20. Your Bright Baby Blues – Sarah Watkins & Sean Watkins. First you take the Jackson Browne classic, then you add some… Nickel Creek? Sara Watkins and her brother Sean came from that parish. This song is from Jackson Browne’s 1976 album The Pretender, which came out when he was 28. Probably the worst time for an artist to put out a thoughtful collection of songs featuring decent musicianship. This artist, still under 30, was about to be swept away by the new wave, the iconoclastic burning down of all that was considered old and irrelevant. Jackson Browne would be sneered at by fans of “new music” for years to come. This cover version makes the song fragile and gentle, something that would be blown away by the turbulence of the trucks thundering past on that highway the song’s speaker is hitchhiking beside. (Jackson Browne appears to spend a lot of time sitting next to the road in his songs.) “You don’t see what you’ve got to gain but you don’t like to lose,” she sings. “You watch yourself from the sidelines, like your life is a game you don’t mind playing to keep yourself amused.” It’s brutal, the more so for being so conversational. So this is a song about being a bystander in life, a passenger, a semi-detached, uncommitted dabbler, someone who numbs themselves to avoid having to feel. It’s a song that encourages us to reach out and get involved, somehow, to make a human connection. You think of yourself as a bird, flying so far above your sorrow that it can’t reach you. And then you open your eyes and find yourself down on your knees.
19. Six More Days of Rain – Tift Merritt. Like many singer-songwriters, like Allison Moorer, Chely Wright, and more, Tift Merritt’s career began with a splash of commerciality and then washed up against the indifference of US radio formats and their flat refusal to give airtime to women. So she went from her highly produced Heartbreaker-featuring second record and an appearance on Austin City Limits, to touring Europe on her own with an acoustic guitar. I first heard her when I was tuned in to Radio 2 one evening on the way back from work.
This requires some explanation, as we’re only here because of my disdain for mainstream radio after all. But as I said, I love the radio, and I’d really rather listen to that than anything else in the car. As much as I love music and as much as music means to me, I’d still rather have a podcast on while I’m driving. But as we all know, there are aspects of Radio 4 that are unbearable and unlistenable. Your mileage may vary, but I simply won’t have Mark Lawson in the house. And I’d avoid Humphrys in the morning, back in the day, by tuning into Wogan on the way into work. In those far off days before the Second Wave of Podcasts, this is what you had to do.
I was driving into Nottingham one morning and listening to Wogan, when, exiting the motorway at Junction 25, I heard what sounded like an imam doing a call to prayer. There it was, like pirate radio encroaching on the official BBC channel. Weird, I thought, never encountered that before. That was September 11, 2001. I know it’s a true memory because it’s all mirror-imaged in my mind. I’m exiting the motorway on the right, as if I’m driving in France.
I have a vivid memory of hearing Tift Merritt for the first time, a couple of years after that. We’d moved to Buckingham in 2004, but I was still working in Nottingham, and commuting the 80 miles or so. It was a goddamn impossible way of life, but that’s where I was. So I would often, in desperation, punch away from Radio 4. And I was listening to Radio 2 when they played “Good Hearted Man” from her second album Tambourine, the one with Mike Campbell on guitar and Benmont on keys. Over the years, her sound evolved and stripped down along the way. I must have seen her play live five or six times, but never with a full band. This particular favourite track is typical of her late middle period, from her album See You on the Moon, which I remember playing about ten times in a row when I first got it. The weatherman is saying six more days of rain. An insistently pounding beat, a piano filling in the white space, and that oft-repeated question, the one we’ve all asked when something seems endless, whether it’s rain or the Brexit process: how does it keep on going? How do we?
(I have to point out the irony that the poster of that video, using Tift Merritt’s music and sticking a © symbol on all his photos. Talk about your double standards.)
18. Wish Me Away* – Chely Wright. Chely Wright was part of the Nashville machine: good looking woman, photographed in flattering and wholesome ways, but always, of course, having to work harder to get a hearing on Country radio. But this was 90s country, so it wasn’t actually impossible like it is now, and she has a top 40 hit in ’97 with “Shut Up and Drive” (good song), then hits pay dirt in ’99 with “Single White Female” (banger). But, but, but. First two albums don’t trouble the charts, and while her next few do get on the Country chart, they’re wandering the wilds of the mainstream top 200. And then, in 2007, she came out as gay, moved to New York, and released the definitively non-country (call it Americana) album Lifted off the Ground. And there’s a version of this song, Wish Me Away, on that album. But that’s not what this is. *This version is from the year before, 2006, and an obscure compilation album called The Other Side: Music From East Nashville. And it’s not the straightforward acoustic take she’d put out the following year, but a sad, regretful, farewell to the Country scene featuring a beautiful piece of pedal steel guitar, that fades off into the distance like a singer-songwriter turning her back on the town, and her old life, forever. I offer it here with the health warning that it might be taken down so the video link below might die.
17. The Weight (feat. The Staples) – The Band. What was going on with The Last Waltz? So perfect and yet… On the night, the actual night of the concert, The Band performed this, their most iconic track, but that version doesn’t get included in the film. Instead, there’s a rather odd and over-stylised soundstage performance featuring The Staples, with Pop and Mavis both taking a verse of the song. The same soundstage was used for Emmylou Harris. It’s a little bit like that thing when a journalist does a Top 10 albums listing and forgets to include any black artists. Whoops! Quick! Reach for the Marvin Gaye. While Muddy Waters was on stage for the actual concert, The Staples are invited in like an afterthought. It’s especially weird that the film cuts down a four-hour concert to two hours, but then adds in a couple of tracks recorded at some later date. But here’s the thing. Even with all that strangeness and the awkward setting, this version of The Weight is still the best. Famously, the gnomic lyrics of this song lend themselves to all kinds of interpretations. It’s a story song that doesn’t quite tell a story, it’s a menippean satire, and it seems to have gospel elements – all of which are enhanced by the presence of The Staples. The way Scorsese’s roaming camera discovers Mavis at the beginning of the second verse is wonderful. Add to this her handclaps in the final chorus and her muttered, “Beautiful” at the end, and you have everything you need.
16. Weight of the Load – Ashley Monroe. Speaking of weights, here’s another one. Ms. Monroe’s second album, produced with impeccable taste by Vince Gill and Justin Niebank and released in 2015, contains her best work. It’s blue-eyed country soul, sounds beautiful, and this is the second best song on it. I have a fond memory of driving with my youngest daughter from our place in France to Lure to visit a shop that sells art supplies, and we were listening to this album on the car stereo. So lovely, such a peaceful memory. The kids are getting to the age now, those kind of car journeys will become increasingly rare.