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 July, 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.

This month:
Alana Amram "Snow Shadows" (Kingswood)
Blackie And The Rodeo Kings "Kings And Queens" (File Under Music)
David Bromberg "Use Me" (Appleseed)
John Duffey "The Rebel Years: 1962-1977" (Rebel)
Robert Ellis "Photographs" (New West)
Joe Ely "Satisfied At Last" (Redeye)
Jimmie Dale Gilmore "Heirloom Music" (Redeye)
The Grascals "Dance 'Til Your Stockings Are Hot and Ravelin' " (Bluegrascal)
Buddy Jewell "I Surrender All" (Diamond Dust)
Tracy Lawrence "The Singer" (LMG)
Imelda May "Mayhem" (Decca)
The McPeak Brothers "Yesteryears" (Rebel)
Gary Nicholson "Texas Songbook" (Bismeaux)
Old 97s "The Grand Theater, Volume One" (New West)
Old 97s "The Grand Theater, Volume Two" (New West)
Lindi Ortega "Little Red Boots" (Last Gang)
Dolly Parton "Better Day" (Dolly Records)
Kimmie Rhodes "Dreams Of Flying" (Sunbird)
Mike Seeger & Peggy Seeger "Fly Down, Little Bird" (Appleseed)
Larry Sparks "Let Him Lead You" (Rebel)
Gillian Welch "The Harrow & The Harvest" (Acony)
Mark Wills "Looking For America" (Gracie Productions)
The Wilburn Brothers "Songs Of Inspiration" (Varese Sarabande)
Various Artists "A GIRL NAMED JOHNNY CASH" (Bear Family)

New Stuff: July, 2011

Alana Amram & The Rough Gems "Snow Shadows: Songs Of Vince Martin" (Kingswood, 2011)
(Produced by Mark Sebastian & Jesse Lauter)

A folkie/country set from the daughter of classical/jazz composer and Beat scenester David Amram... This album is a tribute to 1960s folkie Vince Martin, who was in the Tarriers band and also recorded with Fred Neil in the early '60s. Worth checking out if you're into introspective folk music and chamber folk/country crossovers. (For more info, here's a link to her website:

Blackie And The Rodeo Kings "Kings And Queens" (File Under Music, 2011)
(Produced by Colin Linden)

Canada's finest Americana band, Colin Linden and company, with an all-star cast of female collaborators, including Rosanne Cash, Exene Cervenka, Emmylou Harris, Sam Phillips, Pam Tillis, Sara Watkins and Lucinda Williams, to name a few. Whew! Let me catch my breath for a minute... Anyhoo, it's quite a cast of characters, with some powerful, punchy tunes... The overall vibe is a little more bluesy and roadhouse than I'm into these days, but if you want a little whiff of sawdust and beer along with twang and bang, this is pretty strong set. Definitely worth checking out.

David Bromberg "Use Me" (Appleseed Music, 2011)
(Various producers)

Four years ago, blues/folk giant David Bromberg came out of retirement with his first album in ages, a delightful acoustic set that wowed old fans and hooked a few new ones, too. This time, he's plugged in and is playing mostly electric, with help from a bunch of high-powered pals: Dr. John, Vince Gill, Levon Helm, John Hiatt, Keb' Mo', Tim O'Brien and Linda Ronstadt all pitch in, although largely in the background. Other than Ronstadt, the various singers stick to playing instruments, while Bromberg cruises through a familiar-sounding set of funky blues and soulful novelty songs. The title track is an effective cover of the Bill Withers oldie; other highlights include the mournful "Blue Is Falling" (given a bluegrassy twist, courtesy of O'Brien and his pals), "Lookout Mountain Girl" (with Vince Gill) and "It's Just A Matter Of Time," where Linda Ronstadt shares some sweet harmonies with bluegrasser Laurie Lewis. Now at the sweet, tender age of sixty-five, Bromberg is admittedly getting a little long in the tooth, but he's still got a depth of true-blues know-how, and it's always a delight to see him kick up some dust, and get down and dirty.

