Monday night Radio Free Silver Lake presents the first week of Judson McKinney’s February residency Tuesday at the Silverlake Lounge. Last year we had a chance to speak with Judson at several RFSL shows. He often stayed past the last set to talk about his new projects, the craft of songwriting, and some of the artists who have influenced him most. As a way of introduction to his residency we asked him to continue that conversation in a guest post.
By Judson McKinney
Five Songs from Five Artists that Matter to Me (and You)
In case you haven't tuned in yet, Radio Free Silver Lake will be presenting Night 1 of my February residency at Silverlake Lounge. A night that launches a whole month of great music, all free, every Monday night. In preparing for Night 1, RFSL has asked me to write a little about the music that I love and that has been influential to me.
I'd like to look at five amazing songs from five tremendous artists.
1) "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos" – Woody Guthrie
Time spent in Guthrie's canon keeps one away from complacency, whether one is an artist or a human being. Guthrie was an idealist, but so vastly different from many today, in that he was also a poet of great skill.
This particular song, also known as "Deportee," was apparently written by Guthrie after his astonishment that the news coverage of this crash did not include the names of its Mexican victims, who were migrant farm workers. "The radio says, They are just deportees."
I remember working a pizza job in California alongside two fine Hispanic gentlemen who always worked hard and never complained. One day the corporate manager comes in from New York City and starts referring to both of these men as "José," even though that name only belonged to one of them. I was livid and corrected that manager. "His name is Vicente."
With his pen and his guitar, Woody Guthrie loved America, and stood up for the "nameless." And if folk music ever abandons its embrace of the underdog, the downtrodden, or the deportee, then damn it to hell.
2) "Donald and Lydia" – John Prine
I’m amazed at how many people in Los Angeles don’t know the songs of John Prine. I feel really lucky that his long-time piano player, Phil Parlapiano, recorded all the piano tracks on my debut album, Tangled Wire. What a privilege.
Bob Dylan describes Prine’s writing as “pure Faustian existentialism.” He doesn't sugar-coat the lives of the characters that inhabit his songs. But his love and empathy run alongside his realism.
“Making change behind the counter in a penny arcade / Sat the fat girl daughter of Virginia and Ray.” I've met Lydia. And I've met Virginia and Ray, too. God bless 'em.
3) “Casimir Pulaski Day" – Sufjan Stevens
Does anyone in our generation recognize the genius of Sufjan Stevens? Surely not enough folks do. And if the world continues, certainly more people will. If nothing else than for the sheer beauty of his compositions and lyrics. "Casimir Pulaski Day" cuts me, and I am all the better for its wounds.
"Tuesday night at the Bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens"
Perhaps I have grown immune to death, or at least hardened to its perplexity. This song reminds me of a time when death pierced me to the core, and life was o' so fragile and glorious.
4) “Houses on the Hill” – Whiskeytown
Whiskeytown's Strangers Almanac probably cemented my love for country music, or alt-country, rather. If there ever was a perfect two and a half minute song, this is it. Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary transport me into the world of "the greatest generation."
"Eisenhower sent him to war
He kept her picture in his pocket that was closest to his heart
And when he hit shore
Must have been a target for the gunman"
I start to feel like I am really understanding my grandparents in all of their youth and vigor. I want to read Hemingway. I yearn for simplicity. And I am sad at the sorrow and loss war brings.
5) "I Dream a Highway" – Gillian Welch
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are a model of artistic integrity for our time. Welch writes great songs. She can actually sing those songs. And Rawlings can play his $35 guitar as good as any picker in Americana. I am thrilled that they do what they do to keep the music alive.
Welch's third full length album, Time (The Revelator), seems to alternate between two worlds, a traditional style of Appalachia, and an internal contemplative daydream. "I Dream a Highway" is fourteen minutes and thirty-nine seconds well spent. Especially on a late night when you're just not quite ready for bed. "Lord let me die with a hammer in my hand," she sings. Very fitting, for she has already crafted so many great songs in her career.
Judson plays with The Baron Sisters, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and Andrew Lynch Monday night at the Silverlake Lounge, 2906 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, Doors at 7:30pm, show at 8:30pm 21+.