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 September, 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:
Eddy Arnold "Tears Broke Out On Me" (Bear Family)
Back Porch Mary "Life Is Now" (Dry Gulch)
Dale Ann Bradley "Somewhere South Of Crazy" (Compass)
Glen Campbell "Ghost On The Canvas" (Surf Dog)
Guy Clark "Songs And Stories" (Dualtone)
Dead Man Winter "Bright Lights" (Banjodad/Thirty Tigers)
Della Mae "I Built This Heart" (Self-Released)
Brigitte DeMeyer "Rose Of Jericho" (Self-Released)
Kevin Fowler "Chippin' Away" (Average Joe's)
The Gourds "Old Mad Joy" (Vanguard)
George Jones "Ragged But Right" (Future Sounds)
Lera Lynn "Have You Met Lera Lynn?" (Slow Records)
The McClymounts "Wrapped Up Good" (Universal/BSM)
Ronnie Milsap "Country Again" (Milsap Music)
Jake Owen "Barefoot Blue Jean Night" (RCA)
Pistol Annies "Hell On Heels" (Columbia)
The Shants "Beautiful Was The Night" (Self-released)
Ashton Shepard "Where Country Grows" (MCA Nashville)
Clyde Stacy "Hoy Hoy" (Bear Family)
George Strait "Here For A Good Time" (MCA)
Sunny Sweeney "Concrete" (Republic Nashville)
Kitty Wells "Country Hit Parade/Winner Of Your Heart" (Hux)
Hank Williams "The Legend Begins" (Time-Life)

New Stuff: September, 2011

Eddy Arnold "Tears Broke Out On Me" (Bear Family, 2011)
Country crooner Eddy Arnold started out as a 1940's hick artist, with plenty of twang and bounce, but in the '50s he went pop, riding at the vanguard of the Nashville Sound/Countrypolitan movement. This generously programmed, 33-song CD set gathers singles and album tracks recorded between 1958-64, and some of them show a little spark of life, though not quite the fire heard in his early days as "the Tennessee Plowboy." A lot of it's pretty corny, though: old habits die hard. Bear Family is pitching this disc as Arnold's big return-to-twang, but the sappy ballads still dominate -- better to think of this as a good collection of less well-known material, including a lot of songs that have never made it onto CD before now. If you're an Eddy Arnold fan, you'll definitely want to check it out; twangfans might want to stick to the old stuff.

Back Porch Mary "Life Is Now" (Dry Gulch, 2011)
(Produced by Paul Soroski & Back Porch Mary)

High-energy roadhouse rock'n'twang, from this Austin, Texas red-dirt trio... It's a bit heavier on the rock-oriented electric guitars for my tastes, but the band's earnest enthusiasm comes through loud and clear and is pretty hard to resist. Betcha they're fun live!

Dale Ann Bradley "Somewhere South Of Crazy" (Compass, 2011)
(Produced by Alison Brown)

Another rock-solid set from bluegrass grand dame Dale Ann Bradley, who mixes pure tradition and contemporary songwriting with an ease that rivals that of Alison Krauss or Dolly Parton. The title track is co-written with country's Pam Tillis, with propulsive backing from an all-star band: Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Steve Gulley on guitar, Sierra Hull playing mandolin, Mike Bub anchoring them all on bass, and producer Alison Brown with some smoking banjo riffs. After a bouncy opening, Bradley slows things down for a while, with a trio of tunes that include a cover of the Seals & Crofts oldie, "Summer Breeze," and an evocative soldiers-at-war song, "Come Home Good Boy." The rest of the record is split between Flatt'n'Scruggs style romps ("In Despair," etc.) and softer, introspective tunes. Includes a nice gospel number, a cover of Dottie Rambo's "New Shoes." As with Bradley's other recent records, this one is mostly on a slower, mellow tip, but offers plenty of sweet songs for fans to enjoy.

