We walked off to look for America

On this long holiday weekend, as we haul out our red, white and blue outfits, raise the flags and bunting, and ooh and ahh over fireworks displays, we’re clearly going to need a patriotic-musicFourth of July soundtrack.  Once again, popular music is ready and waiting with multiple choices.

Elsewhere, no doubt, you’ll be hearing many of the same songs you hear every year on the Fourth of July:   Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” Neil Diamond’s “America,” Don McLean’s “American Pie,” John Mellencamp’s “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” Grand Funk’s “We’re an American Band,” The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” The Guess Who’s “American Woman,” and, of course, Kate Smith’s “God Bless America.”

american_flag_stratBut here at Hack’s Back Pages, I want to focus instead on some of the lesser known songs out there that pay homage to all things American — our country’s natural beauty, our freedoms and blessings, and our undying hope for better things to come.  We’re far from perfect, that’s for sure, but we keep on trying.

There’s a Spotify playlist at the bottom of this column for you to listen to as you read about these 15 featured tracks, plus another dozen “honorable mentions” to fill out the program for the holiday soundtrack.

A very happy Independence Day to you all!

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3ba436668a90c7520e4ac2d6a85240a0“Real American,” Rick Derringer, 1985

Ricky Zehringer was only 17 when his band, The McCoys, had a #1 hit with “Hang On Sloopy” in 1965.  He became Rick Derringer in the Seventies and went on to become a solo star (“Rock and Roll Hoochie-Koo”) as well as an in-demand guest guitarist for Steely Dan, Edgar Winter, Alice Cooper and Todd Rundgren.  He wrote and sang “Real American” in 1985 for the World Wrestling Federation, and specifically Hulk Hogan, to use as entrance music.  The music and lyrics, which capitalized on the Cold War patriotic jingoism prevalent at the time, were ideal for the bombastic showbiz of pro wrestling.  Sample lyric: ” I am a real American, fight for the rights of every man, I am a real American, fight for what’s right, fight for your life…”

600x600bf-1“American Baby,” Dave Matthews Band, 2005

When George W. Bush won re-election in 2004, Matthews felt despondent enough to write this song the following day.  Its lyrics urged us to remain hopeful and proud, despite the troubling changes in values apparent in the way the country was conducting its war in Iraq.  The track, which appears on The Dave Matthews Band’s fourth consecutive #1 album “Stand Up,” became the group’s highest charting single at #16.  Sample lyrics:  “I hold on to you, you bring me hope, I’ll see you soon, and if I don’t see you, I’m afraid we’ve lost the way, stay beautiful, baby, I hope you stay, American baby…”

james-brown-living-in-america-scotti-brothers-4“Living in America,” James Brown, 1986

The one-of-a-kind Godfather of Soul had ruled the R&B charts from the early ’60s through the mid-’70s, and had a half-dozen Top Ten pop hits as well (“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),””Cold Sweat,”), but fell out of favor during the disco and post-disco era.  He had one last commercial peak in 1986 with “Living in America,” which reached #4.  Written by singer-songwriter Dan Hartman and producer Charlie Midnight, the song was used prominently in the film “Rocky IV” in scenes when the over-the-top patriotic character Apollo Creed entered the boxing arena.  Sample lyrics:  “Living in America, eye to eye, station to station, living in America, hand to hand, across the nation, living in America, got to have a celebration…”

220px-Supertramp_-_Breakfast_in_America“Breakfast in America,” Supertramp, 1979

This intelligent British art-rock band had moved to the US in 1977 following their commercial success here that year, and their next batch of songs reflected a breezy American influence.  The “Breakfast in America” LP was an enormous hit for Supertramp — it was perched at #1 for six weeks in the summer of 1979.  The title track (which stalled at #62 compared to the other three Top Ten hits from the LP) is about a poor British boy who fantasizes about visiting the US but lacks the money to do so:  “Take a jumbo across the water, like to see America, see the girls in California, I’m hoping it’s going to come true, but there’s not a lot I can do…”

R-6931009-1429783951-2070.jpeg“This is Not America,” Pat Metheny Group with David Bowie, 1985

In the 1985 spy film “The Falcon and the Snowman,” Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton play young Americans who sell secrets to the Soviets.  In one scene when they are beaten and tortured while in custody, they protest, “We are Americans!”  The response: “This is not America.”  The song, a collaborative effort by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny and the late great David Bowie, examines how our rights and privileges are often taken for granted until they disappear when on foreign soil:  “There was a time, a wind that blew so young, this could be the biggest sky, and I could have the faintest idea, for this is not America, this is not America…”

