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 Winter, 2009-2010. 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:
Rex Allen, Jr. "It's Finally Christmas" (2009)
Luke Bryan "Doin' My Thing" (Capitol Nashville)
June Carter "Hillbilly Favourites" (BACM)
Terri Clark "The Long Way Home" (Capitol Nashville)
Alejandro Escovedo "A Man Under The Influence/Deluxe Bourbonitis" (Bloodshot)
Rosie Flores "Girl Of The Century" (Bloodshot)
Alex Hargreaves "Prelude" (Adventure Music)
Toby Keith "American Ride" (Show Dog Nashville)
Miranda Lambert "Revolution" (Sony/Columbia Nashville)
Tim McGraw "Southern Voice" (Curb)
Chuck Mead "Journeyman's Wager" (Thirty Tigers)
James McMurtry "Live In Europe" (Lightning Rod)
Old 97s "Wreck Your Life... And Then Some" (Bloodshot)
Elvis Presley "Elvis 75: Good Rockin' Tonight" (Sony-BMG Legacy)
Dave Rawlings "A Friend Of A Friend" (Acony)
Jean Shepard "Beautiful Lies: The Early Years" (Jasmine)
Steve Wariner "c.g.p.: My Tribute To Chet Atkins" (SelectTone)
Various Artists "GASTONIA GALLOP" (Old Hat)

New Stuff: November, 2009

Rex Allen, Jr. "It's Finally Christmas" (2009)

Luke Bryan "Doin' My Thing" (Capitol Nashville, 2009)
Here's the new kid on the block, a Top Forty guy with a nice deep voice and an exaggerated twang -- amid the big, ringing electric guitars and Toby Keith-ish chest-thumpers, Luke Bryan manages to pop out a couple of nice twangy tunes... I like "Rain Is A Good Thing" (high concept, but a nice chorus) and "What Country Is" which plays the small-town, salt of the earth card, but also sends a zinger or two towards the modern-day country poseur crowd (" ain't a rebel flag you bought at the mall...") The power ballads ("Apologize," "Everytime I See You") are predictably godawful, but like most modern Nashville albums, Bryan's sophmore album is a mixed bag, with a little something for everyone. But hey, that's what iTunes was made for!

June Carter "Hillbilly Favourites" (BACM, 2009)
Early stuff from back before she met Johnny Cash and when she was still known as a "hillbilly" performer... Unlike her sister Anita, who had perfect pitch, June Carter was (literally) tone deaf, and specialized in uptempo comedic material, where dramatic skill was more important than hitting the right notes. She excelled at it, too, often stealing the show at Carter Family concerts, and landing a solo record deal when she was quite young. This disc gathers lots of rare material, primarily her studio singles from the 1950s, where she was backed by top talent such as Chet Atkins and Homer & Jethro. A little bit goes a long way -- I wouldn't recommended listening to this disc from end to end, but peppering a song or two into a classic country playlist could be a lot of fun. Includes such oddities as "Crocodile Tears," "Root Hog Or Die," "Left Over Lovin' " and "I Said My Nightshirt And Put On My Prayers." They just don't make 'em like this anymore!

Terri Clark "The Long Way Home" (Capitol Nashville, 2009)
Years before Gretchen Wilson hit the scene, Terri Clark was busy bein' one of the boys... This disc is less rough-and-tumble than her usual fare... It's also not as femmed-out as some of her softer stuff, but she's certainly more ballad than barroom this time around. A few good tunes -- "Poor Girl's Dream" is one of the more vivid lyrics; "Tough With Me" has a catchy beat. I miss the thumping honky-tonk tunes, though... Clark's voice is better suited to the tougher stuff. Well, maybe next time around: she tends to switch directions with each album these days.

Alejandro Escovedo "A Man Under The Influence: Deluxe Bourbonitis Edition" (LP) (Bloodshot, 2001/2009)
An expanded-edition reissue of some old stuff from Austin twang-poke scenester Alejandro Escovedo... I think this may be a vinyl-only release (which is okay, since it originally came out in 2001 as a CD-only album...) However, the LP also comes with a code to get the tracks as an MP3 download, so you get the best of both worlds... A welcome treat for Escovedo's longtime fans.

