Here are some reviews of the new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in December, 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: December, 2013
Jason Boland & The Stragglers "Dark And Dirty Mile" (Proud Souls)
Laura Cantrell "No Way There From Here" (Shoeshine)
Fruition "Just One Of Them Nights" (fruition.com)
Sammy Kershaw "Big Hits, Volume One" (Big Hit Records)
Nick Lowe "Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection For All The Family" (Yep Roc)
Joe Mullins & Junior Sisk "Hall Of Fame Bluegrass" (Rebel)
Joe Nichols "Crickets" (Red Bow)
Roy Orbison "The Last Concert: Silver Anniversary Edition" (Sony Legacy)
Parmalee "Feels Like Carolina" (Stoney Creek)
Mindy Smith "Snowed In" (Giant Leap)
Donna Ulisse "Showin' My Roots" (Hadley Music Group)
Various Artists "MEMORIES OF THAT OLD COUNTRY CHURCH" (Rebel)
Various Artists "YOU DON'T KNOW ME: REDISCOVERING EDDY ARNOLD" (Plowboy)
Jason Boland & The Stragglers "Dark And Dirty Mile" (Proud Souls/Thirty Tigers, 2013)
(Produced by Jason Boland & Shooter Jennings)
Laura Cantrell "No Way There From Here" (Shoeshine, 2013)
Fruition "Just One Of Them Nights" (fruition.com, 2013)
(Produced by Calvin Turnbull)
This was certainly one of the major bolts-from-the-blue from the indie/Americana scene this year, an unassuming and thoroughly enchanting record that spans a wide range of styles and evokes the best of contemporary alt-twang. The album pens with "Git Along," a toe-tapping Woody-Guthrie-by-way-of-Steve-Earle acoustic stomp which is instantly contrasted by the languid, sultry "Whippoorwill," one of several evocative gems by singer Mimi Naja, who taps into the genre-melting femme-folk blues-twang of artists such as Jolie Holland and Be Good Tanyas... This song, along with the album's closer, "Gotta Get Back Home," are two of the most haunting songs in a collection of winners, melodies and words that edge back into your mind for days on end. And I'm not dissing the other songs, tunes by the boys in the band, Jay Cobb Anderson and Kellen Asebroek, strong material such as the wistful, lilting "The Broken Hearted" and the spiritual metaphors of "Come On, Get In," as well as their ode to America's last great alterna-ville, "Portland Bound." This is a sweet and seductive album, also gloriously obscure, the kind of off-the-radar gem that will be a private favorite for a few lucky fans -- and could be a springboard to greater things to come. I liked this one a lot.
Sammy Kershaw "Big Hits, Volume One" (Sony-MRI-Big Hit Records, 2013)
(Produced by Sammy Kershaw)
There are those who reflexively sneer at remake albums, those after-the-fact greatest hits collections where fallen stars re-record their oldies -- there's a natural tendency to compare the new versions to the originals, and (perhaps less fairly) to denounce them as acts of fraud. I've been there, I get it. But over the years I'm steadily more accepting of this kind of record, especially since the Nashville machine is now so quick to slam the door on its former top artists, in favor of fresh, new faces, and now an entire generation of "old-timers" from the 1990s and '00s have had to self-release their own records. These indie offerings from former chart-toppers are often surprising, particularly for stars who made their mark recording lavishly produced, pop-oriented singles but can now indulge their twangier roots. Late vintage recordings also reveal changes in temperament and tone, emotional growth and stylistic nuances. Back in the 1960s and '70s, legacy performers like Roy Acuff or Ernest Tubb may have been caught in futile loops trying to recreate their glory days, but nowadays -- having been kicked off the stage by the remorseless modern entertainment industry -- many singers are free to pursue expressiveness rather than phantom hits, and in some ways they remind me of jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, whose later work was more about mastery and understatement, rather than the brash energy of youth. Take for example these new recordings by '90s star Sammy Kershaw, who as a George imitator had a deep rootsy core but buried it in the high-tech production of the era. There's some echo of that slick sound here, but mostly it's a more laid-back sound with more modest musical backing. Also, Kershaw's voice has changed -- he still has those deep, Jones-like tones, but a thinness and fragility has crept it, revealing his age and, like many older artists singing country heartsongs, he wears it well. If you want the old hits songs in their original, unaltered states, they're out there on other Kershaw collections... But if you want to hear how that man has matured and modified his performance style, a decade or two later, you might want to give this record a whirl. It may surprise you.
