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Howdy, folks! Here are some reviews of the new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in February, 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:
Dierks Bentley "Home" (Capitol)
Roger Creager "Surrender" (Thirty Tigers)
Dailey & Vincent "The Gospel Side Of Dailey & Vincent" (Cracker Barrel)
Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie "The Touch Of Time" (Rural Rhythm)
The Matt Flinner Trio "Winter Harvest" (Compass)
Janie Fricke "The Country Side Of Bluegrass" (New Music Deals)
Del McCoury "Old Memories: The Songs Of Bill Monroe" (McCoury Music)
Tim McGraw "Emotional Traffic" (Curb)
The Little Willies "For The Good Times" (EMI/Blue Note)
The Oak Ridge Boys & The Dukes Of Dixieland "When Country Meets Dixie" (Leisure Music)
Kellie Pickler "100 Proof" (BNA/19 Recordings)
The Pines "Dark So Gold" (Red House)
Reckless Kelly "Good Luck And True Love" (No Big Deal)
Tony Rice "The Bill Monroe Collection" (Rounder)
Darrell Scott "Long Ride Home" (Full Light)
Some Velvet Evening "No Law Against Talking" (Hole-Key)
Randy Thompson "Collected" (Jackpot)
Too Blue "Trouble With The Grey" (TooBlueMusic)
Various Artists "WAYLON: THE MUSIC INSIDE, v.2" (Average Joe's)

New Stuff: February, 2012

Dierks Bentley "Home" (Capitol, 2012)
(Produced by Brett Beavers & Luke Wooten)

A swell set of songs devoted to just plain having fun and not taking life too seriously... Bentley continues to be one of Nashville's most charming, amiable and down-to-earth Top 40 stars, particularly on songs like the album's opener, "Am I The Only One," where a good-timin' guy wonders why all his old buddies have settled down and quit partying, and "Diamonds Make Babies," where he warns one of those same pals about the unpredictable, intoxicating powers of a sparkly engagement ring. Fun stuff. It's too bad, though, that so many of these songs are so thickly layered with "big" Nashville production -- a lot of these songs would have sounded better if they'd been a shade or two simpler, especially since Bentley carved out a niche for himself a few years back by bringing bluegrassy acoustic twang back into the Music City mainstream. All in all, though, Dierks is one of the headliners you'd most like to have a beer with, as this album amply proves.

Roger Creager "Surrender" (Thirty Tigers, 2012)

Dailey & Vincent "The Gospel Side Of Dailey & Vincent" (Cracker Barrel, 2012)
(Produced by Jamie Dailey & Darren Vincent)

An excellent gospel collection, the second by the harmony duo of Jamie Dailey and Darren Vincent, who have become luminaries in the world of traditional bluegrass gospel singing. On this set they move away from their strictly truegrass roots and sing some more country-oriented material, as well as a few songs that could be considered part of the pop-oriented "contemporary Christian" sound, as well as a few jaunty jubilee songs in the style of the Blackwood Brothers. The singing and musicianship is uniformly sweet... There are a couple of tracks I'd skip, but most of it is quite nice. Includes a particularly sweet version of "Family Bible," as well as a good, obscure Buck Owens oldie, "Eternal Vacation." Recommended!

Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie "The Touch Of Time" (Rural Rhythm, 2012)
(Produced by Bill Emerson)

A nice, straightforward truegrass set, with sentimental oldies and tints of progressive 'grass folkie songwriting... Nice, low-key instrumental work, particularly from mandolinist Wayne Latham, who also sings lead on several songs. Emerson's banjo work is as fine as ever. Good song selection; closes with a particularly nice gospel number, "Last Night I Was There."

The Matt Flinner Trio "Winter Harvest" (Compass, 2012)
Mandolinist Matt Flinner and his jazz-grass trio (with guitarist Ross Martin and bassist Eric Thorin) are a well-honed, compact ensemble, capable of making tremendous musical flights. This spirited set of crossover instrumentals is fanciful and complex, not cerebral in the way that some newgrass can be, but perhaps so given over to emotions that it gets a little flowery at times. As always, listeners who enjoy fancy picking and a departure from the norms of truegrass tradition will find a lot to appreciate here -- sweet stuff that leaves the drag-racing aspects of mainstream bluegrass behind.

Janie Fricke "The Country Side Of Bluegrass" (New Music Deals, 2012)
(Produced by Bil Vorndick)

One of the biggest head-turners this winter is this rootsy little record from '80s star Janie Fricke... I was never a big fan of her glossy, synthy stuff of yesteryear, but this twangy acoustic set is pretty sweet and I actually prefer her more mature voice, which has a light rural roughness that she had carefully pruned out back when she had all those hit singles. I think this is a record which may charm fans and skeptics alike; it's a followup to her 2004 Bluegrass Sessions set, and if anything, it's even better... I was pleasantly surprised!

The Little Willies "For The Good Times" (EMI/Blue Note, 2012)

Del McCoury "Old Memories: The Songs Of Bill Monroe" (McCoury Music, 2012)

Tim McGraw "Emotional Traffic" (Curb, 2012)
Speaking of emotions, they are indeed running high between McGraw and his now-former label, Curb Records. With one lawsuit settled -- McGraw is free from his contract, but Curb gets to release this final album -- and another in the works to determine who gets all the money, this disc may be a mixed blessing for fans. Nonetheless, it's his first record in almost three years, so you know it's going to make a few folks happy, even if some fans are calling for a boycott. Sounds like classic McGraw to me: very poppy, with some woven-in twang, but more willingness to to really dig deep into some ornate, often bombastic, pop production. McGraw never met a crescendo he didn't like, and fans who feel the same way should be onboard this time around. I have to admit, even with McGraw's crossover background, I was surprised by just how pop some songs sounded, coasting almost into boy-band territory. He's still got a few country weepers in there, though, like "Better Than I Used To Be" and the gospel-ish "Touchdown Jesus," and between the two styles, I'm sure he'll have a hit or two on the radio. Meanwhile, McGraw has started his own indie label, so who knows? He might be battling it out against his own record before the year is done. We will see.

