WOUB Culture’s Ian Saint lists 25 music highlights of 2022
Ian Saint is an arts and culture correspondent for WOUB.
2022 was a uniquely complicated year, both for the music industry and for myself personally – and probably for many others, as well.
When I interviewed Wynonna Judd, the WOUB-region native (Ashland, KY), a month before her Country Music Hall of Fame induction she described her present feeling as “Broken and Blessed” – a phrase that she went on to repeat, while carrying through The Judds’ Final Tour after losing her mom — and I would say that’s a really spot-on descriptor for what 2022 was for me, and I reckon for a good lot of fellow creatives: traumatized by a pandemic of mass casualties, grateful to have survived it, inspired by the resumption of cherished experiences, discouraged by continued tumult, excited about pursuing new endeavors, and concerned that inflation and virus mutations could torpedo them.
Compiling my Suggested Listening ’22 list, I was struck to find that my selections mirrored this conflict in several ways. As I navigated the ups and downs of this peculiar year, I cranked heavy metal, I crooned country music, I hollered along to hip hop, I spaced out on trance, I cut a rug to funk. Some songs expressed optimism, some expressed nihilism, some expressed elation, some expressed heartbreak, some expressed gratitude. All of it was cathartic.
Some of the artists who made my list are Hall of Famers, A-List celebrities, Grammy or Oscar winners; others haven’t yet notched a ranking on any Billboard charts. The oldest featured artist turned 83; the youngest turned 24. Men and women are roughly split in representation. Various races, genders, and geographic origins appear throughout.
Many of the artists are among those that I interviewed for WOUB. Our NPR & PBS affiliate’s Culture division had a sincerely unbelievable year of exclusives — some of them were with my lifelong idols, resulting in stories that I’ll fondly recall for the rest of my life. Others are up-and-comers that I caught on their rising trajectories. Of course, I’m deeply honored and humbled by those experiences; but some of them were conducted in spite of great difficulties, including contracting COVID-19, my air conditioning being bust all summer (thanks to supply chain shortages), and other matters too personal to share. Remember, readers, before you get too envious of us music journalists: the published pieces are curated for your enjoyment.
There are tons of 2022 recap lists, and it’s hard to stand out from the flock. My Suggested Listening ‘22 list exhibits that of a person who’s been through all of the emotions, turning to a wide variety of musical sources to process life in a strange era for world history. I hope that this list helps you to do the same.
Note: This feature was originally published as a part of WOUB’s Suggested Listening ’22 feature.
Alice Cooper “1,000 High Heel Shoes”
Alice Cooper, the Godfather of Shock Rock, was (incredibly) my very first interview of 2022! So it’s fitting that he’s my first selection of 2022. And “1,000 High Heel Shoes” is a further fitting cap-off to my genre-spanning list, as it is a masterclass in crossing genres. Cooper’s “Detroit Stories” – produced by Bob Ezrin, who produced Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and Kiss’s “Destroyer,” in addition to Alice’s most famous ‘70s records — pays homage to the city that launched his band, after California’s hippies had eschewed them. His love letter to Motor City encapsulates the rich range of styles that it’s not known for, including punk, blues, and Motown.
With its layers of horns, handclaps, and “shoo-doo-wop” call and response, Cooper and Ezrin worked marvelously to pay Motown their homage. Although Detroit Stories is focused on its namesake city, as it turns out, Alice has plenty of fascinating *Ohio* stories that he shared in our interview… and in 2023, Ohio will see Alice Cooper play the monstrous Ohio Stadium, alongside Def Leppard and Motley Crue! But first, Ohioans can catch Cooper as a headliner at the more intimate Covelli Centre in Youngstown on April 29.
Megan Thee Stallion “Anxiety”
2022 was a year of landmarks and languishing for Megan Thee Stallion, a star among the crop of young female rappers breaking barriers in an industry that’s too often been steeped in flagrant misogyny and double standards. In retrospect, it’s staggering to realize how many accomplishments Megan managed to notch in the face of massive resistances. In the same year that saw her perform at the Academy Awards (only the second female rapper in history to do so) and receive a key to the City of Houston for her philanthropic efforts, she had to publicly relive the trauma of Tory Lanez shooting her in grilling testimony; this on top of a separate, bitter legal battle with her record label.
Megan channeled some of her angst and agony into her art, and released her “Traumazine” album in August. Many of our favorite rap anthems are braggadocious — lest we forget, how Megan and Cardi B transfixed the patriarchy with “WAP” in the contentious summer of 2020 — but “Traumazine” manages to get vulnerable without sacrificing dance floor magnetism. The escapism of cutting loose in the club is a favorite coping mechanism for many of us; and with “Anxiety,” Megan has gifted us with a cathartic, candid bop! For a more in-depth analysis of “Traumazine,” be sure to read the brilliant album review written by NPR’s Shamira Ibrahim.
“Anxiety” is a highlight of this masterful balance. Although the public has placed Megan on the pedestal of self-confidence, she vents that “Bad b%$^es have bad days too!” She candidly addresses triggers ranging from hyperscrutiny in the Instagram age to the enduring grief of losing her mother – whom she cites as her biggest influence — right as her long-shot dream of music stardom was taking flight. Along the way, she pays homage to female pop stars of preceding generations (e.g., Whitney Houston, Britney Spears) who also struggled with unfathomable global scrutiny. But, true to her philanthropic spirit, Megan also pays it forward to the ordinary person struggling with anxiety… “Anxiety” inspired her to launch a website, badbitcheshavebaddaystoo.com, with resources especially for LGBTQ folks and Black people of all genders.
Dream Theater “Awaken the Master”
Few heavy metal bands consistently generate as much interest in their new albums as their breakout records did decades ago, especially if they evolve their sound from their greatest hits. 30 years after “Pull Me Under” unexpectedly catapulted into heavy rotation on MTV, however, the prog virtuosos in Dream Theater keep exploring new directions — and their new albums still manage to generate great fanfare. The perpetual demand for new material even culminated in them building their own recording studio, DTHQ (Dream Theater Headquarters).
“A View from the Top of the World” is the first album that Dream Theater recorded at DTHQ. In my interview with keyboardist Jordan Rudess he shared that recording this album was the band’s outlet for their pent-up energy brewing during 2020 quarantine downtime. Mid-album highlight, “Awaken the Master,” dramatically encapsulates the reassessments and reawakenings that many of us experienced in this very groundbreaking year.
“You made it to the top, just to find out, you’re only halfway there, all along missing the point of the journey.” Although the lyrics to this song were penned by bassist John Myung, I couldn’t help but think of Rudess’s fascinatingly unorthodox journey to rock band stardom as a middle-aged dad. As he detailed in our interview, Rudess is an alum of Julliard — one of the most prestigious music schools on Earth — where he was lauded for his magnificent talents in classical piano, before deciding (against his parents’ wishes) to pivot towards rock ‘n’ roll. Remarkably, Jordan joined Dream Theater in his 40s! His story is especially pertinent to the waves of folks defying convention, to make their professional “pandemic pivot,” as my next feature recently did…
Roberta Lea “Ghetto Country Streets”
“I am Roberta Lea. I’m from Norfolk, Virginia. I am a songwriter and country neo-pop artist. I used to be a teacher; and I decided to make my pandemic pivot, as some people call it, to pursue my dream of being a full-time songwriter, a full-time artist. I’m a mom and a wife, and a woman of many hats. And I’m looking forward to releasing my very first full record.”
