Hey, everybody! My apologies to those of you who were looking here for the bird's eye lowdown on all the latest and greatest... As noted in the previous column, 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 the second half of 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: Summer-Fall, 2015
Ryan Adams "1989" (Blue Note)
Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin "Lost Time" (Yep Roc)
John Anderson "Goldmine" (Bayou Boys)
Banditos "Banditos" (Bloodshot)
Clint Black "On Purpose" (Black Top Records)
Alison Brown "The Song Of The Banjo" (Compass)
T. Graham Brown "Christmas with T. Graham Brown" (Mansion Entertainment)
Aaron Burdett "Tinderbox" (Organic Records)
Thad Cockrell "To Be Loved" (Dualtone)
Crying Time "Ten Golden Hits" (Wisconsin Chair Company)
Iris Dement "The Trackless Woods" (Flariella)
Joe Ely "Panhandle Rambler" (Rack'Em Records)
Tennessee Ernie Ford "Portrait Of An American Singer: 1949-1960" (Bear Family)
Kinky Friedman "The Loneliest Man I Ever Met" (Avenue A/Thirty Tigers)
Pat Green "Home" (Greenhorse Music)
Jason Isbell "Something More Than Free" (Southeastern Records)
Jason James "Jason James" (New West)
Lorraine Jordan "Country Grass" (Pinecastle)
Kenny Knight "Crossroads" (Calop Records)
Jim Lauderdale "Soul Searching" (Sky Crunch)
Lucero "All A Man Should Do" (ATO)
Sam Lewis "Waiting On You" (Brash Music)
The Malpass Brothers "The Malpass Brothers" (Organic Records)
Tim McGraw "Damn Country Music" (Big Machine)
Ashley Monroe "The Blade" (Warner Nashville)
Kip Moore "Wild Ones" (MCA Nashville)
Kacey Musgraves "Pageant Material" (Mercury)
Sam Outlaw "Angeleno" (Six Shooter Records)
Buck Owens "Buck 'Em! Volume Two: 1967-1975" (Omnivore)
Brenda Kaye Perry "Look Me Up" (Dynasty Records)
Marvin Rainwater "A Whole Lotta Marvin" (Jasmine)
Dave Rawlings Machine "Nashville Obsolete" (Acony)
Thomas Rhett "Tangled Up" (Valory Music)
Connie Smith "The Lost Tapes" (Country Rewind)
Harry Dean Stanton "Partly Fiction" (Omnivore)
Steep Canyon Rangers "Radio" (Nonesuch)
Donna Ulisse "Hard Cry Moon" (Hadley Music Group)
Rhonda Vincent "Christmas Time" (Upper Management)
Watkins Family Hour "Watkins Family Hour" (Family Hour Records)
Dale Watson "Call Me Insane" (Red House Records)
Dale Watson "Truckin' Sessions, Volume 3" (Red River Entertainment)
Yonder Mountain String Band "Black Sheep" (Frog Pad Records)
Faron Young "You Don't Know Me" (Country Rewind)
Various Artists "DYLAN, CASH AND THE NASHVILLE CATS" (Sony Legacy)
Various Artists "HONKY TONK SONG: THE DON LAW STORY" (Cherry Red)
Various Artists "ORTHOPHONIC JOY: THE 1927 BRISTOL SESSIONS REVISITED" (Sony Legacy)
Ryan Adams "1989" (Blue Note, 2015)
A former king of alt-country Americana -- Ryan Adams -- covers an entire album of music by Taylor Swift, a former queen of top country gone pure pop... Sure, maybe it's a little gimmicky but his dense, morose, mopey acoustic covers of her bright, bitter pop songs has its own unique depth and bite, and by stripping her songs down to bare bones, he brings out her songcraft in a way that some listeners might have been missed while singing along to the radio. An odd album, but an interesting coalescence of two genre-busting former twangsters.
Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin "Lost Time" (Yep Roc, 2015)
Finally, after literally decades of feuding and mututal recrimination, the Alvin brothers have patched things up and are, as the album title says, making up for lost time. The explosive dissolution of their band The Blasters is the stuff of legend, but after the artistic and interpersonal success of their reunuon album, Common Ground, the Alvins found it in themselves to get past their stubborn bitterness and reconnect through their music. And we, the fans, couldn't be happier. There is some absolutely killer, thunderous, world-shattering blues music on here, the kind of rich, irresistible earthy, kick-ass music that the modern blues scene lost sight of way back in the '70s... when the Blasters first came around. The Alvins draw on foundational artists such as Leroy Carr, Willie Dixon, Blind Boy Fuller and James Brown himself, while the robust, joyful work of Big Joe Turner echoes most loudly. There are four covers of classic Turner tunes on here, and these tracks will make your speakers throb and bounce with a powerful, good-time vibe. There was never any doubt that the Alvin brothers know their blues, but hearing it -- and feeling it -- so powerfully after all these years is a thing of true beauty. Highly recommended!
