Americana Music Awards 2018: We Can Do Better

Executive Summary:  Jason Isbell won the Americana awards.  Again.  And he deserves it.

The Americana Honors & Awards honored and awarded the toast of Nashville for 2018, as voted by the members of the Americana Music Association.  I was once one—a member, not an honoree, by gosh.  I still self-identify as an Americana fan… much as I self-identify as a member of a political party.  I am an Americana fan as I understood Americana when I first became an Americana fan.  The current party is interesting, but I getting more and more difficult to decipher.  That as it may be…

Long version—the nominees, with winners emboldened:

Album of the Year:
“All American Made,” Margo Price, Produced by Jeremy Ivey, Alex Munoz, Margo Price and Matt Ross-Spang
“By The Way, I Forgive You,” Brandi Carlile, Produced by Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings
“The Nashville Sound,” Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Produced by Dave Cobb
“Rifles & Rosary Beads,” Mary Gauthier, Produced by Neilson Hubbard

Artist of the Year:
Brandi Carlile
Jason Isbell
Margo Price
John Prine

Duo/Group of the Year:
I’m With Her
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats

Emerging Act of the Year:
Courtney Marie Andrews
Tyler Childers
Anderson East
Lilly Hiatt

Song of the Year:
“A Little Pain,” Margo Price, Written by Margo Price
“All The Trouble,” Lee Ann Womack, Written by Waylon Payne, Lee Ann Womack and Adam Wright
“If We Were Vampires,” Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Written by Jason Isbell
“The Joke,” Brandi Carlile, Written by Brandi Carlile, Dave Cobb, Phil Hanseroth and Tim Hanseroth

Instrumentalist of the Year:
Daniel Donato
Brittany Haas
Jerry Pentecost
Molly Tuttle

I have no beef with Jason Isbell, or John Prine for that matter, and I like the Tyler Childers, too, even if Childers isn’t so sure what Americana is either.  My profile says I’ve listened to Brandi Carlile, but not much.  I liked Margo Price’s initial release but she’s gone off the liberal deep end—Isbell isn’t afraid to get political, but he’s not a one-trick pony either.  I’m With Her, Lukas Nelson, and Nathaniel Ratliff are good, too, but just good, not great to date.

No, my difficulty in deciphering is more that I like Jason Isbell, but I have such high expectations I really think he can do a LOT better than “If We Were Vampires”.  I have high expectations for many artists that I think can do better.  We can all do better.


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A Love Story for the Animas River

I remember the Orange Tang of the Animas River running through Durango, Colorado, and on down to Farmington, New Mexico, in August 2015. Where normally kayakers and fly fishermen joust with tubers, the river coursed with the mineral runoff of Silverton’s shuttered Gold King Mine, zinc, cadmium, aluminum arsenic, and iron hydroxides let loose by an EPA remediation team.

Jonathan Thompson, a writer who grew up in Durango, stood on a bridge and watched for the river to turn orange as the slug of mine waste ran through the heart of his hometown. The environmental disaster seems a natural fit for the one-time editor at High Country News, a respected regional journal with a well-practiced environmental bent. Yet rather than use the one-off event to self-promote and evangelize as an “I told you so” moment, Thompson takes the Gold King incident and puts it in the context of over a millennia of human settlement in the Four Corners region.

As part elegy, part ode, and all based on practiced journalism, the River of Lost Souls—el Rio de las Animas Perdidas—is a love story to the Animas Valley and the communities of Silverton and Durango to the north and south. This is a love story to the San Juan Mountains and the river valleys flowing from them, the place where Thompson grew up, where his parents and grandparents and great-grandparents generations back decided to sink roots. This is a love story to the Ancestral Puebloans and Dine and Utes who came first, the miners and farmers and ranchers who came later, and the diverse crowds who call Southwest Colorado home today.

