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, 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.
Steve Azar "Delta Soul, Volume One" (Redeye)
Mandy Barnett "Winter Wonderland" (Rounder)
The Carter Brothers "The Road To Roosky" (Compass)
Dick Curless "The Long Lonesome Road" (Omni)
Brantley Gilbert "Modern Day Prodigal" (Valory Music)
Vince Gill "Guitar Slinger" (MCA Nashville)
Josh Gracin "Redemption" (Average Joe's Entertainment)
Chris Isaak "Beyond The Sun" (Vanguard)
James Justin & Co. "Dark Country" (Self-Released)
Joey + Rory "A Farmhouse Christmas" (Sugar Hill)
George Jones "Hits" (Vanguard)
George Jones "Heartbreak Hotel: Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight" (Bear Family)
George Jones "George Jones/I Wanta Sing" (Raven)
George Jones "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes/Wine Colored Roses" (Raven)
Robert Earl Keen "Ready For Confetti" (Lost Highway)
Toby Keith "Clancy's Tavern" (Universal/Show Dog)
Miranda Lambert "Four The Record" (Sony)
Loretta Lynch "Home Fires" (Self-Released)
Shelby Lynne "Revelation Road" (Everso Records)
Neal McCoy & Les Brown, Jr. "The Music Of Your Life" (DPTV)
Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out "Prime Tyme" (Rural Rhythm)
Joe Nichols "It's All Good" (Show Dog)
Mary Kay Place "Almost Grown" (Wounded Bird)
Kyle Park "Make Or Break Me" (Winding Road)
Rascal Flatts "The Best Of... Live!" (Hollywood)
Brandon Rhyder "Live At Billy Bob's Texas" (2011)
Tom Russell "Mesabi" (Shout Factory)
Andy Statman "Old Brooklyn" (Shefa)
Randy Travis "Blessed Assurance" (Spring Hill)
Tom Waits "Bad As Me" (Epitaph)
Dale Watson "The Sun Sessions" (Red House)
Steve Azar "Delta Soul, Volume One" (Redeye, 2011)
Mandy Barnett "Winter Wonderland" (Rounder, 2010/2011)
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... (Note: this is re-released from 2010...)
The Carter Brothers "The Road To Roosky" (Compass, 2011)
(Produced by Tim & Danny Carter)
Veering away from the acoustic bluegrass of earlier albums these Carter Family cousins take on more of a bluesy acoustic-rock sound, albeit with banjo and mandolin laced in with the heavy chord changes. In the center of the album are a trio of gospel songs; the second half has a few tunes that hearken back to the classic Carter Family repertoire. Mostly, though, this is a modernist, folk-country outing, with less song-to-song variation than on earlier records. Worth checking out, but don't expect them to get all "Wildwood Flower," Mother Maybelle on you.
Dick Curless "The Long Lonesome Road" (Omni, 2011)
Maine's rural crooner Dick Curless was one of the great regionally-based country stars of the 1950s and '60s... Initially his base of popularity was in New England, where he worked as a radio host and performer; in 1965 he broke through nationally with the somber novelty single, "A Tombstone Every Mile," one of the all-time great trucker tunes. Along with Dave Dudley and others, Curless rode the trucker-song fad, but also recorded heartsongs, cheating songs and gospel tunes... This disc is a much-welcome collection of classic material; as with other Omni albums it makes some unconventional choices along with the hits and favorites... Highly recommended!
Brantley Gilbert "Modern Day Prodigal" (Valory Music, 2011)
Vince Gill "Guitar Slinger" (MCA Nashville, 2011)
Josh Gracin "Redemption" (Average Joe's Entertainment, 2011)
Chris Isaak "Beyond The Sun" (Vanguard, 2011)
Renewing his allegiance to the foundations of rock'n'roll, retrobilly elder Chris Isaak has recorded a lovely 2-CD tribute to the classic Sun Studios sound, recording two dozen covers of old hits by Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and -- of course -- a bunch of old Elvis Presley songs. It's great stuff: sweet, sleek, heartfelt and true, and certainly one of the rootsiest Chris Isaak records in years. He adds a new tune or two, such as the rollicking, rambunctious "Live It Up," a twang-filled, upbeat rocker that would make Sam Phillips proud. This is an album that will give Isaak and Elvis fans happy for years. Recommended!
George Jones "Hits" (Vanguard, 2011)
In honor of his 80th birthday(!) what could be better than an avalanche of groovy George Jones reissues and best-of collections? This 2-CD best-of set has plenty of great stuff for fans old and new... And if you think you've heard it all on other albums, well, apparently there are two previously unreleased tracks here, just to make your mouth water and your palms sweat... Must... hear... more... George!!
