By Jeff Burger
In the liner notes to a posthumous anthology called No Big Surprise, Steve Goodman’s widow Nancy wrote that he “wanted to live as normal a life as possible, only he had to live it as fast as he could.” That he did, writing, performing, and recording a ton of eclectic music prior to his 1984 death at age 36 from leukemia, a disease he’d lived with for nearly half his life. Some of that music—especially the widely covered “City of New Orleans,” a 1972 hit for Arlo Guthrie—became well known. But there’s a whole lot more on approximately 16 studio and live albums, not to mention nearly a dozen compilations.
The newly reissued Artistic Hair and Affordable Art, the last two records released prior to Goodman’s death, are as good a place to start as any.
Artistic Hair, a set drawn from a decade of U.S. concerts and TV appearances, shows how he charmed audiences with his warm personality, intimate vocals, alternately humorous and touching original lyrics, and memorable, well-chosen covers. As Goodman wrote, the album offers “a pretty fair representation of what I expect from myself at a concert: a few surprises, a few favorites, some laughs, and some quiet moments during which the audience can reflect on the fact that they had to pay for this.”
The reissue adds 10 bonus tracks—all drawn from the aforementioned and now out-of-print No Big Surprise—to the original 12. Among the laughs here are such cleverly written numbers as “Elvis Imitators,” “Men Who Love Women Who Love Men,” and “Wonderful World of Sex.” (The last of these was cowritten with Michael Smith, author of the brilliant, very different “The Dutchman,” which Goodman definitively covered on another album.) He also has fun with a few standards, including “Winter Wonderland” and “Red Red Robin.” But he does just as well with more serious material, such as his “City of New Orleans” and Pete Seeger’s “The Water Is Wide.” Among the other highlights—all of which benefit from the contributions of a small backup crew that includes David Amram and the late mandolinist Jethro Burns—are William Mayhew’s “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie”; Alfred Brumley’s “I’ll Fly Away,” which incorporates excellent slide guitar; and Goodman’s “The I Don’t Know Where I’m Goin’, But I’m Goin’ Nowhere in a Hurry Blues.”
The new 20-track edition of Affordable Art also offers bonus material, including seven previously unissued solo acoustic performances. And like Artistic Hair, the record mixes the light with the heavy. In the former category are “Talk Backwards,” another collaboration with Smith; “Vegematic,” about a guy who mistakenly orders all sorts of junk advertised on late-night TV; and “Watchin’ Joey Glow,” a parody of Bobby Goldsboro’s syrupy “Watchin’ Scotty Grow” that limns a radioactive protagonist in a fallout shelter. On the serious side, the set presents a fine cover of “Souvenirs” (by Goodman’s pal John Prine, who sings and plays along), a version of Ralph McTell’s classic “Streets of London,” and Goodman’s own “Don’t Do Me Any Favors Anymore.” There are also three songs inspired by his beloved Chicago Cubs baseball team, including the autobiographical “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.”
As both of these albums demonstrate, Steve Goodman was a guy who could make you smile one minute and feel deep sadness in the next—or sometimes do both simultaneously, such as with his self-assigned nickname, Cool Hand Leuk. That’s the way he approached life: head-on, and often with a large dose of humor. If you’re not currently familiar with his music, these albums will make you want to hear more of it. And if you’re already a fan, they’ll remind you of how much you wish he’d had more time.
Chuck Hawthorne, Fire Out of Stone. Folk singer/songwriter Chuck Hawthorne is the quintessential late bloomer: he was already decades into adulthood when a chance meeting with blues artist Ray Bonneville led to his excellent 2015 first album, Silver Line. It took another four years for Hawthorne to finish this follow-up, which delivers on the promise of the debut with colorfully told story songs that benefit from his arresting vocal work. The set includes nine originals plus a cover of “I Will Fight No More Forever,” from the final album by the late singer/songwriter Richard Dobson. Hawthorne says the Dobson number inspired the theme of this record, which contains songs about “survival, transition, and moving on.”
Rob Laufer, The Floating World. This is the first solo album in nine years from the L.A.-based Rob Laufer. Writer’s block is the apparent explanation for the long break, during which he worked as a producer, a sideman, and a musical director of a series of benefit concerts. But the block is clearly over, as you can hear on this atmospheric and eminently playable collection of well-hooked pop-rockers. After listening to it, you won’t be surprised to learn that Laufer cites George Harrison and Tom Petty among his influences.
Karen Jonas, Lucky, Revisited. Americana/country singer Karen Jonas devotes her fourth album to a reinterpretation of highlights from its three predecessors. I haven’t heard any of those CDs, so I don’t have a basis for comparison, but this Texas-bar-ready program—which features head-turning contributions from her musical partner, guitarist Tim Bray—shows Jonas to be a strong and versatile singer and songwriter. The set weds nine originals to an amiable version of Cliff Friend and Irving Mills’s classic “Lovesick Blues,” which Hank Williams popularized; and an effective bluesy reading of Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.”
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.