Hey there! Welcome to my country reviews archive... This is the third 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!

Red Stick Ramblers "Bring It On Down" (Memphis International, 2003)
Nice set of cajun-spiced western swing and acoustic stringband stuff... Kinda in the same range as Asylum Street Spankers or Hot Club of Cowtown, but more serious than the former, and more relaxed than the latter. Appealling!

Rick Shea & Brantley Kearns "Trouble And Me" (Tres Pescadores, 2002)
A delicious, acoustic-based set of well chosen old-timey and old-school country tunes, ranging from dimly-recalled gems such as Jim Ringer's "Rachel," Mary McCaslin's "San Bernadino Waltz," Harlan Howard's "Trouble and Me," and the gentle hobo anthem "Loafer's Glory." Fiddler Brantley Kearns has one of those great, gruff, grizzled-sounding voices that I love to hear, calling to mind folks like Larry Hosford and U. Utah Phillips. This is an excellent, thoroughly enjoyable album, one that would be easy to miss out on, since indie artists have such a tough time with distribution these days. Dave Alvin, whose band both these guys play in, produced this disc, with a light, unobstrusive touch. Fans of the relaxed style of old 1970s-era alt.country will appreciate this disc: I say snap it up while you still have the chance!

James Alan Shelton "Song For Greta" (Rebel, 2002)
Guitar picker James Alan Shelton has a real smooth touch on the Martin flattop; here he steps out from his supporting role helping anchor Ralph Stanley's band to lead another fine, mostly-instrumental album of his own. Ralph Stanley II, mandolinist John Rigsby, banjo picker Steve Sparkman and others join in; Gillian Welch and David Rawlings sing on the gorgeous gospel tune, "Fifty Miles Of Elbow Room," which is certainly one of the album's highlights. Some of the instrumentals are a little too formal and less fiery than some bluegrassers might like, but it's still lovely stuff, with flawless musicianship throughout.

The Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show "Worries On My Mind" (Rebel, 2003)
Yup... no doubt about it: Karl Shiflett is one of modern bluegrass' most underrated secret weapons -- his bluesy country approach doesn't seem to ring the right chord with a lot of the bluegrass purist crowd, but for folks like me, who just loved Jimmy Martin's old crossover records, Shiflett's style is a real blast. This new album is a doozy -- maybe less 'grassy and more country than ever, but packed with one great losin,' boozin' heartsong after another... For the traditionalist truegrass crowd, there are still a few dazzlers such as his zippy "Hoss Fly" instrumental and the equally dazzling, '50s rock-tinged "Bobo's Boogie." If you're willing to branch out a little, Shiflett and his crew can't be beat!

Larry Sparks "The Coldest Part Of Winter" (Rebel, 2003)
Wow. Sparks really never lets up... the guy just keeps getting better and better! Although this album gets its main magic from Spark's ability to convey a story through his vocals, the picking is pretty dazzling as well, starting with the banjo-mandolin-fiddle drag race in "Leavin' Me," and never falters from then on. This is an album that never hits a false note: the band is restrained when needed, fiery when the moment strikes, and Sparks is rock solid throughout. Not a bad song on here!

The Star Room Boys "This World Just Won't Leave You Alone" (Slewfoot, 2002)
Bummed-out, traditionalist honky-tonk with pretty good lyrics and strong musicianship. The production is a little thin, but in a good way, as if to say, "hey, we're just real folks who can't afford a big budget... take it or leave it, dude." Songwriter Dave Marr seems to take his craft pretty ernestly; he coasts near the kind of broadly drawn, miserable-ole-me bathos that folks like Rex Hobart take all the way into camp, but I think Marr is serious about his down-in-the-mouth lyrics. At any rate, his John Anderson-y growly vocals are nice, and the band is pretty sharp. Nice to hear a twangy new band that doesn't mire itself in white trash stereotypes... for once!

