Howdy, neighbors! It's a brand-new year -- again -- and I'm looking forward to what country music has to offer... As with last year, I'm skipping the monthly reviews format and will just be adding to this page as records come in, and will start a new page when the time seems right. This page is for reviews of new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in 2016, and will also include reviews of reissues and some slightly older stuff that's new to me. This page gets updated constantly, so check back when you can... Also, check out my full Guide To Hick Music for a bazillion more record reviews and artist profiles.
If you want to see where I've been putting most of my creative Slipcue mojo the last few years, check out my Locals Only section, which is devoted to unsigned and off-the-radar artists from the 1950s, '60s, '70s and '80s -- back in the dim, dark days before there was an "Americana" genre. Lots of cool stuff there, and I am always looking for information about all those long-forgotten bar bands and kooky old locals with self-released records. Feel free to get in touch if you have any recommendations or stories to share.
And for those of you looking for info on new stuff... Just keep reading below!
New Stuff: Anno 2016
Brothers Osborne "Pawn Shop" (EMI Nashville)
Sarah Borges "Good & Dirty" (EP) (Dry Lightning)
Paul Burch "Meridian Rising" (Plowboy)
Daniel Crabtree "The Gospel Road" (Codel Records/Donna Ulisse Music)
Luther Dickinson "Blues And Ballads" (New West)
Dion "New York Is My Home" (Instant Records)
Freakwater "Scheherazade" (Bloodshot)
Vince Gill "Down To My Last Bad Habit" (MCA Nashville)
The Infamous Stringdusters "Ladies And Gentlemen" (Compass Records)
Wynonna Judd "Wynonna & The Big Noise" (Curb Records)
Lonesome River Band "Bridging The Tradition" (Mountain Home Music Company)
Tift Merritt "Bramble Rose" (Yep Roc)
Buddy Miller "Cayamo Sessions At Sea" (New West)
Lorrie Morgan "Letting Go... Slow" (Shanachie)
The Nashville Country Jamboree "Nashville's First Country-Rock Group" (SPV)
Willie Nelson "Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin" (Legacy)
Stella Parton "Mountain Songbird: A Sister's Tribute" (Raptor Records)
John Prine "Bottom Line" (All Access)
Bonnie Raitt "Dig Deep" (Redwing Records)
Sam Riggs "Breathless" (Deep Creek Records)
Roswell Rudd & Heather Masse "August Love Song" (Red House)
Sammy Walker "Brown Eyed Georgia Darlin’ " (Ramseur)
Hank Williams, Jr. "It's About Time" (Icon Records)
Lucinda Williams "The Ghosts Of Highway 20" (Highway 20 Records)
Various Artists "LEGENDS OF OLD-TIME MUSIC" (County Records)
Various Artists "SMALL TOWN COUNTRY, v.1" (Orion Read)
Various Artists "TRUCKERS, KICKERS, COWBOY ANGELS, v.1-7" (Bear Family)
Brothers Osborne "Pawn Shop" (EMI Nashville, 2016)
(Produced by Jay Joyce)
Sarah Borges "Good & Dirty" (EP) (Dry Lightning Records, 2016)
(Produced by Eric Ambel, Marcos Viele & Tim Hatfield)
Paul Burch "Meridian Rising" (Plowboy Records, 2016)
Daniel Crabtree "The Gospel Road" (Codel Records/Donna Ulisse Music, 2016)
(Produced by Donna Ulisse & Scott Vestal)
An excellent, marvellously understated bluegrass gospel album featuring a dozen songs written by Daniel Crabtree, a middle-aged guy from Nashville who met producer Donna Ulisse at a songwriting workshop and impressed her enough to get her (and her band) to back him on this powerful debut. Crabtree's songs are simple and to the point, heartfelt, evocative songs of humility, praise and redemption, with vocals that are as plain and straightforward as the songs themselves. I think this is a really nice record -- the picking is good enough to satisfy most truegrass fans, but it's the songs and Crabtree's unpretentious delivery that really win the day. If you're a bluegrass or Southern gospel fan, you'll wanna check this one out.
Luther Dickinson "Blues And Ballads" (New West, 2016)
(Produced by Kevin Houston/Various Producers)
Although packaged as to resemble the old Harry Smith folk compendiums, this is actually a very modern set of densely layered, musically rich permutations of blues, country, rock and roots, with a strong vein of Southern soul running throughout. Building on the rich, diverse cross-genre foundation his father Jim Dickinson provided, Luther Dickinson is setting the stage to become a powerful new voice in the constantly shifting landscape of 21st Century popular music. While his dad kind of wigged out and got a little Beefheart-y in his later years, the son is playing things more straight, and making powerful music with a vibrant, joyful core. The presence of guest artists such as Jason Isbell, Will Sexton and Alvin Youngblood Hart -- not to mention hardcore soul players such as Mavis Staples and Boo Mitchell -- shows the depth and solidity of Dickinson's current path. Old fans will be pleased, new ones will be made.
