The roots-rockin’ sibs of Larkin Poe talk about their Southern roots, a Nashville homecoming and a certain iconic Boston ancestor
They’ve crisscrossed Europe, played Japan and barnstormed America in support of their seven studio albums. The most recent, Blood Harmony, was released in November.
Sisters Megan and Rebecca Lovell have been in musical harmony since they were youngsters, first as classically trained violinists, then in a bluegrass band before discovering the crunch and punch of electric instruments.
As Larkin Poe, they’re now bona fide “rock chicks” with roots in the deep, wide and rich musical culture of the South, where boogie and blues, soulful gospel harmonies, gothic storytelling, folklore and other fertile elements formed the firmament of rock and roll.
“Our childhood was full of different kinds of music,” says Megan, 33, whose electric Rickenbacker lap steel dobro has become integral to Larkin Poe’s sound and stage presence. “Our parents were real music lovers, so we grew up in a diverse musical household. In the past few years, we’ve really delved into blues music and have been going back to learn the history of Southern rock, like the Allman Brothers, and who they were inspired by.”
“We like to describe it as roots rock ‘n’ roll,” says Rebecca, 32, who occasionally swaps her Fender Stratocaster or Jazzmaster for a mandolin.
They write the bulk of their own songs, but on record and on stage, they’ve been known to cover tunes from blues legends Son House, Robert Johnson, Elmore James and Leadbelly, plus Bo Diddley, Bob Dylan, The Band, Cher, Johnny Cash, Neil Young and the Fisk Jubilee Singers—and yes, the Allman Brothers. Their version of the Blind Willie Johnson call-and-response gospel classic “John the Revelator” was used in the hit Fox TV show Lucifer. They’ve performed with Elvis Costello and toured with Bob Seger.
They acknowledged many of their influences in their 2020 album Kindred Spirits, an eclectic collection of music that had shaped them, from Eric Clapton’s “Bell Bottom Blues” to Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock.”
“There’s such a kinship in music with roots that have grown out of the same place,” says Rebecca.
Their own roots are in East Tennessee, where Megan and Rebecca were born, later relocating with their parents near Atlanta. They released their first album, Kin, in 2014, then resettled in Nashville. Their 2017 album Peach was a nod to growing up in Calhoun, Ga.
This week, on Friday, March 31, Larkin Poe will play downtown’s Brooklyn Bowl, making a special appearance in their adopted hometown. “The very first show that] Brooklyn Bowl did [in 2019] was a Larkin Poe show,” says Megan. “It was right at the beginning of the pandemic, and we did a livestream for Self Made Man,” their fifth album.
“There’s something special about getting to play a show, then drive a couple of miles and sleep in your own bed,” says Rebecca, excited about the Nashville date on their Blood Kin tour. “It’s very sweet to be [back] in our hometown. We were born over in Knoxville and our grandparents live in Morristown, just a hip, hop and a wobble from Nashville. Being close to the Smoky Mountains is one of my absolute favorite things about Nashville—that in just a few hours, we can get back to the land we grew up on as kids. It’s good family vibes all around.”
Those family vibes extend back through multiple generations, to a famous relative—the poet and short story writer Edgar Allen Poe. The literary master of mystery and the macabre was a distant cousin of Megan and Rebecca’s great-great-great-great grandfather, Larkin Poe, whose moniker the sisters took as their musical namesake.
Their parents had collections of Edgar Allen Poe in their extensive home library, so the sisters read up on their Boston-based ancestor, best known for his gloomy tales of dread and death. “The darkness and Southern Gothic-ness of his writing appealed to us,” says Megan. But they missed—or avoided—most of the horror movies based on his classics, like “The Raven,” “The Black Cat,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Masque of the Red Death” and most recently, “The Lighthouse.”
“I’m definitely a purist when it comes to books I cherish,” says Rebecca. “I don’t want my mental image to be bullied to someone else’s representation, to be honest.”
Megan has another explanation for why her sister stays away from movie adaptations of their ancestor’s frightening tales. “Rebecca is very scared by horror movies,” she says.
Quoth the raven, or at least paraphrase: Rock on, Larkin Poe, evermore! And welcome home.
Looking for the next big country star, investigating space aliens & celebrating a ‘Young & Restless’ milestone
Reese Witherspoon & Kacey Musgraves are looking for new country stars in “My Kind of Country.”
FRIDAY, March 24 Up Here Romcom musical series (from Steven Levenson, who wrote Dear Evan Hansen and tick, tick…BOOM!) stars Mae (Good Girls) Whitman and Carlos (Gaslit) Valdes as young couple reevaluating their relationship, along with their hopes, dreams, fears and fantasies (Hulu).
My Kind of Country Talent-scout country artists Mickey Guyton, Jimmie Allen and Orville Peck hunt for the next big country star in this new unscripted competition series from executive-producer big shots Reese Witherspoon (a Nashville native!) and Grammy-winning country singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves (Apple TV+).
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Can you believe it’s been half a century since Pink Floyd’s iconic album first hit the charts? Now a lavish coffee-table book, Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon (Thames & Hudson) celebrates the musical milestone with rare and previously unseen photos of the British band on tour, documentation of tour dates, and a visual chronicle of the enigmatic artwork that would become the emblem for one of the most celebrated rock albums of all time.
SATURDAY, March 25 Unexplained: Caught on Camera Experts attempt to explain unexplainable events, including twin brothers who swear they were abducted by visitors from another world, and an hunter who gets more than any eyeful when he sets up a camera in the Montana wilderness (9 a.m., Travel Channel).
SUNDAY, March 26 Great Expectations My sixth-grade reading assignment lives on! This new adaptation stars Olivia Colman as Miss Havisham, plus a wide cast of others playing characters first presented on the page in Charles Dickens’ coming-of-age classic, which first appeared in 1860 as a serialized magazine story (Hulu).
Rabbit Hole Nothing is what it seems to be in this new thriller streaming series, in which a master of corporate espionage (24‘s Kiefer Sutherland) is framed for murder by powerful forces with the ability to influence entire populations (Paramount+).
Searching for Mexico And gee, I thought I already knew where it was… In this six-episode series, actress/producer/director Eva Longoria (right) retraces her cultural and culinary roots south of the border. Produced by Stanley Tucci (10 p.m., CNN).
Succession The Emmy-winning drama-dark comedy series returns tonight to begin its fourth season, further exploring the power struggle between media magnate Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his four grown children. Alexander Skarsgård returns as a tech visionary (9 p.m., HBO).
Yellowjackets The hit drama—about a young soccer team that splinters into brutal clans of survivalists after an airplane crash—kicks off season two tonight. Hang on: It’s gonna be another wild ride! (9 p.m., Showtime).
MONDAY, March 27 Like a Girl New six-part streaming series profiles championship women in sports—females who turn the derogatory phrase “Like a girl” inside out, including swimmers, volleyball players, soccer stars and basketballers (Fuse).
