Walter “Wolfman” Washington (1943 —2022) was the first Music Inside Out guest who arrived with his own cocktail. He was wearing a red ensemble and gorgeous red shoes, and he carried his instrument quietly, the way a samurai might carry his sword. That guitar was the reason we were in the studio — the reason why he entered most rooms. And, like any warrior, he was in total command of himself while, at the same time, easy peasy about doing whatever might be asked of him. He seemed … satisfied. When the mic opens, there’s the distinct sound of him chuckling and ice cubes tinkling.
Back then, Mr. Washington’s latest album, My Future Is My Past, had just been released and he could not have been more pleased. And when he began to play his chords, solo, singing “I’ve got to see you, somehow, Not tomorrow, but right now,” we couldn’t help but feel the same way. “Steal Away” was a Jimmy Hughes hit, but it was Mr. Washington’s song. Mr. Washington also gave new life to David Egan’s tear jerker “Even Now,” performing that ballad so beautifully on record with Irma Thomas and later on the road with Erica Falls.
The My Future is My Past album — produced by Ben Ellman of Galactic — as well as Mr. Washington’s previous albums, Blue Moon Risin’, Doin’ It the Funky Way, and Howlin’ Live at d.b.a., bespoke an emotional range that made him as easy to believe in song as he was in life. His vulnerabilities and curiosities and strengths were for all to hear, making him essential to Johnny Adams and so many other New Orleans treasures who wanted him by their side.
He told us that as a young man, he used to sleep with his guitar — hoping that they might continue their conversation on yet another level of consciousness. If they were as close as all that, then the guitar was lucky. When Mr. Washington talked with us in the studio, he spoke like a man who had lived fully, loved deeply and met his moment in time with grace. Listen to everything he ever recorded. There won’t be another like him.
This was different. James Taylor has played New Orleans any number of times and on his two most recent visits presented similar shows reflecting on his life as a singer-songwriter. He is, after all, a self-described “professional autobiographer,” who not only shares music, but also allows his team to post vignettes of his daily life online for crowds of devoted and curious fans. But on Saturday night, October 16, Taylor seemed to turn his focus more firmly outward — and onto a nearly capacity audience at the Smoothie King Center that had waited two long years to see him. His romping performance suggested that he’d been waiting also — somewhat impatiently — and was relieved to reunite with fans. Always easy going and courtly onstage, Taylor seemed friskier than before, determined to make every minute tingle.
“For the longest time I didn’t believe we were going to get back here,” he told the audience early on.
The Covid-19 pandemic had twice delayed the concert, featuring Jackson Browne as the opening act. And had Hurricane Ida arrived in Louisiana any later than it did, Saturday’s date might not have been possible. After all, there are still people in the state who don’t have electricity and much of the New Orleans metro area is shrouded in blue tarps over damaged homes and other buildings. The timing was not lost on either performer. Taylor and Browne donated all proceeds from the concert to South Louisiana Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana to benefit those affected by the storm.
Browne, with a full band, including two enchanting back up singers, performed an intense and well-received set, featuring some of his best-known chart hits and three songs from his latest album, “Downhill From Everywhere.” Taylor, leading an even fuller band of eleven performers, also delivered many of his usual crowd-pleasers.
But the set included unexpected treats from his repertoire, as well. “Line ‘Em Up,” he said, was inspired by former President Richard Nixon’s final walk to Marine One. The cartoon charmer “As Easy As Rolling Off a Log,” he called the least-known composition on his 2020 Grammy award-winning album “American Standard.” “That’s Why I’m Here,” the title song from Taylor’s 1985 album, he wrote after the drug overdose and death of his friend and former running partner John Belushi. And the blues song “You Make it Easy” first appeared on the 1975 “Gorilla” album, describing a married man on the brink of making an unwise decision. These selections nudged the audience out of its habit of singing along to the chestnuts at a Taylor concert and reminded them anew of the elegance and power of his songwriting.
It would be difficult to imagine a more besotted response at the arena, where standing ovations and shoutouts abounded. Taylor’s eagerness to keep his band on tour makes him a recurring presence in his fans’ lives — the friend who’s been passing through for more than half a century. And when he’s not physically with his fans, he’s a delightful presence on the Internet, sharing goodwill in the form of guitar lessons, carving pumpkins, choosing a Christmas tree, giving himself a manicure, singing, and patiently talking to his dog, Ting. He and his worldwide listening tribe of friendly strangers have grown together in sincere regard, sharing their lives via his secular hymnal of songs.