John Duffey "The Rebel Years: 1962-1977" (Rebel, 2011)
A great overview of the late John Duffey's pioneering work in the "progressive" bluegrass scene of the 1960s and '70s, with a selection evenly split between his tenures in the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene. It's great stuff, with fine examples of the poetic-folkie vibe of the newgrass movement, alongside strong traditional material and a healthy helping of bluegrass gospel, which includes some of the most soulful stuff on the album. Highly recommended, especially for folks who are new to the genre and want to become familiar with one of its most revered figures. (Available online through the Rebel Records website.)

Robert Ellis "Photographs" (New West, 2011)
An impressive debut from Texas-based songwriter Robert Ellis... This is a moody, alluring, rather unsettling mix of styles, sort of a twangy chamber-folk mash-up of Van Dyke Parks and Townes Van Zandt, with maybe a bit of Terry Allen in there as well... His rambling, discursive lyrics give this record a distinctive feel, and play against the prettiness of the arrangements, which are a generally sparse blend of countrified acoustic guitar and light, bouncy cello and other baroque-style orchestrations. Some of the lyrics are impenetrable, while others are achingly pure romantic country weepers, like "I'll Never Give Up On You." The album ends on a strong note, with a savage pair of songs delving deep into the heart of a jealous man -- on its surface, "No Fun" is a novelty-song romp, a honkytonk parody about a guy who won't let his lover "two-time" him, but as the tune progresses, we quickly see how ominous his controlling impulses are; the followup, "Photographs," echos the same theme, but in a way that would sound gentler and less creepy, if we hadn't just heard the song before. As the last steel guitar note hovers in the air, you might find yourself a little uneasy, and that, I think, was Ellis' goal. I suspect this record is the kind of freak-folk-twang-tune outing that will stand up to repeat listenings over the years. Definitely worth checking out!

Joe Ely "Satisfied At Last" (Rack 'Em Records, 2011)

Jimmie Dale Gilmore "Heirloom Music" (Redeye, 2011)

The Grascals "Dance 'Til Your Stockings Are Hot and Ravelin' " (Bluegrascal Records, 2011)
This 7-song EP is pitched as an homage to the music of Mayberry, but considering how much public domain material is on here, perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a tribute to the Darling Boys (as The Dillards were called, when they appeared on The Andy Griffith Show in the early 1960s...) Whichever way you look at it, it's a nice chance to hear Terry Eldredge and his crew let their hair down and play some traditional standards, such as "Stay All Night" and "Dooley." Bummer they couldn't include "The Fishing Hole" as well... but ya can't have everything!

Buddy Jewell "I Surrender All" (Diamond Dust, 2011)
(Produced by Michael Bush & Buddy Jewell)

An independently-released, all-gospel set from this former Top-40 contender and reality-show winner... The title track and others are a little too tinkly and Southern gospel poppy for my tastes, but others have a nice, twangy vigor. "Hell Bent And Heaven Bound" has a nice trucker-song feel. while "Jesus, Elvis And Me," and his version of "There Is Power In The Blood" have a strong, thumping backbeat. I think Jewell sounded better with a bigger studio budget behind him, but if you're a country gospel fan, this is certainly worth checking out.

Tracy Lawrence "The Singer" (LMG, 2011)

Imelda May "Mayhem" (Decca, 2010)
(Produced by Imelda May, Andy Wright & Gavin Goldberg)

Groovy, high-tech rockabilly from this feisty Irish firebrand... Although there's a clear alt-rock modernism in the production style, this Dubliner has a gritty rootsy-retro vibe that brings Holly Golightly to mind, if maybe she had a major-label budget. Fun stuff, and almost all the songs are originals, written by Ms. May herself. Check it out!

The McPeak Brothers "Yesteryears: The Best Of The McPeak Brothers" (Rebel, 2011)
A sweet set of folk-tinged "progressive bluegrass," with a strong, clear influence from the sound of the Country Gentlemen; lots of familiar chord progressions and vocal arrangements. Nice stuff culled from three albums this Virginian trio recorded for Rebel and County Records between 1977-83, including some nice session work from the up-and-coming dobro whiz, Jerry Douglas... If you like the style, this is a great introduction to this well-regarded but little-remembered family band.

