Howdy, folks! Here are some reviews of the new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in October, 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.
The Amazing Rhythm Aces "Their Very Best" (Varese Sarabande)
Audie Blaylock & Redline "Hard Driving Bluegrass" (Rural Rhythm)
The Carlisles "Tennessee Memories" (BACM)
Claude Casey "The South's Favourite Yodeler" (BACM)
Rosanne Cash "The List" (Manhattan)
Drive-By Truckers "The Fine Print (A Collection Of Oddities & Rarities: 2003-2008)" (New West)
Drive-By Truckers "Live From Austin Texas" (New West)
Rocky Bill Ford "His Complete Recordings" (BACM)
David Frizzell & Shelly West "The Very Best Of..." (Varese Sarabande)
Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers "Pilgrimage" (Curb)
James Hand "Shadow On The Ground" (Rounder)
Patterson Hood "Murdering Oscar" (Ruth Street Records)
Robert Earl Keen "The Rose Hotel" (Lost Highway)
Chris Knight "Trailer II" (Thirty Tigers)
Kris Kristofferson "Closer To The Bone" (New West)
Patty Loveless "Mountain Soul II" (Saguaro Road)
Nothin' Fancy "Lord Bless This House" (Pinecastle)
Lou Reid & Carolina "My Own Set Of Rules" (Rural Rhythm)
The Red Fox Chasers "I'm Going Down To North Carolina -- Complete Recordings 1928-1931" (Tompkins Square)
Jimmie Revard & His Oklahoma Playboys "Naughty Naughty" (BACM)
Charlie Robison "Beautiful Day" (Dualtone)
Tom Russell "Blood And Candle Smoke" (Shout Factory)
Sons Of The Pioneers & Roy Rogers "Way Out There: The Complete Recordings" (Bear Family)
Steep Canyon Rangers "Deep In The Shade" (Rebel)
Rafe Stefanini & Clelia Stefanini "Never Seen the Like" (Yodel-Ay-Hee)
Two High String Band "Hot Texas Bluegrass Burrito" (Self-Released)
Yonder Mountain String Band "The Show" (Frog Pad)
Various Artists "CHRISTMAS ON CAPITOL: COWBOY CLASSICS" (Capitol)
Various Artists "DASHING THROUGH THE SNOW: A BLUEGRASS CHRISTMAS" (Cumberland)
Various Artists "DRIVE-TIME BLUEGRASS" (Rebel)
Various Artists "NOW THAT'S WHAT I CALL COUNTRY, v.2" (Sony-EMI-Universal)
The Amazing Rhythm Aces "Their Very Best" (Varese Sarabande, 2009)
Despite having had a huge crossover hit in 1975 (the irresistibly catchy, "Third Rate Romance") the Amazing Rhythm Aces have remained a cult band, revered by folks in the know, but off the radar in general. The CD era has seen a couple of their classic albums reissued, but this single-CD best-of set does a great job gathering together some of their most enjoyable old songs. In addition to "Third Rate Romance," there are wonderful tunes such as "Ashes Of Love," Amazing Grace (Used To Be Her Favorite Song)", and the stellar "Dancing The Night Away" (which was later covered by Tanya Tucker...) This is a great introduction to one of the most versatile country-roots bands of the late 1970s, although it is a bit short, and leaves a few faves out. (I would gladly trade their delightful version of the gospel oldie, "Life's Railway To Heaven," in place of any of the rock/R&B covers hat are included here ("Mystery Train," et. al.) Also on tap are a couple of late-1980's bonus tracks from singer Russell Smith's solo career -- like Delbert McClinton, Smith is a distinctive Southern singer whose every inflection brings out the link between country music and blues, and it's nice to hear a little of what he did on his own. If you haven't heard of the Aces before, this is a nice way to check 'em out. You might also want to pick up some of the original albums, particularly Stacked Deck and Too Stuffed To Jump.