Dion "New York Is My Home" (Instant Records, 2016)
(Produced by Jimmy Vivino & Dion Dimucci)
Well, this one was a pleasant surprise. Naturally, I thought, oh no, this isn't gonna be my bag, even though I did love those old Dion & The Belmonts hits... But you know what? Dion's definitely still got it. This is a actually a fairly gritty, soulful urban blues album, with a twangy melodic twist that may make it accessible to many Americana fans... And while Mr. Dimucci, now 76, certainly doesn't have the same explosive vocal power he had as a kid, he is a very knowledgable and expressive vocalist, embuing each line with sincerity and emotional connection. Some of it's wistful nostalgia (as on the title track) some of it's romantic, some existential, and some of it is just plain old, good-timing blues-rock worthy of the Blasters, back in the day. A lot of musical ooomph is provided by co-producer/lead guitarist Jimmy Vivino (currently bandleader for Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show) but really it's Dion who carries the day. Nice one from the old guard.
Freakwater "Scheherazade" (Bloodshot, 2016)
A pivotal band from the late '80s/early '90s alt-country explosion, the Chicago/Louisville band Freakwater has long pursued an uncompromised vision that fuses deep, resonant twang with difficult, artsy impenetrability. Fans shall sing hosannahs that they've got a new album out... their first in over ten years. Thank you, Bloodshot!
The Infamous Stringdusters "Ladies And Gentlemen" (Compass Records, 2016)
A guest-star superfest hosted by the newgrass virtuosi known as the Infamous Stringdusters, with a far-flung cast of female guest artists. All but one of the tracks feature vocalists, with the exception an instrumental track spotlighting a horn player... The singers are mostly from roots music backgrounds, and while the instruments drawn on bluegrass backgrounds -- fiddle, mandolin, banjo and dobro -- the arrangements drift into ornate contemporary country stylings, albeit with a non-electric, acoustic base that qualifies it as "bluegrass" as seen through the prism of contemporary Nashville production. For the most part, though, the band doesn't sem to bend itself much to match the individual strengths of each singer... There's a soul-gospel feel on "Have A Little Faith," and a catchy pop bounce to "Still The One," but for the most part, the songs do tend to sound a lot a like, productionwise. It all fits nicely into the contemporary adult-alt pop landscape, though: music fans who are into the post-Nickel Creek acoustic music sound will probably enjoy this, although I found it a little soporific.
Wynonna Judd "Wynonna & The Big Noise" (Curb Records, 2016)
(Produced by Cactus Moser)
She's back, with a (sort-of) back-to-basics album produced by her husband, Cactus Moser, the former drummer for Highway 101. What caught my eye on this one were several guest artists, including Jason Isbell and Susan Tedeschi, as well as a duet with Moser himself.
Lonesome River Band "Bridging The Tradition" (Mountain Home Music Company, 2016)
(Produced by Van Atkins & Lonesome River Band)
Another fine, masterful modern-day bluegrass set from this veteran Virginia band, which has been together now for nearly thirty five years. Bandleader and banjo plunker Sammy Shelor is the old-timer in the band, anchoring a mostly much-younger crew and willing to take a low-profile role while singer Brandon Rickman takes center stage, infusing their performances with some of the most soulful vocals in the bluegrass biz. Rickman also contributes several original new tunes to their repertoire, including "Showing My Age," where he reflects on turning forty; other album highlights include "Thunder And Lightning," one of two fine songs offered by songwriter Adam Wright (who is not in the band...) One thing I like about the Lonesome River Band is that they aren't flashy -- obviously, like many modern bands, they are talented and slick, but in general these pickers don't seem insterested in laying down drag-racing licks, but rather put themselves in service to the songs. And it's a nice sound - sweet and smooth, but rooted in tradition and definitely worth a spin!
Tift Merritt "Bramble Rose" (Yep Roc Records, 2016) (LP)
Hey, check it out: a vinyl-only reissue of Tift Merritt's solo debut from 2002. Dust off your needle and limber up your stylus -- it's time to get that turntable back in action. (I still miss her old band, the Two Dollar Pistols, but maybe that's just me being difficult...)
