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 August, 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: August, 2014
Blackhawk "Brothers Of The Southland" (Loud & Proud)
Sarah Borges "Radio Sweetheart" (Lonesome Day Records)
Eric Clapton/Various Artists "The Breeze: An Appreciation Of JJ Cale" (Bushbranch)
Jack Clement "For Once And For All" (IRS Nashville)
Guy Forsyth "Red Dress: Live" (Semaphore/Small And Nimble)
The Guy Forsyth Band "Pleaser" (Semaphore/Small And Nimble)
Sammy Kershaw "Do You Know Me? A Tribute To George Jones" (Big Hit Records)
The Levon Helm Band "The Midnight Ramble Sessions, v.3: It's Showtime" (Vanguard)
Lera Lynn "The Avenue" (Self-Released)
Brad Paisley "Moonshine In The Trunk" (Sony-Arista)
Peter Rowan "Dharma Blues" (Omnivore)
Peter Rowan "Peter Rowan's Twang An' Groove, v.1" (There Records)
Billy Joe Shaver "Long In The Tooth" (Lightning Rod)
Shovels And Rope "Swimmin' Time" (Dualtone)
Sturgill Simpson "Metamodern Sounds In Country Music" (Thirty Tigers)
Larry Sparks "Lonesome And Then Some..." (Rebel)
Jim & Lynna Woolsey "The Road That Brings You Home" (Broken Record Records)
Various Artists "LOOK AGAIN TO THE WIND" (Sony Masterworks)

New Stuff: August, 2014

Blackhawk "Brothers Of The Southland" (Loud & Proud, 2014)
'Nineties hitmakers Blackhawk were a second-tier band that cracked into the Top Ten with several singles, but could never quite make it all the way to the top. Like many artists of the era, they've reemerged as indie artists, recording their first album in over twelve years... Fans should be psyched!

Sarah Borges "Radio Sweetheart" (Lonesome Day Records, 2014)
(Produced by Steve Berlin)

Honing her square-peg Americana sound down to a more rock-oriented format, New England's Sarah Borges offers mature, radio-ready rock'n'pop roughly in the style of Tom Petty or Sheryl Crow... Some country touches remain, but this album continues on the same path as the last, carrying her further away from the realm of twangfans and indiebilly. A few heavy hitters from the rock world join her on this one, including producer Steve Berlin (of Los Lobos fame) on keyboards, and NRBQ's Terry Adams sitting in on one tune, "The Waiting And The Worry." Contemporary rock stuff isn't really my cup of tea, but I'm sure it might jazz up a few folks out there... Worth a spin if you like the style.

Eric Clapton/Various Artists "The Breeze: An Appreciation Of JJ Cale" (Bushbranch, 2014)
An homage to the late roots-rocker J. J. Cale, who passed away last year. Cale was the architect of the "Tulsa Sound," the laid-back blues-country style that Clapton and Cale brought into the Top 40 rock world in the '70s. Clapton hosts a celebration with guest performers such as Mark Knopfler, Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, John Meyer and Derek Trucks...

Jack Clement "For Once And For All" (IRS Nashville, 2014)
(Produced by & David Ferguson & Matt Sweeney)

Songwriter and record producer Jack Clement, who passed away in 2013, was one of the most amiable and influential figures in modern country music. He's perhaps most famous for his work as a producer at the Sun Records studios in the 1950s, where he recorded hits by Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash, and it was with Cash that he had the closest connection, writing some of his earliest hits and continuing to work with Cash after he moved to Columbia Records. In the 1970s, Clement signed folk-country troubadour Don Williams up as a solo artist and helped develop his distinctive, acoustic-based style. Clement had a subtle touch as a producer, and it's reflected in this delightful album, released posthumously with the help of T Bone Burnett and a host of high-powered roots/country royalty. Rocker Dan Auerbach joins a studio crew that includes luminaries such as Bobby Bare, Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, John Prine, Marty Stuart and Gillian Welch, as well as Clement's old studio pals Allan Reynolds and Garth Fundis, and a slew of others. The sessions were recorded months before Clement passed away and mainly revisit classic songs Clement wrote as far back as the early '60s, all of which stand up really well. This is a very pleasant album, packed with good humor and well-crafted tunes... I particularly enjoy the mellower tracks, like "Baby's Gone," which evoke the gentle style of Don Williams. All in all, a lovely album, and a fitting tribute to a life and a career well spent.

