Hey, everybody! My apologies to those of you who were looking here for the bird's eye lowdown on all the latest and greatest... For various reasons my coverage of new releases has slowed down a bit this year, though I am still reviewing stuff that comes to my attention... I'm just not keeping up the monthly releases format for a while. This page is for reviews of new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in 2015. 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 these days, check out my Hippiebilly/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 recommendations for long-forgotten bar bands and kooky locals with self-released records.
And for those of you looking for info on new stuff... Just keep reading below!
New Stuff: Anno 2015
American Aquarium "Wolves" (American Aquarium)
Asleep At The Wheel "Still The King" (Bismeaux)
Banditos "Banditos" (Bloodshot)
Big Country Bluegrass "Country Livin' " (Rebel Records)
Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers "Loved Wild Lost" (Little Sur Records) Jim Ed Brown "In Style Again" (Plowboy Records)
Lachlan Bryan & The Wildes "Black Coffee" (WJO)
Stephen Chadwick "Let's Do This Thing" (Stag Records)
The Deslondes "The Deslondes" (New West)
A. J. Downing "Good Day" (Charkansas)
Richie Furay "Hand In Hand" (Entertainment One)
Alice Gerrard "Follow The Music" (Tompkins Square)
The Grahams "Glory Bound/Rattle The Hocks" (Giant The Dog)
Sid Griffin "The Trick Is To Breathe" (Prima Records)
Merle Haggard & Willie Nelson "Django And Jimmie" (Sony Legacy)
Matt Harlan "Raven Hotel" (Berkalin)
Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell "The Traveling Kind" (Nonesuch)
JP Harris & The Tough Choices "Home Is Where The Hurt Is" (Cow Island Music)
Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors "Medicine" (Magnolia Music)
The Honeycutters "Me Oh My" (Organic Records)
Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley "Before The Sun Goes Down" (Compass)
The Ray Johnson Band "No Bad Days" (Self-Released)
Christian Lopez Band "Onward" (Blaster Records)
The Mavericks "Mono" (Valory Music)
Ben Miller Band "Any Way, Any Shape Or Form" (New West)
Thomas Rhett "It Goes Like This" (Valory Music)
Chris Stapleton "Traveller" (Mercury Nashville)
Kelsey Waldon "The Gold Mine" (Self-Released)
Mac Wiseman "Songs From My Mother's Hand" (Wrinkled Records)
Dwight Yoakam "Second Hand Heart" (Warner)
Various Artists "LIKE A COUNTRY SONG" (Soundtrack) (Melody Roundup)
Various Artists "THE HILLBILLIES: THEY TRIED TO ROCK, v.1-2" (Bear Family)
Various Artists "TRUCKERS, KICKERS, COWBOY ANGELS, v.1-4" (Bear Family)
American Aquarium "Wolves" (American Aquarium, 2015)
(Produced by Brad Cook, Jon Ashley & American Aquarium)
A mix of twang and jam-band rock... They remind me of Tom Petty at times... Maybe a little too much in the rock'n'roll camp for me, but I'm sure many will find them to be pretty fun.
Asleep At The Wheel/Various Artists "Still The King: Celebrating The Music Of Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys " (Bismeaux Records, 2015)
Banditos "Banditos" (Bloodshot, 2015)
Loud, rowdy, eclectic roots-twang, more in a punkish indierock/rockabilly mode, but with some languid, bluesy torch-twang in the mix as well, along with some slinky melodic surf-spy-grass. Pretty listenable and pleasantly all over the musical map, with a very confident, accomplished feel. Definitely worth a spin!
Big Country Bluegrass "Country Livin' " (Rebel Records, 2015)
Another solid set of no-frills traditional bluegrass from this lon-running Virginia band... This is the group's eighteenth album(!) and their third for Rebel Records, and has the same sincereity and driving power as their earlier albums. Good stuff, with a strong repertoire heavy on original material, including a couple of new tunes by Tom T. Hall and Dixie Hall, as well as winners by Roy McMillan, Leslie York and Dave Leatherman. If you appreciate hearing new tunes written in the old style, you might wanna check this one out.
Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers "Loved Wild Lost" (Little Sur Records, 2015)
Brokedown In Bakersfield "Live!" (Little Sur, 2014) (LP)
Jim Ed Brown "In Style Again" (Plowboy Records, 2015)
(Produced by Don Cusic & Bobby Bare)
New stuff from an old-timer... Those of you who wished Brown's old records in the '70s had had more of that "Pop A Top" vigor should give him a try new that he's a true Nashville elder. They say that sometimes the older the grape, the sweeter the wine...
Lachlan Bryan & The Wildes "Black Coffee" (WJO, 2014)
(Produced by Lachlan Bryan & Rod McCormack)
Gruff, rugged, poetical Americana-roots-rock type stuff, with echoes of Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and their more butch-sounding acolytes. Lachlan Bryan is from Australia, but he's got the whole weatherbeaten American road warrior vibe down... This is his third album and will certainly resonate with fans of the gruff stuff from artists such as Joe Ely, Charlie Robison, Rusty Weir, et. al., though thankfully nothing like fellow Aussie, Keith Urban. This album is available through his own Band Camp page.
Stephen Chadwick "Let's Do This Thing" (Stag Records, 2014)
(Produced by Tommy Detamore)
The Deslondes "The Deslondes" (New West, 2015)
(Produced by Andrija Tokic & The Deslondes)
What the Steep Canyon Rangers have done for bluegrass and Old Crow Medicine Show did for old-timey music, the Deslondes may do for rough-edged roadhouse music, giving an old style of roots music a shiny new face with a young, dynamic band that modern-day fans can gather 'round and adore. Gritty and good-natured, this New Orleans quintet -- formerly known as Sam Doores + Riley Downing & The Tumbleweeds -- packs their new album with rollicking, unruly songs that have a chaotic, slightly weird feel and an undeniable sense of humor reminiscent of the freeform twang of the pre-Nashville honktonk and hillbilly R&B of the post-WWII era. It's wild, untamed music that makes you laugh and dance and it sounds twice as good with every beer you drink. These guys are a clever, eclectic band that's tapped into an earthy, vital sound and I suspect they are a lot of fun live. If you want to give your sound system a little jolt, give this disc a spin.
A. J. Downing "Good Day" (Charkansas, 2012)
(Produced by A. J. Downing)
Richie Furay "Hand In Hand" (Entertainment One, 2015)
(Produced by Richie Furay & John Macy)
Veteran country rocker Richie Furay (of Poco and Buffalo Springfield renown) is still jamming on his mellow-anthemic melodic originals, an acoustic-electric mix with impassioned vocals that remind me of Jackson Browne, but also echo his own classic work. This is Furay's first album in nearly ten years, and longtime fans will be psyched to hear that his voice retains much of its youthful timbre -- still reedy, thin, heartfelt and expressive. Guest musicians include Neil Young and Kenny Loggins (singing backup on Furay's best-known song, "Kind Woman"), blues picker Keb Mo, and Sam Bush helping anchor the band on fiddle and mandolin.
Alice Gerrard "Follow The Music" (Tompkins Square, 2014)
(Produced by M. C. Taylor)
The Grahams "Glory Bound/Rattle The Hocks" (Giant The Dog, 2015)
(Produced by Wes Sharon & Cody Dickinson)
A 2-disc set, with an album's worth of studio tracks, and another disc of live performances replete with guest musicians such as Cody and Luther Dickinson, Alvin YoungBlood Hart, and a couple of guys from the band Lucero. Singer Alyssa Graham holds center stage most of the time, with Doug Graham receding into a support role, although he does chime in on a few songs for a soft harmony or two. I have to be honest -- I find her style a little too effortful and self-consciously "rootsy," with a bluesy slant that can feel a little grating or contrived. But the production and musicanship are top-notch, and I'm sure there are plenty of folks who will find this quite appealing. Definitely worth a spin, particularly if you like the rootsier records by Alison Moore, with maybe a bit of Rosanne Cash in there as well.
