a collaboration with singer-songwriter Pete Yorn. In 2012, she sang on the Academy Award-nominated track “Before My Time,” from the documentary “Chasing Ice.”

These are just a few examples of actors who stepped into the recording studio. Now it’s up to you: What actors-turned-musicians do you like — and which do you think would be better off sticking to their acting…




Four Songs for Mother’s Day!

Posted May 9th, 2013 at 4:10 pm (UTC+0)

By Katherine Cole

In the US, we celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May—a bit later than our friends in the UK and  several  European and Middle Eastern countries, but earlier than some. But no matter which day you’re honoring Mom, there are plenty of songs for the occasion. In fact, there are so many “mother” songs in country music — and especially bluegrass — that it’s practically a sub-genre, just like love songs  or “murder ballads.” In fact, bluegrass aficionados will tell you there’s even a special category set aside for extremely sad “dead mother songs,” but we won’t really dwell on those today. (But if you ever want a good cry, just leave a comment and I’ll give you a list of the real weepy ones…)

So in this vast repertoire of songs devoted to Mom, what should we listen to for Mother’s Day? Here are my picks for the four best mom-songs:

4) “Mama Tried” — Merle Haggard. One of the greatest “mother” songs in country has to be Merle Haggard‘s “Mama Tried,” in which a young man sitting in jail talks about all the pain and suffering he’s put his mother through. And while Haggard did serve time in San Quentin and “Mama Tried” is based on his early life, the song isn’t autobiographical—he was never sentenced to life without parole like the character in the song.  “Mama Tried” has been recorded by a number of other artists, but Merle’s version still reigns supreme.


3) “Grandma’s Hands” — Sarah Jarosz.  I first met singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz when she was twelve or thirteen years old, playing in the kids band contest at the Old Settler’s Music Festival in Austin, Texas. Since then, she’s released two CDs, had a Grammy nomination and will be graduating from the New England Conservatory in a few weeks. A few years ago, Sarah added a great cover of Bill Wither’s “Grandma’s Hands” to her repertoire. I think a “grandma” song fits in with the rest today because you can’t be a grandmother without being a mother, first.


2) “Mother” — Natalie Maines.  Pink Floyd’s “Mother” is a song that that is been interpreted (and perhaps mis-interpreted) endlessly since it was first released on “The Wall” in 1979 . The song is written in a question and answer style between “Pink” and his mother. In his 1979 interview with Tommy Vance, Roger Waters commented that “if you can level one accusation at mothers it is that they tend to protect their children too much. Too much and for too long. That’s all.”  And that’s pretty much what this song is about—an overprotective mother who has already lost her husband is trying to keep her son safe from the same fate.   Pearl Jam has an interesting cover of “Mother,” but I’m particularly intrigued with Natalie Maines‘ version, which I first heard on the “West of Memphis” soundtrack. She’s also using it as the title track for her first solo CD. Natalie’s  “Mother” is a more sympathetic character than the original … and the twist works well.


1) “Coat of Many Colors” — Dolly Parton.  I’m sure you’re wondering if I have a favorite Mother’s Day song. Truth is, it changes from year to year. I’m feeling a bit sentimental today, so I’ll go with this Dolly Parton classic. It’s the one that Dolly has said many times is her favorite of the many she’s written. Like so many of Dolly’s songs, it’s a true story: her mother really did stitch together a coat out of a bag of rags given to the family. As she sewed, she told the biblical story of Joseph and his coat of many colors. And yes, Dolly says “with patches on my britches and holes in both my shoes,” she really did run to school, “just to find the others laughing and making fun of me” for wearing a coat made of scraps.


Those are my picks for Mother’s Day. Let me know what’s  on your playlist of favorite Mom-Songs.

Host of VOA's Roots and Branches, and world traveler extraordinaire! When I'm not listening to music, I'm probably talking about it or thinking about the next band I'm going to see. Or my next interview! Join me every week for the best in folk, bluegrass and all other forms of American roots music!

Farewell, Wichita Lineman

Posted May 2nd, 2013 at 9:19 pm (UTC+0)
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By Ray McDonald

We know we’re going to die. The circumstances usually remain a mystery – and mercifully so, don’t you think?  However, when we can see the end approaching, how do we face it? For Glen Travis Campbell, the answer lies in his great love, music.

