Mipso, “Red Eye to Raleigh”

There are about a million Carolina string bands out there in the Americana-sphere. Young, lightning-fast fingers picking or bowing four, six, eight, or twelve strings, with caramel-smooth lead vocals and seraphim-like harmonies.

This is not a bad thing…

As much as I love the variety of this type of band, I do enjoy hearing one that stands out among their brethren and sistren, and Chapel Hill based Mipso does just that.

I love the way that their instruments dance with each other, with one or another of them coming forward for a verse, then fading, to let another one have a go. The vocals are fun and accessible, with lots of stuff you don’t hear often in a roots tune.

Take “Red Eye to Raleigh” as an example (sorry, Mipso, this song should be titled, “Body with a Broken Heart”.)

The tune starts with a strummy acoustic guitar, with a slide resonator adding color. The bass comes in late in the first verse, and a mandolin boom-chuck and subtle fiddle join the crowd by the time the first chorus kicks in.

Or is that a chorus? More like an extended refrain. After another verse, a real chorus kicks in. I really like it when songwriters play with song structure in ways that draw the listener in.

This song is about a broken heart, and the dream of repairing the love that blew apart. Not an especially original idea, but the lyrical approach is.

“It feels against my nature, just put me in the zoo; I’m not a mammal that can handle getting over you”.

And when was the last time you heard something like “experimental laparoscopic cardiology” in a string band song?

This band is easy to listen to; there are a few other great tunes on their ReverbNation site. I’d recommend “A Couple Acres Greener”, and “Rocking Chair Blues” as well. Check them out at https://www.reverbnation.com/mipsomusic.

While the band does not mention it on ReverbNation, Mipso just released a new album this past April, called “Coming Down the Mountain”. You can hear some tracks and order it on their webpage, https://www.mipsomusic.com/

Matt Stillwell: “Ignition”

I’m a fan of the more acoustic, Americana style of country music. I love what Sam Outlaw is doing these days; there’s a guy name Coulter Wall who you need to listen to. And of course, we all know I love Lori Mckenna.

I just never got into the power chords, driving bass drum, big chorus country tunes that have taken the place of soft rock in the music spectrum. That’s mainly because the theme and subject matter in these rocking country songs are usually pretty lame.

Matt Stillwell is changing my mind about country power ballads. His writing combines aggressive rock rhythms and harmonic structures with thoughtful, heart-felt lyrics about sensitive male sentiment, love, loss, family, and tradition.

Check out his song “Hey Dad” for one of the best treatments of the loss of a parent that I’ve heard in any genre.

But the song I’m going to review today is “Ignition”. A short and powerful intro sets up an intense mood of inner struggle, which drives right into the first verse full of road trip images on a dark, rainy, troubled night. It’s a troubled mind that is narrating this story, and a heart in need of a re-boot. The velocity of the lyric slows from the verse into a great lift that teases us, making us wait for the pay-off chorus.

The terrific chorus melody pulls us through an emotional break through. We are on the side of the road with this guy, as he shuts off the car and lets the tears come. He gets through it, re-starts the car, and begins again, with a new attitude and a new purpose for his journey.

The second verse is more reflective. He sits for a while on the highway shoulder and he thinks about where all the passing traffic is headed, and where he needs to head himself. Then it’s back into the soaring chorus and the life-changing decision to move on.

A nice simple bridge sums it up – “’Cause you can’t get back what’s gone…”

There’s a breakdown acoustic chorus, and then we’re back to the power chords to take us out.

Stillwell’s vocals are warm and strong, with good range, and he uses dynamics skillfully to bring the emotion in the lyrics out. It’s a fun song to listen to; it has lots of power, and lots of meaning as well.

Go listen to “Ignition”, and some of Matt Stillwell’s other songs, out on his ReverbNation site.

A New Song by Bob McKillop: “Surrender to the Sea”

Inspiration comes from many sources, as all of you songwriters know. Often, a song is the product of more than one source of inspiration.  That is the case with my most recent song, “Surrender to the Sea”.  This song will be revised – I don’t consider it finished – but you can hear a work track on my ReverbNation page (see the widget at the bottom of this page).

I’ve always had a very romantic notion about the seagoing life, especially regarding the days of the great sailing ships.  I’ve had a song percolating inside of me for a long time, about a young man leaving home to spend his life at sea.

A recent maritime disaster, the El Faro, reminded me that a life at sea has its risks, as well as its romance.  That disaster touched me deeply.  Having been a merchant marine officer as a young man, I have a small inkling of what it must have been like on that doomed ship, and naturally, I had the urge to write a song about that.

These two sources of inspiration combined to bring this one song into being, which I entitled “Surrender to the Sea”.  I imagined a young officer on a sailing ship in the early years of the last century, declaring that he has no regrets about his decision to go to sea. He surrenders to what he feels was his destiny: to live and die aboard his ship at sea.

I wrote the first two verses to sound, to the listener, as though they were letters sent home  by the young mariner, in which he attempts to reconcile his life choices to his loved ones who are left behind.

The final verse to take the song in an entirely different direction.  This ship’s officer reveals that he is writing in the log of a doomed ship, and he describes the peril he is in and the destruction happening around him. In the light of this new information, the first two verses and the chorus take on a new meaning and a new mood.  This young mariner knows he is going to experience a cruel death; he is saying goodbye, and his declaration that he has no regrets begins to sound a little less convincing.

