Howdy, neighbors!

Here are some reviews of the new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in August, 2005. This month: Carl Butler & Pearl, June Carter Cash, Ray Charles, Hank Cochran, Tommy Collins, Elizabeth Cook, Robert Gordon, Jenny Kerr, The Knitters, Loretta Lynn, Taj Mahal, Maria McKee, Jim Mills, Allison Moorer, Nickel Creek (PAGE 2:) Greg Parker, Slipstream, Son Volt, Carl Story, Van Zandt, Billy Walker, Gene Watson, Dallas Wayne, The Wrights, Adrienne Young, Various Artists: "Greetings From Alabama"; "Greetings From Oklahoma," "Old Time Mountain Banjo"...

...It's not everything I heard, but it's a nice sample of stuff that either tickled my fancy or ticked me off... Many records that aren't included here are reviewed elsewhere in my full Guide To Hick Music.

New Stuff: August, 2005

Carl Butler & Pearl/Johnny & Jonie Mosby "A Family Affair" (Koch, 2005)
Beautiful! Pure, classic, joyful hard country from the 1960s... Carl and Pearl Butler were a husband-wife team whose soulful, rootsy honkytonk records have been criminally neglected by the major labels... There is a Bear Family disc out that covers Carl's early work, but the duo's classic material from their Columbia years is almost entirely unavailable... Until now, that is. This disc gathers over a dozen vintage tracks from their 1960s prime, including their biggest hit, "Don't Let Me Cross Over," which hit #1 back in '62, along with all their other significant chart entries. Although in terms of the charts, the Butlers were only moderately successful, Back Forty artists, they were still stalwarts of the hard country scene at a time when Nashville was slicking things up, and their records -- hard to find over the years -- have been cherished by honkytonk fans hungry for real, deal, cry-in-your-beer country music. Every song on here is a winner; it'd be nice if someone could produce a more extensive collection of their work, especially one that included some fo their singles-only hard country gems. In the meantime, though, if you pick this disc up, you will have struck gold. Trust me: it's really that good. The inclusion of four songs by Johnny and Jonie Mosby is an odd but still welcome surprise... It makes sense thematically, as the Mosbys were another underrated husband-wife team whose work has been forgotten over the years, and legally, since these four tracks were the cream of their brief (but richly rewarding) stint on Columbia, whereafter they jumped ship to Capitol, where they stayed until they broke up in 1973. It's unlikely the Mosbys will ever get a best-of of their own (they weren't really that great, although I do have a soft spot for their work...) so it's nice to see something of theirs in print. If you're a lover of real, good honkytonk, then you really owe it to yourself to check this disc out. It's mighty good.

June Carter Cash "Keep On The Sunny Side -- June Carter Cash: Her Life And Her Music" (Sony Legacy, 2005)
This 2-CD set is the first retrospective to truly do justice to June Carter Cash's career, spanning six decades spent at the heart of the country music industry. Disc One kicks off with a couple of live performances with nine-year old June in a solo performance on one of he Carter Family radio shows -- she's rough and rugged, but full of gumption and confidence as the adult emcee chats her up onstage. That same confidence carries through to her early hillbilly hits, including heartsongs sung with her then-husband Carl Smith, and comedy numbers with the likes of Homer & Jethro. There're also a few really nutty novelty songs that'll probably surprise folks unfamiliar with her early work, such as the deranged recitation, "The Heel," a slice of oddball country dementia similar to Porter Wagoner's "Rubber Room," and other singularly bizarre novelty hits of the time. The second disc highights Carter Cash's more elegant side, featuring downhome old-timey material with the remnants of the Carter Family, as well duets with her hubby Johnny Cash (including "Jackson," naturally...) and others. The heart of this collection is the resurrection of her long out-of-print solo album, Appalachian Pride, a personal masterpiece from 1975 that is one of her most soulful works, entirely heartfelt and spiritually resonant. Speaking as a country fan who was never all that into June Carter Cash, this retrospective really moved me, and put her life's work into a much fuller context, and engendered quite a bit of affection and respect for her contributions to country music. It's highly recommended.