So began my interview with Roberta Lea ahead of her Black Opry Revue show with Kyshona and Ruby Amanfu at Cincinnati’s historic Memorial Hall in October. 2022 was an action-packed year for Lea. It was only the previous December that she gave us “Just a Taste,” a six-song EP that she recorded in her home studio. In the summer, she and Jett Holden represented the Black Opry Revue, alongside founder Holly G., on the “Kelly Clarkson Show.”
Weeks later, the music video for “Ghetto Country Streets” — the EP’s opening track — made its premiere on CMT. Directed and produced by her husband, it features their elementary-aged son and daughter romping around her childhood playground, as she beams and croons from the bleachers.
It’s an infectious bop that manages to be both cherubic and introspective; a perfect testament for Roberta telling me that, contrary to what music industry pundits would say, 35 was the right age for her to embark on a music career — asserting herself an “on-time bloomer.” The reason why “Ghetto Country Streets” is unforgettable is because Roberta makes sense of how those childhood and adolescent experiences — “chasing boys and fireflies,” and even eating “berries from the wild” — set the stage for a fruitful adulthood, and turns those epiphanies into lessons for the youth of today.
The story of “Ghetto Country Streets” premiering on CMT serves an incredible inspiration for independent musicians. In our interview, Roberta revealed that she worked up the courage to directly contact Leslie Fram, CMT’s Senior Vice President of Music Strategy. To Roberta’s delight, Fram responded; and CMT airing her music video, in addition to encouragement from the Black Opry Revue and Rissi Palmer’s “Color Me Country” communities, gave Roberta the confidence to launch a Kickstarter campaign for recording her debut LP. Her goal of $18,000, while reasonable to cover costs, in four weeks was ambitious.
Fortunately, the campaign got the attention of Allison Russell, whom Roberta had met via Black Opry engagements; and Roberta had just showed up to support Russell at her Norfolk performance, even though Roberta was very disappointed that her opportunity to open for Russell had not panned out. Allison shared the Kickstarter campaign on her social media, notating how her own first couple Birds of Chicago records were financed by Kickstarter campaigns. Then, it was shared by Brandi Carlile – with whom Allison had just released “You’re Not Alone” as a single – and Carlile’s massive “Bramily” network further electrified Roberta’s fundraising momentum. Which perfectly segues to my next entry…
(Icing on our cake: my interview was the first for Roberta sharing the happy news of hitting her debut album Kickstarter goal! And Roberta kicked off her 2023 by getting inducted to CMT’s venerated Next Women of Country class.)
Allison Russell, Brandi Carlile, “You’re Not Alone”
What always strikes me about both Allison Russell and Brandi Carlile — beyond their immense multi-instrumental and songwriting talents, it goes without saying — is that no matter how high their stars continue to elevate, their mindfulness and care for uplifting others never wavers… if anything, perhaps, it only grows. And their pulchritudinous 2022 duet is the epitome of that spirit.
In Allison’s own words: “‘You’re Not Alone’ is an inspiring meditation on the power of ancestral strength and community…. We are not alone. We are not what we have lost. We are more than the sum of our scars.” This beautiful composition first shone on Our Native Daughters’ premier, self-titled album; and her 2022 rendition boasts the luscious bedrock of Brandi’s harmony and Sista Strings’ orchestral accompaniment.
Allison and Brandi performed “You’re Not Alone” at the 2022 Americana Honors & Awards ceremony in Nashville’s mother church, the Ryman Auditorium. It was a banner night for them both, as Russell garnered Album of the Year for “Outside Child” and Carlile collected Song of the Year for “Right on Time” — but the winners for “You’re Not Alone” are communities who will benefit from 100% of the song’s Bandcamp proceeds being donated to the Looking Out Foundation, Everytown Support Fund, and Fight for Reproductive Rights Campaign.
Their music video had been filmed days earlier, at the iconic Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Directed by Russell herself, she and her crew do a commendable job of commemorating the camaraderie she and Carlile shared with their bandmates and audiences at both the soundchecks and concerts at this otherworldly venue. A prominent face in the sea of smiles is guitarist Joy Clark, who had an Americanafest showcase of her own; while we’re here, check out Joy’s 2022 music video for “Good Thing,” her string-laden soother of an ode to the middle of relationships – as Joy noticed that songs so often address the beginnings or endings of relationships, but seldom take place at proverbial cruising altitude.
Brandi Carlile hasn’t just been supporting women on the rise, such as Allison Russell and Roberta Lea, however. 2022 also saw Carlile by the sides of many female music icons who preceded and inspired her: on the big screen with Tanya Tucker in “The Return of Tanya Tucker”; and she was Wynonna’s singing companion at the Ohio stop (among others) of The Judds’ Final Tour, after duetting “The Rose” with Wynonna at mother Naomi’s “River of Time” memorial service on CMT. But the greatest testament to Brandi Carlile’s lifting power might be what ensued at the Joni Jam… (read on!)
Joni Mitchell and Joni Jam ensemble – “Both Sides, Now” — Live at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival
I truly thought we’d never see Joni Mitchell perform, ever again. In 2015, she suffered a debilitating aneurysm, that robbed her of the most basic skills — walking, talking, even getting out of bed. She also hadn’t performed a full concert set since 2000. But the effervescent Brandi Carlile managed to coax her to the Newport Folk Festival, and she cranked out a 13-song set with a slew of notable musicians backing her up.
“Both Sides, Now” was absolutely enthralling. This was one of the songs that Joni had performed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1969, when it was a shuffling guitar strummer in a tenor range. Joni has identified this song from her 20s as one that she “grew into” with age; hence why, in 2000, she rearranged the song as a dramatic orchestral ballad in a much lower key. 22 years after that, she triumphantly sang it as a 78 year-old survivor of an aneurysm that nearly killed her, against all odds.
I saw a comment from YouTube user, Dana Newman, that says it best: ‘This is not a woman reaching to get back to her young self; this is a woman reinterpreting a song through who she has become. She is a fighter and a resurrection, as if to say to us “you can do it!”’ In these perilous times of parallel crises, so many people feel that their hurdles are insurmountable — and seeing Joni Mitchel triumphantly defy the paralyzing setbacks of her aneurysm, after years of determination, gives hope that our own triumphs might be down the road, even if they’re not yet visible on the horizon.
Although the embedded video is the one published officially by Newport, it was an audience-captured video that went viral, as Wynonna Judd could be seen crying through the lyrics as she looked up to the sky. This performance was only 2 months after the traumatizing death of her mother; however, it went deeper than that. “Both Sides, Now” was the very first song that Wynonna ever learned; and she performed it at her 8th grade graduation. When I interviewed Wynonna again, afterwards, we unpacked the significance of her singing with the woman who authored her first performance song was a full-circle moment with Christina Claire — the little girl in Ashland, Kentucky, before she rechristened herself Wynonna. A sizable chunk of the millions who viewed it were crying as they watched!
Madonna Vs Sickick, feat. Fireboy DML – “Frozen”
“Frozen” holds the personal distinction of being the very first Madonna single that I remember being released. This strings-laden, harmony-heavy, drums-chopping magnum opus of pop was the lead single to 1998’s Ray of Light, the first album that Madonna recorded after motherhood, and often the critics’ selection as her best album. Nearly a quarter-century later, Canadian DJ Sickick remixed the song in a way that’s very jarring – stripping out the strings, harmonies, and drums that made it larger than life in 1998, and pairing Madonna’s solo lead vocal with just a trap beat and measure-filling bass notes. It’s a validation to Madonna’s vocal talents, which have always been underrated.
The remix took off on TikTok, and Madonna — ever the Queen of Reinvention in her mid-60s – seized the opportunity to re-establish her gorgeous hit for a new generation. Nigerian singer, DML Fireboy — whose 2nd birthday occurred in the same month that “Frozen” was released — was commissioned to lay down an impassioned new set of lyrics, and Madonna shot a new music video with him that interpolated visuals from the 1998 video.
