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Here are some reviews of the new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in August-September, 2013. 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.

New Stuff: August-September, 2013
The Band Of Heathens "Sunday Morning Record" (BOH Records)
Big Sandy & The Fly-Rite Boys "What A Dream It's Been" (Cow Island)
Ron Block "Walking" (Rounder)
Luke Bryan "Crash My Party" (Capitol Nashville)
Guy Clark "My Favorite Picture Of You" (Dualtone)
Ry Cooder "Live In San Francisco" (Nonesuch)
Court Yard Hounds "Amelita" (Columbia)
Billy Currington "We Are Tonight" (Mercury Nashville)
Bob Dylan "Bootleg Series v.10: Another Self Portrait: 1969-1971" (Columbia Legacy)
Bela Fleck & The Nashville Symphony "The Imposter" (Decca)
Vince Gill & Paul Franklin "Bakersfield" (MCA Nashville)
Lena Hughes "Queen Of The Flat Top Guitar" (Tompkins Square)
Chris Jones "Lonely Comes Easy" (Rebel)
George Jones "Amazing Grace" (Bandit Records)
Lorraine Jordan "...And Carolina Road" (Pinecastle)
Chad Kichula "The Whale's Back" (Self-released)
Tracy Lawrence "Headlights, Taillights And Radios" (LMG)
Lorrie Morgan & Pam Tillis "Dos Divas" (Red River Entertainment)
Chris Thile "Bach: Sonatas And Partitas, Vol. 1" (Nonesuch)
Travis Tritt "Calm After" (Redneck Records)
Jimmy Webb/Various Artists "Still Within The Sound Of My Voice" (E One)
Wild Ponies "Things That Used To Shine" (Ditch Dog)
Bill Withers "The Essential" (Columbia Legacy)
Tammy Wynette "The Essential" (Epic Legacy)
Chris Young "A.M." (RCA-Sony Nashville)

New Stuff: August-September, 2013

The Band Of Heathens "Sunday Morning Record" (BOH Records, 2013)
(Produced by George Reiff & Steve Christiansen)

I have to admit, I never quite understood the whole "Band Of Heathens" name.. it doesn't seem to suit the group all that well, and even less so now that they've moved on from a sort of rugged, cheerful bar-band style into more flowery, hook-filled pop. But, whatever. Setting that aside, there are a lot of nice, memorable melodies on this record, tunes that set songwriters Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist solidly in an adult-alt mode, with a series of playful, reflective, catchy tunes, including standouts such as their homage to the mythic power of rock'n'roll, "Records In Bed," and the troubadour/road song, "Since I've Been Home." There's been a definitive shift in tone for this Austin, Texas band, but they also seem to have sharpened their musical focus, and I think there are a lot of listeners out there who will find these subtle songs to be appealing and worthy of repeat listens... (By the way, anyone know if Gordy Quist is related to would-be Top Country singer Jack Quist? Just wondering...)

Big Sandy & The Fly-Rite Boys "What A Dream It's Been" (Cow Island Music, 2013)
(Produced by D. E. Hannigan)

Southern California hillbilly swing revivalist Robert Williams (aka Big Sandy) has tried his hand at a variety of styles, delving deep into rockabilly, pre-rock hillbilly boogie and '50s-style rock ballads... But it's safe to say he's never been quite as diverse as on this excellent new album, a celebration of the band's 25th anniversary where he revisits old songs with fun new arrangements. It kicks off with a sweet and surprising acoustic reggae tune in the classic rock-steady style ("Baby Baby Me") which gives a sense of just how talented and how relaxed his band can be... Other gems include a funky, '60s-sounding rhythmic rocker, "Missouri Gal," and a breezy rendition of "Parts Unknown." These are songs drawn from Big Sandy's old back catalogue, all given original new arrangements and played with real vibrancy and joy, as well as a laid-back vibe that gives you the powerful feeling that you're just hanging out with the the band while they jam in someone's living room... Sandy and his crew have nothing to prove, but once again they assert themselves as one of the best, most versatile and most entertaining bands on the American retro-billy scene... Fans have a lot to cheer about on this one!

