Almanac Music: Not Quite Bob – Bloodlines

 

 

Not Quite Bob – Bloodlines: Chris Whitley, Trixie Whitley, Willie Nelson, Lukas Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Justin Townes Earle 

 

 

Talent inheritance isn’t usual in anything.  The more famous the parent the longer the shadow that gets cast.  But in some cases very decent careers have been carved out by musicians not deterred by the deeds of their notable fathers.  Not often but here are these few.  All fit the brief too.  Which, truth to tell, isn’t the case with all of these pieces.

 

 

 

 

 

Chris Whitley

 

 

Texas born Chris had a brief but noteworthy career from his early work in 1983 until his untimely death from lung cancer at age 45 in 2005.  Influenced early on by Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, Howlin’ Wolf and yes, Bob, it’s all evident in his terrific first album from 1991, Living With The Law.

 

 

 

 

I got it at the time and play it still.  Not bettered by his many fine albums since (with one very notable exception) they were all still worth a listen and deserved your folding lettuce.  Great singer, good on the guitar, sparse arrangements, perfect as back or foreground depending on your mood.  From 1998’s Dirt Floor here is ‘Wild Country’.

 

 

 

 

You could work your way through his catalogue and not put a foot wrong.  I bought Hotel Vast Horizon in 2003 (when I woke up to Bob for those following at home) and this is the title track.

 

 

 

 

But whatever you do, and I mean that literally, you have to track down a copy of Dislocation Blues, the album he recorded in Adelaide and Melbourne with local Jeff Lang.  Recorded in early 2005 and released after his death in early 2006, it is a fitting coda to Whitley’s great career.  Two Bob covers, a Prince song, a nod to Robert Johnson right at the end and some originals and co-pens with Jeff Lang, it is stunning.  A must.  One of the covers is ‘Stagger Lee’, here on a quirky vid courtesy Jeff.

 

 

 

 

The cream of the locals with Jeff on guitars, Grant Cummerford on bass and Ash Davies on drums.  Tasty plus.

 

 

 

 

 

Trixie Whitley

 

 

Chris’ other legacy is in the form of his daughter Trixie.  When still very young she supplies backing vocals on a few of her father’s albums but after his death she is spotted by Daniel Lanois and asked to join a group he formed while an artist-in-residence at Berklee College of Music called Black Dub.  They release one self-titled album.  It’s a hint of what’s to follow for her.  Here in a Tiny Desk concert with Lanois.

 

 

 

 

The voice is the thing, it’s her dad plus depth.  She’s on the way and in 2013 she releases her solo debut Fourth Corner.

 

 

 

 

And here is the standout, ‘Breathe You In My Dreams’.

 

 

 

 

She’s released a couple of good albums since and is immersed in a more avant garde theatre and music world in Belgium where she lives.  One to watch.

 

 

 

 

 

Willie Nelson

 

 

Another Texan, Willie pre-dates Bob by 8 years and is more an influence on Dylan than the other way round.  With close to 150 albums to his name he is nothing if not prolific.  He has written and recorded hundreds of songs many of which are staples of the form, covered by many, a Hall of Famer in Nashville, in the pantheon as it were.  ‘Honeysuckle Rose’, ‘On The Road Again’, ‘To All The Girls I’ve Loved’, ‘Always On My Mind’ are amongst his many hit singles and he covered ‘Pancho & Lefty’, a Townes Van Zandt song in a duet album with Merle Haggard.  Here he is in 1961 with ‘Crazy’, a song he wrote but later that year made famous by Patsy Cline.

 

 

 

 

As popular as he was in Nashville Willie rebelled against the more straight laced music from that town and together with Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson pioneered what was labelled as ‘outlaw country’ music.  In 1975 he released a concept album called Red Headed Stranger, still considered a classic of its kind.

 

 

 

 

The following year he forms a country supergroup called The Highwaymen with Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser and they release an album called Wanted! The Outlaws to cement the notion of ‘outlaw’ country.  With floating lineups including occasionally Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, The Highwaymen become a vehicle for Willie’s live work for many years thereafter.  Here in 1990 with another well known song.

 

 

 

 

With such a vast repertoire I’m going to have to gloss over Willie’s story over the last several decades and even ‘fess up that he’s not my most favoritest artist in this series.  But again, prolific, undeniable, unstoppable.  He still records and appears live at 89.  A force.

 

But of much more interest to me is Willie’s progeny.  4 marriages, 7 children, one of whom is Lukas.

 

 

 

 

 

Lukas Nelson

 

Born in LA in 1988 Lukas has been active in the business since 2008 and in 2010 together with his band The Promise of the Real he released a self-titled debut.

 

 

 

 

Before that they’d opened for Willie who was a clear influence but in official biogs the nods go to Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young.  You only have to read that and you’re hooked.

