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 January, 2012. 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:
Lauren Alaina "Wildflower" (Mercury Nashville)
Bill Anderson "The First Ten Years: 1956-1966" (Bear Family)
Tommy Collins "Black Cat (Shake This Shack Tonight)" (Bear Family)
The Damn Quails "The Damn Quails" (598 Recordings)
David Grisman Quintet "25th Year Reunion Concert" (Acoustic Disc)
Hunter Hayes "Hunter Hayes" (Atlantic)
Grandpa Jones "Makes The Rafters Ring" (Omni)
Yo-Yo Ma "The Goat Rodeo Sessions" (Sony Masterworks)
Martina McBride "Hits And More" (Sony-RCA Nashville)
Nick 13 "Nick 13" (Sugar Hill)
Dolly Parton "The Fairest Of Them All/My Favorite Songwriter" (Omni)
Elvis Presley "Elvis Country (Legacy Edition)" (Sony Legacy)
Wynn Stewart "Come On (Shake This Shack Tonight)" (Bear Family)
Thompson Square "Thompson Square" (Stoney Creek)
Chip Taylor & The Grandkids "Golden Kids Rules" (Smithsonian Folkways)
Various Artists "THE WORLD IS A MONSTER" (Omni)

New Stuff: January, 2012

Lauren Alaina "Wildflower" (Mercury Nashville, 2011)
(Produced by Byron Gallimore)

Absolutely dreadful, and completely phony. The debut album by (yet another) American Idol contestant... She's one of those dreadfully unsubtle Idol singers, wailing away inside some impenetrable fortress of studio-generated wall-of-sound production, a soulless mound of pop-hook cliches, with no margin of error or room for genuine feeling. Bleah. It's an approximation of better music -- Sheryl Crow, etc. -- but so perfectly crafted and unoriginal it's really rather disheartening. How many of these records can they make? And why?

Bill Anderson "The First Ten Years: 1956-1966" (Bear Family, 2011)
This 4-CD box set will make fans of Nashville songwriter "Whispering " Bill Anderson go a little weak in the knees... I know I, for one, would love to check out his early stuff from the 'Fifties, and hear just how "country" he was, before the smooth production style of the Nashville Sound took over completely. Also comes with a handsome hardcover booklet, packed with archival photos and elaborate discographical info, as only Bear Family can provide. Of course, with the Bear Family mark of quality there often comes a hefty price tag, so I'll have to wait until they mail me my winning lottery ticket before I can pick this puppy up. Still...

Tommy Collins "Black Cat (Shake This Shack Tonight)" (Bear Family, 2011)
A sizzling set of real '50s hillbilly pop from songwriters Tommy Collins, one of the early stars of the rollicking, rowdy Bakersfield scene -- one of Buck Owens' pals, Collins was a popular composer, but he hit a wall as far as his own career as a performer, in part because his born-again religious beliefs made him reject secular music, right when his star was rising on the country scene. This generously programmed collection focusses on his rougher, more rockabilly/hillbilly boogie flavored material, and it's great stuff. A real gas!

The Damn Quails "The Damn Quails" (598 Recordings, 2011)
A strong alt-country album that works both as rock and as twang. The music was consistently surprising and fresh, the lyrics were sometimes weird or elusive but always compelling. I'm kind of jaded and "over" most indierock-meets-country stuff, but this record was a pleasant surprise. Definitely worth checking out!

David Grisman Quintet "25th Year Reunion Concert" (Acoustic Disc, 2011)
In pre-9/11 2001 -- a happier time -- David Grisman, Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, Todd Phillips and Tony Rice reconvened the group that gave the world newgrass and cheerfully cruised through a live performance of the first David Grisman Quintet album. The audience is understandably warm and ebullient, and the music sounds nice, after all these years. There's plenty of good-natured showboating and fancy licks, and sweet melodies that are well-remembered by fans and band alike. Apparently only available as a download... alas.