Being the overthinker that I am, I’m absolutely captivated by the juxtaposition of the rich, symphonic original from 1998 — a time when it seemed, in the wake of the Iron Curtain falling (and a few years before America declared two wars), that global cooperation seemed inevitable — with the seething, bare-boned 2022 rendition of the polarizing, precarious COVID era. Oddly enough, I was in Kenya during the same week of April, 2022 as Fireboy DML; but I bewail that my departure from East Africa was, literally, only 3 days before his concert in Nairobi.
Tae Lewis, “A Lot to Drink About”
Speaking of East Africa, North Carolina native Tae Lewis recorded a banger of a country party anthem that I’ve personally witnessed take flight to Kenya! My springtime trip to Tanzania and Kenya was bountiful with new experiences in new (to me) countries, with new dear friends made along the way. I can’t think of Nairobi without thinking of unforgettable late nights with Fiona, the Irish-Kenyan soul sister of my Nigerian travel partner, Nnenna. In the subsequent summer, I became aware of Tae Lewis via the Black Opry Revue; and Instagram previews of Tae’s single, “A Lot to Drink About,” were my first acquaintance with his music. “Sing cheers to another sunrise!” “So pour the good stuff ‘til there ain’t none left, we’ll raise up a glass to all of these blessings!” YES!!! I sent the song to Fiona, and she was hooked! I even bought a Tae Lewis koozie in Nashville, and sent it to Nnenna for transporting to Fiona on her next Kenyan venture.
American country music has a bigger audience in Africa than one might expect; and NPR’s Gwen Thompkins cut a “Weekend Edition” segment about its popularity in Nairobi, specifically, while Tae and I were teenagers. I would love to see a Black Opry Revue: Africa Tour with Tae manifest in the future! (Miko Marks, Jake Blount, Joy Clark, Roberta Lea, and Isaiah Cunningham are among fellow Black Opry associates highlighted in this list.) Me, Nnenna, and Fiona will be singing — and cheers-ing — from the front row!
Flogging Molly “Life Begins and Ends (But Never Fails)”
Shortly after Nnenna and I laughed through our late Nairobi nights with our Irish-Kenyan friend, FiFi, I interviewed Flogging Molly founder and frontman Dave King. Like Fifi’s father, King hails from Ireland; and like Kenya and Tanzania, Ireland was colonized by Britain well into the 20th century — and its effects lingered long after independence. King opened up to me about being born in a British army barracks of Dublin at the height of the Troubles, and what citizens of the world can learn from the Republic of Ireland’s remarkably rapid rebound and repair of relations with Northern Ireland.
Our interview coincided with the release of Flogging Molly’s new record, “Anthem,” which launched 20 years after their “Drunken Lullabies” Gold album. The entire record is a delight for diehard fans of Flogging Molly, and new listeners, alike. I singled out “Life Begins and Ends (But Never Fails)” because its lyrical motif is refreshing to analyze in these precarious pandemic times; and because King is a living witness to its title. As he explained in our interview, Flogging Molly was born in the wake of crushing disappointment. King had been struggling with feeling failure, after parting ways with Epic Records — who wanted to see him become another Michael Bolton, a preposterous proposition in retrospect — and becoming a janitor at Molly Malone’s pub, where he wound up meeting his future Flogging Molly bandmates. The rest, amazingly, is history! WOUB’s Aaron Schultz wrote a review of Flogging Molly’s 2022 return to Ohio, championing them as an example “of the positive power of punk.”
Latto “It’s Givin”
I can only imagine how ecstatic Latto was about signing to RCA Records in March of 2020. Of course, we all know what happened in that same month; and this decade has been brutal, thus far, for young artists attempting to launch sustainable careers in music. Nevertheless, Latto has managed to climb against the COVID headwinds; and I reckon it’s partly because she goes against the grain of the industry.
As Latto conveyed to Revolt, Nicki Minaj was the only mainstream female rapper for her generation to look up to. Although she was determined to follow in Nicki’s footsteps, she was also determined not to be the only one. She was quickly lauded for posting the singles of her peers, alongside hers. “The industry bred us to fight and battle against each other, fight for the ‘spot.’ But, it doesn’t have to be like that. That’s why it means so much when we do come together.”
This spirit is embodied in the music video for “It’s Givin’,” a female empowerment anthem that is filled with cameos of tons of other female stars” – everyone ranging from Angela Simmons, both Bailey sisters, and even Tiffany “New York” Pollard. Clearly, Latto is happy to share the spotlight with women whom the industry is eager to pit against her; but she also showcases women of sizes, ages, professions, and backgrounds. We see a woman rapping along in sign language, another one taking a break from her medical profession, one tending to her baby, another modeling from her wheelchair, and a beaming lesbian newlywed couple — all proud to join this powerful, 24 year-old voice.
Men need not feel excluded from the fun, however! On a personal note, my friend Eric Hart Jr. is an acclaimed photographer in New York City, whose stunning portraits of queer Black men have particularly drawn recognition. When he answered Latto for Genius’s “who’s the best freestyler in the game right now?” question on Twitter, last September, Latto took notice and followed him. Latto paid his fandom forward; incredibly, that same month, she booked him for a marvelous Vevo shoot! Not to be outdone, days later, she even pulled him onstage at the hallowed Madison Square Garden. An extraordinary 2022 example of how artists can reciprocate the unfaltering support of their fans! Perhaps an Ohio artist fan will be just as lucky, when Latto opens for Lizzo at Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on May 12.
Oak Ridge Boys “Life is Beautiful”
Country music’s queen, Tammy Wynette, famously said, “I believe you have to live the songs” in order for them to be good. Tammy’s peers in the Oak Ridge Boys didn’t write “Life is Beautiful,” off the prodigious “Front Porch Singin’” album they toured behind in 2022 — but the convictions in their voices sound like the lyrics are emanating from their every fiber. “So easily forgotten are the most important things, like the melody and the moonlight in your eyes, and a song that lasts forever, each song getting better all the time… life is beautiful, life is wonderous…”
The Oak Ridge Boys are inductees of the Grand Ole Opry, Country Music Hall of Fame, Gospel Hall of Fame, and seemingly countless other esteemed institutions. As tenor Joe Bonsall told me in our interview, backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, he could easily “Bobbie Gentry” himself and vanish from the public eye at this point in his milestone-packed life – “but I’m not ready!” And Joe espoused this determination to keep delighting audiences just a few months after surviving a terrifying, exhausting brush with death.
Bonsall is the beaming lead vocalist, singing starry-eyed serenades, in “Elvira” — one of only a few country singles to ever go platinum. 2022 also afforded me the opportunity to interview the Oaks’ bass singer, Richard Sterban, whose “oom papa mow-mow” powers this ingeniously innocent love song to a hoedown climax coda.He, too, repeatedly gushed over how much he enjoys performing and electrifying audiences — and his sincerity was evidenced by treating me to an impromptu, acapella rendition of his signature mantra over the phone.
It’s no wonder that the Oak Ridge Boys continue to pack houses, 50 years after their quartet line-up was solidified; and over 40 years since “Elvira” pummeled cross-genre charts barriers to smithereens, with children younger than the Oaks’ great-grandkids merrily singing along. (Ohioans have a few opportunities to sing along with the Oak Ridge Boys in 2023, including a return performance to Marietta’s Peoples Bank Theatre.) The 2020s have been deeply traumatic for so many of us, as we’ve absorbed the losses of so many lives and livelihoods. If there was one silver lining for many of us, however, it was a growing awareness and appreciation for the simple things in life.