The Young and the Restless 50th Anniversary Celebration Has it really been half a century since this iconic daytime soap started stirring up the suds? Yep, and this primetime special commemorates the TV milestone with cast interviews, highlights and a deep dive into the show’s storylines of romance, feuds, rivalries, weddings and wardrobe (8 p.m., CBS).
TUESDAY, March 28 The Movement and The Madman Find out about this little-remembered chapter of the 1960s, when President Richard Nixon and the antiwar movement came to a tense showdown (9 p.m., PBS).
FBI True There are certainly a lot of “true crime” shows on TV. But this one is different, taking a gritty look at the real-life pressures faced by agents, in their own words, after events like the Waco standoff and a Manhattan bombing (Paramount+).
BRING IT HOME
A stylish remake of one of the classic anti-war films of all time from 1930, the Oscar-winning All Quiet on theWestern Frontdepicts the horrors of World War I from the perspective of young German soldiers who endure the hellishness of battle (Capelight/Netflix).
WEDNESDAY, March 29 The Big Door Prize Chris O’Dowd stars in this new comedy series about a small town forever changed with the arrival of a mysterious machine that appears to reveal everyone’s true potential, causing people to re-evaluate their life choices (Apple TV+).
THURSDAY, March 30 Rapcaviar Presents It’s kind of a weird name, but this new documentary series looks at some of today’s most provocative issues through hip-hop artists and newcomers exploring current events and other topics with their music (Hulu).
Unstable Rob Lowe stars in this new eight-episode series comedy as a biotech entrepreneur working to make the world a better place while trying to reconcile with his estranged son (Netflix).
Keanu Reeves let the action do the talking in the wildest, Wick-iest John Wick movie yet
John Wick: Chapter 4 Starring Keanu Reeves, Bill Skarsgård, Donnie Yen & Ian McShane Directed by Chad Stahelski Rated R
In theaters Friday, March 24, 2023
He loves dogs, dresses like a scruffy stud and doesn’t say much—except exactly what he thinks.
Oh, and he kills people. Lots of people.
“I’m going to kill them all,” the aggrieved assassin John Wick informs someone in the latest chapter of the action-packed neo-noir franchise, with Keanu Reeves returning to the rock-‘em, sock-em role he originated in 2014.
John Wick: Chapter Four is a ram-jammed, nearly three-hour mega-blast of John Wick doing his John Wick thing. It may be the John Wick-iest John Wick yet.
Wick is, indeed, a killing machine, the world’s most feared—and hunted—hitman, as lethally skilled in ancient martial arts as with all kinds of modern munitions. He’s tried to get out of the dirty-work business before, but he’s mired in the muddy, bloody pull of his past. There’s always an old score to settle, a crooked wrong to make straight, something unconscionable to be avenged. So, he fights, he shoots, he stabs. And despite his constant brushes with death, he’s become seemingly indestructible, a killer immune to being killed, an anti-hero demigod of destruction. At the end of his previous flick, he was plugged (three times!) at close range and sent hurtling off the tiptop of a hotel building.
And somehow—improbably, impossibly—he survived.
Now Wick’s got a multimillion-dollar bounty on his head, and every other hired killer on the planet is hot on his trail.
Actions once again speak louder than words in John Wick: Chapter Four, which ups its own ante for explosively entertaining, hyper-stylish slugfests and ridiculously elevated battle royale body counts. Reeves reportedly trained for months to perform much of his own stunt work for the slam-bang sequences and extended fight scenes, in which brutal jiu-jitsu, judo and old-fashioned hand-to-hand grappling are punctuated by guns, axes, knives, bows and arrows and whatever else might be handy, such as a pencil. It’s a masterfully choreographed, expertly orchestrated symphony of ridiculously vicious international mayhem as he blasts, booms and bashes his through endless waves of attackers in lush, elegant locations across the globe.
And as always, he’s a man of few words. He enters the movie with one, “Yeah,” and leaves with another, “Heaven.” He’s a tortured soul with little use for pontification as he continues to grieve over the loss of his beloved wife and his dog and long for release, somehow, from all the bad karma he’s kicked up over the years.
“Everything he touches dies,” says one character, after Wick has mowed down three Middle Eastern dudes on horseback, galloping ahead of him across a desert, to finally come face-to-face with some kind of gangster sheik. And it doesn’t end well for the sultan—or anyone else who gets in Wick’s way.
So, is he a good guy killing bad guys? A bad guy killing even worse guys? Or a guy who used to be bad, but finding it impossible to be good in a world upside-down and inside-out with evil?
He’s on a violent quest for his freedom from an organization called the High Table, a council of Illuminati-like crime overlords who run the criminal underworld—and much of the rest of the world, too. Now Wick finds himself on the High Table’s hit list, excommunicated and mostly on his own. How far will he have to go, and how many casualties will be left in his wake before he can be free of his past? Can he ever be free?
It’s a beefcake-y man’s world, for sure, with very little room for women. The few females that pass briefly through are also skilled combatants (the Japanese-British pop sensation Reyna Sawayama makes an impressive movie debut, and we’ll likely see her again) or sideline observers (a pair of glossy lips purring into a microphone for a podcast giving Wick’s whereabouts to assassins).
It’s a wild, Wick-ed ride around the planet, a world tour of outrageously complex fight scenes that begins in Japan, makes a stopover in Germany and finally sets down in France. There’s a magnificient mosh-pit melee inside a packed Berlin disco, a crazy confrontation amidst traffic zipping around the Arc de Triomphe, and a life-or-death scuffle on an outdoor stairway. Everything leads to a climactic single-pistol duel at sunrise, spaghetti-Western style, in front of the Eiffel Tower.
Bill Skarsgård, so good at being bad (he was the creepy killer clown in It), is the Marquis, a High Table official who’ll go to any lengths to eliminate Wick. Ian McShane returns as Wick’s mentor, Winston; he’s the manager of The Continental, an exclusive hotel for the underworld. Laurence Fishburne reprises his role as the Bowery King, who runs a hideout disguised as a homeless shelter. Scott Adkins is a fat-cat, gold-toothed Russian mobster who challenges Wick to a fateful game of five-card draw. A former hitman, the blinded Caine (Donnie Yen), is blackmailed into the unsavory assignment of killing his former friend. We meet a mysterious new foe, the bounty hunter known only as the Tracker (Shamier Anderson), who’s also on a global Wick-finding trip, lured by a reward that eventually notches up to $40 million. But neither Caine nor Tracker really wants to kill Wick; it’s strictly business, the way John Wick’s world turns on its twisted axis.
Speaking of strictly business, the John Wick franchise has pulled in more than $300 million, and Reeves says there will be more movies to come. Next up, reportedly, he’ll return in a couple of spinoffs and prequels, one starring Ana de Armas as a ballerina assassin, and the other telling the backstory of The Continental. And there’s supposedly a John Wick: Chapter 5 ready to rumble, waiting in the wings.
“Have you given any thought,” Winston asks Wick at one point, “to where this ends?”