L. C. Cooke "The Complete S.A.R. Recordings" (ABKCO, 2014)
Once upon a time, a bazillion years ago during my days crate-digging 10-cent singles, I came across a lightly battered copy of L.C. Cooke's "I'm Falling," an insanely propulsive pop-soul single from 1959 that I played to death back when I had a radio show. Imagine my delight when I heard that Abkco Records has put out a reissue collection of all L.C. Cooke's work for the SAR label (an indie started by L.C.'s brother Sam, which lasted from 1961-65, shutting down after Sam Cooke died in '64...) and that the CD would also include LC's lone single for the Chess/Checker label ("I'm Falling") as well as some later recordings. L.C. Cooke was soul legend Sam Cooke's younger brother, and while a lesser talent, he could sound a lot like Sam when he wanted to, and proved a versatile and energetic performer, even if his repertoire was mostly pretty lightweight. LC was one of those second-string R&B artists who were given the see-what-sticks treatment, singing poppy blues, soul, teenybopper novelty songs and the like. As with many artists of the era, Cooke's work reflects the rapidly shifting trends and instability of the record industry in the fad-crazy early-1960's, mixing silly fluff with wondrous gems. This disc includes all of his singles, along with a bunch of tracks intended for a solo LP (an album that got shelved after Sam Cook died) If you like pre-Beatles pop, you'll want to check this one out - it's got some fun tunes on it! Plus, now I can hear that one song over and over, anytime I want to, and not eat up my needle... Yahoo!

The Guy Forsyth Band "Pleaser" (Semaphore/Small And Nimble, 2014)
Texas bluesician Guy Forsyth has been pretty busy this year, releasing an album with the Hot Nut Riveters int eh Spring, and two straight blues albums simultaneously in the summer. This one's a studio album, with some hard-edged, grinding old-school tunes, and a lot of tracks that are weirder and more diverse, but in essence it's pretty chunky and bluesy. Worth a spin, if you're into modern, electric blues, but don't just want the same old formula.

Guy Forsyth "Red Dress: Live" (Semaphore/Small And Nimble, 2014)
Live and very electric... Nice, greasy, loud, gritty blues. Nothing to complain about here... And some nice slide guitar, to boot!

Claude Gray "I Thought I Heard You Call My Name" (Jasmine, 2014)
Though poorly remembered today, baritone Claude Gray had his moment on the charts in the early '60s and is one of my favorite Top Forty singers of that era... On the surface, he's a blatant Jim Reeves imitator, but it's the earlier, more robust Jim Reeves that he's channelling, the Reeves who still let his rural roots show, and Gray mixed the schmaltzy, poppy Reeves vocal style with an insistent, mid-tempo version of the Ray Price "shuffle" beat, getting the best of both worlds -- sentimentality that dips deeply into true pathos, and enough of a bluesy bite to satisfy honkytonk fans like me. Well, at least that was true of his first album, 1961's Songs Of Broken Love Affairs, which is packed with heartbroken ballads galore. By the time his next album rolled around, Gray was deeper into the smoother pop stylings that Reeves had embraced, and it's a shame, since he had hit such a great groove early on. This CD is a generously programmed, much-welcomed reissue of both those albums, and classic country fans will want to snap it up. It's smooth but soulful, and definitely worth checking out.

Sammy Kershaw "Do You Know Me? A Tribute To George Jones" (Big Hit Records, 2014)

The Levon Helm Band "The Midnight Ramble Sessions, v.3: It's Showtime" (Vanguard, 2014)

Lera Lynn "The Avenues" (Self-Released, 2013)
(Produced by Joshua Grange)

Sombre, contemplative folk-Americana with windswept arrangements, anchored by the ghostly, gorgeous pedal steel of producer Joshua Grange. Lynn is a Texan-to-Nashville transplant, but she's definitely not travelling the Top 40 Country route... This downcast though finely-crafted set has the feel of, oh say, a post-indierock Mary Gauthier, with a poppy undercurrent that serves as counterpoint to the overall downtempo gloominess of the songs. There's a solemnity here that reminds me quite a bit of Brits such as Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny and June Tabor. If that comparison piques your curiousity, by all means, check this out. A little too serious for me, though the songs do sneak up on you and draw you in... Well crafted, and intense.

The Osborne Brothers "A Bluegrass Jamboree With..." (Jasmine, 2014)

Brad Paisley "Moonshine In The Trunk" (Sony Arista, 2014)

Peter Rowan "Dharma Blues" (Omnivore Recordings, 2014)

Peter Rowan "Peter Rowan's Twang An' Groove, v.1" (There Records, 2014)

Billy Joe Shaver "Long In The Tooth" (Lightning Rod Records, 2014)

Shovels And Rope "Swimmin' Time" (Dualtone, 2014)
(Produced by Michael Trent)

The husband-wife duo of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent get slotted as a "folk" group, though this album certainly shows a wider frame of reference than that label impies... Yeah, obviously there's modern pop-folk aplenty, but also some deep, grungy rock flavorings -- the grinding bass. T-Rex power riffs and crisp, White Stripes-y concision of "Evil," the Tom Waits-ian circus vibe of "Ohio," and the goofy '50s-rock triplets on the album's most overtly novelty-oriented number, "Coping Mechanism." Hearst proves a chameleonlike singer, moving through various rocker and country-gal modes, while Trent provides more fire on the instrumental side, with vocals that are pretty subdued by comparison. Overall, this isn't really my bag -- they're a little too self-consciously clever and cutesy for me, but they got my attention and held it, with a surprisingly vivid, varied, poppy set of tunes. Certainly worth a spin.

