Howdy, folks! Here are some reviews of the new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in June, 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.
Lisa Biales "Just Like Honey" (Big Song Music)
Brand New Strings "Stay Tuned" (Rural Rhythm)
Dick Damron "More Than Countryfied" (Bear Family)
Jason Eady "AM Country Heaven" (Underground Sound)
T. Ferrell "Jesus Year" (Trace Records)
Kevin Gordon "Gloryland" (Crowville)
J. P. Harris & The Tough Choices "I'll Keep Calling" (Cow Island)
Ray Wiley Hubbard "Grifter's Hymnal" (Bordello)
Alan Jackson "Thirty Miles West" (Capitol)
NewTown "NewTown" (Self-Released)
Lawrence Peters "What You Been Missin' " (Self-Released)
Sheb Wooley "White Lightnin' " (Bear Family)
Lisa Biales "Just Like Honey" (Big Song Music, 2012)
(Produced by E.G. Kight)
Playfully raunchy, good-timing blues and torch songs from an Ohio gal with soul. If you loved those early Bonnie Raitt and Maria Muldaur albums, or maybe dimly recall Jo Ann Kelly, you might want to check this album out. Biales doesn't always hit the mark, but most of these tracks are pretty rich with sexy, sly innuendo and plenty of musical oompf.
Brand New Strings "Stay Tuned" (Rural Rhythm, 2012)
(Produced by Preston Schmidt)
A nice, short set of mostly-original, country-tinged bluegrass. Songwriters Mike Ramsey and Randall Massengill trade off on lead vocals, each with a firm grasp of high lonesome-style singing, backed with solid picking from a band of talented newcomers. The Osborne Brothers will come to mind, particularly on jaunty tunes like "Mustang Minnie," with a smidge of Jimmy Martin in there as well (and even a Jimmy Martin namecheck on "The Guitar.") A nice followup to their 2010 debut, "No Strings Attached."
Dick Damron "More Than Countryfied: Early Recordings 1959-1976" (Bear Family, 2011)
A 3-CD set exploring the work of Canadian country star Dick Damron, from his rockabilly roots to his country years, working in Nashville. Expect the usual high-class Bear Family archival treatment: copious liner notes and great sound quality.
Jason Eady "AM Country Heaven" (Underground Sound, 2012)
(Produced by Kevin Welch)
Wow. Cool beans. This is one of the most intelligent alt-country albums I've heard in years... Not intelligent like, brainy or smart-ass, but intelligent like, this guy really knows his stuff, really has his country history down and knows how to dig into the style without hamming it up or laying it on too thick. These are well-crafted songs with the right mix of construction restraint that make the lyrics ring true. Honestly, Eady had me sold on the first song, the album's title track where he waxes nostalgic for the days when country stars were still homely and unairbrushed -- or, as he puts it, "the days when the women were ugly/and the men were all forty years old," and country music was about the music and not about "the product." He hits the nail on the head with that one, and I had to smile when he echoed an old pet theory of mine about how some of the best country music was on albums with really unattractive album art: think Lefty Frizzell, Gene Watson and Carmol Taylor. Those dudes were ugly, but they sure could sing. Anyway, Eady starts strong and keeps up the momentum with great songs that mimic the guitar styles of the early 1970s Top 40 and outlaw music alike, paying homage to Waylon Jennings and Billy Sherrill with equal affection. It's a really good record, one that twang fans like me can enjoy for years to come.
T. Ferrell "Jesus Year" (Trace Records, 2012)
(Produced by T. Ferrell & T. B. Ledford)
The debut album from a strong contender in the twangcore Olympics... Mississippi native Taylor Ferrell has a pleasantly nasal singing style and more importantly, he's got a killer band, sporting gorgeous pedal steel, elegant country piano and strong rhythmic accompaniment. The economy and solidity of his arrangements and the clear, full sound mix immediately stand out from the first notes of the album's first track, and the music remains solid throughout, impressive stuff for an indie release. I'm less into the white trash/scruffy loser-themed lyrics, but since Terrell is from Mississippi and since he says many songs are based on historical events, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. Anyway, this is a pretty strong record, and if you like folks such as Drew Landry or Drive-By Truckers, you'll want to check this guy out too. I do love all that twang.
