Howdy, folks! Here are some reviews of the new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in July, 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.
Tommy Cash "Rise And Shine/Six White Horses" (Omni Recordings)
Elvis Costello "Secret, Profane & Sugarcane" (Hear Music)
Rusty Draper "No Help Wanted" (Jasmine)
Jim Ford "Big Mouth USA -- The Unissued Paramount Album" (Bear Family)
Jim Ford "The Unissued Capitol Album" (Bear Family)
David Frizzell & Shelly West "The Very Best Of..." (Varese Sarabande)
Levon Helm "Electric Dirt" (Vanguard)
Sarah Jarosz "Song Up In Her Head" (Sugar Hill)
The Jayhawks "Music From The North Country: The Jayhawks Anthology" (Sony Legacy)
George Jones "The Complete Musicor Recordings, v.1-2" (Bear Family)
Kim Lenz & The Jaguars "It's All True!" (Riley Records)
Rhett Miller "Rhett Miller" (Shout Factory)
Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out "Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out" (Rural Rhythm)
Alecia Nugent "Hillbilly Goddess" (Rounder)
Brad Paisley "American Saturday Night" (RCA)
Daryle Singletary "Rockin' In The Country" (Koch)
Son Volt "American Central Dust" (Rounder)
Bryan Sutton "Almost Live" (Sugar Hill)
Jackson Taylor & The Sinners "Aces & Eights" (Smith Music)
Tanya Tucker "My Turn" (Saguaro Road)
Seth Walker "Leap Of Faith" (Hyena Records)
Wilco "Wilco (The Album)" (Nonesuch)
Holly Williams "Here With Me" (Mercury Nashville)
Tommy Cash "Rise And Shine/Six White Horses" (Omni Recordings, 2009)
A handy reissue of two early albums by Johnny's brother Tommy, Rise And Shine and Six White Horses, both from 1970.
Elvis Costello "Secret, Profane & Sugarcane" (Hear Music, 2009)
(Produced by T Bone Burnett)
Rusty Draper "No Help Wanted" (Jasmine, 2009)
The good-natured, modestly talented Rusty Draper had a couple of tunes in the Country charts (most notably "Gambler's Guitar," which hit #6) but mostly he was a pop singer, following in Pat Boone's footsteps. More often than not, he'd bring country tunes over into the Pop charts, like his goofy, rinky-dink cover of the Carlisle's "No Help Wanted." This 2-CD set, while still underwhelming from a country lover's perspective, is a definitel upgrade from other collections previously available in the last few years. Anyone who was a fan way back when will be thrilled to see this disc with all these '50s oldies back in print... It's a nice summation of Draper's early years -- not gripping material, but cute in a Norman Rockwell-ish, Eisenhower-era '50s kinda way.
Jim Ford "Big Mouth USA -- The Unissued Paramount Album" (Bear Family, 2009)
A tantalizing set of material from one of the odder characters on the 1970's twang scene. Songwriter Jim Ford was a pal of funk-soul pioneer Sly Stone; he played on some Sly & The Family Stone albums, as well as other iconic rock and pop records, but he nurtured an abiding love of country music, and wrote some truly stunning original twang-tunes. He must have had some interesting personal quirks, though, because there is a string of unissued demo material for projects on a number of labels. Maybe the major-label "suits" just weren't ready yet to have some hippie longhair crash the Nashville party, but for whatever reason, Ford faded from the scene and wound up living off the radar, ending his life in obscurity, in a trailer home up in Northern California. In his home was a treasure trove of demo tapes, unissued masters, and a handful of singles that had been issued over the years. Some of it is really great stuff, well-sculpted country songs, often with a novelty twist, as well as some dips into sunshine pop-era rock and soul. This disc, along with the Capitol Album collection below, overlaps with earlier Bear Family releases, but that doesn't detract from their value: if you're hearing of Ford's work for the first time, then these discs will be a real treat. Check it out!