George Jones "Heartbreak Hotel: Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight" (Bear Family, 2011)
Leave it to Bear Family: a sizzling set of oldies, including a bunch of rockabilly-flavored tracks from the '50s and '60s, including rare singles from the Starday label's Dixie imprint, and a notorious Pair of rock'n'roll numbers released under the pseudonym Thumper Jones, "Rock It," and "How Come It." Heck, yeah!
George Jones "George Jones/I Wanta Sing" (Raven, 2011)
A straight reissue of two Epic Record releases, 1972's George Jones, which includes the #2 hit, "Loving You Could Never Be Better," and "We Can Make It," which cracked the Top Ten. The by-rote I Wanta Sing, from 1977, was a less successful record, but as with almost all George Jones albums, there are hidden nuggets that are worth checking out.
George Jones "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes/Wine Colored Roses" (Raven, 2011)
Another twofer reissue, 1985's Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes and Wine Colored Roses from 1986 -- both albums were modest successes, recorded when Jones life was at an ebb, but as always, there's plenty there that's worth checking out.
James Justin & Co. "Dark Country" (Self-Released, 2011)
Singer-songwriter James Justin Burke takes a few cues from American goth-nik Richard Buckner, but doesn't go as far down the gloom-doom rabbithole. This is an interesting and highly listenable mix of indie and twang, with some songs shedding the country vibe in favor of a more rock'n'roll sound, though for most of the album banjo and mandolin figure quite prominently. Definitely worth a spin, and as I said, this is a record you can play all the way through and kind of lose yourself in... Sounds nice!
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!
Robert Earl Keen "Ready For Confetti" (Lost Highway, 2011)
(Produced by Lloyd Maines)
Toby Keith "Clancy's Tavern" (Universal/Show Dog, 2011)
(Produced by Toby Keith)
Another diverse album with Keith's mix of rock-flavored country-pop and old-fashioned honkytonk drinking songs, along with a dash of raw-meat patriotism (though the album's opening track, the good-natured protectionist anthem, "Made In America," is pretty mild compared to his Iraq War-era blasts...) It seems like Toby mostly wants to chill out and be mellow -- the live tracks at the album's end (a cool feature of his recent records) show him still pursuing a relaxed, Waylonesque vibe; highlights on the studio side include the humorous "Tryin' To Fall In Love" ("If women came a dime a dozen/I ain't got a penny/Some guys get way too much/Some guys don't get any") and "____ Beers Ago," in which the months and years of a long-lost love are measured out in empty longnecks... There could have been a little more oomph to this album, and personally I'm ready for Keith to ditch those tinny, 2001-era electric guitars that have been part of his signature sound for years: more pedal steel, perhaps? But mostly? This album's okay... It has the same kind of impact as an early-1980s George Jones record, a workmanlike album from a strong stylist with a long road ahead of him. It's kind of refreshing in today's instant-death Top 40 scene to see an artist in control of his own career who can keep plugging away and make albums that don't have to carry the weight of the world on 'em. Ernest Tubb would be proud.
Miranda Lambert "Four The Record" (Sony, 2011)
Loretta Lynch "Home Fires" (Self-Released, 2011)
Scrappy, DIY twang from this female-led SF Bay Area quintet... Singers Heather Davison, Val Esway and Ari Fellows-Mannion take turns with the songwriting; highlights include Fellows-Manion's "Baby Made 1-2-3," in which a pair of hipster parents longs for their nightclubbing days, before the biggest excitement at night was changing diapers or reading a bedtime story to their kid... It's a catchy tune that taps into the simplicity of old-school country. Also fun are their cover tunes, a surfy remake of "Ghost Riders In The Sky," NRBQ's bluesy "What Can I Say," and a hillbilly update of "I Wanna Be Sedated" by the Ramones (a sure crowd-pleaser at their concerts!) Their rugged, acoustic-based sound, with plenty of guitar, bass, mandolin -- and a wicked bit of washboard rhythm -- shows that local, homegrown twang is alive and well in the East Bay. (For more info, including gig updates, check out the band's website at lorettalynch.com)
Shelby Lynne "Revelation Road" (Everso Records, 2011)
A couple of years ago Shelby Lynne started her own independent label, and has released a couple of albums that would never have gotten out the gate in the fiscally conservative Nashville hit factory. Take for example this stripped-down, intensely personal indie-acoustic set which painfully explores the themes of Lynne's tragic family history, in which her mother and father were lost in a grisly murder-suicide when she and sister Allison Moorer were in their teens (their father shot their mother, then himself...) The album is packed with mournful, brokenhearted emotional sketches, punctuated at album's end by a twin pair of suicide songs, "Toss It All Aside," and its sequel, "Heaven's Only Days Down The Road," where the desolate narrator fantasizes about taking a gun out of the closet, and what his/her funeral will be like after he/she is gone. These despair-drenched gems are followed by the album's closer, the seemingly sweet "I Won't Leave You," a melodic acoustic tune which pledges fidelity but hints at impending sorrow and loss, like a last-minute declaration of passion towards a lover who's got one foot out the door, their bags packed, and a full tank of gas in a double-parked car. Concept albums about the redemption of dads who destroy their own families are a tough sell, but Lynne brings a level of emotional rawness and artistic depth to the table that is hard to deny. Her unique blend of soul, folk and twang creates a seductive bed for these remarkably bleak, downcast lyrics... She also produced the album and plays all of the instruments, adding to the personal feel of this powerful downer of an album. On a personal note: godspeed, Shelby. I hope everything's okay.
