The transition to fall means that, weekday mornings, I’m on my way to work when the first glimmers of daylight seemingly push the darkness from the sky. 

“First glimmers” – that, I see now, is what I should have dubbed my “first impressions” posts. But as Diane Birch reminds us in her new single, “Wind Machine,” “Epiphanies knock around like loose change in your pocket.” They don’t mean much if one doesn’t act on them, in other words. The four-minute tune is an autumnal song, aka a slice of melancholic wonder that uses the transitional months between summer and winter as a metaphor for an end:

“November is comin’ on and the nights are getting longer/summer always deceives/little promises like the orange leaves/blowin’ in a wind machine…”

To borrow from what I wrote a few years back about the Church of Birch pastor’s Nous album, “Wind Machine” is – in many ways – Denise Levertov set to song; and if it’s a harbinger of things to come, let’s move the clock hands ahead ourselves so that DB’s new album – which was delayed due to the PledgeMusic collapse – comes out next week instead of next year. 

(The single is available via all the usual suspects, including Apple Music and Spotify.)

Anyone conscious of pop culture in the mid ‘80s likely remembers that, at the start of the 1986-87 TV season, the primetime suds fest Dallas dismissed its previous season, its ninth, as nothing more than a a bad dream. 

The backstory: At the end of Season 8, with his contract up, Patrick Duffy – who played the show’s white knight, Bobby Ewing – left in pursuit of other projects and, rather than have his character embark on a never-ending world cruise, or some such thing, the show’s creative team simply killed him off. 

One result: The show’s ratings dipped in Season 9, sliding from No. 2 to No. 6, the first time it hadn’t been No. 1 or No. 2 in five years. (Some accounts point to increasingly outlandish storylines as a contributing factor.) Duffy, meanwhile, failed to attract the offers he hoped for. So when the Dallas masterminds reached out with a plan for Bobby’s return, Duffy agreed. Thus, at the start of Season 10, Pamela Ewing (Victoria Principal) woke to the sound of the shower echoing through her room…

… and, in one fell swoop, everything that happened during Season 9 was written off as a dream – well, less a dream and more a nightmare. 

In a sense, then, Dallas unwittingly demonstrated the quantum model of the multiverse, which posits “parallel universes” are, at root, alternate timelines. The road not taken in this reality is the road taken in another; and the next fork in the road in this or that one generates yet another timeline. If spacetime is truly infinite, it stands to reason that there are also an infinite number of presents, pasts and futures.

Or so the theory goes.

Adding to the complexity: A dimple in the fabric of spacetime enhances the possibility of time travel, as the curvature causes the distance between some present and past points to decrease; one could argue that’s essentially what the Dallas creative team did, jumping into the past in order to save the future. Of course, we’re then thrust into Back to the Future territory: Even the smallest alteration to the past can cause the present to become unrecognizable; and, in the case of Dallas, that meant dropping from No. 6 to No. 11 in the ratings.

On an alternate timeline, however, the show could well have returned to No. 1.

That infinite possibilities lead to infinite outcomes matters not to the specific reality we find ourselves in, however. That reality is, sadly, that Lyndon LaRouche Mach 2 occupies the Oval Office and has surrounded himself with henchmen who pay fealty to him, not the Constitution. Unlike Season 9 of Dallas, it can’t be undone with a few flicks of a pen in the writer’s room; the new season, scheduled to begin on Jan. 20th, 2021, unless Congress intervenes before then, will pick up where this one leaves off. Between now and then, aside from messaging our representatives, there’s not much we, the people, can do… except distract ourselves through music.

And, on that cheery note, here’s today’s Top 5: Americana, Season 9…

1) Bruce Springsteen – “Sundown (From the Film Western Stars).” Diane and I already have our tickets for the film, which features Bruce, band and a 30-piece orchestra performing the Western Stars album – one of the year’s best, if not the best – in full. I didn’t think he could top the album version of any of the songs, as they’re all intricate hymns of the heart; I was wrong. 

2) Beth Bombara – “I Only Cry When I’m Alone/Upside Down.” As luck would have it, I stumbled across Beth’s recent album, Evergreen, early this afternoon, just before a 75-minute road trip. I cranked it up on the drive – and, damn, it’s sounds better than good. The St. Louis-based singer-songwriter delves into matters of the heart and soul while connecting with the intellect, and does so accompanied by a crack band. 

3) Michaela Anne – “By Our Design.” Michaela’s album, Desert Dove, is earning acclaim even from folks who aren’t keen on the idea of “Americana” as the (makeshift) genre it is. I haven’t yet had the chance to listen to it unencumbered from conversation, unfortunately, but what I have heard tells me that the acclaim is merited. She reminds me a lot of Emmylou Harris. 

4) Leslie Stevens – “On the Levee.” When we saw Leslie two weeks back, I was only familiar with her most recent album, Sinner. After the show, I picked up her 2016 album The Donkey and the Rose at the merchandise table, and listened to it and the rest of her oeuvre – by way of Apple Music – for the much of the following week. This song is a stunner.

5) Kelsey Waldon – “Anyhow.” Here’s a live rendition of the first single from Kelsey’s recent album, White Noise/White Lines (which I always read as White Light/White Heat – but that’s me). We have tickets to see her in the weeks ahead – can’t wait!

