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Howdy, folks, here are some reviews of the new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in November, 2008 This page gets updated throughout the month, so check back if you can... Also, check out my full Guide To Hick Music for a bazillion more record reviews and artist profiles.

This month:
Johnny Cash "...At Folsom Prison" (Box Set) (Columbia Legacy)
Johnny Cash "Johnny Cash's America" (CD/DVD set) (Columbia Legacy)
Kenny Chesney "Lucky Old Sun" (BNA)
Ry Cooder "The UFO Has Landed: The Ry Cooder Anthology" (Rhino)
Billy Currington "Little Bit Of Everything" (Mercury-Nashville)
The Derailers "Guaranteed To Satisfy" (Palo Duro)
ESP/Easton Stagger Phillips "One For The Ditch" (Rebeltone)
Charlie Feathers "Rare And Unissued Recordings, v.1-3" (Norton)
Feufollet "Cow Island Hop" (Valcour)
Emmylou Harris "Last Date" (reissue) (Rhino Encore)
Toby Keith "That Don't Make Me A Bad Guy" (Show Dog)
Roy Orbison "The Soul Of Rock And Soul" (Sony-BMG Legacy)
Brad Paisley "Play: The Guitar Album" (RCA-Nashville)
Kellie Pickler "Kellie Pickler" (BNA)
Jenny Scheinman "Jenny Scheinman" (Koch)
Lucinda Williams "Little Honey" (Lost Highway)
Lee Ann Womack "Call Me Crazy" (MCA-Nashville)
Neil Young "Sugar Mountain -- Live At Canterbury House: 1968" (Reprise)

PLUS: Holiday Records!
Asleep At The Wheel "Santa Loves To Boogie" (Bismeaux)
Alison Brown "Evergreen" (Compass)
Mary Chapin Carpenter "Come Darkness, Come Light: Twelve Songs Of Christmas" (Rounder-Zoe)
Faith Hill "Joy To The World" (Warner Brothers)
Mindy Smith "My Holiday" (Vanguard)

New Stuff: November, 2008

Johnny Cash "...At Folsom Prison" (Box Set) (Sony-BMG/Columbia Legacy, 1968/2008)
The Columbia label takes the bull by the horns on this one, releasing an expanded version of the fabled 1968 Folsom Prison concert, adding a second disc's worth of performances from Cash and his road crew -- whoo-hoo!

Johnny Cash "Johnny Cash's America" (CD/DVD set) (Sony-BMG/Columbia Legacy, 2008)
The great Cash legacy is re-examined -- yet again -- through this 2-disc set, featuring an audio album and a DVD. The music disc features several Cash Americana anthems -- "Pickin' Time" (about cotton harvests) "Five Feet High And Rising" (a song about flooding in the cotton country), "Big River" (another song about Southern floods), "Cry, Cry, Cry", as well as his more pointedly political material, such as "Man In Black," "Ragged Old Flag," "Singing In Vietnam Talking Blues" and "Song Of The Patriot." There are also a several previously unreleased tracks, including live versions of "What Is Truth" and "This Land Is Your Land," as well as "I Am The Nation," which closes the album. In this context, his religious songs take on new meanings, as with "Where You There When They Crucified My Lord" and the civil right-oriented "All God's Children Ain't Free." The songs speak for themselves, but the accompanying documentary film, Johnny Cash's America places Cash's work squarely into a socio-political frame (which I doubt he would have objected to...) Of the many celebrities featured, some are expected -- daughter Rosanne Cash, friend Bob Dylan, acolyte John Mellencamp, Southern sage Al Gore -- while others are more surprising: rapper Snoop Dogg, pop star Sheryl Crow, politician Lamar Alexander, each discussing from their own perspective what Johnny Cash meant to America, and how he loved and helped change his country.

Kenny Chesney "Lucky Old Sun" (BNA, 2008)

Ry Cooder "The UFO Has Landed: The Ry Cooder Anthology" (Rhino, 2008)
The world can always use a good Ry Cooder best-of set...