Ron Block "Walking" (Rounder, 2013)

Luke Bryan "Crash My Party" (Capitol Nashville, 2013)

Guy Clark "My Favorite Picture Of You" (Dualtone, 2013)
I guess songwriter Guy Clark has had some tough times recently -- major health problems and, most sadly, his wife Susanna Clark passed away last year. But he's still plugging away, crafting new rough-hewn gems, and his craggy reflections on life's hard-won lessons seem to take on more resonance with every year that passes...

Ry Cooder "Live In San Francisco" (Nonesuch, 2013)

Court Yard Hounds "Amelita" (Columbia, 2013)
I'm a Dixie Chicks fan from 'way back when, but I have to admit it was a hard sell getting me to give this second Court Yard Hounds album a chance, since the last one was so resolutely self-involved and uninspiring. To be charitable, this one, although still anchored in bland rock-pop formulae, does give more of a nod to their country roots, and it certainly shows more signs of life than the last record, which was essentially a flatline event, as near as I could figure. I'm still hoping that the Chicks will get over whatever's keeping them apart and also get all this adult-pop stuff out of their systems, then come back with a kickass album on a par with Home, but given the sound of these Dogs albums and Natalie Maines' own rock-oriented solo set, it seems unlikely. Oh, sure, they'll get together again, but god knows what it will sound like. In the meantime, from the look of things they've got a solid audience for this kind of stuff, so more power to 'em, I guess. Doesn't do much for me, though,

Billy Currington "We Are Tonight" (Mercury Nashville, 2013)
...who needs tomorrow?

Bob Dylan "Bootleg Series, v.10 -- Another Self Portrait: 1969-1971" (Columbia Legacy, 2013)
I tend to think of Bob Dylan's oft-reviled 1970 Self Portrait album as one of the first records he did where he wasn't trying so hard to prove a point, where he just let go of the rock star thing and followed his own interests as a music fan, rather than as a much-parsed, groundbreaking iconic innovator. That impression is borne out by the release of the tenth volume in his self-curated "Bootleg" series, where outtakes and demos from those sessions reveal just how deeply he was getting into reconnecting with his simpler folkie roots. There are alternate versions of songs that appeared on the album, as well as a number of tracks that were recorded at the same time, but not included in the final 2-LP set. A lot of these are straight-up folk songs, chestnuts like "Pretty Saro" and "Railroad Bill," as well as a demo version of the old murder ballad, "Little Sadie," which did make it onto the album, albeit in souped-up form. What I hear in these sessions is Dylan the flashy, genre-busting songsmith going back to the well, relaxing a little, taking the time to actually enjoy the kind of music that originally inspired his love of folk music, and using that experience to propel himself forward. Many of these tracks are just Dylan and acoustic guitarist David Bromberg farting around and jamming, alternating between goofiness and sincerity, but palpably having fun with the music. You can sense, as well, that while he's pickin' and singin' these old-fashioned hootenanny tunes, Dylan's subconscious mind is moving along a little further down the line; while he relaxes and takes the pressure off, the familiar old melodies quietly open up new creative paths -- you can also sense that Bromberg knew this as well, and was just there to give Dylan the kind of unfussy, unhurried accompaniment he needed at the time. It's a fascinating aural document: Self Portrait was panned at the time, and though it's retroactively gained a loyal following, it still remains one of his lesser albums. For my money, these demos and outtakes supersede the studio album, revealing the richer emotional undercurrent to a record that many perceived as a pointed rejection of fame and the expectations pressed upon Dylan by his critics and his fans. These sessions show something else: a musician rejecting the pressures of celebrity so that he could enjoy music again.

