Howdy, folks! Here are some reviews of the new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in October, 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: October, 2014
Jason Aldean "Old Boots, New Dirt" (Broken Bow)
Kenny Chesney "The Big Revival" (Columbia)
Justin Earle "Single Mothers" (Bloodshot)
Steve Earle "Live In Nashville: 1995" (Shout Factory)
Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn "Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn" (Rounder)
Jimmy Gaudreau & Moondi Klein "If I Had A Boat" (Rebel)
Emmylou Harris & The Hot Band "Cowboy Angels" (All Access)
Emmylou Harris & The Hot Band "Live In 1978"
Shooter Jennings "Don't Wait Up (For George)" (Black Country Rock)
Lady Antebellum "747" (Capitol Nashville)
The Louvin Brothers "Complete Recorded Works: 1952-62" (Enlightenment)
Dustin Lynch "Where It's At" (Broken Bow)
Martina McBride "Everlasting" (Sharon's Rose)
Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers "Another Day From Life" (Rebel)
Nu-Blu "All The Way" (Rural Rhythm)
Dave "Snaker" Ray "Legacy" (Red House)
Larry Rice "If You Only Knew..." (Rebel)
The Roys "The View" (Rural Rhythm)
George Strait "The Cowboy Rides Away: Live From AT&T Stadium" (MCA)
The Stray Birds "Best Medicine" (Yep Roc)
Marty Stuart "Saturday Night/Sunday Morning" (Superlatone)
Randy Travis "Influence, Volume Two: The Man I Am" (Warner Brothers)
Lucinda Williams "Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone" (Highway 20)
Jesse Winchester "A Reasonable Amount Of Trouble" (Appleseed)
Various Artists "DEAR JEAN: ARTISTS CELEBRATE JEAN RITCHIE" (Compass)
Jason Aldean "Old Boots, New Dirt" (Broken Bow, 2014)
Another ultra-poppy, rock-flavored offering from Nashville. If it weren't for the slightly-nasal vocals, you'd never know this was supposed to be a "country" record, although I guess these days it's the Nashville dudes who are keeping '70s-ish AOR and straight-ahead classic pop-rock sound alive, in their own strange way. Oh, where be the twang?
Kenny Chesney "The Big Revival" (Columbia/Blue Chair, 2014)
Justin Earle "Single Mothers" (Bloodshot, 2014)
Steve Earle "Live In Nashville: 1995" (Shout Factory, 2014)
Live stuff from yesteryear, with Earle playing songs from his Copperhead Road album (along with other stuff) and guest appearances from Emmylou Harris and Bill Monroe... Apparently this was previously released as part of a box set, but now you can get it as a standalone album. Huzzah!
Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn "Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn" (Rounder, 2014)
A banjodelic meeting of the minds from two masters of twang...
Jimmy Gaudreau & Moondi Klein "If I Had A Boat" (Rebel, 2014)
(Produced by Jimmy Gaudreau, Moondi Klein & Stuart Martin)
Folk-oriented bluegrass with the longtime duo of Gaudreau & Klein cruising through a bunch of cover tunes, including the Lyle Lovett tune of the title. I'm still not a huge fan of Klein's voice, but I am getting more and more on their wavelength... His sincerity and emotive passion come through on track after track -- these are songs he really puts a lot of expressiveness and interpretive skill into, creating cool new versions of favorite of songs... Definitely worth a whirl.
Emmylou Harris & The Hot Band "Cowboy Angels" (All Access, 2014)
Since so many of Emmylou's first fans were Tascam-toting hippies and Deadheads, it's probably no surprise that a bunch of live bootlegs were recorded 'way back when, and that some of those tapes are resurfacing now in above-ground CD releases. This live album captures Emmylou road-testing an early lineup of her fabled Hot Band, playing a live gig at San Francisco's Boarding House nightclub. The original core of the Hot Band was poached from Elvis Presley's TCB band, with hotshot guitarist James Burton and pianist Glen D. Hardin shaping her early sound, along with newcomer Rodney Crowell, who provided Emmylou with a duet partner and a font of great new material from his own prolific pen. The sound quality on these tracks from 1975 isn't the greatest, but it's still a nice slice of history, especially the chance to look at her early repertoire which was a mix of Gram Parson-era songs, newer material and a few songs that didn't make it onto her albums, including a cover of Smokey Robinson's "Shop Around," which taps into Hardin and Burton's rock/soul roots. Worth a spin if you're an Emmylou devotee.
Emmylou Harris & The Hot Band "Live In 1978" (2012)
Live stuff from yesteryear... It's the Hot Band in its prime, with newcomer Ricky Skaggs taking a prominent role on fiddle, mandolin and vocals. There are also a lot of gospel songs in the setlists, reflecting both his and Emmylou's interest in mountain music and traditional twang. These concerts took place around the time that Blue Kentucky Girl came out, but also foreshadow the sweet bluegrass collaborations of the Roses In the Snow album. Nice stuff!