Hank Thompson "It's Christmas Time" (Capitol, 1964)
A fine, fun holiday record by one of my favorite old-time country singers. Thompson's jovial touch is added to standards such as "White Christmas," "Silver Bells," "Rudolph," and "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town," as well as loopy Thompson originals like "I'd Like To Have An Elephant For Christmas" and "It's Christmas Every Day In Alaska." Thompson and longtime producer Ken Nelson bend the songs to their will, moulding each one to match Thompson's distinctive, instantly recognizable, bouncy hillbilly swing style. Best of all, is the gusto with which Thompson tackles each tune -- his delivery is vibrant and heartfelt; it may be just another goofy, cornball Christmas record, but it's lively and enjoyable, a cut or two above similar efforts by other artists. Plus, guitar whiz Joe Maphis provides a sparkling counterpoint to the band's infectious beat. Hey, even a curmudgeonly country Scrooge like myself can get into this one!

Lucky Tomblin "The Lucky Tomblin Band" (Texas World, 2003)
This is the kind of under-the-radar country album that renews one's faith in the indie scene in general, and Texas in particular. Old-time Austin locals with a strong set of honkytonk-tinged originals, with guitarist Redd Volkaert in among all the good-natured pickers who give this disc its loose, limber sound. The first couple of Texas shufflin' songs have a vigorous originality, then Tomblin takes a socially-conscious, folkie turn on "Illegal Man," about a fella who gets gets a taste of what the life of an undocumented worker is like (though the songs doesn't quite explain how he arrived there... ) Then the rest of the album starts to drift a bit, with strongest songs at the start; still, the Tomblin crew sounds pretty solid, and this disc is certainly worth checking out. (Texas World Records can be reached at www.texasmusicroundup.com, for more info.)

Travis Tritt "Strong Enough" (Columbia, 2003)
It's pretty telling that Travis Tritt, who did his best to lead the Nashville backlash against the Dixie Chicks (for daring to --gasp!! -- have an opinion that wasn't the same as his!), starts this album off with a song about how his career isn't over, and he isn't all washed up ("You Can't Count Me Out Yet"). It's also interesting that he follows it up with a song about a guy who's a big ole stubborn butthead, "Can't Tell Me Nothin'." Yeah, if I was a country superstar who had as much trouble holding a melody and writing or picking good songs the way Tritt does, I'd probably go after the Dixie Chicks, too -- less competition on the charts, if you're lucky. Note to Travis: if you don't like freedom of speech, why don't you move to Singapore or Saudi Arabia, where they don't have any? America: love it or leave it alone, dude.

Two High String Band "Insofarasmuch" (Blue Corn, 2003)
A delightfully diverse, lighthearted folkie-bluegrass set, with some old-fashioned, western-themed numbers, straight-up truegrass, Grisman-esque instrumentals, and endearing, playful whimsies such as "You Can't Run Away From Your Feet." I really enjoyed this album a lot... it's one of those records that, somehow, has managed to stay in the CD carousel for several weeks, while others fly through faster than hummingbirds in a honey factory... Why has this one outlasted the rest? I guess it's because of the low-key approach, the obvious sense that these folks had fun making the record, and the relaxed folkish vibe, which reminds me of Happy Traum's old albums, and finally, the confidence the band has in its own music. There are no paid consultants or marketing geniuses in there, mucking it all up, but they also manage to sidestep most of the cutesy-cloying pitfalls that many modern folkies fall for, maintaining just the right balance of goofiness and rootsiness. Bass player Bryn Bright has made a name for herself recently playing with David Grisman (on the Old & In The Grey album...) He returns the favor playing on a couple of tunes; Vassar Clements also adds a lick or two, but really, this band does fine all by it's lonesome. Recommended!

Jay Ungar & Molly Mason "Relax Your Mind" (Angel, 2003)
A perfect mix of all that is great and good about American acoustic music. The album title is a nostalgic nod towards the old Jim Kweskin/Leadbelly anthem, and like the early '60s jug bands, this disc is a model of versatility and stylistic depth, mixing bluegrass, blues, folk and acoustic jazz with equal ease. On my first listen I thought I'd heard the influence of guitarist David Bromberg: turns out it wasn't just his influence: Bromberg plays on several tracks, and the album is drenched with his good-natured, boozy bonhomie. There are soft, melodic fiddle tunes and waltzes, a bit of Bob Wills swing, goofy folk-club novelty songs like Mason's "Bad Attitude" and Guy Clark's "Homegrown Tomatoes," and touches of sheer genius such as the New Orleans jazz woven into the old Delmore Brothers hit, "Blues Stay Away From Me." The band, Swingology, is playing at the top of its game, yet has that aw-shucks, front porch informality that the bluegrass/old-timey crowd so wisely values. This is a really sweet record, well worth picking up.

