Howdy, neighbors!

Howdy, folks, here are some reviews of the new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in January-February, 2009 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:
Trace Adkins "X" (Capitol-Nashville)
Dierks Bentley "Feel That Fire" (Capitol-Nashville)
Brigitte DeMeyer "Red River Flower" (Brigitte DeMeyer Music)
Steve Martin "The Crow: New Songs For The 5-String Banjo" (40 Productions)
Missy Raines & The New Hip "Inside Out" (Compass)
Blake Shelton "Startin' Fires" (Warner Brothers)
Bob Wills "The Tiffany Transcriptions" (Collector's Choice)
Various Artists "DIM LIGHTS, THICK SMOKE AND HILLBILLY MUSIC" (series) (Bear Family)

New Stuff: January-February, 2009

Trace Adkins "X" (Capitol-Nashville, 2008)
Did I ever mention that I met Trace Adkins once? I did? Oh, well.. anyway... Nice guy; we bonded over our appreciation for country crooner Ed Bruce and he told me great story about how he got screwed out of his royalties when he first came to Nashville. Great guy, with a great voice. I mention this not just to show what a consummate namedropper I am, but so that Adkins (who's like six foot-thirteen) doesn't come kick my ass when I say how disappointing this new album sounds. It's a little too smooth and slick for my tastes, and all the obligatory "tough guy" tunes ring really false. Maybe he's just too rich now and too deeply ensconced in the fame factory to really crank up the volume the way he used to... Anyway, I still like his voice, and while this record doesn't actually suck or anything, I don't think I need to add these songs to my ultimate playlist anytime soon. Standard Nashville fare from a charismatic Top 40 star who in the past has transcended the limitations of the genre. Not my cup of tea.

Dierks Bentley "Feel That Fire" (Capitol-Nashville, 2009)
Nashville Top 40 from one of my favorite 21st Century country stars... This one took a while to win me over... At first it seemed to overproduced and too overwrought (which it is on many songs) but Bentley snuck up on me with several of the slower tunes, notably sweet ballads like "I Wanna Make You Close Your Eyes" "I Can't Forget Her," which sound soulful and sincere. What's funny about this record is that Bentley, who made his mark as a jovial, thinking-man's good-old boy excels on the slow tunes here, and it's the rompy-stompy songs like the single "Feel That Fire" that fall flat, for some reason. One exception is the album's closer, "Last Call For Alcohol," a bluegrass novelty number with Bentley's pal Ronnie McCoury picking some fine mandolin; "Beautiful World" his positive-thinking duet with Patty Griffin, is simply gorgeous, and definitely worth a download.
Download picks:

  • Beautiful World
  • Last Call

    Brigitte DeMeyer "Red River Flower" (Brigitte DeMeyer Music, 2007)
    (Produced by Brady Blade)

    An exquisite Americana offering from this California-based, bluesy roots crooner... Where earlier albums had a rougher edge, this is a languid, mellow set, with a healthy dose of the smoky, sultry vibe made famous by Norah Jones... Indeed, this sounds sort of like the country album many wish Jones would record, filled with deep, soulful pedal steel and unhurried acoustic guitar, and excellent songwriting. Each song is a gem, as the album flows from strength to strength. Several Alt-Americana luminaries pitch in, such as Buddy Miller and Brady Blade (bandmates in Emmylou Harris' Spyboy band) as well as pedal steel legend Al Perkins, contributing some sweet licks to an album that is sure to hold up well over the years. Recommended!

    Pat Green "What I'm For" (Capitol-Nashville, 2009)

    Steve Martin "The Crow: New Songs For The 5-String Banjo" (Rounder/40 Productions, 2009)
    Dang! This is nice. I mean, yeah we all knew that Steve Martin could "really play" the banjo, but who knew that he was this damn good? This is a dazzling set of original compositions, mostly instrumentals, with the compositional strength, technical skill and just plain fun, bouncy abandon to make any bluegrass/newgrass fan jump for joy. Along for the ride are co-producer John McEuen, as well as banjo greats Earl Scruggs and Tony Trischka, and a slew of high-power vocalists, including Mary Black, Vince Gill and Dolly Parton -- Martin rambles his way through one vocal number, the comedic "Late For School," but the real razzle-dazzle here are the instrumental tunes, like "Tin Roof" (which evokes the late John Hartford), the stunning, inventive "Pitkin County Turnaround" and the winsome "Clawhammer Medley." Banjo music fans will definitely want to want to check this out -- Tony Trischka's presence is especially apt, since this recalls the originality and verve of his early solo work. Definitely recommended!
    Download picks:

