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The Graham Album Review #2189

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John Leventhal: Rumble Strip

(Rumble Strip Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/6/2024)

There are the musicians and performers who want to be the stars, the front-people leading the band or in the vocal spotlight. But there are probably a lot more musicians who are happy being the side people, members of the band, contributing their parts, or working in the studio on making the music. It’s a fairly regular event when one of those supporting musicians or studio player steps forward with some music of their own. And some of them, release their albums fairly regularly, while maintaining their role as supporting players.

This week we have a notable example, a musician who has been performing as a multi-instrumentalist, serving as a producer and songwriter for others for nearly 50 years. He is now releasing his first album at age 71. It’s John Leventhal, whose new recording is called Rumble Strip.

John Leventhal has had an illustrious career, as a supporting musician, but also as a fairly prolific songwriter for others. He is a six-time Grammy Award winner as a composer or producer for such artists as Shawn Colvin, whose 1988 debut album he wrote and produced, which won a Grammy. He was featured prominently as arranger and multi-instrumentalist on Marc Cohn’s 1991 hit song Walking in Memphis. He also co-wrote and produced all the songs on another Grammy winning album, Roseanne Cash’s River and the Thread. Cash and Leventhal also happened to be married to each other. He has written over 200 songs that have been recorded by others, including the Tedeschi Trucks Band, George Strait, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless and Joe Cocker.

Maybe it was because he was so busy working for others, but despite his considerable creative output, he had not decided to step out on his own. But now he has released an interesting, often ruminating album of mostly instrumental pieces called Rumble Strip which is also the name of the record label that Leventhal and Ms. Cash formed.

In a recent interview, Leventhal hinted that the isolation of COVID may have been a catalyst for finally stepping out. He says that he loves working in the studio, and implied that if he could not work with others, he might as well do something on his own, playing almost all the instruments, and enlisting a little help on a couple of songs from his wife, Ms. Cash.

Rumble Strip is rather unlike the sort of typical album by a studio musician, which tend to show off their versatility, or allow them to do things they would not ordinarily do musically while playing on someone else’s record. Instead, Leventhal’s album tends to be understated, contemplative, and sometimes melancholy in sound. Many of the arrangement hint at a kind of mythical place out there in Americana. There are 14 rather short pieces, with three of them only about minute or so long.

Opening is one of those short tracks, Floyd Cramer’s Dream named after the famous Nashville pianist and studio musician. The style though is nothing like Cramer’s. <<>>

There are two short pieces that are called hymns, with their Gospel influence apparent. JL’s Hymn #2 is largely a solo guitar piece. <<>>

The title track Rumble Strip at 4 minutes is the lengthiest on the album. It rather sums up the sound of the record with its spare instrumentation and interesting stylistic cross-currents, including blues and soul. <<>>

The first of the two vocals is called That’s All I Know about Arkansas which features Rosanne Cash on vocal, who co-wrote the song. Like the rest of the album, it’s quite interesting in subtle ways. <<>>

There is a piece called Clarinet Concerto, but rather than the woodwind instrument, it features different guitar textures, electric and acoustic. <<>>

About the bluesiest track on Rumble Strip is a tune called Meteor, which though it’s short, is a highlight of the album with its interesting collection of sounds with the slide guitar, a banjo and horns. <<>>

The other vocal track is called If You Only Knew which is a distinctive call-and-response between Ms. Cash and Leventhal. <<>>

Another of the highlights of the album is a composition called Who’s Afraid of Samuel Barber, a reference to the classical composer. Its goes from a ruminating guitar duo, <<>> to being one of the more melodic on the album. <<>>

John Leventhal’s new release Rumble Strip, is something of an event, the first solo album at age 71, by one of the more respected studio musicians and songwriters who has penned over 200 songs for others, and has played on, and/or produced albums for a who’s who of significant artists, in folk, blues and rock over a nearly 50 year career. The new al bum is very much unlike the music of those artists he as worked with, with often ruminating, mostly instrumental music. But it also features two pieces with his wife Rosanne Cash. The results makes for creative music, and a good album to put on if you want to chill out while keeping it interesting.

The grade for audio quality is about a A-minus. The sound is generally clean, though there is a little background noise from guitar amplifiers, and the bass can sound a little muddy at times.

Solo albums by studio musicians are fairly common, but John Leventhal’s Rumble Strip provides a distinctive spin on the form in a number of ways.

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