Howdy, folks! Here are some reviews of the new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in March, 2011. 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.
Delia Bell & Bill Grant "Rollin' " (Rebel)
Johnny Cash "Bootleg, Volume Two: From Memphis To Hollywood" (Sony Legacy)
The Bart Crow Band "Brewster Street Live" (Drift-Ring)
Neil Getz "Factory Second" (Agillator)
Sierra Hull "Daybreak" (Rounder)
Buddy Miller "Buddy Miller's Majestic Silver Strings" (New West)
Steel Magnolia "Steel Magnolia" (Big Machine)
Lucinda Williams "Blessed" (Lost Highway)
Various Artists "HILLBILLY BOP, BOOGIE & HONKY TONK BLUES, v.4" (Jasmine)
Delia Bell & Bill Grant "Rollin' " (Rebel, 1981/2011)
A digital-only reissue of a classic set of heartsongs and weepers from this well-loved, but little remembered folk/country/bluegrass duo. If you like the sweet, traditionally-oriented stuff Emmylou Harris did early in her career, you might want to check this out as well. Part of Rebel's ambitious program to make old records available for download... Yeah, I wish they'd put 'em out on disc, too, but well... welcome to the brave new world!
Johnny Cash "Bootleg, Volume Two: From Memphis To Hollywood" (Sony Legacy, 2011)
In this groovy archival 2-CD release we hear a young, vulnerable, hungry Johnny Cash, a man poised on the precipice of fame, plugging away on regional radio in Memphis, singing country oldies and reading advertisements for an aluminum siding company... We also hear a number of outtakes and the original acoustic demos for several of his best-known early songs ("I Walk The Line," "Get Rhythm," "Country Boy") as well as others that were farmed out to Sun Records stars such as Roy Orbison and Warren Smith... The May, 1955 radio program, recorded the same month that Cash recorded his very first single, is a real stunner: the host introduces Cash almost offhandedly and reserves his real enthusiasm for an announcement of a western movie playing at a downtown theater... Cash was a nobody when these recordings were made, and you can hear the nervousness and unsteadiness in his voice; he fumbles while reading the ad copy and falters when introducing his songs: it's a far cry from the gravitas and cool confidence of his later years, but you can still hear the fire and power in his voice. The demos are also revelatory -- the best-known songs sound spooky and surreal, pregnant with the unreal possibility that this musician might not actually make it in the music business. Likewise with the outtakes and rarities that follow: it's a real treat to hear the man before the myth had solidified, and to see that he had feet of clay, just like the rest of us. Disc Two mines his first decade at Columbia Records, with singles and B-sides that have previously only been available on European imports... The selections are skillfully made, and further illuminate Cash's wide-ranging musical horizons. Personally I'd love to hear more of those radio airshots (are there more??) as they give us a glimpse of the real, live performer in a way that's utterly different than Cash's later, more professional concert recordings. This collection is pretty awesome, though: Cash fans will definitely want to check it out.
The Bart Crow Band "Brewster Street Live" (Drift-Ring Records, 2011)
A live album of impassioned "red dirt" country-rock, recorded live at one of those fab, fabled venues in Texas. This disc was a little too bar-band and rock'n'roll for me, with tons of ringing guitar and a nonstop driving tempo that ran from song to song... But Mr. Crow really seems into it, earnest and imploring, and the crowd sounded like they were right there with him... So what do I know? This guy's been around for a while; looks like this is his fourth album... You can pick this record up through his website at www.bartcrowband.com... Tell 'em Joe sent you!
Neil Getz "Factory Second" (Agillator, 2011)
(Produced by Neil Getz)
An enjoyable, playful mix of folkie twang and power-pop, featuring half-rueful, half-novelty, quite clever lyrics, along with catchy, kooky melodies and a puckish sense of fun. This Berkeley, CA uber-indie singer-songwriter reminds me quite a bit of Richard Thompson... And I mean that in a good way! A little less twangy than my usual Americana diet, but definitely worth checking out.
Sierra Hull "Daybreak" (Rounder, 2011)
(Produced by Barry Bales & Sierra Hull)
The second solo album by singer-mandolinist Sierra Hull, who hosts an all-star crew of contemporary bluegrass illuminati -- her band is anchored by fiddler Stuart Duncan, guitarist Bryan Sutton and bassist/producer Barry Bales, with an impressive lineup of guest artists drawn from Rounder's new "usual suspects" elite: Ron Block, Ronnie Bowman, Dan Tyminski, and Randy Kohrs. The crossovers with the Alison Krauss crew come through in the music, too: if you like the mellow, melodic approach of the Union Station band, you're gonna love this record, too. Hull, who recorded her previous album when she was fifteen, now has several years at Berklee Music College and considerable showbiz experience under her belt, and is finding her voice both literally and stylistically. As a singer, she's getting a huskier tone, with hefty hints of Dolly Parton in there as well, although the Krauss-ian approach is still pretty dominant. All in all a very strong album, with over half the songs written by Hull herself, including the fun, fling-ding instrumental, "Bombshell." Definitely worth a spin!
Buddy Miller "Buddy Miller's Majestic Silver Strings" (New West, 2011)
Steel Magnolia "Steel Magnolia" (Big Machine, 2011)
(Produced by Dan Huff)
Currently one of the hottest properties in Nashville, singers Joshua Scott Jones and Meghan Linsey specialize in rock-pop country, drenched in American Idol-style soul vocals. It might be a winning formula commercially, but I can't make any emotional connection to this disc at all: everything is so technical and precise, it's difficult to imagine these two feeling anything for each other, either falling madly in love or feeling guilty for falling for someone else. The first half of the album reprises their earlier singles, but the second half holds a few new tunes and some surprises as well: the gentle vibe on "Without You" is a nice change of pace, and the reggae riddims on "Rainbow" and "Eggs Over Easy" show some musical diversity. Mostly, though, a cranky traditionalist like me will find it hard to get into the whole warbly, white-soul thing... I just like my country music twangy, beer-soaked and sad. Does that make me so wrong? Or just plain old-fashioned?
Lucinda Williams "Blessed" (Lost Highway, 2011)
Various Artists "HILLBILLY BOP, BOOGIE, AND THE HONKY TONK BLUES, v.4: 1956-57" (Jasmine, 2011)
Another groovy entry in this fine series of raspy, unruly hillbilly oldies, packed with little-known tracks by obscure country artists working in the rowdy rock'n'roll era. If you're like me, this'll be high-grade collector catnip!
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