Sid Griffin "The Trick Is To Breathe" (Prima Records, 2014)
A new solo set from a co-founder of the early 1980's proto-Americana band the Long Ryders, and later of the group the Coal Porters. Griffin's sounding pretty grizzled these days, but passionate and intense as well... This might not be accessible to all, but longtime fans might enjoy hearing what he's been up to in recent years...
Merle Haggard &
Willie Nelson "Django And Jimmie" (Sony Legacy, 2015)
(Produced by Buddy Cannon)
These two old-timers have a great time on this album, with each of them are at their geezerly best, singing robust, humor-filled songs -- some oldies, some new stuff, and a fun mix of novelty songs and heart-rending weepers. "It's All Going To Pot" is a standout track -- a stoner-delic double entendre gem which basically says, sure the world's going to hell in a handbasket, but my man Willie sure can score some great weed. (The video is a real hoot...) They wax nostalgic about music and musicians, including a raunchy song about Johnny Cash where they tell old war stories about Cash's crazy years, and they pay homage to gypsy jazz legend Django Reinhardt and blue yodeler Jimmie Rodgers in the album's title track. Another album highlight is "Live This Long," where they marvel at their own longevity (considering all the damage they've done over the years) while on the more serious side the ballad "Somewhere Between" is a devastating dissection of a man's painful self-awareness of a love gone wrong. They add strong covers of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice" and the gospel classic, "Family Bible," along with various outlaw tunes... Buddy Cannon's production adds a hearty, round-toned feel and, as on other recent albums, he again proves himself a perfect collaborator with Willie Nelson, giving his music a clarity and simplicity that makes each song a highly listenable gem. You won't be disappointed by this album: it's every bit as good as you'd hoped it would be.
Matt Harlan "Raven Hotel" (Berkalin, 2014)
Emmylou Harris &
Rodney Crowell "The Traveling Kind" (Nonesuch, 2015)
JP Harris & The Tough Choices "Home Is Where The Hurt Is" (Cow Island Music, 2014)
(Produced by JP Harris)
Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors "Medicine" (Magnolia Music, 2014)
(Produced by Joe Pisapia & Drew Holcomb)
The Honeycutters "Me Oh My" (Organic Records, 2015)
(Produced by Amanda Anne Platt & Jon Ashley)
Lead singer Amanda Anne Platt is one of them modern Americana gals with a major Lucinda Williams jones, though adorned with plenty of pedal steel, thumping drums and sweet, delicate twang, it sure sounds nice. This North Carolina band has a strong melodic sense and some really catchy hooks. Easy on the ears, but gritty and soulful as well... And did I mention there's some really nice pedal steel on here? (...and dobro, too, both courtesy of Matt Smith...) A nice record that will definitely grab your attention. Recommended!
Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley "Before The Sun Goes Down" (Compass, 2015)
JD & The Straight Shot "Where I've Been" (10 Shot, 2014)
(Produced by Joe Walsh)
The Ray Johnston Band "No Bad Days" (2014)
(Produced by Eric Herbst)
Though this independently-released album probably falls into the "red dirt" category, like a lot of current Panhandle country, this certainly sounds like it has a lot of commercial potential in modern-day Nashville. Rugged yet polished, twangy yet slick, Ray Johnson is a solid vocalist with a strong repertoire of modern "guy country," light on the ballads but also not full of dopey songs about tailgate parties and spring break on Caribbean beaches. It's all very radio-friendly and though maybe too slick for the more indie-minded among us, I'm pretty sure Johnston has his eyes set on the big brass ring. The songs are all his own originals, except for Trent Summar's "Southwest Texas Afternoon" and a cover of Firefall's old '70s hit, "Amie," which is a tune I just never get sick of hearing. So good luck, Ray! I think you've got a pretty good shot at making it big... Looking forward to see where you go from here.