Gary Nicholson "Texas Songbook" (Bismeaux, 2011)
(Produced by Gary Nicholson)

A great, funky, completely countrified set from Texas songwriter Gary Nicholson, a fellow with a lot of friends and a lot of songs that a lot of folks have recorded over the years. Lots of these musical buddies kick in on this disc: his old boss Delbert McClinton sings harmony on "Same Kind Of Crazy," while Ray Benson, Joe Ely and Jon Randall Stewart appear on various tracks, and harmonica wizard Mickey Raphael blows the harp on "Listen To Willie," a good-natured tribute to Willie Nelson. It's pure Texas-indie honkytonk and western swing -- rootsy, robust and full of gregarious good humor. Nicholson has a modest voice, and he makes the most of it, presenting himself as your best buddy, over to drink a few beers and sing a few songs -- if you like the laidback vibe of guys like Robert Earl Keen or Jerry Jeff Walker, you're gonna love this record. And you'll especially love songs like "Talkin' Texan" (about the legendary Texan capacity for exaggeration) and "Lone Star Blues," a cowboy comedy that was recorded by George Strait... Another highlight is Nicholson's version of "Fallin' And Flyin'," a gem of a song that may be familiar from the "Crazy Heart" soundtrack, invested here with the kind of soulfulness that sometimes only a song's author can summon up. Great stuff, highly recommended!

Old 97s "The Grand Theater, Volume One" (New West, 2010)

Old 97s "The Grand Theater, Volume Two" (New West, 2011)
One of the premier bands of the '90s Americana scene, Rhett Miller and the Old 97s are still rocking hard and making some great and groovy tunes. On the fab, far-ranging follow-up to last year's Grand Theater album, they engulf listeners in a wave of top-notch indie-pop songwriting, with melodic hooks galore and a wealth of oblique lyrics. There is an insular, self-referential feel to a lot of the songwriting, but that's par for the course in indieville, and I'm pretty sure fans will dig everything here. There's a compelling intensity and conviction here that's matched by a cheerfulness and good-natured vigor than draws you in and pulls you along... Definitely worth a spin!

Lindi Ortega "Little Red Boots" (Last Gang, 2011)
(Produced by Ron Lopata)

An excellent set from a modern Canadian cowgirl who bears an amazing stylistic and vocal similarity to the young Dolly Parton. Some songs, like "Angels" and "Dying of Another Broken Heart" sounds like straight-up outtakes from Dolly's early '70s "Tennessee Mountain Home" era, albeit with an overlay of spooky, Chris Isaak-y reverb-y post-rockabilly electric guitar. There are hints of rock roots here, but overall this is a deliciously twangy set from a refreshingly original voice. Strong songwriting throughout, backed with rich, powerful musicianship and a very clear artistic vision. Highly recommended!

Buck Owens & Susan Raye "The Very Best Of..." (Varese Sarabande, 2011)
A nice collection, particularly for fans of the early-1970s heyday of perky countrypolitan/sunshine country -- this set includes tracks from three albums released by Owens and Raye between 1970-73, and includes a half-dozen Top Forty hits, including their biggest charting single, "The Great White Horse," which peaked at #8 in 1970. Wholesome and earnest, Susan Raye was a protegee of Owens, and scored several hits on her own (heard on another Varese collection that's also worth checking out...) She didn't have the same hillbilly ooomph as Owens, but she held her own, and these duets, particularly the uptempo numbers, have some fun moments. There's an interesting mix of new songs and country oldies such as the old Browns hit, "Looking Back To See" and a remake of the Mickey Baker pop/R&B song "Love Is Strange." Most of the songs are Buck Owens originals, and they have a classic feel -- "Cryin' Time," "Together Again," "I Don't Care" -- with songs like this, how can you go wrong? Like many Varese releases, this disc fills a gap for country fans looking to hear long-neglected chart hits and album tracks that have languished in the vaults; it's another reissue that fans will want to snap up while they can.