Jim Ford "The Unissued Capitol Album" (Bear Family, 2009)
David Frizzell & Shelly West "The Very Best Of David Frizzell & Shelly West" (Varese Sarabande, 2009)
Levon Helm "Electric Dirt" (Vanguard, 2009)
(Produced by Larry Campbell)
Another doozy of an album by Americana elder Levon Helm, a founding member of the fabled Band, whose previous solo disc, Dirt Farmer was a powerful blast from the raw heart of American roots music. This record picks up where that one left off, and while Farmer was more on the acoustic side, they share the same vibe, a rough-edged, unruly intelligence and appreciation for the joys of a life that can be awfully hard at times. He opens with a cover of an old Grateful Dead song, "Tennessee Jed," and that sets the tone for the rest of the album. This is a collection of chunky, untumbled gems -- a more timid musician might work this stuff over and over until everything was nice and smooth, but Helm just splits the rocks open with a hammer and lets each jewel shimmer in the sun, jagged, natural and raw. You'll wanna check this one out.
Sarah Jarosz "Song Up In Her Head" (Sugar Hill, 2009)
(Produced by Gary Paczosa & Sarah Jarosz)
On her opening track, "Song Up In Her Head," newcomer Sarah Jarosz namechecks the mighty Gillian Welch and then moves through a series of songs that easily put her on a par with her Americana-indie icon. While that track may seem imitative, the next, "Edge Of A Dream," is revelatory -- a moody, mystical tune with a drifting melody that can get stuck in your head for days on end. Jarosz, a multi-instrumentalist who is equally at home on clawhammer banjo, piano or mandolin, performs with immense confidence, which is all the more remarkable given that she was only seventeen years old when this record was made. In the last five years she has been performing onstage with some of the biggest names in bluegrass, including spacegrass elder David Grisman. Grisman's son Samson is in Jarosz's posse, playing bass on this album, alongside studio pros such as Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan, and former Nickel Creek-er Chris Thile. She clearly has an affinity for a wide range of bluegrass and other acoustic styles, from traditional/old-timey sounding songs in the David Rawlings-Gillian Welch mold to more exploratory, poetic songwriting, ala Nickel Creek and Alison Krauss. As a songwriter and performer, Jarosz is a marvel, penning "Broussard's Lament," one of the most powerful of the recent crop of modern topical folk songs about Hurricane Katrina, while tapping deep into the blues-gospel spirituality of "Come On Up To The House," and the Joni Mitchellesque melancholy of "Long Journey." On these songs, as on others, she sings with an emotional depth and level of understanding that belies her youth. Only on a couple of tunes, the goofy-gothy "Shankill Butchers" and the sprightly but amorphous "Left Home," is there the tiniest hint of her as a teenager learning her craft; otherwise, she reveals herself as one of the most powerful performers in her field, newcomer or otherwise. This is one of the best Americana albums of the year, and Ms. Jarosz is an artist to keep close track of, a real gem.
The Jayhawks "Music From The North Country: The Jayhawks Anthology" (Sony Legacy, 2009)
The twin legacies of Alex Chilton and Gram Parsons hover over these classic indie/billy twangcore tunes... This is a nice 2-CD retrospective tracing the band's various phases and expansions, with shifting lineups and changes in style. I've always heard the Jayhawks as more of a rock band, though the twang is definitely there. It's interesting to hear them move from the mystically-oriented early days with Mark Olson in the band into a more streamlined rock style when the band was led by Gary Louris -- the programming of Disc One (the studio "hits") does a remarkable job of making these changes sound like a cohesive whole. Disc Two features demo tracks and other rarities, and gathers plenty of goodies for longtime fans to enjoy. (I'm sad that they didn't include their sublime cover of Grand Funk Railroad's "Bad Time" -- one of the catchiest tracks they ever recorded -- but I guess you can't squeeze everything in on every best-of...) The deluxe package also includes a third disc of video material, which is also kinda fun.... Overall, this is a very good document of the band's first couple of decades, a fan's delight as well as a strong introduction to one of the key bands in the 1990s alt-country scene.