Leadbelly "The Smithsonian Folkways Collection" (Smithsonian Folkways, 2015)
A five-disc box set presenting the classic recordings of one of America's great folk and blues legends... Wow!!
Christian Lopez Band "Onward" (Blaster Records, 2015)
Following up a promising debut EP with a fairly stunning album, nineteen year old Christian Lopez has put the Americana scene on notice that he is a force to be reckoned with. Cannily moving between sweet, multi-textured indierock and mellow twang, Lopez has a light touch and has a deft feel for melody, crafting complex and compelling songs that remind me of Thad Cockrell or a young Ryan Adams. Admittedly, there are times on this album that feel derivative or where you can see the gears moving, but overall Lopez has an impressive sense of his own capabilities and a surprisingly clear picture of his artistic direction. This album feels fresh and explosively creative: it seems a pretty safe bet that Lopez will continue to make a strong impression and cut a big figure on the indie scene. Twangfans can only hope that Lopez will continue to craft such a fine, satisfying balance between pop and roots and not simply shift into straight-up rock sound, but either way, whatever he does will be pretty damn good.
The Mavericks "Mono" (Valory Music, 2015)
Ben Miller Band "Any Way, Any Shape Or Form" (New West, 2014)
(Produced by Vance Powell)
Rhett Miller & Black Prairie "The Traveler" (ATO Records, 2015)
(Produced by Chris Funk)
Miller really hits a sweet spot on this one, mixing in perhaps a bit more overt twang than on other recent albums, and crafting a seamless mix of clever indie/power pop and alterna-country. The songs are catchy and clever and, most important, they're fun to listen to. The band Black Prairie provides a warm, sympathetic backdrop for his songs and seems to bring out a brighter, less effortful sound; particularly tasty are Annalisa Tornfelt's lively fiddle parts, which deftly root the songs in a rural sound. Also along for the ride are alt-elders such as Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey (of Young Fresh Fellows/Minus 5 fame) who provide more texture and resonance to an already rich, compelling record. Recommended!
Thomas Rhett "It Goes Like This" (Valory Music, 2014)
Chris Stapleton "Traveller" (Mercury Nashville, 2015)
(Produced by Dave Cobb & Chris Stapleton)
Coming from a bluegrass background with the SteelDrivers band, Chris Stapleton has made a seamless transition into the Nashville mainstream. An emotive singer riding atop a rhythm-heavy hard-country sound, songwriter Chris Stapleton suggests a stylistic mix, perhaps of soul singer James Carr and outlaw legend Waylon Jennings... A (slightly) more modern Nashville comparison might be with Travis Tritt, if Tritt had a little more funk in his bones. It took me a while to get past the album's opening tracks -- particularly the swooping, slightly grandiose "Fire Away," which delves into modern R&B-ish vocal acrobatics which were a little too showy and distracting for me. But about a third of the way in, the album takes a much twangier turn, and by the time the Guy Clark-ish "More Of You" kicked in, Stapleton had won me over. He seems to be flirting with a pop-crossover country stadium-act persona, ala Tim McGraw, but still has enough roots in him that fans of, say, Jamey Johnson, might dig him as well. Definitely worth a spin.
Kelsey Waldon "The Gold Mine" (Kelsey Waldon, 2014)
(Produced by Michael Rinne)
An extraordinarily rich, deliciously twang-filled, well-textured album, full of pathos, regret and classic honky-tonk humor... Kelsey Waldon's originally from Ballard County, Kentucky, but she hoofed it over to Nashville to cut this album, and she's surrounded herself with some excellent musicians, particularly pedal steel player Brent Resnick, who adds plenty of choice licks throughout. This is a well-crafted album, with plenty of musical heft... The lyrics are relentlessly downbeat, but the music is consistently top-notch, so things even out. Definitely the kind of record that will reward you well if you come back to it a few times over the years. A keeper.
