Folk/Bluegrass/Country songs that tell stories?
May 27, 2006 9:01 AM   Subscribe

What a surprise: I'm working on another music mix and would like suggestions. This mix features folk/bluegrass/country songs that tell stories. The less production, the less instrumentation, the more acoustic the better.

Songs like Kenn Roger's "The Gambler"? Too produced. I'm looking for vocals and a little bit of instrumentation.

The inspiration for this mix was "Coyotes" by Don Edwards [iTMS] (which can be heard in Grizzly Man).

Other songs that fit the bill include "Cold Missouri Waters" by Cry Cry Cry [iTMS]; Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush" performed by Dolly, Emmylou, and Linda [iTMS]; the acoustic version of "Dead Man's Hill" by Indigo Girls [iTMS of original version]; "Mama's Opry" by Iris DeMent [iTMS]; and so on. Not all the songs have to tell stories. I have Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" [iTMS] and Dolly Parton's re-make of "Seven Bridges Road" [iTMS] in the mix at the moment. And Dixie Chicks' "Travelin' Soldier" [iTMS].

So far this mix tends toward the somber, but that's certainly not a requirement. What do you say, Mefites? Can you help a fellow find similar songs?
posted by jdroth to Media & Arts (44 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
There's a whole load of bluegrass song/stories on "The Mountain" by Steve Earle.
posted by essexjan at 9:07 AM on May 27, 2006

"Dustbowl Days" by 10,000 Maniacs
"Song of Issac" by Leonard Cohen
"The Cruel Ship's Captain" by Dave van Ronk
posted by Methylviolet at 9:14 AM on May 27, 2006

New Grass Revival's cover of Prince of Peace, or anything else on their first album

Nickel Creek's House Carpenter

Del McCoury's cover of 1952 Vincent Black Lightning
posted by RussHy at 9:18 AM on May 27, 2006

Try to find some Big Smith (artist name). The majority of their songs fall into the song/story category. They're a wonderful bluegrass / folk band.
posted by bjork24 at 9:19 AM on May 27, 2006

The Decemberists - Red Right Ankle
Nick Drake - everything from the album "Pink Moon"
The Mountain Goats - Pale Green Things (and lots of others)

Also lots of Kimya Dawson and Daniel Johnston songs.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:22 AM on May 27, 2006

"Truckstop Girl" by Kelly Willis
posted by nicwolff at 9:30 AM on May 27, 2006

Response by poster: The Decemberists - Red Right Ankle

As a life-long Portlander who loves the Decemberists and this song, you'd think I would have remembered it. That's why I love asking Metafilter!
posted by jdroth at 9:34 AM on May 27, 2006

Anything AJ Roach has ever recorded.
posted by stet at 9:37 AM on May 27, 2006

Pretty much all of The Creek Drank the Cradle, by Iron and Wine.
posted by nyterrant at 9:38 AM on May 27, 2006

A local (Seattle/Bellingham) band has a song that fits called "Juanita," off the album The Crooked Mile Home, which you might also like. "Juanita" is the most acoustic, though, and is a beautiful song. You can download the mp3 here.

Another local band, North 19, is not strictly acoustic/unproduced, but has the best banjo player I've ever heard, except for maybe Béla Fleck. And the singer is opera-trained, and is awesome.

The Be Good Tanyas are also great, though their site seems to be down. My favorites of theirs are "Momsong," "Dogsong," "Broken Telephone," and pretty much everything else on Blue Horse; I haven't listened to Chinatown as much.

If Neko Case didn't use so much reverb on her vocals, I'd recommend a bunch of her stuff, but she does. Which is sad.

On preview, stet is right; you should check out AJ Roach.
posted by librarina at 9:49 AM on May 27, 2006

a mix like this begs for long black veil, by lefty frizell (and covered well by many others)
posted by bilabial at 9:49 AM on May 27, 2006

D'oh. The local band in the first paragraph is called Chuckanut Drive.
posted by librarina at 9:50 AM on May 27, 2006

Bruce Robison who wrote Travelin Soldier has a much less produced version of that song, but if you use the Dixie Chick version, check out his other stuff.

Other suggestions:
Decoration Day album by Drive by Truckers is full of songs like this, my favorites are Outfit, Sounds Better in a Song, and My Sweet Annette- all wistful and somber. (I love this album like my mama's potato .)

John Walker's Blues- Steve Earl (about that American kid that joined the Taliban)
posted by kimdog at 9:51 AM on May 27, 2006

Old Crow Medicine Show -- Wagon Wheel
Emmylou Harris -- Red Dirt Girl

...and this doesn't fit with your folk/bluegrass/acoustic theme, but Caroline's Spine has a pretty great song called Sullivan that tells the story of the 5 Sullivan brothers killed together in WWII.
posted by junkbox at 9:56 AM on May 27, 2006

How much of The Band catalogue do you want? I would say Long Black Veil would definitely count, as would The Weight and many more.