Billy Currington "Little Bit Of Everything" (Mercury-Nashville, 2008)
(Produced by Carson Chamberlain & Billy Currington)

This is about the most "chick-friendly" country album ever made... Currington has settled down into a fuzzy-cuddly sensitive dude mode that makes him entirely inoffensive, crooning in a soft-white soul style that kind of reminds me of Billy Joe Royal, for some reason. It's all very mellow, romantic and easy on the ears -- and I don't mean any of that as a negative criticism; I think he's hit on a winning formula that suits his talents. There's also a bit of Randy Travis everyman-ism, best heard on "People Are Crazy," which has an appealing chorus of "God is great/beer is good..." which I think may be my favorite track on the album. If you're looking for some mainstream, commercial country that fits really nicely into the background, this album's a good option.
Download pick:

  • People Are Crazy

    The Derailers "Guaranteed To Satisfy" (Palo Duro, 2008)
    Yahoo! Now that they've come out with another winner, I guess I can sheepishly admit that this Austin-based twang band had lost my attention on their last couple of albums... But with this latest, they've definitely got me hooked, particularly with a bouncy, twangy, irresistible opener like "Bad Bad Girl," and the title track, "Guaranteed To Satisfy," which is a perfect combination of their '60s-ish power pop fixation and a pedal steel drenched pure country. Longtime fans bemoan the loss a while back of the band's co-founder Tony Villanueva, but y'know what? Life goes on. Just looking at this album for what it is, I'd say it's a pretty strong offering... I still find pure-pop digressions (like "The Get-Go" and "The Sun Is Shining On Me") to be a little incongruous, but I've grown to accept the band's sincere interest in the style, and I can cut 'em some slack when they deliver on the more rugged stuff. This is definitely worth checking out.
    Download picks:

  • Bad Bad Girl
  • Guaranteed To Satisfy
  • Wallflower

    ESP/Easton Stagger Phillips "One For The Ditch" (Rebeltone, 2008)
    This one was a real surprise! A self-released gem from a West Coast trio who delve deep into folkie-mystic country-Americana, and produced several dazzling, hypnotic tunes. The three are Tim Easton (from Joshua Tree, CA), Leeroy Stagger (Victoria, Canada) and Evan Phillips (Anchorage, Alaska) and despite their geographical separation, they synch together perfectly on this disc. This is one of those records where you don't know quite what to expect, then wind up listening to it over and over for several days. Fans of Wilco's more melodic-acoustic side, old Victoria Williams, early Neil Young, or maybe James Hyland's stuff with the South Austin Jug Band, will probably dig this as well. The gentle country-folk arrangements are graceful and seductive, and several songs have dream-laden, evocative choruses -- particularly addictive is the mournful "Highway," along with the growly "In Love With You" and the singalong "Stormy." There are also songs about the long winters and wet Alaska weather, as well as a heartfelt song in praise of folk-bluegrass festivals, where the singer doesn't want the weekend to come to a close... Well, all those festival tailgate parties sure seem to have paid off: this is a record that will be a cherished favorite for the fortunate few who get ahold of it. Probably the best way to find it is to contact the band directly:

    Charlie Feathers "Rare And Unissued Recordings, v.1: Wild Side Of Life" (Norton, 2008)
    Fans of raw, wild, unpredictable rockabilly will want to check out this trio of rarities discs, featuring odds and ends from one of the genre's great cult figures... I'm gettin' kind of old for this stuff myself, but for those of you looking for a bit of thunder with your twang, this is a pretty groovy collection.

    Charlie Feathers "Rare And Unissued Recordings, v.2: Honky Tonk Kind" (Norton, 2008)

    Charlie Feathers "Rare And Unissued Recordings, v.3: Long Time Ago" (Norton, 2008)

    Feufollet "Cow Island Hop" (Valcour, 2008)
    A fine new album from one of the most dynamic and musically accessible young Cajun bands of this generation. These youngsters from Louisiana remain true to the traditions of Beausoliel, the Balfa family, et. al., but they add a warmth and melodic grace that makes them a little easier on the ears than the classic chanky-chank of bygone years. Particularly nice is their no muss, no fuss incorporation of old-school traditional country sounds -- pedal steel, etc. -- into their sound. The connection has always been there (just listen to those old Adolph Hofner albums...) but it's still a little surprising, and quite gratifying, to hear folks in the swamps reaffirming their links to country music. A nice record! Full of catchy, satisfying songs -- definitely worth checking out.