Hunter Hayes "Hunter Hayes" (Atlantic, 2011)
(Produced by Dann Huff & Hunter Hayes)

A child star who reemerged as a teen star, Hunter Hayes offers pure boy-bandish pop with a teensy bit of twang, just enough to questionably qualify as "country" although this blaring, shimmery, generic production could just as easily fill up airspace on pop channels. Pretty insipid, really. Irritating voice, too. It might not surprise you to learn that he was also in the Emerson Drive orbit, having written one of their hits, "Play," before landing a contract with Atlantic. Apparently he wrote all the songs and played all the instruments on this album, if that's the sort of thing that impresses you -- I find that it just increases the feeling of stylistic homogeneity and amplifies his own blandness and lack of originality. But maybe that's just me?

Grandpa Jones "Makes The Rafters Ring" (Omni, 2011)
Old-timey banjo player and comedian Louis Marshall Jones, aka Grandpa Jones started his long, long showbiz career back in the Great Depression, taking on the persona of an old geezer as part of his vaudevillian stage show. Although he stayed true to the music, he had a lot of phases to his career, including postwar stints with the Delmore Brothers and Merle Travis (in the gospel-oriented Brown's Ferry Four) and, of course, his iconic appearances on the Hee Haw TV show. This disc covers some of his later work in the 1960s, on the Monument label, drawing mainly on two albums, Makes The Rafters Ring, from 1962 and 1963's Grandpa Jones Sings Yodeling Hits, which have slicker production than his older stuff, but still resonate with old-timey vigor. Lots of country talent on here working under producer Fred Foster: there are a bunch of hotshot guitarists, including Harold Bradley, Ray Edington, Hank Garland and Merle Travis (with lots of Chet Atkins soundalike riffs), and steel player Jerry Byrd adding a few sweet licks as well. Mother Maybelle and Helen Carter sing backup, along with the then-unknown Glaser Brothers, and of course Jones is fine form -- never a particularly fluid vocal stylist, but a solid performer throughout. This is a nice sampling of his pre-Hee Haw work, material that's kind of off the beaten track for most country fans, and well worth spin or two to enjoy a fun collision of old-school hillbilly twang and new-fangled Nashville pop. Recommended!

Yo-Yo Ma/Stuart Duncan/Edgar Meyer/Chris Thile "The Goat Rodeo Sessions" (Sony Masterworks, 2011)

Martina McBride "Hits And More" (Sony-RCA Nashville, 2012)
A new best-of set that updates her 2001 Greatest Hits collection and adds three new songs to the mix... Most of Martina's major singles and a few hopeful new hits to boot!

Nick 13 "Nick 13" (Sugar Hill, 2011)
(Produced by Greg Liesz & James Intveld)

A sweet set of gentle, compelling twang from the founder of the band Tiger Army... The resonant, melodic approach suggests a less-bombastic Chris Isaak, or perhaps a more rockin' James Intveld... And lo: Intveld is actually on board as the album's bassist and co-producer, along with pedal steel player Greg Liesz (and on some tracks, steel legend Lloyd Green...) The mix is dreamy and seductive, the record's real fun... Highlights include the propulsive end track, "Gambler's Life," the kind of song that makes you scramble for the "replay" button once it's done. Recommended!

Dolly Parton "The Fairest Of Them All/My Favorite Songwriter, Porter Wagoner" (Omni, 2011)
A delicious set of over-the-top country novelty songs written by Dolly Parton (on her 1969 album, Fairest Of The All) and by her patron and showbiz mentor Porter Wagoner (in a fab 1972 tribute album, My Favorite Songwriter) who shared his love of unabashed hillbilly corn and extreme melodrama with Parton, who was one of his best interpreters. It's not all gimmicks and high drama here -- there are a few regular old love songs, but Dolly's opening salvo, "Daddy Come And Get Me," sets the tone: it's an amazing number about a small-town girl who loses her mind after a failed romance and a lost pregnancy, calls her father and pleads with him to rescue her from an insane asylum. It's an exaggerated version of conservative morals in the '60s, but it's also a hilarious, outrageous novelty song, one of many wacked-out, have-to-hear-it-to-believe-it lyrical jawdroppers. Also notable are "When Possession Gets Too Strong," about being really horny in a pre-sexual revolution world, and "Mammie," an ode to an idealized black housemaid who's been more of a friend to the singer than her own family. Really, Dolly? You sure about that one? Anyway, there's a time to take country music seriously, and a time to give into its silly side, and when you're listening to Porter-era Dolly, well, you just gotta kick back and get comfortable, and let the silliness take you away. Highly recommended.

