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Chuck Berry in the 1950s

This past week the world lost an original music legend and rock pioneer when Chuck Berry passed away at age 90. A native of St. Louis, Berry began performing at a young age and would have various stages of his musical career with differing levels of success. Some of these stages met their terminal end as Berry spent one of several stints in prison throughout his adult life. Good and bad, Chuck Berry was original and inspirational for about the final seven decades of his life.

During these many decades now (and probably for many decades to come), the exact point of origin of rock n’ roll has been disputed. Whatever the exact place in time, it is clear that the decade of the 1950s saw the fusion of traditional styles along with the adoption of new technologies to make new weird and wonderful sounds which would soon converge under the umbrella of this new popular genre. With this, there is little dispute about Berry’s role in developing this new sound.

Entering the decade, Berry was a young husband and father who played in bands around St. Louis to earn an extra source of income to supplement his full-time industrial work. Berry gained much influence from blues musicians like T-Bone Walker and Ira Harris and soon entered into a long time collaboration with piano player Johnnie Johnson of the Johnnie Johnson trio. Here, Berry got his first exposure to country music, which he fused with his blues background to the extent that some referred to him as the “black hillbilly”. To this end, Berry drew influence from country artists like Jimmie Rodgers and, on top of this unique musical mixture, Berry began to develop a distinct stage persona by incorporating unique dance moves, which helped accelerate his live popularity.

In 1955, Chuck Berry migrated to Chicago and struck up a professional relationship with blues legend Muddy Waters. In turn, Waters referred him to Leonard Chess of Chess Records as Berry prepared to be the next blues star at Chess, but was surprised when Chess was more interested in a traditional country fiddle tune called “Ida Red”, which Berry had adapted. In the recording session, Berry recorded the song with new lyrics and the title “Maybellene”. The result was a million selling mainstream pop song, which sparked Berry’s career and initiated the his most commercially successful era.

During the year 1956 Berry released several more singles, with the most successful being the song “Roll Over Beethoven”, as well as contributed several songs to the soundtrack for the film Rock Rock Rock. Then in 1957, Berry finally released his debut album After School Session which included twelve tracks completely written by Berry himself, a very rare accomplishment for rock artists of the era. By this time, Berry was on national tours with top artists like Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Carl Perkins and the Everly Brothers, which brought him exposure in multiple markets as well as on television. One Dozen Berrys was his second all-original LP, released in 1958, and then he released on called Chuck Berry Is On Top, an apt title for Berry’s position at the end of 1950s.

However, the next of several legal downfalls had a crippling effect on Berry’s career trajectory. He was convicted for transporting a teenage girl across state lines and eventually served a year and a half in prison in 1962 and 1963. Through most of the decade of the 1960s, Berry was more successful as an influence (to popular rock/pop groups like the Beatles, Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys) than as a first-person musical artist. Although he did return to slight commercial success in the early seventies, Berry would spend the long expanse of the rest of his life mainly as an undisputed rock legend.

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Detroitville by Nick Pivot

Detroitville by Nick PivotProud motor city resident Nick Pivot released his debut Detroitville in 2015. This pure country, slightly comical EP features well produced songs with simple, accessible hooks and themes. The album was produced by Robert Crenshaw who took a classic country approach, inspired by the sounds of artists such as Tennessee Ernie Ford and Buck Owens. Several top-notch Detroit area musicians played on the record.

The “Nick Pivot” name was originally adopted as the pen name of journalist Mike Nickele when he was the news editor at Auto Week magazine. Nickele had previously worked in a Chrysler assembly plant while in college, all the while writing and performing music. Starting off in rock bands, Nickele eventually migrated towards country music and Nickele formed a duo called Skin and Bones, where the earliest versions of songs that appear on Detroitville were forged.

The EP begins with “A Box of Wine, a Bag of Weed and Judge Judy”, the ultimate anthem of the unemployed slacker. “High and Inside” follows with more clever lyrics along with many bluegrass elements and a great slide guitar. The Best overall song on the album is “Honky Tonk Crowd”, a pure slow country waltz with rapid mandolin, accordion, stand-up bass and a nice chorus of backing vocals behind Pivot’s melancholy vocals. “Help Mr. Wizard” features a good mixture of blended electric and lap steel guitars along with a saxophone which gives this song a real musical edge, while the short but effective “Rock Town” is the closest to an actual rock song with well-treated, edgy vocals and a methodical drum roll throughout to complement a consistent electric guitar and bass riff.

The most indelible track on Detroitville is the quasi-theme track “Fuck You, I’m from Detroit”, an intentional chant, which one can foresee being a classic in Detroit for decades to come. Musically, this acoustic-based track is joined by a slide guitar and crowd effects, while lyrically Pivot name drops a lot of Detroit musicians as well as cultural landmarks. As for the vulgar title of this track, Pivot shrugs it off as a “friendly ‘howdy do’.”

The sub-title to Detroitville is “Shop floor country from the Motor City”, a complex yet common theme for this populist album.