It’s easy to see why readers on the Colorado Plateau—Southwest Colorado, Northwest New Mexico, Arizona, Utah—would want to read this book, to better understand the place we’ve chosen as home. Why would other folks across the country care? As we well know, water often has much more to say about land use than our best multi-color land use plan. River of Lost Souls is a fascinating story and contemplation of water, our natural environment, and how we can do better building the places we love.

River of Lost Souls by Jonathan P. Thompson (Torrey House) 2018

(This review previously appeared in the APA Small Town & Rural Planning newsletter, courtesy Colorado Chapter APA.)
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Pagosa Rotary Independence Day Parade

I love a parade. I helped organize the Pagosa Rotary Club‘s Independence Day Parade this year. We put on a bit of a show for the tourists and locals alike. Like the Librarians and their carts, my personal favorite this year (and we kept them in front of the horses, too).

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Cloman Park

Archuleta County’s Cloman Park features 120-acres of passive recreation (plus a disc-golf course, but how active is that?) north of Cloman Industrial Park, tucked in behind Stevens Field airport.  Take Piedra Road (County Rd 600) to Cloman Blvd and drive until you can’t drive no more.  Bring your own water, sunscreen and good hiking boots.


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Denver’s Civic Center Park

The Civic Center in Denver, at the intersection of Colfax and Broadway, is the beating heart of Colorado, stretching from the Colorado Capitol to Denver City Hall.  The statue on the west steps of the Capitol Building is a Civil War cavalryman, dismounted with rifle in hand, in Memorial of the Colorado soldiers who fought and died in the War Between the States.


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Modernism Overlooking Tradition

Pagosa Sun
Pagosa Springs, Colorado, is a tourist town, and we want to encourage our visitors to stop downtown and admire the scenery…and our shops. Pagosa Springs also has a rich heritage and tradition as a Western, Mountain town, far from fancy modern steel and glass stylish architecture.

The Town this last year dropped a pretty penny replacing the Overlook deck structure thingy along the river, above the hot springs (after which Pagosa Springs is named), in the heart of downtown. A local architect designed the fancy, and he’s a good guy. But I struggle to see any local context in this modern masterpiece. The local Historic Preservation Board review committee asked to participate in the design review and were quickly alienated by the Town fathers–the parking overlook is not technically part of the downtown Historic District, but it certainly felt like the centerpiece of the Historic District.

Instead, we get not-so-cheap and easy modernism. It’s not bad, just an amazing opportunity lost.

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Spring 1918 on the Western Front

In March 1918, Bolshevik Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers ending the Great War on the Eastern Front. This freed up Germany for Operation Michael and a last great Spring Offensive on the Western Front.

The German Empire began their Kaiserschlacht on 21 March 1918, with the first of four offensive operations.  The global conflict that had begun in late summer 1914 had turned into a war of attrition and Germany was having an increasingly difficult time with food and supplies.  After defeating Russia, the Austria-Hungary Empire was occupied on the Italian Front and in occupation of Romania, leaving Germany to fight the Western Front in Flanders and France.  With the American entry in 1917, it became clear to the German High Command that decisive action was necessary before U.S. troops became a decisive factor.  And almost a year after President Wilson’s declaration of War, the U.S. Army was just getting mobilized in France, the main theater of the Western Front.

The German army had also adopted training and tactics that had proven successful against the Russian army on the Eastern Front.  For example, new elite Stormtrooper (Stoßtruppen) assault troop units specialized in small, fast-moving infiltration tactics, by-passing heavily defended infantry positions to cut communications and supply lines.  British and French troops, by contrast, had been bogged down in trench warfare along the 300 mile long Hindenburg Line since the winter of 1916, with little opportunity for innovation.

