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THE DECEMBERISTS

Prog Folk • United States


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The Decemberists biography
The Decemberists are a sometimes-quintet hailing from Portland, Oregon and currently signed to the Capitol Records label. While often referred to as an indie band, they have evolved over their seven years of existence into a group that delivers passionate, ambitious, and sophisticated story-centered music that both incorporates and transcends a number of styles and apparent influences. The band has established a reputation for eclectic and wildly unconventional arrangements, lively and interactive concerts, and unusual lyrical themes that sometimes border on the bizarre.

Band founder Colin MELOY was born and reared in the rustic and rugged northwestern hamlet of Helena, Montana (USA), and began his musical career as singer/songwriter for the alternative-country bands HAPPY CACTUS and TARKIO before resettling in Portland to form the DECEMBERISTS. Meloy has also toured as a solo act promoting his personal recordings of Morrissey covers, as well as a heavily folk-driven album of Shirley Collins standards.

The band's first offering was the self-released '5 Songs' in 2001, actually a six-track EP which included several songs referencing local Montana historical sites and events, as well as the whimsical ditty "My Mother Was A Chinese Trapeze Artist" written in response to pressure from his parents to abandon music for a more reliable and respected career. This was followed by their first full length album 'Castaways and Cutouts', which was packed with character sketches and period pieces with references ranging from the Nazi concentration camps of Birkenau to ghosts of stillborn infants, to homeless people in love to a mother-turned-prostitute trying to feed her children. The sympathetic glimpses of the human Struggle and unconventional instrumentation are reminiscent of bands like VIOLENT FEMMES or an unpretentious version of NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL.

Their next album 'Her Majesty the Decemberists' began a gravitation toward nautical themes possibly influenced by the band's settling in the coastal town of Portland, Oregon. In addition to what were by now becoming almost obligatory odd character sketches such as the story of a chimney sweep (a desperate wedded couple; gymnast; and a bumbling soldier) were a number of historical tales centered around the American poet Myla Goldberg, as well as the British frigate HMS Arethusa. The album also includes Meloy's passionate life-affirmation "I Was Meant for the Stage".

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The Decemberists: A Practical HandbookThe Decemberists: A Practical Handbook
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Kill Rock Stars 2007
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THE DECEMBERISTS discography


Ordered by release date | Showing ratings (top albums) | Help Progarchives.com to complete the discography and add albums

THE DECEMBERISTS top albums (CD, LP, MC, SACD, DVD-A, Digital Media Download)

3.55 | 49 ratings
Castaways and Cutouts
2002
3.09 | 39 ratings
Her Majesty
2003
3.59 | 65 ratings
Picaresque
2005
3.98 | 140 ratings
The Crane Wife
2006
4.07 | 257 ratings
The Hazards Of Love
2009
2.91 | 80 ratings
The King Is Dead
2011
2.94 | 26 ratings
What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
2015

THE DECEMBERISTS Live Albums (CD, LP, MC, SACD, DVD-A, Digital Media Download)

3.00 | 1 ratings
Live From SoHo
2007
3.15 | 7 ratings
We All Raise Our Voices to the Air
2012

THE DECEMBERISTS Videos (DVD, Blu-ray, VHS etc)

3.88 | 5 ratings
A Practical Handbook
2007

THE DECEMBERISTS Boxset & Compilations (CD, LP, MC, SACD, DVD-A, Digital Media Download)

THE DECEMBERISTS Official Singles, EPs, Fan Club & Promo (CD, EP/LP, MC, Digital Media Download)

2.24 | 13 ratings
5 Songs
2001
3.76 | 18 ratings
The Tain
2004
2.03 | 5 ratings
Billy Liar
2004
3.00 | 2 ratings
16 Military Wives
2005
2.57 | 4 ratings
Picaresqueties
2005
3.00 | 2 ratings
Connect Sets
2006
2.69 | 5 ratings
Always The Bridesmaid: Vol 1
2008
2.55 | 4 ratings
Always The Bridesmaid: Vol 2
2008
3.03 | 5 ratings
Always The Bridesmaid: Vol 3
2008
2.52 | 6 ratings
Down By The Water
2010
3.93 | 7 ratings
Long Live the King
2011