Audie Blaylock & Redline "Hard Driving Bluegrass" (Rural Rhythm, 2009)
The Carlisles "Tennessee Memories" (BACM, 2006)
There are a few different ways to go about listening to the Carlisles... Bill Carlisle's family band was one of the most relentlessly novelty-oriented country acts -- ever -- and that's saying a lot. So, you can slot them in the a-little-bit-goes-a-long-way category and delight whenever you hear a real zinger from the Carlisles pop up in a regular set of good, old, classic country. Hearing a song like "Unpucker" or "Teletouch" in he middle of some old hearsongs and boozin' tunes can be a real gas. You can also delve into them as pure corn, although if you're like me you might find it a leetle bit hard to sit through more than a handful of their songs at a time. This is high-quality corn, but the manic intensity of the Carlisle style can wear you down pretty quickly. The third way to appreciate the Carlisles is on a purely musical level... Although the group was a kooky hillbilly comedy act, they also had some pretty sophisticated arrangements: witness the sleek vocal charts on "Goo Goo Da Da," which have an air of uptown pop choruses like the Pied Pipers or the Merry Macs. Anyway, whatever way you respond to the material, the Carlisles were a wild act, one-of-a-kind, kooky, and very good at what they did. This generously programmed disc collects twenty-six vintage tracks from 1951-56, and amazingly enough doesn't overlap with the Bear Family set that came out around the same time. There are definitely some gems here including risque ditties like "Bargain Day, Half Off" and "Middle Age Spread," as well as some heartsongs and gospel. Of special note is their 1955 recording of "Rusty Old Halo," a gospel novelty song later covered by Hoyt Axton. If you like a lot of corn in your diet, here's a bushel of Bill Carlisle and his crew. Tastes mighty fine!
Claude Casey "The South's Favourite Yodeler" (BACM, 2006)
A great collection of classic country from a little-known South Carolina showman who was a regional star best known for his yodeling abilities and for his love of Bob Wills-ish western swing material. There's not a lot of yodeling on this disc, but there is some lovely swing material, mostly on the mellow side, as well as several deliciously raunchy hokum-blues style novelty songs, such as "Down With Gin" and "I Took It." Although Casey obviously excelled at blue material, he also recorded sentimental numbers such as "Two Little Girls With Golden Girls" (they die in a house fire while their sinful parents are out drinking and dancing...) and religious tunes such as "Keep Praying" and "Family Reunion In Heaven." Casey was one of those all-around showmen of years gone by, who mastered all kinds of material, as the market demanded. Fans of old-school country will find a lot to love here -- there's not a bad track on the album and plenty of stuff that ought to make it into your personal shortlist for years to come. This covers Casey's recordings from 1938-1953, when he retired from performing and concentrated on a radio career. It's a really fun record.
Rosanne Cash "The List" (Manhattan, 2009)
Lush, beautiful, lingering renditions of various country and folk standards... As legend has it, when Rosanne turned eighteen, her father -- Johnny Cash -- gave her a list of his picks for the top 100 most vital country songs. She kept the list for decades, and after her parents passed away, finally felt it as time for her to tackle the canon, according to Cash. On some songs, such as her remake of the Hank Snow classic, "I'm Moving On," Cash goes so far out of her way to distinguish her version from the original that the song itself seems to get a little lost. On others, though, she really nails it, notably "Long Black Veil" (with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy as a guest performer), the Patsy Cline weeper "She's Got You," and Dylan's "Girl From The North Country," which she retains as a spectral Appalachian/Celtic folk ballad. The album closes with a Carter Family song, "Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow," which touches on the themes of death and reconciliation that have shadowed Cash's work over the last few years -- hard years in which she's lost both her parents and had major health problems herself. But in her embrace of her own country roots, Rosanne has also embraced life, hope and continuity in a way that few others could. A nice record, certainly worth checking out.