Shooter Jennings "Don't Wait Up (For George)" (Black Country Rock, 2014)
Another George Jones tribute record, this time from Waylon's lad, Shooter. This five-song EP has original material such as the title track, "Don't Wait Up (I'm Playin' Possum)," as well as covers of some classics from the Jones catalog. Now, I'm all in favor of honoring ol' George, but I'm still just not feeling it with Shooter. I mean, how could anyone possibly get a song like "She Thinks I Still Care" so very, very wrong, or give such a blaring, bland rock arrangement to a tune like "The Door"? I know he's doing well and has lots of devoted fans, but I just don't find Shooter to have the gravitas to pull off the whole honkytonk rebel/outlaw icon thing. Maybe it's a generational difference... but maybe not. See for yourself.
Lady Antebellum "747" (Capitol-Liberty, 2014)
(Produced by Nathan Chapman & Lady Antebellum)
The Louvin Brothers "Complete Recorded Works: 1952-62" (Enlightenment, 2014)
This is one of those suspiciously affordable new European reissues -- in this case, a 6-CD set repackaging twelve classic albums by Charlie and Ira Louvin, great stuff to be sure. I finally found an affordable copy of the ultra-fab Bear Family box set, so I've got this stuff covered, but if you want to get this classic country and gospel stuff quick and cheap, this is a great option. Haven't heard it yet, so I can't vouch for the remastering and sound quality. (A quick side note: this isnt really their "complete" work -- there are live recordings and other material to be found, including the post-'62 records and solo stuff, but it's still a lot of great music.)
Dustin Lynch "Where It's At" (Broken Bow, 2014)
(Produced by Mickey Jack Cones, Brett Beavers & Luke Wooten)
For a long time, it was possible to dip into Top Forty country albums and get a little bit of everything: twang fans who were turned off by the super-slick stuff could usually find a few track with enough fiddle or pedal steel to keep them happy, and skip all the pop songs if they wanted to... The needle keeps sliding over, though, and what qualifies as "twangy" in contemporary Nashville sure sounds pretty rock'n'pop, with precious few acoustic-based tunes to be heard. Dustin Lynch's second album is a good example: Lynch scored big with his chart-topping debut a couple of years back, and he's clearly hungry for more hits and not taking any chances. Pretty much all the songs on here are pop-oriented, densely produced and full of wind-swept rock guitars, some tinkly piano (though thankfully not too much), a generally synthetic, formulaic feel. Sure, there's steel guitar and mandolin in there as well, but it's buried deep in the mix, just a bit of coloring and texture to give a requisite nod to country "roots," though the feel of the album is all Nashville soul, along the lines of Tim McGraw and Toby Keith, in their non-rowdy modes. To his credit, Lynch doesn't have a ton of "bro country" party tunes -- no spring break anthems here -- but leans instead on romantic and reflective themes. Still, I wouldn't mind a couple of good, old-fashioned honkytonk novelty songs in thee as well, but for once, that just isn't in the cards. The only thing that comes close to breaking out of the densely-layered studio sound is a semi-acoustic love song called "Your Daddy's Boots," which comes at the very end of the album. I guess the scales have really tipped: country dudes really don't have to sing the old stuff anymore.
Martina McBride "Everlasting" (Sharon's Rose, 2014)
(Produced by Don Was)
Former superstar Martina McBride tackles a bunch of soul oldies, stuff from the Motown/Atlantic/Muscle Shoals continuum, tunes like "Come See About Me," "Suspicious Minds," "Bring It On Home To Me," "I've Been Loving You Too Long," "If You Don't Know Me By Now," and the like. It's not as bad as you might think -- she's reverential and surprisingly restrained, all things considered. A little sluggish at times, but that's better than McBride going all overboard with the crazy pop production the way her own Nashville recordings got in the 1990s. It's not my cup of tea (I'll stick with the originals) but there are some intriguing choices, such as her duet with Kelly Clarkson -- a cover of Sugarpie DeSanto's "In The Basement" -- and a even little bit of Chicago blues, with a perky version of "My Babe." Fans should be delighted with this "back to the basics" outing.
Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers "Another Day From Life" (Rebel, 2014)
(Produced by Joe Mullins & Evan McGregor)
Fans of good, old-fashioned, straight and simple bluegrass harmonies will find a lot to cheer about here -- Mullins and his band have honed their sound down to a more streamlined, though not severe, traditional style. The focus is on group harmony, nothing quite as fancy or flashy as, say Doyle Lawson's albums, but in that same basic mode. This is a strong album with a winning repertoire, including both religious and secular themes, as well as several songs of Appalachian regional pride, such as "Goin' Back To My Kentucky Home," "Through A Coal Miner's Eyes" and "Hymn From The Hills." Every track is quite good -- I even warmed up to the patriotic song, "The Last Parade," an unabashed tearjerker about war veterans and the families back home who honor their service -- and sometimes their memories. Mullins and his crew have positioned themselves as one of the best traditionally-oriented bands on the contemporary bluegrass scene, an understated, no-muss/no-fuss ensemble that replies on sincerity and sentiment rather than raw power or gimmickry of any kind. Recommended, especially if you like it when things are kept simple and sweet.
Nu-Blu "All The Way" (Rural Rhythm, 2014)
(Produced by Nu-Blu)
Settling into a mid-tempo mode, bluegrassers Nu-Blu have fully embraced the contemplative progressive grass/fusion style of Alison Krauss and Union Station, with just a few uptempo hot pickin' tunes in the mix. Lead singer Carolyn Routh also continues her explorations of contemporary topical themes, notably on "Heavy Cross To Bear," about the wars abroad as well as on the title track, which is about a "Thelma And Louise"-style domestic violence scenario, and in her revival of the old Anne Murray hit, "A Little Good News," which catalogues the arocities heard in the news, and urges listeners to cocoon themselves away from the bad vibes, dreaming about a day when the papers and TV give it a rest. (I've always had a little trouble with that song: I'm sympathetic to the impulse, but I'm not sure that apathy is the answer...) The band plays host to several high-power guests, with Rhonda Vincent harmonizing on one song, and R&B legend Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave fame) singing on "Jesus And Jones," one of the current crop of George Jones tribute songs... The song that stuck with me the most was "It's Not That Cold In Montana," a nice weeper with male lead vocals, and nice harmonization from Carolyn Routh. Another strong offering for folks into more contemporary-oriented 'grass music.
Dave "Snaker" Ray "Legacy" (Red House, 2014)
A 3-CD set of rarities and classic recordings by Dave "Snaker" Ray, a pioneering acoustic blues revivalist from the 1960s folk scene who formed the popular trio Koerner, Ray & Glover and recorded in duos and as a solo act for decades to come...
Larry Rice "If You Only Knew... The Best Of Larry Rice" (Rebel, 2014)
This best-of set draws on five albums recorded by mandolinist Larry Rice, Tony Rice's older brother and a bluegrass stalwart who sadly passed away in 2006. Larry Rice played in a number of bands, and frequently collaborated with his brothers, including on several tracks collected here. It would be difficult not to compare him to his brother, a superpicker and stylistic innovator who set the bar for a generation of bluegrass flatpickers, but the reissue of this material is a nice way to evaluate Larry Rice on his own terms... There is of course a strong family resemblance, in vocal tone and phrasing and in the sweet sentimental mode they both gravitated towards. Larry Rice stuck closer to traditional songs and progressive, poetical ballads, not going in for jazz-grass with the same fervor as Tony, and this album is a great collection of beautiful, eloquent vocal numbers -- very nice and very listenable, the kind of album I could listen to again and again for years to come. Several tracks, from his 1987 album, Time Machine, also feature harmonies from Sharon White, and she blends perfectly with Rice's ragged-edged vocals... By all means, pick this one up: it's a delightful collection of a top-notch artist whose work is still cherished by old fans, and waits for new fans to come.
The Roys "The View" (Rural Rhythm, 2014)
(Produced by Elaine Roy & Lee Roy)
More lively, sentimental, nostalgia-drenched bluegrass with good, straightforward picking and an impressive collection of strong all-original songs. The Roys are very much a soundalike band -- Elaine Roy has a lovely, Dolly Parton-esque voice, while Lee Roy has settled solidly into a Ricky Skaggs vocal mode. (and they are, respectively, also rock-solid guitar and mandolin pickers...) Depending on your temperament, their repertoire can either seem packed with traditionally-oriented gems, or maybe a little too cloying and obvious at times. For example, I really liked the opening track, a simple brokenhearted love song called "No More Lonely," but several of the songs that followed, such as "Those Boots" and the title track, "The View" lay it on a bit thick with the honoring tradition, loving life sentimentality. The Roys are clearly carrying the torch of tradition, but a lot of their songwriting seems overly effortful and purposefully poetical: I prefer it when they just relax a little and let the music do the talking. Still, there are plenty of noteworthy songs, such as "Heaven Needed Her More," a hard-hitting song about accepting the death of a loved one, and "Mandolin Man," the a Bill Monroe tribute that features guest vocals by Doyle Lawson. Also noteworthy is "Sometimes," Elaine Roy's contribution to the growing body of country-and-bluegrass tunes dealing with Alzheimer's disease... Anyway, if you've enjoyed the previous releases by the Roys, as well as anything by Joey + Rory, or by any of their forebears such as Ricky or Dolly, you'll wanna check this album out as well.
