Almanac Music: ‘Not Quite Bob’ – Different Folkies: Bill Callahan (Smog), Will Oldham (Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billie, Palace Music), Sam Beam (Iron & Wine)

Not Quite Bob – Different Folkies – Bill Callahan (Smog), Will Oldham (Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billie, Palace Music), Sam Beam (Iron & Wine)


Then there are others.  Musicians who broadly swim in the country/Americana/folk pool but nonetheless aren’t easily pigeon holed.  A bit weird maybe, quirky certainly.  But distinctive, interesting, all writers of great songs.  Here are a few of them.



Bill Callahan


Born in 1966 in Silver Spring, Maryland, a birthplace I’ve never typed into one of these before.  His music is described in the not-very-reliable-pedia as either Apocalyptic folk or gothic country.  Wtf?  Still, he’s a different kind of cat is Bill.  He starts recording in 1990 as Smog a band name he carries around until 2007 even though it’s really just him playing virtually everything.  He sort of speak/sings in an off-key not quite baritone but it’s very beguiling, hooks you in.  His first release is in 1990 with Sewn To the Sky but it’s on 2000’s Dongs of Sevotion that I first noticed him with this.  ‘Dress Sexy At My Funeral’.





The sardonic wit is evident in virtually everything he does as well as a melancholy that’s hard to shake.  But there’s also a wistfulness in the songs, here in 2019 on one of his older Smog songs.





His last album as Smog is A River Aint Too Much To Love in 2005 and it’s more of what we’d grown to like through 13 previous albums.  Might be his best, might not.





In 2007 he comes out from behind the Smog-screen to record under his own name with Woke On A Whaleheart and continues his roughly every year or so output of fine records.


If you’re with me so far you’ll find something to like in the 7 Bill Callahan albums.  This is from 2011’s Apocalypse.  ‘America!’





Who says Americans don’t get irony.


As I’ve said before for a lot of these artists the Tiny Desk format is perfect.  This set during the pandemic was Tiny Desk at Home and it included tracks from his most recent album in 2020 called Gold Record.





The album before that though called Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest is a beauty with 20 2-3 minute wonders for the die hard Callahan fans.





I’m one of them.






Will Oldham


Will Oldham is also a shy practitioner using heaps of variations on the band name Palace Music to record (admittedly with lots of collaborators) what are nonetheless his own albums.  From Louisville, Kentucky, an authentic country borough, he also is described as gothic country and like Callahan his lo-fi approach is a signature in his music.  Sparse arrangements, mostly acoustic, a higher reedier voice but similar laments of his own brand of American music.


Unfortunately Will’s clips from his early work as Palace Music are hard to find but this one called ‘Horses’ gives a feel of what is to follow.





Him being encouraged to do a vid is down to someone with some sway but I don’t think labelling him shy is by any means a stretch.  Since 1999 his nom-de-song has been Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and his first album under that name was I See A Darkness.






Completely betraying the original version including the very, very sombre tone of the title track is this truly bizarre rendering of the song in 2012 when he was re-recording (reimagining?) some of his earlier songs.





I have absolutely no way of explaining that.  Because I think the song is great and because I think this rendering is magnificent it’s hard to go past the Johnny Cash version.





I’ve got plenty to say about Johnny later but this points to a truer take on this otherwise bleak song.


There are lots of good BPB albums and some confusing ones.  Like Bill Callahan he’s prolific, in the various guises it’s 24 and counting, but in 2006 he goes to Reykjavik and records The Letting Go with an eclectic bunch including drummer Jim White from the Dirty Three.  It’s terrific.





You like ‘weird’?  I’ll give you ‘weird’.  This is the album’s highlight, ‘Cursed Sleep’.





In more recent years Will has collaborated with others and made a couple of albums with guitarist Matt Sweeney under the moniker Superwolf.  From the first of those here they are in an odd setting with a couple of the standouts.





And, no I don’t know why it goes dark for the second song but I do think it’s deliberate.


To close the loop, square the circle? on the Bills, this year Bill Callahan and BPB have released Blind Date Party, 19 covers of oddities that runs for 90 minutes.  Never less than compelling they even cover a Steely Dan song.  ‘Deacon Blues’.  Hitherto impervious to being covered because they’ve already recorded their own perfect versions of their own songs, this one works.





I think they’d approve.




Sam Beam


Sam Beam records as Iron & Wine and again, it’s mostly him.  Much younger than the other two, South Carolina born in 1974 and much less prolific, Sam is a true folkie, more straightforward, less tortured, less maudlin but no less compelling.


I first became aware of Iron & Wine when I saw a film called Garden State in 2004.  It featured this song, ‘Such Great Heights’, actually a cover of a song by another folky band called The Postal Service.





NB: I’ve name checked this soundtrack before when I presented Nick Drake.  It’s full of great songs including by Simon and Garfunkel, The Shins and Colin Hay as well as Nick and Sam.


On the strength of this song I went back and researched the Iron & Wine albums.  The first was in 2002 called The Creek Drank The Cradle.  The next in 2004 called Our Endless Number Days is particularly strong.





So is The Shepherd’s Dog in 2007 and the ones since.  I’ve bought ‘em all.  In 2009 he releases a comp of B sides and other tracks left off the first three albums.  It includes this gem, ‘The Trapeze Swinger’.





As with Tom Waits on his castoffs album Bastards, Brawlers and Bawlers, it’s a head scratcher to work out why songs like that didn’t make it first time round.


By 2017 it’s Beast Epic, another good ‘un, and in support of that album Sam is here on KEXP (another great site for live stuff in quiet surroundings).





Sam has also made a couple of really good collabs with Calexico.  In 2005 it’s an EP called In The Reins and in 2019 it’s Years To Burn.





And that year again on KEXP.




That’s a bunch of musicians in perfect sync right there.  I’ve got Calexico in for another piece lest anyone think they’ve been paid slim attention here.  Too big a topic for a skim in this one.


The comments on YouTube clips are often instructive.  Although they can also be a place where hyperbole sits like a stone in your shoe.  But on one of the Iron & Wine clips someone implores Sam Beam to make music forever.  I do too.


So, two Bills and a Sam.  Hiding in plain sight.  NQB, not very Bob, but you can easily hear and feel the reach.  When an album arrives from any one of them it’s a trip to the shop straightaway for me.



You can read more from Trevor Blainey HERE.



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  1. Trev
    Cold-Blooded Old Times is a ripper by Smog. I think it might have been in Hi-Fidelity, the film. Woke on a Whaleheart is great/different.
    I always want to like Calexico more than I can, or do.
    Tom Stewart should get off with a caution.

  2. Trevor Blainey says

    Agree on all that except the last bit. He’s neither one of the Kray twins nor John the Baptist but is a very naughty boy. He’ll get a month if they’re fair dinkum. NB: he is one of my favourites from a club not my own. that list includes Dustin Martin, Travis Boak and the entire Melbourne mid-field. Including Max. Not hard to see where Essendon’s frailties lie.

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