Over the past few years, we’ve had some amazing talent take part in our American Songwriter Sessions. These intimate live performances are performed as stripped-down, acoustic, and off the cuff as possible, and it’s been awe-inspiring to watch these artists rise to the challenge.
Our Best of Sessions Sampler features artists ranging from roots music sensation Elizabeth Cook, who fired up an energetic version of “El Camino,” to Courtney Jaye, a local Nashville songstress on the rise. Paul Simon’s son Harper treats us to “Berkeley Girl,” the enigmatic White Buffalo performs “I Wish It Was True,” and British folk sensation Johnny Flynn casts a spell over the room with “Churlish May.”
Delve into our Best Of Sessions Sampler here.
Ron Sexsmith – “Get in Line”
A perpetually-acclaimed influential godfather of many of this sampler’s other artists makes minor-major melodic turns in such short notice (a pocket-sized 2:26) that there’s not a second to waste on notes that aren’t pretty or syllables that aren’t perfectly enjambed. “If you mean to shower me with guilt/ Take a number then wait in line” sounds a lot less bitter in that mushy voice and doleful strum. In fact, it sounds downright over you.
Justin Townes Earle – “Ghost of Virginia”
Justin double-times circles around his dad — with this propulsion it could be an Old 97’s song, and the line about the freight train helps too. This is gorgeous though, especially the wordless refrain of strumming, though there’s something to be said for verses reminiscent of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” too, isn’t there?
Vetiver – “Wishing Well”
Sub Pop’s token campfire galloper has a better beat than sometime tourmate Devendra Banhart, and probably a better beard. His blues chops are better than most, but it’s the way his melody never stops interlinking from bit to bit that helps him stand out the most.
Honeyhoney – “Old School Friends”
Strikingly sexy, with impressive vocal turns around every corner on the duo’s debut EP Loose Boots, Suzanne Santo possesses one of the most sinuous voices around. That they’ve turned to straight banjo-plucking Americana for the new Billy Jack only opens new doors for Honeyhoney.
Ben Sollee – “Only a Song”
“Genre-bending cellist” Ben Sollee indeed plucks, slides and bows his instrument toward previously unimagined folkways. That is, he winningly turns the cello into beer music. Beer music for dads, anyway. Dads who would never ever listen to cello music. “I’ve been craving a root beer float” he announces after talking about caring for his young son. Yeah, right.
Johnny Flynn – “Churlish May”
If Colin Meloy leaves you annoyed sometimes (and let’s be real), his more British soundalike Johnny Flynn matches The Decemberists with “Churlish May”’s good row of a harmonized chorus on this oar-to-shore lament.
Elizabeth Cook – “El Camino”
“El Camino” was one of the absolute stunners on one of last year’s best albums, Welder, and Cook’s chewy-mouthed reading here belies her confidence in these casual observations of a pet mullethead who puts Quaaludes in her beer. Nonchalantly and unsurprisingly, they hit harder than lines most of her peers think are ten-ton trucks: “I told you your car is kind of creepy, man/ Not in a gangster kind of way but a perv kind of way.”
Robert Ellis – “Friends Like Those”
This expert fingerpicker from Texas gets a strikingly melodic pop sound out of just his sprightly strings and heavenly punctuation from pedal steel, which sounds like a theremin beamed in from outer space. His rhymes are just as resourceful: “Their kids probably wouldn’t/ Know me from chocolate pudding.” And his lament for friends who grew up without him only gets prettier when the subject turns to mortality.
Harper Simon – “Berkeley Girl”
“Though she makes her home in Hollywood/ She’s really just a Berkeley girl” dryly sings this son of Paul Simon, who’s picked up his dad’s underrated knack for beautiful fingerpicking (don’t miss out on dad’s So Beautiful or So What by the way), just check out that gorgeous bit after the three-minute mark. He’s getting there in the lyric department too.
The White Buffalo – “Wish It Was True”
Grizzled beardo Jake Smith has a disarmingly pretty vocal affect, which goes great on “I Wish It Was True,” a tune that’s reminiscent of Crooked Fingers galloping a little more quickly. Hear the way Smith flicks the strings upward like little somersaults? It all helps warm the frozen mountain air of conflicts like “I tried to do right by you/ To do what you asked me to/ Which was wrong and I knew.”
Courtney Jaye – “Sweet Ride”
“How can I change your mind?” Courtney Jaye asks, in regard to staying a while. Well, it helps when you calls us Blue Eyes in that honey voice. “Honey, it’s only love” is a great, ironic line for a music that historically makes its moolah off hysterical emotion. And then she says we’re looking at her like she’s crazy! Funny stuff.
David Nail – “Mississippi”
Songwriting’s rarely this gracefully direct nowadays — not to bash arrangements or anything. But David Nail tries to do for solo baseball park organ on “Mississippi” what early Randy Newman albums did for piano, even though Van Morrison’s really more his bag. Nonetheless, the latest gutbucket to belt “I ain’t the man I used to be” maybe means that he’s learned to edit down to raw essentials.
Jessica Lea Mayfield – “Run Myself Into The Ground”
One of this year’s big standouts is this mistress of unique chord progressions and desolate drawl. Having paid her dues in the family bluegrass band at merely 8 years old, at only 22 she announces “I’m not gonna change for anybody at all.” Her great benefactors The Black Keys, now superstars in their own right, have helped thrust her into a spotlight where she may not actually have to.
Damien Jurado – “Hoquiam”
Now that his friend David Bazan’s picked up the slack on angry political rockers with underrated solo albums like Strange Negotiations, there’s a gaping hole in “Ghost Of Tom Joad” style ambient ballads, which Jurado gladly obliges to fill, with plaintive murmurings about breaking chairs and broken jaws.
Track reviews by Dan Weiss.
Audio: Steve Martin, Logan Matheny, Kyle Bird, Cameron Henry, and Joseph LeMay.