As I spent 2022 getting to know the Oak Ridge Boys and their timeless catalogue, I realized how much they’ve always personified a celebration of those simple things in life; and that includes the conception, pregnancy, and birth of “Elvira.” Sterban shared with me that his life-changing “oom-papa-mow-mow” articulation was sprung from songwriter Dallas Frazier’s experience of driving over potholes in East Nashville — an experience that most would find absolutely dreadful, but for Frazier, it conjured an anthem in his spirit. Bonsall told me that “Elvira” was brought to them by Acuff-Rose executive, Don Gant, after he heard a Texas bar band perform it – a great encouragement to bar bands, as you never know whom all you’ll inspire! (Awesome coincidence: our Opry backstage interview took place in the Roy Acuff dressing room.) And the idea of “Elvira” being released as a single did not hail from a marketing executive; rather, the band urged their record company to release it, due to the rapturous ovations that it received in concert.
Although the Oak Ridge Boys have many accolades of high-profile recognition, I could also tell that they savor validation experienced in everyday life. In conversations that recalled platinum records, hall of fame inductions, presidential accompaniments, and more, Bonsall beamed just as radiantly when recalling the time that he happened to drive past a girls’ softball team singing “Elvira” in Hendersonville. 2022 also marked the 50th anniversary of when Sterban sang with Elvis at Madison Square Garden, which was immortalized with a best-selling live album; and then he made a quantum leap of faith, leaving the King’s court for the Oak Ridge Boys, who hadn’t yet enjoyed chart success — a gamble that, despite the long odds, paid off. Sterban relayed how emotional and surreal it is, for him to see the Oak Ridge Boys’ busts enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame rotunda with Presley’s.
In “Life is Beautiful,” the Oak Ridge Boys acknowledge that the loves of our lives can be snatched in an instant. “I get crazy, so afraid that I might lose you, some fine day. And I’ll be nothing, but a tired old man, and I don’t want to be without you at the party.” 2022 saw the Oak Ridge Boys mourning several key losses of their country music legend colleagues — Bonsall spoke to me just days after Loretta Lynn passed, as we also eulogized Naomi Judd and Jody Miller, and Sterban spoke to me days after Dallas Frazier (the author of “Elvira”) passed as well.
The Oak Ridge Boys are keenly aware that they are part of a dwindling class, especially for all four of their 1973 line-up to be intact, but this hasn’t deterred them from making time to recognize others — and not just in their audiences. I’m continuously impressed by how intentionally they pay homage to less familiar, but significantly impactful predecessors in their history (such as the aforementioned Jody Miller); in addition to up-and-comers who look up to them. This also made an impression on Miko Marks, who shared with me in an upcoming interview how making her Grand Ole Opry debut on the same bill as the Oak Ridge Boys was a “full circle moment” for her. And on that note, read on to the next entry…
Miko Marks & The Resurrectors “Lay Your Burdens Down”
Watching the hard-won ascent of Miko Marks, in her 50th birthday year, has been one of the best 2022 stories to watch unfold in real time — especially for scores of us who had shelved our dreams for years, as COVID alone forced us to do for two, and wondered whether we became too old to finally pursue them in such turbulent times.
After more than a decade of drought on releasing new albums, due to a variety of reasons – including frustration with roadblocks faced by her first couple of albums, in her mid-30s — Miko was suddenly inspired to end the moratorium with gusto. She released two albums, Our Country and the Race Records EP, on Redtone Records in 2021. Her long-awaited return to record-making was welcomed with acclaim; and Miko capped off 2022 as a member of CMT’s venerable Next Women of Country franchise – and kicked off 2023 as a featured alumnus for this year’s class induction.
October 14, 2022 was a day that I’ll never forget. 17 years after her debut record, and two weeks before her 50th birthday, Miko finally manifested a dream that she’d yearned to realize for decades: making her debut at the Grand Ole Opry.
I had the privilege of interviewing Miko in the days leading up to her Opry performance, including in her Opry dressing room right before soundcheck. So I chronicled, firsthand, how packed with emotion she was all week — and I’m stoked for our viewers to see our Miko segment, that will air ahead of her tour with Little Feat arriving in Ohio on April 11. (For tickets and tour dates, visit https://www.mikomarks.com/shows )
Although I massively enjoyed hob-knobbing backstage at the Grand Ole Opry — including a jaw-dropping run-in with none other than Garth Brooks, which I was utterly unprepared for — I went out to the Opry’s upper audience pews for Miko’s performance… and boy, am I ever glad! Despite the levee of tears that gushed throughout Miko’s set, she managed to roar triumphantly *and* on-key! The audience — which was sold-out, I must add — was mesmerized, and both of her songs were followed by standing ovations. Her fellow Opry performer, Opry inductee Trisha Yearwood, raved on Twitter about Miko’s magnificent performance and shared the link to her new album.
Oh, yeah! On the same day as her Opry debut, Miko even managed to release her new album with The Resurrectors: “Feel Like Going Home.” It’s hard to single out a favorite track on this phenomenal album. The two tracks that she performed at her Opry debut were “One More Night” and “Lay Your Burdens Down.” I selected the latter track for my 2022 highlights list, because I think that the lyrics are particularly poignant for Miko’s year — and rich with takeaways for those of us who were lucky enough to witness it. “You can lay your burdens down; in the spirit, there’s rest for your soul. When the waves of a storm rage all around, peace like a river will roll.” After Miko’s stormy year, tears – like a river – flowed throughout the Opry pews…
Iron Maiden “The Writing On the Wall”
When I interviewed flamethrower-wielding front-man of Iron Maiden, Bruce Dickinson, he was a month away from celebrating 40 years since the release of their infamous first album together: The Number of the Beast. Although the record did not yield any hit singles in the USA, several of its tracks have become heavy metal standards; and the album went on to go platinum. The dearth of radio support for “Beast” was, ironically, made up for by the troves of free publicity that Iron Maiden’s opponents gifted them – when waves of religious protestors staged epic demonstrations outside of their concerts, it was hard not to take notice and dive into the record that was driving their ire. Bassist Steve Harris, the album’s primary composer, bemoaned that the meanings of his lyrics were a far cry from what these zealots were accusing them of.
“The Writing On the Wall” is the magnum opus lead single for Iron Maiden’s latest album, Senjutsu, co-written by Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith. In our interview, Bruce and I discussed Iron Maiden’s tradition of invoking classic literary works in their songs – in my case, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (which Dickinson identified as a favorite song to perform live) was used in my 11th grade Honors English class, to prime us on the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge it’s adapted from. Similarly, the music video for “The Writing On the Wall” depicts a story that Dickinson wrote, inspired by the Biblical stories of Daniel and Belshazzar’s feast — while incorporating a bounty of metaphor and symbolism from other inspirations. Dickinson broke some of these down in an interview with Polygon and commented on the irony of widely-conflicting interpretations from a wide spectrum of critics: “it’s such a broad church of interpretations. You’ve got everyone from the ‘woke’ left to the alt-right all claiming it. Maybe they should all get together and have a talk.”
The trajectory of “The Writing On the Wall” astonishingly mirrors that of “The Number of the Beast,” 40 years ago. The single barely cracked the Top 40 on radio; but the music video has racked over 32 million views on YouTube, alone — and when Iron Maiden performed in Ohio, shortly after my interview with Bruce, they sold-out the Big Ten Conference’s largest arena.
