Howdy, folks! Here are some reviews of the new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in December, 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. (BY THE WAY: don't forget that it's holiday season: my Christmas Country guide is online if you're looking for any holiday twang...)
New Stuff: December, 2012
Bobby Bare "Darker Than Light" (Plowboy)
Blue Sky Boys "Presenting The Blue Sky Boys" (Arhoolie)
Jack Bradshaw "Saturday Night Special" (Bear Family)
Billy Brown "Did We Have A Party" (Bear Family)
Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson "Wreck & Ruin" (Sugar Hill)
Detour "A Better Place" (Bluegrass Ahead)
Rosie Flores "Working Girl's Guitar" (Bloodshot)
Wanda Jackson "Unfinished Business" (Sugar Hill)
Jim Lauderdale & Buddy Miller "Buddy & Jim" (New West)
Lindi Ortega "Cigarettes & Truckstops" (Last Gang Records)
Trapper Schoepp & The Shades "Run, Engine, Run" (Side One Dummy)
Pete Seeger "Pete Remembers Woody" (Appleseed)
Blake Shelton "Cheers It's Christmas" (Warner Brothers)
Sweethearts Of The Rodeo "Restless" (APA)
Red Sovine "Juke Joint Johnny" (Bear Family)
Red Sovine "I'm The Man: A Starday Singles Anthology" (Ace)
Donna Ulisse "All The Way To Bethlehem" (Hadley Music)
Uncle Kracker "Midnight Special" (Sugar Hill)
Stephen Wade "Banjo Diary: Lessons From Tradition" (Smithsonian Folkways)
Hank Williams "The Lost Concerts" (Time-Life)
Various Artists "CHRISTMAS THE MOUNTAIN WAY" (Rural Rhythm)
Various Artists "QUIET ABOUT IT: A TRIBUTE TO JESSE WINCHESTER" (Mailboat)
Bobby Bare "Darker Than Light" (Plowboy, 2012)
Blue Sky Boys "Presenting The Blue Sky Boys" (Arhoolie, 2012)
Bill and Earl Bolick, the legendary duo known as the Blue Sky Boys, were one of country music's great "brother duos," singing heartfelt old-timey music in a haunting harmony style similar to that of acts such as the Delmore Brothers and the Bailes Brothers, and served as an inspiration for later artists such as the Louvin Brothers and the Everlys. Of all the great brother acts, the Blue Sky Boys have long been one of my favorites, with a simple, concise musical style that underscores their plaintive lyrics and evokes the simplicity and nostalgia for olden times that was the foundation of their repertoire. Throughout several decades, from their Depression-era heyday to their '60s folk-era comeback, the Bollicks never changed their sound: just mandolin, guitar and two voices linked by tradition, conviction and birth... This disc is a reissue of an excellent old JEMF album originally recorded in 1965, when they were making a splash on the folk circuit. It's an extraordinary set, touching on their gospel roots but leaning heavily on secular material drawn from the catalogs of old-timey greats such as Jimmie Rodgers and Leadbelly. Many of the songs are well-known classics, such as "Corrina, Corrina," "Midnight Special," "Jack O'Diamonds" and "Greenback Dollar," familiar themes that take on new life in the unique Blue Sky Boys style: Their clipped high-harmonies, unfussy arrangements and intriguing variations on well-known versions by better-known artists all make this a richly, deeply rewarding record. If you enjoy the Louvin Brothers more stripped-down stuff, or the early recordings of the original Carter Family, then you owe it to yourself to check this out. Highly, emphatically recommended.
Jack Bradshaw "Saturday Night Special" (Honky Tonk Heroes series) (Bear Family, 2012)
Billy Brown "Did We Have A Party" (Honky Tonk Heroes series) (Bear Family, 2012)
Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson "Wreck & Ruin" (Sugar Hill, 2012)
(Produced by Kasey Chambers, Nash Chambers & Shane Nicholson)
It's thrilling to come across one of those albums where an artist -- or in this case, a duo -- comes fully into their own, making music with such ease and such joy that the results can only be described as magical. Chambers and Nicholson have done good work before, but this record is really special, one of the most enjoyable releases of the year. The songs are a potent set of all-original material working in a variety of styles, ably recalling Appalachian ballads, Antebellum hymns, jug band blues, aching heartsongs and a dash of contemporary folk. Both singers seem so comfortable together that in song after song they summon exactly the right emotional tone -- Nicholson is a solid, soulful harmonist, while Chambers confidently inhabits common ground with Iris DeMent and Emmylou Harris, both in terms of timbre and artistic presence. This is a rich, evocative album that holds up to repeated auditions, and has been in rotation at Casa de Sixpack for quite a while now. Highly recommended.
