Doug Seegers: Going Down to the River

A beautiful debut from a late-discovered master songwriter and country music craftsman.

Doug Seegers

Going Down to the River

Label: Rounder
US Release Date: 2014-10-07
UK Release Date: Import

I’ve never been a big fan of authenticity arguments. You know, the ones where people debate over whether, for instance, Gillian Welch deserves to play the music she does because she didn’t grow up poor and on a dust bowl farm. To me, the truth is in the sound. The life the artist lived on the way to creating that sound is sometimes relevant, sometimes not. Whether or not the members of Crooked Jades are conservatory-trained musicians doesn’t change the fact when they play a dust bowl ballad, I can taste the dirt. All that said, I can think of no other way to introduce a review of this beautiful record than to play the authenticity card.

Doug Seegers doesn’t just sing about the hobo life, he has lived it for four decades, squatting in abandoned buildings in Manhattan, sleeping under bridges in Austin and Nashville, hopping trains to another town where the promise of pocket change dropped into his guitar case seemed better. In the 1970s, while performing under the moniker “Duke the Drifter", he formed a short-lived band with Buddy Miller, early in his path to becoming a widely respected songwriter, performer, session player, and producer. Conversely, Seegers’ ensuing decades found him mostly adrift, performing on the streets and battling personal demons and assorted addictions while living on the edge of homelessness.

By the turn of this decade, Seeger realized he was running out of time and opportunity to fulfill his dreams of success, so he committed himself to his faith and to sobriety, in the process discovering West Nashville’s Little Pantry That Could, which hosted a weekly singer/songwriter night. It was there that Swedish music star Jill Johnson heard him and committed to recording him. The subsequent recordings of “Angie’s Song” and “Going Down to the River” made Seegers a surprise star in an unlikely place, Scandinavia.

Those two songs open Going Down to the River and they quickly establish this record as something special. “Angie’s Song” describes an imprisoned former girlfriend on whose behalf Seegers offers a growing string of pleas for safety and salvation, culminating with “Let me be the one who cries like a baby when you finally see the light.” Seegers wears his faith and his heart on his sleeve in these songs, and he pushes his worn, emotive voice to its sweetly cracking limits of shouted sincerity. “I’m going down to the river / gonna wash my soul again," he sings on the title cut, “I’ve been running with the devil / and I know that he is not my friend.”

Miller, reunited with his old friend on this album, describes Seegers as “part Hank Williams, part Hank Snow, part Gram Parsons". To Miller’s list, I’d add Randy Newman, and not just for some vocal similarities but in particular, Seegers shares Newman’s dry wit and uncanny eye for detail in his songwriting. The raucous, wonderful “Burning a Hole in My Pocket” is a good example, evoking Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On” with its country blues stomp, perfectly-timed, driving horn fills, and the most joyfully libidinous use of the term “jellyroll” in, probably, 70 years. Seegers sings with glee about blowing all of his hard-earned dollars to win the affection of his paramour-of-the-moment as she dances naked across the floor, even boasting that he would “kill a mountain lion and wrestle every bear / just to lie next to you in your underwear.” Seegers even makes good on Miller’s comparison, joining his old friend for a cover of Hank Williams’ “There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight” and, on another of the album’s highlights, duets with Emmylou Harris to make Gram Parsons’ “She” his own.

Producer Will Kimbrough surrounds Seegers with a collection of crack Nashville players, himself supplying guitar and mandolin accompaniment throughout. Lap steel legend, and Parsons accompanist, Al Perkins’ distinctive dobro and pedal steel notes weave into the foundations of most songs here, while Phil Medeira, of Harris’ Red Dirt Boys band, multi-tasks on piano and assorted guitars. Bryan Owings, drummer on numerous Buddy Miller projects, glides from honky tonk bounce to a bottom-of-the-bottle trundle, and Barbara Lamb shines on violin while providing, as well, a rocking banjo for “She’s in a Rock and Roll Band", a parent’s lament for a “little piece of heaven headed straight to hell".

Seegers harkens back to the classic country of old while establishing his own unique voice and vision. When Seegers howls, mimicking a train whistle in “Gotta Catch that Train”, he evokes the blue yodels of Jimmie Rodgers. One can hear echoes of Porter Wagoner in “Pour Me", where the singer sits forlornly at the bar while his ex sways across the dance floor with her new beau, “Lucky him, lovely her, pour me.” A less nuanced songwriter would probably reach for the “lucky-lovely-lonely” progression (those Nashville Music Machine songwriters are suckers for alliteration), but Seegers’ choice of the simple, brilliant pun amplifies both his narrator’s state of mind and his means of coping. That’s smart songwriting, and, start to finish, this is one of the best country releases you will hear this year.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

Wars of attrition are a matter of stamina, of who has the most tools with which to keep fighting. A surprising common tool in this collection? Humor.

The name of the game is "normal or abnormal". Here's how you play: When some exceedingly shocking political news pops up on your radar, turn to the person next to you, read them the headline and ask, "is this normal or abnormal?" If you want to up the stakes, drink a shot every time the answer is abnormal. If that's too many shots, alter the rules so that you drink only when things are normal—which is basically never, these days. Hilarious, right?

Keep reading... Show less

The Dear Hunter: All Is As All Should Be EP

Jordan Blum
Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Although All Is As All Should Be is a tad too brief to match its precursors, it's still a masterful blend of songwriting, arrangements, and singing that satisfies the Dear Hunter anticipation.

The Dear Hunter is undoubtedly one of the best—and consequently, most egregiously underappreciated—bands of the last decade or so. Aside from 2013's Migrant LP, every one of their major releases featured an ambitious hook; for example, 2011's The Color Spectrum presented nine EPs (consisting of four songs each) that individually represented a different sonic tone (in order: Black, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet, and White), whereas the five-part (so far) Act saga, with its genre-shifting arrangements, superlative songwriting, narrative complexity, and extraordinary conceptual continuity, is a cumulative work of genius, plain and simple.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.