It’s customary as December rolls around for the music industry to shower awards on the singers, players, producers, albums and individual songs that are judged the “best of” the preceding year.
This being America, the only standard we know by which to judge art is the almighty dollar. So, in practical terms, award season means that we honor those who already made ridiculous amounts of money selling bazillions of albums, singles and concert tickets.
Here at Troubadour Blues, we’re starting a different tradition this year: The Troubie Awards.
I know, it looks like TROUBLE (and it may be), but we’re going to honor a few stellar achievements in the world of troubadours — hard-working musicians who travel a lot, hump their own gear from airports to rental cars to gigs, get most of their record sales by selling CDs one at a time to fans who turn out, and don’t receive a lot of industry accolades or media attention.
You’ll see some traditional categories, like Best Album and Song of the Year, some stolen from the world of sports, like Most Valuable Player, and some I just made up in my car on the way home from the grocery store, like Best First Impression by an Artist I’d Never Heard Before.
To make things completely fair, voting was limited to me. Simple, isn’t it?
So, here they are (roll of drums please) . . . the 2010 Troubie Awards. (Hit refresh if the videos don’t all load).
Album of the Year (Studio)
Peter Case — Wig!
I’ve always loved the energy of first takes, and the vast majority of Peter’s recorded songs have been bashed out live in the studio. For his first album after recovering from open-heart surgery, Peter went into a little studio in East L.A. with Ron Franklin (guitar) and DJ Bonebrake (drums) and made this record in only a few days. It has the murky sound and primal beat of the old rock & roll records I loved as a kid, and the songs throw off sparks of raw energy. It’s a little bit nostalgic, but it’s also a product of a time when the haves have everything and the have-nots throw parties to pay the rent.
Stan Ridgway — Neon Mirage
Ridgway also had a tough year, losing his father and others near and dear to him, so there are some introspective meditations on life (“Halfway There,” “Behind the Mask) along with the Rod Serling-meets-Ennio Morricone stylings that he’s become known for. It’s the last studio recording made by violinist Amy Farris in her tragically short life, which gives it extra resonance for me. Stan’s been doing a lot of movie scoring work, and it shows on the wonderful title track and on the quirky orchestration of songs like “Flag On A Pole.”
Best Live Album
Garrison Starr — Relive
I don’t know anybody who works harder and takes more risks than Garrison, who lived through the whole major-label girl-with-guitar hype as a teenager and has grown into a mature and confident artist. She has reinvented herself half a dozen times in the eight years that I’ve known her, sometimes working with bands, sometimes without, but always delivering music that is heart-rendingly pure. Relive is a simple, unadorned live recording that showcases Garrison’s enormous talent and utter honesty.
Song of the Year
Peter Case — “House Rent Party”
In a year that saw millions of people lose their jobs and their homes, this bittersweet song tells of a couple selling off their possessions and holding a party to keep a roof over their head. Peter has long had an affinity for the poor and downtrodden — his brilliant Blue Guitar record was conceived as a whole album about homelessness — and this song is a worthy successor to the Woody Guthrie tradition of ballads about hard times.
Peter Wolf and Shelby Lynne — “Tragedy”
The Woofa Goofa has duetted with some of the best (Mick Jagger, Merle Haggard, Neko Case) but this track is right up there with the greatest vocal duets in history. Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell, Carla Thomas and Otis Redding — it’s THAT good. Wolf’s hipster jive and Lynne’s sweet sassiness are a perfect match to the lyrics of this wistful breakup song. “I’m gone, baby,” says she; says he, “Oh, take me with you when you go.”
Live Performance (Home)
Sam Baker, Natalia Zukerman and John Fulbright
A classic case of how pay-to-play is ruining music. Venue owners don’t bother to advertise, and rely on the opening act to bring in a crowd by giving them tickets to sell. Fewer than two dozen faithful fans listened attentively to this trio of brilliant singer-songwriters — or tried to, over the din of the opening performer and his friends chattering away loudly at the bar. Nevertheless, Baker gave folksy but brilliant interpretations of his laconic songs; Zukerman charmed and sparkled; the 21-year-old Fullbright blew everyone away with his songwriting depth and command of guitar and piano.
Live Performance (Away)
Alejandro Escovedo and the Sensitive Boys
This January show at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland, right before Alejandro went into the studio to record Street Songs Of Love, stands out for a lot of reasons. Alejandro is at the peak of his game, and could be phoning ‘em in like a lot of established artists do, but continues to take risks onstage. At this show, he read the words for one song out of a notebook and started another tune over because he lost his place. Great material, a powerful frontman, a tight band firing on all cylinders, this is what rock & roll is all about.
Live Performance — Honorable Mention
Peter Case, CD release show, McCabe’s Guitar Shop, July 9
Mary Gauthier, Fur Peace Ranch, June 19
Best First Impression by an Artist I’d Never Heard Before
Romi Mayes, Music Beacon House Concert, Pittsburgh
Romi has worked with my friend Gurf Morlix, who is always singing her praises, and now I know why. Female blues guitarist/singers never deviate far from the trail blazed by Bonnie Raitt, which is probably why so many of them sound so much alike. Romi is different. A child of the Canadian prairies, she channels a poet’s sensibilities through a rocker’s gestalt. She has the kind of presence, even in an intimate living-room setting, that only comes from years on the road.
Troubadour of the Year
To say Mary has had a troubled life is putting it mildly. To take those troubles and weave them into a spellbinding concept album, and then to tour four continents and share her story with thousands of strangers, is an act of courage and genius. Mary’s album The Foundling is a work of surpassing brilliance and has turned her into an advocate for adoption rights in countries around the world. Yet she has not turned sanctimonious or lost her incisive sense of humor. Her songwriting career, which began when she was 35, has not even hit its peak yet. Mary Gauthier is an inspiration.
The first time I ever saw Anne play was a house concert with Garrison Starr and Michelle Malone at an old falling-down bank building in tiny West Alexander, PA. I liked her singing and the cinematic quality of her songs, but was hooked when she pulled out an old black Les Paul and played “Voodoo Chile.” Somehow this milkman’s daughter from Australia found spaces in that song that eluded both Hendrix and Stevie Ray. I’ve been a fan ever since. Anne lives in Nashville and tours extensively in the U.S., Canada, UK, and Down Under.
Special Most Valuable Player Award
When Peter Case needed a drummer in a big hurry for a show in Cleveland, he called me and I called Mike, a veteran of the Erie band wars who has played every kind of music imaginable. We all met up at the Beachland Tavern, and with an hour of rehearsal, Mike fitted in like an old hand. You would have thought they’d been playing together for years.