Howdy, neighbors!

Here are some reviews of the new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in March, 2006. This month: Johnny & June Carter Cash, Rosanne Cash, Dave Childers & The Modern Don Juans, Frog Holler, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Split Lip Rayfield, The Statler Brothers, Bryan Sutton, Dale Watson, Sean Watkins

...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. Enjoy!

New Stuff: March, 2006

Johnny & June Carter Cash "The Hits" (Sony-BMG Legacy, 2006)
Amazingly enough, this is the first collection -- ever -- on CD of the Johnny and June's duets. Naturally, its existence is due to the lamentably flawed Walk The Line biopic, but hey -- whatever works. Before now, their duets were confined to full-album reissues or as sidelights to various Johnny Cash best-ofs... Now we can truly hear a pure, undiluted dose of Johnny & June, and the results are quite nice. The album title is a little misleading -- only a handful of the sixteen songs on here actually made it into the Top Ten, and over half the tracks didn't make it into the Top 40. But the hits are memorable -- there's "Jackson," of course, as well as their cover of Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me, Babe," a surprise smash that brought Dylan's work into the country mainstream. Considering the religious devotion that was the bedrock of their marriage, this set could have included more gospel material (one-and-a-half songs, by my reckoning, with "If I Were A Carpenter" being the one-half...) But Sony-BMG seems to have made the same calculation that Hollywood made -- go light on the preaching and minimize your risk of potentially alienating any paying customers. It might not accurately reflect the whole Carter-Cash vibe, but it does make a more marketable product. And a fine product it is: if you want to check this fabled country couple out, this is a fine place to start! (Also check out my Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash discographies.)

Rosanne Cash "Black Cadillac" (Capitol, 2006)
Poor Rosanne! In the space of two years, her father -- Johnny Cash -- mother and stepmother (June Carter Cash) all passed away. That's a lot of sadness to shoulder. But, as longtime fans know, Rosanne has a lot of experience exploring her emotions through her art. What's best about this album is that, in addition to the expected existential wallop, it also rises out of the baroque adult-contemporary pop production of her last few albums, with Rosanne reconnecting to her inner twang in ways that are penetrating and entirely original. The lyrics are pointed and bleak, with an aching and agony interlaced with a shocking amount of bitterness and anger. On some of the later tracks, her rage against religion may come like a bolt from the blue -- you'd think maybe she'd turn the other way, as many folks do when this kind of loss strikes, but not Rosanne, and this is just one fo the ways she sets herself apart from her famously gospel-drenched daddy. Indeed, Black Cadillac is most striking in that it is not a simple homage or tribute to her father, it is a dark, dense, complex work from a woman who has a strong sense of self and whose talent and intelligence was influenced by but not entirely derived from her parents. What emerges is a powerful inner portrait of one of country's most introspective, soul-searching artists. She may have explored emotions as deep as these before, but never with such directness or fiery intensity. Although it's not exactly a radio-friendly toe-tapper, this is possibly her best album to date -- definitely worth checking out. (Also check out my Rosanne Cash discography.)

Dave Childers & The Modern Don Juans "Jailhouse Religion" (Little King, 2006)
Gritty, earnest, energetic, blues'n'billy-tinged barband rock, from the Blasters/Dave Alvin side of the street. Packed with original material, this is a nice addition to the genre... Pretty good, if you like the style!

Frog Holler "Haywire" (Zo Bird, 2006)
The first half of this album is a solid, satisfying mix of true-blue twang and reverbalicious, melodic guitar rock, with wisps of the Feelies, Teen Fan Club and Big Star amid the gruff, twangy vocals and plunky acoustic picking... These guys had kind of lost me for a while, when they went pretty much all-rock, but this disc is a very accomplished piece of work, and their inner twang is definitely back in the mix. There are a couple of moments where they still ditch the country vibe and go off on some guitar-hero tangent, but once I force myself to remember that I like good indie rock, too, then I don't really mind so much. This is a disc you can listen to from start to finish, without any need to flinch or cringe... and these days, that's kind of a rare thing! I'm impressed: these guys have evolved into a really fine band. And this is a mighty fine record... check it out!

Merle Haggard "Strangers (1966)/Swinging Doors (1967)" (Capitol, 2006)
Merle Haggard "I'm A Lonesome Fugitive (1967)/Branded Man (1967)" (Capitol, 2006)
Merle Haggard "Sing Me Back Home (1968)/The Legend Of Bonnie And Clyde (1968)" (Capitol, 2006)
Merle Haggard "Mama Tried (1968)/Pride In What I Am (1969)" (Capitol, 2006)
Merle Haggard "Hag (1971)/Someday We'll Look Back (1971)" (Capitol, 2006)

Borrowing a page from their European wing, Capitol-EMI's American division is finally cookin' up some tasty two-fer oldies discs, with these straight reissues of Merle Haggard's finest early work as one of the crown jewels. Haggard is one of those super-successful old country artists whose career is dotted with so many chart-topping singles that best-of collections are all you ever see in the stores and a ton of great album tracks become forgotten by all but the most devoted fans. Well, here's a chance to change all that. These five CDs contain so many awesome songs, your jaw will drop every time you hear them. The hits are there -- "Sing Me Back Home," "Mama Tried," etc. -- but so are dozens of songs of equal calibre that you'll be floored by them as well. There's really nothing quite as nice as hearing an old album in its entirety, the way it was made to sound, and with an artist like Haggard, digging deep into his old stuff can pay off handsomely... Especially when each of these generously-programmed discs also includes four or five bonus tracks taken from singles or outtakes! All five discs are highly recommended!