The 21st of March was a Thursday in 1918.  At 4:30 in the morning, the Germans opened an artillery bombardment on British positions at Saint-Quentin, in the Aisne area of northern France.  This area, along with Somme and Pas-de-Calais areas in the modern Hauts-de-France region, had been devastated in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.  The bombardment spread with mortars, mustard gas, chlorine gas, tear gas and smoke canisters filling the foggy day along a 40 mile front.  The objective was to isolate the British from the French and force a British withdrawal back across the Channel.  On the first day, the Germans gained ground.  Friday and Saturday (22-23 March) were also foggy, and British troops fell back in fighting retreats to maintain communications.  The lines were badly fragmented by Sunday the 24th and Monday the 25th, and some British units along the Somme retreated with the French army.  The French were increasingly concerned with defending routes to the capital in Paris, which was in range of German long-range artillery.

On Tuesday the 26th of March, leading French and British leaders (including Winston Churchill) met at the Doullens Conference in an attempt to form a more unified command.  French General Ferdinand Foch was tapped, officially given the title of Commander-in-Chief later, on 3 April, at Beauvais, including American forces and later Italian forces.  Unified Allied command proved essential to defeating the Central Powers through the rest of 1918.

The Germans continued to advance over 26th-28th, advancing about 40 miles into France at one point, with a final assault coming Saturday the 30th on the French south of the Somme and on the British near Amiens, with fighting continuing through the 4th and 5th of April. While the German army had captured ground and gained morale, they had not achieved their strategic objectives.  Both sides had about 250,000 casualties apiece, with little difference in situation.  If anything, by being forced to accept unified command, the Allies came out stronger for their losses.

Operation Michael was followed by Georgette (Battle of Lys) in April, Blücher-Yorck (3rd Aisne) in late May, and Gneisenau in June, generally with slight German gains in territory with casualties comparable on both sides.  However, by July the advantage swung to the Allies.  The German Army had lost about 1,000,000 fighting men in the first 6 months of 1918 and faced ever increasing challenges with supplies.  With the first major American action begun, the Allies recovered from the Spring Offensives and went on the counter-offensive that ultimately won World War I.



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Winter 1918 on the Eastern Front

While the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in the October Revolution in early November 1917, their revolution continued to sport contradictions between the Old Style and the New through the Winter of 1918.  On 1 Feb 1919 Old Style, Russia jumped forward to 14 February 1918 New Style, adopting the Gregorian calendar introduced in Roman Catholic countries in 1582, and in the British Empire in 1752.

Internally, the winter was hard on the Red Guard–history might have been a very different thing.  Although the White Army’s General Alexeyev & his Don Cossacks took action against the Bolsheviks at the same time as the time change, they were defeated and the Red Army had time to solidify their forces.  Externally, Leon Trotski tried to argue for an end to the state of war on the Eastern Front between Russia and Germany without a formal treaty, but on the 18th of February the Germans resumed hostilities and on the 19th the Bolsheviks said they would sign a peace treaty, nominally ceasing hostilities on 28 February 1918.

In the Baltics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania also adopted the Gregorian calendar on 15 February 1918.  On the 16th of February, Lithuania declared independence from Russia 7 Germany, followed by Estonia on 24 February.  Meanwhile, on 22 February, Germany claimed the Baltic states, Finland and Ukraine from Russia, while the White Guard in Finland pursued a counter-revolution against the Bolshevik Red Guard.

The Russian Civl War continued through 1922, but the effect of the closing of the first phase with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 freed Germany and the Central Powers to focus on the Western Front.  In a way, the Bolsheviks’ capitulation set the stage for the later Cold War between Eastern and Western Blocs.



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Kukla, Fran & Ollie: A Nation of Immigrants

Burr Tillstrom—the puppeteer behind the Kukla, Fran & Ollie children’s show—is my family’s claim to fame.

I missed his centenary last autumn.  Franklin Burr Tillstrom was born 13 October 1917 in Chicago, Illinois, and had an older brother Richard (1911-2008).  Their mother was Alice Burr and their father was Bert Frank Tillstrom, a doctor.  They lived on Lakewood Ave in Chicago when Dr. Tillstrom registered for the World War I draft in September 1918. At the time of the World War II draft in 1942, the Tillstroms lived on Sherwin Ave. in Chicago.  Bert & Alice returned to their native state of Michigan in retirement.

