Suggested Listening ’23: Ian Saint

Posted on:

< < Back to

It’s that time again! WOUB Culture asked people involved in music and arts across WOUB’s coverage area what they’ve been listening to this year. Check out their answers on WOUB Culture all through December.

WOUB’s Ian Saint meets with Tekitha (mother) and Prana (daughter), of O.N.E The Duo, in their Grand Ole Opry dressing room. [Image courtesy of Ian Saint]
WOUB’s Ian Saint meets with Tekitha (mother) and Prana (daughter), of O.N.E The Duo, in their Grand Ole Opry dressing room. [Image courtesy of Ian Saint]
Ian Saint is an Arts & Culture correspondent for WOUB Public Media. He splits his time between the Deep Ellum entertainment district of Dallas, Texas and his home state of Ohio. Follow him on Instagram @ian.saint

Ann Wilson & Tripsitter — Ruler of the Night

Imposter Syndrome can afflict folks of all statures — including Rock & Roll Hall of Famers! Heart front-woman Ann Wilson has been lauded for her vocal and songwriting talents since 1975’s Dreamboat Annie yielded classic rock staples like Crazy On You and Magic Man, the latter of which Dolly Parton recruited Wilson for an updated cover on Dolly’s highly-anticipated Rockstar album this year.

But as Ann revealed to WOUB, being in a chart-topping rock band invites new scrutiny that manifests insecurities in different ways. While many rock stars in their 70s are content to bask in their legacies, Ann challenged herself to embark on a new direction with a new band. Recording Another Door with Tripsitter supercharged Wilson’s creativity; and Ruler of the Night, a reflection on how donning pizzazz can counteract someone’s tepid self-image with a public image of confidence, is a highlight — showcasing Ann’s trademark bellow, and even her oft-overlooked talents on flute.

Watch Ann Wilson and Tripsitter perform Ruler of the Night, alongside other Another Door selections and Heart’s greatest hits, in their captivating live concert special on PBS Passport.

Rissi Palmer & Miko Marks — Still Here

Fifteen years ago, the pairing of Rissi Palmer and Miko Marks for a duet wouldn’t have seemed likely. Country music has long been plagued by a lack of diversity in their radio programming; so when Palmer released Country Girl shortly after Marks premiered with 2005’s Freeway Bound, she felt that two Black women were being pitted to compete with one another for rare airtime. Palmer told WOUB that when she made her Grand Ole Opry debut, she was stunned to find flowers from Marks in her dressing room, as Miko hadn’t yet made her Opry debut.

As chronicled in Dilsey Davis’s film, Rissi Palmer: Still Here – a feature of PBS’ American Masters — the recording careers for both women soon stalled for a decade; but while elevating other country artists of color with her Apple Music program, Color Me Country Radio, Palmer experienced a resurgence of her own.

Last year’s return to the Grand Ole Opry allowed Rissi to surprise Miko with the announcement of Miko’s long-yearned Opry debut. Still Here, the namesake of Palmer’s PBS documentary, is a harmonica-heavy, gospel-laden testament to the glory of perseverance, that was released shortly before Palmer and Marks embarked on a co-headlining tour… and I was deeply moved by watching them perform Still Here in New York City — a place where the PBS documentary shows Palmer had, early in her career, encountered dead end after dead end — to a sold-out house.

The Judds — River of Time

The title track to The Judds’ 1989 album was co-written by Naomi Judd; and River of Time took on a jarring new resonance while daughter Wynonna Judd performed it at her mother’s memorial service, as Naomi died by suicide before The Judds commenced their Final Tour.

When The Judds released River of Time in 1989, it was shortly before the mother-daughter duo retired their act, and Wynonna was “beginning again” as a solo artist. After the “river of time” flowed for another three decades, Wynonna suddenly found herself mourning the shocking loss of her mother, just a couple weeks after Wynonna had basked in the glory of becoming a grandmother. In the heaviest interview that I’ve ever done, Wynonna ruminated on the surrealness of processing life beginning and ending simultaneously; and how difficult singing this song has become for her, even though it’s her favorite song that her mother ever penned.

River of Time has adopted profound new meaning in the present; but its luster is as bright as ever… I get goosebumps every time I hear Wynonna delivering the climax of “life is forever beginning, beginning again”; and her mother’s harmony on “silence so deep only my soul can hear” — the line that Wynonna singled out as emotionally challenging to sing — is crooned with a tone of understanding that I hope brings Wynonna solace in mourning.

O.N.E. The Duo — Hoedown

As 2023 marks The Judds’ closure as a performing act, O.N.E The Duo has elevated as a mother-daughter country duo from a very different realm. Mother Tekitha enjoyed many years of success as a vocalist with rap icons, Wu-Tang Clan; and daughter Prana was born to her and Wu-Tang member RZA in 2000. They commenced 2023 as inductees of CMT’s Next Women of Country and released their debut LP, Blood Harmony, shortly thereafter.

Blood Harmony is an infectious, instant classic; and Hoedown is a perfect introduction to this unique act, coupling fiddles and other traditions of country music with elements of the hip-hop genre that they sprang from. O.N.E The Duo concluded the year with a feature on The Judds’ all-star tribute album, and making their Grand Ole Opry debut on the same bill as Wynonna herself. 