THE DECEMBERISTS Reviews


Showing last 10 reviews only
 Picaresque by DECEMBERISTS, THE album cover Studio Album, 2005
3.59 | 65 ratings

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Picaresque
The Decemberists Prog Folk

Review by Prog Leviathan
Prog Reviewer

3 stars This third album by the Decemberists sees the indi-rock darlings escalating the bombast and artistry of their nuanced, hand-crafted songs and stories. The result is a strong show of the band's unique sound and identity that shows progression from their previous two works, and feels like a warm up for the two excellent albums that follow. Taken by itself, Picaresque is an album of stand alone songs that sometimes captivate, sometimes romance, sometimes poke fun at, and sometimes miss the mark, making for a good but not essential prog-folk experience.

The opener "Infanta" is a huge, bombastic, and upbeat attention grabber with a Spanish flair. It's pretty good, and may be a prog fan's highlight of the album. However, it's hardly representative of what follows. "We Both Go Down Together" is a sing-songy tune with an abundance of Meloy vocals and violin counter melody. A good example of a song that has a few moments of appeal but doesn't quite work as intended. We're given songs that are playful and charming, melancholic and sorrowful, and even ambitious balladry like "Bagman's Gambit". This song is another good example of a mixed bag; the composition has numerous dynamic shifts and nuance, but doesn't have the emotional "umph" to resonate. "Mariner's Revenge Song" is better, thanks to its reliance on acoustics and occasional moments of intensity. Ironically, the excellent instrumental performances and nuanced vocals of later albums haven't quite developed yet, but the album retains a strong sense of presence and fun despite this.

For me Picaresque is at its best at its most extreme: very ambitious and "forte," or very acoustic and sensitive. There is too much middling to make this more than a 3-star prog folk release. Those curious about the band should check out the much better albums that follow first, and temper expectations if working backwards.

Songwriting: 3 - Instrumental Performances: 2 - Lyrics/Vocals: 2 - Style/Emotion/Replay: 3

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 The King Is Dead by DECEMBERISTS, THE album cover Studio Album, 2011
2.91 | 80 ratings

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The King Is Dead
The Decemberists Prog Folk

Review by Prog Leviathan
Prog Reviewer

3 stars The King is Dead is the Decemberists celebrating their indie/folk stylings more than their prog-folk artistry. This really shouldn't be surprising, considering that at the time of this album's release, 3 of the band's 5 records were more indie than prog. However, it's also not surprising that the Prog Archives average reviews shows that we as a group favor those 2 albums that lean more towards prog than indie. The King is Dead isn't the follow-up that some of us wanted after the excellent Hazards of Love, but it is an enjoyable example of the Decemberist's thoughtful blend of rock and folk.

In fact, the King is Dead is probably the best example of the band's "total package" to date. It's heavy parts are heavier; it's softer parts are more tender; the vocals sound more experienced; and the instrumental moments are very well executed. The band plays with a more electric sound then they have in the past, with fewer antique and acoustic instruments in the mix. Query's bass stands out as being more prevalent throughout, as does the vocals of Meloy, which come across as more mature and steadier. None of the songs cut as deeply or as powerfully as we heard in Hazards, but this is a different kind of album. It's a mix of mostly mid-tempo tunes that stand well alone or when taken in as a group.

The songwriting and tone doesn't even tip-toe into "progressive" territory, but that doesn't make the King is Dead bad, just good but not essential. Recommended right behind the more artistic Crane Wife and Hazards of Love.