John Anderson "Goldmine" (Bayou Boys Music Group, 2015)
Banditos "Banditos" (Bloodshot, 2015)
Clint Black "On Purpose" (Black Top Records, 2015)
Alison Brown "The Song Of The Banjo" (Compass, 2015)
T. Graham Brown "Christmas with T. Graham Brown" (Mansion Entertainment, 2015)
Aaron Burdett "Tinderbox" (Organic Records, 2015)
There is some twang on here, though I'd peg this one more as a contemporary folk/folk-pop type thing, in the Greg Brown-ian mode, with more than just a hint of Van Morrison in the mix as well. I liked his more country-ish material, though this one wasn't entirely my bag. If you like new folk music, this is certainly worth checking out
Thad Cockrell "To Be Loved" (Dualtone, 2015)
Crying Time "Ten Golden Hits" (Wisconsin Chair Company, 2015)
(Produced by Myles Bolsen)
A local (Oakland) band that I'm eager to check out... Pretty sure I recognize half of these folks from bumping into them at checkout lines and whatnot...
Iris Dement "The Trackless Woods" (Flariella Records, 2015)
An interesting project from the increasingly literary and spiritually oriented Iris Dement... This set of songs features her musical arrangements of lyrics by Anna Akhmatova, a Russian poet who died in 1966. Although the words were not originally hers, the sentiments sithin resonate deep inside Dement's heart and thus, in her hands, they resonate within ours as well. Dement has always had a strong artistic impact, and it's fascinating to see how she can apply that power to material that takes its genesis in the work of another writer. Recommended.
Joe Ely "Panhandle Rambler" (Rack'Em Records, 2015)
(Produced by Joe Ely)
West Texas poet and roadhouse warrior Joe Ely remains a potent, vital artist, both as a writer and performer. This album kicks off with one of his standard-issue epic, gritty story-songs ("Wounded Creek") and though I find the genre often a bit forced and exhausting at times, he quickly moves from style to style, also bestowing us with several gentle, elegant gems, simpler, more romantic tunes that remind us of the compact writing and emotional clarity of his early work. The songs that resonated with me and caught my heart include "Magdalene," the achingly sorrowful "Southern Eyes" and the equally evocative "You Saved Me," which closes the album on a tender note. For an old geezer like me who's more taken by beauty than bombast, the softer songs are like a cool evening breeze after a dry, dusty day... and renewed evidence of Joe Ely's remarkable consistency as one of the grand old men of the Americana movement. Another fine album by an old pro, and definitely worth checking out.
Tennessee Ernie Ford "Portrait Of An American Singer: 1949-1960" (Bear Family, 2015)
Old Ernie Ford finally gets the super-deluxe Bear Family box set treatment, with a 5-CD, 154-track supercollection that covers Ford's most country, most twangilicious years. Although his endless pop-country crooning and gospel albums of the '60s and '70s may be overly familiar to dollar-bin crate diggers, Ford was also a pioneering "hillbilly boogie" star, and his bouncy, twangy hits and singles from the early 1950s are gathered here, as are several of his classic late 'Fifties hit albums. The bluesy twang of his early years may be a surprise to some -- also included are rarities such as PSAs and spoken word children's records he recorded in the '50s, and a bunch of old stuff that's never been out on CD before. So give your old 78s a rest and enjoy some of these cool old Ernie Ford recordings, fun stuff from back when he was still really country.