A valid question for a franchise that seems impervious to winding down, about a character with a track record of not dying. The movie raises other questions too, as it catches it breath between beatdowns, in softer musings about family, fathers and daughters and husbands and wives, brotherhood, religion, spirituality, mortality, how anyone becomes who they are—and if it’s possible to change.
You may have some questions of your own, like where can you, too, can find a customized bulletproof Kevlar suit, or at least one resistant to wrinkles and stains? Is nearly three hours too long for almost any movie? (Answer: Yes, it is.) Is a movie riddled with bullets and bullies the right entertainment for our times, with gun violence at epidemic levels and more than 80 mass shootings in the United States so far this year? (Answer: Perhaps no—but John Wick’s super-stylized violence is so wildly over-the-top, it seems to exist in a wholly impractical netherworld untethered from our own.)
But my burning question, and a practical one for hitmen everywhere in this tax season: If you were successful in killing John Wick, where would you enter that $40 million on your 1099?
Hot rising star Alana Springsteen talks beaches, bumps in the romantic road, punctuation and the highly personal songs on her debut LP
If you were in New York City in January, perhaps you saw Alana Springsteen—on the big billboard looming over Times Square, which played the breakout video of her new single, “you don’t deserve a country song.”
A big moment in the Big Apple, for a young singer-songwriter from a teeny town.
Springsteen couldn’t be there herself, but she felt the electricity of the moment. “Part of my label, Columbia, is out of New York, so I was like, guys, if you can take a break during lunch and please go get this on video…because I was freaking out about it,” says the singer-songwriter.
“country song” is one of the cuts on Springsteen’s new full-length debut album, Twenty Something: Messing It Up (Columbia/Sony, available March 23), the first of her planned three-part musical project after a trio of well-received independent EPs.
But there seems very little about Springsteen’s career trajectory, at this point in her young life, that indicates she’s messing it up in any way. She’s only 22, but she’s been writing music since she was a preteen, dreaming of one day being on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. (The video for “country song,” in fact, opens with a 10-year-old Alana on a backstage visit to the Opry, vowing to someday return as a performer.)
Last fall, on the night she turned 22, she made good on that vow, making her Opry debut with an introduction by fellow hitmaker Luke Bryan, for whom she’ll soon be opening shows on a summer tour.
Now this twenty-something—who is no relation to any other entertainers, e.g., Bruce, who happen to share her last name—is holding steady on the course that she set over a decade ago.
“At eight or nine years old,” Sprngsteen says, “I was saying to my parents, ‘I want to be a country music artist.’ That’s all I wanted to do, music. Once I started playing guitar at seven and writing my own songs, there was never a plan B for me. There was never anything else I could see myself doing. I feel like I was put in this world to make music and connect with people through the songs that I write.”
She wrote her first song, “Fairy Tale,” when she was nine, sitting on her bedroom floor. “I was talking to my mom about how her and my dad met in college, and she was talking about their love story and first dates and stuff he did to make her fall in love. I was like, man, that sounds like a fairy tale, and I decided to write a song about it.”
She’s written a lot of songs since then, and she co-wrote all except one on Twenty Something, which continues the intensely melodic, self-confessional, growing-up and getting-personal tones of her three previous EP releases.
She says the album’s “Missing It Up” subtitle reflects some of her rough rides on the road of romance.
“I think it’s pretty clear the areas that I’ve messed up,” she says, “when it comes to matters of the heart, picking the wrong guys, falling in love for the wrong reasons, not trusting my gut. When you’re in your twenties, you’re changing so much and taking it a day at a time and figuring out things about yourself as you are having these experiences—like feeling like you can’t really love someone you don’t know.”
Sounds very personal, and it is. She adds that, when they hear the new album—and they will—those “wrong guys” will know she’s talking to them, or at least about them, in songs including “goodbye looks good on You,” “shoulder to cry on” and “caught Up to me.” The leadoff single, “you don’t deserve a country song,” gives a loutish ex’ a thumping musical kiss-off, telling him he’s not going to get a sweet exit elegy. “I ain’t wasting any paper or any ink in this pen,” she sings. “I ain’t dusting off an old record, crying watching it spin.” Clearly, this is a gal who isn’t mushing and gushing on old memories. She’s moving on.
“I never name names,” she says. “I never call anybody out, specifically. But I think these people are probably going to know that certain songs are about them. It’s pretty inevitable. I don’t talk to my exes anymore. It didn’t end that way. It was more like we both realized it was best for us to not be in each other’s lives.”
She never names names…and on the songs of Twenty Something, heck, she doesn’t even use “proper” punctuation. All the titles are in lowercase. That’s not a typing error, she insists—it’s intentional.
“My eighth-grade teacher would probably not be very proud,” she says with a laugh. “I’m not the best with grammar, admittedly, but that was actually a very purposeful choice. It’s one of the funny quirks I have. Even when I’m writing notes or letters or texting, I never capitalize letters. It’s an aesthetic thing for me.”
So, no capital letters—but digits, on the other hand, figure prominently in her life. Her lucky number is 18; it’s her birthday in October, it’s the date she appeared on the Opry, and it will be the total number of songs, combined, on Twenty Something and its two planned follow-up albums—six songs on each of the three LPs. (She’s already written all of them.)
And there’s another number very important to her; it’s on the inside of her right forearm—a tattoo of three numbers, 757.
“Seven five seven is my hometown area code,” she says. “I’m from a little town in Virginia Beach called Pungo. I grew up five minutes from the ocean, a straight shot down Sandbridge Road. In the small town where I grew up, it’s a lot of farmers who’ve been there for generations, a real cross-section of coastal and country. I grew up riding horses, strawberry festivals, cornfields. I think a lot of that bleeds into my music. I always say that I want a lot of my songs to feel like a top-down Jeep ride along the water, because that’s where I’m my happiest.”
And she’s certainly happy that she’ll be going back to the beach this summer. She’ll be one of the formers at the Beach It! Music Festival, slated for June 23-25 on the familiar sands of Virginia Beach.
“A country festival that’s coming to my hometown for the first time!” she says. “I’m just a hometown girl, and Virginia Beach will always have a massive piece of her heart.”
She’s been in Nashville since she was 14, when she signed her first publishing deal, and her mom, dad and three brothers relocated with her—for her to get closer to the music business on which she had laser-focused her sights.
“My parents have always been so supportive,” she says. “From day one, they were the ones who told me to chase my dreams, and they would take me to Nashville on trips. When I was 10 years old, we would drive 12 hours back and forth, so I could spend a couple of weeks each time writing and learning about the industry.”
She’s certainly learned a bit about the industry, by being immersed in it and now finding such auspicious signs of success—including being named earlier this year as part of the 2023 class of CMT’s Women of Country, recognizing the genre’s most promising female newcomers and rising stars. But she knows she’s still got some learning to do.
“The most rewarding thing for me has been really getting to know myself,” she says, “and learning even more what makes me different from everybody else. So that’s advice I keep telling myself—just learning more about myself, getting really good at trusting my gut, and confidently living into that.”
