Howdy, folks! Here are some reviews of the new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in November, 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.
The Band Perry "The Band Perry" (Universal Republic)
Mandy Barnett "Winter Wonderland" (Crackerbarrel)
Big Country Bluegrass "The Boys In Hats And Ties" (Rebel)
The Bluegrass Soul Pickers "If I Ever Get Home" (Blue Circle)
Marshall Chapman "Big Lonesome" (Tall Girl)
Joe Diffie "Homecoming: The Bluegrass Album" (Rounder)
The Dixie Chicks "The Essential Dixie Chicks" (Sony Legacy,)
The Great Recession Orchestra "Have You Ever Even Heard Of Milton Brown?" (NewTex)
The Highwaymen "The Essential Highwaymen" (Columbia Legacy)
Jamey Johnson "The Guitar Song" (Mercury Nashville)
Lost & Found "Down On Sawmill Road" (Rebel)
Joe & Rose Lee Maphis "Ridin' The Frets" (Jasmine)
Mike Marshall "An Adventure: 1999-2009" (Adventure Music)
Reba McEntire "All The Women I Am" (Valory)
Michael Martin Murphey "Michael Murphey/Lone Wolf/Peaks Valleys Honky-Tonks"
Old 97's "The Grand Theatre, Volume One" (New West)
Rascal Flatts "Nothing Like This" (Big Machine)
Marty Stuart "Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions" (Sugar Hill)
Summertown Road "Summertown Road" (Rounder)
Taylor Swift "Speak Now" (Big Machine)
Mel Tillis "You Ain't Gonna Believe This..." (Show Dog)
Steve Wariner "Guitar Christmas" (SelecTone)
Hank Williams "The Complete Mother's Best Recordings" (Time-Life)
The Band Perry "The Band Perry" (Universal Republic, 2010)
(Produced by Nathan Chapman, Paul Worley & Matt Serletic)
Nashville's next big thing...? Could be. I guess that Kimberley Perry is supposed to be the bad-girl version of Taylor Swift, with the same mix of pop-savvy teen-sensation twang and junior-high diary lyrics, with a hint of Gretchen Wilson tough-girl sass in there as well, and more controversial lyrics. For example, the suicide-friendly "If I Die Young" will probably upset a parent or two, but it's painful to listen to less because of the familiar, self-pitying teen angst than because of its utter artlessness... This bluntness of Perry's lyrics is repeated in song after song, with the upside that it rings true as teenage self-absorption: perhaps the most emotionally effective song on the album is "Walk Me Down The Middle," in which she tells her new boyfriend to show her off to everyone in town, particularly his old ex, who never deserved him anyway. It's a totally shallow song, but it does sound like something a teenager would write, if not actually say out loud. I do think that Ms. Perry has what it takes to make it big, although I'm not sure the whole family-band concept works for her: flanking Kimberly are her two brothers, Neil and Reid, who with their shaggy rocker hair and ready-for-the-WB telegenics, are credited with co-writing many of the songs on this album. They also accompany her on some -- but not all -- the songs, playing mandolin and bass, although on most of the album it's a crew of Nashville studio musicians who provide the real oompf. As long as she's leaning on the teen-popstar angle, I guess they're useful, but in the long run, she can probably ditch her sibs and make it on her own. For now, though, Taylor doesn't have that much to worry about: this album has enough adolescent navel-gazing to build up a younger fan base, but Perry's going to have to up her game as a songwriter if she wants to attract older fans. Time will tell.
Mandy Barnett "Winter Wonderland" (Crackerbarrel, 2010)
Yes, indeed, it's that time of year again and my Hillbilly Holiday Christmas Music Guide has been fully updated and is ready for your approval. Join Ms. Barnett and others in this twangy annual ritual...