Kinky Friedman "The Loneliest Man I Ever Met" (Avenue A/Thirty Tigers, 2015)
(Produced by Brian Molnar)
Back in the 1970s, twangcore provacateur Kinky Friedman billed himself as "the Texas Jewboy" and flung his rule-breaking, balls-out attitude in the face of the good ol' boy sensibilities of the country music establishment... There were a bunch of folks back then who called themselves "outlaws," but Friedman was a true stylistic extremist, and he spent decades living up to that image: what the Fugs were to rock'n'roll, he was for twang. On this new album, he plays things surprisingly straight, singing with a thick, dignified old-man tone that's leagues distant from the arrogant, exaggerated drawl of his youth... This is one of those country-elders albums that oozes with hard-won wisdom and reflection, the sort of world-weary tone that younger men struggle to affect, but which comes so naturally to Friedman that it really turns your ears. With Willie Nelson joining him on a tune or two, Friedman delivers an album's worth of cover songs, surprisingly soulful interpretations of tunes by Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Tom Waits, as well as standards such as his stark rendition of "A Nightingale In Berkeley Square," which closes the album on a haunting note. In short, for one album at least, Kinky Friedman lets go of all the schtick and sings from the heart, joining his generation in exploring the joys of craggy, bitter ballads... This might not be the Kinky Friedman you were expecting, but trust me: you won't mind.
Pat Green "Home" (Greenhorse Music, 2015)
Tuneful commerical twang from a Texas stalwart... He's not as brash or spontaneous as he used to be, but for such tightly crafted material, this is still pretty soulful and sweet. Guests include Sheryl Crowe, Lyle Lovett, Delbert McClinton and Lee Roy Parnell, which gives a pretty good idea of Green's emotional and stylistic range.
Jason James "Jason James" (New West Records, 2015)
(Produced by John Evans & Keith Gattis)
Oh man, is this good! If you've ever longed for the good old days of the first few albums by Dwight Yoakam or Joe Ely, then you're in for a real treat here. Every track on this album is pure, pleasant, gritty twang, crisply conceived and confidently delivered... The album particularly echoes with Joe Ely's early '70s vibe, and James's band is rock solid from start to finish. All the songs are Jason James originals, with one co-written by producer John Evans, and another by Jim Lauderdale (who also sings harmony). If you're a fan of true twang, then this album's for you!
Lorraine Jordan "Country Grass" (Pinecastle Records, 2015)
(Produced by Josh Goforth & Lorraine Jordan)
Although she has a fine voice herself, bluegrass bandleader Lorraine Jordan often prefers to let others sing the lead, and on this album, she goes even farther in sharing the spotlight, with a whole passle of guest singers, an impressive array of former Top Forty country stars, such as Lynn Anderson, Jim Ed Brown, John Conlee, Crystal Gayle, Lee Greenwood and Eddy Raven. Some, like Shenandoah's Marty Raybon, have bluegrass backgrounds and have returned to the fold in recent years -- there are also contributions by 'grass artists such as Ronnie Reno as well as roots rockers the Kentucky Headhunters. Man, talk about friends in high places! The album holds together well and for the most part everyone still sounds great... One of the strongest elements Jordan's band, Carolina Road, and her mandolin picking in particular and -- when you can hear it -- her lead and harmony vocals. Another nice album from one of the hardest-working bluegrass artists around.
Kenny Knight "Crossroads" (Calop Records, 1980)
(Produced by Sylvia Brady)
This may be a little more on the folk-freak side of things, but there's enough twang to bend my ears... A compelling country-folk-adelic set with a distinctively retro sound (and I mean retro for 1980, when it was released...) This gentle, contemplative, nicely textured album has the sound of nearly a decade earlier, branching from the clumsy but earnest country sounds of early, classic Grateful Dead albums into the odder, freakier eclecticism of the hippie-twang experimentalism of 1971-74, folks like Brewer & Shipley and their lesser-known brethren and sistren. Plenty of deft, lackadaisical, amateurish steel guitar and gauzy 12-string strumming, amid drifting, navel-gazing lyrics. It's a nice album, one that will resonate in surprising ways, perhaps because it's one of those records that's so singular and personal... Apparently singer-songwriter Kenny Knight was a former rocker, having been in a series of hopelessly obscure Colrado garage bands as a kid, but obviously he mellowed out quite a bit during the 'Seventies... Anyway, this one's definitely worth a spin! (Reissued in 2015 by Numero Group/Paradise Of Bachelors)
Jim Lauderdale "Soul Searching: Volume One - Memphis/Volume Two - Nashville" (Sky Crunch Records, 2015)
(Produced by Jim Lauderdale, Luther Dickinson & Boo Mitchell)
