Howdy, folks! Here are some reviews of the new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in August, 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.
Dave Alvin "...And The Guilty Women" (Yep Roc)
Slaid Cleaves "Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away" (Music Road)
Jerry Jericho "Boogie Woogie Dance" (Cattle/Binge Disc)
Lil' Mo And The Monicats "Lil' Mo And The Monicats" (Cow Island)
Lost And Found "Love, Lost And Found" (Rebel)
Tift Merritt "Buckingham Solo" (Fantasy)
Kelly Joe Phelps "Western Bell" (Black Hen)
Elvis Presley "From Elvis In Memphis" (Sony Legacy)
Red Stick Ramblers "My Suitcase Is Always Packed" (Sugar Hill)
Brandon Rickman "Young Man, Old Soul" (Rural Rhythm)
Tom Russell "Veteran's Day: The Tom Russell Anthology" (Shout Factory)
Tom Russell & Gretchen Peters "One To The Heart, One To The Head" (Scarlet Letter)
David Serby "Honkytonk And Vine" (Harbor Grove)
Todd Snider "The Excitement Plan" (Yep Roc)
George Strait "Twang" (MCA Nashville)
Kate Wolf (Collector's Choice catalog reissues)
Dave Alvin "...And The Guilty Women" (Yep Roc, 2009)
Echoing his work with his band, the Guilty Men, roots-rock avatar Dave Alvin is backed here by an all-star, all-gal band including several accomplished Americana old-timers, including Cindy Cashdollar, Nina Gerber, Laurie Lewis and several guest players, such as blues pianist Marcia Ball... and the results are pretty groovy! The album has a sad side, to it, though, as the Guilty Men band is, for now, a thing of the past, since Alvin's longtime collaborator Chris Gaffney passed away, prompting Alvin to switch gears and try something new. Still, the intended note of strength and renewal are hard to miss: Alvin is as soulful and moving as ever, and it's nice to see him share the spotlight with these female performers, some of them West Coasters that he's worked with before. Great record, definitely worth checking out.
Slaid Cleaves "Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away" (Music Road, 2009)
Jerry Jericho "Boogie Woogie Dance" (Cattle/Binge Disc, 2004)
Awesome old-time Texas honkytonk tunes. This one's new to me, but it was the glittering gem in a recent batch of discs that I picked up from the fab Cattle label... Jerry Jericho was a Texas second-stringer, a rough-edged honkytonk singer from the 'Fifties who worked with Johnny Bush and a troop of lesser-known honkytonkers, and like a lot of these unknown old-timers, he was really awesome. This disc includes cover songs of some great oldies such as "Gambling Polka Dot Blues," bluesman Ivory Joe Hunter's "I Almost Lost My Mind," Wayne Raney's "Why Don't You Haul Off And Love Me" and the like... There are also a bunch of more obscure songs, including kooky gems like "I'm Cravin' Lovin' " and "Take Your Time," as well as some great, mopey heartsongs and beer-drinkin' ballads. This is prime Lone Star hillbilly music, one of the strongest archival country records I've picked up in a while. Highly recommended!
Lil' Mo And The Monicats "On The Moon" (Cow Island, 2009)
Lost And Found "Love, Lost And Found" (Rebel, 2009)
(Produced by Lost & Found)
A splendid traditionally-oriented bluegrass album, with down-to-earth picking and vocals, with Scottie Sparks on guitar, Ronald Smith on banjo, and Scott Napier and the late Dempsey Young on mandolin. The singers, particularly bassist Allen Mills, have a rough-hewn, plainspoken style that reminds me of those great old Tony Rice records, where it's more about feeling and less about tone -- these guys feel the lyrics and deliver the lines so that you feel and believe them, too. The material is mostly secular, and you'd be hard pressed to find a finer batch of heartsongs. Good stuff, low-key, unhurried and quite satisfying.
Tift Merritt "Buckingham Solo" (Fantasy, 2009)
A stripped-down live set recorded in Buckingham, England, back in November, 2008...
Heidi Newfield "What Am I Waiting For" (Curb, 2009)
Twangier-than-average modern Nashville stuff from the former lead singer of Trick Pony. She still goes over the top pop, but she makes some nice nods to tradition along the way... I like that she opens the album with a Lucinda Williams cover ("Can't Let Go") and while she may be a little more Tammy Wynette-meets-Shania Twain that truly twangy, it's still better than a lot of the other stuff you'll hear on the radio these days.
Kelly Joe Phelps "Western Bell" (Black Hen, 2009)
Elvis Presley "From Elvis In Memphis" (Sony Legacy, 2009)
A deluxe reissue of two albums that Elvis recorded in 1969, following his much-vaunted 1968 comeback concert... Here he was working with producer Chips Moman and "The Memphis Boys" studio crew some fine, funky, soulful session players who gave the King a solid modern sound... Times had changed a lot since Elvis made his recording debut back in 1950s-era Memphis, but Elvis had changed, too, and his louche crooning style fit well with the sexy R&B vibe pioneered by the Wrecking Crew and their generation. The 1969 album, From Elvis In Memphis opens with a funky R&B dazzler, "Wearin' That Loved On Look," which has a surprisingly modern, ahead-of-its-time sound; after this futuristic romp, the rest of the album dips into the past, with curious covers of standards like "Long Black Limousine" and Hank Snow's old hit, "I'm Movin' On," as well as a cover of John Hartford's "Gentle On My Mind," which was gaining currency at the time. The album that followed, 1970's Back In Memphis, also mixed old and new -- some of it seems outdated, some of it seems genius -- but in between came one of his biggest triumphs, the smash single, "Suspicious Minds," which is released here in the original mono mix, along with about a dozen other bonus tracks that were recorded in the same sessions as the album tracks. It's a cohesive, thoughtful package, a great reissue effort which gives a pretty clear picture of what Elvis was really up to at this pivotal point in his career. Good for fans and skeptics alike.