Glen Campbell "Ghost On The Canvas" (Surf Dog, 2011)

Guy Clark "Songs And Stories" (Dualtone, 2011)
West Texas's favorite grumpy old fart is still making great new records... I haven't heard this one yet, but I'll give you the lowdown when I do...

Terri Clark "Roots And Wings" (Bear Track, 2011)

Dead Man Winter "Bright Lights" (Banjodad/Thirty Tigers, 2011)
(Produced by Lucy Simonett & Jack Davenport)

Twang-laced power-pop and indiepop from Minnesota with a very low-key vibe... I'd place this more in the "rock" landscape, but the swampy guitars and squeaky fiddle licks are nice. If you enjoyed Thad Cockrell's solo stuff, you might like this as well. Sweet stuff.

Della Mae "I Built This Heart" (Self-Released, 2011)
(Produced by Austin Nevins)

One of the most lively, satisfying bluegrass albums in years. This Boston-based, all-gal quartet, led by songwriter-guitarist Celia Woodsmith, explodes with raw talent, elegance and joy, and brings to mind the freshness and enthusiasm of the late-1970s "usual suspects" bluegrassers, when the genre had fused modern songwriting with solid, traditionally-oriented picking, and folks were really having fun. The album opens with the uptempo "Jamie Dear," a catchy showcase for the band's musicianship: deft lead guitar that echos classic Tony Rice riffs, along with sprightly, inventive leads from fiddler Kimber Ludiker and mandolinist Jenni Lyn Gardner. Several high-powered guests chip in as well, including Alison Brown on banjo and Laurie Lewis singing harmony; particularly sweet are a trio of tunes where Brittany Haas chimes in on the fiddle, creating a twin-fiddle sound that would have made Bob Wills proud. The band also offers up a slew of newly-minted gems for the bluegrass canon... Some are folkish story-songs, others are bouncy fast songs (which I prefer) and all of which will resonate with various types of bluegrass fans. Mostly, it's the freshness and verve with which they play that's so attractive -- modern bluegrass has become such a businesslike affair that it's fun to hear that old talented-amateur vibe again, with virtuoso players digging in and grooving on the melodies. I, for one, hope to see them play live sometime... (For more info, check out their website:

Brigitte DeMeyer "Rose Of Jericho" (Brigitte DeMeyer Music, 2011)
(Produced by Brigitte DeMeyer & Brady Blade)

On her fifth album, Ms. DeMeyer steps back from her earlier twang, and plunges into a funky, soulful gospel vibe, drawing more on the bluesy African-American gospel tradition than on the hillbilly/Southern style. Her immediacy and strong artistic presence still comes through, but the music has a much different feel from earlier records, bringing to mind those old Leon Russell albums, or the soul-tinged country-pop of Shelby Lynne... Some listeners might get turned off, others will be enraptured. Not my cup of tea, but I can hear the skill in her songcraft and the passion in her voice... Definitely worth checking out, particularly if you're into similar recent Americana-spiritual searches from Kasey Chambers, Steve Earle, Buddy Miller or Kate Campbell.

Kevin Fowler "Chippin' Away" (Average Joe's Entertainment, 2011)

The Gourds "Old Mad Joy" (Vanguard, 2011)
(Produced by Larry Campbell)

George Jones "Ragged But Right: The Starday Years Plus..." (Future Sounds, 2011)
A 3-CD budget-line reissue of his earliest work on Starday (apparently all his Starday recordings? Can anyone confirm or deny?) along with some rarities, such as his "Thumper Jones" rockabilly singles. Cool musicm but the sound quality is pretty bad. This overlaps with other reissues, so you'd probably be better off searching those out, instead.

Lera Lynn "Have You Met Lera Lynn?" (Slow Records, 2011)
(Produced by Robby Handley)

A mix of slower-tempo twangcore and eclectic, contemplative singer-songwriter pop ala Aimee Mann, with a hint of gothic, Nick Cave-ish mope-core. Solid songwriting, but a bit glum. Includes a nice cover of Leonard Cohen's scathing, doomed-romance golden oldie, "I Tried To Leave You."