George Jones "The Complete Musicor Recordings, v.1: 1965-1971 -- Walk Through This World With Me" (Bear Family, 2009)
Following up after their jaw-dropping box set of George Jones' complete early 1960s recordings for the United Artists label, comes this lavish pair of boxes collecting all his work for producer Pappy Daily's independent Musicor label. It starts off with this 5-CD set, which is quickly followed by the 4-CD collection listed below. It's really great stuff, perhaps not as raw as his early work on Mercury, or as majestic as his countrypolitan classics recorded for Columbia/Epic, but great stuff, nonetheless. Here's George Jones, perfecting his craft as a ballad singer, still singing a few lightweight novelty songs, but mostly the man's breaking the heart of the world, summoning sorrow and pathos that is almost unmatched by any other singer in any other genre. Even when doing journeymanlike work, he was a transcendent balladeer, and this collection is a completist's dream...
George Jones "The Complete Musicor Recordings, v.2: 1965-1971 -- A Good Year For The Roses" (Bear Family, 2009)
In this second volume, we hear, among other landmarks, George's first duets with his wife, Tammy Wynette, and the prototypical originals of classics such as "Good Year For The Roses," etc. Ignore it at your own peril.
Kim Lenz & The Jaguars "It's All True!" (Riley Records, 2009)
(Produced by Kim Lenz)
A nice, solid indie set from rockabilly revivalist Kim Lenz, who sings her little heart out on a dozen new tunes, all but four of which were written my Lenz herself. It's a fine retrobilly party, with guests that include SoCal icon Big Sandy, who sings a nice duet on the Sun Records-y "He's All Mine." There are some cheerful, funny novelty numbers, particularly the Lenz original, "Zombie For Your Love," and the album closes on a sizzling note, when guitarist Nick Curran cuts loose with some super-wicked riffs on "Burning Rubber." Nice to see her still doing her thing and keeping it really 'billy.
Rhett Miller "Rhett Miller" (Shout Factory, 2009)
Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out "Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out" (Rural Rhythm, 2009)
Alecia Nugent "Hillbilly Goddess" (Rounder, 2009)
(Produced by Carl Jackson)
A powerful performer, Alecia Nugent has perfected her blend of traditional bluegrass and Top Forty country... This album tilts further towards the poppier end of the spectrum, with a bunch of well-crafted, high-concept ballads, that are just the sort of stuff that Nashville loves. Gushy romantic weepers like "Don't Tell Me (To Stop Loving You)" and "Dyin' To Hold Her Again" are pretty powerful, as are the more overtly chick-oriented self-discovery songs, "The Last Greyhound" and "Just Another Alice." Honestly, I don't know why Nugent isn't a huge Top Forty star by now; she's certainly got the formula down right... But I guess if you're a Top 40 fan who also likes to have an insider edge, you could consider Nugent a hidden secret, an artist whose albums you could give to your friends and have them go, "holy cow!" and wonder why they hadn't heard of her before. There's stuff for more twang-oriented listeners to enjoy, too, including "The Nugent Family Band," a sweet, nostalgic look back at Alecia's days on the traditional bluegrass circuit. There's also the album's gleeful title track, a celebration of low-rent, blue collar life that's sort of like an extended remix of George & Tammy's "We're Not The Jet Set," as well as "The Writing's On The Wall," a stellar hard-country duet with Bradley Walker. It should also be mentioned that the album's producer, Carl Jackson, sings harmony throughout, adding an extra layer of sweetness and authenticity... Whether you're a country fan or a bluegrasser, this disc has a lot to offer. Recommended!
Brad Paisley "American Saturday Night" (RCA, 2009)
Daryle Singletary "Rockin' In The Country" (Koch, 2009)
(Produced by Greg Cole & Chuck Rhodes)
A softer set from Singletary, with plenty of romantic songs with emotionally mature lyrics that portray a thoughtful, macho vulnerability. This kind of "chick-friendly" commercial country can often seem contrived, but Singletary pulls it off pretty well on this disc. He gets points for timeliness on the current events weeper, "Real Estate Hands," where our narrator visits the house he used to own before the bank foreclosed and took it away; an even more shameless tear-jerker is "That's Why God Made Me," a song that tells of a childhood love affair that turns into marriage after the girl "gets into trouble" with another boy: he volunteers to marry her, so that her parents will never know about the mistakes she made. And when the kid grows old enough to ask why he doesn't look like the rest of the family? Well, God sent daddy to help him, too. I know it's hokey, but I can't help myself... I got a little tear in my eye, too! And strangely enough, I found myself drawn to one of the most overtly pop-oriented songs, "Background Noise," which has a really catchy hook. An of course, there's Singletary's voice, one of those rich, deep rumbles, like Merle Haggard or John Anderson... Sure sounds good to me!