Also interesting might be:

--The Lakes of Pontchartrain by the Be Good Tanyas
--The Unwelcome Guest, Billy Bragg and Wilco
--Jolie Louise, Daniel Lanois
--Rosa Lee McFall, Grateful Dead (from Reckoning)
--Long Gone Lonesome Blues, Hank Williams (available on the Beyond Nashville compilation from a couple of years ago)
--En Berne, Les Cowboys Fringants (if you like something very different but definitely in line with the theme)
--Mama Tried, Merle Haggard
--Shaking Hands (Soldier's Joy), Michelle Shocked with Uncle Tupelo - Farrar and Tweedy (from Arkansas Traveller - several others on this album might work as well)
--Six More Miles, The The.
posted by mikel at 10:02 AM on May 27, 2006

I can't believe I'm the first to say, but almost any early Bob Dylan fits the bill. I'd make suggestions, but seriously, any of them.
posted by jgee at 10:09 AM on May 27, 2006

"Goodnight Irene" Leadbelly
"Pretty Boy Floyd" Woody Guthrie
"Big Rock Candy Mountain" Pete Seeger

Anything else by those three or the album Mermaid Avenue that Billy Bragg and Wilco recorded using lyrics Woody Guthrie wrote.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 10:15 AM on May 27, 2006

Oh, and I almost forgot, there are a couple of acoustic, folky songs on the excellent new Band of Horses record. The one that's barest, though, is the album closer, "St. Augustine." Although it's entirely a vocal duet, so I don't know if that disqualifies it for you. But it's a beautiful song.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:17 AM on May 27, 2006

Johnny Cash's cover of Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat" on American III Solitary Man is great, and in fact there are a bunch of songs in Cash's American series that would fit your bill quite well.
posted by extrabox at 10:19 AM on May 27, 2006


"April the 14th pt.1", Gillian Welch
"Ghost of Tom Joad", "Mansion on the Hill", "Used Car" (or really anything off Nebraska) Bruce Springsteen
Anything by Bonnie Prince Billy
"1939" by Hayden
posted by jgee at 10:36 AM on May 27, 2006

Most of Robert Earl Keen's stuff would suit you I think. Some favorite story songs of mine include High Plains Jamboree, Lynnville Train and Jessie with the Long Hair. I love all of his stuff and it's all available on iTMS.
posted by jvilter at 10:36 AM on May 27, 2006

Doc Watson's Tennessee Stud (actually written by Jimmy Driftwood) from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's first 'Will The Circle Be Unbroken' project in the early '70s.
posted by DandyRandy at 10:42 AM on May 27, 2006

Do you want old standards (Like stuff that would be on Alan Lomax's mix tape) or more modern descendents of the same genus? The following is along the lines of the latter.

In alphabetical order:
  • Bob Dylan - [The Freewheelin'] - Boots of Spanish Leather
  • Gillian Welch - [Hell Among the Yearlings] - One Morning
  • Jenny Lewis & The Watson Twins - [Rabbit Fur Coat] - Rabbit Fur Coat
  • John Hiatt - [Master of Disaster] - Cold River
  • M. Ward - [End of Amnesia] - O'Brien
  • The Mountain Goats - [Zopilote Machine] - Going to Georgia
  • Townes Van Zandt - [Live At The Old Quarter] - Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold

posted by Hildago at 11:08 AM on May 27, 2006

"Molly and Tenbrooks." Best-known version by Bill Monroe; covered just about everybody.

"John Hardy." Again, Bill Monroe and a bunch of covers.

"Jimmy Brown the Newsboy" by the Carter Family?

Uh, "Ballad of Jed Clampett?" -- Lester and Earl (actual TV theme was done by somebody else whose name escapes me.)
posted by Opposite George at 11:13 AM on May 27, 2006

Anything by Robert Earl Keen. "Merry Christmas From the Family" and "The Road Goes On Forever" fit the bill. Check into the No. 2 Live Dinner CD, which is recorded live, and many of his songs are just him and his guitar.