R-12602770-1538415650-6818.jpeg“I Love American Music,” Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, 2013

This eclectic band from Eugene, Oregon, has specialized in swing and ska music since the early ’90s.  While they have reached the mainstream pop charts only once, with their “Zoot Suit Riot” single and album in 1997, the group has been one of the hardest working touring bands in the nation for many years.  From their 2013 LP “White Teeth, Black Thoughts” comes the single “I Love American Music,” which celebrates the diversity of musical styles you can hear as you travel around this country:  “When the lights go down and my scales stop showin’, I’ll smash my fingers down on the only truth that’s still worth knowin’, play it, play it again Sam, I want American music, play it, play it again Sam, I need American music…”

mary-chapin-carpenter-6“Goodnight America,” Mary Chapin Carpenter, 2004

Although she has escaped the attentions of mainstream music listeners, Chapin-Carpenter has been a consistent presence on country charts for 25 years, with three platinum albums and numerous Top Five singles there.  Her 2004 album, “Between Here and Gone,” contains the lovely ballad “Goodnight America,” which focuses on the gypsy lifestyle of being a musician on the road — “a weary traveler, but grateful to have the freedom to be one,” as she put it.  Sample lyric:  “I’m a stranger here, no one you would know, I’m from somewhere else, well isn’t everybody though, my ship has not come in, I don’t know where I’ll be when the sun comes up, until then, sweet dreams, goodnight America…”

jackson-browne-for-america-asylum“For America,” Jackson Browne, 1986

One of the premier singer-songwriters to emerge from Southern California in the 1970s, Browne has written dozens of articulately worded ballads and anthems to love and life (“For Everyman,” “Fountain of Sorrow,” “The Pretender”).  By the mid-’80s, the left-leaning Browne had grown disheartened with the actions the Reagan administration was taking abroad, and subsequently released the overtly political album, “Lives in the Balance,” which included the modest #30 single, “For America,” another song that wishes for better days ahead:  “I have prayed for America, I was made for America, I can’t let go ’til she’s comes ’round, until the land of the free is awake and can see, and until her conscience has been found…”

maxresdefault-7“(You Can Still) Rock in America,” Night Ranger, 1983  

This San Francisco-based hard rock band had a pretty good run in the 1980s MTV era with its singles, albums and videos.  Their commercial peak came in 1984 with the #5 power ballad “Sister Christian,” but another song from that “Midnight Madness” album was the hard rock anthem “(You Can Still) Rock in America,” which missed the Top 40 but clicked with the patriotic Sammy Hagar-Ted Nugent crowd that ate up the pro-USA lyrics: “Little brother’s got it ready to roll, tires burning as they head for the show, light it up and turn the music up loud, and rock it, rock it, rock it, you can still rock in America, yeah it’s all right…” 

299796“Living in America,” Aztec Two-Step, 1986

The duo of Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman formed the nucleus of Aztec Two-Step, a lighthearted, lively folk rock band out of Boston.  From their roots in 1971, they have continued to release music and perform live ever since, although without much chart success.  In 1986, they came up with this quirky, optimistic ditty in tribute to Americans everywhere:  “Here’s to the silver screen, ah-ah, the music scene in America, here’s to the arts and crafts, people who make us laugh in America, here’s to the songs, the dance, the true romance, all those who take a chance in America, and here’s to the people too, whose dreams have all come true in America…” 

3587-Dave-Stewart-And-His-Rock-Fabulous-Orchestra-American-Prayer-USA-Download-01“American Prayer,” Dave Stewart, 2008

In 2002, Stewart, formerly with Annie Lennox and the Eurythmics, paired up with U2’s Bono to write this “paean to America based on the poetry of the Declaration of Independence and the taut truth in the Constitution.”  It was first performed during Bono’s Heart of America speaking tour that year to rally support for the fight against the AIDS crisis.  In 2008, Stewart altered some of the lyrics and recorded it “in honor of those working to make the world a better place.”  Sample lyrics:   “These are the hands, what are we gonna build with them, and this is the church you can’t see, and remember, give me your tired, your poor and huddled masses, you know they’re yearning to breathe free, this is my American prayer…”

Americandreamcsny“American Dream,” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, 1988

Neil Young promised that he would reunite with Crosby, Stills and Nash if David Crosby successfully kicked his severe drug habit, which he did following a prison term in 1986.  The foursome recorded “American Dream” at Young’s ranch, and while the album reached #16 in early 1988, critics and many fans found it lacking somehow.  Young’s title track is a satire of 1980s-era sensational political scandals:  “Reporters crowd around your house, going through your garbage like a pack of hounds, speculating what they may find out, it don’t matter now, you’re all washed up, you tried to make a good thing last, how could something so good go bad so fast?, American dream, American dream…”