Bert Tillstrom’s grandfather, Nils Peter Nilsson, is my 3rd great grandfather, on my dad’s side.  Nils Peter was born in 1818 in Småland, near Kalmar in Sweden, and emigrated to Michigan in 1880.  Gunnar Karlberg, a Stockholm cousin and Kukla, Fran & Ollie fan, traced the family history in Swedish, Steenssons (Joen) attlingar fran Kristdala socken Norra Kalmar lan.  I don’t know Swedish, but Google translate & some online family history helped guesstimate the family tree back to Steen Danielson (c.1640-1702), with many generations between in military service to the crown when Sweden was considered a Great Power.

Nils Peter was a farmer, not a soldier, and his eldest son August Nilsson emigrated to Michigan after the Civil War, where there was good farmland to be settled.  August adopted the Americanized surname Tillstrom and crossed over the big stream to build a life on the shores of the Great Lakes.  Burr’s grandfather (Bert’s father) Frans Oscar Nilsson was the youngest son, and emigrated with Nils Peter in 1880, adopting the Americanized name Frank Tillstrom.  They also had two other brothers, Carl Johan and Sven Magnus, who emigrated to Michigan, and two sisters, Maria and Johanna, who stayed with their families in Sweden.

Burr Tillstrom was an inspiration to me and a heck of a lot of other people.  -Muppets creator Jim Henson in The Golden Age of Chicago Children’s Television (2004).

So Burr Tillstrom is my 2nd cousin twice removed.  He left the University of Chicago in the Depression to work for the WPA-Chicago Parks District Theatre, and later at the Marshall Field’s flagship store on State Street downtown.  He pioneered children’s television programming, participating in the 1939 New York World’s Fair with RCA Victor, then on Chicago local TV, and in 1949 nationally on NBC with former school teacher Fran Allison (1907-1989).  His brother Richard was also a puppeteer and went on to host his own show in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  In 1953, the show was one of the first experimental broadcasts in color television.  Kukla, Fran & Ollie won two Emmy awards, in 1954 and 1971, and inspired a generation (or two) of children and their families.

Fast Tube

Burr Tillstrom maintained ties to the family with a summer home at Saugatuck, a small arts & tourist destination on Lake Michigan. He passed way in 1985, in Palm Springs, California.  From the forests of Sweden to the farms of Michigan and live TV in the Windy City and beyond, each generation has spread their wings to find their own way.  Some stayed close to home, others ventured far afield.  All dared to live the American Dream.  We are all a nation of immigrants.



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JC’s Top Tunes of 2017 say art thrives in the face of chaos, that genius requires difficulty that must be overcome. 2017 was a difficult year for many—to the benefit of roots music, and hopefully, eventually, to the greater good.  We lost friends like Glen Campbell and Don Williams, and met many new friends, here in Colorado and across the Americana landscape.

To answer the poet Robbie Burns, no, auld acquaintance should not be forgot, neither the artists nor their art. That’s what makes good roots music: We honor where we came from, we look to where we are going, and wonder how we do better today.

ArtistsTop 25 Artists Played in 2017

I scrobbled a LOT of music in 2017:  37,023 tracks played, most since I joined back in radio days.  That’s likely to abate in 2018, since the corporate masters at won’t update the Scrobbler app for iOS.  And their ads are increasingly spammy.  I don’t mind ads, when they don’t screw up the technology.  It’s like radio for the 21st Century.  But, and increasingly Spotify, really could step up their user experience other than trying to drive us to paid content.