Rosie Flores "Girl Of The Century" (Bloodshot, 2009)
New stuff from everybody's favorite hillbilly filly... now one of the grand dames of the alt-country scene... Keep up the good work, Rosie!

Alex Hargreaves "Prelude" (Adventure Music, 2010)
(Produced by Mike Marshall)

Nice, improvisatory spacegrass-jazz, with some of the usual suspects welcoming a relative newcomer to the scene. Of course, violinist/multi-instrumentalist Alex Hargreaves has been playing alongside heavy hitters such as David Grisman, Jerry Douglas and, of course, Adventure Music label owner Mike Marshall, who joins him here for his debut album, along with Bela Fleck, Noam Pikelny, and others. The style isn't exactly new, but the player is, and as the album's title (and various encomiums spread throughout the liner notes) imply, there are big expectations for what's ahead for such a young and inventive performer. If you like the style, you'll want to check this one out.

Toby Keith "American Ride" (Show Dog Nashville, 2009)
Over the years, I've become a sincere fan of Toby Keith as a genuine honkytonk hero... It took a while for me to get there, though, and Keith does a lot to dissolve that conversion on this collection of over-obvious clunkers. The flag-waving title track is just plain dumb, a rehash of the anthemic, rock-oriented patriotic filler that has become a staple of contemporary Top 40 dude-country. Don't get me wrong: I don't have a problem with America, but the songwriting itself is just plain lazy and unengaging... It's gimmicky and tired. The same is true with a lot of this record -- Keith pulls it together to summon up a few almost-interesting moments, but it's more about dipping into technique rather than any sincere feeling. I do think he's become one of the best country singers of his generation, but even the big dogs have their bad days. I don't think he was very inspired, or even trying very hard, on this one. I'm hoping for something better the next time around.

Miranda Lambert "Revolution" (Sony/Columbia Nashville, 2009)

Tim McGraw "Southern Voice" (Curb, 2009)

James McMurtry "Live In Europe" (Lightning Rod, 2009)

Chuck Mead "Journeyman's Wager" (Thirty Tigers, 2009)
Solo stuff from a founding member of BR-549... I haven't heard it yet, but I'm sure it's worth having on your radar...

Geoff Muldaur "Texas Sheiks" (Tradition & Moderne, 2009)

Old 97s "Wreck Your Life... And Then Some: The Complete Bloodshot Recordings" (Bloodshot, 2009)
A handy reissue of some of the finest early music my this key twangcore band... Nice to have this stuff back in print!

Elvis Presley "Elvis 75: Good Rockin' Tonight" (Sony-BMG Legacy, 2009)
This fab 4-CD retrospective covers Presley's entire career, from his legendary first recording (a one-off vanity pressing of "My Happiness" which he paid to record as a gift for his mother) to the post-millennial dance remix of "A Little Less Conversation." In between there are the thunderous early rockabilly hits ("Heartbreak Hotel," "That's All Right," etc.) the goofy movie songs ("Blue Hawaii," "King Creole") a ton of sentimental ballads, a smidge of gospel, some toss-offs, some gems ("His Latest Flame," "Little Sister") and his post-1968 comeback hits such as "Suspicious Minds" and "In The Ghetto," and finally his glitzy years of Las Vegas self-parody and extravagance. It's a remarkable swath of American music, showing Presley's roots not only in African-American blues and hillbilly twang, but also a deep and abiding love of pure cornball romanticism and Tin Pan Alley pop vocals. Indeed, one of the striking things about Elvis' early years is the high proportion of non-rock material -- after all, the song he recorded for his mom was about as sappy as you could get, and he really, honestly loved that stuff. All of this is what made Presley one of the great American entertainers - he liked all kinds of music, and appealed to all kinds of fans. What we have here is perhaps the best single collection of his work (outside of some monolithic "complete recordings" set) which not only touches all the bases, but also digs deep and adds texture and nuance to the Elvis mythos. Sure, every Elvis fan in the world will lament the omission of a tune or two that they *wish* were here (where's "Clam Bake"??) but what is included is pretty impressive. A stellar overview of one of the world's pivotal pop artists... (and a real country boy, to boot!)

