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 April-May, 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:
Lee Brice "Hard 2 Love" (Curb)
Johnny Cash "Bootleg, v.4: The Soul Of Truth" (Columbia Legacy)
Bryan Clark & The New Lyceum Players "Southern Intermission" (Rainfeather)
Mark Collie "Alive At Brushy Mountain State Penitentary" (Wilbanks)
Jason Eady "AM Country Heaven" (Underground Sound)
Justin Townes Earle "Nothing Is Going To Change The Way You Feel About Me Now" (Bloodshot)
Jimmy Gaudreau & Moondi Klein "Home From The Mills" (Rebel)
Joe Goldmark & Keta Bill "The Wham Of That Steel Man!" (Lo Ball Records)
Nanci Griffith "Intersection" (Thirty Tigers)
Jim Hanft "Weddings Or Funerals" (Veranda)
Carrie Hassler "The Distance" (Rural Rhythm)
Ray Wylie Hubbard "Grifter's Hymnal" (Thirty Tigers)
Willie Nelson "Heroes" (Sony Legacy)
Bonnie Raitt "Slipstream" (Red Wing)
Rascal Flatts "Changed" (Big Machine)
Marty Raybon "Southern Roots And Branches" (Rural Rhythm)
Marty Raybon "Hand To The Plow" (Rural Rhythm)
Lionel Richie "Tuskegee" (Mercury Nashville)
Connie Smith "Just For What I Am" (Box Set) (Bear Family)
Marty Stuart "Nashville, Volume 1: Tear The Woodpile Down" (Sugarhill)
Hank Williams III "Long Gone Daddy" (Curb)

New Stuff: April-May, 2012

Lee Brice "Hard 2 Love" (Curb, 2012)

Johnny Cash "Bootleg, v.4: The Soul Of Truth" (Columbia Legacy, 2012)
An excellent collection of Johnny Cash's gospel recordings, including three entire albums or religious material and numerous session outtakes. The albums include 1979's A Believer Sings The Truth, 1983's Johnny Cash - Gospel Singer, (also released as Believe In Him) and an unreleased album from 1975, when, if you ask me, Johnny and June were at a creative peak... Like many Cash projects, this is a family affair -- participants include his daughter (from his first marriage) Cindy Cash, younger daughter Rosanne Cash and her then-husband Rodney Crowell (who was also in Cash's band), June Carter Cash (of course!) and duets with her sisters Anita and Helen. Also on board are country old-timer Jan Howard and outlaw queen Jessi Colter... Generally speaking, when Johnny Cash sings gospel, it's strong and soulful, and this collection has penty of great tracks... A nice addition to a Cash canon that includes his gospel classics from the '50s and '60s, and a welcome addition to Sony's ongoing Cash reissue series. Hallelujah!

Bryan Clark & The New Lyceum Players "Southern Intermission" (Rainfeather, 2012)
Brash, powerful, bluesy roadhouse roots tunes, with lots of electric guitar and impassioned vocals... Personally, I'm gettin' kind of old for this kind of high-energy record, but fans of Two Tons Of Steel, The Blasters or various "red dirt" bands should give this a shot... Strong stuff!

Mark Collie & His Reckless Companions "Alive At Brushy Mountain State Penitentary" (Wilbanks, 2012)
(Produced by Tony Brown, Mark Collie & David Z.)

In the early 1990s, Mark Collie managed to crack the Country Top Ten, but he was one of many artists who faded away as tastes changed. I always liked, him, though, and he's one of the rootsier '90s guys, with a bunch of old records that are worth tracking down. This great live album -- recorded back in 2001 -- is one of those recorded-in-prison concerts that country dudes love to make... And there's a reason: convicts are pretty damn miserable in lockup, and they make very appreciative audiences. So this disc crackles with energy, and half of it's from Collie, and half of it's from the inmates. Also in the show is Kelly Willis, who sings lead on two great songs -- "Heaven Bound" and "Got A Feelin' For Ya" -- stirring up an eager audience. Collie concentrates on material that's appropriate to the venue, songs about dudes who screw up and get thrown in jail, with more than couple of songs that mention death row. You'd think this kind of stuff might bum the prisoners out, but they love it -- cheering, whooping and hollering along. Long out of the Top 40 limelight, Collie lets his gruff, rough-edged, hard-country, working-class bad-boy self run free, and he clearly connects with the prisoners. There are a lot of great songs on here, with one highlight being "Rose Covered Garden," a prison ballad that was the title track on Collie's last album. But really, the whole album is great. Whether you're an old fan or Collie's new to you, check this one out. Trust me: it's the real deal.