Ray Charles "Friendship" (Columbia Legacy, 1982/2005)
Yeah, sure, R&B/Pop/Jazz legend Ray Charles broke stylistic barriers back in the late '50s and early '60s with his top-selling Modern Sounds In Country & Western albums, but when you hear about this record -- a set of duets recorded under the aegis of countrypolitan superproducer Billy Sherrill -- you can't help but think it'll be one of those horrid, lifeless celebrity guestfests we've all come to know and dread. Oh, ye, of little faith. Dude, this is Ray Charles we're talking about! This is a mighty fine record, with Brother Ray tossing back and forth with brand-name country stars like Johnny Cash, George Jones, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson... It's a relaxed, casual set with some fine, classy performances... a bit tounge-in-cheek at times, but overall an effective, respectful set, with a lot of well-chosen material. One highlight is the title track, where Ray and reformed bluegrasser Ricky Skaggs reclaim the old Pied Pipers faux-hick novelty song... Some of the pairings reflect the popularity of lesser artists such as Hank, Jr. and Janie Fricke, but overall, this is quite a nice little record. Heck, it even topped the Country album charts, back in the day! Yee-haw. (Note: this disc is copy protected and may be kind of a pain in the butt to play in your computer... Otherwise, it's pretty swell.)

Hank Cochran "The Heart Of Hank: The Monument Sessions" (Koch, 2005)
Over the years, songwriter Hank Cochran, who was a good singer as well, recorded a number of records for a number of labels, none of which -- amazingly -- remain in print as of the time that this fine disc came out. This collects Cochran's work on the Monument label, recorded between 1962-66, and it is one nice set of old-school country music, as soulful and satisfying as it (occasionally) is imitative of the stars of the day... Cochran sounds like Roger Miller, a bit like Waylon Jennings (in his folkish mode of the mid-'60s) and even has a touch of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard in there as well... (He covers one of Merle's early songs, as well as several Harlan Howard oldies...) Of course, these chameleon nods towards popular styles are more excusable for a successful songwriter than for your average Joe... After all, who knows? Waylon or Merle just might record one of his tunes, too -- you never know! It'd be a shame to see this album simply as a set of old songwriter demos, though: Cochran was the real deal, and listening back to these early recordings, you can easily see why so many Nashville singers were on the Hank Cochran bandwagon... He wrote great songs, and it's a real treat to hear him sing them as well. Snap this one up while you can... It's recommended!

Tommy Collins "The Capitol Collection" (Koch, 2005)
Another reissue gem that you don't want to miss. Tommy Collins was a founding member of the West Coast Country/Bakersfield Sound scene whose career skidded sideways for a variety of reasons... Collins is remembered primarily as a songwriter, although as these early songs show, he excelled as an uptempo, bright-toned, wickedly funny honkytonk novelty numbers (and a few heart-wrenching weepers as well...) Collins crafted bouncy, perky songs such as "You Better Not Do That," "It Tickles" and "You Gotta Have A License" that were mildly raunchy yet sounded squeaky-clean. He also dabbled in a bit of rockabilly, as on the sizzling "Black Cat," and hey, with a young Buck Owens settling the strings on fire, how could he lose? Apparently all the artists in the LA/Bakersfield hard country scene like Collins a lot -- Owens and everyone else recorded his songs, and Merle Haggard wrote the song "Leonard" in his honor -- but Collins himself was ambivalent about the steamy, sin-soaked side of country culture, and gradually dropped out of performing and recording in order to pursue a religous vocation. Well, I'm with Buck and Merle: Tommy Collins was master of his craft, and a lively, fun musician... This disc is a real treat for connoisseurs of good, old-fashioned guitar-and-fiddle based country music. Check it out!