Big Country Bluegrass "The Boys In Hats And Ties" (Rebel, 2010)
A swell high-lonesome set, dedicated to the golden age of classic bluegrass music -- the era in which Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs and others toured the country, duded up "in hats and ties" and brought drag-racing twang to the world. This low-key, high intensity ensemble mixes passion for the music with a pleasantly grizzled feel -- you can hear the age in their voices, complimented by the wisdom it brings, and as older players often, do they really reach into the emotional depths of each song. If you like your bluegrass gritty and true, this album might just do the trick for you!
The Bluegrass Soul Pickers "If I Ever Get Home" (Blue Circle, 2010)
(Produced by Dixie Hall & Tony Engle)
A sweet set of independently produced bluegrass, produced under the aegis of Tom T. Hall and his wife Dixie Hall. The Hall's contribute two songs to the set list (with the excellent "If I Ever Get Home" as the album's title track) while the gruff-voiced Buddy Mason (one of two lead singers) wrote about half of the album's tracks, including the magnificent cheatin' song, "Halfway Out The Door." Nice, earthy, melodic material, with wistful nostalgic songs galore, all about working folks and fading farms, and decent, earnest picking and fiddlin'. Good stuff!
Marshall Chapman "Big Lonesome" (Tall Girl, 2010)
(Produced by Marshall Chapman)
When it comes to wry, weather-beaten, world weary, gnarly, hardcore roots-rocker chicks, Marshall Chapman puts 'em all to shame. She makes Lucinda Williams seem like some baby-faced fourth-grader selling Girl Scout cookies outside her grandma's church; makes Mary Gauthier look like one of the Spice Girls; makes Alanis Morrisette sound like Annette Funicello. Marshall Chapman is the real deal, one of the gnarliest gals in Americana today, and she's been that way since the Spinal Tap 'Seventies... On this raw-boned set of live and studio recordings, Chapman sounds gnarlier than ever, tapping into a deep reservoir of hard-worn life-lessons and a wide range of musical styles. There's more overt twang than on other recent records, and a healthy dose of blues, and -- most important of all -- a wealth of well-crafted, soulful songs. She's raspy, but not harsh, and still finds enough good cheer to write a song like "Sick Of Myself," which starts out all grumpy, but ends up good-natured: she wishes she had a different life, and the person she wishes to become is that of her (real-life) guitar player, the late Tim Krekel, just 'cuz he sounded cool when he cranked it up and played his hot licks. (The album ends with a brief clip of Chapman performing the song life with Krekel, and him chiming in with some tasty leads...) Now in her fourth decade making hard-rockin' records, Marshall Chapman is an undiminished, primal force, and Americana fans would do well to pick up this disc -- it's rootsy and real, and has plenty of gristle for you to chew on. Recommended!
Joe Diffie "Homecoming: The Bluegrass Album" (Rounder, 2010)
(Produced by Joe Diffie & Luke Wooten)
I've always had a soft spot for good ol' Joe Diffie... Of the more modern bubbadelic novelty singers who came in the wake of Moe Bandy, Diffie always sounded a notch or two above everybody else. In his 1990s heyday, he clearly knew his honkytonk history, but modernized the music without sacrificing its soul. Still, who knew he'd also have such an affinity for bluegrass and backwoods twang? This is a sweet, solid acoustic album from a former Nashville Top 40 star who's clearly making the most of his newfound indie career. It's stands up well to repeat listenings and sure has me curious about where Diffie will go from here. Definitely worth checking out.
The Dixie Chicks "The Essential Dixie Chicks" (Sony-BMG/Columbia Legacy, 2010)
While the Playlist set which came out earlier this year is a good option for music fans on tight budgets, this expanded 2-CD collection is a real, true proper best-of retrospective. Like Playlist, it's a straight-up reissue set, with tracks taken off their studio albums, and it doesn't offer any rarities, outtakes or live tracks. Also, their earlier indie albums still seem lost in limbo: it would be nice to have a box set that integrates that material as well, at some point. But if you are looking for a strong overview of their big hits (and many of their best album cuts) this gives a lot of bang for your buck. Recommended.