    Emmylou Harris "Last Date" (reissue) (Rhino Encore, 1982/2008)
    (Produced by Brian Ahern)

    Emmylou's first live album, showcasing a late edition of her famed Hot Band. This is a robust, boisterous live set, which features a lot of upbeat, semi-rowdy rockin' material (including Emmylou taking the lead on a version of the classic instrumental, "Buckaroo"...) Sometimes, especially on the weepers, her vocals get a little milky, but it's definitely a nice snapshot of Emmylou in her early prime, and fans'll be pleased to see this album back in print again (it's one of her records that seems to slip through the cracks from time to time.) More than anything else, this album conveys her ongoing enthusiasm and love for the music. Like the 2000 CD reissue, this includes two extra tracks, the unreasonably gorgeous "Another Pot Of Tea," and "Maybe Tonight," a mid-tempo, loping, (wishin' for) love song. From the original album, her cover of the Everly Brothers' "So Sad" and Neil Young's "Long May You Run" are highlights...

    Toby Keith "That Don't Make Me A Bad Guy" (Show Dog, 2008)

    Hal Ketchum "Father Time" (Curb, 2008)

    Roy Orbison "The Soul Of Rock And Soul" (Sony-BMG Legacy, 2008)
    A stunning 4-CD set, gathering the work of rock-pop crooner Roy Orbison, who gave early rock'n'roll an elegance that even the pop vocals of the time sometimes lacked. This 4-CD set gathers material from all the labels Orbison recorded on over the years, including miniscule indies, majors and minors alike, as well as a slew of demos that illuminate his creative work. The first disc is mostly early demos and rare recordings, including a young Orbison entertaining friends at what sounds like a fairly drunken party (complete with loud, flirtatious chatter and bottle clinking galore...) What's most interesting about these juvenile recordings is how thoroughly "rock" Orbison was, right from the beginning. While other early rockers -- Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, et. al. had their clear hillbilly roots, Orbison was plucking out rock songs for his friends long before he hit the spotlight; he came along a little later than the first rock pioneers, so that makes kinda sense, and it also shows in the many rock and rockabilly cover tunes heard on these early tracks. On Discs Two and Three, we get the hits -- "Running Scared," "Ooby Dooby," "Only The Lonely," "Oh, Pretty Woman" -- and the songs that surrounded the hits, all of a high calibre reflecting Orbison's exacting standards. Then there's a sampling of his 1970s recordings, when Orbison reemerged as a living legend/fan favorite for the nascent rockabilly revival scene. When he had his official "comeback" in the 1980s, culminating in the Traveling Wilburys recordings and ginormous "...and friends" all-star blowout sessions, Orbison became enshrined in a way that few pop culture icons are, universally revered and lauded by his worshippers and peers, and set into a category all his own. Anyone interested in Orbison's work will find this a rich and all-encompassing work. Pretty impressive!

    Brad Paisley "Play: The Guitar Album" (RCA-Nashville, 2008)
    Now, don't get me wrong -- I'm a big Brad Paisley fan. (Honest: check out my old reviews!) But an album of guitar Brad Paisley guitar instrumentals isn't exactly the first thing you'll see on my Christmas list. Paisley obviously fancies himself a guitar hero, and he certainly has a lot of fun when he twangs away on his six-string, but the truth of the matter is that his instrumental outings are often the weak spots in his otherwise awesome albums, and have been for a while. His non-vocal tracks are sometimes funny, but in a limited way: I find his approach too linear and I'm not too fond of the actual tone to his Telecaster pickin', plus I'd really just rather hear the guy sing -- that's where his real wit and warmth comes out, loud and clear. Now, to be fair, this record isn't strictly an all-instrumental album... there are some nice cuts with Steve Wariner, Keith Urban, the late Buck Owens and even a blues duet with B.B. King and a silly voiceover from Andy Griffith. But most of it is the chicken-pickin' thing, and unless you're a diehard fan, a little bit of that probably goes a long, long way.

    Kellie Pickler "Kellie Pickler" (BNA, 2008)
    The second album by former American Idol contestant Kellie Pickler. The opening tracks, including the hit, "Don't You Know You're Beautiful" are pure, '90s-style pop -- calling them "country" seems kind of silly, but hey, nobody asked me. Pickler puts some twang in her voice and brings in a bit of fiddle'n'steel for the next few tunes, and projects an amiable presence. Not a lot here that I'd go wild over -- mostly prefab country-pop, with laboratory-tested melodic hooks, grandiose key changes galore and goofy, synthy filligrees that make it all seem so sterile. Still, Pickler is comfortable with the setting, much more so than on bluesy, thumpy "bad girl" anthems like "Lucky Girl," territory that's better left to folks like Gretchen Wilson or Carlene Carter. If you're a Pickler fan, you won't be disappointed; if you prefer Waylon, Loretta or Hank, you might wanna give this a pass.

