I’m drawn to female singers with deep, distinctive and soulful voices … think: Patty Loveless, Karen Carpenter, Dusty Springfield, Bobbie Gentry and Miley Cyrus. Yeah, you read that right. Miley Cyrus. If you’re only familiar with the pop-princess-Hannah-Montana side of Miley, take another listen. The “Party in the U.S.A.” and “Best of Both Worlds” singer has delved into a different genre, revealing her country roots and vocal range with great results.
Last fall Miley got her band together to perform some of her favorite songs, all written decades before she was even born, in an acoustic, outdoor setting. The series is called simply “Backyard Sessions.” While Miley may be famous for some of her more recent, and decidedly less “professional” media endeavors, this is worth bragging about.
No neon lights, screaming fans or fancy fireworks at this party. It’s just Miley, a mic and her five-piece band playing before a backdrop of breezy bamboo leaves and green grass. The band consists of Stacy Jones on drums, Mike Schmid on piano, Jamie Arentzen on guitar, Jaco Curaco on guitar and Vashon Johnson on bass.
Lilacs and Love
The first song in the series is “Lilac Wine.” Written in 1950 by James Shelton, “Lilac Wine” was originally sung by Hope Foye in the musical “Dance me a Song.” It tells the tale of lost love and the solace of lilac wine. The song has been covered by Eartha Kitt in 1953, Nina Simone in 1966 and Elkie Brooks in 1978. Thanks to the magic of YouTube, I was able to listen to some of the other versions of the song. While all of the previous versions of the song are quite good, I can honestly say that I prefer Ms. Cyrus’ version.
Hair up and shoes off, Miley infuses the song with longing, giving each refrain a slow, sweet and heady turn … like love and lilac wine. This song in two words? Audio intoxication.
I would like to point out the interesting drumming action used for the song. The drummer uses a whisk-like tool to kind of “strum” the drum head. I’m sure there is a name for it. I don’t know what it is, but I like it.
Look what they’ve done
Stripping it down even more acoustically, Miley performs “Look what they’ve done to my Song” with only the accompaniment of her two guitarists. Written in 1971by Melanie Safka (who also sang “Brand New Key” and covered the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday”), Miley perfectly captures the anguish and lament of the song.
The song has also been covered by Nina Simone, Billie Jo Spears and Ray Charles. In the ‘80s, Quaker Oats did a “Look what they’ve done to my Oatmeal” take on the song.
We’ve now come to the performance that inspired me to write this post in the first place. Wearing a simple black skirt and lace top, Miley sways to the music and puts her heart, soul and throaty voice into an almost haunting rendition of “Jolene,” the song written and originally sung by her godmother, Dolly Parton.
Now, I’m a huge Dolly Parton fan, but have never cared for “Jolene.” Something about one woman begging another woman not to take her man just gets to me. It’s funny how hearing a song sung differently, or by a different person, can completely change your mind. When Miley sings it, I don’t hear that. I just hear the soul, passion and heartbreak in her voice. Her voice takes a tremble at “…there’s nothing I can do to keep from crying…” and there’s nothing I can do to keep from listening over and over and over again.
My only hope is that Miley takes these Backyard Sessions and turns them into an album. They surprised the heck out of me. And I want to hear more.
Enjoy this video of Miley and her godmother, Dolly Parton, singing “Jolene.”