Hey there! Welcome to my country reviews archive... This is the first page of reviews covering country records that came out (or were reviewed by me) in the year 2003. Other "new reviews" are archived here... Enjoy...!!

New Stuff!

Gary Allan "See If I Care" (MCA Nashville, 2003)
A great, no-nonsense neotraditional honkytonk album, with strong, convincing vocals and straightforward arrangements -- plenty of fiddle and steel, and a nice, heavy masculinity on even the sappier, slower numbers. Allan is a hard country singer who apparently has not lost his way amid the increasingly high-tech, drearily high-concept Nashville of today. Even taken as background-music radio pop, this disc holds up pretty well -- there isn't a single song on here that would make me wanna change the channel, and that's almost unheard of with any contemporary country offerings. The disc opens with a rompin', stompin' drinking song ("Drinkin' Dark Whiskey") and closes with a nice duet with Willie Nelson, crooning away on a cover of Jesse Winchester's "A Showman's Life." I hope Allan can keep this up -- 'cause right now he's right up there with Alan Jackson and George Strait as a true-country hero. And this is a mighty fine record, all things considered.

Danny Barnes "Dirt On The Angel" (Terminus, 2003)
The Bad Livers' resident bluegrass bad boy Danny Barnes cuts loose on a genre-defiant, rambling, grime-flecked mix of bluegrass, old-timey and acoustic-blues-flavored alt.country, reminiscent in spirit to them unruly old Cheap Suit Seranaders albums. Barnes seems to have an axe to grind here -- on the opening track, "Life In The Country," he slags the Nashville scene with an offhand slap: "New country music ain't worth a dime/and the radio plays it alla the time..." while on "Bluegrass Today," he admits the difficulties of thumbing one's nose at showbiz conventions (even inside of an artistic refuge such as the bluegrass scene...) It took a while for this disc to grow on me -- even with musical assist by Darol Anger, Bill Frissel and others, the jagged, chaotic Dock Boggs-ish vibe makes it a little hard to latch onto -- but after a while I came to consider it a minor masterpiece, in that loosey-goosey, iconoclastic ne'er-do-well style pioneered by John Hartford, back in the goodle days. If you're a Livers fan, or just looking for an album that steps out of the norm (while still maintaining a high level of musicianship), then this disc is definitely worth checking out.

Big Sandy & The Fly-Rite Boys "It's Time!" (Yep Roc, 2003)
Another superior album by Big Sandy and the Boys. It opens with a real bang, the "These Boots"-ish bass line and Eddie Cochran guitars of "Chalk It Up To The Blues" giving way to a cascade of roots music revelry -- Sandy's own potent brew of rockabilly, country and doo-wop. He even throws in a bit of cajun music(!) this time around, on the album's second cut, "Bayou Blue." The band gallops along with thumping rhythms and sweet pedal steel work, and -- most lovely of all -- Sandy's own fragile, but authoritative vocals. He's a great songwriter, too, moving from one musical style to the next with equal ease. A latter-day master of the good, old-fashioned novelty song, Sandy tosses out gems like "How Did You Love Someone Like Me," "Her Hair Is A Mess," and "The Money Tree," all with his friendly, offhand, eager-to-please delivery. If you like your roots-Americana with lots of pep and a dancable beat, then Big Sandy is your man. (For more Big Sandy info, check out my discography page.)

Kate Campbell "Twang On A Wire" (Large River, 2003)
An interesting set of country and countrypolitan cover tunes, featuring such venerable oldies as Donna Fargo's "Funny Face," Emmylou's "Boulder To Birmingham," "Harper Valley PTA," "Help Me Make It Through The Night," etc. I have to confess, I've never been that into Campbell's work, but this disc seemed like a good chance to factor out one of the three factors in her music -- songwriting, performance and production -- and get a better sense of what makes her tick. Turns out, sure enough, the production (and her band) sounds just fine, but I sure don't like her voice. Her heart seems in the right place, but she sure ain't no Dolly or Lynn Anderson. Most of these songs start with great promise, but Campbell just doesn't seem able to really ride them home -- most fall flat and directionless by the time she's through with 'em. Sorry to be such a grouch, but I gotta call it like I hear it. If you like Campbell, then this is a great record... But if you just wanna hear a great country record -- well, I could think of a plenty of others to recommend before you turned to this one.