Guy Clark "Somedays The Song Writes You" (Dualtone, 2009)
Drive-By Truckers "The Fine Print -- A Collection Of Oddities & Rarities: 2003-2008" (New West, 2009)
Drive-By Truckers "Live From Austin Texas" (CD/DVD) (New West, 2009)
Rocky Bill Ford "His Complete Recordings" (BACM, 2007)
You'd be hard-pressed to find a country singer more rough-hewn and chunky-voiced than "Rocky" Bill Ford, who worked as a barber in Houston and recorded a couple dozen tracks between 1950-56. Ford had a pretty limited vocal range -- think Ernest Tubb with a slight hiccup -- but he sang with conviction, and carried these songs emotionally, particularly when sounding forlorn and forsaken was a plus. Ford had a couple of great (and surprisingly direct) drinking songs to his credit: "Beer Drinking Blues" and "Blowing The Suds Off My Beer," both of which were covered by the more robust and more successful fellow Texan, Big Bill Lister. Initially, Ford wrote a lot of his own material, later he did more cover tunes, and apparently he even took a stab at rockabilly in the late 'Fifties, although the only trace of these efforts seems to be a (very fun) single on Starday, with two thumping sizzlers, "Mad Dog In Town" and "Have You Seen Mabel." Although he wasn't the most dynamic singer, Ford still made some fun records... A nice retrospective of a very obscure hard-country old-timer.
David Frizzell & Shelly West "The Very Best Of..." (Varese Sarabande, 2009)
Frizzell and West were both from country music royalty -- his brother was the late, great Lefty Frizzell, one of the most influential vocalists, and her mother Dotty West had staged a remarkable late-career comeback singing duets with Kenny Rogers. While her mom was still riding high in the Top Forty, Shelly West found a duets partner of her own, and they, too, had surprising success on the charts. This disc gathers together hits such as "You're The Reason God Made Oklahoma" and "Texas State Of Mine," as well as the self-referential, name-checking "Carryin' On The Family Names." The re-release of this long out-of-print material will come as a blessing to longtime fans, although listeners who are unused to the synthy production style of the early 1980s may be thrown off by the light, tinkly sound. Frizzell's rowdy side is largely buried here, but within the confines of mellow, romantic pop-country formula, there are some gems, particularly their version of Roger Miller's "Husbands And Wifes" and the gently loping "You'll Always Be Special to Me." This disc helps fill another gap for anyone checking out the history of Country Top Forty, bringing back several chart entries that had been forgotten over the years.
Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers "Pilgrimage" (Curb, 2009)
(Produced by Larry Gatlin, John Carter Cash, Terry Choate & Doug Johnson)
Countrypolitan elder Larry Gatlin looks back on his career, and on the help that Johnny Cash, one of his early patrons, gave him, back in the day. Gatlin pays homage to the Cash family with a new song, "Johnny Cash Is Dead (And His House Burned Down)," and records several old songs such as "Sweet Becky Walker" that bring back memories of the old days. He also intersperses some spoken dialogue in among the songs, talking about Cash and their friendship, giving this album a very personal feel. Gatlin's an old-timer now, and his voice is much more rugged than it was in the 1970s, but when his brothers kick in with a chorus, buoying up the robustness and enthusiasm that Larry brings to this project. A nice treat for longtime fans.
James Hand "Shadow On The Ground" (Rounder, 2009)
Pure, beautiful, real-deal hard country music. This is the kind of stuff I live for.
Patterson Hood "Murdering Oscar (And Other Love Songs)" (Ruth Street Records, 2009)
Robert Earl Keen "The Rose Hotel" (Lost Highway, 2009)
Chris Knight "Trailer II" (Thirty Tigers, 2009)
The second volume of home tape demos that songwriter Chris Knight cut while living in a doublewide trailer in Kentucky. Fans will be psyched to hear stripped-down acoustic versions of some songs that Knight later recorded in full studio versions...