Kevin Gordon "Gloryland" (Crowville, 2011)
(Produced by Joe V. McMahan)
Generally speaking, I am not a big fan of sage profundity in country/Americana music -- it just doesn't do as much for me as plain, old, hummable twang. But for folks who like the style, fans of Greg Brown or modern Dylan, this is a pretty strong offering, with tightly crafted, well-produced material, combining folkie elements with rock and electric blues. This album is more rock-oriented than Gordon's earlier albums, but clearly he's very into it, singing with all the feeling and passion he can summon. I think most longtime fans will be into it.
J. P. Harris & The Tough Choices "I'll Keep Calling" (Cow Island Music, 2012)
(Produced by J. P. Harris & Joel Savoy)
Nice old-fashioned honkytonk, with a serious George Jones/Hank Thompson vibe... Harris is an Alabamian songwriter currently lurking around Nashville and clearly he's into the classic '50s/'60s hard country sound. Backing him on this album of all-original material are a couple of guys from the Red Stick Ramblers, as well as a couple of other rootsy bands; the pedal steel playing (courtesy of Asa Brosius) is particularly sweet... I can listen to that stuff for days on end. Harris explores classic themes of lovable losers, gear-jamming daddies and downcast drunkards, showing a knack for pun-filled, novelty lyrics with singalong choruses. Kind of reminds me of old Asleep At The Wheel or Chuck Wagon & The Wheels... If you love those old country formulae, you'll dig this one. I did!
Ray Wiley Hubbard "Grifter's Hymnal" (Thirty Tigers/Bordello Records, 2012)
Alan Jackson "Thirty Miles West" (Capitol, 2012)
NewTown "NewTown" (Self-Released, 2011)
(Produced by Brent Truitt)
A strong, independently-released modern bluegrass set, very much in the style of Alison Krauss & Union Station, with singer-fiddler Kati Penn-Williams in center stage, with a very Krauss-ian feel overall, with maybe a bit of Sarah Jarosz in there as well, and subtle, sympathetic accompaniment from the band. If that sounds good to you, check these folks out -- they do it very well. 'Couple of nice gospel tunes, too, especially the traditionally-oriented "The Stone Was Rolled Away."
Lawrence Peters "What You Been Missin' " (Self-Released, 2011)
Super-indie country from the Chicago twang scene... Lead singer Lawrence Peters plays snare drums, of all things, but he makes plenty of room for the plunky guitars and some really sweet pedal steel and fiddle licks, as well as harmony singers who include Robbie Fulks, Kelly Hogan and Nora O'Connor (the backup chorus on "Dirt On My Hands") and several songs with Dave Sisson, of the Gin Palace Jesters. Nice songwriting, with plenty of true twang and soulful singing - a roots-lover's delight. The sound mix could have been richer, but in some ways I enjoy the imperfections -- no Nashville sound machine here -- and the more I listened, the more I loved it. High Sheriff Ricky Barnes would be proud.
Ryan Purcell & The Last Round "Pick Me Up" (Self-Released, 2012)
Seth Walker "Time Can Change" (Self-Released, 2011)
Sheb Wooley "White Lightnin' (Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight)" (Bear Family, 2012)
A nice set of post-WWII hillbilly music from songwriter Sheb Wooley, who is perhaps best remembered as a novelty artist, particularly for his 1958 pop hit "Purple People Eater." That tune is not included here, but there is ample evidence that Wooley had been mining comedy themes for years, with songs such as "Don't Stop Kissing Me Goodnight," "Rover Scoot Over," and "Freight Train Cinders In My Eyes." Working in California, he had top talent working with him in the studios, kings of twang such as Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, who helped shape the vigorous, rock'n'boogie flavor that defined the West Coast country sound. I've never been a huge fan of Wooley's humor, but it's nice to hear his early work, when he was still a real-deal country cat, and helps establish his place in the same scene that nurtured artists such as Buck Owens and Tommy Collins. Plus, a single-disc collection is so much more digestible than Bear Family's old Wooley box sets. Definitely worth a spin!
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