Emily Portman channels the Coal Miner’s Daughter in ‘Always Loretta,’ a touring tribute show coming to Nashville March 21
The queen is gone, but her spirit lives on in Always Loretta, a tribute show coming to Nashville’s Troubadour Theater on Tuesday night, March 21.
The one-night-only event features Emily Portman singing the songs of country superstar Loretta Lynn, along with a slew of special guests cheering her on—Lynn’s sister, Crystal Gayle, and Nancy Jones, the wife of the late legendary George Jones, are expected to be there.
How did this small-town Kentucky gal come to channel the Coal Miner’s Daughter?
“I was in a band years ago, called Country Cooking, in Kentucky, where I’m from,” she says. “We played a really good little show out in Lebanon Junction [Kentucky], and the guys there told me I sounded like Loretta Lynn.” A steel guitar player gave her a stack of Lynn’s CDs and suggested that she study them.
“So, I learned the songs and really started honing in on her voice and her mannerisms,” says Portman. “I started singing them and did a few shows on my own around the state.”
A few years later, around 2008, she auditioned for the Loretta Lynn role in a touring roadshow musical, Conway Twitty: The Man, The Music, The Legend, based on the life of Lynn’s 1970s singing partner and featuring Alabama singer Glenn Templeman as Twitty. Portman got the part, and she says it was “God’s hand” showing her a direction.
The Twitty trbute hit the road but eventually fizzled out, as things do. But over the next decade, she sang Loretta Lynn songs every chance she got. People would find her on YouTube, and book her to come to their fair, festival or dinner theater. She would sing all the hits—“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “The Pill,” “Fist City,” “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind”—as well as some of Portman’s persoal favorites, lesser-known tunes like “Hey Loretta,” a 1973 single from Lynn’s second album, or 1974’s “What Sundown Does to You.”
Playing Loretta on stage, Portman says, “is something I love to do, and it’s like it’s as easy as breathing to me. I sound like Loretta. If I had to do Reba or Dolly, I’d have to really practice.”
And she looks like Loretta, too, with her hair—sometimes a wig—and her stage attire. Last year, Portman (above) was asked by one of Lynn’s Coal Miner’s band members to come and sing a few songs at a reunion event for the group. Another musician saw her backstage and thought he was seeing things—like, the real Loretta Lynn, some 50 years ago.
“I had my hair done and my long Coal Miner’s Daughter dress on,” says Portman. “He said, ‘I swear, I thought that was Loretta standing back there.’”
When Portman and the Twitty musical came to Nashville, and she guested on the Grand Ole Opry, guess who was also there that night? That’s right, Loretta Lynn.
Backstage, Lynn’s daughter said, “Mama, this is Emily. She’s playing you in the Conway show.” Loretta looked at Portman and said, “Honey, you look just like me,” and she “smiled real big and hugged me tight.”
That just confirmed to Portman that she was doing what she was destined to do.
She got to be friends with Loretta, visiting the country queen in her Hurricane Mills home, west of Nashville. The first thing Loretta said to her, the first time she was there, was “‘They told me you was coming, so I want back there and brushed my teeth,’” says Portman. “It completely eased my mind because I was a little scared and nervous.”
Sounding, and looking like Loretta aren’t the only similarities shared by Portman, now 43, and Loretta, who died in October last year at age 90. “I’ve got six kids, just like Loretta,” Portman says. “I live in a rural area, like Loretta did.” Portman’s home in central Kentucky, near Leitchfield, is about five or six hours away, on the other side of the state, from where Loretta grew up, near Paintsville. “Kentucky is pretty wide,” says Portman.
But in the back of her mind, she feels a kinship with Loretta—and Loretta felt it, too. “Loretta Lynn told me herself, ‘We’ve got a real connection’,” she says. “She looked me in the eye and told me that, and it really went deep.” And Portman isn’t fully convinced they’re not related, both being native Kentuckians. “I wonder, if we were to dig down, we’d probably be kin somewhere along the line. My grandma was from Crab Orchard in East Kentucky, too [like Lynn]. I’ll bet if you look back far enough, we’d probably be connected somewhere.”
Now Portman is back on stage and singing the songs of her fellow Kentuckian, who had 24 No. 1 country singles and 11 No. 1 albums, a truly groundbreaking country singer and songwriter who became the first country music artist to be featured on the cover of Newsweek. Lynn was nominated 18 times for a Grammy. The 1980 movie about her, Coal Miner’s Daughter, is considered one of the best musical movie bios of all time, and it won Sissy Spacek, who played Loretta, an Oscar.
On Tuesday, March 21, she’ll bring her show to Nashville’s Texas Troubadour theater on Music Valley Drive, across from the Gaylord Opryland Hotel.
But don’t call her a Loretta impersonator. “I think some people look at it as kind of an insult to be called a tribute act or an impersonator; I don’t really like those words. I like to think of myself more as a songstress or a vocalist, and an actress.
“I love Loretta. She’s my hero. I do sound like her, and it’s all just for entertainment. Everybody knows I’m not her; I’m not trying to be her, as a person. I’m proud of who I am, but also proud of my ability to portray her.”
She’s been singing Loretta’s songs for years, here and there, but the Always Loretta show is brand new—and it’s now her show. “It’s just kind of getting started,” Portman says. “So far, the shows we’ve done have been sold out.” She is especially excited because, behind her, backing her up on stage, are members of Loretta’s own band, the Coal Miners.
Portman says, unlike a lot of entertainers, she never really dreamed of writing hit songs, recording albums or filling concert halls. And she certainly never dreamed of touring the country as Loretta Lynn, performing with Loretta Lynn’s band. “I never started out thinking, ‘I just want to do Loretta Lynn,” she says. “I loved to sing, but I never sang in front of everyone until I was 19, and I was scared to death.”
She’s written a bunch of songs over the years, even recording her own CD in 2008. “I’ve got notebooks full of stuff; I’ve written a lot. I’m not finished. There are a lot of country songs I’d still like to record. Not to make it big, but just to have my stuff ‘on file’ for my great-grandkids and thereafter, so they can say, ‘This was my memaw’ or whatever, back when she was singing and stuff.”
She also took time off from making music to build a life and raise a family. She still teaches—at a Catholic school near her home, instructing K-through-8 students in music, social studies and “PE, believe it or not. We go to the gym and play.” She also gives riding lessons.
And she continues to carry the torch for her singing idol. She sounds like Loretta, she talks like Loretta, and she looks like Loretta, especially on stage. And right now, Always Loretta is her musical calling.
“I feel like it’s something that I need to continue,” she says. “I’m not a young spring chicken right out of the gate anymore, but I still have a lot of life in me.”
Spoken, well, just like Loretta might have said it.
An adoption scam, Bob Odenkirk’s midlife crisis & all about Dr. Fauci
SATURDAY, March 18 The Hillsdale Adoption Scam Keisha Knight Pulliam stars in this domestic drama, based on real events, when a successful couple discover a web of unsettling lies swirling around the unborn baby they’re planning to adopt (8 p.m., Lifetime).
SUNDAY, March 19 Marie Antionette Emila Schule stars in the new Masterpiece drama series about the young woman who would become the last queen of France before meeting her fate in the late 1700s during the early days of the revolution (10 p.m., PBS).
