New Music Wednesday: Sam Morrow, Chris Smither and New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers
This week there is captivating new music from Sam Morrow, Chris Smither, and the long sought after album by New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers.
Sam Morrow is a difficult artist to pin to a definable genre. On one album he is performing straightforward acoustic ballads and on another album, he sounds like a swill drinkin’ vagabond bouncing from one saloon to the next. Marrow’s obsessive pursuit of creativity never allows his music to stand in one genre for too long.
On his first album Ephemeral, criminally sucked the life and personality from Morrow. The album at times feels like generic coffee shop white noise. Ephemeraldoes have one bright spot with the song “14,” a catchy mix of Bright Eye’s “Road to Joy” and Cracked Rear ViewHootie & the Blowfish. Combining the 90’s college radio rock and emo-folk showed Morrow’s ability to push boundaries and create something fresh. It is easy to get the impression Morrow did not care for the mostly bland perimeters Ephemeralfell into, every album since he has integrated an ever-growing list of genre-melding.
Morrow’s Second album There is No Map, he trades the coffee shop for the saloon, ejecting any trepidations and limitations holding him back on Ephemeral. Morrow is exploding with confidence and backing band that knows how to light his fuse.
His third album Concrete and Mud, Morrow incorporates country-western shuffles, organ-driven funk, swamp boogie, and outlaw country. Each song is a showcase for Morrow’s genre-bending and his fixation with creating something no one has ever heard before. A lot of artists this sounds like trying on someone else’s clothes, nothing fitting quite right. Luckily, Morrow is a master tailor, sowing together chunks of genre sounds and styles.
Sam Morrow’s two new singles “Money Ain’t a Thing” and “Rosarita” from his forthcoming album Gettin’ By on Gettin’ Down, available October 30,do not disappoint. “Rosarita” sounds like a weekend bender where David Bowie’s “Fame,” Lynard Skynyrd’s “Freebird,” and ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres hooked up. On “Money Ain’t a Thing” Morrow combines Blackberry Smoke, Tom Petty, and The Talking Heads “Once in a Life Time.” Trading the humid haze and sweaty tempo’s of Louisiana for muscular southern rock from the eastern gulf coast. It sounds like Morrow is having more fun now than ever before.
Renowned blues guitarist Chris Smither released a new rendition of his song “Lonely Town” as part of his career retrospect collection More From The Levee. The 2020 rendition of “Lonely Time” is absolutely stunning and one of the best songs I have heard all year. Like a sentimental Eddie Vedder, Smither’s timbre has deepened with age, muting his vocal tremble into an effortless richness. It is the age and tone of his voice that brings new life and vitality to the song. When the song was first released in 1971 on Smither’s debut album I’m A Stranger, Too!, Smither was in his mid-twenties, the song’s brokenhearted lyrics felt temporary and acute. Dramatic lines about aching for the one that got away, Smither’s is half a man and lost in sadness. Now in his mid 70’s “Lonely Time” has painful finality to it and the added dimension that death may have taken away his love. Smither’s is begging to be haunted by the ghost of the person succumb to the darkness of death.
Calling out to his lost love, the song opens with “tell me I can live without you/ tell me let the good times roll/ tell me I can live as half a man/ loving you is what made me whole.” Smither needs them to reach beyond the grave and give him the strength to live on. As the song progresses Smither compares his life to flowers on his loved one’s grave, “graveyard flowers lost in gray showers/ all my leaves are turning brown.” Smither’s articulates the brutality of time in the midst of loneliness, that the passage of time is a punitive teacher. Out of nowhere, there is a response to his crying out, “time has come to teach you how/ because all you need is love to find me/ you don’t need a fine-tooth comb.” A simple reminder that love is the endurance to live through the pain of loss. A simple truth that love is real and a force to scaffold your broken heart.
Tour busses are an interesting thing, either you have romanticized notions of touring the country with your best friends, or you have lived in one and know the cramped claustrophobia, smelly, argument inducing, hell on wheels. New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers are no stranger to life on a tour bus. The would-be roots Super Group comprised of Charlie Musselwhite, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Jimbo Mathus, Jim Dickinson with sons Luther and Cody Dickinson, along with Chris Chew and Paul Taylor, forged their partnership on one such hellish tour bus. Over the span of a tour, the uncomfortable bus provoked sleepless nights and endless conversations about the collection’s musical influences.
In 2007, the conversations lead to the group meeting at Zebra Ranch Recording Studio in Coldwater, Mississippi, and started jamming through the music spent hours talking about. Since then the ramshackle sessions sat untouched and unheard for over a decade. In the absence of released music, folklore began to spread about the sessions. Speculation that, “It was done in one take off the floor over a couple of late nights, where they all sat in one big circle in the studio and played quietly amongst the microphones taking turns singing out in the room and improvising on the spot.” As word of mouth spread and curiosity peaked, Stony Plain Records founder Holger Petersen heard about the sessions. After hearing the sessions Peterson enlisted Luther Dickinson and his partner/engineer Kevin Houston to finish production on the album.
After nearly 13 years New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers Volume 1has finally been released and it doesn’t disappoint. A raucous celebration of the blues, and the excitement found in one take cuts. One of the most thrilling tracks is a cover of Jimi Hendrix “Stone Free,” and a close second is Charley Patton’s “Pony Blues.” Luckily, we will not have to wait for another 13 years for Volume 2, because it is already scheduled for release in 2021.
Cory Martin is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn., writing about movies, music and pop culture.