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 October, 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:
Connie Kis Andersen "Connie Kis" (Kismana)
The Bottle Rockets "Not So Loud" (Bloodshot)
Ange Boxall "Writing Letters" (Self-released)
Johnny Cash "Bootleg, v.3: Live Around The World" (Sony Legacy)
Kristin Chenoweth "Some Lessons Learned" (Sony Masterworks)
John Doe “Keeper” (Yep Roc, 2011)
The Far West "The Far West " (Self-released)
Tennessee Ernie Ford "On The Air, Volume One" (New West)
Kevin Fowler "Chippin' Away" (Average Joe's Entertainment)
Merle Haggard "Working In Tennessee" (Vanguard)
The Infamous Stringdusters "We'll Do It Live" (High Country)
David Jacobs-Strain "Live From The Left Coast" (Self-Released)
The Jayhawks "Mockingbird Time" (Rounder)
Joey + Rory "A Farmhouse Christmas" (Sugar Hill)
Kentucky Headhunters "Dixie Lullabies" (Red Dirt Music)
Lady Antebellum "Own The Night" (Capitol)
Laurie Lewis "Skippin' And Flyin' " (Spruce & Maple)
Lydia Loveless "Indestructible Machine" (Bloodshot)
Martina McBride "Eleven" (Republic)
Leann Rimes "Lady And Gentlemen" (Curb)
Nell Robinson "On The Brooklyn Bridge" (Self-Released)
Junior Sisk & Rambler's Choice "The Heart Of A Song" (Rebel)
Ricky Skaggs "A Skaggs Family Christmas, v.2" (Skaggs Family)
George Strait "Here For A Good Time" (MCA)
Kenny Vaughan "V" (Sugar Hill)
The V-Roys "Sooner Or Later" (F.A.Y. Recordings)
Wilco "The Whole Love" (Anti/Epitaph)
Various Artists "BARBECUE ANY OLD TIME" (Old Hat)

New Stuff: October, 2011

Connie Kis Andersen "Connie Kis" (Kismana, 2011)
(Produced by Doug Wayne)

Independently released mainstream-ish country from an Australian songwriter, with a mix of uptempo singalong songs ("Turn It Up") and several slower, poppy ballads, as well as a touch of inspirational music ("Angels All Around Us," "Pearls For The World"). A solid set, though with the perceptible lack of studio-perfect bombast that you sometimes hear in records by regular folks who try to emulate the Nashville sound. I'm not wild about her vocals, but she seems like a solid, craftsmanlike songwriter...

The Bottle Rockets "Not So Loud" (Bloodshot, 2011)

Ange Boxall "Writing Letters" (Self-released, 2011)
There's some twang in here, but I'd consider this more of a folkie-confessional set; some of the earlier tracks on the album even have a 1970's soft-pop feel, reminding me a bit of Maureen McGovern or early Olivia Newton John. Not quite my cup of tea, but pop-folk fans might like it.

Johnny Cash "Bootleg, v.3: Live Around The World" (Sony Legacy, 2011)
Another remarkable entry in this major-label "bootleg" series, showing Cash at various points in his career... The 2-CD set opens with an electrifying 1956 performance at the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, when Cash's first wave of fame was cresting and he riding atop of several huge hits; he sounds confident and expansive, and by the time he plays his third song -- "Get Rhythm -- the crowd goes nuts with a palpable surge of energy that we can still feel, decades later. Six years later, the tone has changed considerably with a manic, cynical, burnt-out, speed-freak Johnny Cash barreling through past and current hits, as well as some bizarre impersonations of folks like Ernest Tubb and Elvis Presley. The collection continues on chronologically, suffused with a sense of history as Pete Seeger introduces Cash at the Newport Folk Festival, and when Cash performs for the troops in Vietnam in 1969. The following year, he plays a command performance at the White House, and President Nixon's avuncular yet uptight introduction -- with asides about the failed Apollo space mission -- is a historical highlight of this set. (A year later, Johnny Cash would release his politically-charged "Man In Black" and the "Talking Vietnam War Blues," neither of which would have endeared him to Nixon...) The last set included here in in 1979: perhaps future volumes will bridge into the 1980s, '90s and 'Oughts? Let's hope so - folks will never tire of hearing the Man In Black doing what he did best, connecting with audiences across the world.

