Howdy, folks! Here are some reviews of the new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in June, 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: July, 2014
Suzy Bogguss "Lucky" (Loyal Dutchess)
Carolina Story "Chapter Two" (Stitched Together)
Deana Carter "Southern Way Of Life" (Red River)
Colt Ford "Thanks For Listening" (Average Joe's)
Kevin Fowler "How Country Are Ya?" (Kevin Fowler Records)
Brantley Gilbert "Just As I Am" (Valory Music)
Charlie Greene "Charlie Greene" (ArtisTribe)
John Hiatt "Terms Of My Surrender" (New West)
The Hot Nut Riveters "...Present: Moustashe Girl" (Small & Nimble)
Jim Lauderdale "I'm A Song" (Sky Crunch)
Corb Lund "Counterfeit Blues" (New West)
MANdolinMAN "Old Tunes, Dusted Down" (ARC Music)
The Mastersons "Good Luck Charm" (New West)
Waddie Mitchell "Sweat Equity" (Western Jubilee)
Jerrod Niemann "High Noon" (Arista Nashville)
Old Crow Medicine Show "Remedy" (ATO)
Dolly Parton & Porter Wagoner "Just Between You And Me" (Bear Family)
The Quebe Sisters Band "Every Which-A-Way" (Fiddletone)
Chuck Ragan "Till Midnight" (Side One Dummy)
Chris Smither "Still On The Levee" (Signature Sounds)
Seth Walker "Sky Still Blue" (Royal Potato Family)
Gene Watson "My Heroes Have Always Been Country" (Fourteen Carat)
Suzy Bogguss "Lucky" (Loyal Dutchess, 2014)
This indie outing features '90s Top Forty queen Suzy Bogguss delivering an understated Merle Haggard tribute album...
Carolina Story "Chapter Two" (Stitched Together, 2014)
(Produced by Blake Chancey)
The husband-wife duo of Ben and Emily Roberts join numerous skillful masters of rootsy country duet singing -- notably contemporaries such as Joey + Rory, or Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis -- with vocals whose resonance is as rooted in their emotional connection as in technical skill. This 2-song set is Carolina Story's second EP and like the first, it's a strong dose of well-crafted, compelling country-pop tunes with sleek but traditionally-rooted production -- plenty of pedal steel providing sweet counterpoint to their vocals. With veteran Nashville producer Blake Chancey at the helm, the pair is clearly open to contemporary country sounds (with mainstream success a distict possibility) though still willing to write more personal material and skirt the edges of the mainstream. In short, this is a pleasant set which can appeal to Nashville and Americana fans alike... Definitely worth a spin!
Deana Carter "Southern Way Of Life" (Red River, 2014)
Carter took a long (seven-year) break from musicmaking in order to enjoy her family life... She returns with a pretty sweet-sounding pop/adult contemporary. Not enough twang here for me, but at least it's got a more-contemplative, less-rock folk-pop sound to it - not my cup of tea, but easy on the ears.
Colt Ford "Thanks For Listening" (Average Joe's, 2014)
Kevin Fowler "How Country Are Ya?" (Kevin Fowler Records, 2014)
A hard-country singer from the "red dirt" end of the indie spectrum, songwriter Kevin Fowler made his play for Top Forty success, and has staked out his territory in the Bubbadelic dude-country scene. This novelty-packed album is self-released, but most of the material would fit into a contemporary country playlist, just on the twangier side of things. Most of the lyrics are pretty obvious, and some of the production edges into the formulaic, but for the most part Fowler brings some punch and grit into the ring, and some songs are more resonant than others, with "Girls I Go With" being a standout on this album. Fans of, oh, say, Brad Paisley and Jerry Jeff Walker might dig this disc.
