Howdy, folks! Here are some reviews of the new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in September, 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: September, 2014
Big & Rich "Gravity" (Big & Rich Records)
Blackie & The Rodeo Kings "South" (File Under: Music)
John Cowan "Sixty" (Compass)
Smoke Dawson "Fiddle" (Thompkins Square)
Matt Hillyer "If These Old Bones Could Talk" (Big Barncat Records)
Tim McGraw "Sundown Heaven Town" (Big Machine)
New American Farmers "The Farmacology Sessions" (Big Barncat)
Nu-Blu "All The Way" (Rural Rhythm)
The Osborne Brothers "A Bluegrass Jamboree With..." (Jasmine)
Junior Sisk "Trouble Follows Me" (Rebel Records)
Lee Ann Womack "The Way I'm Livin' " (Sugar Hill)
Various Artists "NASHVILLE OUTLAWS: A TRIBUTE TO MOTLEY CRUE" (Big Machine)
Various Artists "THE RISE AND FALL OF PARAMOUNT RECORDS" (Revenant)
Big & Rich "Gravity" (Big & Rich Records, 2014)
Just for the record (again), I'm not a fan. Ten years ago, the producer-musician duo of Big Kenny and John Rich concocted one of the flimsiest, most negligible production styles to hit Nashville since the early '80s... Well, ever, actually... It was a bright, brash, pop/hip-hop inflected sound that hit a below-the-lowest-common-denominator note, making "country" music that was a brain-dead, party-friendly joke, and little else. I guess that's okay, it you just want to party until you feel brain-dead, but as a twangfan, I really loathe their work, both as performers and as the dial-twisting studio svengalis behind a string of fauxbilly one-hit wonders who were all uniformly (and amazingly) even more boring than the Big & Rich duo. Anyway, they're back, this time on their own indie label, and I doubt there's much here that will be of interest to me... Though I could be wrong. Feel free to let me know what you think.
Blackie & The Rodeo Kings "South" (File Under: Music, 2014)
(Produced by Colin Linden)
This Canadian (North)Americana crew kicks off with an uptempo track, "North," then abruptly heads "South" on the next track, and slows things down for a more folk-blues flavored set. This album has a distinctively Dave Alvin-esque feel, though fans of Ray Bonneville will feel at home as well... Classy and well-written, though they could have used a little more varied tempo in the middle -- this starts to feel a little glum after a while. Highlight tracks include "North," the singalong "Fleur De Lys" and "Gotta Stay Young," a haunting indictment of how fragile life can be for older people in the modern-day workforce.
John Cowan "Sixty" (Compass, 2014)
(Produced by John McFee)
Smoke Dawson "Fiddle" (Thompkins Square, 1971/2014)
A reissue of a rare, private-pressing folk album by George "Smoke" Dawson , who played in an early '60s band with folk scene iconoclast Peter Stampfel (co-founder of Holy Modal Rounders...) Haven't heard this one, but I'm sure intrigued by the pedigree...
Matt Hillyer "If These Old Bones Could Talk" (Run Up Tree, 2014)
(Produced by Lloyd Maines)
A solo set from one of the fellers in Eleven Hundred Springs, one of the best traditionally-oriented country bands in Texas... This is fun stuff, upbeat, perky, full of good humor and plenty of twang... Reminds me of those old Foster & Lloyd/O'Kanes/Pete Anderson-era Dwight Yoakam albums -- in that same general vein of good-natured, old-fashioned, uptempo country, with just the right balance of novelty song goofiness and deep, underlying pathos. Of course, it don't hurt to have an old pro like Lloyd Maines not only producing the album but also adding some sweet pedal steel into the mix... All the songs but one are Matt Hillyer originals, with the exception being a nice cover of an Everly Brothers oldie, "The Price Of Love." If you like twang, this one's definitely recommended!
Tim McGraw "Sundown Heaven Town" (Big Machine, 2014)
(Produced by Byron Gallimore)
New American Farmers "The Farmacology Sessions" (Big Barncat Records, 2014)
(Produced by PMK)
A canny mix of highbrow/jam band rock with a twangy Americana twist in the middle. This SF Bay Area band most clearly echoes the world-weary, wiseass rock of the late '70s and early '80s, folks like Tom Petty, Greg Kihn, The J. Geils Band, with some languid, expansive Neil Young/Black Crowes-ish guitar leads, and a hint of Southern rock as well... Paul Knowles and Nicole Storto are the primary artists, though they have a bunch of pals chipping, in, including local legend Chuck Prophet, who plays on two tracks. This is mostly too rock'n'roll for me, but the tunes that have a more overt country sound are quite nice -- particularly sweet pedal steel on here, including some cosmic cowboy licks that remind me of Jerry Garcia's early experimentation with the instrument. A nice mix of styles... Definitely worth a spin, to see if you like it.
