Phil Cook

Phil Cook

It’s hard to overstate the influence the people in this photo have had on my musical life.

Not long after Phil Cook started playing at last week’s Friday Cheers, I saw Matthew E. White walk through the crowd and settle in near the front, and at the risk of being a little bit of a creeper, I made sure to get a shot of these two hugely important people in one place.

This was my first time seeing Phil Cook play under his own name, but I’ve gotten to see him perform three (I think) times before — twice with Hiss Golden Messenger in Richmond and once with Megafaun in Portland, OR. That 2011 Portland show at the Doug Fir was the seed of something that’s grown much bigger. I’ve written about this idea before, but every single thing the Megafaun diaspora touches or is associated with — HGM, Sylvan Esso, The Shouting Matches, Grandma Sparrow — turns to gold, and those projects and Phil Cook’s solo album have brought me a great deal of happiness in the years since Portland.

Less than a year after that show, the first songs from White’s Big Inner debut (Phil Cook was involved with that too) started appearing on the interweb. I hadn’t been clued into Fight the Big Bull back then, so these songs were my introduction to White. It was a little like when I first heard White Laces — it felt like I’d stepped on a live power line in my own backyard, like “Holy crap! Was this here all along?” I preordered the album and followed White on all possible social media channels, including his Spotify profile.

I’m not sure how many of y’all use the feature that allows you to see what your friends/the people you follow are listening to, but White’s feed changed everything for me. It’s how I found out about Randy Newman. About Harry Nilsson. About Stevie Wonder. And then Stevie opened up the whole world of soul music for me — Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Nina Simone… there’s an entire section of my record collection that probably wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for White’s Spotify feed.

The same goes for one of the happiest moments of my life: In the spring of 2014, Mrs. YHT and I did a long weekend in Corolla, NC while she was very pregnant, knowing we were going to skip my family’s summer beach trip that year. On the last day, before heading back to Richmond — and back to reality, where parenthood was imminent — we spent a few minutes in (what I believe is called) Historic Corolla Park literally sitting on the dock of the bay (OK, the Currituck Sound) listening to Otis Redding. For that short time, I felt completely at peace with the world and my place in it. Peace was scarce in those days, given how anxious I was before our daughter was born, so I’ll never forget listening to that song in that setting in that moment. Without Otis Redding, and by extension, Matt White, I’m not sure I would have found that sense of peace.

Toward the end of his Cheers set, Phil Cook dedicated a song to a friend in the audience, and while I can’t remember the exact words of his dedication, it seemed clear he was talking about White. The song ended up being Randy Newman’s “Sail Away.” Two days later, at the P.S. 321 Flea Market in Brooklyn, I found a copy of Newman’s album of the same name. It felt like all the musical connections I’d been thinking about for those two days came together in that one record I was holding. I’d held a copy of the album before — while flipping through records at Deep Groove a while ago — but on Sunday, it felt like the most valuable record in the entire world.

I really wish I had video of Cook doing “Sail Away” on Friday. My phone’s battery was low because I had already taped Cook playing “Crow Black Chicken,” which Ry Cooder recorded for Boomer’s Story. Here’s that recording — it’s a little blurry, but there’s an excellent bass solo from Michael Libramento. And it seems only fitting, given that this is a story about connections, to share that Ry Cooder played on Newman’s Sail Away album.

Phil Cook — “Crow Black Chicken” (Ry Cooder cover) [YouTube]



I’ve written about this before, but my big sister is my Beatles hero. Maybe you have one, too — that person who led you to the Liverpudlian water for the first time. When I was in middle school, my sister’s room was covered wall-to-wall with John, Paul, George and Ringo. Posters. Books. My sister draws beautifully and she did these awesome, larger-than-life charcoal illustrations of their faces. I wish I could show you pictures of the whole scene; it was amazing. She led by example, and I’ll never be able to thank her enough for it.

When my sister went to college, my mom/writing hero wrote a book about what it’s like to shepherd a child off to college for the first time. She called it She’s Leaving Home, and the Beatles song it borrowed its name from has held a special place in my heart ever since. (You can, ahem, buy said book here.) So I got really excited yesterday when I was doing some mild Spotify stalking (a certain long-hared, long-bearded Richmond musician listens to THE BEST music, just FYI) and found my new favorite version of “She’s Leaving Home.”

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Elle Varner

I love our first lady.

She can Dougie. She can Oscar. She listens to Frank Ocean. And that’s just what we learned about her this past weekend.

It all started on Friday night, when she appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Not only did Mrs. Obama participate in an “Evolution of Mom Dancing” skit with Fallon, demonstrating how hard it is for people who can dance well to act like they can’t (and how oddly convincing Jimmy Fallon looks in drag), she also sat for an interview and talked about the music that the first family’s been listening to lately. Two of the names she mentioned — Frank Ocean and Beyoncé — were familiar, but she mentioned another, less-familiar artist — Elle Varner.

The context in which Varner’s name came up is my favorite part.

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