220px-SteppenwolfMonster“America,” Steppenwolf, 1969  

Singer John Kay and drummer Jerry Edmonton were among the key members of the ’60s Canadian-American band The Sparrows, who morphed into Steppenwolf, named for the Herman Hesse novel, and had several huge hits (“Born to Be Wild,” “Magic Carpet Ride”).  By the time of their fourth album in late 1969, Kay and Edmonton were writing more political lyrics, including a nine-minute suite entitled “Monster,” which recounted the history of the U.S. in mostly damning terms.  The suite’s final section, “America,” concluded on this uncertain note:  “America, where are you now, don’t you care about your sons and daughters, don’t you know we need you now, we can’t fight alone against the monster…”

Big-Wide-Grin-cover“America the Beautiful,” Keb’ Mo’, 2001 

There are dozens and dozens of versions of this stunning piece, which I’ve always felt would be a better National Anthem than “The Star Spangled Banner.”  It was first written as a poem by Katherine Lee Bates in 1893, then tweaked a bit with a few new lyrics in 1903 and again in 1911.  Samuel Ward wrote the music back in 1882 to an altogether different lyric, “O Mother Dear, Jerusalem.”  Ward’s hymn-like melody was first combined with Bates’s patriotic words in 1910 into the song we all know today.  In the Bi-Centennial year of 1976, two recordings received considerable airplay — Ray Charles’ stirring rendition on the R&B charts, and Charlie Rich’s commanding version on the country charts.  For something different but memorable, check out Keb’ Mo”s version from his “Big Wide Grin” album in 2001.

there-goes-rhymin-simon-55cb86e3971af“American Tune,” Paul Simon, 1973  

I’ve always felt that this song from Simon’s “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” LP is one of his best works.  The majestic melody is lifted from Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” with poignant Simon lyrics that are simultaneously comforting and troubling.  Even 46 years ago, Simon was proud of his country, but concerned about its future:  “We come on the ship they call the Mayflower, we come on the ship that sailed the moon, we come in the age’s most uncertain hour, and sing an American tune, oh, but it’s all right, it’s all right, you can’t be forever blessed, still, tomorrow’s gonna be another working day, and I’m trying to get some rest…”

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And here’s my Honorable Mention list of other “American” songs that may have escaped your attention:  “America Street,” Edwin McCain;  “What Now America,” Lee Michaels, 1970;  “A Brand New America,” Keb’ Mo’;  “Lost in America,” Alice Cooper;  “Miss America,” David Byrne;  “American Dream Plan B,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers;   “American Beauty,” Bruce Springsteen;  “Miss America,” Styx;  “In America,” Charlie Daniels Band;  “Lost in America,” Edwin McCain;  “Miss America,” James Blunt;  “American Girls,” Counting Crows.

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Christmastime is coming ’round again

An old college buddy of mine, Budd Bailey, sends me a Christmas card every year that includes a CD full of new and unusual Christmas-related recordings — everything from new takes on old carols to hard rock tracks with new twists on the Yuletide traditions.   CHRISTMAS-MUSICHe’s been doing this for a dozen years now, and it turns out he’s been nobly carrying on the tradition started by one of his friends who passed away in 2006.

I asked Budd where he finds these festive, fun holiday jewels, and he turned me on to several websites that specialize in this sort of thing:  Stubby’s House of Christmas, Santapalooza, Christmas Underground, Hip Christmas and Mistletunes.  I’m sure there are others.

Three years ago, I posted a blog that singled out 15 classic Christmas songs by rock and pop artists, and I still enjoy hearing those each year (and have therefore included that setlist at the bottom as a bonus).   But it’s always good to broaden one’s palette and try new things, so I have compiled a selection of some of the newer great rock/pop Yuletide stuff that Budd and others have exposed me to recently, and I offer a little background on the artists and the songs they’ve recorded.  Have a Rockin’ Yule!

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“Christmas Time is Coming ‘Round Again” and “Santa Wants to Take You For a Ride,” The Mavericks, 2018

10253891_479436998823601_3049556431287933516_nFormed in 1989 in Miami, The Mavericks made their mark writing and performing an eclectic mix of Tex-Mix, rockabilly, country and Latin, releasing a half-dozen albums between 1991 and 2003, three of which reached the Top Ten on the US Country charts.  They also won a Grammy for their single “Here Comes the Rain” in 1996.  They reunited in 2013 and continue to make waves on the Country charts, most recently with “Hey!  Merry Christmas!” released last month.  The Mavericks released the rousing “Christmas Time is Coming ‘Round Again” last year as a single, and it did so well that they chose to put together an album’s worth of material for this year.  I’ve selected two tracks from that LP — last year’s hit for the family, and another one with a more naughtily suggestive message.