“I used to rock her to sleep listening to James Taylor,” Bob Ward of Bristol, VA, said Saturday, motioning to his daughter Julie Ward, who’s now a twenty-something New Orleans resident. “Every night, she used to say, ‘Daddy, I wanna hear ‘Steamroller!’ It got tiring sometimes. If there are 365 days in a year, we must have played that entire (1991 James Taylor In Concert) videotape more than 365 times.” But when the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival cancelled this year’s event due to Covid concerns, ending Ward’s hopes of seeing Jimmy Buffet, he and Julie made a merry pair singing Taylor’s songs from the balcony seating. She’d insisted they come.
To gain entry to the Smoothie King Center, audience members provided proof of a Covid vaccine or a recent negative test for the virus. But it was unsettling to see so many people singing with such gusto and not wearing masks in the packed house. The tableau underscored the uncertainties ahead for live performance in New Orleans and elsewhere.
Images of an autumnal evening in the outdoors, projected on a screen behind the band, added a warmth and calm to the music but also underscored the illusory nature of Saturday’s reunion. The faux leaves falling from a faux large tree onscreen were a reminder of time passing, and the fragile line between what many in attendance might hope for the future and the unknown realities that await.
And yet, it was enlivening to see Taylor — older, shaggy-haired and a bit scattered in his storytelling — sing himself hoarse just to be of use to his followers. His final encore, “You Can Close You Eyes” performed as a duet with his son Henry (a taller, softer, near doppelgänger version of his earlier self), brought the feeling home:
Oh, the sun is surely sinking down But the moon is slowly rising So this old world must still be spinning around And I still love you
The song, released almost exactly 50 years ago, has become a covenant of sorts — that there will be more evenings such as this, too long forestalled, perhaps, and too quick to pass.
Nowadays, Sean Collins is producing and hosting a new podcast on behalf of the Providence Institute for Human Caring, called Hear Me Now. As it turns out, he should have been behind the mic all along.
Sean can do almost anything. He’s a great news producer, teller of jokes, empath, thinker, tinkerer and all around beacon of light. In addition to producing some of NPR’s best news magazines, he’s produced several episodes of Music Inside Out and, in his spare time, created our website.
We spoke recently about which songs might make a good primer for someone interested in learning about jazz this winter — a premise that I extravagantly disavowed. As so many guests of Music Inside Out have told us, a song has to knock a listener in the head, or the heart, first. That’s the song that belongs at the beginning of a primer playlist and it’s different for everyone. From there the listener falls down a proverbial rabbit hole to find an entire world of music waiting to be explored.
There’s gonna be a great day
Years ago, Sean told me that the pianist Keith Jarrett and his extraordinary 1975 performance in Cologne, Germany — forever memorialized as The Koln Concert — helped him understand jazz for the very first time. That’s a mighty fine rabbit hole. My winter list (and, yes, I made a list because I can never resist Sean) begins with more bombast. A recent recording of the song “Great Day” by the New Orleans singer Robin Barnes, led me to the 1963 original* on an album called The Explosive Side of Sarah Vaughan.
Ms. Vaughan’s “Great Day” starts in a hurry and keeps going in such an infectious way that it makes me feel optimistic and excited about everything — even getting out of bed.
Sometime after falling in love with “Great Day,” I read an interview with the extraordinary New Orleans drummer Earl Palmer (1924-2008) — the man who helped create the backbeat of rock ’n roll with Fats Domino, the songwriting producer Dave Bartholomew and engineer Cosimo Matassa, before joining the Wrecking Crew in Southern California. When asked which of more than a thousand recordings he made stood out, he cited … The Explosive Side of Sarah Vaughan. I shoulda known. More often than not, New Orleans musicians and sensibilities hide in plain sight in the best of American popular music.
Sean will direct you to the Spotify List of many songs I’ll be listening to this winter. Of course, my list is still growing. So come back here any time for some new tunes.
*[Ed. note: As it turns out, this jazzy, up-tempo “Great Day” isn’t the first version Ms. Vaughan recorded. A much more intimate interpretation appears on 1961’s After Hours, with accompanists Mundell Lowe (guitar) and George Duvivier (double bass).]
An extraordinary thing happened the other day. An episode of Music Inside Out reached the program’s biggest audience ever on Facebook — more than 47,000 people, who clicked nearly 8,000 “Likes.” Talk about a kick in the head.