Son Volt "American Central Dust" (Rounder, 2009)
(Produced by Son Volt)
Jay Farrar may have become less prolific in recent years, but he's certainly no less alluring or intense... This is Son Volt's first album in a couple of years, but like earlier outings, it's a mix of dense, mystifying, half-mumbled lyrics and rich, appealing twang, sort of a countrified version of REM. The slow, thick obscurity of his songwriting is iced with an aura of prophecy, yet tempered by an easygoing melodic grace -- you might not know what Farrar is talking about, but you'll enjoy the time spent puzzling over it. One of the most straightforward songs is also one of the most appealing, built around a simple, direct metaphor, both celebratory and cautionary: on "Dynamite," Farrar opines, ...this love/is like celebrating/the Fourth of July/with dynamite/the Fourth of July/with dynamite... On other songs, I mostly don't "get" what he's singing about, but it really doesn't matter... Methinks this is one of those times when it's the journey, not the arrival, that's the real point. It's another off-kilter gem from these alt-country standard-bearers, one that will keep fans happy until the next set of songs comes along.
Bryan Sutton "Almost Live" (Sugar Hill, 2009)
(Produced by Bryan Sutton)
A nice set of upbeat, mostly-instrumental bluegrass tunes, with some fine flatpicking by guitarist Bryan Sutton, and sweet, sympathetic accompaniment from his all-star cast of guests. Bela Fleck, Russ Barenburg, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Tim O'Brien, Chris Thile and others join in the jams, tunes that tend towards light, joyful, inventive bluegrass/newgrass romps. Sutton also has a lot of fun with the Django-styled gypsy jazz romp, "Le Pont De La Moustache," one of several just-for-fun songs. Nice picking, with vocals on a couple of songs, including the Delmore Brothers classic, "Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar," which appropriately enough closes the album. Give it a spin!
Jackson Taylor & The Sinners "Aces & Eights" (Smith Music, 2009)
(Produced by Jackson Taylor & The Vallejo Brothers)
A nice rough, rugged outlaw set from Texas, with lots of songs about drinkin,' driving and wanting to get laid. And, look: it comes with a "Parental Advisory" sticker! That would be due to the unairable, but scathing "Country Song," which deftly skewers the current cliches of Top 40 Country in a couple of quick couplets ("This ain't no country song/about your f**king pickup trucks/or your grandpappy's farm/This ain't no Nashville scene/I ain't no spiky-haired halfass/popstar wannabee...) and then goes on to do the same for the contemporary rock and hip-hop scenes... It's a funny song, though not something you'd want to play in mixed company. It's backed up with a solid set of chunky, rock-tinged indiebilly... Taylor's robust, whole-hearted vocals bring to mind a combination of Joe Ely and Jerry Lee Lewis -- laconic, yet incisive, and with a definite edge. Some of the wailing guitars are a bit much for me, but I like the crunchy power chord and the twang. Jason Boland and Dale Watson guest-star, as well as punk guitarist, Johnny "2 Bags" Wickersham, from the Cadillac Tramps. This is a pretty strong record, with edgy lyrics and sincere performances throughout.