Lucky Hank Bob Odenkirk strikes again, in this eight-episode tale of midlife crisis set at a small, underfunded college in the Pennsylvania rust belt. Based on a novel by Pulitzer-prize winning Richard Russo (AMC+ and AMC).
MONDAY, March 20 Storming Caesar’s Palace Documentary examines how a Vegas activist started a grassroots movements of moms to fight for universal base income in Sin City’s ivory-tower play palaces (10 p.m., PBS).
TUESDAY, March 21 American Masters: Dr. Tony Fauci New documentary separates fact from fictions with a glimpse into the life of the renowned physician who found himself on the front lines (and in the middle) of America’s COVID-19 crisis (8 p.m., PBS).
WEDNESDAY, March 22 Waco: The Apocalypse What happened when the federal government faced off against cult leader David Koresh, leading to a bloody 51-day siege 20 years ago, in 1993. It was captured at the time on live TV, but this three-part documentary takes you inside the madness (Netflix).
THURSDAY, March 23 The Night Agent Based on the novel by Matthew Quick, this new series adaptation stars Gabriel Basso as a low-level FBI agent propelled into a dangerous conspiracy that ultimately leads all the way to the Oval Office (Netflix).
Drumming with Charlie Daniels, a memorable slice of pizza with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Artemis Pyle, and going gonzo for Southern rock
Ain’t it good to be alive and be in Tennessee!
That’s something Charlie Daniels used to bellow out on stage, typically when he was playing back on his midstate home turf.
In the late 1970s, he was the big kahuna of the growing band-centric genre of Southern rock, which included such diverse groups as Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie and the Allman Brothers. Charlie had paid his dues as in the 1960s as a Nashville session guitarist (he played with Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Pete Seeger and Flatt & Scruggs) and touring road dog. He produced an album by The Youngbloods.
In the early 1970s, he’d had enough of all that and wanted to helm his own group. The Charlie Daniels Band finally hit the airwaves with “Uneasy Rider” in 1973. I remember him performing that song solo, on Ralph Emery’s early-morning weekday TV show, when I was a sophomore in high school. I remember thinking, wow, he looks like he’s not used to being up this early.
Starting the next year, Charlie would throw a big annual homecoming bash, the Volunteer Jam, in the Nashville area. He’d invite all his Southern rock friends to share the stage, along with special surprise guests from the wider musical world—James Brown, Ted Nugent, George Thorogood, Crystal Gayle, Roy Acuff, Alabama, Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Don Henley after he’d gone solo from the Eagles. It was the big all-star concert event of the year, with a proudly Southern-fried spin.
In my role as a journalist, I crossed paths with Charlie several times over the years. And his music was a formative part of my teenage years, which happened to be the era in with Southern Rock was on the ascending arc of its curve, and South-rooted FM rock was at its zenith…especially in the South. I played in a band during high school—drums—and would put down the sticks and pick up a pawnshop fiddle to play a screech-y version of “The South’s Gonna Do It,” the CDB’s breakout hit from 1974. (Fortunately, in those dark ages of technology, no home video exists of me playing the fiddle.)
A few years later, I got to know one of Charlie’s two drummers, Freddy Edwards, when I was dispatched to interview and photograph him for the newspaper The Portland (Tenn.) Leader, for which I was working during college breaks. Freddy and his wife had bought a house locally, less than a mile from where I grew up, and we got to be friends. I photographed him for the piece in his basement, playing his drums. It looked a lot like the basement in my house, where I’d learned to play on my kit.
And in an interview that would presage my movie-reviewing career by some three decades, we talked about a wide range of things—including the movie Freddy and Colleen had just seen, Day of the Dolphin, starring George C. Scott. I don’t remember much else about the interview, but I do remember how impressed Freddy was with the story about “intelligent” research dolphins who are kidnapped in a diabolical ploy to use for a political assassination.
Freddy invited me one day to come along with him to a CDB rehearsal, at Charlie’s place in Mount Juliet, Tenn. Why, of course! To give the pretense of something professional, I brought along my camera and snapped some pics of Charlie and the band running through songs for the album, Million Mile Reflections, they were getting ready to record in the studio. Freddy asked me if I wanted to sit down behind his drums and play a bit while the band loosened up and jammed—on a tune that turned out to be the albums’ opening cut, a song called “Passing Lane.” To this day, whenever I hear that song, I hear the groove that I had locked into that morning in the rehearsal house on Charlie’s place.
A few more years rolled by. I interviewed and photographed Charlie for a magazine cover story after he won a CMA Award for “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” It was my first job out of college, and I met him at the south Nashville home of his manager, Joe Sullivan, the former DJ who founded Sound Seventy Productions. I took some portraits of Charlie leaning back in a swing in Sullivan’s backyard, against a wall of sheared rocks, because it had a kind of Mount Rushmore feel. Charlie was himself a mountain of a man, a big guy. And if Southern rock had a Mount Rushmore, he would have certainly been on it.
“I’m just a country boy who plays the guitar and the fiddle,” Charlie told me, spitting a mouthful of tobacco juice with an emphatic splat into a pop bottle. “That’s all I am. I ain’t no better than anyone else. I don’t look at myself as being separated from the rest of the human race just because I sold a few records.”
He went on to sell a few more records, and I went to several Volunteer Jam events, marathon kaleidoscopes of eclectic performances, all revolving for that one night around Charlie Daniels. One piece I wrote on the Jam in the early ’80s described the performers cycling on and off stage like precision figurines in a massive Swiss clock of Southern rock, musical moving parts all clicking and ticking in sync with the night’s schedule. But you never knew who’d be coming up next. Appropriately enough, the Jams always closed in a late-night jam session, with everyone who’d performed that evening invited to return to the stage and join in.
As a fledgling music journalist, I’d been reading a lot of Rolling Stone, trying to soak up some of the mojo about how the big boys covered big musical stories. One of the RS “correspondents” was Hunter S. Thompson, whose counter-cultural “gonzo journalism” was a free-wheeling mixture of surrealism built around his own outrageous experiences. In Thompson’s world, a writer did than simply report a story—he became part of the story, shaping and sizing it by his presence and participation. I wasn’t gonzo enough to throw myself into Thompson’s dizzying swirl of whiskey, weed, cocaine and acid, but it did give me an idea.
I called Charlie’s publicist, Paula Szeigis, and pitched my proposal for covering the upcoming Volunteer Jam XIII, set that summer at the outdoor Starwood Amphitheater. Charlie knows I’m a drummer, I reminded Paula. What if I played drums during the Jam’s closing jam session, and wrote about it, for coverage? That seemed like something Hunter S. Thompson might have done if he were covering a Charlie Daniels event for Rolling Stone. It seemed gonzo tailor-made for me.
Paula seemed to like the idea, and said she’d run it by Charlie. A couple of weeks later, I got the confirmation call. I’d be drumming at the Volunteer Jam.