George Strait "The Cowboy Rides Away: Live From AT&T Stadium" (MCA-Nashville, 2014)
A live set, celebrating Strait's one-hundred year centennial as modern country's greatest Texan... Guest stars abound, including Jason Aldean, Ray Benson, Kenny Chesney, Eric Church, Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill, Faith Hill, Alan Jackson, Miranda Lambert and Martina McBride, as well as Strait's son, George Strait, Jr.
The Stray Birds "Best Medicine" (Yep Roc, 2014)
(Produced by Stray Birds & Stuart Martin)
Marty Stuart "Saturday Night/Sunday Morning" (Superlatone, 2014)
Randy Travis "Influence, Volume Two: The Man I Am" (Warner Brothers, 2014)
I was happy to see old-school neotrad singer Randy Travis getting back to his roots on this set of mostly-covers of country classics such as "Only Daddy That'll Walk The Line," "Set 'Em Up, Joe," "Mind Your Own Business," and "That's The Way Love Goes." The album was disappointing, though... The first thing you notice is that Travis's voice has changed -- his old, rumbling, deep, mahogonied vocal tones are apparently long gone -- but I could live with that if the backing band on this album had put just a little more effort into it... Instead, they sound like they're barely going through the motions, which is a shame since Travis deserves better. This is borne out on the album's one really good song, "Tonight I'm Playin' Possum," a well-written George Jones tribute song that has Travis and the band really putting some feeling into it. Travis might not be able to hit those same low notes anymore, but he can bring a good song to life, and this one's a doozy.
Lucinda Williams "Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone" (Highway 20 Records, 2014)
Feeling too happy? A little too optimistic about life, kind of starry-eyed and indiscriminately joyful? Lucinda Williams can help with that. I have to confess, I went from being a super-ultra, diehard fan twenty years ago to getting, well honestly, a little too bummed out by her stuff. I mean, yeah, I know she's dealing with "real stuff" -- dark emotions and whatnot -- but it got to the point where I just couldn't take it anymore. It felt like gloom-junkie wallowing with no hopes of redemption, and plus the pop-country-jam band fusion thing wasn't really working for me, either. Will Lucinda bring me back into the fold someday? I dunno... Guess we'll find out soon enough... Maybe this double album will do the trick?
Jesse Winchester "A Reasonable Amount Of Trouble" (Appleseed, 2014)
(Produced by Mac McAnally)
Certainly a bittersweet affair, the final studio album from pioneering '70s singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester showcases an artist as laid-back, self-confident and soulful as ever, working his way through a rich set of originals and a few lovingly covered classics, such as "Devil Or Angel" and "Rhythm Of The Rain." Winchester, who passed away in April, had been dealing with cancer when he recorded this album and while subdued, he was hardly diminished, still exuding the calm, beatific soulfulness that was his hallmark style for over three decades. Bluegrassers Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan are among the studio crew, led by producer-guitarist Mac McAnally, who sculpts a warm, comfy soundscape that presents Winchester at his best. A lovely career capstone for an artist who was keenly aware of his own fragile mortality, but didn't let it get him down -- this album is gentle but not submissive or morbid and fits in with all that's come before. A real treat for longtime fans.
Various Artists "DEAR JEAN: ARTISTS CELEBRATE JEAN RITCHIE" (Compass, 2014)
An impressive sweep of folk and country artists pay tribute to Jean Ritchie, the Kentucky-born dulcimer player and singer who stood as one of the preeminent songcatchers and pillars of the Appalachian folk revival of the 1950s and '60s. This 2-CD set includes a wide variety of musicians, ranging from those in the immediate orbit of Alison Brown's Compass label to other younger, modern genre-bending artists and several of Ritchie's old-folk contemporaries (such as Oscar Brand, Judy Collins and Peggy Seeger) as well as country/folk singers from the between-years, such as Suzy Bogguss, Kathy Mattea and John McCutcheon, who were all infulenced by Jean Ritchie in myriad ways. There are also some folks from across the Pond, notably Scottish folk legend Archie Fisher, reflecting how Ritchie's career amply mapped out the connections between Appalachian music and its Celtic/British roots. There are also several tracks featuring Ritchie herself (as well as some of her family members, who carry the torch) though these recordings are archival, since Ritchie was sidelined by a stroke several years ago... All in all, a fitting tribute to one of the major figures of the 20th Century American folk movement. Very listenable and rich in texture and musical history. Highly recommended!
Hick Music Index