Townes Van Zandt "In The Beginning" (Compadre, 2003)
I've never been a huge Townes Van Zandt fan, but this set of long-lost Nashville demos, recorded in 1966 when Townes was just making a name for himself on the budding Texas nightclub/folk scene, show a vibrant, edgy side to his work, which seems to have been largely buried in the more controlled, mannered, mainly acoustic albums that would follow. Here we're treated to rough early versions of several Van Zandt standards, some even in rough, electrified boogie-blues form -- a far cry from his later folkie orientation! Devoted fans will go gaga over this archival set; the skeptical and uninitiated alike may also find a lot to get excited about here as well.

Porter Wagoner "Unplugged" (Shell Point, 2002)
God bless Porter Wagoner. He hasn't changed his basic hillbilly orientation in over 45 years in the upper ranks of the country music pantheon, and it looks like he never will. This simple, unpretentious collection of songs sounds just like his old stuff from the early '70s, calculated but heartfelt, corny but cool. As the title implies, the arrangements are pretty down to earth, but really not that much different than any of his classic work. Porter's getting on in years, but still has a great voice, not nearly as creaky or fragile as any number of his contemporaries. The guy's still got it, and this album ranks right up there with anything he's ever done. By the way, Willie Nelson guests on a couple of tunes, and these two veterans sound pretty simpatico. Worth checking out!

Dale Watson "Live In London... England!" (Audium, 2002)
I once had the good fortune to see Dale Watson play a show in Glasgow, Scotland, and the intensity and devotion of that UK crowd is ably reflected in this concert album, where the London fans hoot, holler and sing along to a brace of oldies and a slew of new originals. This is Watson in fine form, stripped down and honkytonk as all hell. He takes advantage of the concert album tradition to get a little dirty and cuss some, but mostly this is about Dale and his high-test, kickass band, who don't mess around for even a note or two. Authenticity is Watson's watchword: he opens the set up with his hick music anthem, "A Real Country Song," reprises his version of the Jimmie Rodgers classic "In The Jailhouse Now" (which was also a highlight of the recent Webb Pierce tribute album reviewed below...), and thumbs his nose at Nashville with "Country My Ass..." He might not be subtle, but he sure is good. You can't hear solid country playing like this anywhere else but on a Dale Watson album. Highly recommended!

Lucinda Williams "World Without Tears" (Lost Highway, 2003)
It's true, Lucinda sometimes requires listeners to give her work the benefit of the doubt; and on this album, she pretty much demands it. On this raspy outing, she indulges a taste for piercing, jam-band guitars and snarly roots-rock rapping, stylistic choices that may test the endurance of her more traditionally-oriented followers. First impressions can be deceiving, though, and devoted fans that revisit this record will be amply rewarded. (I hated this album the first time I heard it, then came back a week later, and learned to take the good with the bad....) A couple of songs are simply too grating, such as the Tom Petty-ish radio hit, "Righteously," which has some irritating, Stevie Ray Vaughn-ish guitar work, and the dismal, apocalyptic, rap-inflected "Atonement," in which Lucinda cites Biblical chapter and verse over a harshly repetitive, sledgehammering John Lee Hooker blues riff -- one of Lucinda's few outright songwriting disasters. Still, those who savor Williams' uncanny knack for crafting subtle, downcast ballads will find several gorgeous new classics here, such as "Ventura," "Overtime" and "Those Three Days," beautiful acoustic ballads that will win you over. All songs on this album are subsumed, however, to an overall sense of raw, raunchy, somewhat shocking eroticism. At the ripe old age of 50, when most folk musicians start recording children's songs and aging rockers join oldies tours, Williams surges forth with a fierce, forceful album that equates sex with a scorpion's sting, and loneliness with sheer carnal desire. She's always been a pensive songwriter, but something about this record feels defiant and exuberant, roisterous rather than bummed out. Williams takes delight painting the dingy details of life lived hard (two separate songs mention puking in a toilet bowl) and horniness, heartbreak and renewal are her canvas. The electrified rock songs may draw a new audience to Lucinda's work, but as long as she balances them with the moments of grace, we of the old-school faithful really can't complain much. Definitely worth checking out, though it might take a little getting used to at first.