    Jenny Scheinman "Jenny Scheinman" (Koch, 2008)
    (Produced by Tony Scherr)

    An interesting album from Ms. Scheinman, who is best known as a violinist, playing with noodle-jazmeister Bill Frisell over the last few years. Here she emerges as a singer of acoustic folk-blues and jazzy standards, in much the same mould as Jolie Holland, Be Good Tanyas and various likeminded compatriots such as Madeline Peyroux, et. al. Like Gillian Welch or Suzy Roche, Scheinman has a singular vocal presence, a plaintive voice that pierces the veil and leaps out of the mix -- it's not conventionally pretty, and her phrasing seems a bit rugged and rough, but she carries a lot of musical history and self-awareness with her, and she pulls you in with her calm, subtle authority. Although she goes to great lengths to keep things simple and stripped down, one of the most alluring tracks is the more poppish "Skinny Man," which has a nice melodic groove to it, and some steel guitar that brings to mind those great old Bonnie Raitt records. This is an album where the rough edges have been purposefully left in, and it should appeal to folks who like music made by real people. Clearly, Scheinman and her pals are capable of smoothing everything out and making it all sound perfect... it's kind of nice to hear someone who chooses not to, though, and as a result this disc has lots of quiet magical moments. Definitely worth checking out!

    Jenny Scheinman "Crossing The Field" (Koch, 2008)
    An instrumental companion disc that highlights Scheinman's compositional and virtuosic sides. Haven't heard it, but I bet it's groovy.

    Lucinda Williams "Little Honey" (Lost Highway, 2008)
    (Produced by Eric Liljestrand & Tom Overby)

    Thank God, Lucinda Williams has finally gotten her mojo back. This disc has her once again writing crisp, clever songs, with a raw, ribald wit and -- most important of all -- with the concision and artfulness of her best early work. Plus, she sounds so much happier than on her last few albums, which were so grim she earned a nickname as the Bummer Queen of the Americana scene. Here, Lucinda sounds once again like she's back in touch with the power of love -- sweet, sad, irresistible Love -- and that she's back in the world of the living again. On "Circles and Xs," "If Wishes Were Horses" and the album's upbeat opener, "Real Love," Williams is on the top of her game, capable of writing songs have poetic power greater than that of any other living mortal, tunes that will burrow into your brain, and bespeak an artistic vision that is cleansing and clear. Okay, admittedly, I'm not wild about clanky boogie-rock numbers like the grungy "Honey Bee", a hangover from her recent rock-chick fixation: playing songs like this one may feel personally cathartic, but the effect it has on me as a listener is simply to send me looking for the remote. But that's are only one song, and when you do hit the "skip" button, you wind up a gem such as the acoustic, Memphis-y plunk-twang of "Well Well Well," Likewise, the downcast "Knowing" is a bit dreary and meandering, as is "Heaven Blues" which follows, but keep going and you'll come to the more ethereal, mysterious "Rarity," which almost sounds like a Tindersticks track. And then there's "Jailhouse Tears," a gleefully obscene duet with labelmate Elvis Costello, that certainly loosens things up a bit. Longtime fans: it's safe to come home now. Lucinda's back.
    Download picks:

  • Tears Of Joy
  • If Wishes Were Horses
  • Well Well Well

    Lucinda Williams "Live From Austin, TX ('89)" (DVD) (New West, 2005)

    Lee Ann Womack "Call Me Crazy" (MCA-Nashville, 2008)
    (Produced by Tony Brown)