Nick Lowe "Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection For All The Family" (Yep Roc, 2013)
Holiday greetings from one of the savviest pop-twang musicians in the world. Some standards, as well as some truly groovy new Christmas songs. Thanks, Nick!
Joe Mullins & Junior Sisk "Hall Of Fame Bluegrass" (Rebel, 2013)
(Produced by Joe Mullins & Junior Sisk)
More zippy, high-lonesome bluegrass with dynamic picking, great vocal harmonies and a strong mix of secular and gospel material. These two guys -- each of them a bandleader in his own right -- have a strong sympatico feel and raise the duo to a lofty height. There's plenty of high-class traditional bluegrass out there these days, and these guys are making some of the best!
NC Music Love Army "We Are Not For Sale: Songs Of Protest" (2013)
Caitlin Cary, aghast at the retrograde politics of contemporary North Carolina, raises her voice in protest to redeem her home state from the ravages of union busting and voter restrictions... And here you thought topical folk music was a thing of the past!
Roy Orbison "The Last Concert: Silver Anniversary Edition" (CD/DVD) (Sony Legacy, 2013)
(Remastered by Richard Dodd)
A reissue of pop legend Roy Orbison's last recorded concert, with a new, nice sound mix and some groovy bonus materials. Includes several video clips of live performances from a 1981 California gig, and one from a 1986 Texas show, as well as audio of Orbison's last interview, conducted with Tony Weber... Nice update that'll make fans happy.
Roy Orbison "In Dreams" (DVD) (Sony Legacy, 2006/2013)
Parmalee "Feels Like Carolina" (Stoney Creek, 2013)
(Produced by NV)
These guys front-load their new album with a bunch of tough-guy, party animal songs, notably the humrously goofy single "Musta Had A Good Time," establishing their bubba cred before sliding into a series of more subtle, softer songs that are more in keeping with the "look" of the band, which says more Emerson Drive than Toby Keith. The music is all pure formula -- tightly crafted and radio-ready, with commercial success pretty much a given. Even though this is being called their "debut," this North Carolina band has been around a while, and released a rock album almost ten years ago -- echoes of those days can be heard in the power chords of "Musta Had" and the similar-sounding "I'll Bring The Music," another party-down tune that brings the record full circle. (Still, listening to the chorus of "Back In The Day," ("...back in the day we were small town stars/snuck a little beer, cranked a lot of Garth/down on the farm, out on the lake...") I couldn't help but wonder how, if you added up the total acreage of all mythic, small-town American farms on all the faux-rural nostalgia songs written in Nashville in the last twenty years whether you'd be able to fit them all onto the surface area of Jupiter, much less the continental USA... But I digress.) Anyway, this isn't my kinda country music, really, but I've got no beef against them, either. It's straight-up pop-country, '13 style, and for those of y'all who are into singalong pop songs about tailgate parties and pickup trucks, Parmalee certainly deliver the goods.
Mindy Smith "Snowed In" (Giant Leap, 2013)
Mindy Smith's 2007 album, My Holiday, is possibly my all-time favorite Christmas album, and this 5-song EP is a nice appendix -- maybe not as entirely magical as the first record, but certainly very sweet. This time around, it's her versions of old holiday classics that stand out and shine the brightest, particularly "Silent Night" and "Auld Ange Syne," which close the record out. Great stuff. And if you don't own My Holiday yet... you should.
Donna Ulisse "Showin' My Roots" (Hadley Music Group, 2013)
At the dawn of the 1990s, singer Donna Ulisse took a shot at the Nashville brass ring, scored a couple of minor hits, and like many talented artists, left Music City but kept making music out of the spotlight's bright glare. She came back to the studio over a decade later, and has recorded several excellent, bluegrass-oriented albums, alternating between all-religious/Southern Gospel and more secular sets. This is one of her more secular, standard-issue bluegrass albums, and is a strong offering from a soulful, rootsy performer.
Various Artists "MEMORIES OF THAT OLD COUNTRY CHURCH" (Rebel Records, 2013)
Various Artists "YOU DON'T KNOW ME: REDISCOVERING EDDY ARNOLD" (Plowboy Records, 2013)
Hick Music Index