Howdy, neighbors!

Here are some reviews of the new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in October, 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: October, 2013
Alabama/Various Artists "Alabama & Friends" (Ten Spot)
Tim Ash "Up On Blocks" (A&M Productions)
David Bromberg "Only Slightly Mad" (Appleseed)
Robbie Fulks "Gone Away Backward" (Bloodshot)
Alan Jackson "The Bluegrass Album" (Capitol Nashville)
Bill Kirchen "Seeds & Stems" (Proper)
Austin Lucas "Stay Reckless" (New West)
Del McCoury "The Streets Of Baltimore" (McCoury Music)
Willie Nelson/Various Artists "To All The Girls..." (Sony Legacy)
Tim O'Brien & Darrell Scott "Memories And Moments" (Full Skies)
Noam Pikelny "...Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe" (Compass)
Curly Putman "Lonesome Country/Curly Putman's World Of Country Music" (Omni Recordings)
Red Dirt Rangers "Lone Chimney" (Ranger Records)
Chris Shiflett & The Dead Peasants "All Hat And No Cattle" (Side One Dummy)
Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby "Cluck Old Hen -- Live" (Skaggs Family)
Steep Canyon Rangers "Tell The Ones I Love" (Rounder)
Keith Urban "Fuse" (Capitol Nashville)
Dwight Yoakam "21st Century Hits" (New West)
Various Artists "GROOVING WITH THE GRIM REAPER" (Jasmine)

New Stuff: October, 2013

Alabama/Various Artists "Alabama & Friends" (Ten Spot, 2013)
It's an all-star guest-fest with these diehard '80s old-timers hosting a bunch of younger guys, such as Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and the Eli Young Band, as well as some folks who nowadays can be considered the Nashville old guard -- Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, Rascal Flatts and Trisha Yearwood. The results are surprisingly vigorous, with good, solid production and soulful vocal performances. Highlights include Jamey Johnson's gritty honkytonk ballad, "My Home's In Alabama," which closes the album, and a couple of tracks that the Alabama guys sing by themselves. A few tracks are too prefab -- "I'm In A Hurry (And Don't Know Why)," featuring Florida Georgia Line, is a wall-of-sound barrage of tinny, hyperactive pop-twang, but other than that, this is a pretty strong record. If you're a fan, it's worth checking out.

Tim Ash "Up On Blocks" (A&M Productions, 2013) (MP3)
(Produced by Tim Ash)

Independently produced, wannabee-Top 40 country-pop, tilting towards the "rowdy dudes" end of the spectrum. Ash lays a lot of the same cards and strikes a lot of the same poses as the bigtimers, reminding listeners of guys like Keith Urban on the mellow end and, I dunno, Montgomery Gentry on the more bubbadelic side of things, particularly on songs like "Beertropolis" and "Tattoos, Tractors, Tanktops, And Trucks." This album didn't really capture my imagination, but that doesn't mean Mr. Ash won't become the next big thing in Nashville. I'm certainly no bellwether or commercial success!

David Bromberg "Only Slightly Mad" (Appleseed, 2013)

Tyler Farr "Redneck Crazy" (Columbia Nashville, 2013)
A decent, slightly mediocre entry into the generic Top 40 dude-country style... I didn't think Farr's voice was particularly strong, but with all that high-tech music around him, I guess it doesn't really matter. Like a lot of these guys, he's better on the uptempo, novelty-oriented material, and they wisely only give him a couple of slow ballads to sing. There's a whiff of the whole Big & Rich rock-rap influence as well, which doesn't do much for me.

Robbie Fulks "Gone Away Backward" (Bloodshot, 2013)

Alan Jackson "The Bluegrass Album" (Capitol Nashville, 2013)
(Produced by Keith Stegall & Adam Wright)

'90s neotrad honkytonker Alan Jackson goes acoustic with help from bluegrassers like Rob Ickes, Sammy Shelor and Adam Steffey giving bright, 'grassy arrangements to some bluesy, hard-country pop songs, including oldies such as "Let's Get Back To Me And You" and John Anderson's "Wild And Blue." One of Jackson's most appealing qualities has always been his relaxed, laid-back vocal style, which would seem to put him at odds with the drag-racing/hot-licks bluegrass tradition, although to his credit, Jackson doesn't strain to put his himself into a "high lonesome" register, and sticks to his strengths. Besides, there's plenty of mellow bluegrass in the world, and while this record never catches fire, it's quite pleasant to listen to. It would have been nice to hear him tackle more classics from the bluegrass canon -- he closes the record with "Blue Moon Of Kentucky," but that's about it for the old stuff -- but I'm cool with country songs done bluegrass style, too. In keeping with his recent success as a religious singer, many of the best tracks here are gospel-themed, notably "Knew All Along" and "Blue Side Of Heaven." So, can we look forward to a Volume Two? Sure, if the Good Lord's willing and the creek don't rise!