The Great Recession Orchestra "Have You Ever Even Heard Of Milton Brown?" (NewTex Records, 2010)
An amiable album of rootsy, bluesy swing, covering the work of the legendary Milton Brown, who is credited as one of the inventors of western swing. Here's a whole passle of great old tunes , given kind of a swank, glossy modern makeover, but delivered with confident affection... Fun stuff!
The Highwaymen "The Essential Highwaymen" (Columbia Legacy, 2010)
This 2-CD set not only collects songs from the official Highwaymen albums, but also key tracks from various solo works from Mssrs. Cash, Jennings, Kristofferson and Nelson, including a cut from the long-neglected soundtrack for The Songwriter, a low-rent feature film which featured Willie and Kris as rival country stars; it had several good songs on it that still haven't seen the digital light of day... until now. There are also solo tracks and fascinating duets from records dating back to the 1970s "outlaw" era, tracks that show the evolution of their professional and personal collaborations. These bonuses add an unexpected layer of depth to this extensive collection, making it a true retrospective of one of country music's great legendary supergroups. Recommended!
Jamey Johnson "The Guitar Song" (Mercury Nashville, 2010)
(Produced by Arlis Albritton, Dave Cobb & The Kent Hardly Playboys)
A real stunner. Probably the best, or at least the most significant new country record this year. It's a double-disc record, with a "black album" and a "white album" side by side, the dark one representing the darkness of a man hitting rock bottom, packed with some of the hardest-hitting, bleakest honky-tonk gloom-and-doom songs you'll ever hear. His character loses his lover, his job, his home and the respect of his fellow man -- on "Can't Cash My Checks," his stock has fallen so low, no one will trust him to pay his debts, in a searing, painful commentary on modern-day poverty that sounds like something out of the Dust Bowl. But it's not just thematically that Johnson makes his mark, but musically as well: this guy really "gets" old-school hard-country music. He gets the twang right, as well as that extra layer of rich, thick texture from the pedal steel, vocals and bass; he gets the sentiment and grit and sense of humor as well. Indeed, this music is so good, and so true to its roots I'm completely amazed that Johnson has a major label deal -- and he's successful, too! Maybe there's hope for the world, after all. Side Two, or rather, Disc Two is the "white album," where his character takes an upward swing towards joyfulness and life... Musically this translates into Waylon Jennings-style twang-rock jams, poling expressions of twangadelic playfulness: personally, I'd go for a couple of brighter, more concise melodic numbers, but hey, Johnson's the auteur. As this second disc winds down, the songs start to slow down a bit, and there is a suggestion that either the narrator has aged and mellowed, or perhaps the sadness is coming back, and it's time to go back to other disc: I like to think that this is a complete package, with the emotions ebbing and flowing, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, a real country song-cycle, an unending see-saw of catchy, boozy tunes. Although this is a triumph as a cohesive concept album, there are of course plenty of standout songs. The black album's opener, Keith Whitley's "Lonely At The Top," pokes fun at self-pitying celebrities crying at the bar; the barroom setting is echoed in a great cover of Vern Gosdin's big hit, "Set 'Em Up Joe." Although Johnson's soulful originals make this album so resonant, there are some cover tunes, too, including Mel Tillis' "Mental Revenge," Kris Kristofferson's "For The Good Times" and a great version of the title track, Bill Anderson's "The Guitar Song," featuring Anderson himself adding a surprisingly vigorous duet. Jamey Johnson, with a crackerjack band worthy of the mantle of Waylon or Willie's 1970's ensembles, has tapped into country music's true past, and points the way to a vigorous new future. Let's hope he keeps on the same path for as long as he can, 'cause this is some really really fine stuff. (Now if you'll excuse me, it's time to change the discs again...)
Lost & Found "Down On Sawmill Road" (Rebel, 2010)
A superb collection of lively, intelligent, irresistible bluegrass, gathered from thirty years worth of albums by this fab outfit from Virginia. The song selection is top-notch, with many, many fine examples of what was once called "progressive" bluegrass, folk-tinged story-songs, along with some sentimental oldies and soulful gospel songs. The band really does have a distinctive feel, particularly founding member Allen Mills, who sings lead on almost all the tracks on here. Solid picking, but most of all a way of delivering songs like they really mean them... A great introduction to a fine, if little-known band. Recommended!