At the event, I picked up my laminate and milled around backstage with all the other musicians—Stevie Ray Vaughn was there, so was William Lee Golden of the Oak Ridge Boys. Over there is the L.A. rock band Great White, and is that Amy Grant’s husband, Gary Chapman? Yep, it is!
But the VIPs of the evening were the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, making their first appearance with Johnny Van Zandt as then new front man. He was the little brother of Ronnie, who died in the tragic airplane crash ten years earlier; the crash killed a total of six band members and crew, including guitarist Steve Gaines and his backup vocalist sister, Cassie. That night’s Volunteer Jam was a reunion of the surviving members, who’d decided to pull all their loose ends back together after the setback and re-form for a tribute tour.
It would be the final time they’d share the stage with Allen Collins, who appeared in a wheelchair, waving to the crowd. But his guitar-playing days were over. I think a lot of the crowd at Starwood thought Collins was incapicated because of injuries after the plane crash, but actually, he’d been paralyzed in a 1986 car accident when his new black Thunderbird flipped on a Florida highway, killing his girlfriend passenger. He would never play guitar again, and he died three years later.
There was Ed King, the former Strawberry Alarm Clock member who’d joined Skynyrd in 1972. And there was bass player Leon Wilkeson and drummer Artemis Pyle (more about him later), the former U.S. Marine and aviator who’d replaced the band’s original drummer, Bob Burns, in 1974. And there was Gary Rossington, one of the band’s founding members, and piano player Billy Powell, who started as a Skynyrd roadie but became a part of the group after the band heard him noodling around on a keyboard.
With Rossington’s death March 5, the band’s “classic” lineup was all gone—Ronnie Van Zant, Gaines, Wilkeson, Powell, Burns and King. I’ve been thinking about how almost all the Skynyrd band members I watched that night are no longer with us, and three of them had perished a full decade earlier. It had been a rough road for Lynyrd Skynyrd. And Southern rock, as a genre, would soon be past its heyday, a retro relic of another place and time.
I’ve been thinking about the times I heard Lynyrd Skynyrd, the times I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd, and about the time I reviewed their sophomore album, Second Helping, for my high school newspaper. Believe it or not, I slagged Bob Burns’ drumming. (He left the band in 1974 after a mental breakdown.) And I’ve been thinking about a night in 1989 in Elliston Place, Nashville’s West End music district, when I sat down at a table in The End, the little rock club across the street from the Exit In, and had some pizza with Artemis Pyle.
I was playing drums in a little Beatles cover band, Day Tripperz, and we making a return appearance at the club. There were maybe 20 or so people there; it was a weeknight. I couldn’t see very clearly; it was dim and dark. But I could make out the silhouette of one guy, with long dark hair, and he seemed a little bit older than the otherwise college-age crowd. Then a delivery guy from Obie’s Pizza, across the parking lot, came into the club and yelled, “Artemis! Pizza for Artemis.”
I’d never heard the name Artemis until I started reading album credits and music features and came across Artemis Pyle. Could this be that Artemis, the one who drummed for Lynyrd Skynyrd?
Indeed, it was.
Our band was on a break, so I went over and introduced myself. He had friendly eyes and a big, fuzzy beard that seemed to meld with his long hair to completely obscure his face, and he asked me to pull up a chair. He was likeable and talkative. We bantered with a bit of drummer small talk, and then he told me about surviving the plane crash, and how he wanted to write a book, called “The Best Seat in the House,” about his perspective as Skynyrd’s stickman, getting to see everything—on stage and in the audience—from his seat behind his double-bass rig on the drum riser. Artemis didn’t sing; he just drummed…and watched. But the title had a double meaning. If he hadn’t been where he was sitting on that ill-fated Conair CV-240, when it plowed into the Mississippi swamp, if he’d been in another seat, situated somewhere else in the plane, he might not have made it. As it was, Artemis was the only survivor capable of crawling from the wrecked fuselage and trekking into the night looking for help, covered with mud and blood.
Best seat in the house, for sure.
At the Volunteer Jam event, I didn’t know when I’d play on stage, with whom, or what songs. So I just hung out, me and my laminated backstage pass, waiting for my cue and watching the musical flow—and the frenzy when Lynyrd Skynyrd took the stage, plowing into the opening bars of “Workin’ For MCA.”
When my “spot” finally came, at the evening’s big closing jam, I was instructed to come up on stage and stand behind one of the two risers on the backline; there were two drummers playing to keep the beat going and avoid any interruption when a sub would come aboard. One of the drummers, on the other riser, was Artemis. The risers were about three feet high, and they had a couple of little steps. A stagehand was standing beside me, behind the platform, and when one song finished, he reached up and put his hands into the rear of the drummer’s pants waistband and gave a tug—time to “switch out.”
The newly de-throned drummer hopped down, handed me his sticks and I climbed up. And before I could say “Yikes!” the 15 or 16 musicians on stage launched into a rocking version of “That Good Ol’ Mountain Dew.” Charlie was leading and calling the shots, throwing in fiddle breaks. Our two-drummer rhythm section was churning. And most of the Lynyrd Skynyrd band members—and various other musicians—were scattered about, picking and playing and trying to get all their chords in the right spots.
I could see the stage stretched out in front of me, with the edge about 40 or 50 feet away. The audience was a churning sea of faces on the other side, disappearing up the hillside into the night. The sound is different, on a big stage like that, from what you’d hear in the audience. I could barely hear when Charlie turned away from the stage and told the musicians what song we’d be doing next, and then we were launched into a peppy version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
I’d never played that, or the other song, either. But luckily, growing up steeped in music, I was familiar with them. I just locked in with Artemis, and away we went.
And then I got the tug; my time was up, and there was yet another drummer waiting to take my spot for the big finale, the closing jam number.
I didn’t get any pictures; it’s hard to photograph and drum at the same time. And all my Nashville press colleagues—from the Tennessean, from the Banner, from Billboard, from the Associated Press—had left early, to beat the traffic, along with most of the publicists who were there. I haven’t, to this day, come across anyone who witnessed me playing drums on the stage with Charlie Daniels and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
But I did.
And for a few minutes, I knew what Charlie Daniels meant, about it being good to be alive, and be in Tennessee—I was alive, in Tennessee, playing drums at an event I’d previously only experienced as a spectator. I was alive, even as the specter of death loomed in the gloomy recesses of Southern rock’s musical soundscape, waiting to pluck more victims. My heartbeat had synched with my drum beat, and I knew exactly what Artemis Pyle would later be talking about, off West End Avenue, over slices of Obie’s Pizza.
I, too, felt like I had the best seat in the house, and in a lot of ways, I always have.
“Fearless” singer Jackson Dean on seeing ghosts, recording at the Ryman & what really gives him heebie jeebies
Jackson Dean’s new single is kinda scary. It details things that frighten a lot of people, and one thing that should scare everybody.
“Fearless (the Echo),” originally a track on his 2022 debut album, Greenbroke, gets a new kick of renewed energy this week on March 17 as the first release from Dean’s forthcoming full live album, recorded at the Ryman.