Justin Townes Earle "Nothing Is Going To Change The Way You Feel About Me Now" (Bloodshot, 2012)

Jimmy Gaudreau & Moondi Klein "Home From The Mills" (Rebel, 2012)
A sweet set of folk-tinged bluegrass (or perhaps bluegrass-y folk?) from two old pros who have really synced up together... Klein's vocals recall Celtic artists such as Andy Irvine, and are beautifully complimented by Gaudreau's fretwork on mandolin, mandocello and guitar; guitarist Moondi Klein is also an able picker himself and in addition to a fine selection of songs, there are some fine instrumentals. The set list includes a couple of Tim O'Brien compositions, as well as singer-songwriter classics from folks such as Eric Anderson, Eric Bogle, Gordon Lightfoot and Townes Van Zandt, as well as a dash of gospel and old-school jazz -- the Fats Waller tune that closes the album is a nice surprise. Not a blistering bluegrass drag-race set, but I suspect for many fans, that'll be a nice change of pace. Recommended!

Joe Goldmark & Keta Bill "The Wham Of That Steel Man!" (Lo Ball Records, 2012)
The SF Bay Area's premier pedal steel player is back, with a 2-CD set showcasing his pickin' prowess, as well as the vocals of bluesy singer Keta Bill. A strong tilt towards old-fashioned 1960s soul and R&B, of the Motown-ish/Stax-y variety. Not quite my cup of tea, but I bet there's lots of uninhibited booty shaking at their live shows...

Nanci Griffith "Intersection" (Thirty Tigers, 2012)

Jim Hanft "Weddings Or Funerals" (Veranda, 2012)
(Produced by Lasse Martin)

A classic "Americana" blend of roots-rock and introspective indiepop, with some twang but perhaps a bit more of moody soundscapes and oblique lyrics, tempered by bouncy beats and bright melodies that tug against the doleful lyrics. If you like stuff by folks like Paul Burch Justin Earle, or maybe some early Lambchop, you might dig this as well...

Carrie Hassler "The Distance" (Rural Rhythm, 2012)
(Produced by Steve Gulley)

An introspective/romantic set of countrified bluegrass, with understated picking and heartfelt vocals. Producer Steve Gulley sings a fine duet on "Eugene And Diane," while Dale Ann Bradley sings harmony on a tune or two. The album closes on a high note with the title track, "The Distance," a haunting, sweet song which is my pick of the disc. Alison Krauss fans might want to check this one out.

Ray Wylie Hubbard "Grifter's Hymnal" (Thirty Tigers, 2012)

Lucas Nelson "Wasted" (Tone Tide, 2012)
Why, yes, that is Willie's son...

Willie Nelson "Heroes" (Sony Legacy, 2012)
...and speaking of old Willie...

Bonnie Raitt "Slipstream" (Red Wing, 2012)
Man, it's been a while... Not only is this Bonnie Raitt's first studio album is several years, it's also a set that's packed with original material that Ms. Raitt wrote herself, which is kind of a newish-thing for this roots-blues powerhouse. Keep 'em coming, Bonnie!

Rascal Flatts "Changed" (Big Machine, 2012)
Changed? Nah, not really. Same old super-produced pop and a little bit of twang, with inspirational lyrics mixed in with sappy lovesongs and such. Fans'll be happy.