Kristin Chenoweth "Some Lessons Learned" (Sony Masterworks, 2011)
(Produced by Bob Ezrin)

Not counting appearances on Broadway cast recordings, this is actress Kristin Chenoweth's fourth studio album -- previous records showed her dabbling in jazz-standards, adult-contemporary and Christmas music -- but now it's time for a little twang. Cynics could be forgiven for suggesting that Chenoweth is slumming on this Top-40 styled country album, but ya know what? It totally works. She aims for a modern Nashville vibe, with tinny, bombastic arrangements and plenty of formulaic schmaltz: self-empowerment songs, a weeper about daughters and daddies, one about God, a few raunchy/sassy songs and a fun novelty song about Dolly Parton ("What Would Dolly Do?," an album highlight...) Chenoweth starts out throwing her high-pitched voice into a kind of teenager-ish register, zeroing in on Taylor Swift territory, but after she mentions Ms. Parton, she eases into a more natural-sounding Dolly vibe, and it's these songs that have the most resonance. Several songs come from other artist's catalogs (Carrie Underwood, et. al.) but Chenoweth puts her own stamp on them -- indeed, if she didn't have the baggage of her Hollywood career to distract potential fans, Chenoweth could probably make a serious stab at a Top Country career. And for reals? She just might. Definitely worth checking out if you're into mainstream Nashville stuff.

John Doe "Keeper" (Yep Roc, 2011)

The Far West "The Far West " (Self-released, 2011)
Early in his career, folksinger John Prine indulged in a bit of uptempo country twang -- I've always been a fan of songs such as "Iron Ore Betty" and "Illegal Smile" -- and that's a legacy I'm reminded of here, particularly since Far West's main singer Lee Briante has a pleasant vocal likeness to the young Mr. Prine. This is a nice, low-key, ultra-indie album with modest production values but fun, thoughtful songwriting. The band has a penchant for old-fashioned country novelty songs, with wry wordplay reflecting on heartbreak and loss, cheerfully masked by liberal application of booze. But Far West tilts towards the sad and sorry end of the spectrum -- these songs have conventional classic country form, relying on big set-ups and elaborate puns, but they all point towards pathos, and while the first half of the record has novelty-esque songs such as "I'll Keep The Bed Warm" and "The Best Company Misery Ever Had," the album's opener, "Bitter, Drunk And Cold" pretty much sums up the underlying emotions. The second half keeps gets incrementally more miserable, although this is hardly a Lucinda Williams-style bummerfest... Basically it's a nicely-crafted set that takes its cues from the classic country of years gone by. Definitely worth a spin!

Tennessee Ernie Ford "On The Air, Volume One" (New West, 2011)
Live, on-the-air performances with the Billy Liebert band... Too bad this is a digital-only release.

Tennessee Ernie Ford "On The Air, Volume Two" (New West, 2011)

Kevin Fowler "Chippin' Away" (Average Joe's Entertainment, 2011)
(Produced by David Lee Murphey & Ken Tondre)

Awesome album! Kevin Fowler is one of those Texas-indie red-dirt dudes who's been knocking on Nashville's door for a while now; he's a great songwriter who's sold several tunes that have done pretty well, he's also a lively, heartfelt performer with a strong following, but somehow the Tobys and Kennys keep crowding him out. So, here comes Average Joe's, a new indie label created largely to market Fowler's music, and thank god it's here, and the record is out. This is another strong set of hard-hitting, playfully raunchy modern-day hard country, some honest, ball-scratching dude music that doesn't have the same, lame fake feel as the phony redneck novelty songs recorded by those Top 40 hat-act dudes that dominate the Country charts. Fowler sounds like the real deal: I'm pretty sure I was there hanging out drinking some beer with him that one day when he couldn't fix his carburetor and kicked that dent in the side of his truck. You know what I'm saying. Fowler's songs are well-crafted, they're funny and they ring true. This record was made to crank up loud and sing along to... but only after you pop a top and kick back with some friends, and make sure your wives aren't listening. Keep 'em coming, Kevin.