Bela Fleck "The Imposter" (Decca, 2013)
Banjo jazz bandleader Bela Fleck tries his hand at classical composition, with backing by the Nashville Symphony and, of course, some twangy, grassy crossover touches. Not my cup of tea, but I'm sure there are plenty of Fleck-heads out there who will dig it.

Vince Gill & Paul Franklin "Bakersfield" (MCA Nashville, 2013)
(Produced by Vince Gill & Paul Franklin)

A richly twangy tribute to the honkytonk-flavored "Bakersfield Sound" popularized by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard in the late 1950s and '60s. Vince Gill is one of the few Nashvillers where I don't mind it when he does slick stuff, but his hard country/neotrad roots are also never in question, and it's a treat to hear him delve so deep into the hard stuff. His collaborator here is steel guitarist Paul Franklin, a versatile player who's equally comfortable with the choppier, more clipped style that Owens sometimes favored, or the more fluid, lyrical, lazy pedal steel sound that has helped many a beer go down easy over the years. Veteran pickers who really "get" it, Franklin and Gill keep things simple, making it all about the songs and not the singer, giving these great old heartsongs and boozer tunes the respect they deserve. While they pay homage to the Owens and Haggard catalogs, they manage to slip in a few lesser-known gems, such as the Buck Owens/Arty Lange weeper, "He Don't Deserve You Anymore" and the equally sweet "But I Do," the lone entry here from songwriter Tommy Collins. Every track on here is pure catnip for hard country fans, with plenty of sentiment and twang to go around... Highly recommended!

Lena Hughes "Queen Of The Flat Top Guitar" (Tompkins Square, 2013)
When I first saw this, I had expected something along the lines of Maybelle Carter's old mountain-music style of flatpicking, and while that foundation is heard in Hughes' work, a lot of this reminds me more of old-time picker Elizabeth Cotton, who added a layer of beauty and delicacy to the folk and blues styles -- Hughes has a similar sweetness that Cotton's fan may find appealing. Definitely worth a spin.

Chris Jones "Lonely Comes Easy" (Rebel, 2013)
(Produced by Chris Jones)

Sometimes bluegrass auteur Chris Jones moves away from a purely traditional approach, and gets more into a heavier, high-concept feel. There's some hot picking on here, though a lot of the songs are slower and weightier, dealing with existential angst and the crushing sadness that life can sometimes bring... But while songs like "You're My Only Family Now" might be too much of a bummer for your average bluegrass fan, bouncy fling-ding instrumentals such as "Wake Up Little Maggie" and "Swine Flu In Union County" that'll get your toes tapping again. A thoughtful set of soul-searching songs, leavened by some good, old-fashioned picking, fiddling and harmonizing.

George Jones "Amazing Grace" (Welk Music Group/Bandit Records, 2013)
(Produced by Billy Sherrill & Brian Ahern)

It's fitting that one of the first George Jones records to come out after his passing is a set of gospel songs... He may have lived a hard life, but Jones could sing about heaven and Jesus and redemption and really put some feeling into it. These were the last recordings Jones made with his old producer Billy Sherrill, and are fine examples of the level of emotion Jones could put into gospel music, even when he was getting kinda long in the tooth himself. Also included is a bonus track produced by Brian Ahern during the 1993 "Bradley Barn" sessions, that features guest vocals from Jessi Colter, Waylon Jennings, Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart and Connie Smith... pretty nice company! Definitely worth checking out.

Lorraine Jordan "...And Carolina Road" (Pinecastle, 2012)
(Produced by Josh Goforth)

A slam-bang, super-pure set of traditionally-oriented bluegrass, with picture perfect harmonies and solid picking throughout. Mandolinist Lorraine Jordan makes a funny kind of bandleader: she has a great voice, but only sings on a few tunes, letting guitarist Tommy Long sing lead on all but one track, and she's not big on taking solos, either, happy to give the spotlight to the guys in her band. And, hey: whatever works. This is a great record, these are great musicians, and I'm not one to argue with success. There are a couple of well-chosen cover songs, as well as several excellent originals written by Jordan and by various members of her band, including a nice gospel tune, "I Saw The Golden Stairs," which is a fine showcase for their group harmonies. If you like old-school bluegrass, don't miss this one!