The Charles River Valley Boys "Bluegrass And Old Timey Music" (Prestige, 1962)
A fine, generously programmed document of this early bluegrass revival band, gathering the material from two old Prestige/Folklore albums, 1962's Bluegrass And Old Timey Music and Blue Grass Get Together, with Tex Logan, which was recorded in 1964. These city slickers, who came out of the late-'50s Harvard University folk scene, perfectly captured the clattersome, irrepressible spirit of the old-time stringbands, and these two lively records were among the early touchstones of the 1960s bluegrass boom, adding a fine counterpart to the more old-timey orientation of the better-known New Lost City Ramblers. On their second album, the Charles River Valley lads were joined by Joe Val, who went on to be a key player in the East Coast truegrass scene, as well as fiddler Tex Logan, a veteran of top-flight '50s country acts such as Hawkshaw Hawkins' band, as well as bluegrass stalwarts, The Lilly Brothers. The Get Together album is certainly more accomplished and more fluid, but all these songs sound mighty fine. A great historical glimpse at the roots of today's modern bluegrass scene, and fine music in and of itself!

The Chieftains/Various Artists "Down The Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions" (BMG/RCA Victor, 2002)
An all-star guest-fest, exploring once again the centuries-old links between Irish folk and American country and bluegrass music. Along for the ride are Top 40 acts such as Vince Gill and Martina McBride, along with bluegrassers Alison Krauss, Del McCoury and Earl Scruggs, as well as alt-ier types like Lyle Lovett, Buddy & Julie Miller, and Gillian Welch, whose version of "Katie Dear" is one of the best tracks on here. In general, this album is a pleasant and interesting mix, if anything much stronger than 1992's Another Country. The album occasionally drifts a bit and seems to lack punch on a tune or two, but the good songs are certainly worth checking out, and this is a remarkably vigorous set by these illustrious old-timers.

The Chieftains/Various Artists "Further Down The Old Plank Road" (BMG/RCA Victor, 2003)
Part Two of this series has a more distinctly Irish feel, and -- other than Nickle Creek's cloying version of "Raggle Taggle Gypsy" at the beginning -- a less mainstream, contemporary Nashville vibe. The choice of artists, including John Prine, Joe Ely, Rosanne Cash, Carlene Carter, Don Williams, Doc Watson and Ricky Skaggs, shows the Chieftains continuing attentuation to the humbler, more rootsy side of the American country scene, and also makes for a more soulful outing. As with the first Plank collection, this is pretty darn good.

Guy Clark "The Dark" (Sugar Hill, 2002)
Easily Guy Clark's best album in years -- heartfelt, tuneful, perfectly played, perfectly written. This has some of his most tightly-focused songsmithing to date, still a bit mournful, but with a weatherbitten pleasure, a genuine affection for life and those of us who are going through it. This disc is packed with winners, one memorable, captivating song after another, running the full gamut of emotion -- on "Magnolia Wind," Clark pens one of his best, most plainspoken love songs since "Anyhow, I Love You," while on "Queenie's Song," Clark pays an anger-filled homage to a beloved dog that was killed by an unknown yahoo gun freak. As on Old Friends, the picking -- courtesy of Darrell Scott and Verlon Thompson -- provides a perfect, minimal melodic accompaniment... Other guest artists include Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, as well as fellow songwriting genius Shawn Camp. Highly recommended -- definitely one of Guy's golden moments.