Merle Haggard "Working In Tennessee" (Vanguard, 2011)

The Infamous Stringdusters "We'll Do It Live" (High Country Recordings, 2011)
This high-powered superpicker bluegrass band has a slightly new lineup -- new guitarist and mandolin player -- and has started their own new label to release this live album documenting a recent tour. It's bound to be twangy and fun!

David Jacobs-Strain "Live From The Left Coast" (Self-Released, 2011)
(Produced by David Jacobs-Strain)

A high-energy acoustic blues set, featuring singer-guitarist David Jacobs-Strain and harmonica player Bob beach, laying live in front of an appreciative Oregon audience. Jacobs-Strain plays with a passion and intensity that rivals Johnny Winter in his younger years, and an intimacy and spark of off-kilter originality that brings to mind Ellen McIlwane and Leo Kottke... The songs are mostly originals, with lyrics that run far afield of the usual blues cliches; in a few cover tunes, Jacobs-Strain tips his hat towards Robert Johnson, Taj Mahal and Stephen Stills, which is a pretty good summation of where he's at musically and thematically. Nice stuff - definitely interested to see where he goes from here.

The Jayhawks "Mockingbird Time" (Rounder, 2011)

Joey + Rory "A Farmhouse Christmas" (Sugar Hill/Vanguard, 2011)
(Produced by Gary Paczosa & Carl Jackson)

Since they are perhaps the most satisfyingly rootsy, traditionally-oriented, down-home Top 40 country act since Dolly Parton first hit the scene, you might figure Joey + Rory are likely to make one helluva fun holiday album. And you'd be right. This one's a winner, with a couple of oldies and a bunch of great new Christmas songs that'll add a lot to the holiday repertoire. Highlights include their version of "If We Make It Through December" (with composer Merle Haggard on guest vocals), and novelty songs like the mildly-naughty "What The Hell (It's The Holidays)" and "Let It Snow (Somewhere Else)" (which I enjoyed a lot, despite it being one of those modern Nashville let's-vacation-in-the-tropics songs, a genre that always makes me feel a bit left out, since I can't afford to vacation in the tropics...) Also noteworthy is a new song by Garth Brooks, "I Know What Santa's Getting For Christmas," a jaunty pop number in the same spirit as "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." If you like hillbilly holiday music or are just a big, old Joey + Rory fan, you're gonna love this album!

Kentucky Headhunters "Dixie Lullabies" (Red Dirt Music, 2011)
(Produced by Kentucky Headhunters, Wayd Battle & Richie Owens)

Seriously? The Headhunters are back? Well, I'm not like their biggest fan ever, but I imagine there are a lot of folks who are gonna be psyched to hear them crank up the amps and get all Southern-fried again... Yee-haw!!

Lady Antebellum "Own The Night" (Capitol, 2011)

Laurie Lewis "Skippin' And Flyin' " (Spruce & Maple, 2011)
(Produced by Laurie Lewis)

A sweet, joyful birthday centennial celebration of the late, great bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe, and the music he created... This album is traditionally-oriented, but not quite as stark or severe as Monroe's own recordings could be... Lewis gives the music a softer touch, both stylistically and emotionally, embracing a very full-of-life, thankful-to-have-Monroe's-music-in-my-world kind of vibe. It's not strictly a Bill Monroe tribute, more of a broad-based homage, with songs from the repertoires of Jimmie Rodgers, Flatt & Scruggs, Del McCoury, Utah Phillips and others, as well as some Laurie Lewis originals, but all with a familiar feel that fits into the grand, 'grassy scheme of things. Along for the ride are several longtime Lewis collaborators, such as Tom Rozum, Todd Phillips and banjoists Craig Smith and Patrick Sauber. It's another class act from this California bluegrass mainstay... Fun and full of feeling!

Lydia Loveless "Indestructible Machine" (Bloodshot, 2011)

Martina McBride "Eleven" (Republic Nashville, 2011)
(Produced by Byron Gallimore)

Montgomery Gentry “Rebels On The Run” (Average Joe's Entertainment, 2011)

Leann Rimes "Lady And Gentlemen" (Curb, 2011)
She's ba-a-a-a-a-a-ck....