Averi Burk, “24”
“In all of my life, I’ve never wanted more; why’s it so crazy being 24? In all of my life, I’ve never been so sure, I’ve never known less than I did before…” Texas’ Averi Burk is the voice of a generation that came of age, ready to take on the world, when the world suddenly ground to a halt — and shattered preconceived notions that they’d been conditioned to believe their growing years would culminate in. Nearly 3 years later, many still find themselves in a holding pattern, while the headwinds of a mutating virus and soaring costs of living (really, existing) drag on the pilot. As Burk shared with the Fort Worth Report, “24” was born out of her frustration with writer’s block; and mincing that frustration of writer’s block resulted in writing a song.
The sentiment of “24” isn’t frozen at 24 years old, however. The realization that Burk paints over the course of the song is still relatable to me, who is substantially more settled than I was at 24 — which happens to be the age when I boldly moved to Deep Ellum — and I bet it also is for people with aspirations at *any* age, struggling to navigate the turbulence of this nascent decade.
In the first verse, Averi decries “nothing’s what it seems, and it’s driving me insane”; before reconciling, in the next verse, “I don’t know what tomorrow brings” but “I’ve been loving the little things” – which recalls how many of us have taken greater notice of simple pleasures, like the unique sunsets of every evening, that we perhaps took for granted while busying in “normal” times. The track is brilliantly produced by Brandon Saiz, himself a young (27) trailblazer at a time when rising music production costs are a barrier of entry for many aspiring young musicians. Saiz and Burk concoct a brooding dirge, that’s reminiscent of Type O Negative and Monster Magnet, but infused with hip elements of electronica.
“24” is part of a three-track single that Averi Burk released on the day of the Amplify 817 Showcase. Amplify 817 is a super cool initiative of the Fort Worth Public Library, who showcase their curated collection of songs by local artists — and those local artists are paid for licensing. Amplify 817’s summer showcase was a live concert by selected artists at the Will Rogers Memorial Auditorium. Significantly, the cost of admission was free; and the show was advertised on Fort Worth’s DASH public transportation busses, whose network includes a node at the venue. This reminds me of Professor Tressie McMillan Cottom, in one of Trevor Noah’s final episodes of “The Daily Show,” remarking that “libraries are, to me, the shining example on the hill of what a public space can be” – as their resources are open to all, generally free of charge. We generally think of free access to resources within the library, such as books and computer use; but it’s marvelous that the Fort Worth Library also does so for concert experiences. With free admission to a concert at a coveted venue, accessible (and advertised on) public transportation, they gave opportunity to an entertainment rite of passage for many people who are otherwise priced out of such experiences. I hope that other public library systems are taking notes!
Tears For Fears “Break the Man”
When I interviewed Tears For Fears’ Curt Smith ahead of them launching their Tipping Point World Tour in Ohio, he expressed their deep aversion to being perceived as an “80s band” – even though so many of their ethereal hits pioneered the decade’s pop music — and said “we have turned down every tour we’ve been offered that was labeled an ‘80s tour.” (Our conversation dug into the myriad of reasons why they picked alternative giants, Garbage, as their opener for this trek.) They are averse to being pegged to one area, anyway; but the ‘80s being presided over by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher probably doesn’t help endear these America-residing Brits to the idea.
The man who sang “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” in 1985 — which, he and I chuckled over, ironically dethroned “We Are the World” from number one — essentially conveyed that Tears For Fears’ new album, “The Tipping Point,” is a back-to-front antithesis of everything that 1980s colonizers, from Cold War racing politicians to real estate magnates, espoused. The album’s pregnancy lasted a painful seven years. When Smith and bandmate Roland Orzabal started in 2013, they apprehensively obliged their now-former management’s insistence to work with modern producers; but ceding their innovative instincts to external trends led to a record that, in the end, “we thought it was incredibly dishonest.”
Over the course of that seven years, Tears For Fears also sustained personal devastation (Curt particularly emphasized the death of Roland’s wife, Caroline, to alcoholism) that was concurrent with world chaos unfolding — including the transformation of ‘80s real estate magnate, Donald Trump, into a pot-stirring politician. Tears For Fears were deeply affected by their grief and growing unease with global trends; hence, their long-gestating album evolved from Smith’s characterization of “12 attempts at a modern hit song” to a record that directly expressed their observations of a tipping point – both in terms of the world as a habitable planet, and the plight of one’s own figurative world .
“The Tipping Point” has been widely, and rightly, hailed as a masterpiece. I singled out “Break The Man” — Smith’s call for “breaking the patriarchy” – because at the time of our interview, the Supreme Court’s draft opinion for overturning Roe v. Wade had just leaked; which, naturally, intensified Smith’s impassioned command for a world where women have equal rights and opportunities. Tears For Fears aren’t bandwagon Boomer cishet white male feminists, seizing the momentum of #MeToo, either; I compiled a lengthy Twitter thread, which Curt Smith kindly shared on his 61st birthday, of ways that they have supported feminist causes for decades.
Curt Smith didn’t limit his criticism of patriarchy and misogyny to politicians, however; he eviscerated the complicity of his own industry, the music business, as a sorely severe embodiment of the problem. “I sort of may rail against Supreme Court judgment [but] I’m very hyper aware that my business is also guilty of it…. my eldest daughter is at music school in New York, she’s at NYU’s Clive Davis school, very male dominated — because women aren’t engineers, they’re not producers… and it’s incredibly misogynistic. Thankfully my daughter is hoping to change that.” And my next entry is a hopeful emergence of that change he’s pining for…
Valerie Ponzio “Just a Bordertown”
At a time when scaremongering politicians and pundits relentlessly villainize the American-Mexican border for ratings, Valerie Ponzio’s “Just a Bordertown” — whose music video co-stars her adored abuela — is a refreshingly lush portrayal of an area that might not have much to ogle at from a Yelp! vantage point… but its spirit, heart, and grit more than make up for it.
“Cactus and tumbleweeds, creosote on the breeze, dirt roads running along the Rio Grande…. it may not look like much; but, hey, I’ll tell you what – it taught me how to work hard, how to love with all my heart.” Although Ponzio paints a loving backdrop of West Texas at the start of the song, the next verse’s recollection of “couldn’t wait to get gone, to the big world way beyond those Circle K Saturdays and Friday night lights” sounds familiar to *anyone* who grew up in a small town throughout America – from Montana to Maine, from Wisconsin to WOUB’s swath of coverage area in Appalachia. That’s an intentional universality, which transcends race and ethnicity, as Valerie told People: “Even if you’re not from where I’m from, just taking your home for granted, letting other people you know drag it through the mud — and then growing up and realizing, wow, this place made me who I am.”
Popular portrayals of country music often don’t incorporate Hispanic rural communities of the country, at all, despite the colossal influence that cultures in these regions have impressed on the genre. When The Mavericks kicked off this decade with “En Español,” their very first all-Spanish album (released 30 years after their debut), it debuted at #1 on the Billboard Latin Pop Albums Chart, even though it was 100% independently released. In his interview with me, The Mavericks’ lead guitarist Eddie Perez shared observations of how enthusiastically their audiences in more ethnically homogenous states (name-checking Iowa and Nebraska) react to their Spanish material, alongside the English-language hits that launched their careers in the 1990s. This made Perez keenly aware of the immense mine of untapped market potential there is for Hispanic country artists; and he further decried the absurdity of a major record label’s business model leaving out entire demographics of potential consumers, at the peril of their own profits.