Kevin Deal "The Lawless" (Blind Nello Records, 2003)
Amiable alt.country from down Texas way... This is Deal's fourth album, with production assist by the esteemed Lloyd Maines, who also adds plenty of his trademark great pedal steel licks. The stylistic debts to Joe Ely and Steve Earle are pretty obvious, but if you like either of those two, Deal stacks up pretty favorably. My only complaint about this particular album is the whole desperado/outlaw theme, which I feel pretty "been there, done that" about. Too many dudes are into it, and it almost always rings hollow. But overall, this is a pretty nice album. His tune "You Ain't Nobody," about how hard it is to crack into the music industry is definitely an album highlight... Funny because it's true!

The Dixie Chicks "Home" (Sony, 2002)
There are two great surprises attached to this album -- One, that it's so good, and two, that having ridden this finely crafted disc to the top of the charts the Chicks would somehow become the focus of an idiotic, jingoistic war fever slander campaign, all because Natalie Maines had the audacity to express an opinion critical of George W. Bush's headlong plunge into an ill-considered war on Iraq. Well, I guess for now I should just talk about the record itself, which is a real doozy, a return to the band's bluegrassy roots, an acoustic-based, much-welcome return to a sparser sound, and a more distinctive country vibe. Recorded in Texas rather than Tennessee, the tightly-crafted but comparatively lean record is well suited to the band's talents, especially the songwriting, which emerges more powerfully without the distracting musical bells and whistles that Nashville producers love to lavish on even the simplest of tunes. Home lifts the perky twang of bluegrass out of its purist confines, using fiddle, banjo and mandolin as the framework for a surprisingly effective blend of old and new. In all likelihood, the Chicks will regress to Nashville for their next record, producing another florid, overblown pop smash, but for now we can marvel that the Lone Star threesome had such a good album still hidden in their hearts. Highly recommended!

Nanci Griffith "The Complete MCA Studio Recordings" (MCA/Universal, 2003)
Yet another MCA best-of... Yet this is the one that should settle the matter for once an for all. Weighing in at two CDs and 46 tracks total, this has all the material from the albums Lone Star State of Mind, Little Love Affairs, One Fair Summer Evening, Storms and Late Night Grande Hotel, with three tracks previously not released in the US of A: "Tumble And Fall," "Wooden Heart" and "San Diego Seranade." Whether to toss out all your copies of the earlier editions or not... I leave that up to you, dear listener. But this is a pretty definitive testament of Nanci's middle period.

Wayne Hancock "Swing Time" (Bloodshot, 2003)
A great live set recorded down in Austin by Wayne The Train and his band, featuring Dave Biller on guitar, a bit of trombone tootling by Bob "Texaco" Stafford, and solid, lively backing by all the others. From the title, I had expected a more jazz-standards oriented record, but I ain't complaining, not by a longshot. Really, it's amazing to hear anyone playing such as rough and rowdy, yet accomplished and historically aware kinda country these days, and this disc captures the energy and charm of Hancock's live shows pretty well. High points include his new version of "Thunderstorms And Neon Signs," which may actually outdo the original; the album's low point comes on the screechy female vocals on a hidden bonus track version of the Gershwin standard, "Summertime..." (It's nice to be all DIY and support your friends, but geez... that really could've been left off the album.) Otherwise, a top-notch album! Highly recommended.

Emmylou Harris "Stumble Into Grace" (Nonesuch, 2003)
(Produced by Malcolm Burn)

As the title implies, this album concerns itself with the contemporary quest for some sort of spiritual life, some sort of backhanded redemption or sideways salvation, which seems to be the only sort of solace Emmylou sees coming out of our complicated, crass modern life. This disc is notable for Emmylou's full emergence as a songwriter, rather than a stylist -- all but one of the songs on here were written or co-written by Ms. Harris herself, and the album has a thematic cohesion that sets it apart from her usual, run-of-the-mill fabulous country discs. Also notable are the contributions of her numerous collaborators and cowriters, including Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Daniel Lanois, Jill Cunniff (of Luscious Jackson) and album producer Malcolm Burn... Kate & Anna really make this disc noteworthy -- their fans will be tickled pink to see their input all over this album -- and while I personally don't care much for the gooey "adult pop" production style that Emmylou's embraced full-on for the last few years, folks who do like it will love this album. It's possibly her most personal and soul-searching album to date.

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