The Oak Ridge Boys & The Dukes Of Dixieland "When Country Meets Dixie" (Leisure Music, 2011)
(Produced by James Stroud)

Two long-lived American heritage ensembles join forces for a fun, frollicking mix of trad-jazz and jovial country-pop. I wouldn't say this is the historymaking new genre it's been heralded as -- it sounds an awful lot like plain old Western Swing, with a New Orleans horn sound, rather than the Panhandle jazz of the 1930s -- but it is a surprisingly fun, lively outing, and certainly one of the more vigorous efforts by the Oak Ridgers in many a year. It's kinda a kick to hear some of their old Top 40 hits, like "Bobby Sue" and "Elvira" reorchestrated to make them into New Orleans piano stroll numbers; the rest of the repertoire is enjoyable as well, with a wide of American styles. Worth checking out!

Kellie Pickler "100 Proof" (BNA/19 Recordings, 2012)

The Pines "Dark So Gold" (Red House, 2012)

Reckless Kelly "Good Luck And True Love" (No Big Deal, 2011)

Tony Rice "The Bill Monroe Collection" (Rounder, 2012)
Digging through their back-catalog, Rounder offers this swell set of guitarist Tony Rice interpreting various Bill Monroe songs... This collection draws from Rice's solo albums, as well as his work with the fabled Bluegrass Album Band, and a couple of tunes from projects with his brothers, and with newgrass mandolinist David Grisman. Classic bluegrass songs from (what once was) the younger generation: it's nice stuff. Always great to hear Rice singing traditional material!

Darrell Scott "Long Ride Home" (Full Light, 2012)

Some Velvet Evening "No Law Against Talking" (Hole-Key, 2011)
(Produced by John Holkeboer)

Detroit-area retro-traditionalists John Holk and Carrie Shepard stretch back -- way back -- for their country roots, singing winsome romantic duets in the style of classic acts like Carl Butler & Pearl or the Mosbys, matching brisk, light, melody-oriented acoustic accompaniment with smooth, rich twang. The duo's modern-day lyrics are a little more carnal and less demure than their historical models, but they play the music with respect and affection, albeit with a little wink-wink, nudge-nudge in the delivery. To get a sense of where they're coming from, check out some of the videos on their website, like the one for Shooting The Breeze, which mimics the on-purpose-corny "barnyard" stages of old-school country TV shows like Town Hall Party. Fun stuff!

Randy Thompson "Collected" (Jackpot, 2012)
(Produced by Randy Thompson)

A strong roots-rocking Americana set from this Virginia-based indie artist... This best-of collection samples several albums that Thompson has put out over the last decade or so... He has a nice voice which is often reminiscent of Merle Haggard or Waylon Jennings, though he tends to veer away from a straight country path and get into sharp, aggressive, bluesy rock lead guitar and slide riffs that undercut the country vibe. There's plenty of twang, but Thompson goes into guitar-hero mode a little too often for my tastes, but for folks who like a little more rock'n'roll grit than me -- perhaps in artists such as James McMurtry, Tom Russell or early Steve Earle -- you might wanna check this out. There are a couple of mellow (though dark) acoustic tunes that I liked a lot though, notably "Bring On Down The Rain" and "Rocksalt And Nails."

Too Blue "Trouble With The Grey" (TooBlueMusic, 2011)
(Produced by Too Blue & Bob Harris)

A fun set of pop-friendly bluegrass with a light, playful feel and plenty of bright, sweet picking. Two New England gals, Joan Harrison and Betsy Rome, share the vocals while playing some hot banjo and guitar; they wrote most of the songs as well and exude a cheerful, energetic vibe. In a scene dominated either by twangy traditionalism or gooey folk-pop crossovers, Too Blue's bouncy melodic style stands out; I'm reminded of Red, White & Blue(Grass)'s stuff in the early 1970s, a solid band that can play no-nonsense truegrass, but has an unapologetic hint of rock'n'roll bounce in there as well. I thought this album was really enjoyable -- nice cover of Karla Bonoff's "Home," too... Always a favorite!

Various Artists "WAYLON: THE MUSIC INSIDE, v.2" (Average Joe's, 2012)
(Produced by Witt Stewart & Friends)

Nashville's current crop of outlaw-identified singers -- dudes like Dierks Bentley, Colt Ford, Justin Moore and Montgomery Gentry -- pay homage to the great Waylon Jennings. Also on board are semi-old-timers like Pat Green and Jack Ingram, as well as Hank Jr. and, adding an extra layer of class, Waylon's longtime partner, outlaw queen Jessi Colter. The one head-scratcher on here is folk-popster Jewel, who looks "one of these things is not like the other" when lined up with all the bad-boys, but she does sing a lovely version of "Dreaming My Dreams." Also noteworthy is the rugged, raspy "bonus track" by Wyatt McCubbin that closes out the album -- he's one of the outside country dudes that the Average Joe's label gives a chance to record stuff that Nashville's major labels would overlook... His version of "A Long Time Ago" is a nice coda to a pretty solid set of Waylon covers. Definitely worth a spin.

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