Back in March, I warned you Alison Krauss was going to dominate 2017 and she certainly did on my playlist.  Many of the trendy reviewers dismissed Windy City as a covers album. I don’t care though the multiple editions were confusing.  I’ve also got some other anomalies in the Scrobble lists:

  • Halden Wofford & the Hi-Beams / Walden Wofford & the Hi*Beams / Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams—My favorite Colorado band and only band my wife & I both agree to see live whenever we can.  They are on Spotify now with “and” instead of Ampersand, a perpetual bane of consistent scrobbling.  I prefer the ‘&’ since that’s what’s on their album covers.  So, anyway, add in 249 scrobbles to #24’s 272 pushes them way up to 521 and the honky tonkers push Johnny Cash out of 4th Place Artist of 2017.
  • Zephaniah Ohora and The 18 Wheelers / Zephaniah Ohora—new artist debut with a catchy classic Country sound.  Spotify initially had the full band name, then changed it for most of the album. 142 for the band + 81 for the artist slots Zephaniah at 223, tied with Sand Sheff at #36 but he floats to the top in Album & Track lists.

AlbumsTop 25 Albums Played in 2017

Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives brought it home for me with Way Out West, a net-traditional Country & Western album that evokes the scenery out my back door, deserts and mountains and the good and not-so-good in this life.  The AMA got it right recognizing Marty & the Superlatives for Americana Group of the Year.  The album isn’t so straight-forward as Marty’s Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota yet it clearly builds on that sonic experience.  And while I played one track more than others it’s not an album of singles—it’s an album of songs and stories.

  • Alison Krauss’ Windy City came out in multiple editions—regularly, crispy & extra crispy.  No, actually, but I have one version on my phone, another ripped from the Target Deluxe Edition, and other plays from Spotify.  So add 136 + 183 to 304 and #4 becomes 623 to take the #1 spot, by alot.
  • Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams’ Missing Link, add 101 played on iTunes with ‘&’ to 190 on Spotify for 291 at album #5.
  • Zephaniah Ohora‘s was a debut with no prior singles (at least not on Spotify) so the artist spins = album spins 223, which pushes Jason Isbell & his band out of Album #11.

With so much good roots music coming out this year, and playing so much music all year long, my year end list does strongly resemble my first-half of the year album list.  This includes Marty Stuart, Aaron Watson’s Vaquero, and last year’s top album Left Arm Tan’s Lorene, which didn’t show up on Spotify until later this year.  Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton released good music that was recognized by AMA radio and many fans, but I think they can both do better.  Lee Ann Womack, Dori Freeman and Whitney Rose released VERY strong country/folk albums late in the year.  Lot of staying power that will form a foundation for 2018.


Top 25 Songs Played in 2017

The Mavericks released another catchy album in Brand New Day and the title track became my optimistic start to many a band new day in 2017, usually followed by Alison & “Windy City”.  To counter that unnatural optimism, I counter programmed Lindi Ortega’s “Til the Goin’ Gets Gone”, Sunny Sweeney’s “Bottle by My Bed.”  and Amanda Anne Platt’s “Eden”.  Sweeney’s lament is just a darn good song.  Amanda Anne’s (of The Honeycutters) story of going home to the Midwest hit a nerve.  And fortunately Lindi decided to go back on tour and counter her own swan song, crowdsourcing funding for a new album this year.  The internets sometimes give as well as take away.

  • Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beam‘s title track “Missing Link” adds 20 from ‘&’ for 112 spins to push fellow Coloradoans Songs of the Fall‘s “Lucky” out of #5.
  • Zephaniah Ohora “High Class City Girl from the Country”, my favorite track on his debut, got 40 with the artist and 40 with the band, so 80 equals #14 on the singles chart.

I continued to spin last year’s top track, Dori Freeman’s “Where I Stood”.  Corb Lund’s “S Lazy H” actually got more love this year than last. Corb just struck a cord on a very difficult year with a classic Country & Western lament of doing your darnedest in the face of adversity.  That’s my country, too.



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