Songwriter Jim Lauderdale is a true auteur and also kind of a nut, as well as a stylistic gadfly who simply cannot be pinned down to any one genre. After conquering mainstream Nashville as an out-of-left-field hitmaking composer, Lauderdale migrated into his career as an amazingly idiosyncratic performer, hopscotching from project to project and style to style while always managing to put his own unique stamp on whatever music he delved into... For a while he seemed like an annointed heir to the bluegrass throne, making two albums with the great Ralph Stanley... He also recorded some jam band music with the band Donna The Buffalo and of course countless odd albums on his own, each one pursuing whatever whimsies his creative muse provided. On this new self-released 2-CD set, he devotes one disc to his own version of the classic Memphis R&B of the 1960s and '70s, working with producers Luther Dickinson (of the North Mississippi Allstars) and Boo Mitchell (son of Memphis legend Willie Mitchell.) Singing his odd, labyrinthine lyrics atop rich, bluesy riffs and a bright, robust horn section, Lauderdale twists his way through a series of emotive, emphatic numbers, while on Disc Two he returns to Nashville and gets funky there as well. There's a sort of self-referential, blind-to-the-dictates-of-the-market quality that can make Lauderdale's songs seem almost impenetrable at times, although the thorny, unruly lack of classic structure can consistently amaze and delight longtime fans. Here, though, almost at the end of the project, he rolls out several songs that seem unusually accessible and direct. On "Why Does God Let That Happen," he explores the eternal question of why there is evil and misfortune in a world where supposedly God looks over us all, while on "Water Water Please Come Back," he sings a plea to the weather that will resonate with listeners in the West, the Midwest, the Sahara, Australia, the Asian plains and anywhere else in our poor, battered world where drought and severe climate change have become the new normal. When he sings on "Signals From Space" about how the universe is always beaming messages into his head, some listeners might be forgiven for taking him literally, but Lauderdale knows he's one of us as well, as heard on the "Plan B," where he wonders aloud what the hell we're gonna do next. Whatever the new plan is, one thing is for sure: Jim Lauderdale is always going to challenge and delight his fans.
Sam Lewis "Waiting On You" (Brash Music, 2015)
(Produced by Sam Lewis & Oliver Wood)
An exemplary Americana album, twang drenched in soul and blues in a way that recalls eclectic elders such as Ry Cooder and Van Morrison. Lots of high-powered guest musicians as well, including Will Kimbrough, Mickey Raphael, Darrell Scott, Kenny Vaughan and producer Oliver Wood. Nice, mellow, very soulful and very listenable.
Lucero "All A Man Should Do" (ATO, 2015)
(Produced by Ted Hutt)
Fans of good, old-fashioned indierock-meets-twang-style alt-country/Americana will find much to cheer about in this gritty, well-crafted album. Lead singer Ben Nichols grumbles and growls his way through an often rough-edged set dominated by electric guitars and compact accompaniment, where restraint replaces excess and songs often like they are about to explode... but never really do. The subterranean, tectonic dread and joy of the genre bubbles to the surface, bringing to mind similar music from Steve Earle, Ryan Adams and -- of course -- Lucero themselves. All in all, a classic twangcore sound. They pay homage to the gods of an earlier era as well, as heard on a playfully countrified cover of "I'm In Love With A Girl," a whimsical rendition that's sure to be a hit on college radio, especially since it features Big Star's Jody Stephens singing backup, along with the Posies (and Big Star 2.0's) Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow in the chorus. That wistful novelty number proves a perfect lead-in to the album's closer, "My Girl And Me In '93," an evocative tune with a melodic twist that ends the record on an elusive note... A substantive offering that ought to satisfy the band's longtime fans.
The Malpass Brothers "The Malpass Brothers" (Organic Records, 2015)
(Produced by Doyle Lawson)
Fans of hard country -- the real-deal, old-school stuff -- are gonna love this album from these North Carolina siblings. Both Christopher and Taylor Malpass make fine soloists, although as a duo they have the classic "brother act" harmony sound. The main, most obvious influence is Merle Haggard, in a cascade of rugged, soulful ballads that summon the spirit of Merle's early years, although you'll also hear echoes of the Louvin Brothers as well as western crooner Marty Robbins (on several fine tunes, including a cover of his "Begging To You.") The song selection is just as impressive as the performances: tunes written by Bill Anderson, Jack Clement, Bob McDill, the Louvins, Willie Nelson and a couple of oldies by Hank Williams... These guys really know their stuff. Plus, they've got bluegrass elder Doyle Lawson on board as the album's producer, so you know it's gonna sound great to begin with. If you're looking for someone who's really keeping it country, you owe it to yourself to check this record out. It's really that good.
Tim McGraw "Damn Country Music" (Big Machine, 2015)
I know just how you feel, big guy... I know just how you feel!