 

In 2014 they hook up with Neil after Farm Aid and have performed as his backing band (when he’s not on stage with Crazy Horse) pretty much from then on.  I don’t want to burn Neil stuff now because he’s his own NQB instalment at a later date but as a taste here he is with POTR at Farm Aid in 2017.

 

 

 

 

After the debut there are 5 more POTR albums from the studio (plus a couple of live ones), all really good, all reflective of the cited influences in Jimi and Neil.  But when he’s not rampaging around the stage with old Shakey a deeper dive shows at whose feet Lukas knelt, as he, as a still very young man, makes his way.  A Tiny Desk sheds a light.

 

 

 

 

But really it was in plain view if anyone had been paying attention.

 

 

 

 

That’s the Bloodlines theme for today right there.

 

 

 

 

Townes Van Zandt

 

 

Just to nail this Bloodlines theme though let’s start with an artist who is not a relative of anyone else in this group.  If for no other reason than to leave him out of a discussion about Bobishness would be a sin of omission, a bridge too far, a road not to be travelled.  All the cliches I frequently use.

 

(John) Townes Van Zandt was also a Texan, a near contemporary of Bob he’s a few years younger but doesn’t make it much past 50.

 

His first album is called For The Sake of the Song, released in 1968.  Here is the first song he ever wrote ‘Waitin’ Around To Die’, featured in a doco film called Heartworn Highways filmed in 1975.

 

 

 

 

A prophecy maybe, a sad song to come from the mind of a 24 yo which portends a hard living life that bedevils him thereafter.  Drugs and booze are a feature but from 1968 to 1973 is also a fecund period for TVZ as he releases 6 acclaimed albums culminating in The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, another melancholy offering full of great songs.

 

 

 

 

And from there, on stage much later, the song covered by Willie and Merle mentioned above, ‘Pancho and Lefty’.

 

 

 

Downhill from there, in the mid-70’s he’d split with his longtime manager, lost control of his songs, recorded spasmodically, performed for chump change.  Bob Dylan was a fan and tried to interest him in co-writing but he shunned the overtures, liked Bob’s songs, hated (envied maybe?) his fame.  In 1997 he’s dead at 52 from heart failure after longterm addiction to heroin and alcohol.  In the end the victim of his own excesses and poor judgement from those who were nearby at the time.

 

Many of his peers and those that followed claim him as an inspiration in their own songwriting.  It’s an honour roll in music – Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark, Willie Nelson, the Avett Bros and John Prine – carved out of a huge list.

 

 

 

 

Steve Earle

 

 

And chief amongst them was Steve Earle.  Although he was born in Virginia in 1955, Steve grew up in Fort Worth, Texas but later ran away from home at 14 to look for his idol, Townes Van Zandt.  A rebel to a fault, in and out of school, he drops out at 16 and moves to Houston where he finally meets TVZ.  In 1974 at 19 he’s in Nashville, blue collar jobs in the morning and playing music in clubs at night.  He also features in Heartworn Highways with Van Zandt.

 

 

 

 

While ‘polished’ is scarcely a word you’d use here he’s in good company already with Rodney Crowell joining into the singalong.  Earle spends a long time practising his craft and it takes until 1987 for the release of his first album Guitar Town.  But from there it’s full tilt all the way and in 1988 he releases Copperhead Road.

 

 

 

 

He’s flying.  Bluegrass, Americana, some Irish lilts, rockabilly.  And from here on in, politics.  He avoided the draft but is a fierce anti-Vietnam war campaigner and it works its way into many songs.  He records regularly and I’ve got lots of them.  Catnip for me.

 

In 2000 it’s Transcendental Blues which is particularly strong.  On it there is ‘Galway Girl’, another with the Irish influences and here he is with a bunch of Irish musicians at the Kennedy Centre.

 

 

 

 

A 2009 release called Townes is a tribute to his mentor TVZ.

 

 

 

 

His career proceeds apace and diversifies, he writes prose and poetry, acts, appearing in The Wire, and continues to stand up for the issues he champions.  Anti-war, pro-choice, anti-capital punishment, he considers himself a socialist.

 

Like Townes and a lot of his cohort though Steve has his share of personal problems with drug and alcohol abuse again a feature.  He even manages to get arrested and imprisoned for weapons possession but a 1 year sentence truncates to 60 days and he keeps on keeping on.  Somewhere in there he manages to marry 7 times, twice to the same woman which does show no small amount of ‘not learning’.

 

One of those marriages does deliver a son, Justin Townes Earle.

 

 

 

 

 Justin Townes Earle

 

 

Justin was born in 1982 and soon after Steve leaves only to return in 1994.  JTE follows his dad into the life of a musician (including the bad bits) and in 2008 he releases The Good Life, followed the next year by Midnight At The Movies and then in 2010 with Harlem River Blues.

