40 Year Careers: 11 Artists Who Are Still Great After Four Decades
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Music stars and trends in the age of mass culture tend to be ephemeral things. Beyoncé seems like a musical marathoner for lasting 15 years, while bands like the Rolling Stones are considered among the greatest ever because everyone knows that after 20 years most anything you do doesn’t count. Still, there are some performers who manage to be great, and still be great, and continue to be great after a decade or two. Here is my list of performers who are — or were — still making worthwhile music 40 years or more after they started:
Son House, “Mississippi County Farm Blues” 1930
Son House, BBC Recording 1970
One of the great Delta Blues performers, Son House’s 1930 recordings are prized for his dazzling slide-guitar and deep, authoritative vocals. He was never especially popular, though, and he gave up performing for some 20 years before folk revival enthusiasts approached him and he began a second career. He supposedly had to relearn his playing style and repertoire, and his playing is certainly simplified in his later efforts. But the church-influenced singing style, with moans, wails and rumbles, is, if anything, even more impressive. His later recordings are also a fine example of an older musician taking advantage of technological advances — the extended play possible on latter-day recording allows the singer to stretch out each song endlessly into bleak, hypnotic landscapes. Plus you get to hear him muttering crankily about kids today (circa 1970). “The blues means something; it’s not just foolishness.” Take that, Elvis.
Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, “That’s All It Took” 1973
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, “Bluebird Wine” 2013
Emmylou Harris’s career has had its ups and downs and its unfortunate Daniel Lanois echoey detours, but compared to even successful peers like Willie Nelson, she’s been remarkably consistent over an incredibly long period of time. Part of that has been her unparalleled ability to find great collaborators, from her earliest recordings with Gram Parsons on his 1973 album “GP,” all the way through 2013′s “Old Yellow Moon” with longtime friend Rodney Crowell.
Don Williams, “My Woman’s Love” 1973
Don Williams, “I’ll Be Here in the Morning” 2014
Don Williams’s easy-listening ’70s country doesn’t seem like a sound that would long outlast its era. But “My Woman’s Love” from his 1973 debut “Volume 1″ rolls along into the same groove as Townes Van Zandt’s “I’ll Be Here in the Morning from 41 years later. The advantage of being a laid-back fuddy-duddy, maybe, is that you only make more sense as you get fuddier and duddier, middle-aged and beyond.
Wynonie Harris with Sun Ra, “Dig this Boogie” 1946
Sun Ra, “Retrospective” and “Face the Music” 1989
Visitors from Saturn stick around. Sun Ra had one of the longest, most prolific and most eclectic careers in the history of music. He was already a veteran in his 30s when he made his first recordings, playing piano as a sideman on jump blues tracks with the dynamic Wynonie Harris; you can hear him experimenting with some dissonance there on the boogie woogie. Forty-three years later he’s in full cosmic exploration mode, with a live performance that touches on everything from Ellington to bop to free jazz squonking to doo-wop, plus multiple marvelous sound effects and hats. “The year 2000 knocking at your door” — the spaceship ascended before he quite made it that far, but no doubt he’s still singing somewhere out there.
Duke Ellington and his Washingtonians, “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” 1927