  • Pitkin County Turnaround
  • Tin Roof
  • Late For School

    Del McCoury "The Best Of Del McCoury - The Groovegrass Years" (Groovegrass, 2008)

    Ronnie McCoury "Little Mo' McCoury" (McCoury Music, 2008)

    Willie Nelson & Asleep At The Wheel "Willie And The Wheel" (Bismeaux, 2009)

    Missy Raines & The New Hip "Inside Out" (Compass, 2009)
    (Produced by Missy Raines & Ben Surratt)

    Not surprisingly, bluegrass bassist Missy Raines tilts towards the funky and melodic as a bandleader: there's probably no way to avoid it, since every bassist in America just has to learn the "Barney Miller" theme song when they start out, and that's a hard template to shake. This disc alternates between vocal numbers (which are very sweet; Raines has a lovely, inviting voice) and muzak-y instrumental numbers... The too-cute fusion instrumentals don't do much for me (I'd rather hear a few straight-ahead bluegrass breakdowns...) but fans of Bela Fleck, et. al. will dig it. The tracks where she sings are great, though, and fit in nicely with a wide variety of folk/Americana styles. Worth checking out.

    Earl Scruggs "The Ultimate Collection: Live At The Ryman" (Rounder, 2008)

    Blake Shelton "Startin' Fires" (Warner Brothers, 2008)
    Give the fella credit -- for a guy with a fairly limited voice, Blake Shelton has built up one heck of a career. This disc has some fun numbers, particularly the album's environmentally-themed opener, "Green," which posits that country folk were "green before green was a thing", playing acoustic guitars, growing their food, etc. (We'll leave aside the whole propane tanks in the back yard and broken trucks in the front stereotypes -- this is a funny song, so we'll leave it at that...) Generally speaking, Shelton best hits the mark on upbeat, rowdy numbers, including the bluesy hillbilly funk of "Never Lovin' You" or even a by-the-numbers blue-collar anthem like "Working Strong." Where he falls flat is on overwrought power ballads such as "She Wouldn't Be Gone" and "I'll Just Hold On" -- no doubt these are his bread-an-butter on commercial radio, but for this crusty old country fan, Shelton's voice just doesn't carry this material. Still, I'd give the rougher tunes a spin -- they'll turn up a smile or two for sure.

    Bob Wills "The Tiffany Transcriptions" (Collector's Choice, 2009)
    I personally can't afford this capacious 10-CD box set collecting the historic radio transcription recordings made by western swing legend Bob Wills for the Tiffany Transcription company in the late 1940s, but I've heard a bunch of 'em before, and this is really great music. Collectors, completists and fans will all want to pick this one up... Or at least drool over it through the record store windows. Lots of classic songs and killer musicianship -- anyone who's serious about digging deep into western swing will want to check this out. Highly recommended, even though it doesn't offer much in the way of "new" material that hadn't already been reissued on the fab series of "Tiffany" LPs and CDs of the 1980s and '90s.

    Various Artists "DIM LIGHTS, THICK SMOKE AND HILLBILLY MUSIC: 1945" (Bear Family, 2008)
    This is a great series for anyone looking to explore the best of hillbilly music from the best years -- the late 1940s before things got too slick. Each volume highlights songs from a particular year, with big hits as well as goofy tunes that were a little bit farther off the radar. This first volume is a doozy, with classics such as "That's All" by Merle Travis, Eddy Arnold's original version of "Cattle Call," "Oklahoma Hills" by Jack Guthrie, Jerry Irby's awesome "Nails In My Coffin," and some classic material by Gene Autry, Spade Cooley, Al Dexter, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills. Heck, yeah. If you're not familiar with this era of country music, jump in! And if you're new to the Bear Family label, this is a great way to meet them as well -- great music from people who know how to treat great music right.

    Various Artists "DIM LIGHTS, THICK SMOKE AND HILLBILLY MUSIC: 1946" (Bear Family, 2008)

    Various Artists "DIM LIGHTS, THICK SMOKE AND HILLBILLY MUSIC: 1947" (Bear Family, 2008)

    Various Artists "DIM LIGHTS, THICK SMOKE AND HILLBILLY MUSIC: 1948" (Bear Family, 2008)

    Various Artists "DIM LIGHTS, THICK SMOKE AND HILLBILLY MUSIC: 1949" (Bear Family, 2008)

    Various Artists "DIM LIGHTS, THICK SMOKE AND HILLBILLY MUSIC: 1950" (Bear Family, 2008)

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