“Woke up this morning, thought it was a dream/I can’t watch the news for the life of me/Seems the seeds that we’re sowin’ are gettin’ heavy to bear/Less than a dream, more like a nightmare.” So opens “Lived and Let Go,” one highlight from Kentucky country/roots singer-songwriter Kelsey Waldon’s new White Noise/White Lines album.

Who doesn’t feel that way, these days? But what lifts the song above a broadside about the ugliness that permeates life circa 2019 is what comes next: “And the voices, they call, and they promise, they swear/They’re talkin’ so loud, but don’t get anywhere/And I’m not one to claim more than I know/But we live here and die here, take heart ‘fore you go.”  

White Noise/White Lines, as a whole, mines the earthen strains of country music that mainstream Nashville, too often these days, ignores. It’s not the country-pop played on the radio, but the country-punk once played in the honky-tonks. It’s raw and ragged, real. Black soot courses through its veins.

One of my favorite songs is “Kentucky, 1988,” about growing up in the oddly named community of Monkey’s Eyebrow, Ky. It’s neither a gauzy nostalgia fest nor a bitter reminiscence, I hasten to add, just an honest remembrance of life as it was, and how she carries those years with her, still. “This is my DNA/No matter how far I get away/There’s just some things that will never change/Kentucky, 1988.” 

Here she and her band are on The Burl Sessions performing it:

In short, Kelsey’s Kentucky twang is as strong as her talent, and her talent is on full display in these 11 tunes. I hear echoes of everyone from Loretta Lynn to Townes Van Zandt to Dwight Yoakam in the grooves, but most of all I hear her heart beating strong. White Noise/White Lines is highly recommended.

(For more on Kelsey’s backstory, and insights into the album, be sure to read this No Depressions article and this NPR piece.)

I saw the light on Friday night when, a little past 9pm, country singer Leslie Stevens took to the stage at the Cat’s Cradle Back Room. Before a sparse audience, she laid down an hour-long set that swayed from salvation (sans soup and soap) to silliness and back again, earning rapturous applause and, without question, winning over a few converts.

She opened with “Sinner,” the title cut to her recent LP in which she admits, “I’m not the saint you’ve been hoping for/I’m not the blessing at your door.” On album, it’s an atmospheric tour de force that conjures, to my ears, both Emmylou Harris circa Wrecking Ball and Jessie Baylin circa Little Spark. Live, with just her electric guitar and the always great Eric Heywood on steel guitar, it was as sublime. (We last saw Eric in 2017 with Tift Merritt.) “My Tears Are Wasted on You,” a lament that dates to her days with the Badgers (the band, not the squat omnivores), followed. It’s everything a great country song should be, and more.

Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents” was up next – an unlikely pick, perhaps, but most welcome. “12 Feet High,” another Sinner tune, picked up the pace. On the surface, it’s an ode to certain intoxicants, but its sly humor (“Spent all night staring up at shooting stars/Didn’t even notice they were only cars”) sets up something more somber (“Oh, and darling, I’ve been frowning/Oh, and darling, I’ve been drowning/Drowning all of my sorrows/In our lost tomorrows.”) Another of the album’s highlights, “Fallin’,” lost none of its luster. Although I dislike the metaphor, her vocals are indeed like honey – they flow from light to dark, often within the same song, and more often than not set up shop somewhere in the gradients in between.

One of the sillier moments came on the kazoo-accented sing-along of “It’s Okay to Trip,” a song from the Leslie Stevens & the Badgers’ 2010 album, Roomful of Smoke. (And, yes, I said “kazoo.”) She cajoled everyone to sing, and everyone did, “it’s okay to trip, but don’t fall/it’s okay to fall, but don’t hurt yourself/it’s alright to hurt yourself, but don’t hurt nobody else/it’s okay to hurt somebody else/just say you’re sorry…” It was funny and charming – much like Leslie herself.

“Everybody Drinks and Drives in Heaven,” from her 2012 Donkey and the Rose album, was similarly amusing. (She noted before hand that heaven is the only place where that’s permissible because everyone’s already dead.) As someone who, going into the show, was only familiar with Sinner, the non-Sinner songs were a revelation – as was her humor. For example, also from Roomful of Smoke, “Old-Timers” is a deft portrait of love felled by a tree – literally. 

On a serious note, she prefaced “Depression, Descent” with a discussion of suicide, as she explained the song was spurred by a friend who took his life, and noted that it’s okay to not be okay. It’s a powerful, powerful song. And while the quality of my video isn’t the best, it ably captures the emotion of the performance:

The night ended with Leslie’s stirring cover of Buffy St. Marie’s version of Neil Young’s “Helpless.” (She went out of her way to explain it that way.)

In short, she provided salvation through song, allowing us to momentarily escape the madness that is life in the Trump Age. The only downside to the night was the set’s brevity; it would have been nice to hear a few additional Sinner tunes, such as “Storybook,” “Sylvie” and “Teen Bride.” Here’s the non-set setlist, which veered off course somewhere along the way…

Afterwards, we had a chance to briefly meet Leslie, who was as effervescent off-stage as she is on. If you have the opportunity to see her live, do. And if you don’t, check her out on Apple Music, Spotify or YouTube – and then go buy something from her website.