Part of what made the result so singular is that the episode we ran was dedicated to country music, which is not as popular in New Orleans as it is in other areas of the state, or the region.
We’d interviewed historian Bill C. Malone who wrote the book on country music back in 1968, updated it in 1985 and in 2018 issued a 50th anniversary edition. Country Music, USA has never been out of print and Malone, 85, has kept his ear to the airwaves all these years, finding new angles, artists and songs to talk about. His many subsequent books and articles explore the music as well as the working class people who created it and for whom it has always meant so much.
When the Ken Burns team went looking for an expert to guide them through the history of the music, they could do no better than Malone — and didn’t. He was the resident historian of the PBS Ken Burns: Country Music series and when he wasn’t on camera, the narrator Peter Coyote was repeating ideas that Malone had formulated originally in print so long ago.
The Singing Historian
What makes Malone compelling as a retired university professor, author and songcatcher, is that he sings. At Tulane University, where he spent 25 years in the classroom, he would bring his guitar to class and perform some of the most cherished songs in the country music canon — standards by Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, the Carter Family and more.
But for a man who sang repeatedly to a captive audience of students, he was no ham. Before anyone would think to applaud, he’d be talking about the particulars of the songwriter, the performer, the listening audience, the radio station. He knew that hearing the song sung simply and in real time had the potential to move students emotionally, pique their interest and help them better understand why the music matters. During our interview he did something similar. Malone, singing a capella, conjured a song that his mother sang on their cotton farm in East Texas and I just about cried.
When the world from you withholds Of its silver and its gold And you’ve got to get along on meager fare Just remember in His word How He fed the little bird Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there Leave it there, Oh, leave it there Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there If you trust and never doubt He will surely bring you out Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.
Leave it There, written by Charles Tindley
“I didn’t learn until many years later that was written by an African-American composer named Charles Tindley who had a church in Philadelphia at the early years of the 20th century,” Malone said quickly. “And he wrote a lot of songs that moved beyond his church out in the hinterland and became the possession of white and black people. I think anyone who was poor and isolated and suffering could find release in that song.”
Can you imagine what his classes were like?
For that afternoon, I felt as if I were back at school, except this time I could ask more questions and there was no grade to worry over. Many of our local listeners must have felt that way also.
And yet, the most surprising thing about the listening audience that week, according to Facebook, is that the overwhelming majority of people who heard or showed interest in the program were in Kenya. East Africa has a long history of country music fandom. Radio stations across Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan spin country favorites every day on the radio, or people play the songs on their own devices. I wrote a story saying as much from Nairobi in 2007.
So it came as a pleasant surprise that all these years later, Kenyan listeners — many of them young — are still as eager to hear country music. As I recall, they were particularly enamored with Jimmie Rodgers, Jim Reeves, and Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton singing separately or as a duo. On a six-hour drive from Northern Uganda to the capital city of Kampala, I remember hearing “A Coat of Many Colors” more than dozen times.
Back through the years I go wonderin’ once again Back to the seasons of my youth I recall a box of rags that someone gave us And how momma put the rags to use … — Coat of Many Colors, written by Dolly Parton
In Nairobi, the songs of Kenny Rogers, who died this month in Sandy Springs, Georgia, meant a great deal to radio listeners. No one there, or anywhere, could deny the power of his storytelling and he had just the right material: “The Gambler,” “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” and, in particular, “Coward of the County,” in which the hero, a lifelong pacifist, fights the “Gatlin boys” who had raped his sweetheart.
Twenty years of crawling was bottled up inside him He wasn’t holding nothing back, he let ‘em have it all When Tommy left the barroom, not a Gatlin boy was standing He said, “This one’s for Becky,” as he watched the last one fall — Coward of the County, written by Roger Dale Bowling and Billy “Edd” Wheeler
Turn Your Radio On
Country music — and particularly the old songs — can keep you company like almost no other popular music. The stories are often unforgettable and they unfold like morality plays, continuing the oral traditions that originally grew out of rural communities across the United States. And, as Malone stresses in our interview, the music has always been the expression of black and white people from those communities and others. That’s why country music appeals to people in Africa and around the planet, including listeners of Music Inside Out.
On the last day that I saw my friends Nadine and Simon Blake, I played that part of the Malone interview in which he sings the hymn, “Leave It There.” It ended the dinner before we self-isolated against the spread of the novel coronavirus. Turns out, that song has a kind of universal power that may transcend religiosity. It expiates worried feelings and gives calm and hope in return. Dang, that Malone is good.