The son of an Arkansas farmer, he learned to play guitar as a boy. After kicking around with his musician uncle, he moved to Los Angeles at age 24, desperate to make his mark. He became a member of The Champs, who scored a nationwide hit with their instrumental single “Tequila.” One version of the band toured, while the other remained in Los Angeles to record. This was an innovative concept, which led to Campbell becoming an industry legend. He fell in with The Wrecking Crew, a loosely-knit cadre of musicians, songwriters, and producers responsible for much of Southern California’s musical output in the 1960s and early ’70s. Their work is heard on classic sides from Phil Spector, The Byrds, and literally hundreds of other acts.

Growing rich as a top session man, he still craved stardom. Glen Campbell signed with Capitol Records, the U-S home of The Beatles. Beginning in 1967 with “Gentle On My Mind,” he released a series of classic singles, including – in my opinion – one of the finest pop songs of the past half-century. Written by his friend Jimmy Webb, “Wichita Lineman” is a stunning achievement. It topped the country charts in the United States and Canada, and stands as a classic of its kind..



The above clip comes from “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” his weekly TV variety show which ran from 1969 to 1972. After that, he secured several acting and hosting jobs, including co-starring with John Wayne in the film “True Grit.” He also continued to make hit singles and albums.  To date, Campbell has sold an estimated 45 million records, while amassing nine Grammy Awards, including a 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award.

It wasn’t all glorious. In the early 1980s, he had a brief, turbulent relationship with fellow singer Tanya Tucker. In 2003, he was arrested for drunk driving and reportedly assaulting a police officer. In June, 2011, Campbell announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. He had been suffering from short-term memory loss for years. Instead of retreating to his home, however, the 75-year-old singer decided to end as he had begun: as a working musician. He released a new album, “Ghost On The Canvas,” featuring the title cut written by Paul Westerberg of The Replacements.



Glen Campbell also hit the road, one last time. Three of his children played in his band on his Farewell Tour, which officially ended in April. With that announcement came news of another album. Arriving on July 30, “See You There” will feature other musicians re-imagining his classic hits. The vocals will be Campbell’s own…and I’m betting his final performance of “Wichita Lineman” will top them all.

What’s your favorite Glen Campbell memory?

Happy 80th birthday Willie Nelson!

Posted May 1st, 2013 at 4:30 pm (UTC+0)

By Katherine Cole

He’s a poet, an activist, an actor and an author—and now we’re celebrating 80 years of Willie Nelson.
Funny how times slips away, isn’t it?

Not only is that one of my very favorite Willie Nelson songs —but it’s front of mind after seeing all the  “Happy 80th Birthday Willie Nelson!” posts on facebook, photo collages on the web, and countless song montages flying around the internet. At a time when most of his compatriots are long retired (or worse!) Willie just keeps plugging along, writing new songs (more than 2500 to date!), recording and releasing multiple albums of new material every year  (close to 300 in all), and touring night after night after night after….

Happy 80th birthday Willie Nelson! (AP Photo/Las Vegas News Bureau, Glenn Pinkerton)

I find it hard to believe that Willie is 80. It doesn’t seem right to assign a number to him—the guy is ageless. He doesn’t seem to have aged much from when I first saw him perform almost 30 years ago—he never looked like a young man, even in the close to 50 year old video below.  Judging from the clothing , the songs, and the set, this was shot at in the early-to-mid 1960s at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

So many of his songs are now a part of the “great American songbook,” that it’s easy to forget just how many classics Willie Nelson has written. Love songs? Check. Drinking songs? Yup. Heartbreak, road and train songs? Check, check and check. The Willie Nelson songbook includes Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” “Hello Walls,” the Faron Young hit, and so many more that his catalog fills seven pages on the Songwriters Hall of Fame site.

Born in Abbott, Texas, Willie Nelson was already writing songs by the time he was seven years old. In an interview ten or so years ago, Willie told me that he grew up listening to all kinds of music.  His childhood neighbors were from Mexico and “they played their music day and night. South of the border music.  From the Czechs I learned a lot of polkas and waltzes. And working in the fields, I learned a lot of blues. In church, I learned gospel.”  No wonder fellow singer Emmylou Harris says “If America could sing with one voice, it would be Willie’s.”

But Emmylou isn’t the only one praising “The Red Headed Stranger.” Youtube is filled with birthday wishes from fellow fans including Barbra Streisand, Ringo, and Steven Tyler. Even Bono had to get into the act!

Willie Nelson’s life story is a great story, filled with twists and turns, far too many for me to squeeze into this little blog. This interview will fill you in, and this five year old piece by Joe Nick Patoski, takes you inside Willie head as he was recording his now-classic “Stardust” collection. If you want to read more, Joe Nick’s book is a great place to start.

