Welcome to #TBT Mixtape, Billboard‘s series that showcases artists’ very own throwback-themed playlists exclusive to Billboard‘s Spotify account. The curated set features the artists’ favorite tracks from their youth and childhood.
This week’s set comes from hitmaking Nashville-based singer-songwriter Jessi Alexander. She approaches her first solo record in five years, Decatur County Red, primed for release Friday, with a full embrace of her roots, digging deep within herself and going straight to the heart. Here, she compiles a group of her most treasured songs that trace back to the hearty course of country and blues that she was raised on to the namesake family cabin on the Tennessee River that inspired her upcoming album.
Hear from Alexander herself about this week’s #TBT Mixtape, along with her select tracks and handpicked throwback photos, below.
“My obsession with music started young. I can remember being 7 years old and my cousins wanting to play with dolls and games, while I was more interested in digging through my Daddy’s vinyl collection with such desperation and hunger. My parents had split up and when I was with my dad, there wasn’t a lot to do in his little 800-square foot river cabin. There were two TV channels (that barely came through). We’d go fishing, drive back roads and walk around in the woods, but my favorite pastime was sitting on the porch, watching him drink beer and listening to music together.
“Music was our love language. Those songs became the soundtrack to my dysfunctional childhood and the escape to any place my young mind wanted to go to. Whether it was at ‘The Crossroads’ that Robert Johnson sang about, ‘Luckenbach,’ ‘Woodstock’ or a place called ‘Hotel California,’ I closed my eyes and was there.
“Those artists were my preachers, healers and taught me everything I now know about chord structure and songwriting. By age 10, I was a music junkie and nothing was off-limits. One obsession led to another, country led to bluegrass, R&B led to southern rock and delta blues led to gospel. All of these sounds and styles make up the ingredients for my record Decatur County Red.”
1. The Band, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
“Growing up just a few miles away from the Shiloh National Battle Ground, the Civil War was a big part of my childhood. There was a lot of Southern Pride instilled in me along with a healthy dose of Southern traditions, culture and history. The Band painted the picture perfectly, and Levon Helm became my first crush.”
2. Janis Joplin, “Little Blue Girl”
“I would listen to Pearl front-to-back and got to where I knew it word-for-word. When this track would come on I’d bawl my eyes out. I wasn’t sure what she was singing about so mournfully back then, but she hit the bullseye in my sad, little, lonely heart.”
3. Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, “Catfish Blues”
“My dad is a painter and hung out a lot with the blue musicians on Beale Street. I got to meet Buddy Guy, BB King and even sat in Albert King’s lap when I was little. I remember he had the sweetest voice and the hands of a giant.”
4. Waylon Jennings, “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”
“I was named after Jessi Colter, [so] understandably Wanted! The Outlaws record is a special one to me.”
5. Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, “Farther Along”
“My Granddaddy died when I was 10, and I found refuge in this song. I didn’t grow up with church or religion — music was my religion — and this song and their three angelic voices gave me peace getting through my first heartbreak.”
6. Lynyrd Skynyrd, “I Need You”
“This song transports me to the little dive bars I grew up going to with my dad. I learned to drive the stick-shift on his truck at a young age, so I could get a Pepsi and he could have something a little stronger than Budweiser. The regulars at the bar were a collection of characters: Vietnam vets, factory workers, bikers and good ole boys. As soon as I was tall enough I learned to feed the jukebox quarters and shoot pool. I guess that’s why the glow of neon and the smell of a smokey bar feels like home to me.”
7. Patsy Cline, “Sweet Dreams (Of You)”
“I heard this song and felt a lighting bolt go through my body, literally. I asked my Mema, ‘Who is that singing?’ and she explained it was Patsy Cline. She drove me to the nearest Walmart and got me her greatest hits on cassette. My addiction with Patsy started there, and I learned about Bob Wills, Harlen Howard and Hank Williams.”
12. Bill Withers, “I Can’t Write Left Handed” (Live at Carnegie Hall)
“I was singing this song long before I knew what a devastating and heartbreaking lyric this was. Being from small-town Tennessee, I had no Idea where ‘Carnegie Hall in NYC’ was, but I was transported there by this live album. I got to meet Bill years ago and I count him as one of the greatest songwriters of all-time. He says so much with so little… especially in this song.”
23. Aretha Franklin, “How I Got Over”
“This is the closest thing I ever had to going to church as a child. I learned how to sing harmony because of this record and had my own vision of what the church and choir looked like. Last year they released the footage of the show in a movie called Amazing Grace. It’s a must-see in these trying times.”