Brantley Gilbert "Just As I Am" (Valory Music, 2014)
Charlie Greene "Charlie Greene" (ArtisTribe, 2014)
(Produced by Charlie Greene)
Lush, lavishly round-toned roots-rock from Southern California, with a reverb-y production style that recalls Chris Isaak, but with a melodramatic romanticism that almost suggests Bryan Ferry, and a penchant for weirdness in the songwriting reminiscent of "Paisley Underground" artists such as Steve Wynn and his '80s indie cohorts. I gotta confess, I had to struggle with this album a little bit: the robust music swept me up but then the lyrics threw me off -- I had to give into Greene's dry, unconventional sense of humor before it really started to resonate. But he does take a unusual, genre-defying approach, and once you get on his wavelength, this is a pretty rewarding record. Nice picking, too: guitarist Kenny Vaughn sits in on a couple of tracks, and the band's pedal steel player, Spencer Cullum, Jr., adds some really sweet licks. Definitely worth a spin, though some of it's a little too rock'n'roll for me.
John Hiatt "Terms Of My Surrender" (New West, 2014)
(Produced by Doug Lancio)
Another rich, haunting set from the gravel-voiced elder auteur of American songsmithing... This brooding, bluesy, low-key set of smouldering, rueful songs is compelling though monochromatic, with Hiatt intoning over a slow parade of down-tempo acoustic-based melodies, with a decisively funereal feel. The musicianship is as soulful and precise as the songwriting, although it's all pretty downcast. With sympathetic backing that includes banjo, mandolin, keyboards and drums, Hiatt pours out his hard-won, world-weary wisdom, deeply laced with sorrow and regret, yet he salvages a deeply restrained sense of pragmatic optimism, the same sort of silver-lining philosophizing perfected by old-timers such as Hiatt and Guy Clark, and emulated by so many younger artists. This album's a downer, but it's complex and emotionally mature, certainly rewarding to the attentive listener.
The Hot Nut Riveters "...Present: Moustashe Girl" (Small & Nimble Records, 2014)
(Produced by The Hot Nut Riveters & Matt Smith)
Novelty-oriented blues/jug band/Americana from a loose-knit Texas crew that includes Guy Forsyth and other alumni of the Asylum Street Spankers, along with various Austin locals. The album intersperses comedic skits among the songs, with a lively repertoire that mixes originals with covers of classics and standards such as the gloriously goofy "Your Feets Too Big" and "It's A Sin To Tell A Lie," (both from the Fats Waller canon), "New Orleans" and "Trade Winds," with plenty of woozy, boozy pickin' and sly vocals and sly Hawaiian-style slide. Fans of Andrew Bird, Squirrel Nut Zippers, the Cheap Suit Serenaders, et.al., oughta get a kick out of this one... It's a nice eclectic mix!
Jim Lauderdale "I'm A Song" (Sky Crunch Records, 2014)
(Produced by Jim Lauderdale)
A rock-solid hard-country set from tunesmith Jim Lauderdale. A highly successful Top 40 songwriter, Lauderdale often seems to revel in his own stubborn square-peggedness, packing his albums with odd, angular, idiosyncratic tunes without the singalong choruses one usually associates with Nashville twang... On this album, though, he delivers perhaps his best, most concentrated, purest honky tonk disc to date, packing in one tight, muscular tune after another. The picking is superb, full of punchy, early '70s-style Nashville twang, a style that perfectly matches Lauderdale's vocals, which mimic George Jones' earthy, soulful style of the era. And each song is a gem, one sincere, heartbroken heartsong after another. Lauderdale revisits older material such as "The King Of Broken Hearts," a classic weeper recorded by George Strait back in the early '90s. With pure-twang picking by old pros such as James Burton and Al Perkins, guest vocals by Patty Loveless, Lee Ann Womack and Lauderdale's pal Buddy Miller, this has the feel of the true-country faithful circling the wagons and showing the young'uns how it's done. It's a great hillbilly/honkytonk record, and possibly the first Lauderdale album that I can just put on and enjoy from beginning to end, without the head-scratching what's-he-up-to-now moments of the past. If you like how George Jones sounded back in 1972, you're really gonna love this record.
