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A Year of Welcome Back and Goodbye

Livestreaming will continue Robert Earl Keen's annual Christmas tradition

While the year marked the global return of live shows and tours, it was the passing of a legendary singer-songwriter, Loretta Lynn, and the emergence of her possible successor, Molly Tuttle, which would provide the headlines for Americana music in 2022.

It is fair to say that Bob Dylan tours are again never ending, as the Nobel Laureate got back on the road - from Oklahoma to Oslo - during 2022. When the global Covid-19 pandemic broke out in 2020, it saw Dylan being forced to quit his annual live gigs for the first time in more than 30 years. And most artists also got back on a stage, whether it be Robert Earl Keen doing so for the last time in Texas or Patty Loveless coming out of retirement to delight fans in Kentucky.

But this was the year the Queen died – the Queen of Country music that is!

Loretta Lynn was 90 when she left the music world on October 4. In a career spanning six decades, Lynn had 24 number one singles, and released 50 studio albums, many of them certified gold. She won three Grammy awards and was indeed the most awarded female country recording artist across several genres.

But her most valuable contribution was as a pioneer of women’s song-writing. In an era – the 1960-70’s - when few female singer-songwriters were making an impact in music, Lynn was not only churning out hit compositions, but songs – among them “The Pill,” “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” and “One’s on the Way” - which spoke uniquely from a feminine perspective.

The sheer volume of her self-penned work was evident as early as 1970 when all 11 songs on her compilation album Loretta Lynn Writes ‘Em and Sings ‘Em were written by Lynn, except one which was a co-write with her sister Peggy Sue Wells.

And 1970 was the year of her autobiographical hit “Coal Miner’s Daughter” which would define her incredible rags-to-riches life and spawn a bestselling biography and Oscar-winning film.

Coinciding with the loss of Lynn in 2022 was the rise of a young female singer-songwriter destined to rise to the altitude of greatness attained by the coal miner’s daughter.

In April, 29-year-old Californian singer and multi-instrumentalist Molly Tuttle released her third studio album, Crooked Tree. It was her first on Nonesuch Records and the first with her own band Golden Highway, featuring Bronwyn Keith-Hynes (fiddle), Dominick Leslie (mandolin), Shelby Means (bass) and Kyle Tuttle (banjo). Added to this line-up, were big-name collaborators Margo Price, Old Crow Medicine Show, Billy Strings, Sierra Hull, Dan Tyminiski and Gillian Welch.

And the icing of this star-power came from dobro maestro Jerry Douglas, who co-produced the album with Tuttle.

Crooked Tree has to be the standout Americana album of the year, a claim justified by its nomination for Best Bluegrass Album at the forthcoming 65th Annual Grammy Awards. Tuttle has also been singled out as one of 10 all-genre nominees for the prestigious Best New Artist Grammy. And this for an artist who already had the distinction of being the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year (2017 & 18) and is currently the Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year. She has also been named Instrumentalist of the Year by the Americana Music Association.

Like Loretta Lynn, Tuttle is a prolific songwriter. All 13 tracks on the original release – there was a 17-track Deluxe edition of Crooked Tree released in December – were co-written by Tuttle, including the delightful title-track which she wrote with friend Melody Walker. “We had seen a quote by Tom Waits which kinda said like when they chop down the trees in a forest, the crooked trees are the ones left standing.”

In fact, Tuttle uses the Waits analogy to openly address the challenge of living a different life, forced upon her from the age of three when she was diagnosed with Alopecia Areata, an autoimmune skin disease which causes hair loss on the scalp, face and, in her case, all parts of the body. She performs wearing a wig, for she and her parents chose, when she was a child, to stay off treatments that promote temporary hair growth.

Her “Crooked Tree” lyrics said it all:

People say I’m different

My way of life seems strange

I took the road less travelled

Twists and turns along the way

But like the Crooked tree

I’m growing stronger day by day

As the clouds roll by

The year was also significant for an artist at the opposite end of the career path.