Elizabeth Cook "This Side Of The Moon" (Emergent, 2005)
A super-twangy independent release from a squeaky-voiced artist whose major label debut a couple of years back led to a summary dismissal by said major label... Admirably, Ms. Cook just picked herself up and got on with it, doing things her way, which means with a truckload of energy and a two tons of twang. This album sounds a lot like the legendary EP that Kelly Willis released on A&M Records before they let her go... The vocals and the picking are all super-twangy and a real treat for alt-oriented fans... Although, if the truth be told, a little bit goes a long way... There aren't any songs on here that I don't like, but the cumulative effect of listening to the whole album was a little taxing... Best heard, perhaps, a few songs at a time, or in a mix of music... That way, your ears are really gonna light up when you hear what this gal has to offer!

Robert Gordon "Satisfied Mind" (Koch, 2005)
This stalwart of the rockabilly-retro scene of the 1970s and '80s is still kickin' up a storm all these years later... A decade-long pause between albums finds Gordon returning in fine form... This is a lively set of rock, pop oldies and R&B cover tunes, with driving guitar work by Eddie Angel, and jaunty old-timer vocals from Gordon. If you're a fan, you'll be happy checking this one out; he's still proudly carrying the torch and sounds pretty good for an old fart.

Jenny Kerr "New And Improved" (Okey Doke, 2005)
This San Francisco-based gal has mastery of an admirably wide range of styles, twangy roots and blues with a jug band feel that hearkens back to the loose, goosey bluesy vibe of the early 1960s and '70s... Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur's work comes to mind, as does the rougher-edged blues'n'soul of Tracy Nelson... The overt blues stuff loses my attention, but not because of anything Kerr's doing (I just don't care much for modern blues...) but the twangy, plunky, more country material is kind of cool, particularly the album's opening numbers, "Itch" and "I Wanna Be Rich," which are foremost among an impressive set of original compositions... There is only one cover song on here, a version of Bobbie Gentry's "Mississippi Delta," which retains the original's funky grit, while also showing how Kerr shares some of Gentry's complex stylistic diversity. Roots-blues fans may want to check this out... I suspect that a lot of the energy Kerr pours into this disc also comes through loud and clear when she plays live... (Available through the Jenny Kerr website. )

The Knitters "The Modern Sounds Of The Knitters" (Rounder, 2005)
Mixing traditional material with twanged-out originals, Dave Alvin and the majority of X revive the Knitters, after a mere twenty year hiatus. Twangcore fans will be delighted, though some may grumble that Joe Doe and Exene Cervenka's weird, raspy harmonies are better supported by loud electric rock than by exaggerated hillbilly posturing. I found this record grew on me with repeat listens, and while it starts out rough, their country bona fides come out more and more towards album's end. But, hey, I'm a crabby old fart... I imagine most alt-country fans will enjoy this just fine.

Loretta Lynn "The Definitive Collection" (Universal/MCA-Decca, 2005)
A fine, 25-song best-of that overlaps with other Loretta collections (including a few duets with Conway Twitty...) "Definitive" is definitely a relative term, here, especially considering how thorough and gratifying the old, 4-CD Honky Tonk Girl box set has proven over the years. Still, this is a great introduction to her work, and dips into some of her later work from 1975-onwards, stuff that doesn't readily come to mind when you're thinking of Loretta's glory years, but that still holds up nicely today. They seem to have omitted her novelty hit, "Your Squaw Is On The Warpath" (presumably because of modern-day PC concerns...) but the rest of the songs on here are of at least equal calibre to that old chestnut. Other Loretta best-ofs may serve you equally well, but this disc is unquestionably first-class.