There are some problems that remain to be solved.  The transition to the last verse seems a bit to0 abrupt to me.  One songwriter friend suggested that I could indicate earlier in the song, either in the chorus or in the first verse, that the sailor is on board the doomed ship, writing to his family.  Another songwriter’s thought was to change the order of the verses, and put the final verse first.

I’m not sure how I’m going to solve this problem, but I know it will be probably take several more rewrites.  That is the path to success in songwriting (however one defines success): keep rewriting the song until there isn’t any part of it that bothers you.

Thanks for listening to my thoughts on my new song!

Bob McKillop


Miranda Mastera, “Better Dig Two” and “Burning House” (Covers)

Reviewing recordings of hit Country songs by artists who did not make them famous comes down to two factors.

First, can they handle the song and do it justice, when compared to the hit version?

Second, do they add something new, something about themselves, that makes the track their own, and not just an attempt to mimic the hit?

Miranda Mastera scores well on both of these criteria for her covers of “Better Dig Two” by Band Perry, and “Burning House” by Cam (songwriting credits appear below.)

The confidence she displays in her execution of the lyric and the melody suggest long hours in studying and rehearsing the song. Miranda knows these tunes, knows what makes them hits, and she pays tribute to Kimberly Perry, and to Cam, in her delivery. Fans of these songs want to hear the hit, so if she’s going to attempt these songs, she needs to deliver that.

But if that’s all she did, why would anyone want to hear her sing these tunes, when they could pull the hit song up on Spotify or YouTube?

Miranda lays her own interpretation on top of the expected vocal delivery. She’s not just mimicking the chart topping performance. For example, the way she hits the meter of the lyric, the vocal inflections she uses, and her dynamics, bring a softer, more introspective feel to “Better Dig Two”.   It’s not a copy, it’s an interpretation.

She has a note on her ReverbNation page that an EP album is due this spring (2017). I’m looking forward to hearing it, and I hope that Miranda will bring her considerable vocal talent to some original material. I’m betting she’s going to make those new songs shine.

“Better Dig Two” was written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Trevor Rosen.

“Burning House” was written by Cam (Cameron Marvel Ochs), Tyler Johnson, and Jeff Bhasker.

Emily Hackett, “Easy”

I really love simple tracks, recordings that highlight a great song and a great vocal performance, or both. I found one of these gems on Emily Hackett’s ReverbNation site, in her song “Easy”.

The recording starts with a strong steady acoustic strum, and introduces lap steel that sounds like backing vocals. The music puts a frame around Emily’s soft, yet strong vocals, with her subtle southern drawl. She finishes a few lines in this song in a near whisper, evoking introspection and self-doubt, supporting the mood and theme.

Emily’s songwriting craft is highly developed with lyrical and melodic hooks in all the right power positions in the verses and chorus. Her narrator in this song is asking some hard questions of an ex-lover. Why did you wait to leave? Were you surprised by you lies? Why did you have to cheat? Why was it easy to do the wrong thing?

But she’s also questioning herself. Where is the good girl, the one who knew better? Why does the wrong thing always have its way with me?

I loved pretty much everything Hackett has posted on her Reverbnation site, so go check it out. I’m hoping that we hear more from her soon.


Cole Washburn, “Wanderer”

Once in a while, when I go in search of folk artists unknown to me, I want to be reminded of Woody and Arlo. Nitty Gritty Dirt. John (gasp!) Denver. Certain Pure Prairie League songs. The Band. Joe Crookston. Songs that owe their DNA to mountain music, and which evoke the common person’s integration of music into their every day lives.

Today I found Cole Washburn on ReverbNation.   His featured song “Wanderer” fills that need for me. Though the South is baked into Washburn’s work, this track reminds me of my family’s Appalachian roots and working experiences, and of our history of wandering from place to place.

A muted snare drum and a shaker hold down a steady shuffle beat under an acoustic guitar strum that makes me think of the broken lines on a blue highway flashing by my car window. Electric slide guitar ghosts around the melody but never gets in the way. And Washburn’s authentic, unvarnished vocals deliver the honest, simple lyric, like your uncle Sam telling one of his road warrier stories.

Washburn may be singing about and celebrating the road, but there’s something else going on. Is he feeling his Texas roots in San Antonio, buried under the Alamo? Does he need to prove to himself that someone could love him by running away to see if they would follow? There are hidden depths in this simple song.

“Wanderer” is just one of several of Washburn’s songs that I enjoyed. Give him a listen on ReverbNation.

Robbie Simpson, “Crush This Town”

OK, I’ll admit, I don’t know what Robbie Simpson’s tune “Crush This Town” is about (and I’m not sure Robbie would be able to tell me anyway), but I don’t really care. What I care about is that the song makes me want to learn how to get tone from an electric guitar and write this kind of music.

This is the kind of folk rock I grew up with. It’s a mash-up of Elvis Costello, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and the Kinks.

The track opens with a jangly acoustic strum and the first verse lyric. Then a melodic bass line, and finally a classic rock drum backbeat. By the time Robbie is into the trippy chorus, the electric is adding some atmosphere. Sounds like some lap steel in there too.

There’s some great imagery here, and it’s in service to something only Robbie was experiencing when he wrote the tune. Hoof beats, burning rain, freight trains, floods, ponies, pigeons, flaming wagons, tequila, and drugs. This song has it all.

I think it’s about trying to leave a toxic relationship. But what’s important is what you think it’s about. I’d highly recommend you listen and make your best guess.

I loved listening to this tune, and there are several others on Robbie’s ReverbNation page that deserve a listen as well. Spend some time there, you won’t regret it.