Joe & Rose Lee Maphis "Ridin' The Frets" (Jasmine, 2010)
Guitar god Joe Maphis helped shape the sound of country guitar in the post-WWII era, especially on the vibrant West Coast hillbilly scene; his wife, Rose Lee Maphis was a fine country singer, able to sing uptempo material as well as heartsongs and sweet stuff. Collections of their work are few and far between, so this is definitely a welcome addition to the world of country reissues. Check it out!
Mike Marshall "An Adventure: 1999-2009" (Adventure Music, 2010)
A nice best-of overview of newgrass mandolin whiz Mike Marshall's work during his first ten years running his own indie label, Adventure Music, which specializes in newgrass and other jazz styles. This gathers selections from nine albums of Marshall's work, including with bands such as Psychograss, Big Trio and Vasen, as well as numerous collaborations with violinist Darol Anger. There are a bunch of Brazilian-themed performances, with artists such as Jovino Santos Neto and Hermeto Pascoal, and several lovely explorations of the wild acoustic style called choro which has become a wellspring of Marshall's recent musical interests. This is a very strong album: I have to be honest and admit that sometimes the newgrass scene can get a little too goopy and saccharine for me, but this retrospective collection held my interest from start to finish and paints a well-rounded picture of Marshall's growth as an artist. Nice stuff.
Reba McEntire "All The Women I Am" (Valory Music, 2010)
Wow...! Is this really her 34th studio album? Thirty-fourth? Not counting concert records? Or the TV show? Man, Reba has been one busy gal.
Michael Martin Murphey "Michael Murphey/Lone Wolf/Peaks Valleys Honky-Tonks" (2010)
A reissue of three long-out-of-print early albums from cosmic cowboy Michael Martin Murphey: 1973's Michael Murphey, Lone Wolf from 1978, and Peaks Valleys Honky-Tonks, from 1979.
Old 97's "The Grand Theatre, Volume One" (New West, 2010)
Paul Overstreet "My Favorite Demos I" (Scarlet Moon, 2010)
Paul Overstreet "My Favorite Demos II" (Scarlet Moon, 2010)
Rascal Flatts "Nothing Like This" (Big Machine, 2010)
Marty Stuart "Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions" (Sugar Hill, 2010)
(Produced by Marty Stuart)
A real humdinger of a classic country album! Marty Stuart pays homage to country's past in the very best way: he channels classic Merle Haggard on the album's twangy opener, "Branded," covers Warner Mack's old hit, "The Bridge Washed Out," swipes an old Waylon Jennings pedal steel riff (on "Little Heartbreaker," reprising "Rainy Day Woman") and cajoles pedal steel old-timer Ralph Mooney into playing the melody he composed for Ray Price's honkytonk smash, "Crazy Arms." There are also a slew of new originals that sure sound like old songs we all oughtta know: the bouncy twang and rollicking rhythms all ring true, and this is an album that just invites you to play it over and over again, loud, and sing along with gusto. A special treat are two songs co-written with Stuart's wife, Connie Smith who also sings some really sweet harmonies, particularly on the majestic "I Run To You," which has some very satisfying piano chords, straight out of the Billy Sherrill playbook. I've had my dfferences with Marty Stuart in the past, but this album is a real gem, from start to finish. Highly recommended!
Summertown Road "Summertown Road" (Rounder, 2010)
(Produced by Don Rigsby)
Ambitious contemporary bluegrass, with a storytelling style that brings those old, early-1970s "progressive bluegrass" records to mind. Fans of old Country Gentlmen, etc. might also enjoy these fellas... The talent includes mandolinist John Rigsby on vocals and banjoist Jack Hicks (an alumnus of many, many classic bands...) providing a lot of the band's musical oomph. Nice stuff!