Songwriting: 3 - Instrumental Performances: 3 - Lyrics/Vocals: 3 - Style/Emotion/Replay: 4

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 Her Majesty by DECEMBERISTS, THE album cover Studio Album, 2003
3.09 | 39 ratings

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Her Majesty
The Decemberists Prog Folk

Review by Prog Leviathan
Prog Reviewer

2 stars The Decemberists are known for their sort of antique, hand-crafted brand of folk/prog, and while Her Majesty definitely has a style and tone consistent with the group's other albums, this one lacks the creative spark to grab hold of the listener and leave much of an impression by its conclusion.

It's hard exactly to pinpoint what holds Her Majesty back. Maybe its the song writing, which lose depth and creativity as the album goes on. Maybe its Meloy's very exposed vocals, and comparatively uninspired vocals. We just aren't given that much to catch our interest, as song after song goes by in a folksy, twangy mish-mash of acoustic sounds. The whole album sounds sort of like B-sides, or unfinished works in need of a sharper production and edit for impact.

Still, the bands's playing is good overall, giving us some interesting tones that emerge from an otherwise bland entry from the otherwise engaging band. One for the fans.

Songwriting: 2 - Instrumental Performances: 3 - Lyrics/Vocals: 2 - Style/Emotion/Replay: 2

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 Castaways and Cutouts by DECEMBERISTS, THE album cover Studio Album, 2002
3.55 | 49 ratings

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Castaways and Cutouts
The Decemberists Prog Folk

Review by Prog Leviathan
Prog Reviewer

3 stars While I would normally take steps to turn off or avoid quirky indie artists, there is a dreamy and antique charm to the Decemberists that I enjoy very much. In this, their debut, they offer us a variety of artful, densly arranged, and emotional music that tickles the fancy on many different levels. While it doesn't always connect with me on a personal or intellectual level, their sound here is very soulful and soothing.

There are two things one will hear right away on Castaways and Cutouts: the first are the layers of acoustic instruments played with a sort of old-time feel. This is probably the trademark of the Decemberist's sound, and it's great. It's played in a very warm and anachronistic tone that is half tongue-in-cheek, and half crafts-person. The second is the distinctive voice of Meloy, which are smoothly crooned in sort of a nasally drone that is surprisingly enjoyable. His lyrics are surprisingly good, having numerous literate references and playful rhymes that take you to unexpected places.

While not their best album so far, Castaways and Cutouts is recommended for those seeking a mellow sound to add to their prog collection.

Songwriting: 3 - Instrumental Performances: 4 - Lyrics/Vocals: 3 - Style/Emotion/Replay: 4

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 What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World by DECEMBERISTS, THE album cover Studio Album, 2015
2.94 | 26 ratings

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What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
The Decemberists Prog Folk

Review by FunkyM

3 stars Ah, The Decemberists. A few years ago they were darlings of the progressive folk genre, having released the very good The Crane Wife and the utterly fantastic The Hazards of Love. However, many were unhappy with their move towards the Americana pop/rock style on The King is Dead.

Now, in 2015, the band returns with a new release sporting the lengthy title What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World and they seem to be aware of the discontent from some over changing up their sound. The opening number, "The Singer Addresses His Audience" is a very plain statement from the band to those fans who have become critical of them that the change was necessary. That the band couldn't remain musically stagnant is understandable and admirable. Bands should not aspire to become creative stagnant, after all.

However, the band's response is somewhat betrayed by the fact that, on the whole, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is a bit of a retreat in terms of The Decemberists' musical direction. The album moves the band towards their pre-Crane Wife sound mixed with a bit of The King is Dead whilst going for a slightly more "polished" (read: commercially viable) indie rock direction.

That is not meant to slag the band or this release off. I think What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is a terrific album just as I also thought The King is Dead was a terrific album.

However, I must be honest - this is not a "prog" album. Many songs, like "Cavalry Captain" and the first single, "Make You Better", are enjoyably melodic pop/rock tracks and the band is very talented at making this kind of music. If you are looking for progressive folk/rock though, you will not find it here.