Nell Robinson "On The Brooklyn Bridge" (Nell Robinson Music, 2011)
(Produced by Nell Robinson & Jim Nunally)

A city gal with country roots, Nell Robinson grew up in Alabama, but made it to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she's hooked up with a number of talented folks on the local bluegrass scene, including mandolin player John Reischman, fiddler Gregory Spatz and newgrass gal Laurie Lewis (who co-wrote one of the songs on this album...) This album pays tribute to Robinson's roots, with a mix of original songs and soulful standards as well as short spoken bits with her family members recalling the old days in the family's rural home. Worth noting is charming fact that Robinson only started singing in public recently ("I sang by myself in the car for 30 years, and ventured out to sing in public at age 45," she notes cheerfully...) and released this album at the brisk young age of fifty. She has the voice and soul of a much younger person, as heard on several bouncy, banjo-led tunes, and taps into the old-school sound of Depression-era Southern music with great authenticity and charm... If you enjoy DIY bluegrass and old-timey tunes, give this one a spin!

Junior Sisk & Rambler's Choice "The Heart Of A Song" (Rebel, 2011)
A real stunner! Great traditional bluegrass with pure, simple harmonies and solid musicianship. The album starts out with a wistful homage to the golden age of bluegrass, "A Far Cry From Lester And Earl," and after that Sisk doesn't deviate from his path -- a beautifully performed set of heartsongs, gospel tunes and sweet, straight-ahead picking. Rhonda Vincent sings a duet, "The Sound Of Your Name," though I also enjoy Sisk's plainspoken vocal style. All the right stuff - highly recommended!

Ricky Skaggs "A Skaggs Family Christmas, v.2" (Skaggs Family, 2011)
(Produced by Billy Paul Jones & Charlotte Scott)

One of the preeminent contemporary bluegrass stars, born-again bandleader Ricky Skaggs has also has impressive bona fides as a Christian musician, and mixes several religious music styles on this joyful live holiday album. There are straightforward holiday standards, such as the album's bouncy, bluegrassy opener, "Christmas Time's A-Coming," alongside tracks that dig deeper into Biblical teachings and church-ier Southern Gospel arrangements. Skaggs' extended family is on board, including his wife's family band, The Whites, with sisters Sharon and Cheryl and papa Buck White, as well as the new generation, Ricky and Sharon's kids Luke and Molly, as well as Cheryl's daughter Rachel Leftwich (who is apparently married to Andy Leftwich, the fiddler in Ricky's band Kentucky Thunder. You catch all that? I know family ties can get confusing... I can go over it again if you'd like...) Anyway, this is a rock-solid record, with a solid foundation in the not-too-dour bedrock fundamentalism of the Skaggs Family clan, but also some lighter holiday fare for folks who like to sing along. Also included is a second disc, a bonus DVD with the entire concert, about three times as much music as the audio disc, and a nice chance to see not just Skaggs in action, but the often-neglected Whites as well. Happy holidays!

George Strait "Here For A Good Time" (MCA, 2011)
More true-country Top Forty from Texas legend George Strait. His last album, Twang, was a good-natured throwback to his bar-band days; here he gets more mellow and pop-oriented, with ballads and slow stuff outweighing the honkytonk songs. But, hey, it's George Strait: he does this stuff better than most, and every album's a treat for his fans.

The V-Roys "Sooner Or Later" (F.A.Y. Recordings, 2011)
(Produced by Steve Earle & Ray Kennedy)

A best-of set from this highly-regarded Americana twang-rock quartet from Knoxville, TN... Fans of the Bottle Rockets, Jayhawks and Steve Earle will enjoy this set... Nice to trace the band's progress from a lighter, more acoustic style into the heavier, more rock-oriented feel of their later work, and to hear the wide variety of tones that their work took on. Great twangcore from the 1990s!