Buddy Miller "Cayamo Sessions At Sea" (New West Records, 2016)
(Produced by Buddy Miller & Gordon Hammond)
An awesome set of back-to-basic pure twang from Americana elder Buddy Miller, who invited a passle of his high-powered pals into the studio to sing a slew of great, classic singalong country tunes, stuff like "Love's Gonna Live Here," "After The Fire Is Gone," "Wild Horses" and "Just Someone I Used To Know." Miller's guests include folks like Shawn Colvin, Elizabeth Cook, Brandi Carlisle, Lee Ann Womack and Kasey Musgraves -- neotwangsters of the highest degree. It's mostly gals and mostly duets, although Kris Kristofferson cheerfully croaks his way through a version of "Sunday Morning Coming Down," and Doug Seegers turns in a lively rendition of "Take The Hand Of Jesus." Other highlights include Richard Thompson on "Wedding Bells" and Jill Andrews singing "Come Early Morning" in a fine duet with Miller... A couple of songs collapse under their own weight: the version of "Angel From Montgomery" that closes out the album is just too damn funereal, and lacks the ironic lilt that brings John Prine's original to life, and while I was curious to hear Lucinda Williams tackle "Wild Horses," like many of her recent recordings, it was just too damn depressing to bear. I'm worried about her. Anyway, this is a real great record -- if you like old-school, melodic country heartsongs, this album's a doozy. Highly recommended!
Lorrie Morgan "Letting Go... Slow" (Shanachie Records, 2016)
(Produced by Richard Landis)
Several years back Shanachie Records, a roots and world music powerhouse, made itself a home for former country stars who found the doors closing in music business, one of them being '90s chart-topper Lorrie Morgan, whose dad, George Morgan, was a star in the '50s and '60s. She's been around the block a few times, and on this album, Morgan shows her mastery of several styles, reaching back to the direct, melodic approach taken by countrypolitan foremother Patsy Cline (on a version of "Strange") forward into the tinkly-piano power ballads that were her bread and butter in pre-millennial Nashville. Now in her mid-fifties, Morgan doesn't try to push into the swooping mega-pop vocals of her heyday, and though a couple of songs still have big, swelling arrangements, for the most part she keeps things in an understated mode that not only lets the songs speak for themselves, it also draws on the gravity and resonance of her own emotional maturity. Probably this record will mainly appeal to her longtime, diehard fans, but it's a strong effort from a veteran performer, and may prove rewarding even for a few country-pop skeptics, notably on newer material like Katie Kessler's "Jesus And Hairspray" and the steel-drenched "Lonely Whiskey."
The Nashville Country Jamboree "Nashville's First Country-Rock Group" (SPV-Yellow Label, 2011) (CD)
At some point, devoted country music cratediggers will come across some goofy-looking old LPs by the Nashville Country Jamboree, a group with a name and an image as nondescript and generic as the dozens of other Nashville "soundalike" bands of the 1960s and early '70s. The soundalikes were the product of the lower-rent end of the music industry, generally anonymous studio crews who banged out cover versions of hits of the day, which were then sold at cut-rate prices at truckstops and drug stores, particularly in rural areas where there were no record stores or five-and-dimes, and where faux hits were better than no hits at all. The thing about the Nashville Country Jamboree, though, was that the group actually recorded a fair amount of orighinal material, most of it written by Johnny Elgin -- one of the in-house bandleaders at the spunky indie Spar Records -- and his right-hand man, Jerry Foster, who went on to become a major hitmaker in the 1970s. These originals are gathered here, and while derivative of contemporary stars such as Buck Owens and Roger Miller, they're also pretty fun and definitely worth a whirl. The Jamboree band also featured some massive talent -- their singers included Elgin and Foster, as well as Bobby Russell and songwriter Marijohn Wilkin (best known for penning "The Long Black Veil" for Johnny Cash.) The pickers listed in this release are a Music City who's-who A-list, with basically every heavyweight studio player you can think of from the '70s, with the core group being the band that centered around Mac Gayden, Wayne Moss and Charlie McCoy, the group of superpickers who would later branch out into bands such as Area Code 615 and Barefoot Jerry. Sure, if you listen closely you'll hear flubs and perfunctory run-throughs on some of these songs -- no one expected any hits off of these albums -- but you cal also hear the confidence and competence of the backing bands. This CD release also includes excellent liner notes that go into unusually rich detail about the people who were chugging along on the underbelly of Nashville's massive music machine. It's a fun collection of quirky, twangy tunes, as well as an excellent document of a time when indie labels were still a vibrant part of the Nashville scene. Recommended!