That said, I do think that this album will appeal to both fans of the band and to some fans of progressive rock because the songwriting remains clever with a strong emphasis on melody.

So I do recommend the album, despite the change in direction with the band's sound. Some may be disappointed because it's not a prog album, but despite that, believe it or not, the music is still good.

Highlights: "Cavalry Captain", "Make You Better", "Till The Water's All Gone", "Carolina Low", "A Beginning Song"

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 The Tain by DECEMBERISTS, THE album cover Singles/EPs/Fan Club/Promo, 2004
3.76 | 18 ratings

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The Tain
The Decemberists Prog Folk

Review by Neu!mann
Prog Reviewer

4 stars Next to "The Hazards of Love", this 19-minute EP is the most overtly Progressive item in the entire Decemberists catalogue, presenting a continuous, five-part suite loosely based on the same ancient Irish legends that had previously inspired the popular (and more authentic) 1973 HORSLIPS album of the same name.

This new version was recorded in 2004, in between the more traditional Decemberist indie-folk albums "Her Majesty" and "Picaresque", but sounding unlike either of them. What's immediately apparent at first exposure is the heightened level of musical aggression, revealing an unexpected iron fist inside Colin Meloy's usual wrap of "gingham, taffeta, cotton and silk". The band's quirky leader was still singing wistfully of thistledown beds in forest and fen, but for the first time on a Decemberist album the electric guitars were louder than the ubiquitous accordions and dulcimers.

The EP as a result rocks harder than anything the group had ever attempted, but without sacrificing that unique, theatrical Decemberist flair. There are moments (in Parts II and V) when a shrieking heavy metal headbanger would not have sounded out of place, instead of Meloy's typically fey, adenoidal tenor.

And yet the dramatic ebb and flow of the music itself is closer to the quintessential sound of old-school Progressive Rock. The arrangements and production are entirely modern, but the spirit is pure 1970's, evoked in the anachronistic vibrato of Jenny Colin's electric piano and the blazing grind of her Hammond organ. Further stylistic color is provided by the additional cellos, occasional acoustic bass, and massed female backing vocals heard in Part III.

Anyone looking for a compact, comprehensive entry into the mind of Colin Meloy will find "The Tain" an ideal beginner's sampler. And for longtime fans it's the perfect companion to the later "Hazards" album.

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 The Crane Wife by DECEMBERISTS, THE album cover Studio Album, 2006
3.98 | 140 ratings

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The Crane Wife
The Decemberists Prog Folk

Review by Neu!mann
Prog Reviewer

4 stars The Decemberists' first album for a major label raised their game (and their profile) to a higher level, for better and, at the same time, for worse. The longer compositions were bolder and more ambitious than ever, including "The Island" suite and the likewise three-part title track, the latter oddly but appropriately re-sequenced so that the album actually opens with Part Three...musically, it just worked better that way.

Meanwhile the shorter songs, designed to earn the band as much radio air time as possible, were even more obviously commercial. But at least they were all grouped together in the middle of the album, from the catchy "Yankee Bayonet" through the Dire Straits sound-alike single "The Perfect Crime #2". Part One of the latter song was, perversely, not included on the album, although it deserves to be heard: an atypically macho rocker with a long, bluesy mid-section, in total lasting more than fifteen minutes, further evidence of singer/writer Colin Meloy's expanding musical horizons.

Elsewhere on the album Meloy's quaint, Anglophilic narratives were likewise extended to new territories: Leningrad in 1942 ("When the War Came"); Shakespeare's Tempest (vaguely referenced in "The Island"); and the Japanese folk tale of the title song. And yet the flavor throughout, as illustrated in the CD booklet designed by longtime Decemberist collaborator Carson Ellis, is closer to post-Civil War America. The lovely acoustic ballad "Shankill Butchers" (an album highlight) may have been inspired by an actual mob of (literal) cutthroats in 1970's Ireland, but the antique melody recalls something Bill Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis, in the film "Gangs of New York") might have sung while strolling the mean streets of 1860's Manhattan.