Dave Rawlings "A Friend Of A Friend" (Acony, 2009)
(Produced by David Rawlings)

A stellar "debut" album from Gillian Welch's longtime collaborator, guitarist Dave Rawlings, who really pulls out the stops on this rock-folk mini-masterpiece. (Welch is on here, too: I guess they figured it was time to give him more props and give him a "solo" album of his own...) As with the other Rawlings-Welch outings, this record is packed with original songs that sound uncannily like traditional tunes and oldies... There are also several great cover tunes, which are particularly effective at showing what a strong performer Rawlings is... On both his covers of Neil Young's "Cortez The Killer" and Jesse Fuller's "Monkey And The Engineer," I "got" the lyrics in ways that I simply hadn't before (particularly on "Monkey": ooooooooh -- I get it! It's a coded-message dope fiend song! No wonder the Grateful Dead covered it...) Anyway, Rawlings makes the lyrics to all these songs come alive because of his total commitment to whatever he plays -- he's an artist who is really "in the moment" when he plays, and that comes through crystal clear on this album. A great record from start to finish... Maybe more electrified than previous records with Gillian, but no less captivating, and sure to wow their fans. Me, for one!

Jean Shepard "Beautiful Lies: The Early Years" (Jasmine, 2009)
Wow, how amazing -- and appalling -- that almost all of Jean Shepard's work from the 1950s and '60s is out of print again. Shepard was, in my opinion, perhaps the best female country singer of the 'Fifties, and yet her songs have been so hard to find for so many years. This single-disc set includes all the material from Shepard's 1956 debut album Songs Of A Love Affair, along with some of her best-known hits, such as "Satisfied Mind" and "Beautiful Lies." It's all great stuff -- kudos to the Jasmine label for bringing at least a fraction of her work back for folks to listen to...

Jean Shepard "This Has Been Your Life" (BACM, 2005)
And here's another great collection of prime hard-country heartsongs from the 1950s, primarily drawn from singles that came out before Shepard's album debut (above). Unlike most BACM releases, this does have some overlap with colelctions that have come out on other labels. They're all great songs, though, classics like "Beautiful Lies," "Two Whoops And A Holler," "A Dear John Letter" and "Twice The Lovin' In Half The Time." There are also some great, more obscure songs, such as "Please Don't Divorce Me" and "I Didn't Know The Gun Was Loaded," which also make this a tasty, collectable treat. Besides, all those other CDs, including the big, fab Bear Family box set, are all out of print, which is criminal, really. So, hooray again for BACM bringing this stuff back to light.

Steve Wariner "c.g.p.: My Tribute To Chet Atkins" (SelectTone, 2009)
(Produced by Steve Wariner)

A nice instrumental homage to Nashville mega-superpicker Chet Atkins, who actually produced Steve Wariner's earliest sessions on RCA, and hired him as the bass player in his band for a while, until Wariner's own Top 40 career took off in the early 1980s. The album's title, "c.g.p.," stands for "certified guitar player," an insider term that Atkins coined, and an award he gave to four pickers, including Steve Wariner (who is known as a fancy picker, as well as a velvety vocalist...) This set is mostly made up of new compositions done in the style of Chet Atkins, rather than a bunch of cover tunes, where the Atkins originals would doubtless hold sway. Atkins had a penchant for saccharine production, and Wariner is true to that part of the legacy, recording an album that is both hot and sweet -- it's a very muzak-y set, but doubtless pleasing to those who are looking for that classic Atkins style. (PS -- congratulations to Wariner on winning a Grammy for this one!)

Another great release from one of the finest independent reissue labels in the U.S. of A. This disc focusses on the Southern folk and blues traditions of the towns and villages in Gaston County, North Carolina, a center for cotton production and textile mills. Topical songs, fiddle tunes, harmonica blues and vaudeville and minstrel show oldies -- all these traditions were alive and well in 1927-31, when these Depression-era recordings were made, and in this diverse, boisterous mix, we hear the roots of modern country and rock'n'roll. Although some of these artists were professional or semi-professional performers, most of them were mainly mill workers and villagers, and their authenticity and earnestness shines through these ancient, obscure recordings. Great stuff if you like old-timey country and rural blues rarities! A perfect companion to the book-length ethnomusicalogical study, "Linthead Stomp," by Patrick Huber, who also contributes liner notes to this collection.

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