Detour "A Better Place" (Bluegrass Ahead, 2012)
(Produced by Detour)
Top-notch independently-produced bluegrass, with solid musicianship and a strong mix of original material and well-chosen covers. Lead singer Missy Armstrong has a great voice: clear, confident and joyful, while mandolinist Jeff Rose is also a superior songwriter, providing over half the tracks on here, each of them a concise gem of melodic truegrass, crafted in the traditional style. This Michigander band is the real deal: a powerful band with a sweet sound that modern-day bluegrass fans will want to check out. (For more info, check out their website at www.detourbluegrass.com)
Rosie Flores "Working Girl's Guitar" (Bloodshot, 2012)
Wanda Jackson "Unfinished Business" (Sugar Hill, 2012)
Jim Lauderdale & Buddy Miller "Buddy & Jim" (New West, 2012)
(Produced by Buddy Miller)
Two of today's most idiosyncratic, independent Americana auteurs team up for an all-star twangfest that should turn a few heads... Both of these guys are old pros who are quite comfortable bending roots music's rules, and Lauderdale in particular can get pretty goofy when he wants to, but I think I detect Miller's hand at the helm as the album's producer, keeping them on track with solid, more traditional-sounding verse-chorus material, lines that rhyme and melodies that just won't quit. This album is packed with hard country twang, gritty blues and some subtle, sweetly romantic acoustic ballads to round things out. It's a rock-solid record, from start to finish, and sure to please fans from both sides of the fence. I'm hoping these guys will continue to collaborate, since this disc is a winner.
Lindi Ortega "Cigarettes & Truckstops" (Last Gang Records, 2012)
(Produced by Colin Linden)
Canada's Lindi Ortega has retrenched a little from the true country of her last album, exploring more rock-y, bluesy themes with the help of producer Colin Linden... Oh, there's still plenty of twang there, but the lyrics are more arty and ambitious and the music more eclectic and involved -- the rootsy Dolly Parton vibe giving way to something closer to alt-country's Paula Frazer or Maria McKee. Indeed, on the closing track, "Every Mile Of The Ride," I was unexpectedly reminded of Camera Obscura's artsy, plaintive indierock portraiture... This gets into the Americana-music-as-modern-poetry thing, and since I'm more of a verse-chorus-verse, singalong, simple themes kind of guy, it doesn't sing to me in quite the same way as a bunch of dumb, funny drinking songs might. But folks with more sophisticated, youthful tastes should find this quite exciting: Ms. Ortega is one of the strongest, most vibrant voices on the (North) Americana scene today. Certainly worth a spin!
Trapper Schoepp & The Shades "Run, Engine, Run" (Side One Dummy, 2012)
(Produced by Trapper Schoepp & The Shades)
Solid indie-rock twang, along the lines of Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams, or the Old 97s. Tight, bright rock guitars with a nice dose of playful twang... The lyrics are a little too twenty-something and let-me-tell-you-how-life-really-is for an old fart like me, but the playing is solid throughout. I guess Schoepp started out as more of a generic indie-rock guy, but I gotta say, I think alt-country suits him well, and his band has a great sound. I look forward to hearing more from these folks!
Pete Seeger "Pete Remembers Woody" (Appleseed, 2012)
While celebrating the centennial of Woody Guthrie's birth, few artists' contributions could be more welcome or more meaningful than those of the indefatigable, culturally immortal Pete Seeger, Guthrie's comrade and a champion of his legacy. This is one of two albums Seeger cut for the Guthrie anniversary, a double album which mixes music with spoken word, as Seeger reminiscences about their times together, including retelling some of the stories Guthrie told him over the years. It's a heartwarming and resonant work, and the format recalls Guthrie's own recordings for the Library of Congress, lo those many decades ago... Students of folk music history will find this a rich and rewarding collection. Sweet stuff!
Blake Shelton "Cheers It's Christmas" (Warner Brothers, 2012)
A big, hammy, popped-up holiday set, with a slew of duets, featuring guests such as Kelly Clarkson, Miranda Lambert, Reba McEntire, the gals from Pistol Annies and Shelton's TV co-host, pop vocalist Michael Buble. And he even sings a song with his mother, Dorothy Shackleford... what a nice boy! Mildly over-the-top, but in the way fans of Christmas music revel in. Pretty solid; mostly standards, but also some newer tunes that will freshen up the holiday music repertoire.