Neal McCoy & Les Brown, Jr. "The Music Of Your Life" (DPTV, 2011)
In an interesting career twist, this ever-amiable '90s country star pairs up with big-band leader Les Brown, Jr., for a funky set of pop-vocals standards. McCoy has always had a strong pop sensibility; it's kind of fun to hear him go all wayback-machine on us and delve into old-school crooning.
Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out "Prime Tyme" (Rural Rhythm, 2011)
(Produced by Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out)
A beautiful set of tradition-oriented, contemporary bluegrass, featuring lead vocals by Russell Moore -- who gets top billing now, I guess, since he is the only founding member currently in the band. These guys have a lot of great music and great records already under their belts, and this disc will surely stand out as a highlight in their discography. Great stuff from beginning to end, and with a wide variety of styles, and several standout tracks. "Whipporwill" features an evocative, persistent refrain that echoed around in my head for days, while "Dusty" has the feel of the best early-'70s progressive 'grass. Plenty of straight-ahead picking, as well, including a nice cover of the "Sugarfoot Rag," and a number of songs dedicated to working-class families: the ennobling "Old Kentucky Farmers," the more pointed "Hooverville," and the gospel-tinged "What's The World Coming To," which closes the album. This is a melodically strong, harmonically rich truegrass collection, perfect for repeat listens for years to come. Recommended!
Joe Nichols "It's All Good" (Universal/Show Dog, 2011)
(Produced by Mark Wright & Buddy Cannon)
Kyle Park "Make Or Break Me" (Winding Road, 2011)
The third full-length album from an "red dirt" indiebilly who has gone pretty over-the-top pop, at least on the opening tracks, which I think he was hoping would be hits. The rest of the record calms down a bit, with more relaxed twang tunes interspersed with bombastic Top 40-ish songs, and a lot of sensitive-guy country songs. I think he was shooting for a Brad Paisley/Pat Green vibe, which is okay, I guess, though it didn't really work for me. If you're interested in indie country, this is worth checking out -- who knows? He might hit it big!
Noam Pikelny "Beat The Devil And Carry A Rail" (Compass, 2011)
(Produced by Gabe Witcher)
A really fun, inventive banjo album from Punch Brothers co-founder Noam Pikelny, who brings back some of the playful puckishness heard in the early 1970s from innovative plunkers like Bill Keith and Tony Trischka. The songs are whimsical, yet soulful and compelling and able to stand up to repeated listenings... Indeed, I've had this in rotation for over a week now and I'm still diggin' it. Highlights include collaborations with guests such as Jerry Douglas, Steve Martin and Chris Thile. Tim O'Brien sings on the rollicking topical ballad "Bob McKinney," sounding for all the world like an outtake from Loudon Wainwright's Charley Poole tribute album, and singer Aoife O'Donovan (of the band Crooked Still) illuminates the album with a mystical-sounding version of the Tom Waits' song, "Fish And Bird." Steve Martin, who's recently decided to really go for it with his passion for bluegrass, has a delightfully playful instrumental duet - lighthearted, intelligent and fun to play. Pikelny is a very generous musical host, and brings out the creative essence of collaboration -- everyone obviously had a lot of fun working on this one. All in all, a fine album -- one of my faves this year!