Marty Raybon "Southern Roots And Branches" (Rural Rhythm, 2012)
(Produced by Marty Raybon)

Another rock-solid, bluegrass-tinged album from this 1990's country-star-gone-indie-troubadour... Presumably this would be the secular counterpoint to the Hand To The Plow gospel set that came out at the same time, but I guess the Lord's work is mightily on Raybon's mind these days: most of the material on here is Christian-themed or inspirational as well... And it's all mighty good. Admittedly, Raybon sounds pretty long in the tooth, but he sings with conviction and power, and the caliber of songwriting is top-flight. Also, his backing band -- including folks such Rob Ickes, Kenny Smith, Tim Stafford and Bryan Sutton -- is on fire. Raybon's work of the last few years has been consistently good, and this record's right up there with his best.

Marty Raybon "Hand To The Plow" (Rural Rhythm, 2012)
(Produced by Mark L. Corman)

Gospel fans will enjoy this spiritual set, issued alongside the more acoustic-based Southern Roots album (above). This one has bigger, poppier production, some of it sliding into contemporary Christian music territory, with tinkly keyboards and wind chimes in the mix; some of it has more of a top-country feel, with pedal steel and rock guitar. Fine vocals and plenty of feeling from Raybon himself, and while I prefer the acoustic approach on the other album, this one grew on me... There are some fun, shamelessly sentimental songs and some good novelty lyrics as well. Definitely worth a spin.

Lionel Richie "Tuskegee" (Mercury Nashville, 2012)
Could Lionel Richie's duets-filled dip into Nashville country be as soul-rendingly horrible as his pop music of the '70s? Well, what do you think? Dude, of course it sucks! It's still better than Kenny (Sauron) Rogers, but that ain't saying much. Richie remakes several of his '70s/'80s "classics," with the help of a passle of modern-day country stars -- Kenny Chesney, Blake Shelton, Rascal Flatts, Jennifer Nettles of Sugartown, et. al. -- and while the steel guitar helps some, the slick production and Richie's vocals are as bland and insincere as you'd expect, and the similarity between these remakes and the originals only underscores how much Nashville has subsumed itself to the ideal of a prefab soul/pop crossover. You can add a harmonica to "Easy," but it's still a horrible song. Oh, and Sauron is on here too, singing "Lady." Of course. Richie fans are naturally ecstatic -- just look at the consumer ratings online -- but I lived through Richie's original reign of terror, and I know better. I know what happens when you put people like this in charge. Ugh. The best that can be said here is that Richie's voice still sounds... well, "strong," if not exactly "nice..." He's sounding pretty good for an old geezer. Also, I guess he gets taste points for not resurrecting "Brick House" and having someone like Trace Adams or Toby Keith sing it with him... Be thankful for small favors.

Connie Smith "Just For What I Am" (Box Set) (Bear Family, 2012)
Pure heaven. This 5-CD box set picks up where the Born To Sing box left off, gathering all of Smith's work for the RCA label from 1968-72, a trove of some of the best countrypolitan music ever recorded. I'm a big fan of Smith's work, and the prospect of hearing it (finally!) on CD, along with a dozen previously unreleased tracks as well as Bear Family's trademark fine sound quality and a bunch of archival photos and whatnot... Well, I'm psyched. Of course, first I have to win the lottery, so I can afford it, but it's going to sound pretty sweet when I do. Highly, highly recommended.

Marty Stuart "Nashville, Volume 1: Tear The Woodpile Down" (Sugarhill, 2012)
(Produced by Marty Stuart)

Another fun record from Mr. Stuart, who has recently reaffirmed his allegiance to true twang, and is making some of the most rollicking country records coming out of Nashville these days. This disc starts off at a gallop with the piledriving title tune, and settles into a cry-in-your beer ballad on "Sundown In Nashville," about what a tough town Music City can be...There's trucker songs and honkytonkers around the corner, plenty of pedal steel and some great guitar work from Stuart and his lead picker, Kenny Vaughan, along with guest Buck Trent, who plays banjo on a couple of tracks. Hank Williams III, who's been flirting with self-cariacature the last few years, chimes in on a nice gospel track that closes the record, and Marty shines the spotlight on industry newcomer Lorrie Carter Bennett (daughter of Anita Carter) who does a fine duet on "A Song Of Sadness." If you like old-school country, this is a modern album well worth giving a try. Recommended!

Hank Williams III "Long Gone Daddy" (Curb, 2012)

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