In retrospect it's a transitional effort, poised on an unsteady fulcrum between eccentricity and complacence, with the many bright spots far outshining the weaker moments. The band was now a bona fide success story, but in which direction would Meloy turn next? Back to Victorian London, or toward modern pop radio purgatory? Or, just maybe, to somewhere altogether different and unexpected..? You only have to sneak a peek at the ProgArchives ratings to learn the answer...

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 Picaresque by DECEMBERISTS, THE album cover Studio Album, 2005
3.59 | 65 ratings

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Picaresque
The Decemberists Prog Folk

Review by Neu!mann
Prog Reviewer

4 stars "I was meant for the stage", sang Colin Meloy at the end of his band's previous album ("Her Majesty", 2003): a true enough statement, but offered without much conviction at the time. It was on this next effort that he finally unleashed the full range of that instinctive theatricality, dragging his bandmates willingly behind him into the glare of the footlights.

The new album cover was even framed in a proscenium arch, around a portrait of the band taking a curtain call in amateur community theatre costumes and make-up (guitarist Chris Funk's portrayal of a tamarack tree merits a special ovation). The album itself was assembled in a former Baptist church, rented by the group and transformed into a grassroots recording studio, surrounded by an odd assortment of flotsam not typically found in a house of worship (outside Portland, Oregon at any rate): scattered toys, stuffed animals, life-size mannequin parts, even a swing suspended from the transept.

Hardly your typical recording environment, to say the least. In effect it was more stage than studio, with the music taking shape accordingly, invigorated by some equally offbeat instrumentation: hurdy-gurdys; dulcimers; banjos; even a (!!) shofar. Meloy's fertile Anglophile imagination was meanwhile more than ever pre-occupied with fictions lifted from 19th century penny-dreadfuls, never more effectively than in the haunting acoustic guitar and accordion balladry of "Eli, the Barrel Boy" and "My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)", two English folk tragedies Charles Dickens might have enjoyed humming along with.

Even the more contemporary songs live up to the album's colorful title. "The Sporting Life" should strike a nerve in any half-pint athletic failure; "16 Military Wives" is a lively satire of geopolitical hubris and media distortion; and "The Bagman's Gambit" marked a narrative departure for Meloy: an ambitious but overlong Cold War melodrama, sadly undermined by its lack of momentum. Only the R.E.M. rip-off "We Both Go Down Together" (a.k.a. "Losing My Religion, Again") sounds out of place: an obvious bid for mainstream radio airplay.

And then there's "The Mariner's Revenge Song": nine definitive minutes of Decemberist whimsy, in retrospect the quintessential Colin Meloy song-story, only later devolving into an obligatory ritual on their concert playlists. The tale itself, relating an orphan's lifelong quest for vengeance against the rake who drove his mother to an early grave, is a lot of fun (for at least the first dozen replays). Better yet, it was recorded completely live in their makeshift mission studio, brought to vivid acoustic life in a single take.

After two warm-up albums, this was where The Decemberists finally realized their potential and resolved their contradictions: part Indie Pop complacency; part Folk Rock pastiche; part Music Hall burlesque...with a very, very small kernel of Prog buried deep in the mix. Not bad, for a third act dénouement.

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 What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World by DECEMBERISTS, THE album cover Studio Album, 2015
2.94 | 26 ratings

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What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
The Decemberists Prog Folk

Review by jammun
Prog Reviewer

3 stars I'm the last holdout, the last believer, apparently, as I continue to like this band. Look, I miss The Engine Driver as much as the next guy. So call this Picaresque Part II. What a fine piece of music is this one. What a fine piece of 60's British Invasion/psychedelia, half-ways anyways because of the folky parts. I don't get the REM comparisons, because I never listened to REM.