Red Sovine "Juke Joint Johnny" (Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight series) (Bear Family, 2012)
A great collection of country old-timer Red Sovine's earliest recordings, dating back to 1949 when he was still solidly a hillbilly singer, and well before the success of "recitation" songs such as "Phantom 309" tagged him as a particular brand of novelty artist. This is his hard-country stuff, a mix of country boogie, honkytonk and rockabilly that redeems Sovine's legacy from his later, by-the-numbers records of the 1960s that are what most of us are familiar with. There's some cool stuff on here, including his version of George Jones' "Why Baby Why" (a duet with Webb Pierce that was a big hit for Sovine) and duets with one of my favorite "girl" singers. Goldie Hill. If those lackluster old Gusto LPs haunt your memories of Sovine's career, you'll want to give this disc a spin -- and of course Bear Family's trademark attention to archival detail and fine remastering. Recommended!
Red Sovine "I'm The Man: A Starday Singles Anthology 1960-71" (Ace, 2012)
If you want to give Sovine's Starday years a fair shake, this 24-song collection zeroes in on some of the best stuff, skillfully sidestepping some of the more tepid tracks and gathering up the harder, more uptempo material. Sovine was a good, solid country performer, but like many in the orbit of the Starday-Gusto empire, he found it easy to coast and let them bang out albums quickly, and repackage (or re-record) the same songs over and over again. But this is a good best-of set, a lean selection of drinking songs, cheating songs, novelty numbers and a couple of gospel songs for good measure. There are several George Jones covers (reminding us of who was the real trendsetter at the time) and versions of Starday hits from other artists, as well as a couple of interesting duets, including one with Minnie Pearl and another with Lois Williams. All in all, it's nice to have this disc around to justify devoting a little shelf space (or a few megabytes) to one of country's neglected old-time stars.
Sweethearts Of The Rodeo "Restless" (APA, 2010)
(Produced by Dave Pomeroy & The Sweethearts Of The Rodeo)
The sister duo of Kristine and Janis Oliver hit Nashville with a big splash and had several Top Ten hits in the 1980s, and then, like many artists of the era, found themselves slipping back into indie territory. This album is their first release in many a moon, and it's a rootsy record with a strong dose of the bouncy "young country" vibe of their old stuff, as well as some of the sappy balladry of the style. Their voices have aged, obviously, but the sister harmonies are still compelling and true, and the true twang of their backing band, full of gratifying steel guitar and chicken-pickin' licks that would make Chet proud. Fans'll be psyched to hear the Oliver gals back in action.
Donna Ulisse "All The Way To Bethlehem" (Hadley Music, 2012)
(Produced by Keith Sewell)
I've admired '90s commercial country singer Donna Ulisse's return to the field, refashioning herself as a bluegrass true believer -- her recent records have been pretty good, and her forays into bluegrass spirituals and Southern Gospel have been strong as well. I have too confess, though, this ambitious, Christmas-themed concept album, with Ulisse singing songs written from the perspective of various participants in the nativity -- Joseph, Mary, the innkeeper, et. al. -- is a little too hardcore for me. But true believers may find this one gratifying and enlightening. As ever, Ulisse is a very soulful and committed performer and this is certainly worth checking out if you're looking for something off the beaten track for your annual holiday playlist...
Uncle Kracker "Midnight Special" (Sugar Hill, 2012)
(Produced by Keith Stegall)
Stephen Wade "Banjo Diary: Lessons From Tradition" (Smithsonian Folkways, 2012)
Hank Williams "The Lost Concerts" (Time-Life, 2012)
The excavation of Hank Sr's legacy continues with yet another concert collection -- this might be for completists only... It doesn't add anything revelatory to the canon, but it's still cool stuff.
Various Artists "CHRISTMAS THE MOUNTAIN WAY" (Rural Rhythm, 2012)
(Produced by Steve Gulley)
(DVD produced by Sammy Passamano)
Bluegrass stalwart Steve Gulley, along with his musical pals and extended family, all celebrate the season with a heartfelt set of hardcore Christmas songs, some with gruff, old-man vocals, some with kiddie choruses and many with rock-solid musicianship. Guests include Audie Blaylock, Dale Anne Bradley and Marty Raybon, as well as the children in the Cumberland River Academy chorus, singing "Go Tell It On The Mountain." Truegrass spirit filled with heart and soul, and holiday cheer to spare!
Various Artists "QUIET ABOUT IT: A TRIBUTE TO JESSE WINCHESTER" (Mailboat Records, 2012)
An all-star tribute to '70s songwriter Jesse Winchester, including tracks by Jimmy Buffett, Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello, Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill and Lucinda Williams and others...
Hick Music Index
Shop Amazon, Support Slipcue