Chad Kichula "The Whale's Back" (Self-Released, 2013)

Tracy Lawrence "Headlights, Taillights And Radios" (Lawrence Music Group, 2013)

Lorrie Morgan & Pam Tillis "Dos Divas" (Red River Entertainment, 2013)
(Produced by Lorrie Morgan & Pam Tillis)

An interesting pairing of two veteran chartmakers of the 1990s, a couple of gals who certainly have a lot in common. Both Morgan and Tillis were the daughters of two pop-oriented honkytonk stars (George Morgan and Mel Tillis, respectively) who found great success in the rock-friendly landscape of early '90s Nashville and, like many artists of that era, found it hard to keep up as tastes changed at the decade's close. They both had their first big hits relatively late in life, around age thirty, and neither really lived in the shadows of their dad... Although they both embraced glossy pop crossovers, Morgan went further in that direction than Tillis, and after the hits stopped coming, Tillis was happy to indulge her (relatively) rootsy country leanings and seemed comfortable with the indie route; Morgan has recorded several indie albums, too, but she does seem pretty focussed on scoring another big hit, so sometimes she can try a little too hard or pick material that's a little too forceful and doesn't quite hit the mark. They each keep in character for this lively album, which is a combination of duets and mainly-solo performances: Tillis is more discreet and ballad-oriented, while Morgan pushes the envelope more, aiming for hits with big, poppy arrangements ala Nashville, 1996, or with outrageous, uptempo novelty numbers that stress her hard-partying, cougar-delic side. And I mean the cougar thing literally, as do they: the raunchy title track and the even more-explicit "Old Enough to Be Your Lover" hammer home their proud, party-down, bad-girl, baby-boomer sexuality. Get these gals tanked up in a bar with Lucinda Williams and Marshall Chapman, and it's mothers, lock up your babies! Even with the occasionally over-the-top production, this album has an undeniable undercurrent of charm and verve... Worth a spin, particularly if you were already a fan of either artist.

Chris Thile "Bach: Sonatas And Partitas, Vol. 1" (Nonesuch, 2013)

Travis Tritt "Calm After" (Redneck Records, 2013)
I'm still kind of pissed at Travis Tritt for how he dumped on the Dixie Chicks during the whole post-9/11 we're-ashamed-of-George-Bush kerfuffle... But, whatever. I'm willing to move on now, even though I still don't think it's cool to dogpile on people like that. Cowardly, even. But like I say, I'm willing to let it go. Looks like he has a new album.

Jimmy Webb/Various Artists "Still Within The Sound Of My Voice" (E One, 2013)

Wild Ponies "Things That Used To Shine" (Ditch Dog Records, 2013)
(Produced by Ray Kennedy)

The husband-wife duo of Doug and Telisha Williams previously recorded under their own names, but the Wild Ponies moniker adds an evocative edge to their work...

Bill Withers "The Essential Bill Withers" (Columbia Legacy, 2013)
One of the all-time great genre-busters in American popular music, Bill Withers bridged the divide between sweet, soulful R&B and rootsy acoustic folk, and his early albums certainly earn him a spot in the annals of eclectic folk-pop and Americana, particularly songs like "Grandma's Hands," "Hope She'll Be Happier," and the gruesome "Better Off Dead," which if it hasn't already been covered as a country anthem, really ought to be. Am I stretching things, adding this to my country music reviews? Well, maybe, but I really love Bill Withers' music, and I'm the boss, so live with it. This 2-CD set is perhaps the most definitive budget-line retrospective of his work, generously sampling his early-1970s classics on Sussex Records (though perhaps giving short shrift to his stunning Carnegie Hall concert album) and delving deep into his slicker pop-soul albums of the late '70s and '80s, when the hits slowed down -- his last big hit being 1980's "Just The Two Of Us," recorded with Grover Washington, Jr. I prefer the early stuff, but if you want to really dig deep into his career, this set really covers a lot of territory.