Ashley Monroe "The Blade" (Warner Nashville, 2015)
(Produced by Vince Gill & Justin Niebank)
Kip Moore "Wild Ones" (MCA Nashville, 2015)
Kacey Musgraves "Pageant Material" (Mercury, 2015)
(Produced by Kacey Musgraves, Luke Laird & Shane McAnally)
Ornate, bold poppy arrangements and philosophical lyrics bounded by clever couplets define this album, with Musgraves balancing between resignation and affirmation... Her vocals are plenty rural and twangy but the music and the vibe feels more folkie/adult contemporary -- fans of Natalie Maines and/or the Dixie Chicks might dig this one, though in general I'd say these songs aren't quite as concise and have more of a rambling feel. But the searching feel and musical mix is pretty similar, with one foot in the contemplative soul-searching singer-songwriter tradition, while the other foot tests the water for Top Forty appeal. I like the simpler tunes, particularly the albums closing tracks, the heartrending "Cup Of Tea," and "Fine," a mournful duet with Willie Nelson that leaves the album feeling oddly unresolved, the listener unfulfilled, and in doing so hits just the right note to end on. Like life itself, Kacey Musgraves' art is an unfinished story and a work in progress, and this rueful/hopeful record seems to capture her mid-journey, a snapshot of an artist in motion. s
Sam Outlaw "Angeleno" (Six Shooter Records, 2015)
(produced by Ry Cooder & Joaquim Cooder)
Buck Owens "Buck 'Em! Volume Two" (Omnivore Recordings, 2015)
Brenda Kaye Perry "Look Me Up" (Dynasty Records, 2015)
New stuff from a '70s singer... I was familiar with Ms. Perry from her old 1978 album, which I discovered while researching lesser-known 1970s country artists... This album hearkens back to that era, with a glossy but unfussy production style that recalls classic material by gals such as Lynn Anderson and Tammy Wynette. If you like the way country music sounded during the '70s and early '80s, you might want to check this one out... And her voice still sounds pretty good! Not wildly flashy or dynamic, just good, straightforward pop-country singing, the way they did things back in the countrypolitan era.
Marvin Rainwater "A Whole Lotta Marvin" (Jasmine, 2015)
Singer Marvin Rainwater broke through in the late 1950s with a string of hits, including several that crossed over into the Pop charts. Sadly, his career was sidelined in the early '60s when his voice gave out, but he has remained popular with retro fans and collectors over the years. This is a swell single-disc collection that gathers all of Marvin Rainwater's early charting singles from 1957-61, with country and pop hits on the MGM and Warwick labels, plus a bunch of B-side songs to sweeten the mix. Includes his duets with Connie Francis and various Indian -- er, Native American -- themed songs such as "Half Breed" and "Pale Faced Indian." It's the lesser-known tracks that might be most rewarding here... A nice introduction to a less well-remembered country star of bygone years.
Dave Rawlings Machine "Nashville Obsolete" (Acony Records, 2015)
Thomas Rhett "Tangled Up" (Valory Music Company, 2015)
Connie Smith "The Lost Tapes" (Country Rewind, 2015)
Harry Dean Stanton "Partly Fiction" (Omnivore Recordings, 2014)
Steep Canyon Rangers "Radio" (Nonesuch, 2015)
(Produced by Jerry Douglas)
Donna Ulisse "Hard Cry Moon" (Hadley Music Group, 2015)
(Produced by Bryan Sutton)
Another sweet, rock solid album from one of the great, off-the-radar bandleaders in modern-day bluegrass. A couple of decades back, singer Donna Ulisse had a brief run at the Country Top 40 and, like a lot of talented people, she found the Nashville scene too gruelling to stay in forever... She dropped out of sight for a long time, but reemerged as a bluegrass neotraditionalist, recording one excellent album after another. Like her previous albums, this one is packed with original material -- all but one of the songs was written or co-written by Ulisse, including several composed with her husband, Rick Stanley, a member of the extended Stanley Brothers family. She's also working with the same core group of musicians, and they've really hit a groove together, getting sweeter and tighter as time goes by. The same is true of Donna Ulisse's voice, which is strongly evocative of Alison Krauss, but with a velvety edge that recalls the rich, husky tones of Rosanne Cash as well. If you're looking for new tunes to add to the canon -- or just a really nice new bluegrass album to enjoy at home -- you might wanna check this one out.