Alice Cooper — Dead Don’t Dance

More than half a century after co-producing I’m Eighteen, Alice Cooper’s break-out hit — following a move from California to the Rust Belt, for reasons that Cooper outlined for WOUB last year —  Bob Ezrin produced Alice’s latest record: Road, which Alice intended to be a showcase for his live band. Dead Don’t Dance is a sleek vehicle for all three (!) of Alice’s road guitarists: Nita Strauss, Ryan Roxie, and Tommy Henriksen… but it’s also a fine example of why I’m a big Cooper fan beyond his catalogue: his emphasis on the importance of finding purpose in life, and eschewing toxic habits (like drinking and smoking) in order to let your talents manifest and shine for decades of fulfillment. 2023 marks 40 years since Alice got sober; and his rock ‘n roll radiance at age 75, which shows no signs of slowing down, is an inspiration.

Lindsay Ell — Sweet Spot

Lindsay Ell is a singer/songwriter, guitar hero, and Canada’s Got Talent host, who was the opening act for fellow Canadian country maven Shania Twain’s massive Queen Of Me Tour on 14 dates this year. She might make juggling these feats look easy; but Ell got candid this year about the toll it’s taken on her body and mind.

Sweet Spot is an endearing ode to the “middle ground” that comes between the highs and lows which tend to stand out in memory — a celebration of those moments like “I finish your sentence, you finish my drink” and “We know we can keep dancing with our eyes closed” that might appear mundane on the surface, but it’s those simple expressions of love and support that keep us buoyant in the waves of ups and downs. Fittingly, Ell’s lovely guitar solo is short and sweet, but still striking — gliding toward two guitars intertwined in a crescendo, backed by a pleasant choir of ebullient “ahhs.”

Roberta Lea — Too Much of a Woman

“Too loud, too strong, too much attitude; I better learn how to play along, before your ego winds up bruised…” Right out of the gate, the title track to Roberta Lea’s debut album delivers blows to misogynistic tropes — and Lea plays a boxer in the music video. The searing attack on toxic patriarchy is delivered by an all-female ensemble: Jackie Venson on lead guitar, Megan Jane on drums, Ellen Angelico on lap steel, and Vanessa McGowan on bass. When WOUB spoke with Roberta last year, she had just surpassed her Kickstarter fundraising goal  partly thanks to impactful boosts from Brandi Carlile and Allison Russell; and a few months later, she was inducted to CMT’s Next Women of Country  — both vivid demonstrations of how women in country music can break through the barriers of scant radio airplay by supporting one another.

In a follow-up interview with Buddy magazine in Texas, Roberta revealed that the protagonist of Too Much of a Woman has a similar realization: “she tells her loved ones and the people in her community that she needs them, and she can’t do the things she needs to do without their love and support.” As an independent release that was seeded by community contributions, Too Much of a Woman is a slick, riveting accomplishment for finding the healthy balance of independence and interdependence.

Jackie Venson — When It’s Right #evolution

Austin, Texas native Jackie Venson released Joy in 2019 to critical acclaim and a heightening profile, culminating in a 2020 Austin City Limits performance that PBS aired in a live concert special also featuring Mavis Staples and Bonnie Raitt. Venson decided to record a new version of Joy, that demonstrated the evolution of her artistry since then — including a transition from Fender to Epiphone guitar, an instrument that (contrary to her reputation as a guitar virtuoso) she hadn’t begun playing until age 21.

When It’s Right is an extraordinary showcase of Venson’s evolution on guitar, in addition to her bright talents on vocals and piano — the instrument that brought her acceptance to Berklee College of Music. The 2023 rendition of When It’s Right doesn’t overshadow the 2019 original, which stands on its own merits with subtle synthesizers and horns; the quality of both performances speaks to the strength of Venson’s songwriting, and serves as a reminder that even extraordinary talents can always work on further refining their crafts.

Soopa Squad — Resolution

“If I wanted to be like everyone else, what a shame that would be; I’ve spent all this time trying to find myself…” Isaiah Cunningham knows the grit of reinvention well, being a collegiate basketball player turned Army soldier turned rock, folk, and country singer-songwriter. Resolution is an anthem for embracing the duality of beauty and agony that self-discovery entails, particularly when a well-cemented iteration of yourself must suddenly pivot in a new, unfamiliar direction — which is embodied by Cunningham kicking straight into Resolution’s opening line within one second of Peter Julian’s punchy drum fill. The chorus is a cacophony of wails and buzz-saw guitars overdubbing the hypnotic riff — yet the pile of tones sounds perfectly in balance… a fitting metaphor for how transformation is often a beautiful mess. Resolution is lifted from Soopa Squad’s new album, Vibrational Currency, where it’s precluded by the meandering Buzzmanwhich I’d selected as a 2022 music highlight. 

Ron Pope — Three Days After Christmas

With the holidays nigh, I thought it would be appropriate to end my list with a Christmas cut. It’s not easy to write and record an original Christmas song that will be added to annual rotation — after all, Brenda Lee’s Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree just went #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 65 years after its release — but I think that Ron Pope’s Three Days After Christmas is a strong contender. Pope gives voice to the odd lull between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, that I think many of us have felt, without realizing that the “post-Christmas, pre-New Year’s” funk was a thing. It speaks to Pope’s keen eye for those periods of time that are overlooked, but highly consequential; such as on A Drop in the Ocean, Ron’s 2007 millennial folk classic that was just certified Platinum – a milestone that provoked him to embark on a celebration tour that stops by Ohio’s Ludlow Garage Cincinnati on March 8… during that funky lull between Valentine’s Day and Easter.