For in 2022, Robert Earl Keen, the affable Texan who penned the classic “The Road Goes On Forever,” decided that forever had in fact come to an end. He stunned fans in January with an unexpected news release: “It is with a mysterious concoction of joy and sadness that I want to tell you that as of September 4, 2022, I will no longer tour or perform publicly.”

He then embarked on a national tour suitably titled I’m Coming Home: 41 Years On The Road. And as promised, it all ended on Sept 4 before a sold-out crowd of 3,000 at the Floore’s General Store in Helotes, Texas, the same venue where, in 1996 he recorded his much-acclaimed live album No 2 Live Dinner and the equally impressive Live Dinner Reunion 20 years later.

And livestream will keep Robert Earl Keen's annual irreverent holiday tradition alive this year. A recording of his last The Road To Christmas concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville will livestream on December 22. The virtual event will allow viewers to get a final rendition of his festive classic “Merry Christmas From the Family.”

Livestream is a word which became mainstream in 2022. If there were any pluses to emerge for music from the two-year pandemic then it would have to be the live online concerts, turned into a popular art form by IT platforms like Mandolin and Vimeo who charge 20 dollars upwards for live and limited access to virtual gigs.

It started in the early days of lockdown when a troubadour - the likes of James McMurtry - would, with guitar in hand, sit in front a Zoom-like computer contraption and entertain for an hour or so if you had time - and a couple of bucks - to spare. Live streaming has now transformed into sophisticated multi-camera productions in which big-name concerts can be beamed to a screen near you. To enhance the experience, digital enhancement allows the viewer to socially communicate with other true believers anywhere on the globe.

Elvis would turn in the proverbial!

At least the livestreaming of concerts provides enhanced revenue for artists who have seen their incomes slashed by the paltry payments from music streaming. Digital giveth on the one hand and takes away on the other.

Livestream has also been effectively used to raise money for charitable purposes. The best example in 2022 was the Kentucky Rising Fund Concert in Lexington, Kentucky on October 11 which raised around two million dollars to support relief work and recovery efforts after deadly flooding in the state’s eastern region.

The concert proved a feast for country purists when one of Kentucky’s favourite sons Chris Stapleton convinced another state legion Patty Loveless to make a rare appearance. She brought the house down with a stunning rendition of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” the Darrell Scott song she made her own. She began by saying “This is for my daddy in heaven and all those other coal miners” and then elegantly delivered the powerful opening stanza: In the deep dark hills of eastern Kentucky/That’s the place where I trace my bloodline/And it’s there I read on a hillside gravestone/”You’ll never leave Harlan alive.”

It was such that a month later, the Country Music Association persuaded Stapleton and Loveless, who had long retired from live gigs, to repeat the duet at the 2022 CMA awards.

Another much publicised livestream concert is scheduled for the Ryman Auditorium on January 4 when Steve Earle will host a bunch of big-name Americana stars to celebrate the work of his late son Justin Townes Earle on what would have been Justin’s 41st birthday. Like Kentucky Rising, the proceeds will go to charity, this time the Etta St James Earle Trust to benefit Justin’s four-year-old daughter Etta.

The line-up, which includes The Dukes, Amanda Shires, Jason Isbell, Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller and Shooter Jennings, will perform songs from Justin Townes Earle’s wonderful catalogue. The show comes exactly two years since Steve released JT, his own tribute album to Justin, who died of an accidental drug overdose in 2020.

In fact, tribute albums were a common theme in 2022, with Earle again setting the stage with the release of Jerry Jeff, his treatment of the work of Jerry Jeff Walker, including the JJW classic “Mr Bojangles.” He was joined by Bluegrass stalwart Sam Bush who last month championed old friend “Riverboat” John Hartford with the well-received Radio John: Songs of John Hartford. And then there was yet another Dylan-cover collection - Dirt Does Dylan by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. But perhaps the best of all came from old timers Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal who teamed up again to produce Get On Board: The Songs of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

Now there has to be a Loretta Lynn tribute blowing somewhere in the Appalachian wind?

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation


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