Red Stick Ramblers "My Suitcase Is Always Packed" (Sugar Hill, 2009)
Brandon Rickman "Young Man, Old Soul" (Rural Rhythm, 2009)
A nice solo album from the lead singer of bluegrass music's Lonesome River Band... The album title is a pretty good description of Rickman's sound; he's one of those young guys that has a great, gruff-sounding old-coot type of voice. On this disc he tries to distinguish himself from the LRB by picking a more poetic, introspective style, which at times edges into the slower, nostalgia-drenched more ballad-y side of contemporary Top Forty country (particularly on "I Take The Backroads" and "Wide Spot On The Road"). There's not a lot of full-tilt-boogie bluegrass super-picking here, but really, that's okay -- we can hear plenty of that everywhere else. For me the best (and most traditional-sounding) tracks were a trio of gospel songs, including a Jerry Salley original, "Wearing Her Knees Out Over Me," about a mom who spends years praying for her errant son, and "Let Me Walk Lord, By Your Side," an old Carter Stanley song. Bluegrass songwriter Larry Cordle sings harmony on most of this album (although none of his songs are covered) while most of the other musicians are fairly unknown to me (which I find refreshing, considering how wide the bluegrass talent pool is, and how few people get a chance to record...) One standout performance is a duet vocal by Val Storey, on "Rest For His Workers," another one of those gospel tunes I mentioned... A nice record, worth checking out if you're looking for new voices and new approaches in a genre that seems awfully conventional at times.
Tom Russell "Veteran's Day: The Tom Russell Anthology" (Shout Factory, 2008)
Tom Russell & Gretchen Peters "One To The Heart, One To The Head" (Scarlet Letter/Frontera, 2009)
David Serby "Honkytonk And Vine" (Harbor Grove, 2009)
Great record, the third one from this indiebilly hard country rocker from Los Angeles. The album opens on an explosive, rollicking note with "Get It In Gear," a propulsive retro-rock tune worthy of the Blasters or Rockpile in their heydays. Steel-drenched hillbilly twang takes over for the rest of the record, with a bit of Tex-Mex accordion thrown in as well. Each style and each song leaps out at you, in an album packed with concise, masterful gems. Serby seems to be laying claim to the spirit of roots revival that swelled up in L.A. in the 1980s -- nice to hear a new artist taking up the torch and getting it all so right. Word to the wise: this is a great cruising record; take it on your next road trip and turn the volume up high.
Maia Sharp "Echo" (Crooked Crown, 2009)
The twang component seems pretty minimal, but it certainly qualifies as "adult alternative," and there's some crossover between the two. Seems more of a Mary-Chapin Carpenter or Aimee Mann kinda thing, although when she pumps up the arrangements on a tune or two, things get kind of Martina McBride-ish. I'm not really sure I should be tracking her work here, though.
Todd Snider "The Excitement Plan" (Yep Roc, 2009)
George Strait "Twang" (MCA Nashville, 2009)
(Produced by Tony Brown & George Strait)
As the album title implies, George Strait continues to be a veritable one-man public works project for fiddlers and pedal steel players... Of course, sometimes the violins are part of some vast string section, backing Strait up on a milky sensitive-guy power ballad, but more often than not, he's got these twang-oriented session players playing rich, upbeat, old-school honkytonk, and it's nice to hear. The third leg of Strait's country-Top 40 barstool is more or less pure pop, and while that does a little less to get an old-schooler like me excited, it sure works for lots of other folks. Strait is an accomplished old pro, keeping it real when he wants to, but also able to climb up the charts at a time when new acts are younger and vanish faster than ever before. There's enough twang -- and enough glitz -- here to make old fans of all persuasions happy. Keep up the good work, George!
Kate Wolf "Back Roads" (Kaleidoscope/Collector's Choice, 1976)
Kate Wolf "Lines On Paper" (Kaleidoscope/Collector's Choice, 1977)
Kate Wolf "Safe At Anchor" (Kaleidoscope/Collector's Choice, 1979)
Kate Wolf "Give Yourself To Love" (Kaleidoscope/Collector's Choice, 1983)
Kate Wolf "The Wind Blows Wild" (Kaleidoscope/Collector's Choice, 1987)
A pioneer of the modern folk scene, Northern California's Kate Wolf recorded nearly a dozen albums before succumbing to leukemia in the 1980s. This series reissues several of her best records, originally released on the independent Kaleidoscope label; a series of soft-edged contemplative singer-songwriter meditations. Many performers who came in her wake, notably Nanci Griffith, cite Wolf as one of their inspirations in forging a new style of updated, personal acoustic-based songwriting. Definitely worth checking out if you like the softer, more mature side of the style. (Available through the Collector's Choice website.)
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