Corb Lund "Counterfeit Blues" (New West, 2014)
(Produced by Saam Hashemi & Grant Siemens)
A Canadian bar-band favorite hustles down to Memphis to record a set at the fabled Sun Records studios -- you know, the place where Johnny Cash, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis all cut their teeth. Lund turns in a muscular, clangy, rock-oriented set that includes a bunch of old favorites and Corb-ian classics such as "Good Copenhagen," "Hurtin' Albertans" and "The Truck Got Stuck." Even though this is sort of a best-of album, it should still be fun for fans and for newcomers it could serve as a good introduction to his work...... Lund's distinctive personality comes out (as it always does) and though I prefer his acoustic side, his more rock-oriented fans ought to dig this one...
MANdolinMAN "Old Tunes, Dusted Down" (ARC Music, 2014)
(Produced by MANdolinMAN)
Fans of the mighty mandolin will be delighted by this lively, cheerful set of instrumentals, traditional Flemish melodies nimbly played by a quartet of younger musicians. The group first came together to celebrate the work of Belgian songcatcher, music ethnographer Hubert Boone, who collected hundreds of old tunes in the rural areas near Brussels. His son, Andries Boone, convened a quartet of friends to play some of the songs on mandolin and mandola and the response was so positive they went on to record this album. Their joyful performances echo the European mandolin orchestras of the 19th Century as well as folkloric nostalgia of roots revivalists such as Ry Cooder and Andy Statman, as well as pure mandolinists like Dave Apollon. It's quite a nice record... Apparently the mandolin wasn't widely used in Belgian or Flemish music... Hopefully a few more albums like this will help change that!
The Mastersons "Good Luck Charm" (New West, 2014)
(Produced by Jim Scott)
Poppy roots-rock from the duo of singer Elanor Whitmore and multi-instrumentalist Chris Masterson. He sings, too, but she takes the lead with classic Nanci Griffith/Emmylou-ish Americana vocals, lightly underscored by his subtle, inobtrusive harmonies... The songs are uptempo and anthemic, more "adult-alt" pop-rock than country-oriented Americana, though there are certainly country touches in the music, notably some tasty pedal steel work by Greg Leisz and Whitmore's fiddling (particularly on "Anywhere But Here," one of only two tunes where Masterson sings lead). The music is easygoing and unchallenging, generally love songs with a theme of newly-found joyful love, happily found and easily won. (Sounds nice, doesn't it?) If you're looking for something perky and easy on the ears, these folks might do the trick. Personally, I wouldn't mind hearing Masterson sing lead a little bit more -- nothing wrong with Whitmore's voice, but I found his a little less-polished tones more distinctive and personable... Just a personal preference I guess.
Waddie Mitchell "Sweat Equity" (Western Jubilee, 2014)
Jerrod Niemann "High Noon" (Arista Nashville, 2014)
Slick, formulaic, completely soulless Top Forty stuff. Has "bro-country" run its course at last? I mean, look, I'm sure there'll be some radio hits and some fans will be stoked, but honestly there's not a single song on here that does anything for me. It's all so calculated and insincere... I'd like to be charitable and self-effacing and say, "I guess I just don't get it!" but that wouldn't be true. I do get it... I just don't like it. This stuff is super-boring and has no heart.
Old Crow Medicine Show "Remedy" (ATO, 2014)
(Produced by Ted Hutt)
Another solid album from Old Crow Medicine Show, who have become old-timey music's equivalent of the Stray Cats, a commercially successful, brand-name version of retro musicmaking and, as time goes by, maybe a bit slicker and more comfortable in that role. One of the band's co-founders, Willie Watson, has moved on, and perhaps not coincidentally some of their rougher, more truly ragged edges are gone, and the remaining "kooky," unruly touches are plainly self-consciously applied. That doesn't mean that this record isn't still packed with gems, with good, hummable melodies and superb musicianship throughout... OCMS seem to have settled down a bit, concentrating on strong rhythmic and melodic work in a way that reminds me of the Pogues; also interesting is how much the lead vocals have adopted a Loudon Wainwright-ish tone... which is certainly a compliment in my book! Standout tracks include "Sweet Amarillo" (which was co-written with Bob Dylan) and "Doc's Day," a back-porchy homage to the late Doc Watson, and the country-flavored, pedal steel inflected, John Prine-ish "Dearly Departed Friend." Overall, a strong set of catchy, tuneful neo-jugband Americana... Recommended!