Mac Wiseman "Songs From My Mother's Hand" (Wrinkled Records, 2014)
(Produced by Peter Cooper & Thomm Jutz)
I always love hearing Mac Wiseman sing -- the sincerity, the purity in his performances and voice are a constant delight. I also have a special affinity for the "back story" of this album, which is a collection of songs he learned as a kid, listening to the radio with his mom while she painstakingly wrote down the lyrics, copying down what she heard, one listen at a time. The songs she loved were Appalachian/British/Celtic oldies such as "Wreck Of The Old Number Nine," "When It's Lamp Lighting Time In The Valley" and "Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown." The songs are great, but I also identify with the story, since I once lived in the deep woods myself and spent a lot of time listening to the radio and memorizing songs I heard on my favorite stations (such as KFAT...) so I dig hearing an old-timer like Wiseman going old-school into his own Depression-era upbringing to remember the songs of yesteryear. Yeah, he's plenty old and geezerly now, but it's still a great record, pure Mac Wiseman, with strong and sympathetic accompaniment from a shifting group of musicians that includes guitarists Thomm Jutz and Jimmy Capps, mandolin picker Sierra Hull and album co-producer Peter Cooper throwing in a few harmonies as well. Lovely stuff!
Dwight Yoakam "Second Hand Heart" (Warner, 2015)
Various Artists "LIKE A COUNTRY SONG" (Soundtrack) (Melody Roundup, 2014)
Various Artists "THE HILLBILLIES: THEY TRIED TO ROCK, v.1" (Bear Family, 2014)
A nice set of country artists "going rock," which wasn't that far a stretch, since '50s rock'n'roll came out of hillbilly music as much as it came from the blues. A bunch of these artists had roots in rock to begin with, folks like Link Davis, Wanda Jackson and Carl Perkins... Others, like Johnny Cash, Bill Haley, Rose Maddox, Skeets McDonald, Hank Penny and Onie Wheeler made their names in the uptempo hillbilly bands of the late 1940s and early '50s, and are directly credited with being part of the evolution of rock. Still others -- guys like Eddy Arnold, Lefty Frizzell, Marty Robbins and Carl Smith -- were mainstream honky tonk crooners who were indeed trying to cash in on the rock fad, or maybe just letting their hair down a little and having fun with their bands. But it's all really fun stuff, and there are plenty of gems and several welcome obscurities, as well as a couple of clunkers (like, surprisingly enough, the Louvin Brothers' "Red Hen Hop," which was never one of their better tunes...) Far be it from me to second-guess the folks at Bear Family -- sure, you could pick any number of songs from Johnny Cash or Rose Maddox to show how rock'n'roll they were, but the tunes they picked here are fine, especially when surrounded by zingers by Charline Arthur and Johnny Horton, or one of those "Thumper" Jones rockabilly singles. Fun stuff!
Various Artists "THE HILLBILLIES: THEY TRIED TO ROCK, v.2" (Bear Family, 2014)
And here's Volume Two... Still tons of fun, and still open to friendly critique. Several repeat artists here, with Patsy Cline, Bill Haley and George Jones getting all wild 'n' crazy again, and the folks at Bear Family digging further into their considerable treasure trove of great, old country-meets-rockabilly nuggets. They dust off groovy tunes by Moon Mullican, Buck Owens, Marvin Rainwater and Hank Thompson, as well as some surprising entires by bluegrassers, old-timey artists and cowboy singers such as Carson Robinson and The Sons of the Pioneers, and of course Don Reno's "Country Boy Rock 'N' Roll" is a stone-cold classic. I'm assuming more volumes are to come, so that I don't have to nitpick about missing songs such as Jean Shepard's "He's My Baby," or the sizzling early '60s sessions Wanda Jackson did with Roy Clark on lead guitar. But that's all coming down the line, right folks? We just need to buy these early albums so they can keep 'em coming!
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)
Hick Music Index