Fortunately, there are industry gatekeepers determined to reverse this injustice. 2022 saw CMT and mtheory partner to launch the Equal Access Development Program for country music professionals of color. Equal Access is a diversity & inclusion initiative to “work intensively with participants for one year, providing them funding, training, and support, as well as access to mtheory’s management services, helping them further navigate and grow within country music.” The six inaugural participants comprise of 3 music management professionals, and 3 artists; Miko Marks (also featured in this list) and Valerie Ponzio were among the latter category. (mTheory has carried on the Equal Access initiative as an annual program, and their second year marks the first where BIPOC country artists could apply to participate.) And in the spirit of “Just a Bordertown,” Valerie’s friends and family in West Texas got to see her beam with pride from the Big Apple, as she watched her music video tribute to them played in Times Square.
Soopa Squad, “Buzzman”
Speaking of a rural area that is often overlooked (as Valerie Ponzio’s “Bordertown” does in the previous entry), southern Illinois does not get much attention in media or politics – but it is a truly unique part of the country. National perception of Illinois is heavily centered on Chicago, even though it’s tucked in the northeastern corner of the state; however, this portion of Illinois is substantially closer to Nashville and Memphis than it is to Chi-town, and its smorgasbord of southern cultural influences in the most politically “blue” Midwest state makes for very interesting results. Even geographically, this portion of Illinois stands out; although Illinois’s nickname is The Prairie State, southern Illinois boasts the Shawnee National Forest, Garden of the Gods, and Giant City State Park — which contain rollicking hills and mammoth rock formations.
Soopa Squad is a band that was just born in the summer of 2022, and their momentum since their very first jam in June has been palpable. Guitarist Isaiah Cunningham, bassist Mark Strawn, and drummer Peter Julian have played with a variety of Southern Illinois bands over the years; and this has culminated in their original songs straddling across genres of hard rock, funk, blues, and even reggae. They’ve released three music videos that were recorded in a burst at MisunderStudio, a house and recording studio nestled in the woods of Murphysboro, IL.
Written by guitarist Isaiah Cunningham, “Buzzman” is a song that was inspired by his departure from the Army, and returning to the homeland that the Army was his ticket out of — pondering the metaphoric crossroads he found himself in, while chronicling his observations of scenery in states along the long drive from his Army base in Georgia. “Buzzman” is relatable to anyone who has had to embark on long drives during seminal, unforeseen transitions in their lives. The emotional intimacy of the song plays out sonically, as well — hearing the buzzing amp, and Cunningham’s fingers sliding across the strings at the start, makes me feel like I’m sitting in the passenger seat as he revs up the car to commence this fateful roadtrip. Isaiah’s guitar tone and vocal delivery are stunningly evocative of his greatest muse, Jimi Hendrix; and both of his bandmates, Julian and Strawn, can be heard echoing his cries in the chorus.
On the subject of driving through mid-country states, 2022 added a new one in Cunningham’s road-trip journey. Soopa Squad played the last Prometheus Gathering, that took place in WOUB’s coverage area, in Pomeroy; and this gig marked Isaiah’s very first time ever visiting Ohio. Pomeroy is also home to Fur Peace Ranch, the sprawling enclave for guitarists that was founded by Jefferson Airplane’s lead guitarist, Jorma Kaukonen — and from where Kaukonen records his WOUB-produced, nationally syndicated live music program “Live From Fur Peace Ranch.” Although Jefferson Airplane is associated with San Francisco, Kaukonen isn’t the only band member with tenterhooks in Southern Ohio; both Airplane founder Marty Balin and multi-instrumentalist David Freiberg were born in Cincinnati, and the latter spoke to me about the myriad of ways that growing up in the Buckeye State set him on the musical course he’s still riding in his mid-80s.
Kendrick Lamar “Auntie Diaries”
2022 has been a banner year for millennial rap king, Kendrick Lamar. Not only did he make our generation proud by co-headlining this year’s Superbowl halftime show — all of his co-headliner contemporaries are 50 and up — but he also blessed us with a blockbuster new album, “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.” Lamar boldly eschewed many tropes that his cishet male rapper superstar predecessors are notorious for, as the album was concocted in the wake of him undergoing therapy.
“Auntie Diaries” is a deeply personal reflection of his reassessments, as he reflects on the struggles of his trans uncle (“My auntie was a man now, we cool with it”) and trans cousin (“Demetrius is Mary-Ann now, he’s more confident to live his plan now”) and why he wants to empower them with his acceptance. (Note: there has still been criticism of how Lamar handled pronouns in this song.) To hear a prominent, straight male rapper trounce transphobia with such pulsating conviction is compelling, and a refreshing change of pace from Eminem’s homophobic spitting at the onset of this millennium. In fairness, Slim Shady has undergone a lot of therapy since then; and perhaps his 2022 Superbowl Halftime Show co-headliner’s new album is another helping hand in his healing journey.
Jake Blount “Once There Was No Sun”
As an accomplished queer, Black man in bluegrass — among many other milestones of this nascent decade, he had a showcase in the 2022 Americanafest, and received the 2020 Steve Martin Banjo Prize — Jake Blount is a master of performing traditions in this genre, while also liberating it from white-washed, patriarchal stereotypes of its public perception. His masterpiece new album, The New Faith, is characterized as a “cautionary, clarifying Afrofuturist tale” in Jewly Hight’s in-depth review for NPR.
While Earth faces irreversible peril from modern mass consumption and corporate colonization, Blount draws upon the spirits of BIPOC blues pioneers of the South in calling attention to the unfolding catastrophe, and the plights of southern BIPOC people of the future as climate refugees. Lead-off single, “Once There Was No Sun,” is the closing track of his cautionary tale. Adapted from Bessie Jones, Blount hauntingly challenges listeners to ponder fragility and impermanence of the celestial bodies that colonizers are often quick to forget are essential to our survival. The music video, filmed with South Sudanese dancer Veeva Banga on an island of Maine, is as vividly gorgeous as the song it accompanies. While we’re here, I also implore folks to read the Rolling Stone commentary that Jake wrote about the predicaments working musicians find themselves in trying to sustain the environment while also sustaining their livelihoods. It’s been burning on my mind, ever since!
The razzle-dazzle reception of “The New Faith” has carried into 2023. Jake Blount kicked off the new year with an exalted slot on the NPR Tiny Desk concert series! And Ohio is where Blount will kick off his 2023 tour; with fellow fiddler and banjoist, Laurel Premo, and percussive dancer, Nic Gareiss, at Peninsula’s historic G.A.R. Hall on March 30.
Autopsy “Maggots in the Mirror”
Death metal titans, Autopsy, were born from Death. Literally! Founding members Chris Reifert and Eric Cutler formed Autopsy after Reifert exited the legendary Death, following his pummeling percussion on their “Scream Bloody Gore” debut album. 35 years later, Autopsy released their “Morbidity Triumphant” album — which proved, indeed, that they are triumphantly still as morbid as ever. “Maggots in the Mirror” is not particularly metaphoric with its lyrics; the song is about running to the mirror upon feeling a squirming beneath your flesh, and realizing that you are an imploding volcano of maggots and worms. Reifert bellows with a gutteral growl that makes Cookie Monster sound like Tweety Bird in comparison; and a searing guitar solo is even crammed in before the 1:43 running time ends. I can’t explain why headbanging through it is so cathartic… perhaps it’s best not to analyze it too much.
Jessica Chastain & Michael Shannon “We’re Gonna Hold On”
In a year that was packed with painfully premature cuts to so many streaming series, the December delivery of “George & Tammy” to Showtime was an extraordinary reprieve for new television programming. The six-episode miniseries is a deep-dive depiction of the relationship shared between George Jones and Tammy Wynette, inspired by the memoir penned by their daughter Georgette. The title characters are portrayed by Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, the latter of whom garnered the 2022 Best Actress Academy Award.