The McClymounts "Wrapped Up Good" (Universal/BSM, 2011)
(Produced by Adam Anders & Nathan Chapman)

This Australian trio packs a big punch, with plenty of uptempo country-pop, ranging from catchy anthems like "Kick It Up," which opens the album, to softer acoustic weepers like "He Used To Love Me" and the Fleetwood Mac-ish "Take It Back." A couple of songs seem overly formulaic, like the thudding, rock-flavored "Rock The Boat" and the glossy title track, "Wrapped Up Good," (sure to be a hit, if I don't like it...) but several others are pretty catchy. There's even a bit of swing and twang, heard on "I'm Not Done With You Just Yet" and "Cannonball," and "If You're Gonna Love Me" seems like a pretty catchy, chartable tune. I can see these gals making a dent here Stateside, particularly among fans of Gretchen Wilson and the Dixie Chicks -- we'll see what the future brings!

Ronnie Milsap "Country Again" (Warner/Milsap Music, 2011)
(Produced by Rob Galbraith & Ronnie Milsap)

A solid new album from one of country's biggest 1970s hitmakers... Milsap still has his classic sound -- a unique mix of bright, shiny twang and Vegas-y pop -- and performs with the same cheerful, upbeat vitality of his younger years. A surprisingly strong set from an old countrypolitan warrior, one that will be sure to delight his longtime fans.

Jake Owen "Barefoot Blue Jean Night" (RCA, 2011)

Pistol Annies "Hell On Heels" (Columbia, 2011)
(Produced by Frank Liddell, Mike Wrucke & Glenn Worf)

A twangy, bouncy, boisterous set from country superstar Miranda Lambert and a couple of her pals, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, two singers who have been kicking around in the Nashville studios for the past few years. The trio has a nice sound, with plenty of sweet harmonies woven into their sassy, bad-girl vibe... I imagine this side-project is a big relief for Ms. Lambert, who's always peppered her albums with rowdy songs, but must be under a lot of pressure to make her own records more salable and formula-driven: you'd never hear this much cussing on a Top 40 station, but here she can cut loose and have a little fun. We can, too, singing along to songs like "Takin' Pills," "Lemon Drop" and "Trailer For Rent." Pretty fun stuff! A nice surprise from Nashville, for sure.

The Shants "Beautiful Was The Night" (2011)
Well-crafted, alluring alt-twang from Oakland, California... Some songs drift into drone-rock territory, but most of the record seems in tune with the doleful, Gothic, slow-twang of Richard Buckner and Will Oldham. The Shants build their sound around spooky, sad pedal steel with sparse acoustic backing... If that sounds intriguing, definitely give these folks a try... there's some really nice stuff! (For more info, check out their website, )

Ashton Shepherd "Where Country Grows" (MCA Nashville, 2011)
(Produced by Buddy Cannon)

Hmmm. Bummer. I really liked the simplicity of Shepard's first album, the whole back-to-basics, girl-next-door rural vibe. This follow-up, though, seems really self-conscious, overly stylized and bombastic. There's plenty of twang, but it's on top of bigger, slicker, less soulful modern production, and it sounds like an affectation, whereas before she seemed twangy by nature. It happens to a lot of artists: you get some success, followed by some show-biz advice, and then you lose your bearings. Of course, it might sell a bazillion copies; I'm often on the "wrong" side of this argument. But for my money, a gal who sounded potent and sincere a couple of years ago now sounds like a parody of what she once stood for. Oh, well. I'll check back in a couple of years and see what album #3 sounds like.

Clyde Stacy "Hoy Hoy" (Bear Family, 2011)
Sub-par rockabilly... The title track is a cover of a classic R&B song; this collection also includes versions of songs such as Johnny Horton's "Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor" and Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues," and a few proto-surf instrumentals. Stacy was never much of a "player", but he had a colorful career, including a stint in Lubbock, Texas -- hometown of Buddy Holly -- and many years up north in Scranton, PA, where he performed as a regional star. Rockabilly enthusiasts will want to check this out, though country fans may find a little less to delve into than on similar Bear Family discs. Includes about a dozen previously unreleased tracks, along with a bunch of rockabilly rarities on several microscopic '50s/'60s indie labels.