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Nick Pivot online

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American V: A Hundred Highways
by Johnny Cash

Buy American V: A Hundred Highways

American V: A Hundred Highways by Johnny CashEven though Johnny Cash‘s career spanned nearly 50 years, it is still incredible how prolific of a recording career he had. His posthumous 2006 album, American V: A Hundred Highways, was Cash’s 93rd overall album, 52nd studio album, and (as the title suggests) the 5th in the “American” series with producer Rick Rubin, dating back to the original American Recordings in 1994. As with the previous albums in this series, American V includes a hodge-podge of originals, covers, and a re-recordings of a earlier Cash songs. However this album, which was largely recorded in the months prior to Cash’s death in September 2013, has a chilling vibe of mortality throughout.

After a multi-decade tenure with Columbia Records, Cash was released from his solo recording contract in 1988, although Cash would remain affiliated with the label as a member of the country music super group, The Highwaymen. During the late 80s and early 90s, he tried some new approaches, such as modern recordings of his classic hits as well as a duets album, but none of these caught on commercially. Things changed when Rubin convinced Cash to do some simple, stripped down recordings for his brand new American Recordings label. The result was a Grammy winner for Best Contemporary Folk Album and launched many sequels with slightly different arrangements. The second American Recording album in 1996 paired Cash with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and was another Grammy Award winner. Diagnosed with a degenerative disease in the late nineties, Cash continued to work and tour. Despite damaged lungs, Cash released American III: Solitary Man in 2000 and American IV: The Man Comes Around in 2002.

In May 2003, Johnny’s wife June Carter Cash passed away. Shortly before, she told him to keep working and the wheelchair-bound Cash recorded several dozen songs through the summer of 2003. Following the singer’s death, Rubin meticulously chose the twelve best recordings of Cash’s often strained but always emotional vocals. Later, many session players were brought in to record overdub parts in the slow construction of American V.

Roots Rock Review logoAmerican V: A Hundred Highways by Johnny Cash
Released: July 4, 2006
Produced by: Rick Rubin
Track Listing Primary Musicians
Help Me
Like the 309
If You Could Read My Mind
Further On Up the Road
On the Evening Train
I Came to Believe
Love’s Been Good to Me
A Legend in My Time
Rose of My Heart
Four Strong Winds
I’m Free from the Chain Gang Now
Johnny Cash
Lead Vocals, Guitars
Smokey Hormel
Guitars
Larry Perkins
Guitars
Laura Cash
Fiddle
Benmont Trench
Organ
Dennis Crouch
Bass

 

Larry Gatlin’s “Help Me” starts the album on a sad and somber note, as a personal plea to God to help him hang on just a little longer. Cash had previously recorded this track as “Help” on his 1973 religious album, The Gospel Road. The traditional song, “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”, is a religious tune from the opposite view with a dark sense of sense of vengeance. Musically, the acoustic song is driven by a strong, percussive stomp throughout. “Like the 309” is the last original song Johnny Cash ever wrote and recorded, doing both just weeks before his death. He bares his vocals during the intro verse and the lyrical directives are almost like a living will as they talk about a train taking his casket away.

The quiet and reserved cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” is not quite as melodic as the original, but in its own way is beautiful and haunting throughout. “Further On Up the Road” is another fine cover as a classic Country/Western adaptation of a recent Bruce Springsteen composition. Musically, it features a full but restrained arrangement with a couple of acoustic guitars, piano, and some slight but potent keyboards by Benmont Trench. Hank Williams’ “On the Evening Train” follows as a slow Country ballad with methodical and deliberate rhyming of a series of run-on verses.

Johnny Cash in the 2000s

“I Came to Believe” is the second and final original on this album, although it was originally recorded by Cash in the 1980s. Rod McKuen’s “Love’s Been Good to Me” is a bright folk song with very good chord structure and a complex melody. This song also includes the lyric which gives the album its title;

I have been a rover, I have walked alone / Hiked a hundred highways, Never found a home…”

The album winds down with four final diverse tracks. “A Legend in My Time” is a slow and deliberate country waltz, while “Rose of My Heart” is a more of a pop/country track reflective of the 1980s era when it was written. “Four Strong Winds” is one of the stronger tracks from the latter part of the album, with a lead acoustic guitar pattern which forecasts and a good piano accompaniment. This track was originally recorded by Cash for the 1962 album, The Sound of Johnny Cash. “I’m Free from the Chain Gang Now” features somber music which slightly contrasts the lyrical theme of breaking free. However, this album closer could be interpreted as a self-eulogy from beyond the grave, which gives it a whole different perspective.

American V: A Hundred Highways topped both the Pop and Country charts in the US, making it Johnny Cash’s first #1 album since …At San Quentin in 1969. The liner notes of a later box set claimed that about 50 songs were recorded during the American V, but to date only this album and the 2010 album, American VI: Ain’t No Grave, have been released.

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Johnny Cash Online

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Johnny Cash website
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