Tanya Tucker "My Turn" (Saguaro Road, 2009)
(Produced by Pete Anderson)
Ms. Tucker hits a solid home run with this thumping set of classic country hits, ranging from good, old honky-tonk shuffles such as "Wine Me Up" and "Lovesick Blues" to weepers like "Walk Through This World With Me" and Don Gibson's bouncy "Oh, Lonesome Me." Tucker lets the fiddle and pedal steel come through loud and clear, and her voice does, too, remarkably still tinged with the wicked teenage twang she had when she started out decades ago. There's a lot for hard-country fans to be excited about here, in this sweet, no-nonsense set, particularly on an irresistible old-fashioned honky-tonk tune like "Crazy Arms," where Tucker just nails it. There are a couple of songs that were originally so gender-specific that her modifications to the lyrics simply don't work: Wynn Stewart's "Big Big Love" is one of those semi-graphic, nudge-nudge, wink-wink innuendo novelty songs that doesn't entirely translate because, well, let's be honest: they weren't singing about a girl's anatomy on that one. Even more of a groaner is her gender flip on "Is Anybody Going To San Antone," in which the new lyric, "...forget I've ever known him" undercuts one of the greatest chorus closers of all time. These are small potatoes, though, compared to the rollicking, deliciously old-fashioned true country feel of this cheerful, vivacious album. If you like old-school hard country, give this one a spin!
Gina Villalobos "Days On Their Side" (Face West, 2009)
(Produced by Gina Villalobos & Erik Colvin)
Seth Walker "Leap Of Faith" (Hyena Records, 2009)
(Produced by Gary Nicholson)
A joyful, playful dip into uptempo, good-time blues and old-fashioned R&B, all with a distinctive roots-music twist. Walker reminds me of some of the better 1970s-era white blues-twang practitioners, folks such as George Gritzbach or Mose Allison... He "gets" the blues, and celebrates the style, while giving it a knowing nudge, making it imperfect, exuberant and fun, and not simply an exercise in a musical wax museum. This is a fun record, one that will bring back a nostalgic vibe for grey and grizzled roots music fans, and hope for the young'uns that they'll have some happy memories someday, too. Give 'er a spin!
Wilco "Wilco (The Album)" (Nonesuch, 2009)
(Produced by Wilco & Jim Scott)
Mac Wiseman "Bluegrass Hits And Heartsongs" (Rebel, 2009)
(Produced by Lou Ukelson & Fred Bartelstein)
Beautiful bluegrass. Mac Wiseman is one of my favorite bluegrass old-timers -- a sweet singer with an unerring sense of how to bring out the emotional core of the sentimental lyrics, and a classy sense of timing that always brings a nice little twist to his records. This disc collects fourteen tracks from a couple of albums he made for the independent Vetco label in the 1970s; for these sessions Wiseman went back to his classic recordings of the early 'Fifties and revived a bunch of his favorite songs... It'll come as no surprise to longtime fans that these tracks are uniformly lively and gorgeous; even well into his golden years, Wiseman was always a first-rate performer, singing with great warmth and gusto. If you haven't heard his stuff before, this is a great chance to delve into Wiseman's legacy. Recommended!
Holly Williams "Here With Me" (Mercury Nashville, 2009)
(Produced by Justin Niebank & Holly Williams)
A powerful set of confessional songs from the granddaughter of the great Hank Williams... Like her father (Hank, Jr.) Ms. Williams is perhaps not the most elegant or moving singer, but through sheer force of will, she embues her songs with raw emotional power. Interestingly enough, the artists most reminds me of are also second- and third-generation country singers, particularly Rosanne Cash and Carlene Carter, whose self-awareness of themselves as members of hard-country royalty must color their art in some similar way. This album is full of searing emotional portraits, songs of love yearned for and lost, as well as intensely adult, real-life topics such as the loss of a child (in "Without Jesus Here With Me") in which she describes the coming-together of her entire family to help cope with the tragedy, and the comfort she found from religion as well. This dovetails into a nice, soulful cover of Neil Young's "Birds," which takes the anguished feel of the first song, and brings it too a quiet close. This isn't an album full of hummable pop hooks, but it packs a wallop, nonetheless. If you like the adult-contemporary leanings of Mary-Chapin Carpenter, et al., or sometimes wonder what Gretchen Wilson might sound like when she mellowed and matured, then you might wanna check this record out.
Hick Music Index
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