    A veteran of a decade's worth of hitmaking in Nashville, Lee Ann Womack is one of those precious few Music City artists who can move back and forth between twangy neotrad and slick country pop and still get it right every time. These days, she tends to alternate between the two in album-sized chunks -- and this disc is one of her more pop-oriented records, a smooth, doleful set of breakup ballads that opens strong with the clever wordplay of "Last Call" and the "Either Way," an emotionally crushing portrait of a marriage just going through the motions. The rest of the album follows in a similar mode, well-sculpted, tastefully arranged pop-twang full of heartbreak and perseverance... The disc gets to be a bit of a downer, but if you're looking for a record to feel sorry to, and really need to delve into those sad, sad feelings, this is a real high-class option. There's a change in mood midway through, where she sings an homage to fallen country martyrs, "I Think I Know (What Killed Keith Whitley)" and then doles out several stunning, low-key honkytonk weepers. "If These Walls Could Talk" ("they'd pray") is destined to be a classic, and her duet with George Strait ("Everything But Quits") is an understated gem with two likeminded neotrad modernists who are absolutely on the same page together. This album doesn't have many songs that jump out at you as big radio hits, but there sure are a lot of songs that'll grow on you and echo in your heart. Good stuff.
    Download picks:

  • Last Call
  • If These Walls Could Talk
  • Everything But Quits (w/ George Strait)

    Neil Young "Sugar Mountain: Live At Canterbury House 1968" (Reprise, 2008)
    Legions of Neil Young fans will rejoice at the legit, major-label release of these live, folk-club recordings from 1968, when Young was just escaping the orbit of the Buffalo Springfield band, but clearly headed for greater things. It's an intimate set, with great sound quality. There are several classics, performed in crisp acoustic versions -- "Mr. Soul," "Broken Arrow," "The Loner," "Birds" -- and lots of discursive, offhand stage banter (listed in the parlance of the times as "raps" on the album, and thoughtfully sorted out in the mix as separate tracks, to you can just hear the music, if that's your preference...) Highlights include "Sugar Mountain" and "Birds," but it's the whole snapshot-of-the-artist angle that's the real attraction here, with Young laughing at his own jokes, forging an intimacy with his rapt, receptive audience, sharing his then-current bag of tricks. It's pretty groovy, and a nice look at his early career...

    Holiday Albums

    Asleep At The Wheel "Santa Loves To Boogie" (Bismeaux, 2007)

    Alison Brown Quartet "Evergreen" (Compass, 2008)
    (Produced by The Alison Brown Quartet & Joe Craven)

    A playful holiday offering from banjo picker Alison Brown, with fleet-footed accompaniment from fidler Joe Craven and a few of their pals. Brown plucks out a few standards -- "Silver Bells," "Sleigh Ride" -- as well as some quirky choices such as Gene Autry's "Two Santas" and "Christmas Time Is Here," from the TV adaptation of Dr. Seuss's "How The Grinch Stole Christmas," as well as a couple of Vince Guaraldi's Peanuts-related yuletide gems. Some nice, joyful, inventive performances -- perfect to have in the background as you prepare that big, yummy holiday dinner!

    Mary Chapin Carpenter "Come Darkness, Come Light: Twelve Songs Of Christmas" (Rounder-Zoe, 2008)

    Faith Hill "Joy To The World" (Warner Brothers, 2008)

    Mindy Smith "My Holiday" (Vanguard, 2007)
    (Produced by Steve Buckingham & Mindy Smith)

    Yeah, this one's from last year, but it's still my favorite holiday record of the decade, so y'all are gonna have to hear about it again... I normally don't have high expectations of Christmas records, but pop-folkster Mindy Smith really outdoes herself on this one. It's heartfelt, engaging, original and quite lovely to listen to... Smith sings a few standards, and she sings them with unusually rich sincerity -- her lingering, lounge-y rendition of Frank Loesser's "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" is a gem, while the sugary cooing on "Away In A Manger" (a duet with Alison Krauss) will make fans of holiday pop happy as clams. It's her original material that stands out here, though: the opening song, "My Holiday," is a gentle meditation on the season (and the value of artificial trees); "Santa Will Find You" is an inspirational classic in five-and-dime drag, and "I Know The Reason" is simply a beautiful song about perseverance and quiet hope, closing with the stanza, "It's been a long, long year/it's coming to an end/Looking by my side/you still have my hand", a lyric that jumps out of the lulling, melodic mix. There are only a couple of clunkers on here, a drum-heavy version of "I'll Be Home For Christmas," and the folk-rock "Come Around" which is okay in a Byrds-y kinda way, but jarring when set next to the rest of these dreamy acoustic songs... Other than that, though, this is an disc I could roast chestnuts to for several seasons to come -- and for a Grinch like me, that's pretty high praise. Check it out.

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