Michigan native Brandon Grafius just released sophomore album Highways And Backroads. The 10-track LP speaks to places—how we all happen to end up where we are and, then, how we get to where we’re going. Although it sounds pretty simple, Grafius connects this journey to the spiritual, a subject he’s always had a passion for. (He teaches Old Testament and Hebrew at Detroit’s Ecumenical Theological Seminary.) Grafius also has a super-deep musical sound that seamlessly brings together blues, folk and country. Impressed by his obvious knowledge of different kinds of music, we asked Grafius to make us a mix tape. He didn’t disappoint.
Jeffrey Foucault, “Northbound 35”
When I first heard this song, I was struck by the combination of specific places and imagery, along with the deeply philosophical lines that break out of this landscape. I think the line “Past the smokestacks, and the ore docks down off of Main” was rattling around in my head when I was writing my album’s first single, “Things Get Right.” This song is a perfect example of how the most profound reflections can arise from specific encounters with people and places.
Josh Ritter, “Change Of Time”
Josh Ritter uses language in such an incredible way. In this song, he describes a dream of floating over broken ships at the bottom of the ocean, “Broken hulls and battered hardships, leviathan and lonely.” Using the word “hardships” to connect the physical boats with the emotional state is brilliant, then following it up by using the word “leviathan” as an adjective seems almost unfair.
Patty Griffin, “Making Pies”
Patty Griffin has a remarkable eye for detail, and such deep empathy. Those gifts really come through in this song, a heart-breaking portrait of a woman stuck in a job she hates. Through it all, we get a crystal-clear portrait of what really matters to this woman, and what keeps her from living the life she wishes she could live.
Elbow, “My Sad Captains”
Guy Harvey has a great voice, but even more than that he’s a tremendous vocalist. Somehow, the way he sings the line “What a perfect waste of time” puts equal emphasis on “perfect” and “waste of time,” communicating both ideas at the same time. That line is a great example of how this song balances melancholy and joy perfectly. The trumpet solo was what I was trying to achieve with my use of french horn in my song “Midwestern Sky.”
James McMurtry, “Choctaw Bingo”
Just a tour-de-force of narrative and character sketches. There’s no way a songwriter should be able to write a nine-minute epic about a family reunion, but McMurtry pulls it off with gusto thanks to his razor-sharp insights about these characters and what they say about the state of America. Writing for Slate, Ron Rosenbaum suggested that this song should be our new national anthem. Can’t say I disagree.
Richard Shindell, “Reunion Hill”
I’ve learned a lot from Richard Shindell’s music since I first heard him almost two decades ago. This has long been my favorite of his. In this tear-jerking narrative of a Civil War widow, he manages to thread metaphors and details about sight throughout the song, before finally bringing these all together in the stunning final image, of a hawk soaring above Reunion Hill, “looking down with God’s own eye.” It’s a master class in the use of metaphor in song, and how these metaphors can serve as a powerful structuring device. For me, it’s probably the finest crafted song I know of.
Open Mike Eagle, “95 Radios”
When I want something more energetic than the acoustic Americana that I spend a lot of my time with, I often turn to progressive hip hop. Open Mike Eagle is one of my favorites; there’s an incredible amount of creativity in every verse, and he has a great sense of narrative. This song is a great reflection on how our childhood memories shape us, and how hard it is to truly communicate with one another.
Iron & Wine, “Lion’s Mane”
I still remember hearing The Creek Drank The Cradle for the first time, and feeling like it came from a place that I didn’t know existed. It’s the acoustic arrangements that I’ve always been drawn to, but Sam Beam takes his influences from places that acoustic music, to this point, hadn’t been allowed to draw from.