Howdy, neighbors!

Howdy, folks! Here are some reviews of the new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in May, 2014. 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: May, 2014
Dierks Bentley "Riser" (Capitol Nashville)
Ray Bonneville "Easy Gone" (Red House)
Charlie Daniels "Off The Grid: Doin' It Dylan" (Blue Hat Music)
Luther Dickinson "Rock'n'Roll Blues" (New West)
Drive By Truckers "English Oceans" (ATO)
Carrie Elkin & Danny Schmidt "For Keeps" (Red House)
Eliza Gilkyson "The Nocturne Diaries" (Red House)
Jamestown Revival "Utah" (Wild Bunch)
Laurie Lewis & Tom Rozum "One Evening In May" (Spruce & Maple)
Little Feat "Rad Gumbo: The Complete Warner Brothers Years" (Rhino)
Levi Lowrey "Levi Lowrey" (Southern Ground Artists)
Nickel Creek "A Dotted Line" (Nonesuch)
Old And In The Way "Live At The Boarding House" (Acoustic Disc)
Dolly Parton "Blue Smoke" (Sony Masterworks)
Hank Thompson "The Pathway Of My Life: 1966-1986" (Bear Family)

New Stuff: May, 2014

Dierks Bentley "Riser" (Capitol Nashville, 2014)
(Produced by Ross Copperman)

Ray Bonneville "Easy Gone" (Red House, 2014)
(Produced by Ray Bonneville & Justin Douglas)

Another nice set of moody, melodic neo-blues from Canadian troubadour Ray Bonneville, whose slick, slinky shimmering production style suggests a kind of Northern JJ Cale... Most tracks feature Bonneville in a trio with Gurf Morlix on bass and Goeff Arsenault playing drums, while guest artist Eliza Gilkyson duets on "Where Has My Easy Gone." Many tracks spotlight Bonneville playing solo, though a couple feature him with a larger, more rock-tinged band. The repertoire includes an appropriately languid version of Hank Williams's "So Lonesome I Could Cry"; otherwise it's all original material. Whether with a large band or small, the entire album has a rich, resonant sound which is matched by Bonneville's expansive, charismatic presence. Fans of his earlier albums will doubtless dig this, too!

Charlie Daniels "Off The Grid: Doin' It Dylan" (Blue Hat Music, 2014)

Luther Dickinson "Rock'n'Roll Blues" (New West, 2014)
A playful, idiosyncratic and pleasantly compelling album from rocker Luther Dickinson, son of fabled Southern rock producer Jim Dickinson... This twangy, acoustic-tinged set of whimsical song-sketches is miles away from the cosmic jam-band grunge of the Black Crowes (who Dickinson played with for several years) or the resolutely weird, difficult avant-roots records his dad made late in life, although there is an affinity with the solo work of Alex Chilton, the ex-Big Star singer who was in the elder Dickinson's orbit several decades ago. Like Chilton, Dickinson plays in a post-rock star mode, projecting a veneer of being so over it, though there are hints of unfinished business and uncompleted dreams... At any rate, this succinct, compact album is packed with listenable little gems -- out of ten tracks, only one, "Some Ol' Day," actively irritated me, and the rest were all beguiling and unusual, keeping my attention from start to finish. Recommended!

Drive By Truckers "English Oceans" (ATO, 2014)

Carrie Elkin & Danny Schmidt "For Keeps" (Red House, 2014)
Mellow, easygoing singer-songwriter folk, with a bluesy undercurrent that drifts into countryish terrain... These two Texans each have their own careers but meld well together and are definitely easy on the ears. This album ought to appeal to fans of Patti Griffith and Greg Brown...

Eliza Gilkyson "The Nocturne Diaries" (Red House, 2014)

Jamestown Revival "Utah" (Wild Bunch, 2014)

Laurie Lewis & Tom Rozum "One Evening In May" (Spruce & Maple, 2013)

Little Feat "Rad Gumbo: The Complete Warner Brothers Years: 1971-1990" (Rhino, 2014)
The ultimate collection of classic Little Feat recordings... This 13-CD box set gathers all of their albums on Warner Records, including... well, you know -- all the good ones -- as well as an expanded, two-disc version of Waiting For Columbus, and a bonus disc of alternate versions and outtakes that were previously sprinkled throughout the Hotcakes & Outtakes collection, from 2000. If you thought Hotcakes was fun, but incomplete, well, this new monolith pretty much settles the question. All that's missing is Lowell George's fab solo album, though this is still pretty much everything hardcore Feat fans could hope for.