For those expecting the most recent Prog, replete with lightning guitars and swirling synths, etc., you'll be disappointed, possibly more disappointed even than you were with The King Is Dead. I mean, this is not even Americana. Well, not Americana Americana. It's more like Brittanica Americana. You could put few of these songs on Nuggets and no one would be the wiser. You could put a few on some British Invasion Anthology. You could put the other half anywhere, and they'd shine like a tarnished silver ring bearing one centered oval turquoise stone.

You get your usual anthemics (Make You Better, A Beginning Song) and stoner bliss (Lake Song). And some nuggets.

I dock this thing at least a star due to lack of pedal steel.

In these hyper-ad driven days, this is not a great way to build your brand. And yet I listen to the shamelessly'what, Herman's Hermits with dirty lyrics'flat-out joy of Philomena. The band is still more than capable of surprises, and this is a nice addition to their catalog.

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 What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World by DECEMBERISTS, THE album cover Studio Album, 2015
2.94 | 26 ratings

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What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
The Decemberists Prog Folk

Review by SteveG

2 stars The Derivativists.

It's no secret that The Decemberists have turned their back on their more pioneering earlier folk prog sound for that of an indie rock band with their last album The King is Dead.

So, we fast forward to this new 2015 offering from the band entitled What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. My deeper feelings that this indie band was only playing prog rock dress up all along, did little to soften the disappointment of this album.

To start off with, the first track The Singer Addresses His Audience is a musical confirmation that the band have changed and that their fans know about it and are disappointed. Regardless, "change they must" is stated in a vague sarcastic tome.

A great start it's not. Now where off to a faux sixties pop song replete with a cliched horn and string arrangement and corny lyrics that would have been apropos for a group like Spanky and Our Gang or the Cowsills. After the pop slop of Cavalry Caption where onto the third song Philomena. Philomena is a fifties pastiche of Frankie Avalon "pining songs" like his hit Venus, that comes complete with "oh-ah" girl group backing vocals. The gimmick in this song is that the narrator wants to do more with his Phelomena than just kiss her or hold her hand, and tells her so. How shocking this is in the 21st century?

After this tripe we're into some songs that fall into the indie folk rock vain that the band has purported to inform us about. Of these three, Lake Song, The Wrong Year and Till The Water's All Gone, describe relationships with missed communication and work well.

Unfortunately, the spell doesn't last long before we come across the first solo acoustic guitar song with a typical finger picked folk arrangement whose lyrics reveal a young boy that's come down from the mountain to sell his body for sex. Again, how shocking this must be for an eleven year old to hear. What annoys me most a bout this song is it's melody line that seems almost identical to Mark Knopfler's song Fare Thee Well Northumberland, from his excellent homage album to American roots music, The Rag Picker's Dream (2003).

Indeed, the following song Better Not Wake The Baby has a bit, a very tiny bit, of Knopfler's ironic lyrical style as the narrator sings that you can do what ever you want, including gouging out an eye, as long as you "don't wake the baby!"

Anti-Summersong, Easy Come, Easy Go and Mistral are more indie folk rock songs that jump from faux bluegrass to twangy country rock. All are forgettable.

The penultimate song sounds exactly like something Neil Young would compose if his lyrics were merely trite.This solo acoustic number, backed only with harmonica played after the verses, only makes you pine for the real thing.

The album closes with another forgettable indie rock song titled A Beginning Song. A Beginning of The End Song would have been more appropriate.

After I finished listing to this disappointing album, I pulled out the originals from my collection that included Roll Back by Horslips,The Mountain by Steve Earle with the Del McCoury Band, The Rag Picker's Dream by Mark Knopfler, and Unpugged by Neil Young.

Because, there ain't nothing like the real thing baby!

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Thanks to ClemofNazareth for the artist addition.

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