My Summer Soundtrack

With Vacation Bible School and an adult Sunday School class completed and my fall textbooks ordered, today is the first full day of my summer break. For the next two months, you’ll probably find me spending my mornings in a variety of St. Paul area coffee shops, reading and writing on my MacBook as music plays in my earbuds.

To be specific, I’ll likely be listening to the following artists and concerts:

I hate the fact that this is cast as a TED talk, but I love to listen to the multi-talented Rhiannon Giddens — not playing banjo or violin this time, but memorably singing three folk standards and one of her own compositions.

Like Giddens, Mandolin Orange comes from North Carolina and often sets its songs in the American past. They’ve released some fine albums in recent years, but for an introduction, check out this New Year’s Eve concert from 2010. There’s even a marriage proposal not quite half an hour into the show!

I’ve already made clear my appreciation for Alabama singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, but if you’re a newcomer and want to see him and the 400 Unit rip through a full set of material, watch this well-produced special from WGBH, the public TV station in Boston. (It primarily features songs from Southeastern and Something More Than Free, but there’s also a version of Isbell’s greatest Drive-By Truckers song, “Never Gonna Change,” that lets him and Sadler Vaden stretch out on guitar.)

But lately, I’ve been listening to their appearance earlier this year on Kansas City public radio station KCPT, during which the band played three songs off their new album, The Nashville Sound, and Isbell talked with host Jon Hart about everything from the recording process to empathy and mortality. Good luck not crying at the set-closing “If We Were Vampires.”

Speaking of Drive-By Truckers, last November they played an installment of NPR’s eclectic Tiny Desk Concert series. Performing not long before Election Day, co-leader Patterson Hood explained that “There’s always been a pretty serious political element that’s run through our music all along. But a lot of times it’s been sort of under the surface, with us telling stories sometimes set in other time periods.” By contrast, “Guns of Umpqua” and “What It Means” responded directly to recent events.

Then the day after Trump’s victory, the Tiny Desk guest was singer-songwriter Margo Price, whose opening line was apt: “I woke up from a movie I immediately forgot / Got a heartache on the bottom and a headache on the top / The part of me that hurts the worst is the one I just can’t spot / And it’s all American made.”

It’s not all lament and indignation. Thanks to her 2010 and 2013 collaborations with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, R&B and gospel singer Mavis Staples finally received an invitation to the British festival Glastonbury in 2015. “We’ve come all the way from Chicago,” she told the crowd, “to bring you some joy, some happiness, inspiration, and some positive vibrations.”