 

 

 

 

Sound like anyone you know?  Not as deep, a reedier country twang but there it is.  He tours with and in support of Steve while also carving out his own niche as a festival favorite at gigs like South By Southwest in Austin, Newport, Bonnaroo and yes, at Bluesfest at Byron Bay.  A younger audience with each album he grows and grows and by 2014 he has started a trio of great albums that speak directly to his topsy turvy personal life, substance abuse, his early fatherless years.  It’s a familiar refrain.  Single Mothers in 2014, Absent Fathers in 2015 and Kids In The Street in 2017 are his signatures.  I’d could link any one of them and heartily recommend them all but eeny meany miny moe, its Kids In The Street.

 

 

 

 

On that album he covers Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’.  Here in stellar company.

 

 

 

 

Most would know though that this story doesn’t end well.  After one more ripper album in 2019, the ominously titled The Saint of Lost Causes, in August 2020 JTE passes away at just 38.  Drugs.  An overdose.  A sad press release with a privacy respecting lack of detail.

 

The last words on this instalment belong to Steve Earle.  In January 2021 he releases J.T. as a tribute to his son.  This is the last track.

 

 

 

 

Raw.  Heartfelt.  Magnificent.  NQB but … In the head.  In the heart.  In the blood.

 

You can read more from Trevor Blainey HERE.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Colin Ritchie says

    Saw Chris Whitley with Jeff Lang at Port Fairy I think, bought the CD. Steve Earle has been a favourite since I first saw him at Byron Bay with Buddy Miller in his band. JTE I found very intimidating at Port Fairy, too spaced out and made a lot of inappropriate comments which did not go down well with the audience. When he did finally play the songs were fab. I do have a couple of his CDs at home. The closest I got to Willie Nelson was to stand next to his statue in Austin Tx, whether I get the chance to see him play live I’ve probably left my run too late. Another cracking piece Trevor.

  2. Rick Kane says

    I may have been at the same JTE Port Fairy gig. He finished with a cover of Springsteen’s Racing in the Street. It blew me away. His guitar playing alone! I’ve loved Steve Earle since first hearing Guitar Town (pretty sure it was 1986). Two other artists “arrived” roughly the same time. Lyle Lovett and Randy Travis. The three of them reshaped country music a bit, each in their own distinct way. Back to JTE, for me, he went way past his dad, real quickly. But what a tragic end.

    Cheers

  3. Trevor Blainey says

    The only one of these I’ve seen live is Steve Earle who was great. Wish I’d seen his son who had already, I agree Rick, gone ahead of his dad. Would have, could have. Very sad.

  4. Peter Crossing says

    Thanks Trev. Most enjoyable.
    Chris Whitley has produced some compelling music – original material as well as covers. Dislocation Blues is a terrific album with Chris Whitley’s world-weary, husky vocals contrasting the more straightforward tones of Jeff Lang. There are superb guitar touches from both. Ashley Davies’ drumming on When I Paint My Masterpiece is brilliant.
    And thanks for the introduction to Trixie Whitley, whom I had only heard previously when she admonished an audience member on a track from one of her father’s albums. She has some talent as a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist on piano, guitar and drums. A search produced this gem from Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub. Brian Blade also. Wow.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7My6lgbJZI
    Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt are particular favourites of mine. I could wax lyrical for hours. One of my most unforgettable Steve Earle moments was at The Gov in Adelaide when he did a cover of the Townes song, Brand New Companion. Lightning Hopkins seemed to be right there in the room.
    I witnessed a memorable Justin Townes Earle and Jason Isbell concert at the delightful, historic little theatre in Milton in the Southern Highlands of NSW. I’ve shared this elsewhere but I wondered what the two would get up to post-concert in a sleepy country town. Later, the lyrics of New South Wales on Jason Isbell’s subsequent album Southeastern explained things.

  5. Trevor Blainey says

    Thanks Peter. It would be good if Daniel Lanois revived Black Dub at some point. And a pity that to date Trixie’s output is a bit sparse. And you’re surely right about the context for that Jason Isbell song. Catching young artists like that in that setting before they’re bigger would have been a treat. I had to research TVZ a bit for this because I only knew about the name connection. He’s one of those artists whose name I knew but I never dove into the songs before. I will now.

  6. Peter Crossing says

    Enjoy the journey into the Townes song story, Trevor.
    As he says, “To live is to fly”.

  7. Thanks Trevor. I always loved Chris Whitley’s Living with the Law and have just ordered Dislocation Blues on your recommendation thanks. The Steve Earle biography Hard Core Troubadour is a ripper read if you haven’t read it before. Cheers

  8. Trevor Blainey says

    Ian, I haven’t but will. Enjoy the album. Chris is quite unwell by this time but it doesn’t detract from what’s there. And Jeff Lang was a very talented comrade on it.

  9. Thanks for this, Trevor.

    The early passing of Justin Townes Earle robbed the world.

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