Elvis Presley "Elvis Country (Legacy Edition)" (Sony Legacy, 2012)
A twofer reissue of two roots/country-oriented albums Presley recorded at the height of the countrypolitan era, Elvis Country, and Love Letters From Elvis, both from from 1971. Super-duper over-the-top, cornball pop-country arrangements and weird, schmaltzy vocals from the King. He sort of sounds like Charlie Rich, but less sincere; the most interesting aspect of the Country album is the early '70s studio crew, which included several RCA heavy-hitters such as guitarist Jerry Reed, who added some wicked slide guitar on an otherwise lackluster cover of "Whole Lotta Shaking Going On." (I had to check the liner notes and make sure it wasn't actually Duane Allman playing lead...) Includes both then-current hits and then-classic oldies: if you ever wanted to hear Elvis sing "Snowbird," here's your chance.

Wynn Stewart "Come On (Shake This Shack Tonight)" (Bear Family, 2011)
One of the early stars of the 1950s West Coast country scene, singer Wynn Stewart was a patron of "Bakersfield Sound" stars such as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, who would eclipse him in the 1960s, but it was Stewart who paved the way with an uptempo, back-to-basics country sound that flew in the face of the bland pop-vocals crossovers popular in Nashville at the time. Early on he flirted with rockabilly in the late 1950s, but settled into a solid hard country sound when he signed with Capitol; this zippy collection concentrates on his early work, opening with his blistering 'billy single "Come On," and also includes work with rocker Eddie Cochran, as well as a bunch of pure, true twang. Great stuff!

Thompson Square "Thompson Square" (Stoney Creek, 2011)
(Produced by NV... whoever that is...)

The debut album of the husband/wife duo of Keifer and Shawna Thompson who, amazingly enough in this prefab decade, were not discovered on an American Idol-style TV talent show. Building on the modest success of a couple of exploratory singles, the Thompsons recorded this record, which I hear as sort of the kind of record that bigger bands such as Sugarland or Lady Antebellum should be making, if they weren't so overinflated by their own success and stardom. Sure, Thompson Square are playing by the same rules and they have the same Top 40 aspirations, but they're way further down the totem pole, so they don't sound so pompous and pretentious -- instead they sound hungry and sincere, and also their arrangements are a lot simpler and more direct -- good news, in my book. The opening tracks are the strongest; midway through it all starts to sound a little same-y. Worth checking out if you prefer fancy Nashville stuff, but still like to go go a little off the beaten track.

Chip Taylor & The Grandkids "Golden Kids Rules" (Smithsonian Folkways, 2011)

Various Artists "THE WORLD IS A MONSTER: COLUMBIA HILLBILLY: 1948-1958" (Omni, 2011)
A great set of post-WWII hillbilly oldies, culled from the Columbia Records archives, with tons of great obscurities, including little-known gems from big-name artists like Johnny Bond, Freddie Hart, Rose Maddox, Ray Price and Carl Story. There are raunchy songs, drinking tunes, cheerful cheating ballads and some really bizarre numbers as well, such as Chuck Wells' magnificent, over-the-top recitation, "The Barroom Girl" and Jack Rhodes clunky gospel-boogie sermon, "Eternity." The producers did a swell job avoiding well-known novelty numbers in favor of off-the-radar oddities with surprising bite, such as Carl Smith's "There's A Bottle Where She Used To Be," and the bluntly raunchy "A Shot In The Dark" by the normally-genteel George Morgan. Plus, there are a bunch of unknown artists and also-rans: fans of classic country and hillbilly novelty songs will find a lot to cheer about in this kooky, entertaining collection. Highly recommended!

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