Paul Williams & The Victory Trio "Living On The Hallelujah Side" (Rebel, 2003)
More fine bluegrass gospel by one of the style's finest living practitioners. I'd have to say, though, that this album has less to offer the secular bluegrass fan than other Williams efforts -- somehow the religious message seems more forceful and the music less of a balance than on his earlier albums. These guys are still a class act, with swell harmonies and sweet picking, but I think this disc may be more for true believers. I also have to take exception to Paul Humphrey's patriotic anthem, "Liberty And Justice For All," which posits that "strong faith in God" is one of the things our country was founded on, and that anyone who doesn't share William's faith is a traitor who should leave the country. Actually, my mom was an American historian, who specialized in the separation of Church and State, and it was freedom from religious persecution -- including freedom from State-sponsored religion -- that was a key part of the founding of the U.S. of A, not the other way around. Characterizing those who "won't uphold God's values" (whatever that means) as "freedom thieves" and "God haters" is corrosive, ill-reasoned, unfair, and deeply offensive. Yeah, sure, the song is clever and catchy, but it's also destructive and divisive, and the exact opposite of the "love thy neighbor" message in the song's first verse. I like Williams's music and respect both his beliefs and his band, but I truly think he should be ashamed for recording such an arrogant and hate-filled tune. Oh, well. We all make mistakes.

Halden Wofford "...And The Hi-Beams" (Self-released, 2003)
Colorado cowpoke Halden Wofford joins the likes of Ray Condo, Big Sandy and Dave & Deke, blending old-fashioned hillbilly boogie, swingin' rockabilly and tasty honky-tonk rhythms, in a tasty indie-country blend. All the songs on here are originals, written by either Wofford, or guitarist Kevin Yost, though many sound like they were written way back in the '50s and learned off a scratchy old 78. Good stuff, with an authentic backwoods vibe.

Adrienne Young "Plow To The End Of The Row" (Addie Belle, 2003)
One of the most striking and original "Americana" albums to come down the pike in a while! Aptly described as "a fresh bunch of old rhymes and new tunes," this is a fascinating mix of styles -- branching off from old-timey bluegrass into more expansive folkish material (ala the Be Good Tanyas), Young has a stylistic and vocal range that's quite nice. At times she sounds Rosanne Cash-ish, at others a persona emerges that is very much her own. Also, this album has an impressive batch of original material, particularly songs like "Plow To The End Of The Row," and the album's tweaky opener, "I Cannot Justify." Towards the album's end, she shifts twoards more rock-oriented material, which is less alluring, but on the whole this is quite innovative and well worth checking out. Highly recommended. (For more information, check out Young's website at www.adrienneyoung.com)

An all-star tribute to my personal honkytonk hero, Webb Pierce. The level of talent assembled for this project is staggering, ranging from grizzled old-timers such as George Jones and Charley Pride to contemporary Top 40 stars Trent Summar, Dwight Yoakam and Pam Tillis. The twangcore crowd and '70s mavericks also get in their licks: Emmylou Harris delivers a plaintive reading of "Wondering," while Rosie Flores and Robbie Fulks cheerfully plow their way through a pair of Pierce's rock-era hits. It's difficult for anyone to match the charm and immediacy of Webb's original recordings, but high marks go to Dale Watson for his explosive version of "In The Jailhouse Now" and to Guy Clark, who hits the goofy mood of "Honk Tonk Song" right on the head. Willie Nelson is also in on the fun, which is appropriate since his 1982 duets LP was the last album Pierce recorded. Here, Nelson takes his time with a bittersweet, appropriately mournful version of "That's Me Without Out You," one of Pierce's weepiest and best ballads. With an all-star cast like this, and such great material to work from, this disc should open a few new ears to the Webb Pierce legend. Check this out, and be sure to pick up one of the great Webb reissues out there as well.