Sturgill Simpson "Metamodern Sounds In Country Music" (High Top Mountain/Thirty Tigers, 2014)
This guy does a truly stunning job at imitating the late, great Waylon Jennings... Indeed, listening to this album (which I've done over and over again...) it's hard not to have your mind simply slip into thinking that this is some classic early-'70s Waylong album that you just missed somehow. It's not just the vocal tone or the musical mimickry... it's the feel and the soulfulness that Simpson captures, the immediacy and depth that Jennings projected into all his songs. Sturgill Simpson has it, too... He not only "gets" Waylon's emotional resonance, he shares it. The musicianship and songwriting on this album are all of the highest calibre, with only one track that didn't work for me ("It Ain't All Light," a wanky, fairly pointless guitar-echo, reverb, cross-channel stereo spaceout song that just goes on and on and on...) Song after song, this is a remarkable album, deep and rewarding, and one that will leave fans wanting more.

Red Sovine "Hold Everything (Till I Get There)" (Jasmine, 2014)
A swell reissue of two albums that country stalwart Red Sovine recorded for Starday Records -- The One And Only Red Sovine, from 1961 and Golden Country Ballads, from 1962. Both albums are notable for their bouncy, rock-tinged arrangements, a robust sound that many country stars tried on in the wake of the rock/rockabilly revolution. (I'm reminded of Webb Pierce's early '60s albums, which I enjoy a great deal...) The songs are a lot more fun than the usual Sovine fare -- no recitations, for one thing -- and while he was an amazingly flat, undynamic singer (who almost made Ernest Tubb seem like a vibrant vocal stylist) these sessions brought out a dynamism and pep in Sovine that's even a bit surprising. Both albums include a hefty dose of cover tunes -- songs originally recorded by George Jones, Ray Price, Marty Robbins and others -- with one of the most distinctive tracks being an "answer song" to the hit, "Hello Walls": "Hello Fool," in which the house in question reads the riot act to the self-pitying protagonist of the Faron Young original. I've never been a huge Red Sovine fan, but this collection surprised me... Recommended!

Larry Sparks "Lonesome And Then Some..." (Rebel, 2014)
(Produced by Larry Sparks & Steve Chandler)

Celebrating his fiftieth year in as a bluegrass professional, bandleader Larry Sparks convenes some high-power guests alongside his own solid band, the Ramblers, delivering another fine set of traditionally-oriented truegrass. Sparks is an understated but authoritative performer with a penchant for story-songs; here his own naturally low-key approach is augmented by an audible old-man vibe, but since he was never much of a lightning-fast, drag-racing kind of bluegrassers, it's more of an older-the-fiddle, sweeter-the-song kind of thing. The repertoire is about half-gospel, with a strong selection of secular material as well, and Sparks is joined on a few tunes by old pals such as Jesse McReynolds, Bobby Osborne and Curly Seckler. Dr. Ralph Stanley -- who was Sparks' first boss when the teenage guitarist joined the Stanley Brothers in 1964 -- joins him for a soulful duet of "Loving You Too Well," and the album closes on a strong note with a live recording of Sparks and Bill Monroe singing "In The Pines" at the 1995 Bean Blossom festival. One highlight is a gospel trio featuring Sparks, Alison Krauss, and Judy Marshall (of the Marshall Family band) on a nice, soulful version of "Green Pastures," one of my favorites mountain-music gospel songs... Throughout, Sparks is a calm, thoughtful presence, his band equally restrained, though quite strong... Special notice should go to Tyler Mullins on banjo and dobro, who anchors the sound with his lyrical yet insistent playing... If you're a Sparks fan, this one's a winner.

Bob Wills "Riding Your Way -- The Lost Transcriptions For Tiffany Music: 1946-1947" (Real Gone Music, 2014)
The king of western swing, bandleader Bob Wills recorded prodigiously for the Tiffany radio shows during the postwar years, making dozens of "transcription discs," prerecorded short shows which were pressed onto vinyl and sent out to individual radio stations to play in their weekly programming. Several albums worth of excellent material from these shows have come out over the years, but apparently so far they've only scratched the surface... An even greater amount of music is still waiting to be mined, and this 2-CD set is the latest collection to bring this fab music back into the light, including dozens of tracks that haven't been available before. Curated by producer Cary Ginnell, this is a real treat for fans of western swing, and of Bob Wills in particular.

Jim & Lynna Woolsey "The Road That Brings You Home" (Broken Record Records, 2014)
(Produced by & Randy Kohrs & Michael Sumner)

A hot blast of hard-edged roots-Americana and rock-solid bluegrass, built around an impressive set of original songs written by the husband-wife duo of James and Lynna Woolsey. These veterans of the Midwestern bluegrass scene hail from Indiana and have been in regional bands since the 1970s, playing festivals and writing various songs recorded by other artists over the years. Amazingly, this is their first album together, and it's a record that was worth waiting for -- a solid, fully-realized mature work, showcasing several decades worth of experience. Producer Randy Kohrs anchors the band on dobro, along with equally assertive banjo picking from Michael Sumner, adding to a rugged modern bluegrass style that reminds me of bands such as The Steel Drivers, with a slight hint of edgy, southern-rock sensibility. This is a very strong album, decades in the making -- be great if they could follow it up soon with something of an equal calibre!


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