So what are the likely hits this year? Our friend Bill Flanagan of MTV predicts a brush with styles of the past as he forecasts a rejuvenation of folk rock, led by some distinguished acts.
I noticed something over Memorial Day Weekend. When the weather gets hot there is a natural tendency to reach for folk rock; that airy chiming California concoction that always sounds good with the windows rolled down.
Folk rock began with the Byrds and Aug. 1 will see the release of a box set called "There Is A Season," which includes 99 Byrds songs along with a whole DVD of old TV performances. Everything is here — "Turn Turn Turn," "Eight Miles High," "Do You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star," The David Crosby years, the Gram Parsons years, the Easy Rider years. The Byrds created a sound that has never gone out of style.
And their greatest disciple, surely, is Tom Petty. Petty's got a new album coming in July. It's called "Highway Companion" and it leans toward the acoustic side of what he does so well. Anyone heading out on a family vacation, or just sitting in line on the way to the beach, is going to appreciate songs with titles such as "Turn This Car Around," "Night Driver," and "Big Weekend." I don't know if these were written in a car, but they certainly are made to be played in one. Petty has been recording for 30 years and he still sings with a sense of wonder. That might be his greatest gift.
Does the folk rock stop there? No it does not. The young people just have a different name for it: alt(ernative) country. And the alt country supergroup — the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young of the genre — is Golden Smog, which features members of the Jayhawks, Wilco and other underground heroes. Their new CD is called "Another Fine Day." Golden Smog has a shifting membership and they are a little cagey about who does what. It sounds like the Jawhawks' Gary Louris is the dominant voice this time out, which means the music is melodic and heartfelt with harmonies that would do the Byrds proud.
Louris also shows up as a co-writer on the new Dixie Chicks album, "Taking The Long Way." Now, I have to admit I was kind of badly disposed toward this CD, because I am not crazy about the way the Dixie Chicks have been dredging up the old controversy over their knocking President Bush to promote this record. I understand it was a traumatic event, I have sympathy for them, but it's been three years — enough already.
However, my skepticism went out the window when I heard the album. The music is beautiful. The singing is subtle, the musicianship is superb, there is a song called "Lullaby" that would melt even Karl Rove's heart. It sounds to me like the best album the Dixie Chicks have ever made. I just wish everybody would talk about the music for a change (including the Dixie Chicks).
Does this mean musicians should not take on the current state of the nation? Not at all, the best songwriters are a weather vane for the mood of the country and this summer that mood is pretty tense.
Pearl Jam's new CD is a hard-rock rallying cry. Where the Dixie Chicks sometimes seem to be looking down on the little people, Pearl Jam always place themselves among the common folks, looking up in anger and accusation. On the new CD, which is called "Pearl Jam," they sing in the voice of the unemployed worker, the family of the soldier who didn't come home from Iraq, and the wife of the Army Reservist trying to convince her kids that dad will be OK.
"Pearl Jam" is protest rock in the great tradition of the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," the Stones' "Gimme Shelter," and Jimi Hendrix' version of the Star Spangled Banner. The message is as much in the guitar riffs and the drums as it is in the lyrics.
This is going to be an exceptional summer for music. And now, it's time to go pack the car.