And recording at country music’s Mother Church was a dream come true, says the Maryland native now living in east Nashville. Dean, 22, vividly remembers visiting the Ryman for the first time as a teenager.
“I had just turned 15,” he tells me from his East Nashville home. “I had already [recorded] a little acoustic record, and my dad said, ‘Hey, you want to go [to Nashville] and check it out?’”
Dean sat with his mom and dad in the nosebleed balcony of country music’s venerated music hall, watching Jamey Johnson perform on the stage below, joined by his special guest, 27-time Grammy-winner Alison Krauss.
“They were singing ‘Dreaming My Dreams with You,’” a 1970s classic recorded by Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Crystal Gayle, Marianne Faithful and Jewel, among others. “And I fell in love with the place, with the Ryman,” Dean says. That’s why it was such a thrill for him to come back, seven years later, to record his songs in front a Ryman audience—one that had come to see him.
“I had [‘Dreaming My Dreams with You’] on my mind during the soundcheck,” he says. “It was a big bucket-list moment, a helluva mile marker for where I am now and where we’re headed.”
If you’ve heard the big ballad “Fearless,” get ready for a slightly different live version of it and other songs from Dean’s debut album, Greenbroke, released a year ago. The Ryman album has new players (including Dean’s road band), some supplemental instrumentation (lap steel and dobro) and an unbridled onstage live-show energy that he says “you can’t recreate” in the studio.
“ ‘Fearless’ is a bit fast,” he says. “That’s what happens when your adrenaline starts going faster than you can keep it down. All the [live] songs are a bit more aggressive, for sure.”
It’s understandable that Dean might be surging with super-charged adrenaline. He’s been hitting it hard on the road, opening shows for Blake Sheldon and Carly Pierce, and he’ll be on the bill at several major state fairs and festivals this summer, including Stagecoach, Country Thunder and the Iowa State Fair. Fans as well as critics have been wowed by his earthy, masculine baritone, which has drawn impressively lofty comparisons to Chris Stapleton, Waylon Jennings and Travis Tritt.
And everyone wonders, where does a 20-something get a voice like that, one that sounds like it’s already lived a life beyond its years?
“I can tell you where that came from,” he says. “From my daddy. He was a stonemason for hire; still is. I’ve been working for my old man since I was about 10, and being on job sites, being expected to carry yourself like a man, it shapes you. You learn to walk and talk.”
You also learn, he says, to be fearless, like in his song—except when it comes to someone you love. “Dudes are dudes, and we ain’t scared of shit,” he says. “But the song is about being fearful of something happening to someone; loving them so much, you’re scared of losing them, or fucking things up. My dad told me and my brothers and sisters once, ‘I’ve been scared to death since the day you all started popping out of your mom.’ I can’t really imagine anything more powerful than the love of a dad for his kids.”
In “Fearless (the Echo),” cowritten by Dean with Jonathan Sherwood and Luke Dick, he starts the song by noting that he’s unafraid of risky behaviors like jumping off bridges, risking a fall from a narrow ledge, or even encountering ghosts. Maybe it’s because he’s done all those things.
He claims to have seen a ghost near his childhood home in Maryland, where years before, the bodies of several murdered missing girls had been found in the deep woods. “I swear to God,” he says. “My mom had gone to school with one of the girls, and she showed me her picture.” And that day, alone in the woods, “I saw her, that girl in the picture, walking through groups of trees. She passed behind one, behind another, and then she was gone. It sent a shiver down my spine. I’ve believed in ghosts ever since then.”
As for jumping off bridges and leaping from ledges, he’s done that too, into streams and swimming holes of the Potomoc River, near his childhood home between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. “There are some crazy cliffs on the Potomic, man,” he says. “I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up, so it was work, the woods and then music. Just like the song says, there’s not much that scares me.”
But there’s one thing that does make him somewhat slightly uncomfortable.
Miley takes a ‘Vacation,’ Ted Lasso returns & ‘Bachelor’ women spill the beans
Jason Sudeikis (right) returns to the award-winning series ‘Ted Lasso,’ with co-star Nick Mohammed (left).
FRIDAY, March 10 The New York Times Presents: Sin Eater Hard-hitting documentary looks at the work (and crimes) of Hollywood’s most notorious dirty-tricks “fixer” and private investigator, Anthony Pellicano (10 p.m., FX).
Miley Cyrus—Endless Summer Vacation (Backyard Sessions) Coinciding with this week’s release of her eighth album, this performance special features the former Disney star (right) showcasing her new music in the intimate setting of, yes, her backyard (1 p.m., Disney+).
SATURDAY, March 11 Blood & Money Real stories about real people and real investigations of greed and murder, including the Menendez brothers and billionaire Robert Durst, plus notorious grifters and con artists, in this new series from Law & Order mega-producer Dick Wolf (Oxygen).
SUNDAY, March 12 Shock Docs: Alien Abduction Learn about a 1975 incident that became an international media sensation, involving a logging crew in Arizona, a UFO, a flash of bright light…and the baffling disappearance of one of the loggers—almost like, well, he was taken away by space aliens! (9 p.m., Travel Channel).
MONDAY, March 13 Street Outlaws: The Fastest in America Teams of racers from across America compete to win $250,000 in this gritty reality series. OK, as long as they stay off my street! (8 p.m., Discovery).
The Good Lawyer Kennedy McMann from TV’s Nancy Drew series stars as an ambitious young attorney in this pilot-episode spinoff from the hit series The Good Doctor (10 p.m., ABC).
TUESDAY, March 14 The Bachelor: Women Tell All Girls talk, as Elvis Costello reminded us, and in this episode, all this season’s “contestants” get together to spill the behind-the-scenes beans (8 p.m., ABC).
Ted Lasso Season three of the hit, award-winning comedy series launches tonight, as transplanted soccer coach Ted Lasso (Jason Sudekis) wrestles with team dilemmas and personal issues back home. With Juno Temple, Nick Mohammed, Anthony Head, Brett Goldstein and Hannah Waddingham (Apple TV+).
READ ALL ABOUT IT
One of the most revered music-makers of the 20th century is told in Bill Janovitz’s Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History (Hachette), which chronicles the enigmatic, genre-spanning Rock and Roll Hall of Famer whose hits include “Tight Rope,” “Lady Blue” and “A Song for You.”
THURSDAY, March 16 Shadow and Bone The young-adult fantasy continues, expanding its characters and its sci-fi mythology reach (Netflix).
Grown & Gospel New docuseries follows the career paths of five childhood friends searching for a future in gospel music and navigating the murky business waters of Detroit (9 p.m., WeTV).
Queens Court Actress Holly Robinson Peete and husband Rodney host this new series matchmaking rich and famous single Hollywood women with would-be suitors (Peacock).
NOW HEAR THIS
Some of today’s top country stars get rolling with The Rolling Stones in Stoned Cold Country (BMG), which shows the influence of the iconic British rockers on modern country music. Artists on the new CD include Brooks & Dunn, Ashley McBride, Maren Morris, Elle King, Eric Church and Laney Wilson, on tunes including “Honky Tonk Women,” “Dead Flowers,” “Tumbling Dice” and “Angie.”
