Craig Cummings Music


My Favorite Recordings of 2013

Craig at El Nopalito

Most major music publications are busy releasing their “Best Of” lists for 2013. It is quite subjective in the arts to say that one piece of work is “better” than another (except in extreme cases). Most songwriters and musicians don’t look at their art as a form of competition. Most of the time, musical artists compete with themselves to make their songs better with each recording. They are their own harshest critics, even though they may never let on publicly that they spend considerable time analyzing and overanalyzing their work and wondering if it holds up when compared to the work of other artists they admire. Writing songs and creating music is at once a joy and an exercise in humility. Creating something you believe in is an incredible rush of joy and satisfaction. Not being able to get that verse or chorus just right can bring the best of us to our knees in frustration.

For these reasons (and others), I will refrain from indulging in the creation of a “Best Of” list for 2013. Instead, here is a list of my favorite recordings from 2013. If you have not found time to listen to any of the music listed below, do yourself a favor and find some spare time during the holiday season to sit and listen to what these artists created this past year. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

JI
Jason Isbell – Southeastern
This is my favorite recording of the year. Jason’s work has been celebrated in many of the most widely read publications and for good reason. The songs on this recording are soul baring, yet warm and inviting. His story of a life-changing choice to embrace sobriety, and what came before and after, is story telling at its best. Jason’s voice is strong and clear, the arrangements are mostly spare, and these songs raise the bar for songwriters everywhere. Wanna know if your songs are great? Listen to this and ask yourself, “Am I there yet?” My personal favorites are Cover Me Up, Traveling Alone, and Songs She Sang In The Shower. But, every song is terrific. Buy this now.

GC
Guy Clark – My Favorite Picture of You
Guy is in his 70’s now, and who knows how many more recordings he has left in him? His health has not been good, and I’m not sure that he is even doing shows around Nashville these days. But this CD is a masterpiece of songwriting. Guy has been the standard-bearer for excellent story telling for many years, and with this effort he proves that he has not lost his touch. The title cut, found on other recordings, is a love letter to his late wife Susanna. It is a tender piece that confides his love for her incredible spirit and gives some insight into the scope of influence she had over his life and musical career. Hell Bent On A Heartache tells the story of a man who can’t resist making the same mistake again and again in an effort to find love. Patty Griffin adds her typically beautiful background vocals and suggests that this affliction to find heartache isn’t limited to men. Rain In Durango, another song of pining for love, proves that the best songwriters can address the same topic from various angles and never seem repetitive. Guy will always be remembered as one of the greatest of American songwriters. This recording shows why.

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Steve Earle and the Dukes & Duchesses – The Low Highway
As a fan of the HBO series Treme, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the scene in last season’s episode when Steve’s character, Harley, is shot and killed during a street robbery. I shouted out loud when it happened, which is odd. I mean, I know it’s a TV show, but thus is the power of Steve Earle to captivate an audience whether he is acting or performing as a songwriter. On The Low Highway, Steve shows that his many years working alongside such celebrated songwriters as Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark did not go to waste. Steve has been telling the story of injustice in American society for some time now, and he is at his peak on this recording. On the title cut he sings of “…the ghost of America watching me, through the broken windows of the factories.” Burnin’ It Down is the story of a down and out soul who wants to burn the local Walmart down because of the damage it has done to his little town and the small business owners who suffer at the hands of corporate America. But Steve doesn’t wallow too much as he offers up the celebratory and defiant Is That All You Got, a song originally performed on Treme, where the New Orleans-based singers challenge the gods of fate to bring it on, because, well, we survived your best shot – is that all you got? Steve Earle has released more than 20 recordings throughout his career. The Low Highway ranks among his best work.

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Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell – Old Yellow Moon
Emmylou and Rodney were making music together back in the 70s, when she was touring with her Hot Band and Rodney was writing songs, playing guitar, and singing background vocals. After many years of going their separate ways, they are back together again and as solid as ever. Emmylou’s reputation as possibly the best harmony singer ever (not to mention her incredible lead vocals and skills in interpreting songs) is underscored throughout the songs on Old Yellow Moon. Rodney likewise shows that he knows how to move around a note in ways that melt the soul. Invitation To The Blues, a Roger Miller composition, shows how to interpret a standard country song. The rearrangement of Crowell’s Bluebird Wine, first featured on Harris’ Pieces of the Sky album, underscores the duo’s ability to reinvent previous work and make it seem new. There are other songs that jump out at the listener that are worthy of mention, but the prize on this record is the amazing harmonies that these two singers create. Nothing can ever top the Emmylou Harris/Gram Parsons duets that preceded Gram’s untimely demise. But this comes close.

SC
Slaid Cleaves – Still Fighting the War
Slaid Cleaves should be more well known. His skills as a songwriter hold up to standards set by Steve Earle and other Texas songwriters such as Ray Wylie Hubbard and Robert Earl Keen. On this recording, Cleaves shows his spirit is infused by the efforts of Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen, and others who write about the perils of the working class and the injustices that infuse American life in the 21st century. I especially like the storytelling and handclaps of Welding Burns, and the wistful sentimentality of Rust Belt Fields – “no one remembers your name for working hard.”

Mavs
The Mavericks – In Time
As a performing songwriter, I know how important a good singer is to delivering a well-written song. Raul Malo is the bomb. This guy can do it all and if you don’t listen to this recording for any other reason, do it to remind yourself of the importance of great vocal presence and delivery in making songs stand out. The band is not too shabby either! My favorites on this CD include Born To Be Blue and Back In Your Arms Again. Born To Be Blue sounds like Raul Malo singing harmony with Roy Orbison. Back In Your Arms Again makes me want to have a shot of tequila and get up and dance! Buy this CD, turn it up loud, and have a party.

Happy New Year everyone! Can’t wait to hear what’s in store for 2014.