I got to attend the world premiere of “George & Tammy,” hosted by our friends at CMT, in Nashville. It was an experience that I’ll never forget. I’ve attended many film premieres, of course — I’m super proud of my pre-WOUB role in Community Relations for the Women Texas Film Festival – but hob-nobbing with Hollywood’s top talents in Nashville, alongside close friends and family of “Mr. and Mrs. Country,” was a collision of worlds that fascinated me. (I’m still unpacking how different such events feel in Nashville, which I hadn’t worked in prior to 2022, compared to what I’m accustomed to in Los Angeles, New York, and even Dallas.)
As I raved in my review, “George & Tammy” is exquisite. The cinematography is breathtakingly gorgeous; and the painstaking dedication of the cast and crew to telling and depicting George & Tammy’s convoluted story carefully shone through. I do not say “painstaking” blithely, either — for example, Chastain and Shannon recorded all of their singing live on-set, rather than lip-syncing to studio tracks. Although they are both highly decorated actors, this entailed terrifying new experiences for them.
In between the screening and reception, CMT’s SVP of Music Strategy, Leslie Fram, hosted an in-depth Q&A with cast and crew (that I recapped in my review). Music director, Rachael Moore, opened our eyes to how the conditions for this on-set singing were often brutal: “[on] the first real musical day that we had on set, [Shannon] had a heavy singing day. And I remember it was very, very cold…. There was ice on the microphone lines, and they froze, and they quit working. We were all miserable. I remember looking at my clock, and he had been singing for 15 hours straight.”
Shivers and shudders for the vocalists and engineers aside, Moore explained to me that just as much dedication went into the instrumentation: “We were adamant about making it sound like a country record, not a soundtrack. We used a Nashville mixer, Nashville mastering who ran through tape, etc. to make it a classic.” The end result is not only a beautiful score, but a phenomenal country music album. There’s no shortage of complaints about the devolving of country radio to insipid “bro country” balderdash; and I truly believe that “George & Tammy” will delight not only longtime fans of when country radio was filled with heart, but will also attract generations of new fans (like me) to support those who record it.
It is very difficult to select one single favorite on the “George & Tammy” album; after all, it’s packed with 26 songs. For what it’s worth, at the Nashville premiere Q&A, Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon both selected “Two Story House” as their favorite duet. Chastain chose “Help Me Make It Through the Night” as her favorite Tammy feature; and Shannon shared “The Door” as his favorite George tune.
I’m selecting “We’re Gonna Hold On” for both sonic and sentimental reasons. This is a George & Tammy duet, and their actors’ elongated harmonies are indelibly delectable; I heard this song before watching the episode it’s depicted in, and their delivery is such that I can visualize Chastain and Shannon gazing into each other’s eyes to nail the timing and tone. The steel guitar performance is equally sweet; and every subtle stroke on the drum set can be heard crisply – kudos to both the instrumentalist and sound crew.
George co-wrote “We’re Gonna Hold On” with Earl “Peanutt” Montgomery, his longtime collaborator and drinking buddy, whom George infamously shot at when Peanutt announced he’d surrendered his boozing buffoonery to God. As if that anecdote wasn’t tempestuous enough, “We’re Gonna Hold On” was released in 1973, after Tammy had first filed divorce and they reconciled. The significance of “We’re Gonna Hold On” was substantial enough for Episode 3 of “George & Tammy” to include a scene of Peanutt first revealing the song to the beleaguered couple. Life inspired art, and it clearly captivated listeners — “We’re Gonna Hold On” sailed to #1 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles, and for George, that was his first #1 since 1967 (Tammy had accumulated over 10 since then).
“We’re Gonna Hold On” elicits extra sentimentality for me, personally, due to what I witnessed at the premiere. At the reception, Georgette Jones treated us to an eclectic live set of songs by both her parents. Peanutt Montgomery was in attendance with his wife, fellow songwriter Charlene Montgomery — they co-wrote George’s smash hit, “Loving You Could Never Be Better,” off his first album with Epic Records — and Peanutt joined Georgette onstage, to sing the song he wrote with her beloved father. It was a truly endearing moment, made even more emotional by the realization that most of his and George’s colleagues did not live to see “George & Tammy” dazzling millions of people, half a century after they wrote their timeless hits together. You can watch a clip of Georgette & Peanutt’s one-time duet on the final slide of my “George & Tammy” Nashville premiere Instagram dump.
Kokoroko “We Give Thanks”
I haven’t listened to as much new funk music in 2022 as I would’ve liked to; but I’m so grateful to have come across Kokoroko — who fuse jazz and Afrobeat in the most delightfully funky way. The band’s 8-piece membership is split nearly evenly among men and women, led by trumpetist Sheila Maurice-Grey. Their debut album, “Could We Be More,” was just released in August. “We Give Thanks” is refreshingly simple in its refrain: “Don’t you know I love you? Each and every one of you!” and the music does the rest of the talking.
Most of the album’s tracks are instrumental. What’s brilliant about “Could We Be More” is it’s jam-packed with complexities and nuances, that will enrapture the most zealous analysts of music; but it can also beautifully serve the purpose of just having some music playing in the background. Based in the UK, I’m not sure that Kokoroko has ever performed in the USA… but I’m eager for them to bring their joy stateside — and I’ll be proclaiming “We Give Thanks” in the front row!
The Who, featuring Finneytown High students, “Baba O’Reilly” – Live in Cincinnati
The Who need no introduction. Even their very first tour for America, in 1967 — which was as the opening act for early British Invasion hitmakers Herman’s Hermits, whose frontman, Peter Noone, who I interviewed — is among the most infamous epic tales of rock ‘n’ roll debauchery. The Who have been enshrined in Ohio’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame since 1990. In the 32 years since their induction, however, The Who’s many tours never once played in Ohio’s Queen City.
Sadly, this decades-long Cincinnati absence was due to tragedy. Before their 1979 concert at Riverfront Coliseum, a series of botched operations led to 11 young concertgoers getting crushed to death in the stampede rushing to enter the arena. The Who played the show, not knowing (in the pre-Internet age) about the fatal catastrophe that had just unfolded. This devastating calamity left The Who averse to playing another Cincinnati show, out of respect for the victims’ families.
Forty years later, The Who announced that they would finally play a concert in Cincinnati again. Their plans were postponed two years by COVID; but the demand that build up during that interim resulted in The Who’s show being moved to the gargantuan TQL Stadium — marking a positive new milestone for The Who in Cincinnati, as this was the very first concert ever held at the stadium.
I was working on interviewing The Who, ahead of this hallmark show; but Pete Townshend’s loss of voice, in the middle of their Dallas concert, necessitated off-show vocal rest for the remainder of the tour. The Who very graciously offered prime floor seats in consolation; and my producer, Emily Votaw, wrote an exceptional review of this very historic concert.
Emily did a stupendous job of detailing the many thoughtful ways that The Who addressed the tragedy and honored the victims — including “the fact [that] proceeds from the concert benefited the P.E.M. Memorial, which serves as the funding for a scholarship for Finneytown High School seniors seeking an education in the arts…. The show culminated with the invitation to members of the Finneytown High School to join The Who onstage for their legendary generational anthem (and powerful set closer) ‘Baba O’Reilly.’” It was an enthralling conclusion to the completion of a circle for The Who, and the Ohio community that mourned losses of so many young members brimming with potential. Video of the entire “Baba O’Reilly” section, including preceding and succeeding speeches from both Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, can be watched above.