Various Artists "DRESSED IN BLACK" (Dualtone, 2002)
This sort-of-alt tribute to Johnny Cash features the Man In Black's onetime son-in-law Rodney Crowell, on a fine version of the cornball classic "Teenage Queen," as well as a slew of eminently talented twangsters. Other artists include Dale Watson, Robbie Fulks, Rosie Flores, Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, as well as the album's producer, Chuck Mead, one of the songwriters in BR549. For the most part, these folks play it pretty close to the vest, straying only slightly from the template Cash laid down all those decades ago. The song selection is also fairly standard-issue, although there are a couple of surprising choices, such as the frankly erotic "Flesh And Blood," covered here by Chris Knight, who digs right into the smouldering heart of the lyrics. High marks also go to Merle Haggard's old guitarist Redd Volkaert, who cuts loose on "Luther Played The Boogie," and to crooner Raul Malo, who has a good time with the mopey "I Guess Things Happen That Way." For the most part this disc holds few revelations, but if you love these songs already, these reverential new versions sound just dandy.

Various Artists "KINDRED SPIRITS" (Sony-Columbia, 2002)
Well, here's the big surprise of 2002: with two competing Cash tributes coming out within a week of each other (this and the DRESSED IN BLACK album above...), it turns out that the major label, packed-with-commercial-stars tribute is by far the better of the two. The reason why is that finally, for once, someone pays homage to Cash without simply aping his style and sound to a "T." Almost all of the songs on here take a markedly new approach to all the same old songs. Cash's trademark slap bass is left behind in favor of languid, drifting rhythms, and instrumental touches that Cash himself would rarely (if ever) approach, such as slide guitars and keyboards, dominate the album, creating entirely original takes on a dozen+ Cash classics. The album opens up with Dwight Yoakam's expansive reinterpretation of "Understand Your Man," followed by a mournful version of "I Still Miss Someone," by Johnny's daughter, Rosanne Cash. Other surprises include neo-Southern rocker Travis Tritt's authoritative reading of "I Walk The Line," here taken as a mellow, super-slow ballad, and blues picker Keb Mo's haunting and similarly slow version of "Folson Prison Blues." Bob Dylan sings "Train Of Love," one of his own songs that Cash covered back in the politically polarized '60s, acknowledges Cash's open-minded approach to music making in a brief but heartfelt introduction. A couple of artists, like Hank Williams Jr. and Steve Earle, fail to surprise us, and an Emmylou Harris/Mary Chapin Carpenter/Sheryl Crow team-up on "Flesh and Blood" sounds perky and bland on a song that is deeply, smoulderingly erotic. On balance, though, this is the Cash tribute album we've all been waiting years for -- respectful, but adventuresome, giving Cash's work new resonance and depth, teasing out nuances that were easy to miss in Cash's rollicking original performances. Check it out!

Various Artists "LIVIN', LOVIN', LOSIN' -- SONGS OF THE LOUVIN BROTHERS" (Universal South, 2003)
The heartsongs and gospel anthems written by Charlie and Ira Louvin stand the test of time, as heard on this fine tribute album, which features many of modern-day Nashville's more traditionally-minded musicians. Patty Loveless, Rebecca Lynn Howard, Joe Nichols, Pam Tillis and Dierks Bentley join old-guard torchbearers such as Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Dolly Parton and Vince Gill, as well as bluegrassers Rhonda Vincent, Larry Cordle, Del McCoury and Alison Krauss, all singin' their little hearts out on these fine, heartbreaking ballads. Carl Jackson organized the album, and he and his pals act as house band on many of the tracks -- this is an wholly successful project, one of the finest tribute discs to come out of Nashville in many, many years. The talent assembled is certainly up to the task, and Louvins fans will not be disappointed by any aspect of this record... Highlights include Merle Haggard's forlorn version of "Must You Throw Dirt In My Face" and the late Johnny Cash doing the recitation on "Keep Your Eyes On Jesus," one of three gospel tunes that close the album out. When it comes to the Louvins, I'm a bit of a snob, but this disc was definitely up to snuff. Recommended!

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