Taj Mahal "The Essential Taj Mahal" (Sony Legacy, 2005)
I grew up listening to Taj Mahal, and the first disc of this 2-CD set is a blast of pure childhood nostalgia for me... The classic acousto-electric blues tunes from albums such as Natch'l Blues, Giant Steps / De Ole Folks At Home and Recycling The Blues are as satisfying a "roots music" fix as you're ever gonna find. "She Caught The Katy" alone is worth the price of admission, one of the catchiest, most propulsive songs ever recorded. Taj Mahal was one of the greatest performers of the hippie era, one of those artists who are just incandescent and on fire, magical and marvellous, set apart from the crowd. It didn't last forever though, and the second disc here is really for devoted fans only. Spanning 1974 to the present day, it chronicles an artist trying simultaneously to move beyond his stylistic pigeonhole and to live up to his initial burst of glory... But as much as you'd like to cheer on his artistic growth, once Taj started delving into reggae and soul, and later began to mix synthesizers into his music, a lot of the old magic was missing. Nevertheless, it is impressive to see such an inclusive and comprehensive best-of see the light of day... In addition to his classic Columbia albums, this set draws on records made for Warner Brothers, Rykodisc, Private Music and a recent collaboration with Etta baker on the Musicmaker label. Although some of the selections from the late '70s, '80s and early '90s seem pretty weak, it should be noted that several of the tracks from hsi stint on Private Music show a nice return to form, notably his cover of the old R&B hit, "That's How Strong My Love Is," "Lovin' In My Baby's Arms" and "The New Hula Blues" stand out as highlights. For a general introduction to this roots music pioneer, this is a pretty swell set.

Maria McKee "Peddlin' Dreams" (Eleven Thirty, 2005)
I liked Lone Justice, and enjoyed some of McKee's early solo work, but I gotta admit her recent turn towards a thickened, ornate hard rock/pop sound doesn't do much for me. She's recast herself as a world-weary, dissolute diva, but the pose wears thin quick, and the music itself is too grating for my delicate little eardrums... That being said, this album is much more accessible than her last one, which was much more manic and sounded like a show tunes parade gone over to the dark side... Here, the song structure is tighter and less cluttered, and there are some nice dips back into her old reservoir of country-roots twangitude, notably on the opening track and the last few songs that close the album (which are really quite nice...) It's the stuff that's in between that's still pretty rough going, for me at least, and I suspect for most of us except the most devoted fans... Still, this is a strong album, and in many ways a return to form, and might be worth checking out if you're curious to begin with...

Jim Mills "Hide Head Blues" (Sugar Hill, 2005)
An all-star cast drawn from the modern-day bluegrass elite backs banjoist Jim Mills on yet another fine album. Dan Tyminski, Stuart Duncan, Andy Leftwich and Don Rigsby are among the pickers and plunkers who propel this album along. Like his boss, Ricky Skaggs, Mills may be playing it slick and perfect, but there's no corresponding lack of soulfulness -- this is an upbeat, rollicking, thoroughly enjoyable truegrass set where every single song is good, and it feels like everyone involved really had their hearts in it. Nice mix of vocal and instrumental material, as well as secular and gospel. It's good stuff... mighty good!

Allison Moorer "The Definitive Collection" (Universal/MCA-Decca, 2005)
This is a good, representative overview of Moorer's work on the MCA label... The first third of the album is country-flavored material that's a little on the overly-artful side, but rootsy enough to command the attention of the altie crowd. Then she drifts into Dusty Springfield-ish soul sister material that doesn't quite do it for me, but may appeal to fans of Moorer's sister, Shelby Lynne... They're pretty much on the same page with that stuff, and this disc collects the best of her country-soul stuff as well. A good introduction to her work.

Nickel Creek "Why Should The Fire Die?" (Sugar Hill, 2005)
I've never been a huge fan of these guys -- they're too calculatedly soft, smooth, inoffensive and pop-oriented for me, and their modest success on the country charts hasn't helped things much... Still, even I can admit that this album seems a bit richer and less cutesy than their last couple of albums... At times it sounds almost indie-rockish at times, with the soft, contemplative feel of moody, mathy art bands such as Giant Sand and Calexico... It's more mature, less strained, and the band sounds much more comfortable with its identity, and feels less like it's wearing its creativity on its sleeve. They still sound too cloying for me, but I can concede that this album is worth checking out for those looking for an acoustic alternative to the bombast of Nashville and the occasional uber-coolness of the indier-than-thou twangcore crowd... Their fans will certainly not be disappointed, while other folks already in the Alison Krauss/Bela Fleck orbit will doubtless gravitate towards this disc. Not my kinda country (or folk), but it's worth checking out...

More August '05 Country Reviews

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