Marie Osmond “Nessun Dorma”
Plenty of things from the last half-century could’ve destroyed Marie Osmond. When I interviewed Marie ahead of her return to Ohio — where The Osmonds are among the biggest concert draws in its State Fair history — I confessed that childhood Ian watching a cruel “Donny & Marie” network executive preposterously call adolescent Marie overweight (in a scene of the 2001 “Inside the Osmonds” miniseries) made me aware of how even healthy, incredibly successful young people can develop eating disorders. Ensuing decades saw struggles that included postpartum depression, and the soul-shattering loss of her son to suicide.
Through it all, Marie Osmond kept singing; as she titled her 2016 album, “Music Is Medicine.” And the span of genres that she’s tackled is dizzying, as I witnessed firsthand during her career-retrospective concert at Marietta’s Peoples Bank Theatre. (You can read my recap here: https://www.instagram.com/p/CjLeEqwun5g/?hl=en) Marie’s very first single, “Paper Roses,” was released at age 13; it was a #1 country heartbreaker, that crossed over to the Pop charts’ Top 5. After further Pop hits with Donny, and several more #1 Country notches, Marie starred in several musicals, for example, making her Broadway debut with “The King and I” and touring the globe as Maria in “The Sound of Music.” Then there were the countless duets with a jaw-dropping roster of singers… in our interview, she detailed her surprise duet with “Thong Song” Sisqo and frequently joining The Pointer Sisters – and I managed to surprise her with mentioning a 1982 “Solid Gold” duet that she’d forgotten about, “Even the Nights Are Better” with Rex Smith, that I’d discovered while preparing to interview Air Supply’s Russell Hitchcock.
When Marie turned 60, she was at a career crossroads. Donny and Marie were wrapping their lucrative Las Vegas residency at the Flamingo Hotel, after a whopping 11 years and 1,730 shows. She returned to television by joining “The Talk,” but departed after one season hadn’t suited her at this stage of life. It would’ve been understandable if she decided to retire from show business altogether; she’d certainly earned it, having soldiered through nearly six decades since her first toddler stage appearance.
Instead, Marie Osmond decided to challenge herself and do something “unexpected”: she cut her first opera records. Not that she was a newcomer to the opera discipline; she told me that she’d studied it for 25 years. Her discipline and boldness paid off… the resulting album was stunning, and so was its reception, as it debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Classical Crossover Albums Chart, making her the first Osmond — 50 years after her brothers sizzled the airwaves with “One Bad Apple” — to have an album debut at number one. This “Unexpected” (pun intended) feat is all the more impressive when you consider that she released the album independently.
It’s hard to select one highlight of “Unexpected”; but I’m singling out “Nessun Dorma,” an aria from the final act of Puccini’s “Turandot,” because it was a key highlight at both Ohio shows that I attended this year — in addition to Marietta, my 90 and 92 year-old Nana & Grandpa joined me and Mom for their very first Osmond show in Youngstown, this time backed by a symphony orchestra. (Read my recap here: https://www.instagram.com/p/Ci_wyI7sC8C/)
Why did “Nessun Dorma” bring the audiences to our feet? (You can watch audience-captured video of the performance in Marietta: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HUNZOe3e7M.) Most of us were not opera aficionados, nor were most of us able to decipher the Italian lyrics — but that didn’t matter. “Nessun Dorma” encapsulates why Marie Osmond earned so many new fans in 2022, in addition to satisfying fans from her pop and country chart reigns… 6 decades in an industry that’s ruthlessly misogynist and ageist — and whose greedy operatives have wrought a lot of pain on her, in the process — she stands tall, accepts new challenges even when she has nothing to prove, and sounds spell-binding in the process. That’s a rejuvenating spirit so many of us needed in these precarious times.
The Judds “Love Can Build a Bridge” – Live at the 2022 CMT Music Awards
Strangely, I can’t think of a song & performance that better capture my feelings about 2022, even though it’s over 30 years old; and it’s fitting for WOUB, as well, since we are the NPR & PBS affiliate for The Judds’ hometown of Ashland, Kentucky. Mother Naomi Judd penned “Love Can Build a Bridge,” and it became the closing song of The Judds’ record-breaking farewell concert in 1991. (In my opinion, this is one of the best big concert videos of all time.) When The Judds temporarily reunited on New Year’s Eve 1999, after Naomi’s Hepatitis C went into remission, they opened their televised concert with it. Daughter Wynonna stayed solo for the most part, however; and she has amassed armloads of awards for her own work.
I had the rare chance to interview Wynonna on March 30, 2022. This coincided with my journey in Tanzania, which wasn’t ideal timing; but I didn’t want to skip a fleeting opportunity — and what a cool memory, interviewing Wynonna Judd from a village in Dar es Salaam! Thanks to the wonders of Zoom and Tanzanian telecom, we built a virtual bridge of conversation across continents.
Twelve days after our transcontinental interview, The Judds announced one final reunion; and they performed “Love Can Build a Bridge,” as you can see above, with a choir at the 2022 CMT Music Awards. It was spell-binding! Not just in sound, but also in visuals.
Unbelievably, this performance wound up being Naomi Judd’s final public appearance. 19 days later, she was suddenly no longer with us; and this mesmerizing, dramatic, emotional performance at the CMT Music Awards became her swan song to the public.
While speaking to Hoda Kotb about this final Judds performance, Wynonna recalled that her mother was nervous in a way that she had never seen before. Wynonna’s impulses of irritation with her mother’s hair-raising wig and out-of-character tardiness were thwarted from being expressed; instead, Wynonna was unexpectedly “softened, which I think is God’s grace. I just kind of reached out and touched her hand, like, ‘I’m here. I got you. It’s OK.’”
This dynamic can be detected in the video clip, which I think is why — beyond the fact that it’s an outstanding performance – I found myself playing it so many times throughout 2022, long before Wynonna shared her account of what was happening between them.
At the start, Naomi Judd can be seen gazing at the floor and taking a deep breath; which is a noteworthy departure from her famous typical on-stage demeanor. Wynonna looks up at the Heavens while singing Naomi’s lyrics: “I would swim out to save you, in your sea of broken dreams; when all your hopes are sinking, let me show you what love means.” Then, from the moment that their harmony first takes off, Naomi’s nerves instantaneously morph into an enormous smile – their heads nodding along together with every shared, sung syllable. When they sing “love can build a bridge, don’t you think it’s time?” Naomi nods her head in agreement. Wynonna proclaims “this is really happening!” to her mom, who smiles in return.
Watching Naomi’s face light up, as she sang the first chorus harmony with her daughter, draws a smile every time I see it; and an unseasonably wintry day in Nashville made for dramatic wind billowing the hair and outfits of The Judds and roaring choir – especially during the soaring climax of the bridge (no pun intended), when Naomi raises her hand and looks up to the Heavens while Wynonna roars “keep believing in the power!” Wynonna’s grin, as she bellows “sing it to me, choir!,” brims with infectious sincerity. In the end, the glorious choir suddenly ceases, to allow mother and daughter to quietly sing “don’t you think it’s time?” one last time… and Naomi rests her head on Wynonna’s shoulder, as she closes with “love and only love.”
I wrestled with whether or not to include this clip on the list, for a myriad of reasons. But I ultimately decided that it was important to conclude my 2022 list of highlights with this performance, because of the important takeaways from both Naomi’s lyrics and what was unfolding on stage… when Naomi Judd was struggling, her daughter surrendered contentious feelings and extended her hand. It made a world of a difference, empowering Naomi Judd to rally and dazzle us with her song one more time.
Many challenges from 2022 are carrying over into the new year. Many of us will struggle sometimes. But if we can give grace where we can, I believe we can uplift one another to get through the next day. As Naomi Judd wrote, “the first step is to realize that it all begins with you and me…”
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