“Merry Christmas Darlings,” Cheap Trick, 2017

p01bqtqmIllinois-based Cheap Trick formed in the mid-1970s, and first became successful in Japan before hitting it big here in 1979 with their “Dream Police” LP.  Singles like “I Want You to Want Me” and “The Flame” and covers of Elvis’s “All Shook Up” and “Don’t Be Cruel” were big hits on the singles charts during the 1980s as well.  They have continued to tour and release new LPs well into the 2000s, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year.  From “Christmas Christmas,” a 2017 holiday collection, I’ve selected “Merry Christmas Darlings,” an original by veteran members Rick Nielsen, Robin Zander and Tom Petersson.

“This Christmas Day” and “The Man With the Bag,” Jessie J, 2018

jessie-j-this-christmas-day-album-stream-downloadHailing from Essex outside London, Jessica Cornish got her start as a child actress and then a songwriter before adopting the stage name Jessie J and signing as a recording artist.  Her 2011 debut LP, “Who You Are,” spawned five Top Ten singles in the UK, including “Do It Like a Dude” and two #1 hits, “Price Tag” and “Domino.”  The latter reached #6 on the US charts and pushed “Who You Are” to #11 on the album charts here.  Her superb voice has brought her continued successes through the decade, and this year she dropped “This Christmas Day,” a holiday album featuring a number of guest artists.  I was particularly taken by two songs — the title track, a Jessie J original, and her rendition of the 1950 Dudley Brooks-Irving Taylor classic, “The Man With the Bag.”

“The Pagans Had It Right,” Devil in a Woodpile, 2017

bg_cached_resized_1c9728d70808a805712bfd66f3dcec88Rick Sherry, Joel Patterson and Beau Sample formed Devil in a Woodpile in the mid-’90s, playing country blues and jug music, most of it covers of traditional tunes with a few originals scattered in.  They played in and around Chicago for most of their existence, and just last year, they reunited and came up with “13 Day of Xmas,” which included “The Pagans Had It Right,” a whimsical, cynical look at the crass commercialization and drunken revelry so prevalent in the Christmas season these days:  “Baby Jesus shoulda lawyered up, put a trademark on his brand, the pagans had it all figured out, debauchery through the land…”

“Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight),” The Smithereens, 2007

MI0001326948The Ramones, never a commercial success but hugely influential as a New York punk rock band, released 14 albums in 19 years between 1976 and 1995.  Their 11th LP, “Brain Drain,” included “Pet Sematary,” featured in the Stephen King film of that name, and also “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight),” Joey Ramone’s ragged attempt at a holiday tune.  In 2007, The Smithereens, a Jersey-based rock band with a few modest hits (“Only a Memory,” “A Girl Like You”), did an admirable cover of the Ramones’ Christmas song, and I’ve included it here.

“O Come Emmanuel,” Kaskade with Skylar Grey, 2017

Kaskade-Hakkasan-ProfileA producer, remixer and DJ named Ryan Raddon took on the stage name of Kaskade in 1995 when he was living in San Francisco, where a genre known as “deep house” was taking hold.  By 2001 he became a recording artist in his own right, focusing on house, electronic and dance music.  Kaskade’s albums and singles became popular on the dance club airplay listings, and by 2013, he was being nominated for multiple Grammy awards and co-headlining the Coachella festival.  Last year, he Skylar-Grey-press-image-2017released “Kaskade Christmas,” on which he rearranged traditional Christmas music and invited excellent vocalists to collaborate with him.  My favorite track features the superb Skylar Grey singing “O Come Emmanuel.”  Grey had a 2013 Top Ten LP, “Don’t Look Down,” has been a featured singer on many other artists’ hits, including Dr. Dre, Eminem, Moby, Fort Minor and Macklemore, and turned in a memorable 2017 performance on Saturday Night Live with Eminem singing a medley of “Walk on Water/Stan/Love the Way You Lie.”