Dolly Parton &
Porter Wagoner "Just Between You And Me" (Bear Family, 2014)
Country duet singing has definitely come back in fashion, with modern duos such as Joey + Rory storming the Top 40 charts, and Americana fan favorites like Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis keeping things real with the indie faithful. Perhaps no one ever made sweeter, more charming duets than hick icon Porter Wagoner and his musical protege, Dolly Parton, who worked together from 1967 (when she joined his road show) well into the 1970s, after she had firmly established herself as a Nashville superstar. This ultra-fab, 6-CD Bear Family box set gathers their collaborations from 1967-76, and is destined to be one of the great reissue records of the decade. There are 160 songs in all, including many written by Wagoner and/or Parton, all with their superb, honey-coated vocal harmonies bolstered by the best studio crews Nashville could produce. I don't own this box set (yet...although Christmas is coming up, hint, hint...) so I can't comment on the packaging and additional archival materials. Nonetheless, I do have most of the albums, and they are certainly some of the best records of that era. Of the other major duo acts of the time, George Jones and Tammy Wynette were their closest competitors, though I have to say I prefer Porter and Dolly, their sweet, romantic side standing in contrast to the deep pathos favored by George & Tammy. Of course, it's not an either/or proposition, but it sure would be hard to go wrong with a collection such as this. Highly recommended!
The Quebe Sisters Band "Every Which-A-Way" (Fiddletone, 2014)
(Produced by Joey McKenzie)
A zingy, zippy set of western/swing standards from the Quebes, three sisters from Texas who harmonize around uptempo, fiddle-led arrangements, evoking the classic family-vocals of the Andrews Sisters, the Louvins and the King Sisters. As the title implies, this disc ranges far and wide among various musical styles, with a stronger emphasis on pop and jazz standards such as "How High the Moon" and "It's A Sin To Tell A Lie," along with country oldies like "Cold, Cold Heart" and Hank Thompson's "Green Light," as well as nods to bluegrass music (a nice version of Andy Statman's "Flatbush Waltz") and older mountain music tunes, such as "Wayfaring Stranger," from the Carter Family songbook. The Quebe gals (it's pronounced "kway-bee," by the way) keep a light, airy tone, and this is relentlessly cheerful music, at its best when all three sisters sing together... This is only their third album in over a decade, though hopefully there's more to come!
Chuck Ragan "Till Midnight" (Side One Dummy, 2014)
(Produced by Christopher Thorn)
Gravel-voiced roots-rock from a former member of the Florida rock band, Hot Water Music... Ragan "went country" (sort of) a while back and this is his latest album, sort of a Springsteen-y set, if Bruce were more into steel guitar, perhaps. I don't really dig the vocal style (I never was into the Boss) but the tunes are catchy and anthemic... Certainly worth a spin, though it's not really my cup of tea.
Chris Smither "Still On The Levee" (Signature Sounds, 2014)
This is sort of a best-of... Veteran singer-songwriter/Americana pioneer Chris Smither re-records and "reimagines" two dozen of his favorite songs on this 2-CD set, coming out at the end of the month...
Seth Walker "Sky Still Blue" (The Royal Potato Family, 2014)
(Produced by Oliver Wood)
The slight country twang -- was little of it there was -- has largely gone out of Seth Walker's music, in favor of a soft pop/white funk/blues bounce, reminding me of old Michael Franks records, perhaps, with a bit of Mose Allison in the mix as well. It's not really my cup of tea -- a little too self-consciously coy and hipster-groovy, also not very twangy -- although fans of Ben Harper or Keb Mo might dig it.
Gene Watson "My Heroes Have Always Been Country" (Fourteen Carat, 2014)
Hick Music Index