Bill Kirchen "Seeds & Stems" (Proper, 2013)

Austin Lucas "Stay Reckless" (New West, 2013)
(Produced by Mark Nevers & Austin Lucas)

A solid, driving mix of indie-rock, alt-twang and jam band guitar -- well-written songs delivered with intensity and conviction... Some of this is a little loud for me, but the more rock-friendly among us will find a lot to appreciate here. Reminds me of Ryan Bingham, in his mastery of both twang and bang. Good stuff!

Del McCoury "The Streets Of Baltimore" (McCoury Music, 2013)

Willie Nelson/Various Artists "To All The Girls..." (Sony Legacy, 2013)
An all-star set of duets with some of country's finest and most famous female singers, featuring a lot of the usual crowd: Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, along with some younger gals, such as Brandi Carlisle, Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood who have been lighting up the charts in recent years. I gotta say, this album didn't totally wow me: most of the songs have the same, deliberate tempo and everything sounds like it was made in the studio, or rather, in a bunch of different studios, with little face-to-face contact or organic, communal musicmaking. I know that's the way things are done nowadays, but sometimes you hear it more than others. A few tracks stand out, though, and they probably reflect my biases more than anything else... Norah Jones delivers a nice, simple performance on "Walkin'" -- I still think she's the single best, most simpatico duet partner Willie's had in the last fifteen years, and I sure wish they'd record a whole album together someday soon. Rosanne Cash pours her soul into "Please Don't Tell Me How The Story Ends," and emerges as one of the most emotionally vibrant performers on this album, while The Secret Sisters and Tina Rose (who I hadn't heard of before bring a more rugged, rootsy feel to their respective tunes. Also nice to hear Mavis Staples in the mix, adding a little bit of bluesy soul, and Willie's daughter Paula adding her own, uncompromised rural tone. This one's okay, but it's a little too downtempo and slickly produced for my tastes. Worth checking out, though.

Tim O'Brien & Darrell Scott "Memories And Moments" (Full Skies, 2013)

Noam Pikelny "...Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe" (Compass, 2013)

Curly Putman "The Lonesome Country Of Curly Putman/Curly Putman's World Of Country Music" (Omni Recordings, 2013)
A re-release of two albums that Nashville songwriter Curley Putman recorded for the ABC label, 1967's The Lonesome Country Of Curly Putman and Curly Putman's World Of Country Music, from 1969. Putman is best known for composing "The Green, Green Grass Of Home," a big hit for Porter Wagoner in 1965 that went on to become a country standard. He also co-wrote classics such as Tammy Wynette's ""D-I-V-O-R-C-E" and "He Stopped Loving Her Today," possibly the weepiest George Jones song ever. Like a lot of songwriters, Putman enjoyed only marginal success as a performer -- he had a couple of singles from his first album that almost cracked the Top 40, but not quite. Nothing charted off of the sleepily-arranged second album, but that was okay -- the hits kept coming anyway, and Putman's name pops up all over the place on many excellent '70s albums. Here's a chance to hear him singing his own stuff... if only they'd been able to add a few of his stray, non-album singles as well!

Red Dirt Rangers "Lone Chimney" (Ranger Records, 2013)
(Produced by Steve Ripley)

A strong mix of rootsy styles, with a funky undercurrent of mellow New Orleans R&B rubbing up against some sweet country twang. I prefer the more straight-up honkytonk stuff, particularly tunes like "Without My Baby," "Honky Tonk History" and "Take Life As It Comes," but it's all pretty good. There's even some swampy, Tony Joe White-ish material on tracks like "Dreamed I Had Wings" and "Strawberries And Watermelons," as well as bright, perky power-pop such as "Blindsided by Love." If you like stylistic variety, you might wanna give these guys a try... They've got a wide range or interests and a pretty cheerful vibe.

Chris Shiflett & The Dead Peasants "All Hat And No Cattle" (Side One Dummy, 2013)
(Produced by Chris Shiflett & The Dead Peasants)

Now here is a band that knows how to make me happy: start out with a ton of twang, add on an irresistible hard-country beat, crank up the volume, and keep it coming. Mr. Shiflett, a member of the uber-famous Foo Fighters, may be a rocker, but there's no sense here that he's just slumming as he plows into this high-octane set of classic honkytonk songs from the 1950s, '60s and '70s. I like my country music pure and hard, and this is quite simply the best, most satisfying collection of true twang tunes I've heard all year long. From start to finish, this is a really fun record, made to be played loud. Includes a rich, resonant version of Jim Ed Brown's hit, "Pop A Top," Faron Young's "Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young," the rollicking "Guitar Pickin' Man" and soul-searing weepers like "King Of Fools." This, my friends, is music to drink beer by. Closing things out with a version of Waylon's "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?" Shiflett and his band answer their own question: Hell, yeah!

Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby "Cluck Old Hen -- Live" (Skaggs Family, 2013)
Previous collaborations between bluegrass elder Ricky Skaggs and pop pianist Bruce Hornsby have tilted more towards Hornsby's adult-contemporary style, but this disc is more of an all-out truegrass set, albeit with dips into jam band jazz and covers of old hits like "The Way It Is." The pure twang tunes are good, and I guess Hornsby's old fans can get a thrill out of the new acoustic arrangements of old favorites. Worth a spin, though it still wasn't really my cup of tea.

Steep Canyon Rangers "Tell The Ones I Love" (Rounder, 2013)

Randy Travis "Influence Vol. 1: The Man I Am" (Warner Brothers, 2013)
In recent years, honkytonker Randy Travis has settled into a comfortable path as a Contemporary Christian/country gospel singer, but he's back in secular mode on this well-produced, slightly laid-back album. The songs are a mix of few new tunes along with a slew of classic country oldies such as Ernest Tubb's "Thanks A Lot," Lefty Frizzell's "Saginaw, Michigan," "Trouble In Mind" and "I'm Always On A Mountain When I Fall," and a bunch of other Merle Haggard songs. Travis pays tribute to the late George Jones with a cover of "Why Baby Why" and the album's closer, "Tonight I'm Playin' Possum," a nice, steel-drenched duet with Joe Nichols... Travis also seems to have paid inadvertent tribute to Jones with his recent, highly-publicized arrests for drunken behavior in 2012, as well as his equally tragic diagnosis for viral cardiomyopathy, a subsequent stroke and the resulting emergency brain surgery in the summer of 2013. Jeez. That's hard stuff. Well, it's great to hear him back in action... And we all with Randy the best, and hope to hear more great music in years to come.

Keith Urban "Fuse" (Capitol Nashville, 2013)

Dwight Yoakam "21st Century Hits: Best-Of 2000-2012" (New West, 2013)
A rock-solid collection of Yoakam's work since Y2K, spanning the tail end of his Warner-Reprise years into his current gig with New West, and then back with Warner again for last year's Three Pears album. One of the all-time great neotrad honkytonkers, Yoakam has also been one of modern country's great boundary-pushers, experimenting with pop-rock touches both subtle and outlandish, tapping into '60s-era power-pop while the rest of country decided Southern rock was the way to go. This 14-song best-of taps into some of Dwight's best, most roots-oriented material, and make no mistake, hardly anybody sounds as good next to a pedal steel guitar as Dwight Yoakam. The opening track, "The Sad Side Of Town," is a pure, windswept weeper, followed by Dwight's propulsive, Eagles-y ode to a California in decline, "The Late, Great Golden State," surely one of his most memorable songs of this era. Folks will get a kick out of hearing "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" again -- minus the Gap ad imagery -- and the Buck Owens covers towards the album's end are pure country heaven. (Yoakam's ability to both tap into tradition and tweak into something completely new is shown in his slow, mournful version of "Close Up The Honky Tonks," where he takes the song's irresistibly bouncy backbeat, sets it completely aside and instead hones in on the pure misery of the lyrics...) There are a couple of notable duets as well -- the one track on here that was previously unreleased is an uptempo collaboration with Michelle Branch that's a little too rock'n'roll for me, but which will probably be a highlight for a lot of other listeners; Willie Nelson kicks in some sweet, wistful harmonies on "If Teardrops Were Diamonds," which dates back to 2003's Population Me album... just one more finely-crafted gem on a very strong collection. Recommended!

Various Artists "GROOVING WITH THE GRIM REAPER" (Jasmine, 2013)
Just in time for Halloween comes this spooky 2-CD set of country, pop and rock'n'roll oldies from 1954-62, an era known for its exuberantly shameless novelty songs. This mixes murder ballads, morbid teen tragedy songs and even a few pop culture memorials, like Mike Berry's "Tribute To Buddy Holly." From the country side of the tracks come tracks by Ferlin Husky ("The Drunken Driver"), Rex Allen, a couple by Marty Robbins ("Big Iron" and "El Paso") and an excellent melodramatic weeper from the Stanley Brothers ("No School Bus In Heaven"). The pop and rockabilly folks had a real field day with the tragedy song genre, and this is packed with gems such as Lee Hazelwood's "Girl On Death Row," "Car Crash" by the Cadets, Billy Fury's "Don't Jump" and "I'm Gonna Kill Myself" by Buddy Knox. And of course the collection closes with the hit that put the last nail on the coffin of the fad, Bob Luman's forcefully cheerful "Let's Think About Living," which is a fine antidote to all the glorious gloom and doom that precedes it. This is a fun collection, and a great slice of pre-Beatles pop culture... So good, it's scary!

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