George Jones "The Essential George Jones" (Sony-BMG Legacy, 2006)
Making the most out of their recent mega-merger, the Sony-BMG conglomerate has culled through George Jones's multilabel catalog on Mercury, United Artists and Epic records, combining them on this one 2-CD set. This encompasses his underrated 1960s work as well as the earthshaking, soul-rending, super-sad countrypolitan classics made with producer Billy Sherrill in the early 1970s, then finally traces the tapering off of George's hitmaking years. The thing about George Jones, though, is that he started out great, and remains that way to this very day. This is a good overview of his career; future retrospectives can only get better.

Split Lip Rayfield "Should Have Seen It Coming" (Bloodshot, 2004)
Ooops... this one sat on my shelf for a while... sorry it took so long to review! Anyway, this is one fine, slam-bang twangcore/speedgrass set, from one of the finest bands currently on the Bloodshot roster. These Kansas fellers bring an injection of new life into the bluegrass scene, giving the stringband sound a punky little goose without sacrificing much in terms of the music -- they write some fine songs and pick pretty well (they're not dazzling, but they ain't bad...) Mainly, it's the songwriting that impresses me. This is an album full of original material, mostly split between guitarist Kirk Rundstrom and mandolin picker Wayne Gottstine, each of whom has his quirks and strengths. Gottstine's "Hundred Dollar Bill," which kicks the album off, is a really nice piece of country songwriting, while I had to check the liner notes to make sure that Rundstrom's "Used To Be" wasn't actually an old Merle Haggard song I'd somehow forgotten about... Seriously, it's that good. There are some lamentable moments that traffick in white trash stereotypes -- "Redneck Tailgate Dream" is thematically dull, and "C'Mon Get Your Gun" isn't much better -- but even these songs are delivered with more skill and depth than is the norm among many twangcore bands. All in all, this is a fine album, definitely worth checking out!

The Statler Brothers "Gold" (Universal, 2006)
For a lot of folks, the Statler Brothers begin and end with "Flowers On The Wall," which is understandable, since that is one of the greatest, poppiest country songs ever written. Of course, the quartet went on to record quite a few fine songs (and big hits) after that. The Statlers started out as a featured act in the Johnny Cash road show, melding barbershop harmonies with wry, off-center novelty humor... When they established themselves as a successfuk solo act, emerging from the shadow of the Cash family, their sound evolved into somthing more subtle and complex... The barbershop-isms were still there, but they were put into a new context, as the Statlers began to specialize in songs about nostalgia and bygone days, lamenting the passing of smalltown, Middle America, maltshops and movie matinees... It was just the right note to hit in the Nixon-Ford era, when the relentless grind of conservative-vs.-counterculture politics drove a lot of Americans to look for a little time-out. For folks who are trying to save on shelf space, this 2-CD best-of is a fine replacement for the 1994 30th Anniversary Celebration box set -- it's missing a few great songs, notably "Whatever Happened To Randolph Scott," but it covers their career pretty thoroughly, from "Flowers" to their Vietnam vet tribute, "Not Just A Name On A Wall." Fans should be pleased.

Bryan Sutton/Various Artists "Not Too Far From The Tree" (Sugar Hill, 2006)
An exemplary set of bluegrass and grass-ish duets from a ubiquitous session player who wants to point folks back to some of the players who have influenced his sound. Many of these super-pickers are household names -- Sutton's boss, Ricky Skaggs, as well as Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice -- and digging back a little further we find Dan Crary and Norman Blake, who made their mark in the 1970s but who are less well-remembered among the post-O Brother bluegrass fanbase... Then there are a few left-field choices, such as George Shuffler, an old-timer whose unusual, minimalist "crosspicking" style is highly regarded among the git-picking elite, and Sutton's own dad, Jerry Sutton. It's a nice, unassuming set that will seem alternately lulling and refreshingly heartfelt. Worth checking out!

Dale Watson "Whiskey Or God" (Palo Duro, 2006)
Hardcore honkytonker Dale Watson is back, in a big way, with this rock-solid set of steel-drenched, straightahead, real-deal country tunes. A loping Texas shuffle laces through the uptempo tunes, and a modest, tap-tapping snare drum keeps the time when things slow down.... You feel like you're right there with the band at the bar, taking a quick sip before Dale cuts loose. In the liner notes, Watson explains that this disc contains a bunch of older songs that he hadn't recorded 'til now and sure enough, this is packed with the kind of songs that made him a favorite of countless hard country fans when he first started out, over a decade ago. The first half of the album has the most heft -- weepers like "Sit And Drink And Cry," "I Don't Feel Too Lucky Today" and "Whiskey Or God" pack a lot wallop in their compact frames... Midway through, some of the songs start to feel more like tossoffs, but even a so-so number by Dale Watson beats the hell out of half of what comes out of Nashville. One standout is the unrepentantly retro "38-21-34," which may be sexist and offensive in theory, but is such a good-natured, lusty tune that even if Katha Pollitt might not sing along, Susie Bright definitely would. All in all, another fine entry into the canon -- Dale Watson is still a force of nature!

Sean Watkins "Blinders On" (Sugar Hill, 2006)
There's a tiny bit of twang mixed in there somewhere, but as with many Nickel Creek-related albums, soft pop is the predominant sound, with baroque, electronica-ish layering in the mix to spice things up. Some songs are fairly catchy, particularly the opening track, "Summer's Coming," but for the most part the mental and musical meandering seems pretty mild and unchallenging. Which is the point, I think -- if you're a fan, looking for something mellow to zone out on, this is a nice record, easy on the ears and consistent with the direction that Nickel Creek and their various solo projects has taken for the last few years.

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