Nu-Blu "All The Way" (Rural Rhythm, 2014)
(Produced by Nu-Blu)
The Osborne Brothers "A Bluegrass Jamboree With..." (Jasmine, 2014)
A much-welcome twofer reissue of two early albums released by Bobby and Sonny Osborne, after their tenures with the Bill Monroe and Jimmy Martin bands. This disc combines the tracks from Bluegrass Music and Bluegrass Instrumentals, both originally released in 1962, as well as a swell single from the same year... It's interesting to hear how fully-formed their musical vision was so early on, the pop-friendly sound (with thumping drums as part of the rhythm section) and the light, melodic bounce of the instrumental set, the mix of high-lonesome and honkytonk sensibilities in the vocal tracks. It's also interesting to hear how at the same time their style was less streamlined than it would become: these albums were recorded for the MGM label which didn't have as well-defined an in-house production style (for bluegrass artists) as other labels -- it wasn't until they signed to Decca that the smooth, country-friendly Osborne Brothers sound was finalized... And it's nice to hear them performing in a slightly less-smooth, mildly imperfect setting -- there's more focus on them as performers, less on the studio surrounding. Also, there's some overt pop (and even rock!) such as the electrified "history" song, "There's A Woman Behind Every Man," which sure ain't what you'd expect to hear on a bluegrass album! Anyway, it's all nice stuff, and if you haven't been able to plunk down a zillion bucks for the Bear Family box set that gathers their early stuff, this is a nice, modest option to check out some of their formative work. Recommended!
The Roys "The View" (Rural Rhythm, 2014)
Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice "Trouble Follows Me" (Rebel Records, 2014)
(Produced by Wes Easter & Ramblers Choice)
The field of bluegrass music, both amateur and professional, is flooded with great talent, superpickers and harmonists galore... In some ways Junior Sisk distinguishes himself by his particular mix of hot picking and purposeful imperfection. Backed by a rock-solid band that's refreshingly free of name-brand superpickers, Sisk lets his own vocals keep a rough, untempered edge -- he's not throwing on a phony twang or exaggerated growl, just letting his rough side drag, keeping a human touch in an era of auto-tuned "perfection." Steeped in tradition, Sisk dips into novelty material and old-fashioned mountain music, encompassing both Tom T. Hall and sweet a capella harmony gospel, as well as more modern material from Sisk and his favorite songwriters. A fine artist flying, perhaps, a bit under the radar, and certainly worth a spin if you like the crisp, crackling truegrass sound.
Lee Ann Womack "The Way I'm Livin' " (Sugar Hill, 2014)
(Produced by Frank Liddell, Chuck Ainley & Glenn Worf)
Although there's some secular material on here, the tilt of this album is clearly spiritual and contemplative, with some overtly Jesus-y gospel references and some more subtle reflections on alcoholism, materialism and other modern discontents. Though the album has a very personal feel, none of the songs were written by Womack -- instead it's a biting (and somewhat downcast) collection of material from writers as disparate as Adam Hood, Chris Knight, Brennan Leigh and Julie Miller, with highlights that include Neil Young's "Out On The Weekend," Hayes Carll's "Chances" and a cover of "Not Forgotten You," one of two Bruce Robison songs included here. A subtle rock'n'roll vibe surfaces from time to time, only occasionally overpowering the mood set by Womack's soulful vocals. A lot of depth here, with plenty of substantive issues and heavy emotions for attentive listeners to slowly work their way through. Some true twang, as well, though nothing particularly radio-oriented or overtly "catchy," in a hummable, poppy way.
Various Artists "NASHVILLE OUTLAWS: A TRIBUTE TO MOTLEY CRUE" (Big Machine, 2014)
Various Artists "THE RISE AND FALL OF PARAMOUNT RECORDS, v.1" (Revenant, 2013)
As ever, the uber-archivists at Revenant are all over the whole "material culture" thing with this multi-disc homage to the legendary Paramount label, one of many 1920's indies whose output is the stuff of collector nerd dreams. Paramount 78s are highly-prized rarities coveted by blues collectors for both their rarity and stylistic idiosyncrasies. I'm never gonna be able to afford this super-groovy box set, but one of the most charming details is how an enclosed MP3 USB flash drive is modified to look like an old 78 stylus... Classy... and cool.
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