Kris Kristofferson "Closer To The Bone" (New West, 2009)
Patty Loveless "Mountain Soul II" (Saguaro Road, 2009)
(Produced by Emory Gordy, Jr)
A new set of richly-realized country ballads, with a firm root in country's twangy acoustic past. I'm a big Patty Loveless fan, and enjoyed many of the songs on here, although I have to confess that the album as a whole did not draw me in as much as I had hoped. Loveless and her producer-husband Emory Gordy, Jr. seem to be locked into a production style that, while it has given us many gorgeous recordings in the past, seems a bit static here. Perhaps best taken is small doses, this disc does offer some nice gems for fans of well-produced neo-trad country.
Nothin' Fancy "Lord Bless This House" (Pinecastle, 2009)
The Red Fox Chasers "I'm Going Down To North Carolina -- The Complete Recordings Of The Red Fox Chasers: 1928-1931" (Tompkins Square, 2009)
Lou Reid & Carolina "My Own Set Of Rules" (Rural Rhythm, 2009)
Jimmie Revard & His Oklahoma Playboys "Naughty Naughty" (BACM, 2005)
A swell set of great, classic 1930s western swing, from a regional bandleader who did well on his home turf, but never quite got the same sort of national rep as bigger bands such as Milton Brown or Bob Wills. It's great stuff, though: Revard's band included guitarist and future bandleader Adolph Hofner and his brother Emil, on steel. The vocals are generally a bit ungainly, in a charming way, but the choppy, chunky rhythmic sense belies the instrumental oompf of this band: the fiddles, in particular, are pretty hot. Revard's band roster overlapped with that of the zippier Tune Wranglers; in the late 1930s, Hofner broke off from Revard's group to start a band of his own, but these two dozen tracks capture the original group in its prime. Great stuff, full of boozy cheerfulness and unabashed sentimentality and jazzy sensibilities. Recommended!
Charlie Robison "Beautiful Day" (Dualtone, 2009)
(Produced by Charlie Robison)
I'd imagine that Robison's highly-public divorce from Emily Erwin, of the Dixie Chicks, must have been a pretty hard blow, and certainly there is an undercurrent of ruefulness throughout this album, although it is often masked by a wiseass, wisecracking sneer... The songs don't seem overtly autobiographical, but there is a manic energy in many songs where one might imagine Robison is channeling at least some of whatever tensions led to their breakup. Regardless, Robison is focussed and alive on this record, and while some of the more aggressive tough-guy, party-animal rock tunes don't appeal to me, other, mellower songs are real winners. The album opens on a curious note, with a bright, 1960s-ish sunshine pop song (the irony-drenched title track) and moves into a clunky rock number. But then come a couple of Robert Earl Keen-ish folk-rock numbers ("Down Again" and "Nothin' Better To Do") which open the door for the subtle, sublime "Reconsider," with its chiming pedal steel, ringing chorus and fine (multi-tracked) harmony vocals. The rest of the record continues this balancing act, between muscle-flexing and melody, and ends with the perfect synthesis: a mournful, evocative cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Racing In The Street." This is a fine album, well-crafted and concise, showing Robison's strengths and range, and while not every song will appeal to every listener, it's certainly an affirmation of Robison's own creative arc.
Tom Russell "Blood And Candle Smoke" (Shout Factory, 2009)
Sons Of The Pioneers & Roy Rogers "Way Out There: The Complete Recordings: 1934-1943" (Bear Family 2009)
A stunning 6-CD set that features all the early work of the fabled Sons Of The Pioneers, who were perhaps the finest singing cowboy crew of the golden era before World War II. One of the key members was singer Roy Rogers, who went on to become one of the biggest movie stars in America, and whose own early solo recordings are also included here. This collection spans their peak years, with some of the finest songwriting and best musicianship the genre ever saw. On board are the guitar and fiddle team of Hugh and Karl Farr, who bring a jazzy zest to many songs, while the harmonies of Bob Nolan, Tim Spencer and Roy Rogers are nothing short of sublime. Yup, the big hits such as "Cool Water," "One More Ride" and "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" are all included, as are dozens of less well-known but no less enjoyable cowboy oldies. The set includes all the band's commercial recordings, along with over fifty tracks that were unreleased until now(!) A real treasure trove for fans -- a lot of this music has been released elsewhere, but this big box set sure is a class act!