Willie Nelson "Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin" (Legacy Recordings, 2016)
(Produced by Buddy Cannon & Matt Rollings)
Harkening back to his Stardust days, Willie Nelson plays a sweet set of standards and oldies from the Gershwin songbook, framed by the simple, round melody-oriented production style of Nashville veteran Buddy Cannon, who has been a strong collaborator in recent years. As always, Willie applies his unique, off-kilter sense of melody and harmony to these classics, tunes like "I Got Rhythm," "They All Laughed," "They Can't Take That Away" and "Embraceable You," with several of his longtime bandmates providing sympathetic, telepathic accompaniment, notably Mickey Raphael on harmonica and sister Bobbie Nelson on piano, and of course Willie's faithful guitar, Trigger, on rhythm and lead. He also gets some assist on a couple of duets -- a ragged-voiced Cyndi Lauper plays off him on "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off," while Sheryl Crow proves herself more nimble on "Embraceable You." Singing solo, Willie shaves off new emotional nuances on "Our Love Is Here To Stay" and "Someone To Watch Over Me..." Overall, there aren't a lot of surprises -- Willie's already cracked open the Great American Songbook a time or two -- but this is a nice set, and it's fun to hear him concentrate on just one composer's work. Certainly worth a spin!
Stella Parton "Mountain Songbird: A Sister's Tribute" (Raptor Records, 2016)
John Prine "Bottom Line: 1978 New York Broadcast" (All Access Records, 2016)
Archival material from the 1970s is bubbling to the suface more and more these days, including this generously-programmed 2-CD set that captures folk-twang genius John Prine at the hight of his powers (a condition he's maintained for the last forty-plus years...) Since this was not released on Prine's own Oh Boy! record label, I assume it's not officially sanctioned, though I don't know for sure. Regardless, Prine fans may relish the chance to hear him run through a hefty chunk of his most classic early material. It's your call, really.
Bonnie Raitt "Dig Deep" (Redwing Records, 2016)
Sam Riggs "Breathless" (Deep Creek Records, 2016)
Roswell Rudd & Heather Masse "August Love Song" (Red House Records, 2016)
(Produced by Roswell Rudd & Heather Masse)
Though singer Heather Masse hails from the Wailing Jennys folk trio -- darlings of the Prairie Home Companion crowd -- recently she's dug deep into the jazz and vocals standards of yesteryear. This is her second jazz album, following a collaboration with pianist Dick Hyman, with a new set spotlighting trombonist Roswell Rudd, a veteran player originally from the 1960s avant-jazz scene. They play both standards -- stuff by Gershwin, Ellington, et. al. -- and a number of new originals, including some co-written with Rudd's partner Verna Gillis.
Sammy Walker "Brown Eyed Georgia Darlin’ " (Ramseur Records, 2016)
Bizarrely, to this very day folk troubadour Sammy Walker still insists he was not a Bob Dylan imitator, which on the face of it really doesn't hold water, but hey... whatever. This is an interesting archival album, finally releasing the forty-year old demos that Walker cut back in 1975 when folk elder Phil Ochs was championing his cause, and which succeeded in landing Walker a multi-album contract with Warner Brothers. He stretched out a bit on those later albums, but on these tapes he was still rigidly stuck in a pre-electric Woody Guthrie-esque talking-blues Dylan mode, which is pretty amazing how far Dylan himself had evolved by '75, and indeed how far the entire music industry had gone by then. Walker was certainly a true believer, taking up the torch from the then-fading Phil Ochs who himself had partly abandoned his own hyper-political postition-paper stance, and was trying to tap into the more personal, emotive, confessional headwaters of the 'Seventies singer-songwriter scene. But Walker, who had only recently came to New York City straight from his native Georgia, was a latercomer to the East Coast folk scene, and had completely missed the artistic and commercial frustrations of Greenwich Village stalwarts such as Eric Andersen, Ochs and Keith Sykes, who hit a dead-end with the whole who's-the-next-Dylan thing, and had to struggle to recreate themselves and try to stay relevant. Walker's music was an amazing anachronism, yet even so there are hints of the stylistic evolution of his predecessors, glimmers of innovation and lyrical threads that make these songs compelling. Nonetheless, the real show-stopper on here is a jaw-droppingly sexist novelty song, an anti-feminist screed called "Talkin’ Women’s Lib," in which Walker's punchlines depend on crazy improbablilities like wimmin digging ditches or working as doctors or, crazier still, the idea of men taking care of the kids. Wacky, right? So, even as late as '75, with all the roiling internal struggles and dialogues of the New Left and its many offshoots, dudes were still freaking aout about uppity chicks trying to act like men. I'm sure Walker moved on, like the rest of us, but that song really is an amazing little time capsule. He also branched out musically, as heard on his more ornate Warner albums, which have been reissued on CD in many editions, and are well worth checking out. As is this album, if the world of wannbee Dylans is of interest.