Another in the same Texas singer-songwriter vein is Joe Ely. Check out the version of "Me and Billy the Kid" from the Live At Liberty Lunch CD, and "Gallo Del Cielo" from Letter to Laredo.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 11:17 AM on May 27, 2006

Gah, vilter! Great minds, eh?
posted by SuperSquirrel at 11:18 AM on May 27, 2006

Also, just about everything on disc 2 of the Folkways Anthology of American Music (a/k/a Harry Smith Anthology.) It even has two songs about political assassination!
posted by Opposite George at 11:29 AM on May 27, 2006

Also by Gillian Welch: "Caleb Meyer"
posted by booth at 11:46 AM on May 27, 2006

Second on the Big Smith.

posted by sourwookie at 12:39 PM on May 27, 2006

Anything by Sam Hinton on Folkways - it's just him and his guitar on all of them. Particularly look at I'll Sing You a Story. These are folky and were aimed at children when recorded, but they're not at all Raffi-fied or neutered in any way.
posted by expialidocious at 12:47 PM on May 27, 2006

Seconding Cohen's Song of Isaac, but would suggest Suzanne Vega's haunting cover instead of the original. It's on the tribute album Tower of Song.
posted by CunningLinguist at 1:28 PM on May 27, 2006

Country Death Song - Violent Femmes
posted by davey_darling at 1:47 PM on May 27, 2006

Kelly Joe Phelps - River Rat Jimmy
posted by skwm at 3:05 PM on May 27, 2006

If you don't consider drums, backup vocals, and lead vocals over-produced (it's not clear; some of your picks have lead instrument + bass + vocals), I'd recommend "Big Bad John" by Jimmy Dean.

"John Henry" is another good one, especially in its folk/blues version by Big Bill Broonzy, but it's been covered by countless others in jazz, blues, folk, and country.
posted by Tuwa at 3:31 PM on May 27, 2006

Wow. Can't believe there are over 30 replies and noone mentioned John Prine. About half his songs tell stories and it's often just him and a guitar. Look for Sam Stone, Paradise, Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone, Hello In There, Come Back to Us Barbara Lewis.

Ballad of Spider John by Willis Alan Ramsey.

The Chieftains did an album named The Long Black Veil with various guests artists. Beside the title song by Mick Jagger, Foggy Dew with Sinead O'Connor and Lily of the West with Mark Knopfler are good. Although it's just the band, it may still be more production than you're looking for.
posted by forrest at 3:31 PM on May 27, 2006

Response by poster: All of these suggestions have been great so far. I know that my examples of "not overproduced" are kind of vague, but hey -- that's just the way it is. It's more the feel of the song than anything. (A lot of times a potential song for this mix is killed by drums.)

Old stuff or new stuff? Mostly newer. I have a HUGE collection of old folk stuff, and that's not what this mix is about really.

Anyhow -- thanks for the suggestions so far. I'm sifting through them now.

Even if I don't end up using a lot of these songs, I'll definitely remember them for the future.
posted by jdroth at 4:15 PM on May 27, 2006

Yet another thread where I can plug Eddie From Ohio: my recommendations would be "From Dacca" and "Minnesota 1945" off their album "Looking Out The Fishbowl", and 2 songs off "Quick": "Tom Burleigh's Dead", an Irish Drinking Song about an overly curious man in Harper's Ferry, and "Candido and America," based on TC Boyle's novel The Tortilla Curtain.

For more folk-type stuff:
"Sweet Lorraine" or "Not alone" by Patti Griffin (just her and her guitar). The latter tells the story in reverse chronological order.
A lot of stuff on Richrd shindell's amazing album "Vuelta," including "Che Guevara T-Shirt","There Goes Mavis", and "Last Fare of the Day".

And another bluegrass song, "Bed By The Window", the version I've heard is by James King, not sure if there are more.
posted by sarahnade at 4:19 PM on May 27, 2006

"Country Death Song" by the Violent Femmes... exactly what you're looking for.
posted by Cohiba4009 at 4:38 PM on May 27, 2006

Du-oh! I was sure I would've been the only one - touche davey_darling !!!
posted by Cohiba4009 at 4:40 PM on May 27, 2006

Another vote for Robert Earl a different album, though. None of his stuff really sounds very "produced".

"Feelin' Good Again" off the album Walking Distance.
posted by awegz at 7:58 PM on May 27, 2006

Any version of the bluegrass classic "Old Home Place."
posted by wsg at 8:35 AM on May 28, 2006

Maybe Todd Snider's You Think You Know Somebody? Patty Griffin also has a lot of story-songs.
posted by whatideserve at 7:53 PM on May 28, 2006

Ralph Stanley- Little Mathie Grove (see also Fairport Convention for rock version)
Del McCoury- Blackjack County Chains (see also )
Peter Rowan and Jerry Douglas- Texas Rangers
Dolly Parton- Mountain Angel & Dover
Bluegrass Cardinals- Blue-eyed Boston Boy
Louvin Brothers-Knoxville Girl
posted by Eothele at 11:14 PM on May 28, 2006

Good lord, I really do have an account here. and I only had to try to login twice. Doc Watson, all I have to say...
posted by Fidel at 5:17 AM on October 6, 2006

« Older Any (lab) test? We're so discreet, we even use...   |   How Much Is A Picture Worth? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.