Steep Canyon Rangers "Deep In The Shade" (Rebel, 2009)
(Produced by Ronnie Bowman)
A swell set of sleek, modern melodic bluegrass with tight harmony vocals and a streamlined tunefulness that gives it a distinctly modern feel without sacrificing any of the band's connections to their bluegrass roots. The Steep Canyon boys have settled into a country-pop tinged territory, calling to mind voices from the past such as Jimmy Martin or even the early, "Flowers On The Wall"-era Statler Brothers. There's a couple of well-chosen cover tunes, notably a fine version of Merle Haggard's "I Must Be Somebody Else You've Known," and then an album's worth of amazing original material, including the tuneful, bouncy singalong "Have Mercy" and the modern-day hard-times ballad, "There Ain't No Easy Street (In The Town Where I Live)". All in all, a really great record -- the Rangers are a band that keep moving from strength to strength and from triumph to triumph. Check it out!
Rafe Stefanini & Clelia Stefanini "Never Seen the Like" (Yodel-Ay-Hee, 2009)
A delightful collaboration between bluegrass/old-timey multi-instrumentalist Rafe Stefanini and his daughter, fiddler Clelia Stefanini. Great stuff, with a wide variety of tunes. Particularly nice are their sweet, spooky, evocative fiddle duets... Recommended!
Two High String Band "Hot Texas Bluegrass Burrito" (2009)
Yonder Mountain String Band "The Show" (Frog Pad, 2009)
Various Artists "CHRISTMAS ON CAPITOL: COWBOY CLASSICS" (Capitol, 2009)
Not all of these artists are what you might call "cowboys..." Sonny James, Ernie Ford, Molly Bee... But others certainly fit the bill: Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers, Jimmy Wakely, and there are some classic tunes on here, regardless. A nice set of seasonal oldies, reissued for the new millennium.
Various Artists "DASHING THROUGH THE SNOW: A BLUEGRASS CHRISTMAS" (Cumberland, 2009)
A holiday set featuring Richard Bailey, Mike Compton, Dennis Crouch, Mark Howard and Rob Ickes...
Various Artists "DRIVE-TIME BLUEGRASS" (Rebel, 2009)
I'm not all that big on "themed" collections that go through a label's back catalog and pick out songs that share a similar topic... But I gotta admit that this "drive time" set -- which is about traveling in general, and not just cars and trucks -- is pretty fun. Heck, with artists such as Red Allen, Blue Highway, Bill Emerson, Del McCoury, Larry Sparks, Mac Wiseman and the venerable Ralph Stanley to pick from, it's kinda hard to go wrong. Ramblin', rovin' and leavin' galore, and lots of swell, high-class picking and pure, high-lonesome vocals, just as you'd expect from the folks at Rebel!
Various Artists "NOW THAT'S WHAT I CALL COUNTRY, v.2" (Sony-EMI-Universal, 2009)
Trace Adkins, Gary Allan, Dierks Bentley, Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert, Montgomery Gentry, Taylor Swift, Keith Urban... Like it's pop-oriented counterparts, this multi-label collection gathers the mega-hits of moment and delivers a powerful wallop for fans of the modern Nashville sound. If you want a record that'll have all the hits you hear on the radio, this one will really deliver. (The only thing I find weird is that the Top 40 pop series is called "That's What I Call Music" while other editions refer to the genres... I mean, are they saying that Country Top 40 isn't music, too?) Anyway, these are the big hits, all in one nice little package, no fuss, no muss. Wahoo!
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