Mary Kay Place "Tonite! At The Capri Lounge/Aimin' To Please" (Wounded Bird, 2011)
A welcome re-reissue of actress Mary Kay Place's country-parody albums of the 1970s... She started her country career in the guise TV character Loretta Haggers, on the surrealistic soap-comedy Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. The Haggers character was a hit (and a hoot), leading to two real-world albums, 1976's Tonite! At the Capri Lounge and Aimin' To Please, from 1977. Ms. Place -- or should I say Ms. Haggers? -- had an A-list studio crew backing her up, including members of Emmylou Harris's fabled Hot Band and numerous Nashville heavyweights, with sonic sculpting by Emmylou's best producer, Brian Ahern. The overall sound will be pretty familiar to Emmylou's fans: spacious, round-toned harmonies, rock-friendly twang, traditional honkytonk instruments in a well-defined soundscape, and plenty of sweet picking from the likes of James Burton, Albert Lee and Rodney Crowell, along with guest singers including Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson. Some of the songs are better than others: I think they really hit their rhythm on the second album, taking things a little more seriously in some ways than on the first... Highlights include "Vitamin L" (a staple on the Mary Hartman show), a funky cover of Bobby Braddock's "Something To Brag About" and a sublime version of "You Can't Go to Heaven (If You Don't Have a Good Time)," which is probably the best and most sincere song of the set. If you like that whole Hot Band/Happy Sack production style, you'll want to check this one out.
Mary Kay Place "Almost Grown" (Wounded Bird, 2011)
There's also an unreleased third album... Haven't heard this one, but I'm eager to check it out! I'll letcha know when I track it down.
Rascal Flatts "The Best Of... Live!" (Hollywood, 2011)
Brandon Rhyder "Live At Billy Bob's Texas" (2011)
Tom Russell "Mesabi" (Shout Factory, 2011)
Andy Statman "Old Brooklyn" (Shefa, 2011)
Multi-instrumentalist Andy Statman was a Jewish kid from New York who caught the bluegrass bug during the 1960's folk scene -- he also became one of the major figures in the American klezmer revival, and over the years he's gracefully danced between the two styles, recording albums in one genre or the other as the mood struck him. On this complex, confounding 2-CD set, Statman forcefully mashes them together with good-natured, genre-busting glee. The title track, "Old Brooklyn" -- which opens the album -- is a kooky, freewheeling kaleidoscope of styles, typifying a number of musical movements that New York has been home to: bluegrass, klezmer, free-jazz and bebop, and even a bit of Bowery Street skronk, with banjo and mandolin taking wild dives into showy, self-indulgent improv. A number of high-powered guests and roots-revival stalwarts jump in and cut loose: banjoists Bela Fleck and Bruce Molsky, steel players Jon Scholl and Marty Rifkin, fiddler Byron Berline... even actor John Goodman sings a bit! It's an intentionally kitchen-sinkish affair, with Statman leaping ecstatically away from the confines of formalism, a grand romp through American folk, blues and jazz, and it's often a bit on the chaotic side, with balancing moments of elegance. Highlights include a few bluesy tunes -- "A Brighter Day" and "Since I Met You Baby" -- and a stunning duet where Statman, an ecstatic Hassidic Jew, finds common ground with Christian evangelical Ricky Skaggs on a stark, haunting gospel song, "The Lord Will Provide," Skaggs singing a capella at times, with Statman coming in to buoy him up on the clarinet. It's a fine example of the America that many of us still cherish: many voices, one song.
Randy Travis "Blessed Assurance" (Spring Hill, 2011)
An album of gospel standards by the ever-evangelical Mr. Travis? Sounds pretty sweet to me. He has a real knack for pioneering new material, but going back to the well for more traditional stuff also suits him well.
Tom Waits "Bad As Me" (Epitaph, 2011)
His first album in seven years...
Dale Watson "The Sun Sessions" (Red House, 2011)
Working in a compact trio -- Johnny Cash and Elvis-style -- Watson makes a pilgrimage to the fabled Sun Studios to record a sharp set of rockabilly-flavored hillbilly twang. According to the liner notes, Dale didn't plan these sessions, they just sort of happened, and he found himself having to write a bunch of new songs in order to fill out the album. Not surprisingly, the record has a spontaneous, off-the-cuff feel, and it fits the music well... There's plenty of Cash-style chunka-chunka beats and restrained, rhythmic guitar, also some great songs. Watson's work is still gloomier than it was before the tragedies of a decade ago (the death of his wife) and his weariness feels real -- he's really had the kind of hard-won hard luck that blues and country singers put in their songs. And he makes the most of it. Some songs, like "Ponder Why I Ponder Why" and the gospel-themed "Hand Of Jesus" are sincere spiritual queries, while other songs take a lighter tone. "Elbow Grease, Spackle and Pine Sol" is a very dark, kind of funny song -- one of the most outrageous suicide songs you're likely to hear, but also a good novelty number... There are also trucker tunes ("Drive Drive Drive," the first trucker song I know of that mentions texting), love songs and a tune or two about some of the salt-of-the-earth regular folks Dale has met over the years. You can hear the years in his voice, but also in his heart, and it sounds mighty nice. Keep 'em coming, Dale!
Hick Music Index
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