DerriFest 2016
Three New Albums From the Voice of the Choir

A couple weeks ago I waxed ecstatic about Steve Hindalong and his new solo album The Warbler. This week I’m going to do the same for his longtime partner in crime, Derri Daugherty. Not to be outdone, Daugherty has three new albums out this week, and they’re all wonderful.

I’ve been in love with Daugherty’s voice since I first heard it at age 16. I’ve mentioned the Choir’s phenomenal Circle Slide so many times in this space, but it all comes back to that album for me. I bought it on a whim, and my life has never been the same. The first thing you hear when you cue up Circle Slide is a quick Hindalong drum roll, and then Daugherty’s guitar just fills up whatever room you’re in. It’s thick and dripping with reverb and impossibly huge. And then his voice comes in, clear and high and dreamy. “Imagine one perfect circle above the stratosphere…” That’s literally all it took.

And over the next 26 years, Daugherty has remained one of my favorite singers and guitar players. The Choir has made 14 albums, and there isn’t a catalog in modern music I like more than I like this one. Daugherty has given us two solo projects, joined fellow spiritual pop luminaries in the Lost Dogs for ten records, and recently started a side project called Kerosene Halo with guitar god Mike Roe of the 77s. There’s a lot of Derri Daugherty material out there, is what I’m saying, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend virtually all of it.

And that absolutely holds true for his three new releases, all of which are out on Lo-Fidelity Records, run by my friend Jeffrey Kotthoff. The first two resurrect Kerosene Halo, Daugherty’s traditional country-pop duo with Mike Roe. The new full-length Kerosene Halo album is called House on Fire, and was funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign. The first Kerosene Halo record was a quiet acoustic affair, full of beautiful covers. (Hearing Daugherty and Roe sing Tom Waits’ “The Bottom of the World” and Richard Thompson’s “The Dawning of the Day,” though? Amazing.) This one is almost entirely original tunes, and it features a full band, including the great Phil Madeira on guitar.

The difference is immediately striking. House on Fire is rich and full, like a great Buddy Miller album. It’s soaked in traditional country, with glorious harmonies and fiddles and mandolins, but it also sounds right now, vital and lively. Before the Lost Dogs, I never thought Daugherty’s voice would fit this kind of material, but it does brilliantly – his high tenor complements Roe’s darker, lower tones, and when they sing together it warms my little heart. Old-school songs like “Hear That Whistle Cry” sit next to pop wonderamas like Hindalong’s “Sweet Girl” and louder, swampy numbers like “Bring It On.” (I’m a huge fan of the moments when Roe and Daugherty sing sweetly over abrasive, charged music. There’s something about the contrast that kills me.)

There are two songs here that might be familiar. First is “Beautiful Girl,” which the Choir recorded as a bonus track on their last album Shadow Weaver. This version suits the song a lot more, giving it an acoustic lilt and some swell pedal steel accents. It works as a heartland love song. The other is a gorgeous cover of Steve Earle’s “Every Part of Me” – Roe sings it from the heart. “I can’t promise anything except that my last breath will bear your name…” The other cover is more obscure: Chris Taylor’s “Goodnight Goodnight,” from his 2014 album Daylight. (Taylor’s another of those undeservedly obscure songwriters, and I’ll talk more about him in a week or two.)

It’s the originals here that really make it, though, particularly those co-written by Madeira. I’m especially fond of “Come On Out,” a classic tale of old west spirituality that sounds like the Firefly score, and is perfect for Mike Roe. My favorite may well be “The Ghost of Johnny Cash,” which was previously recorded by Shawn Mullins. It’s similar – lots of fiddles, sung by Roe – but it’s deeper somehow, more meaningful. Roe sings of a trip through hell, and the guide bringing him through: “Sitting in the stern singing hymns and talking trash is my broken guardian angel, the ghost of Johnny Cash…” It’s dark and hopeful and mesmerizing. “He’s still flipping off the Pharisees and laughing at Ol’ Scratch, and he haunts the halls of Heaven, the ghost of Johnny Cash…”

I’m beyond happy with House on Fire – it was worth the wait and then some. But the band didn’t stop there. One of their Kickstarter reward levels allowed funders to choose songs for them to cover, and they’ve compiled those covers on an entirely separate album called Live Simple. Roe and the 77s did the same thing a couple years ago on an album called Gimme a Kickstart and a Phrase or Two, and that was terrific. Live Simple isn’t as vast, but it’s easily as lovely. It’s mostly Roe and Daugherty and a couple acoustic guitars, going full Everly Brothers.

