Jeff Opperman’s excellent post on river songs got me thinking about my own favorite water-themed songs, especially ones which may not be as well-known as offerings from the likes of Zeppelin, Springsteen or Young. To wit, my response:
10. Nathan Hamilton: “Dry River.” One of Austin’s hardest working singer/songwriters, Nathan Hamilton and his raw-boned backing band No Deal deftly craft raw, plaintive songs about small towns, desperadoes and, yes, rivers. “Dry River” is a stripped-down alt-country stomper that equates the unraveling of love with a river running dry: “Where did you go, dry river, where did you go and how far away?”
9. The Damnations, TX: “No Sign of Water.” Penned by sisters Amy Boone and Deborah Kelly, this ballad of a renegade horseman is like a John Ford western in 4/4 time, with water — or lack thereof — at its core: “Ridin’ so many days, with no sign of water, while the sun is cuttin’ cracks into the hard ground.”
8. James McMurtry: “Down Across the Delaware.” While his novelist father, Larry, is more well-known, songwriter James McMurtry has proved time and again that he’s no slouch when it comes to turning a clever phrase. With the East Coast’s Delaware River as a backdrop (a departure for the Texas-based musician), this one tells the haunting story of a marriage falling apart: “We’ll mend our wounds, and wait out the winter, down across the Delaware.”
7. Rogue Wave: “Lake Michigan.” With a sing-songy, lilting chorus and a healthy dose of hand claps, this tune from alt-rocker Rogue Wave of San Francisco will burrow its way into your consciousness, even if the lyrics don’t make much sense: “No one is on Lake Michigan, you labored on, Lake Michigan.”
6. Iron & Wine: “Someday the Waves.” One of the first — and greatest — songs from indie music’s favorite bearded whisper rocker, Sam Beam. Stark and poetic, this is a wonderful example of how a song can be so much greater than the sum of its parts. The faint guitar and hushed, distant vocals are like the soundtrack to a not-unpleasant fever dream: “Someday the waves will stop, every aching old machine will feel no pain.”
5. Ian Moore: “Kangaroo Lake.” Once upon a time, young Ian Moore was offered up by the music industry as America’s next great long-haired guitar god. Luckily, Moore bristled at the obvious attempts to homogenize and package his music. By the time he released “Luminaria” in 2004, Moore had moved from Austin to Seattle and developed a sound somewhere between his heroes Brian Wilson and Bob Dylan, a unique blend of styles captured perfectly here: “And I’m staring at those pages, I think I’m losing my mind. And the air was growing late. And I wish I could see you on Kangaroo Lake.”
4. The Jayhawks: “Come to the River.” Co-frontmen Gary Louris and Mark Olson of the Jayhawks have spent the past 25 years side-by-side like a modern-day Lennon and McCartney, an on-again, off-again collaboration that has led to some of the greatest American music in a generation. “Come to the River” anchors the Twin City group’s groundbreaking 2003 album “Rainy Day Music” with a churning backbeat and some surprisingly gritty slide guitar work: “If you wanna taste the water, gotta come to the river/If you wanna taste the water, gotta drown, drown, drown.”
3. Ry Cooder & V.M. Bhatt: “Ganges Delta Blues.” The only instrumental to make the cut, “Ganges Delta Blues” is a collaboration between two of the greatest stringed-instrument musicians of all time. A blend of East and West, this track — recorded in a single sitting — takes notions of style and genre and turns them upside down. Using nothing more than a slide, Ry Cooder coaxes a spectrum of sound from his guitar. Playing an instrument of his own creation, V.M. Bhatt matches him note for note; their styles shift and blend seamlessly, rising together like vapor off water on a cool morning.
2. Sun Kil Moon: “Last Tide.” Atlanta’s Sun Kil Moon defies categorization, as does the band’s only member, indie music legend Mark Kozalek. Like “Floating,” its companion track, “Last Tide” heaps layers of shimmering acoustic guitar and brushy snare drums atop one another to create a lush field of sound that Kozalek’s soft, distinct voice lilts over, across and through. The results are beautiful and hypnotic: “Will you be here with me my love, when the warm sun turns to ash? And the last tide disappears, all darkness near.”
1. Willie Nelson: “Whiskey River.” There’s an old adage in Texas that “whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting over.” This Willie Nelson classic may be metaphorical, but it’s about a little bit of both. It’s vintage Willie — four forms with four chords delivered in under four minutes — and stands for me as the greatest song ever written about rivers. Or whiskey: “Whiskey River, take my mind. Don’t let a memory talk to me.”
(Image: Nathan Hamilton. Used with permission of Nathan Hamilton.)
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Tags: Amy Boone, Austin singer, Clay Carrington, Deborah Kelly, Down Across the Delaware, Dry River Hamilton, Ganges Delta Blues, Gary Louris, Ian Moore, Iron & Wine, James McMurtry, Jeff Opperman, Kangaroo Lake, Lake Michigan song, lakes, Liminaria, Mark Kozalek, Mark Olson Jayhawks, Music, Nathan Hamilton, Nathan Hamilton song, No Deal, No Deal band, No Sign of Water, oceans, Rainy Day Music, river song, rivers, Rogue Wave, Ry Cooder VM Bhatt, Sam Beam, Someday the Waves, songs, Sun Kil Moon, Sun Kil Moon Last Tide, The Damnations, The Jayhawks, water song, Whiskey river, Willie Nelson