Kenny Vaughan "V" (Sugar Hill, 2011)
(Produced by Brandon Bell, Carmella Ramsey & Kenny Vaughan)

A fun record shining the spotlight on a guy who's usually standing in the background. Guitar picker Kenny Vaughan is a heavy-hitter in the new Nashville studio scene, with a regular gig in Marty Stuart's band, (following several years with Lucinda Williams) and countless recording sessions under his belt, backing artists such as Rodney Crowell, Patty Loveless and the Sweethearts Of The Rodeo. His rootsy side is on full display in this excellent solo album, with tips of the hat towards Buck Owens next to slinky instrumentals like "Mysterium," which recalls his early work with Bill Frisell. Mostly, it's a fun, twangy, retro vibe that fills this disc -- like Stuart, Vaughan has a flair for uncomplicated, old-school hillbilly twang, and while that might not get him on the charts, it will keep him on my home stereo... Definitely worth a spin!

Wilco "The Whole Love" (Anti/Epitaph, 2011)

Various Artists "BARBECUE ANY OLD TIME -- BLUES FROM THE PIT: 1927-1942" (Old Hat, 2011)
You gotta love it. Two dozen vintage blues, boogie and jazz songs about yummy, greasy barbecue, in all its carnivorous glory. Almost all the songs contain thinly-veiled sexual metaphors about "good meat" that gets stolen, sold, or given away to "some other guy," though a lot of them also express a genuine love of barbecue itself; either way, there's a pure sensuous hedonism that comes through in the music that's hard to resist. There's also a nutty, loopy, fanatic joyfulness to these songs that make 'em enjoyable to all but the most hardcore of vegan animal-rights activists. And if you do like a little 'que now and then, you'll definitely get a kick out of this collection. Included are some of the best blues singers of the 1920s and '30s, folks like Bo Carter, Brownie McGhee and Tiny Parnham, along with a bunch of more obscure artists who throw themselves into the music with equal delight. There are several female singers -- Lucille Bogan, Memphis Minnie, Georgia White and Leola B. Wilson -- who are every bit as lusty and naughty as the guys, although their songs tend to be about them "selling it" rather than giving it away; Savannah Churchill skips the prostitution angle and gives the sex-songs genre a voluptuous spin with "Fat Meat Is Good Meat," singing the praises of those with a little bounce on their bones. Aside from the novelty value, these are also great old-fashioned blues songs, with catchy melodies and great musicianship. A very fun collection with the usual high quality audio and scholarship as other Old Hat releases... Highly recommended!

Various Artists "THE LOST NOTEBOOKS OF HANK WILLIAMS" (Columbia/Egyptian, 2011)
Really nice. This album is tied to an exhibit at the Country Music Hall Of Fame that features the notebooks of the late, great Hank Williams, including several unfinished songs. Those lyrics are brought to life by some of the most talented twangsters America has to offer: Alan Jackson opens things up with "You've Been Lonesome, Too," one of the finest songs on the album. Other highlights include tracks by Norah Jones, Patty Loveless and Rodney Crowell, as well as Hank's granddaughter, Holly Williams, a soulful singer who digs deep into the family tradition. Old-timers like Bob Dylan, Levon Helm and Merle Haggard bring another level of resonance to the project, as pioneers of the '60s folk, roots-rock and neotrad scenes whose connection to Hank's sound was immediate and profound. Nothing will ever match the majesty of Williams' own original recordings, but this disc latches onto the spirit of his work with surprising vigor and depth... It's a fun record as well as an honest one - definitely worth checking out!

Various Artists "PUTUMAYO PRESENTS: ACOUSTIC CAFE" (Putumayo, 2011)
A very mellow set of contemporary singer-songwriters, mostly of the wordy, confessional/coffeehouse-folkie variety... Features a few stalwarts such as Lucy Kaplansky (at her drowsy, Nanci Griffith-ish best...) and several newcomers such as Trevor Hall and the Sweet Remains, with highlight tracks from Sarah Jarosz and Justin Townes Earle. One eye-opener for me was a South African singer I hadn't heard of before, Gregory Alan Isakov, whose banjo-laced "Stable Song" was a sweet little earbender. As with many Putumayo collections, this will give you a good sense of the style, and several artists you might want to track down later.

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