Richard Thompson tells a story that may be apocryphal about meeting the Queen when he collected his OBE in 2011. “And what it is that you do?” she is reported to have asked. “I’m a singer and a songwriter, ma’am,” came the response, Thommo possibly appreciating that Her Majesty might not be up to speed with the more customarily hyphenated version of that job description. “At the same time? How clever!” was her reply. It’s probably as well that he didn’t also mention that he was, according to Rolling Stone magazine’s 2003 critics poll, also the 19th greatest guitarist of all time.
Now not all people who write songs and sing them themselves are as clever as Richard Thompson but at some level they could all claim to be singer-songwriters, no matter how turgid and even unlistenable the results. Equally, Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Lou Reed, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé have as much right to the title as Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. And yet, driven by the need to carefully categorise our music into separately identifiable if ever more microscopically defined genres and subgenres, we think of them primarily, if not solely, as rock, pop or R&B stars because singer-songwriter has become a subgenre of its own, recognised by its connection to Dylan or Leonard Cohen or the early ’70s denizens of Laurel Canyon, or the trail-of-Townes Texans, unless and until it becomes folk-rock or country-rock or Americana.
Buffalo Nichols – Buffalo Nichols
Where does all this leave Buffalo Nichols? He’s a dyed-in-the-wool old-style country blues singer, the first for about twenty years to record for Mississippi’s Fat Possum label – co-founded by a South African and once entirely dependent on the discovery of old, barely recorded bluesmen – with an impressive fingerstyle acoustic guitar technique that combines the drone of Mississippi Fred McDowell and the drive of Bukka White, throwing in traces of Skip James, a Robert Johnson intro and a little electricity for ballast. But Nichols, who is just 30, is also a fine songwriter with a good deal to say about hard times in his country. Although he sings about other subjects too, his approach is probably best encountered in the powerful Another Man, based on the chain gang song Another Man Done Gone, famously recorded by Alabama singer Vera Hall in 1940 and updated here to “When my grandpa was young, he had to hold his tongue, ’cause they’d hang you from a bridge downtown. Now they call it stand your ground.” The song also references the Texas prison song Ain’t No More Cane where back in 1910 “they were driving the women just like they drove the men”.
Cedric Burnside – I Be Trying
When I saw the teenage Cedric Burnside, nearly 25 years ago, he was playing drums behind his grandfather, the great North Mississippi hill country bluesman and Fat Possum’s flagship artist, R.L. Burnside. I saw R.L. twice and he made a fearsome racket. These days Cedric also plays guitar and sings and, while his latest is a little more restrained (he has become a regular Grammy nominee in the category of traditional blues, with the necessary turning down and evening out that Grammy shots generally demand) than grandad’s general output – R.L.’s ‘A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey’, in the company of the unfailingly raucous Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, created controversy and division in the blues community but it may have saved Fat Possum – he continues to retain enough of the grit and soul of his musical forebears to warrant the heritage awards he keeps getting.
The Black Keys – Delta Kream
One time Fat Possum artists but now multi-Grammy winners (in more conspicuous categories than traditional blues), the multi-platinum selling rockers from Ohio celebrate that very heritage on their tenth studio album. It may not be their own heritage but the influence it has had on them has been palpable, if a little diluted on more recent albums, and the respect they pay it is impressive. All eleven songs on ‘Delta Kream’, which pays tribute to the spirit as well as the music of the North Mississippi hill country blues, quite different in style from its Delta cousin, are associated with the Keys’ former label mates R.L. Burnside, who wrote two of them (his uncle wrote another) or the equally magnificent Junior Kimbrough whose hypnotic groove was called the beginning and the end of all music by rockabilly pioneer Charlie Feathers and who wrote five of the songs here. In addition, Kimbrough’s bassist Eric Deaton is added to the line up along with Kenny Brown, whom Burnside called his white son and who scorched on slide guitar when I saw the old man play.
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss – Raise The Roof
This is the more or less synonymously titled follow-up, fourteen years later, to the multi-Grammy winning, multi-million selling ‘Raising Sand’, once again produced by the admirable T Bone Burnett and following much the same format as before: impeccable song choices impeccably sung and played by a central core of the same musicians achieving much the same sound … Burnett himself, his preferred rhythm section of Bellerose and Crouch, and Marc Ribot whose guitar gives the album about as much edge as it’s prepared to take. The new guest list is impressive too – Bill Frisell and Buddy Miller, David Hidalgo from Los Lobos, ace bluegrasser Stuart Duncan and Alison’s jazz-orientated brother Viktor – without drawing attention to itself. Once again some of the song choices might surprise. Plant sang at Bert Jansch’s 70th birthday tribute and Krauss would certainly find common ground with mountain singer Ola Belle Reed, but reclusive English folksinger Anne Briggs, FAME studio soulsters Bobby Moore & the Rhythm Aces and Calexico are perhaps less expected. Yet they work as well as the Plant/Krauss vocal blend that probably shouldn’t have done in the first place. Is it as good as ‘Raising Sand’? Who knows? It’s less surprising because it’s been done before, but there’s a lot to like here, if perhaps not quite as much to love.