“You Make It Feel Like Christmas” and “Christmas Eve,” Gwen Stefani (with Blake Shelton), 2017

1280_gwen_stefani_blake_shelton_kiss_twitterDebuting as the 17-year-old singer in her brother’s ska band No Doubt in 1986, Stefani has built a formidable career in the 30 years since.  No Doubt’s 1995 “Tragic Kingdom” LP, with its international #1 smash hit “Don’t Speak,” put Stefani at the top of the heap, and she made multiple chart appearances with No Doubt, as a solo artist, and in various collaborations over the next two decades.  She has also appeared in films, launched fashion lines and been active philanthropically.  Last year she released her first holiday LP, “You Make It Feel Like Christmas,” the title track of which emerged as a popular duet written and recorded with her current romantic interest, Blake Shelton.  I’ve included it on this setlist, and also added the lovely ballad, “Christmas Eve,” co-written by Stefani.

“Finally It’s Christmas,” Hanson, 2017

Hanson Portrait ShootHanson will no doubt forever be best known for the 1997 international #1 single “MMMBop,” and its multiplatinum album “Middle of Nowhere,” which put the trio of teenaged brothers at the top of the pop music business for a spell.  They had success with a Christmas album recorded that year (“Snowed In”), but then a corporate merger saw their label swallowed by Island Def Jam, where they were neglected and ultimately cast aside.  The trio eventually started releasing independently produced albums that helped them resume their career throughout the 2000s, with chart appearances in the high 20s.  Last year’s “Finally It’s Christmas” was among several holiday albums receiving high critical marks, largely for the catchy title track, released to commemorate the trio’s 25th anniversary.

“Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas,” Gaspard Royant, 2017

field4Although recognized as a musical prodigy at age 7, Gaspard Royant struggled in his efforts to become a professional musician until he was nearly 30.  Originally from a small French town on the Swiss border, he ultimately moved to Paris, where he began composing for film, receiving prizes at choral festivals and eventually recording and performing his own material on tour.  On the strength of successful Christmas singles on European charts in 2014 and 2015, Royant released the “Wishing You a Merry Christmas” LP last December, which gained him his first US radio airplay.  The track I found most distinctive was “Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas.”

“Happy, Happy Christmas,” Ingrid Michaelson, 2018

C1dTVPFyNqS._SL1000_.pngNew York-based singer-songwriter-pianist Michaelson emerged from New York state college theater environments to write and record music in 2005, ultimately charting three Top Five albums in the 2010s, including “Human Again” (2012) and “Lights Out” (2014).  When she began work on a Christmas album earlier this year, she wanted to focus on traditional holiday songs as performed by Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and others from the 1940s-1950s period.  She completed a set of 11 cover versions but couldn’t resist including one original, “Happy, Happy Christmas,” which was dedicated to the recent deaths of her parents.  Having lost my mother a couple of months ago, I was moved to include this track for the same reason.

“Naughty Naughty Children (Better Start Acting Nice),” Grace Potter, 2011

Grace_Potter_001Grace Potter is a Vermont-based multi-instrumentalist who formed Grace Potter and The Nocturnals in 2002 and has periodically released albums with the band and on a solo basis.  The group’s strong 2010 LP, “Grace Potter and the Nocturnals,” reached #19 on the US album charts and #3 on mainstream rock lists.  The following year, Potter was asked to be the voice of Carol in an animated Disney project, the holiday-themed “Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice,” for which she also wrote and recorded “Naughty Naughty Children (Better Start Acting Nice).”  Although it’s highly derivative of Chuck Berry’s classic “Run Rudolph Run,” it has a new millennium feel to it that I found compelling.

“Bring Me Love,” John Legend, 2018

111915-shining-stars-3Born John Stephens in 1978, Legend was an instant success with his “Get Lifted” album debut in 2004, and his multiple talents since then have earned him kudos as the first African-American recipient of the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) designation.  In 2014, Legend co-wrote and sang the Oscar-winning “Glory” for the film “Selma,” and had the second-best-selling song of the year (“All of Me”).  In 2016, he won an Emmy for performing the title role in the live TV special of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and then this year, he released his first holiday LP, “A Legendary Christmas,” which includes eight traditional songs and six Legend originals, most notably the Motown-ish Christmas track “Bring Me Love.”

“Happy Xmas (War is Over),” Emily Hackett, 2018

EmilyhackettJohn Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s musical call for peace at Christmastime 1971 was released as a single that year but didn’t get much airplay.  Once Lennon was assassinated during the Christmas season nine years later, it became a haunting, ironic reminder of the senselessness of violence and war, especially in a time of peace and good will.  Since then, this revered song has been covered in a wide variety of arrangements by dozens of artists, ranging from Carly Simon to The Moody Blues, from Jimmy Buffett to Darlene Love, from Celine Dion to Pat Travers, from Josh Groban to REO Speedwagon.  I happen to be partial to the gentle treatment that singer-songwriter Emily Hackett gives to it, and I think you’ll agree.