Taylor Swift "Speak Now" (Big Machine, 2010)
(Produced by Nathan Chapman & Taylor Swift)
It's pretty amazing how true Taylor Swift has stayed to her artistic formula, and how effective it still is: the junior-high diary lyrics remain, packed with smoothly calculated, rough-edged bluntness and surprising emotional resonance. Anyone who's mean to her gets pilloried in song, the boys she likes evoke breathy sighs, a faraway look in her eyes, and cute little heart signs doodled next to their names. With three huge hit albums under her belt, Swift is now twenty and a colossal pop-country superstar, celebrated at an endless parade of posh award shows, and yet she still taps into the world of the un-famous, smalltown/suburban 14-year old girl, imprisoned by her bedroom windows and yearning for emotions and experiences that are still just beyond her grasp. As a songwriter, Swift is close enough to that phase of her life for such naivety and transparency to still ring true: she really, truly is the voice of a whole set of wholesome, earnest, self-possessed all-American teenage dreamers, girls who would, if they could, totally flame anyone who scorned them by writing a song like "Mean" (Someday I'll be living in a big old city/and all you're ever gonna be is mean...") Also, her use of blank verse is impressive -- largely abandoning traditional rhyme, she creates a spellbinding, unpredictable conversational tone, but still manages to create catchy pop hooks. Neat trick. For the most part, her arrangements are still good, too -- although at this point I suppose she's more of a pop icon than a country star, there's still real twang in there, and only a few songs succumb to the impenetrable juggernaut of high-tech overproduction that's dominated teen-oriented pop for the last couple of decades: Taylor Swift still has an individual style... Let's hope she hangs on to it for as long as she can.
Mel Tillis "You Ain't Gonna Believe This..." (Universal/Show Dog, 2010)
One of the architects of the late-1950s honkytonk sound, songwriter Mel Tillis is back with his first album in over a decade... and instead of the loping rhythms that brought him fame, this time it's a country comedy album, a mix of Andy Griffith-style spoken-word stuff and Roger Miller-esque musical numbers. Nice to hear the old guy kicking around again, although I wouldn't mind a new honkytonk record as well... He's sounding kind of frail here, but I bet he could still tear his way through some good, old-fashioned country songs!
Steve Wariner "Guitar Christmas" (SelecTone, 2010)
Hank Williams "The Complete Mother's Best Recordings... Plus" (Time-Life, 2010)
Just when you think you've heard it all, the vaults of time peel open to reveal more fabulous gems than we ever thought we'd find. This massive box set expands on an earlier 3-CD collection of live performances by the great Hank Williams, recordings originally made for the Mother's Best Flour Company back in 1951. Legend has it that the master tapes for these performances was saved from the dumpster (!) where they promptly wound up at the center of the long-running legal battles between Hank's various heirs. I guess Jett Williams' victory is a victory for us as well, 'cause these old recordings sure do sound sweet. The repertoire includes a lot of stuff that Williams never recorded on disc, and draws heavily on folk and gospel repertoires, as well as cowboy tunes (like "Cool Water") as well as Hank Williams classics such as "Hey Good Lookin'," and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Country gospel fans, in particular, will be wowed by this collection, as it is heavy on hymns and religious ballads, all of it delivered in that soulful, haunting style that Williams did so well. Best of all, there's the ambiance of an old-fashioned live radio show, with Hank Williams joshing around with bandmembers and the emcee, with Williams sounding slick at times, or sometimes soused or bleary-eyed from a long night of hard living... And yet, the man was always soulful and surprisingly sincere, considering what a ne'er-do-well he was. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was the many performances by Hank's wife, Audrey Williams, who appears only fleetingly in the official studio recordings, and has long been reviled as an off-key warbler, sort of the Yoko Ono of classic country. But here, with prolonged exposure on one broadcast after another, it's easier to hear her as a credible country artist, a rough-edged, rural gal singer very much in the same style as the then up-and-coming Kitty Wells. All in all, this collection really is a great archival find, one that Hank Williams fans will be all too happy to delve into. Highly recommended! (You can get more info about this box set online at http://www.hankwilliamsmothersbest.com
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