How did Willie celebrate his 80th? Just as you’d imagine: on the road again. His birthday show turned into a benefit for West, Texas, the tiny town rocked by an explosion at a fertilizer plant last month.

The Farm Aid folks have put together a site celebrating Willie Nelson’s 80th!  The centerpiece is a video with birthday greetings from artists (Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Sting, Kenny Chesney, Norah Jones, etc.), family farmers and anyone who eats, thanking Willie for all he has done to keep family farmers on the land.   How did you celebrate Willie Nelson’s 80th birthday???

Host of VOA's Roots and Branches, and world traveler extraordinaire! When I'm not listening to music, I'm probably talking about it or thinking about the next band I'm going to see. Or my next interview! Join me every week for the best in folk, bluegrass and all other forms of American roots music!

Make Mine A Double

Posted April 30th, 2013 at 9:52 pm (UTC+0)

By Doug Levine

If you’re in the mood for some great electric blues, look no further than two new releases from Stony Plain Records.

First, veteran guitarist, singer and bandleader Duke Robillard treats us to his signature blend of R&B, rock, jazz and Tex-Mex on his new album, “Independently Blue.”

I remember hearing the name Duke Robillard back in the ‘60s when he co-founded Rhode Island’s premier modern jump blues band Roomful of Blues.  He was also a member of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and has played alongside Tom Waits, Pinetop Perkins and Bob Dylan.  Over the years, Duke has earned two Blues Music Awards for Best Blues Guitarist, and he was nominated for two Grammy Awards: one for Best Traditional Blues Album and another for Best Contemporary Blues Album.

When Duke turned 64 last October, many wondered (myself included), if retirement was in the picture.  Not a chance.  In a quote from the liner notes to his new album he remarks, “These days I tend to gravitate towards material that reflects my age and stage in life.”

In this clip, the Duke Robillard Band blends a little Dixieland jazz with old-fashioned boogie woogie on “Patrol Wagon Blues,” featuring guest guitarist Monster Mike Welch.

Also new from Stony Plain comes “Just For Today” by Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters.

New York native Ronnie Earl took a serious interest in the guitar after seeing a Muddy Waters concert in college.  He later performed with various bands in Chicago, New Orleans and Austin, before replacing none other than Duke Robillard as the lead guitarist in Roomful of Blues.

In 1988, he formed his band The Broadcasters, naming it after the model of his very first Fender Telecaster guitar.

Ronnie wrote or co-wrote most of the songs on “Just For Today,” including tributes to his blues heroes Hubert Sumlin and Robert Nighthawk.  He recorded the album at three distinctive venues in Massachusetts: the 97-year old Regent Theatre in Arlington, known locally as “Arlington’s Show Place of Entertainment”; in a former firehouse preserved by the Center for the Arts in Natick; and along the waterfront district at the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River.

Now 60, Ronnie admits he has more passion for music today than ever before.  He told his label that “Playing, for me, is a very emotional experience,” adding, “I put every particle of my soul into it.”

Check out “Vernice’s Boogie” from “Just For Today,” featuring some fine piano playing by band member Dave Limina.

The Big International Jazz Day Jam

Posted April 29th, 2013 at 9:00 pm (UTC+0)
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April 30th is International Jazz Day, a United Nations sponsored annual event being celebrated this year with an all-star concert in Istanbul, Turkey. Among the artists performing at the show will be pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, trumpeter Terrence Blanchard, and bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding. Also, there will be musicians from all over the world, among them: from South Africa, flugelhornist and trumpeter Hugh Masekela; from Russia, saxophonist Igor Butman and trombonist Alevtina Polyakova;  from China, saxophonist Liu Yuan; and from Turkey, clarinetist Hüsnü Şenlendirici and trumpeter Imer Demirer.

Here’s the video you  can tune in to enjoy a live webcast of the concert from Istanbul. The concert begins Tuesday April 30th at 9:00 pm in Istanbul, which is 7:00 pm in London, and 2:00 pm in New York. In Beijing the time will be 2:00 am on May 1st, and in Sydney, Australia, it will be 4:00 am. Enjoy!





VOA’s music bloggers bring you info about all kinds of music. Katherine Cole will keep you up-to-date on the world of Bluegrass and Americana music while Ray McDonald rocks the Pop charts and artists. Diaa Bekheet  jams with you on Jazz.  Visit us often. Your comments are welcome.



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