As usual in these situations, there are some fascinating choices and some perplexing ones. Among my favorites are a moody version of Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Bring On the Dancing Horses” and a strange yet winning take on “Bendy Line,” a song on the Prayer Chain’s unjustly obscure album Mercury. I couldn’t imagine the Kerosene Halo versions of these songs before I heard them, but now they make perfect sense. I also love what they did with Future of Forestry’s “If You Find Her” and Ryan Adams’ “La Cienega Just Smiled.”

I’m not sure I needed another version of Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly” or the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and closer “That’s Where Jesus Is” seems particularly strange considering it’s a Lost Dogs tune, so we’ve heard Roe and Daugherty sing it before. But I’ll definitely praise their take on T-Bone Burnett’s “River of Love,” and when Roe cranks up the electric guitars on a stonking version of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” it’s a nice surprise. Live Simple is more like the first Kerosene Halo album, all covers and all performed by Roe and Daugherty, and it’s a delightful little bonus to the main record.

Speaking of bonuses, we have my hands-down favorite of the three. While finishing up House on Fire, Daugherty recorded a whole new solo album called Hush Sorrow. He kept it under wraps, as did everyone he worked with – my good friend Jeff Elbel, who produced parts of it and played on other parts, didn’t breathe a word of it to me. It was a complete surprise, and a wonderfully welcome one. Hush Sorrow combines three ambient instrumentals with seven glorious covers, all soaked in reverb and led by Daugherty’s heart-melting voice.

More covers, I hear you cry? But these work to a theme, and together they are remarkably moving. Hush Sorrow is about dealing with loss and finding solace in spirituality. It opens (after the first instrumental) with one of the most stunning things I’ve heard this year: Daugherty’s cover of “All the Right Reasons,” by the Jayhawks. It’s nothing like the country-folk of Kerosene Halo – this (and all of Hush Sorrow) incorporates Daugherty’s trademark ambient, floaty guitar, and it sounds like it’s levitating six inches off the ground, weightless. And yet, it packs an emotional wallop.

Throughout this album, Daugherty chooses songs about rising up through pain, dealing with misery, leaving burdens in the hands of God. The title track is a Buddy and Julie Miller song, from the album Written in Chalk, and it’s about silencing dark feelings. Daugherty sings it with grace, and he brings that same grace to “I Still Believe,” an anthem originally by the Call. That may be my favorite thing here, but then it might be the version of Richard Thompson’s “Withered and Died,” or the plaintive plea that is Mary Gauthier’s “Mercy Now.”

Hush Sorrow gets a lot of mileage on its cumulative effect, and on the fact that it’s Derri Daugherty playing and singing these wonderful songs. I’m not sure what inspired this, or how it came to be, but I’m incredibly grateful that it exists. Daugherty is working on another full solo album now for release next year, and given that he made Hush Sorrow quickly and it’s this good, I can’t wait for the real deal. Derri Daugherty remains one of my very favorite singers and players. I like a lot of music, but for more than two decades, Daugherty has made the music I most want to hear, the music that speaks to me most, and I feel very lucky to have found him.

You can buy all of these records from Lo-Fidelity here. As a small note here at the end, you’ll also find a brand new live album from Mike Roe called Gothic at that link, and it’s also fantastic. It documents a night with a crack band in Denver in 2001, which was preceded by exactly no rehearsal. It’s loose and fun and shows what a great guitar player Roe is. There are three new studio tracks (two covers, one original) at the end, too. I’d recommend it, along with all the Mike Roe and 77s material you find on sale from Lo-Fidelity.

And I should probably mention that the Choir, Derri Daugherty’s main band, has just released their definitive live album and DVD, called Live and On the Wing in Music City. I’ve seen a lot of Choir shows, and this is a very good one. If you want a quick way to find out what I’ve been talking about all these years, you could do worse. Buy it from the Choir site here.

Next week, the legendary Peter Garrett returns from exile. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.