Songs of Surrender (Island/Interscope) features 40 seminal songs of the Irish rockers U2. Re-recorded anew and ranging across the band’s entire catalog, the four-disc set includes “With or Without You,” “One,” “Beautiful Day,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “Pride (in the Name of Love)” and many more.
FRIDAY, March 17 Power Book II: Ghost Season three returns tonight, with new twists and turns as the characters deal with new complications in their relationships and their business. Starring Mary J. Blige, Michael Rainey Jr., Shane Johnson and Cliff Smith (8 p.m., Starz).
Bono & The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming with David Letterman The former late-night host travels to Dublin in this new music documentary to hang out with the U2 musicians in their hometown, learn about their friendship of nearly 50 years—and join them for a concert performance unlike any they’ve done before (Disney+).
BRING IT HOME
Tom Hanks stars in the heart-tugging A Man Called Otto (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment), an adaptation of a Swedish film, as a crotchety senior citizen whose life takes a brighter turn with the arrival of some new neighbors. Just call him Forrest Grump.
Almost everything superstar Willie Nelson has recorded over the past decade has been in collaboration with producer Buddy Cannon
Willie Nelson has a Buddy.
Not a buddy, but The Buddy. He’s the Nashville uber-producer who’s been producing Nelson since 2003. Most recently, they collaborated on I Don’t Know a Thing About Love, Willie’s latest album, a new collection of songs written by the late, great Nashville tunesmith Harlan Howard.
The album contains Willie’s all-new cover versions of Howard’s “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail” (a hit for Buck Owens), “Busted” (recorded by Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and a later it for John Conlee), “She Called Me Baby” (Carl Smith, Charlie Louvin, Charlie Rich), “Streets of Baltimore” (Gram Parsons, Bobby Bare), “Too Many Rivers” (Brenda Lee, Johnny Rodriguez, Ray Price, Eddie Arnold, Ernest Tubb), “Excuse Me, I Think I’ve Got a Heartache” (Buck Owens, The Mavericks, Dwight Yoakam), and the Ricky Van Shelton hit “Life Turned Her That Way.”
“I sent Willie a list of about 30 Harlan songs,” recalls Cannon of the project’s genesis. “I said, ‘Why don’t we choose from this?’ And Willie said, ‘Hell, let’s just cut the first ten!’ I don’t think we ended up doing exactly that but, I mean, what a goldmine of songs.”
Willie chose to name the project—the title of another Harlan Howard classic—when all the tracks had been finished.
“I think he just really liked that song,” says Cannon of “I Don’t Know a Thing About Love,” which was a No. 1 chart-topper for Conway Twitty in 1984.
Cannon’s musical path first intersected with Willie back in the 1980s, when Cannon was producing another act, Mel Tillis.
“The first time I met him, I was working with Mel [for a 1984 album] on a track called ‘Texas on a Saturday Night’,” says Cannon. “Mel thought it would be good to have Willie sing on it, and Willie said he would. So, he came into town one night and we went over to the old Music Mill on 18th [Avenue] and spent about two hours working on that song.”
Cannon and Nelson eventually became buddies and true working collaborators years later, when Cannon was producing a new album for superstar Kenny Chesney, and the “No Hat, No Shoes, No Problem” singer also invited Willie to join him on a cut of the old pop standard “That Lucky Old Son.” Nelson liked Cannon’s production on the track so much, he asked Cannon on the spot to work with him on a record.
“He said, ‘Let’s go find some songs and make an album’,” says Cannon. “That’s how it kinda started.”
To date, Cannon has produced just shy of 20 albums for Nelson, and they’ve cowritten dozens of songs. The new I Don’t Know a Thing About Love is Willie’s salute to a songwriter regarded as one of the top tunesmiths of all time, the one who described a great country song as “three chords and the truth.”
Earlier this month, Nelson’s 2022 album A Beautiful Time received the Grammy for Best Country Album, and he won the Grammy for Best Country Solo Performance for “Live Forever,” a track from his tribute last year to singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver. Yeah, Cannon produced both of those, too.
Nelson, a musical icon by any measure, began his career in his native Texas in the mid 1950s. He later relocated to Nashville in 1960s, where he struggled to crack into the musical community, eventually establishing himself as a fledgling songwriter. In the 1970s, he became a torch bearer for country’s “outlaw movement,” a musical ethos of iconoclastic artists who insisted on creative freedoms beyond the strictures of Nashville’s Music Row. Today, he’s a bona fide superstar, with 25 No. 1 hits, more than 200 albums and enough awards—including 12 Grammys—to fill a Texas dance hall.
And on the cusp of turning 90 in April, he’s still going strong. Cannon recalls a recent trip to visit Willie at his getaway home in Maui, where he watched him work out with a boxing speedbag. Only Willie wasn’t punching, he was kickboxing.
“It was higher than my head, and he was kicking that thing,” Cannon recalls. “He’s very agile.”
Killen says the vibe at the sessions for the new album were relaxed and in synch with Willie’s musically laid-back personality—and suffused with a portent of his almost-shamanistic creativity, just like always. “There’s an aura around him,” Killen says. “Every time I’m around him in the studio, I get excited because, you know, something magical is about to happen.”
Nelson’s iconic, idiosyncratic singing style and jazz-influenced phrasing have become musical trademarks, and his guitar playing is a thing completely his own. “You never know what it’s going to sound like, his singing or his playing,” says Cannon. “Even he doesn’t know what it’s going to come out like.” And forget about asking him to do another take of a guitar part, or a vocal phrase, the way he did it previously. “He sees absolutely no point in playing or singing the same thing twice. It’s different every time.”
He adds that Nelson has never been one to over-prepare, over-sweeten or overcook when it comes to making music. Nelson and Cannon’s collaborations show how “you can under-produce instead of over-produce, and it will be just as effective,” says Cannon. “A lot of Willie’s recordings have no background harmonies on them, and you don’t even notice it.”
One of Nelson’s albums long before he started working with Cannon was Willie Nelson & Family, the 1971 LP that established his eclectic, ever-widening circle of musicians, associates, friends and blood kin as a unique, like-minded clan…a family.
And for the past ten years or so, producer Buddy Cannon has felt like he’s part of that family, too.
“I get the Willie Nelson and family thing now,” Killen says. “People mean something to him. I think I’ve somewhat become a part of that.”
What’s next for Cannon, and for Willie? The producer says their next studio collaboration will tap into Nelson’s wide-ranging tastes in all kinds of music. And they’ve already started working on it.
“We’re cutting a bunch of Willie’s old stuff with bluegrass musicians,” says Cannon, who’s mum on other details about the project.
But he notes that the bluegrass project is in keeping with Willie’s unpretentious, musically ecumenical embrace of all kinds of styles and formats, from country to pop standards, jazz and blues.
“He doesn’t think about genres,” says Cannon. “As far as he’s concerned, it’s just songs, and he’s just a singer.”