Adia Victoria – A Southern Gothic
Actually, ‘Raise The Roof’ wasn’t even my favourite T Bone production of the year. This one was. He’s listed as executive producer which seems to mean that he was largely happy with what Nashville-out-of-South-Carolina singer Adia Victoria and her musical partner Mason Hickman brought to the table, but there is a sound that is associated with Burnett and ‘A Southern Gothic’ definitely has it. In 2020 Adia Victoria released a song entitled South Gotta Change which proclaimed that “’Cos I love you, I won’t leave you” but that because “your walls are falling down, you gotta face me now”, and ‘A Southern Gothic’ sees her further exploring her relationship with the notoriously conservative area as a black woman through titles like Far From Dixie, Carolina Bound, the lovely South For The Winter (with Matt Berninger of the National, whose bandmate Aaron Dessner had produced her previous album) and particularly Magnolia Blues. The album is rooted in the blues without especially being a blues record. The updated gospel stomp that reworks Curley Weaver and Blind Willie McTell’s 1933 You Was Born To Die is in fact a bit of an outlier, louder for sure, though not all that radical, with country singer Margo Price supplying the shared vocal and Jason Isbell’s electric slide replacing Weaver’s acoustic original, which, like this, kicked off with a spoken into.
Yola – Stand For Myself
Yola also moved to Nashville, though in her case it was from Bristol; not Bristol, Tennessee, though, where the big bang of country music took place in 1927, but Bristol in south-west England where Mike Procter once made runs and took wickets by the ton for Gloucestershire and where Yola Quartey once sang in Massive Attack. She moved to Nashville in order to be produced by another acclaimed contemporary roots music producer, Dan Auerbach of the aforementioned Black Keys. Their first collaboration, ‘Walk Through Fire’, was a huge critical success, picking up Grammy nominations for fun, so they did it again. Yola is a wonderful singer with an uncanny grasp of a number of styles that have, at one time or another, fitted into what has broadly been called R&B for about 70 years. Auerbach added lashings of pedal steel and a gaggle of hot bluegrassers to the first album which gave parts of it a strong country-soul feel. ‘Stand For Myself’ loses enough of the country that it has not made the UK country chart where its predecessor went to number one, but it has once again been nominated in the Grammys’ Americana category even though it mainly sounds to me like a soul record, with Dancing Away In Tears referencing ’70s Philly soul and Break The Bough neatly splitting the difference between Motown and Stax. Then again Diamond Studded Shoes, also Grammy-nominated, was co-written with Aaron Lee Tasjan whose own 2021 album featured the year’s best Nilsson-McCartney songs that were not written by Harry or Paul.
Valerie June – The Moon And Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers
Valerie June, the third artist in a row on this list not using her surname, is from Tennessee, but Memphis rather than Nashville, and her first album was also produced by Dan Auerbach. I liked it, but not enough to buy the second. ‘The Moon And Stars’ is her third and is so good that it was certainly going to be my album of the year, right up until, as we shall discover a little later, it wasn’t anymore, although, listening once more, it could easily become that again. Don’t be put off by the title, which could almost have been borrowed from Alice Coltrane, if not some nondescript hippie band from the ’60s. Valerie June’s powerful if slightly unusually nasal voice is the ideal vehicle, song after song, nearly without a pause for breath, for this eloquently melodic, quietly stirring mix of old school soul – Memphis icon Carla Thomas joins for the superb Call Me A Fool – pop, country, modern R&B and even traces of gentle psychedelia. Why The Bright Stars Glow is still holding on as my favourite song of 2021.
Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview On Phenomenal Nature
While we’re on the subject of 2021 favourites, here’s my choice for opening lines of the year, set to a familiar early ’70s Neil Young trudge as they introduce Jenkins’s second album, her first for four years, on a song called Michelangelo: “I’m a three-legged dog working with what I got, and part of me will always be looking for what I lost.” What Jenkins, who had most recently worked as a touring musician with artists like Eleanor Friedberger and the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, had most conspicuously lost was her most recent collaborator, the darkly brilliant if hopelessly overlooked singer-songwriter and poet David Berman (Silver Jews, Purple Mountains etc). Jenkins and the rest of Purple Mountains were just about to set off on a tour when Berman committed suicide, and the gorgeous ‘An Overview On Phenomenal Nature’, whose title apparently refers to advice Jenkins was once offered by a security guard and which never confuses sadness with pessimism, is saturated with (songs like Ambiguous Norway and New Bikini specifically refer to it), but never overwhelmed by (The Ramble is an instrumental featuring children’s voices and birdsong) that tragic event.
Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi – They’re Calling Me Home
Robert Plant once said, and I’m paraphrasing, but only a little, that hearing bluegrass giant Ralph Stanley sing O Death unaccompanied made him realise just how much fabulous music he had been missing by not paying enough attention to the Appalachian old-time. McArthur fellow and roots music virtuoso Rhiannon Giddens’s version, accompanied only by her Italian multi-instrumentalist partner Francesco Turrisi’s frame drum, might not have the eerie otherworldliness of Dr Ralph’s, or even the spinechilling authenticity of the rendition delivered by Hazel Dickens in the John Sayles film, Matewan, but it’s pretty remarkable all the same; and it’s not even the most memorable song on the album. Giddens and Turrisi, now living in Ireland, recorded this spare but by no means stark record with occasional but telling assistance from Irish musician Emer Mayock and immigrant Congolese guitarist Niwel Tsumbu and the result, if understated and therefore possibly underrated, is an absolute beauty that includes traditional songs in English and Italian, an Irish jig, a civil rights anthem and Amazing Grace played on uilleann pipes, frame drum and humming.
Justin Adams & Mauro Durante – Still Moving
We should pause here for a moment, given the references to Robert Plant and Italian collaborators, and talk about Justin Adams. Adams, a British guitarist with a particularly firm and imaginative grasp of blues and African styles and a trademark thick and resonant tone, is probably best known to a rock audience as the guitarist in Plant’s bands, but his playing with Jah Wobble, Gambian riti player Juldeh Camara and in the seldom spotted but well worth checking out Les Triaboliques, together with his production work for Tuareg guitar masters Tinariwen and Algerian singer Rachid Taha, have made him a bit of a world music cult hero. Here he hooks up with Mauro Durante, violinist in the fabulous pizzica band from Italy’s south-east boot heel, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino. Durante has a similar affinity for bluesy playing and stylistic exploration and ‘Still Moving’ takes in just about everything mentioned here and makes it all work.
Amythyst Kiah – Wary + Strange
In 2019 the eminent Smithsonian Folkways label released an album entitled ‘Songs Of Our Native Daughters’ in its African American Legacy series. It was by a quartet of multi-instrumentalist but also banjo-playing African American women comprising Giddens herself, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell. Russell had been in two reasonably well-known duos, Po’ Girl with Trish Klein of the Be Good Tanyas and Birds Of Chicago with her husband, JT Nero; Kiah, who was the bluesiest of the four, had studied bluegrass, old time music and country at university; Giddens and McCalla had been part of the black string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops who were involved in what bluesman Otis Taylor called ‘Recapturing The Banjo’, and thereby the black string band tradition, from the predominantly white music with which it had become overwhelmingly associated. In Our Native Daughters they were looking to recapture, in song, the often-overlooked narrative about struggle and resistance for black women. Three of the four participants released albums in 2021. On ‘Wary + Strange’, her second album, which kicks off with a brief broadside against “soapbox speeches”, Kiah’s marvellous Black Myself, whose Our Native Daughters incarnation was Grammy-nominated as best American roots song, has got even stronger in this new rocked up version of what she, like Adia Victoria, calls Southern gothic, but it’s the very restraint and traumatic doubt in Wild Turkey that might provide the album’s real power.
Allison Russell – Outside Child
Russell is actually Canadian and, like Giddens, had one white parent. She never knew her Caribbean student father but was ritually and mercilessly abused by her adoptive father, so she ran away from home, living on her wits and by the good graces of others in Montreal while still attending school. She thanks the city, in English and French, on the opening track of her first solo album ‘Outside Child’, recorded in four days but initially unable to find a record company to release it into a world besotted with K-pop and bro country. To say that the 18-month wait was worth it would be among the year’s great musical understatements as the record, produced by Rodney Crowell associate Dan Knobler, on which Russell plays banjo and clarinet and Yola and gospel’s McCrary Sisters (their preacher father was in the Fairfield Four who found wider fame on the multi-platinum soundtrack to ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’) sing harmonies and which draws on folk, rock, blues, gospel and country influences among several others, grew and grew until it became, with a quiet inevitability, my album of the year.
There’s a Cajun feel to The Hunters that reminds us of its French-Canadian origins, where there’s a steel drum reference to her Caribbean ancestry and where her stepfather, referred to throughout the album as the jackal, is contrasted with the wolves to whom she was abandoned by her parents but who gave her strength to run and chase. We should have killed you as a babe, she was told. On Hy-Brasil, a traditional folk tune is infused with a sonic mystery that matches a rhyme and Celtic magic spell she learned from her Scottish great-grandmother that lends hope, wisdom and a promise that “You’ll be free … he cannot match your will”.
Little Rebirth is a hymn, guided by the simplest of plucked banjo melodies while All Of The Women takes the form of a spiritual where strength is drawn from an acquaintance who has been a fixture on the corner most nights for the last six years and is “stronger then eggshells and tougher than luck”. The yearning for better times in the devastating Fourth Day Prayer’s children’s chorus – “One for the hate that loops and loops, Two for the poison at the roots, Three for the children breaking through, Four for the day we’re standing in the sun” – might have seemed somewhat optimistic had it not been for the album’s closing song, sung with her husband, that offers forgiveness, warns those who are hiding their love to let it see that sun, and asks, “Where in the world are the joyful motherfuckers?” It draws a beautiful line under a remarkable story unflinchingly told.