Dolly Parton "Better Day" (Warner/Dolly Records, 2011)

Kimmie Rhodes "Dreams Of Flying" (Sunbird, 2011)
(Produced by Gabriel Rhodes)

Texas-born songwriter Kimmie Rhodes has been doing a lot of deep thinking recently, as witnessed in this album of introspection and redemption, existential yearning and acceptance. This album is a lullaby for life, a steady stream of sweet, melancholy reflections on the world's beauty and limitations, its disappointments and joys, with songs that ask questions like, where does God go to cry? Most of the songs are straightforwardly philosophical and spiritual, with a sprinkling of love songs that bookend the more mystical explorations. Before closing the album with a gentle acceptance of death ("Start Saying Goodbye"), she sings of love ("Luh Luh Love") arriving at the classic love-transcends-all formula of mystics and poets throughout the ages... The album seems intensely personal, with all but two songs written by Rhodes; on the soul-drenched, "Tupelo Honey"-esque "Like Love To Me," she evokes Van Morrison, while on the album's lone cover song, she embraces another cosmic quester, Donovan, in an achingly fragile version of "Catch The Wind" (with spare, sorrowful harmonies from Joe Ely). I'm not sure about the story behind this album, but it will stand as one of the great folkie explorations of the human condition, with all its sadness and dreams. A nice record for grownups, particularly those of us ready to look a little further down the road and assess ourselves and our many aspirations. Check it out.

Mike Seeger & Peggy Seeger "Fly Down, Little Bird" (Appleseed Music, 2011)

Larry Sparks "Let Him Lead You" (Rebel, 2011)
A great collection of gospel record by bluegrass singer Larry Sparks, drawn from several albums recorded between 1976-96. Sparks recorded secular material as well, but he really threw himself into these gospel songs, and had strong backing from his crew of pickers, most of whom are less well-known (although Ricky Skaggs pops up on a tune or two..) (Available online through the Rebel Records website.)

Gillian Welch "The Harrow & The Harvest" (Acony, 2011)

The Wilburn Brothers "Songs Of Inspiration" (Varese Sarabande, 2011)
A swell set of country gospel drawing from two albums the Wilburn Brothers recorded on the Decca label, 1960's Livin' In God's Country and Take Up Thy Cross, from 1964. Most of the tracks have a surprisingly old-fashioned, churchy, brush-arbor feel to them, more Stamps-Baxter southern gospel than the smooth Nashville sound the Wilburns were known for... Most of the songs are standards -- "Shall We Gather At The River," "Bringing In The Sheaves" -- while some are less well-known, such as "Medals For Mothers" and "Let The Lower Lights Be Burning." Of course, the true test of country gospel set is how each type of song is handled, and there are gems in both the chestnuts and the nuggets, with several striking performances, particularly on their versions of "Angel Band" and "Throw Out The Life Line." Although this is a much older style of gospel singing, modern-day fans will still find a lot to enjoy, and fans of the Wilburn Brothers will be pleased to hear these vintage recordings back circulation again. Recommended!

Mark Wills "Looking For America" (Gracie Productions, 2011)

Until hip-hop music came along, no other genre had such a high density of self-referential namechecking as country: them hillbillies love to talk about their neighbors and honoring tradition. This 18-song compilation (short by Bear Family standards) has some fun stuff on it, various artists singing about various other artists, but as someone who's been keeping lists of these songs-about-country-stars, I gotta say, there's a bunch of other stuff that would have been fun to include here as well. Actually, I guess that's okay, because it means there's still room for crazy, obsessive record collectors to strut their stuff. Almost half the album is taken up by Stoney Edwards' numerous tribute songs; also on here are Merle Haggard, Gordon Terry, Ernest Tubb, Mac Wiseman, paying homage to Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Johnny Horton, Jim Reeves and others. Jane Morgan, the lone gal artist in this set, sings the title track. Overall, I'd say this is a fun collection, but by Bear Family's high standards, kind of a missed opportunity.

Hick Music Index
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