When I look back on 2020, it felt like it barely started before it was over. For me it effectively ended on a March night in New York when I saw one of the greatest shows of my life. It was around midnight when the dual guitars of Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes culminated in a blistering blues-drenched finale of the Allman Brothers Band’s staple “Whipping Post.” All night they had been intertwined in this one-off tribute almost fifty years after the original band held their historic downtown Fillmore East shows and last stand at the Beacon Theater uptown.
That I was at the show was a questionable decision and roll of the dice. The emerging coronavirus was becoming real and just days later New York and parts of the country effectively shutdown. Perhaps against better judgement, I had taken a bus from Virginia to New York and converged with friends upon Madison Square Garden, the site of many iconic memories and shows. Three nights later there was a benefit concert at the Beacon Theater and a virus outbreak among several of the musicians including Jackson Browne and Larry Campbell.
In hindsight, the year had all started so innocently. I jumped on my New Year’s resolution to see more shows and get in the habit of seeing more live shows to avoid the post-holiday doldrums. There I was in the front row of the Fillmore in South Beach, arm to arm with fellow global travelers as New Order began an annual residency, mesmerized as their song “Times Change” was set to old film footage in a homage to the city’s history.
A few nights later I walked through a smoky casino to get to the grandstands of a once dog track to sit and hear Brian Wilson’s great band. If this was where aging stars go out to pasture, it didn’t quite the script. After an energetic set, Wilson sat at his piano not ready to leave. “Do you want to do another one?” he said to the band and stagehands who were already packing up. Coming home a few weeks later, Amanda Shires donned butterfly glasses and played her effervescent “Deciphering Dreams” and songs of the HighWomen at Sixth & I in Washington, D.C. not knowing that YouTube would soon replace the stage as the primary venue for her the rest of the year.
It’s hard not to go back to the interview President Trump gave Joe Kernen of CNBC in January from the Global Economic Forum in Davos. When asked about the coronavirus, he said it was under control. As I write this, more than 343,000 people have died and there are over 20 million cases in an ongoing pandemic that is expected to get worse in early 2021.
For the music community not since 2016 when Guy Clark and Prince passed, has this felt like such a lost year with the deaths of John Prine, Justin Townes Earle and Charley Pride compounding the preventable tragedy of a pandemic year. If there is a commonality among musicians, it is the sense of exhaustion amidst being quarantined and the work stoppage for live music.
“I hope we’ll be together soon,” Mavis Staples said in a split-screen video conversation with her friend Jackson Browne at the Thriving Roots festival held by the Americana Music Association in September. Staples, who at the time hadn’t performed in six months, admitted it had taken a mental toll. In the Fall, talk is usually about the winners of the annual Americana Music Awards, the Americana Music Association’s trade group’s signature event that coincides with AmericanaFest. But this being a pandemic year, executive director Jed Hilly regretfully cancelled the traditional ceremony held at the Ryman. AMA went virtual with Thriving Roots.
The pandemic threw off the Avett Brothers who were scheduled to record with Rick Rubin this past Spring. Then COVID-19 came and everything shut down. For Bob Crawford, whose daughter continues to battle cancer, “this is all about surviving the day,” he said in a conversation at Thriving Roots moderated by actor Judd Apato, the director of the band’s documentary May It Last.
For the genre, it might be akin to what Charles Dickens once wrote. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Against the pandemic backdrop with artists largely sidelined from playing live, emerging artists like Katie Pruitt and Black Puma and the return of Kathleen Edwards made the year memorable. Bruce Springsteen serenaded us on his radio show and was like the country’s healer in chief and truthsayer in the face of The grizzled blues grooves of Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways was a soundtrack for pandemic times, its opus “Murder Most Foul” a narrative and soundtrack about the decline and death of America’s soul. “What is the truth and where did it go?” Dylan opines in a poetic lecture that lasts over seventeen minutes.
On Blonde On The Tracks, an album of Dylan covers, Emma Swift channeled “I Contain Multitudes” and an expansive canvas whose sonic beauty allowed us to hear Dylan’s lines anew, if not for the wonder of re-imagining who was on the original receiving lines of his lyrics. Margo Price, who stood on the Grand Ole Opry stage and implored the membership not to turn away from the Black Lives Matter movement, delivered her best album That’s How Rumors Get Started.
For me, my favorite album of the year was Lilly Hiatt’s Walking Proof. The album felt like a trusted friend that got me through the year. When I first heard “Candy Lunch” played live, it felt like something more than a rebuff to conformity and a kiss-off to male possessiveness. It just felt liberating. Hiatt created a gem that, in all of its subtlety, jangly melancholy and pop perfection, sounds like an emboldened declaration. The anthemic title track could easily be a country standard in its spiritual gospel form and I’ve imagined everyone singing it from George Jones were he alive to Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa harmonizing as a duet. It’s an admonition of self-empowerment that owes to the singer’s humility and testament to her ongoing advocacy and experience overcoming addiction.
When Hiatt stood onstage at City Winery in a live webcast this past October, there were some fans in a socially distanced live show. Hiatt hadn’t been onstage in front of an audience a while and she asked if it was okay to play with some distortion. She’d been sequestered in her apartment training a puppy and it’s hard to turn up your amp with neighbors. It felt like the magic elixir and suddenly hearing it amplifying her Rickenbacher we felt whole again.
Here we are looking back and looking forward. We made it through the election but now face the ongoing headwinds ahead. As I write this the president was calling for massive demonstrations in Washington the day Congress is in session to certify the election.
I go back to a comment Roseanne Cash made at Thriving Roots. She pointed to the death of John Prine as unleashing “the power of righteous anger.”
“It’s easy to feel hopeless,” she was saying of the year. “The temptation of despair is easy.” It was a time for activism and to stand together,
When Bonnie Raitt chose to play her friend Jackson Browne’s “World In Motion” written almost forty years ago, the stinging indictment about America seemed particularly resonant in a contentious election year, one that never seems over.
On a lighter note, one memory of the year is when Jackson Browne spoke with Mavis Staples at Thriving Roots. He recounted how he had once confronted Mick Jagger, asking him if The Rolling Stones had stolen the melody of “The Last Time” from the Staples Singers. Jagger told him yes.
It brought laughs to the great singer ensconced in her house waiting it out until she can step back onstage. Once a “skinny twelve year old little girl” when she discovered her voice. Her father Pops Staples started bringing her on tour, taking her out of school on Thursday and bringing her back on Tuesday.
“Give Mavis some homework,” he’d tell the school administrator.
As the singer looked ahead, there was a hint of optimism.
“It won’t be long,” she told him and us. “We’ve made it this far.”