Tammy Wynette "The Essential" (Epic Legacy, 2013)
A strong 2-CD retrospective, spanning the career of country queen Tammy Wynette, from her earliest hits with producer Billy Sherrill and chart-topping duets with George Jones to later work in the '70s and '80s, along with a smattering of tracks from the early 1990s. Weighing in at a hefty forty tracks, this collection nearly triples the size of the earlier 2004 Essential set, and almost doubles that of the Definitive Collection, making it the most comprehensive budget-line collection of her work to date. There's plenty of overlap, of course, with the biggest difference being that this best-of drops a few of the more pop-oriented tracks included in the Definitive set (collaborations with artists such as KLF and Sting) and sticks closer to the country stuff. Of course, "country" is a relative term where Wynette's concerned: at the peak of the countrypolitan era, Wynette was a regular chart-topper, and was one of Billy Sherrill's most reliable collaborators, with little of the underlying awkwardness that George Jones sometimes showed among Sherrill's lush, bombastic pop arrangements -- Wynette was an eager pioneer of the new sound, and carved out her own niche as a song stylist. As with other collections of her work, this touches only lightly on the Jones-Wynette duets (there are separate albums that collect that material) and presents her as a solo star whose legacy was truly her own. It also goes far beyond the "sassy" novelty hits she's best remembered for -- "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad," "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" and "Stand By Your Man" -- and deeply explores her many ballads, swank, subtle material that paved the way for more modern artists such as Reba McEntire, Martina McBride and Sara Evans. An excellent look back at one of the legends of '70s country.

Chris Young "A.M." (RCA-Sony Nashville, 2013)

Various Artists "EARLY COUNTRY ROCK FROM NASHVILLE" (T-Bird, 2010)
First things first: the "country rock" part of the title is pretty misleading, since these early '60s recordings (cut for the uber-indie Spar label) feature a lot of latter-day rockabilly and oldies-rock sounds as well as some decent Bakersfield Sound-styled numbers and numerous uptempo novelty songs, but it's all pretty standard-issue country, hardly the cosmic-cowboy hippie-tinged stuff we identify with the "country rock" sound of the late '60s and '70s. That being said, this is still a valuable historical collection profiling a smaller Nashville label whose lineup was mostly made up of obscure non-stars -- the only names I recognize off the bat are those of Jerry Foster and singer Bobby Russell, and while I relish obscure artists as much as any other crazy record collector, I gotta say a lot of these tracks are pretty mediocre. There's a lot of noteworthy talent behind the scenes, though: studio musicians such as Lloyd Green, Mac Gayden, Kenny Buttrey, Wayne Moss and Pete Drake were heard on zillions of 'Sixties sessions, including on countless albums that did help shape the experimental country-rock sound of the era. This disc is worth checking out, just don't set your hopes too high.

An homage to pedal steel virtuoso Buddy Emmons, one of the most accomplished and in-demand session players of the 1960s and '70s, including modern versions of songs he originally played on, with performances by some of country music's elite, including a number of artists who had the good fortune to work with Emmons back in the day. John Anderson, Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson are some of the star singers, while a number of superpickers also pay tribute, including guitarists Duane Eddy and Albert Lee, as well as steel players such as Greg Leisz and Jay Dee Manness, with a nice mix of vocal tracks and instrumentals. One of Emmons' first major gigs was with '50s honkytonk singer Little Jimmy Dickens, an old Opry star who summons himself to appear on this album, singing "When Your House Is Not A Home," with some assist by Duane Eddy... I'll always like hearing Emmons' original work (who wouldn't??) but this tribute album has lots of nice stuff on it, and if it'll steer more listeners towards Emmons' classic performances, well hooray for that! Give her a spin.

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