George Strait "Here For A Good Time" (MCA, 2011)

Sunny Sweeney "Concrete" (Republic Nashville, 2011)
(Produced by Brett Beavers)

Kitty Wells "Country Hit Parade/Winner Of Your Heart" (Hux, 2011)
A fab reissue of the first two LPs by country singer Kitty Wells, Country Hit Parade, from 1956 and Winner Of Your Heart, from 1957. These are both excellent records, pure, true country music bridging the then-new honkytonk style with an older, more sentimental rural ballad sound. Wells was famous as the first woman to top the country charts, with her devastating cheating song, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," which hit #1 in 1952. Like many classic country stars, Wells had recorded dozens of hits before long-playing records (LPs) became popular, so "Honky Tonk Angels" is included here as well as "Poison In Your Heart," "Release Me" and "Making Believe." It's great stuff. Wells later became an icon of the Nashville establishment, and her albums became smoother-sounding and more staid, but here in the early years there's a rawness just under the surface that's like catnip to fans of old-school twang. A lot of these songs can be heard on the numerous best-of sets out there, but I think there's something nice about listening to the whole album, the way it was programmed back when it originally came out - there are songs that've gotten left behind and a sense of continuity that decade-spanning compilations might leave out. Personally, I think a twofer like this is a great way to go.

Hank Williams "The Legend Begins: Rare And Unreleased Recordings" (Time-Life, 2011)
Finding old vanity recordings, acetates and self-released singles has become a "thing" among today's crop of country music uber-collectors, but who could have imagined that there were ancient demo recordings by none other than the legendary, pioneering honky-tonk hero, Hank Williams? Sure 'nuff, hoss: this new 3-CD includes a brief, grainy snippet of a 15-year old Hank Williams singing a verse of "Fan It," way back in 1938(!) soaring above an accordion-based western swing band. The voice is unmistakable - piercing, full of life, and also very young, without the weighty pathos of Hank's adult career. It's actually Hank's very first recording, one of a handful of historical gems acquired by the Hank Williams family and restored by audio engineers at the family's request. Also included are four songs from 1940, where a robust-voiced Williams is experimenting with with vocal phrasing, singing folk and blues oldies, and even a version of Bob Wills' "New San Antonio Rose." Williams became an icon of the postwar honkytonk sound -- hearing him at work before the war is a real treat. Most of this collection is of radio airshots drawn from the "Health And Happiness" shows, along with his wife Audrey Williams and fiddler Jerry Rivers; also included is a short March of Dimes broadcast from 1951. As with all these sort of live shows, there's a charming informality and down-home feel, interwoven with hillbilly showbiz schtick... The big draw here is the set of early demos, but it's all great stuff! Another treat for Hank fans everywhere.

Fewer things could be sweeter than cherry-picking the Rebel/County catalogs to make a tribute to the great bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe. In celebration of Monroe's birthday centennial, Rebel has released two albums, one secular and one gospel, with a stunning lineup of artists: Red Allen, Del McCoury, the Country Gentlemen, the Seldom Scene, Don Stover & The Lilly Brothers, Ralph Stanley (solo and with the Stanley Brothers), Reno & Smiley, Tony Rice, Peter Rowan and many others. Great stuff. In musical terms, I prefer the gospel set, but both discs are quite strong. If you want a good snapshot of how three generations of musicians have interpreted the music of bluegrass music's founder, these two collections are highly recommended!

Although I preferred the spooky, soulful feel of the all-gospel set (and all those groovy harmonies!) this secular all is great as well. Plenty of well-known standards, such as "Uncle Pen," "Big Mon," "Kentucky Waltz," "Little Georgia Rose," "A Good Woman's Love," and the like, all by top-flight musicians with deep connections to the music. Definitely worth checking out!

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