Levi Lowrey "Levi Lowrey" (Southern Ground Artists, 2013)
At first this may seem like an uneven album, careening from the dreadful alt-rock opener ("Picket Fences") into mellower, more conventional pop-country stylings, but midway through, Lowery slows things down and takes on a much more personal and penetrating approach. In a powerful series of songs, he digs deep into spiritual themes: on "That Is All" he forcefully confronts his listeners to take stock of how they percieve religion, what it's for and what they expect it to provide in their lives. Then follows an impressive flurry of songwriting rabbit-punchs, a pair of tunes that explore religious belief with greater depth and sincerity than just about anything Nashville has come up with in the last twenty years. "Before The Hymnal Died" laments the church life of Lowery's youth, while "I've Held The Devil's Hand" humbly concedes his own failings and moral shortcomings, speaking with an honesty and lack of evangelical conformity that is, honestly, quite refreshing. Then, just as you start to think, oh, this is some kind of country-rock gospel album, he shifts back into secular themes, effectively integrating his own soul-searching spirituality into a personal portrait that's wider and richer and more tangible than any of the formulaic flood of songs about God and small town life that have made modern-day Nashville seem so hollow and insincere. I don't know much about Georgia-born Levi Lowrey except that these songs have real emotional and psychological depth, and it's nice to hear someone making contemporary country music that's more than just bland commercial pop. This is good stuff. Check it out.

Nickel Creek "A Dotted Line" (Nonesuch, 2014)

Old And In The Way "Live At The Boarding House" (Acoustic Disc, 2014)
Hippie bluegrass history, in a big way... This 4-CD set collects the complete live October, 1973 performances of Old And In The Way -- Vassar Clements, Jerry Garcia, David Grisman and Peter Rowan -- playing live at the (now-defunct) San Francisco nightclub known as the Boarding House. This box set includes the set they played the week before they recorded their fabled live album... and it's mighty sweet stuff! More groovy goodies from the vaults, courtesy of mandolinist David Grisman.

Dolly Parton "Blue Smoke" (Sony Masterworks, 2014)

D. B. Rielly "Cross My Heart + Hope To Die" (Shut Up & Play!, 2013)
A remarkably varied and resonant country-meets-folk set, dipping into contemplative acoustic meanderings and gritty twang with equal ease. In a hipsterdelic world, Rielly proclaims his independence by boldly kicking the album off with a solid, earnest cover of Bob Seger's "Turn The Page," which he follows with an impressive sweep of original material. Evoking Dwight Yoakam and Greg Brown with equal ease, Rielly also asserts his own personality with one skillfully crafted song after another, in electric blues, cajun accordions and a hint of bluegrass twang. Besides, I'm a big sucker for material culture and dig that wooden box that the disc is stored in... Listeners in search of top-flight contemporary Americana music will find this to be a very rewarding album.

Bryan Sutton "Into My Own" (Sugar Hill, 2014)

Hank Thompson "The Pathway Of My Life: 1966-1986" (Bear Family, 2013)
At last, the reissue mavens at Bear Family follow up their epic collection of Hank Thompson's classic Capitol recordings with an 8-CD box set delving into his later years on the ABC/Dot and other labels... Another hefty helping of western swing-flavored honky-tonk and country-pop from one of classic country's most jovial icons, sure to make old fans happy and bring a few new ones on board. This collection includes all the album tracks from 1966-86, along with some bonus material and of course, plenty of the fab archival material Bear Family is known for, including a huge booklet full of old photos and extensive discographical information.

Various Artists "WORKING MAN'S POET: A TRIBUTE TO MERLE HAGGARD" (Broken Bow Records, 2014)
(Produced by Mickey Jack Cones & Derek George)

Mainstream Nashville, circa 2014, pays homage to outlaw poet Merle Haggard, and darned if they don't do it right! The crew is mostly packed with younger, newer artists -- folks like Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan, Dustin Lynch, Jake Owen and Randy Houser -- with singers from the '90s and '00s such as Toby Keith and Joe Nichols forming a kind of new "older" generation for modern-day Nashville... Heck, even Garth Brooks makes an appearance, singing a fine version of "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down." I had to listen to this one a bunch of times to really form an opinion about whether these guys "got it right" or not... The first thing that leaps out is the instant recognizability and strength of these songs -- track after track, the lyrics command center stage, and prety much steer the singers where Haggard had laid his course. You could argue that these contemporary neo-trad singers are just singing the songs like Merle sang 'em in the first place, but in this case I'd say the lack of innovation is a very good thing -- there are no big, high-tech pop arrangements, just the plain old sparse, elegant arrangements that Merle crafted in the first place, and artist after artist settles into the songs, giving these modern singers a chance to sing some real country twang. These are all strong performances of truly great songs... Definitely worth a spin! (By the way, you might also like to check out my list of Merle Haggard tribute albums...)

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