Hank Williams, Jr. "It's About Time" (Icon Records, 2016)
Lucinda Williams "The Ghosts Of Highway 20" (Highway 20 Records, 2016)
Various Artists "LEGENDS OF OLD-TIME MUSIC" (County Records, 2015)
As longtime collectors of all them old Country LPs (and CDs!) will tell you, this label made some really fine stuff available to fans of old-timey and mountain music... They were there early on and offered some of the best recordings in the style, as heard on this celebration of the label's fiftieth anniversary. Fans should welcome this four-disc box set, which cherry-picks tracks from relatively well-known old-timey artists such as E. C. Ball, Tommy Jarrell, Clark Kessinger and fiddler Art Stamper, of the Ralph Stanley band, along with a bunch of stuff from dozens of lesser-known pickers and singers. Most of the tracks are instrumentals, and a hefty chunk -- more than two dozen recordings -- are previously unreleased. If you like the genre, you're gonna dig this collection.
Various Artists "SMALL TOWN COUNTRY, v.1" (Orion Read, 2015)
Over the last few years I've been delving pretty heavily into the world of uber-off-the-radar indie country music -- the so-called "private press" or vanity records of the pre-Americana era. It's a pretty big kettle of fish, and so far I've stuck to reviewing full albums, shying away from the even-bigger, nearly infinite vortex of private press singles. There's a bunch of great stuff out there, but it's too much for even me to tackle. That's why collections like this one are so welcome, a well-curated collection of rare, oddball twangadelic recordings on obscure microlabel 7"s discovered by Jason Chronis, a fellow collector-nerd living in Austin, Texas. There are some real gems here, fourteen bizarrely personal recordings, all undeniably authentic and recorded by real human beings who somehow made it into the studio and put their musical dreams on wax. This compilation leans heavily towards the dark and gothic end of uber-indie twang, songs of death, gloom and religion that give this record a sardonic novelty-song slant, similar to the Arf-Arf records of yesteryear... a little bit of the nudge-nudge, wink-wink, if you know what I mean. That being said, each and every track on this album is a nugget, and I can only imagine Mr. Chronis's delight when he first put each one on his turntable, as well as your delight when you first hear them as well. Fun stuff -- highly recommended!
Various Artists "TRUCKERS, KICKERS, COWBOY ANGELS: THE BLISSED OUT BIRTH OF COUNTRY ROCK, v.1: 1966-68" (Bear Family, 2014)
Bear Family takes a fairly conservative, all "hits" approach to the history of country rock... But that's fine if you're looking for the core music of the canon. This initial 2-CD set has a few obscurities -- Kenny Vernon, Hearts & Flowers, Dennis Payne -- but mostly it's what you'd expect: a bunch of Byrds, Dillards, Gram Parsons (in many permutations), some stuff by Rick Nelson, The Band and Buffalo Springfield. The West Coast contingent is heavily represented here, although the Lovin' Spoonful and the Everly Brothers chip in a few tunes each, as well as the Youngbloods, who ditched NYC for SF, and of course The Monkees, a fab faux band that spawned the proto-Americana genius of Michael Nesmith. Not a lot of surprises, but a great primer of the style as it took shape at the height of the hippie era. Looks like the chronologically-based series is planned to go all the way to 1975... Should be a lot of tasty stuff along the way!
Various Artists "TRUCKERS, KICKERS, COWBOY ANGELS: THE BLISSED OUT BIRTH OF COUNTRY ROCK, v.2: 1969" (Bear Family, 2014)
Various Artists "TRUCKERS, KICKERS, COWBOY ANGELS: THE BLISSED OUT BIRTH OF COUNTRY ROCK, v.3: 1970" (Bear Family, 2015)
Various Artists "TRUCKERS, KICKERS, COWBOY ANGELS: THE BLISSED OUT BIRTH OF COUNTRY ROCK, v.4: 1971" (Bear Family, 2015)
Various Artists "TRUCKERS, KICKERS, COWBOY ANGELS: THE BLISSED OUT BIRTH OF COUNTRY ROCK, v.5: 1972" (Bear Family, 2015)
Various Artists "TRUCKERS, KICKERS, COWBOY ANGELS: THE BLISSED OUT BIRTH OF COUNTRY ROCK, v.6: 1973" (Bear Family, 2015)
Various Artists "TRUCKERS, KICKERS, COWBOY ANGELS: THE BLISSED OUT BIRTH OF COUNTRY ROCK, v.7: 1974" (Bear Family, 2015)
Hick Music Index