Thursday, October 1, 2009

In The Toolbox: Double Feature....

You could say this about all my feature posts, but it's been way too long since I've done an In The Toolbox. This is the recurring post theme that explores an 'essential' album chosen from my handy toolbox full of CD's. I've extended this privilege to any of my vinyls that I keep in my sturdy Eurolite carrying case (both seen above).

To get things going again with this feature, I'm offering up two gems today. These discs come from a couple of Texas' best songwriters and both were the album that turned me on to the artist. Also linking these albums together is the fact that they both feature a cut of the namesake song for this blog. This Mornin' I Am Born Again was originally a Woody Guthrie poem that Slaid Cleaves got his hands on put to music. Slaid included his version on his career-making album Broke Down. A few years later, Ray Wylie Hubbard recorded a cut of the song for my favorite album of his, Delirium Tremolos.

Slaid Cleaves - Broke Down
Philo (2000)

One of my first orders of business back when I started this blog was to get Slaid's name out into the blogosphere. My first post following the introductory Best of 2007 lists was an Artist Spotlight on Slaid. There, I expressed my admiration for Broke Down, his 5th album, but only the 2nd originally released on CD. The disc contains 10 tracks, not one of which can be considered weak.

'Broke Down' leads off, introducing the listener to Slaid's unmatched ability to tell a story. If this album had a hand in jump-starting Slaid's career, then the title track gets most of the credit. He continues this trend with 'Breakfast in Hell,' a John Henry-esque story of the tragic death of a Canadian logger. The most powerful track on the album is a well-chosen Karen Poston cover, 'Lydia' - a captivating story of a weathered widow twice-scarred by coal mine tragedy. The tune fits Slaid and the album so well, you would never guess it wasn't his. While his narratives are generally of the brokenhearted and last-leggers, there is an air of optimism in Slaid's voice that hints at a happy ending - even if it may not occur during the span of the song.

Slaid does offer some hope on the album, even if a little veiled. One Good Year hits upon that familiar feeling of the forced optimism that comes with a new year's resolution. 'Horseshoe Lounge' lifts the spirits some, offering a shoutout to a welcoming bar in Slaid's adopted home of Austin. 'Key Chain' shows Slaid's songwriting wit, breaking down a bad divorce into the happy fact that he now has en empty key ring with which to start over again.

Broke Down shows the versatility, both lyrically and musically, that Slaid had gathered throughout his first few albums. Tempos shift throughout, the vocals/harmonies keep the melodies fresh, and the genres jump effortlessly between simple singer-songwriter, to bluegrass and blues. See 'Cold and Lonely' and his Del McCoury tribute, 'I Feel the Blues Moving In.' I wrote about the latter in a Cover/Uncovered some time back.

Slaid Cleaves - Broke Down

Slaid Cleaves - Lydia

Buy Broke Down: [Direct][Amazon][iTunes]

Ray Wylie Hubbard - Delirium Tremolos
Rounder/Philo (2005)

Ray Wylie Hubbard may have gotten his start back in the 'Outlaw Country' days in the 70's, but he's found his groove (literally) since the turn of the century. Hubbard is in his element with a foot-tapping tune accented with ample amounts of dobro and slide guitar. Bookended by dirty, bluesy records, 2005's Delirium Tremolos finds RWH taking a reflective look at the roots of his music. Almost completely composed of covers, the album cements Hubbard's title as the Dark Prince of Texas Music.

The album begins medium-paced and mellow, with an Eliza Gilkyson cover (with vocal help from her) and a version of Roger Tillison's 'Rock and Roll Gypsies'. Two of the darkest songs are that of Hubbard's own. 'Dallas after Midnight,' a Jack Ingram duet and 'Dust of the Chase,' a dustblown ballad of a bordertown outlaw.

The aforementioned 'This Mornin' I Am Born Again' is one of the most haunting recordings I've ever come across. Full a capella, except for a constant, creaking percussion, the song features a choir of Texas vocalists gradually joining the hymnal chant. The song begins a 5 track string of tunes that makes Delirium Tremolos a masterpiece. The delta-blues, traditional 'Roll and I Tumble' features expert guitarwork. Co-written with Cody Canada, 'Cooler-N-Hell' is an electric groove that roll-calls everything that makes a man glad he's a man. The album is capped-off with an 8-minute romp through James McMurtry's backwoods family reunion recount, 'Choctaw Bingo.' Hubbard's epic version may be even better than McMurtry's original.

Ray Wylie Hubbard - Roll and I Tumble
Ray Wylie Hubbard - Choctaw Bingo

Buy Delirium Tremolos: [Direct][Amazon][iTunes]

See the sidebar to download both artists' versions of This Mornin' I Am Born Again.

Check out more In The Toolbox at


  1. A nice call back to your core mission, and so glad to see that we were affected the same way by that Slaid album -- my first of his, and I swear, I listened to it more than any other disk that year it emerged. Lydia, especially -- it was on local radio, and I could listen to it forever. Took me until this year to realize it was a cover, though -- perhaps its time to feature Slaid over at Cover Lay Down?

  2. The first (and probably only) time I heard "Broke Down" on the radio (thank you, my old friend Greg Carthy and KTEP-FM's "Folk Fury"), I immediately went online and ordered the CD. That has never happened before, and it has never happened since.