Still Catching Up On The ’90s

Originally posted October 8, 2008

I got to the CD party way, way late.

As the 1990s dawned, folks all around me were buying CDs of new music as well as replacing their long-suffering LPs (and then selling those LPs at places like Cheapo’s in south Minneapolis). Meanwhile, like a man watching a lake dry up, fearing the drought to come, I was watching the amount of new music available to me diminish seemingly day by day.

I’d seen the first signs of drought when I lived in Minot, North Dakota. Several stores that sold new records when I moved to town in the late summer of 1987 sold only CDs and cassettes by mid-1989, when I loaded another truck and moved back to Minnesota. Other music stores I’d frequented had far less vinyl for sale when I left town than they’d had two years earlier, all except the pawnshop, where the amount of vinyl increased greatly (though I spent little time there, for some reason).

By the time I lived in the Twin Cities, beginning in the autumn of 1991, new vinyl was rare. There might have been more, but I can recall right now only five newly released albums I found on vinyl during the 1990s: Bruce Springsteen’s Lucky Town, Human Touch and The Ghost of Tom Joad; the box set of Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings; and Counting Crows’ Recovering the Satellites. Not being in a position to buy a CD player, I turned to cassettes to keep up on new music.

Radio helped, too. Not Top 40; I’d lost interest in hits sometime during the 1980s, but I listened frequently to Cities 97, a station that I think has a deeper playlist than most available in the Twin Cities. There, I heard some familiar stuff and a lot of new stuff by artists I was interested in learning about. Through radio and cassettes, I kept up with my old favorites and some new friends from the 1980s – Indigo Girls, Suzanne Vega and a few others – and got pointed toward some new performers: Big Head Todd & the Monsters, Toad the Wet Sprocket, the Waterboys, October Project and the BoDeans come easily to mind.

But cassettes are awkward things, a declaration that will be news to nobody. It’s difficult to cue up a specific song or to skip one. So I didn’t invest in tapes the way I had already invested in vinyl. The result was that I learned a little less about new music during the 1990s than I had in previous decades. Since I got my first CD player in 1998 and then ventured on-line in early 2000, I’ve learned a fair amount about the decade that I spent mostly in Minneapolis. A little more than ten percent of the mp3s in my collection come from the 1990s, so here’s what the decade sounds like when I do a random program:

A Baker’s Dozen from the 1990s

“Sweet Spot” by Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris from Western Wall: Tucson Sessions, 1999

“Children in Bloom” by Counting Crows from Recovering the Satellites, 1996

“Ghost of Johnny Ray” by Boo Hewerdine from Ignorance, 1992

“Thunder” by Jimmy Witherspoon from Back To The Streets: The Music of Don Covay, 1993

“Shake That Thang” by Long John Baldry from It Still Ain’t Easy, 1991

“Bordertown” by the Walkabouts from Setting The Woods On Fire, 1994

“Blue Yodel No. 9” by Jerry Garcia, David Grisman and John Kahn from Songs of Jimmie Rodgers, 1997

“Do You Like The Way” by Santana featuring Lauryn Hill and Cee-Lo from Supernatural, 1999

“Need A Little Help” by Billy Ray Cyrus from Trail of Tears, 1996

“Follow” by Paula Russell from West of Here, 1999

“Skies the Limit” by Fleetwood Mac from Behind the Mask, 1990

“Ghel Moma” by the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir from Mystère Des Voix Bulgares, Vol. 4, 1998

“Lives In The Balance” by Richie Havens from Cuts to the Chase, 1994

A few notes:

The Linda Ronstadt-Emmylou Harris collaboration, Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions, is a gem. The two had worked together before, of course, most notably during the Trio sessions with Dolly Parton that produced two albums. The result of this collaboration is the sound of two voices and two souls performing in harmony.

Back To The Streets: The Music of Don Covay is one of the multitude of tribute anthologies that began to pop up in the 1990s. Covay’s catalog of soul and R&B songs is immense and truly great, though I believe he’d be immortal if “Chain of Fools” had been the only thing he ever wrote. And the CD is a delight, featuring some intriguing choices for the vocals, such as Todd Rundgren, Gary U.S. Bonds, Bobby Womack, Iggy Pop and others. Witherspoon’s fine performance on “Thunder” was likely one of his last recordings. The Covay tribute was released in 1993 and Witherspoon crossed over in 1997 at the age of 77.

I don’t know much about the Walkabouts. I came across “Bordertown” on another blog – I forget which one – and liked it a lot. Having it pop up at random today is a nice stroke of luck, as I’m going to add Setting the Woods on Fire to my short list of CDs to find soon. All-Music Guide says the album is a “sweeping, stately record” that “owes a great deal to the Stones’ Exile on Main Street.” Sounds like a good deal to me.

Mention Billy Ray Cyrus and most folks flash back to 1992 and “Achy Breaky Heart,’ which dominated the country charts and made it to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. I looked for his Trail of Tears album simply because it includes a cover of J.J. Cale’s “Crazy Mama,” which turned out to be a pretty good version. Trail of Tears turned out to be a pretty good and surprisingly rootsy country album, which surprised me.

“Skies the Limits” (which makes no sense as a title to me) is the opening track from the album Fleetwood Mac recorded after replacing Lindsey Buckingham with Billy Burnette and Rick Vito. Behind the Mask is a pretty uninspired effort with a couple of good tracks on it. Unhappily, neither “Save Me” nor “Freedom” popped up.

Jackson Browne’s 1986 song “Lives in the Balance” was still relevant in 1994 when Richie Havens made it his own on Cuts to the Chase, and it’s still relevant today.

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