Rhonda Vincent "Christmas Time" (Upper Management, 2015)
Watkins Family Hour "Watkins Family Hour" (Family Hour Records, 2015) (LP)
(Produced by Sheldon Gomberg)
Neo-folk newgrassers Sara and Sean Watkins (of Nickel Creek fame) are jamming with some high-power pals, including Fiona Apple, Don Heffington, Greg Leisz and others on a set of good-natured cover songs. The repertoire includes some well-known country and folk oldies, such as the old George Jones hit, "She Thinks I Still Care," Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain" and even a little Grateful Dead to groove out on, with the mournful "Brokedown Palace." There are also some odd and unexpected choices, which underscore the newness and eclectic modernity they're seeking to project. Definitely worth a spin!
Dale Watson "Call Me Insane" (Red House Records, 2015)
(Produced by Lloyd Maines)
Another rock-solid honky tonk set from Texas treasure Dale Watson... These days, he's calling his music "Ameripolitan," but while he claims it's a mix of honky tonk, rockabilly, western swing and outlaw, there's some "politan" in there as well, when he goes into the ballads, much like his idol Merle Haggard. His collaborations with producer Lloyd Maines are predictably fabulous, particualrly on upbeat numbers like the opening track, "A Day At A Time," which sounds like the old 1970's Emmylou Harris Hot Band backing 1960's vintage Haggard (yeah, it's that good), or the rollicking faux-gospel "Heaven's Gonna Have A Honky Tonk." The album also includes "Jonesin' For Jones," yet another tune to add to your list of George Jones tribute songs... and Dale pays tribute to the Texas heartland with the good-natured "Everybody's Somebody In Lukenbach," another album highlight. Every record by Mr. Watson is a gem, and this one's gonna be spinning on my turntable for a while.
Dale Watson "Truckin' Sessions, Volume 3" (Red River Entertainment, 2015)
Yonder Mountain String Band "Black Sheep" (Frog Pad Records, 2015)
Faron Young "You Don't Know Me" (Country Rewind, 2014)
Various Artists "HONKY TONK SONG: THE DON LAW STORY 1956-1962" (Cherry Red, 2015)
A celebration of legendary Nashville country producer Don Law, who was a mainstay of the Columbia label, and is particularly well known for his work with many of the biggest figures in 1950's honky tonk, artists such as Johnny Cash, Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Horton and Carl Smith, to name a few. (Law also worked with blues superhero Robert Johnson in the 1930s, but that stuff ain't included here...) Although Law recorded countless artists, big and small, this collection focusses on his best-known efforts, tasty stuff from the late '50s and early '60s, and skirts around some of the poppier music of the "Nashville Sound" era. A groovy introduction to a legendary Nashviller.
Various Artists "DYLAN, CASH AND THE NASHVILLE CATS" (Sony Legacy, 2015)
This is an odd release. Even though it's packed with great music from the Columbia vaults, the concept is a little hard to figure out at first... It's pitched as sort of a Bob Dylan-meets-Johnny Cash-in-Nashville, rock-meets-country collection, but it's the "Nashville cats" part of the title that's key. What this compilation album is really meant to illustrate is the dynamic power and musical flexibility of Music City's "usual suspects" studio musicians, guys like Mac Gayden, Buddy and Bobby Emmons, Charlie McCoy, Weldon Myrick, Hargus Robbins and others who were the A-list "wrecking crew" of Nashville, sometimes refered to simply as the Nashville Cats. These unstoppable go-to studio pros played on countless sessions for all kinds of artists, from the biggest stars to the hopeful nobodies who flocked to Tennessee to try and make it big. One of the most notable outsiders to come to Nashville was, of course, folk-rock icon Bob Dylan, who recorded several albums there, starting with the classic Blonde On Blonde, raising eyebrows up North, where rock-oriented hipsters mostly thought country music was super uncool. Dylan had cracked the code though, and realized that many of these studio cats were pretty hip themselves -- many had learned their chops in rock and rhythm bands they'd formed as teens, and they still played blues and R&B for fun... There was a strong connection to the Memphis blues and Muscle Shoals soul scenes, and really, no matter what kind of music you wanted them to play, they could blow the roof off the joint if they felt like it. The Johnny Cash connection is that Cash was one of Dylan's first and most ardent supporters within the world of country music, recording several of his songs in the late '60s and singing with Dylan on "rock" albums like Nashville Skyline, even though many of the Nashville elite hated the hippie culture that Dylan stood for... But again, this collection doesn't stick to the Dylan-Cash narrative, but rather explores the more widespread phenomenon of the many pop and rock artists who came to Nashville after Dylan broke the ice. The set list roams across the late '60s soundscape, embracing everyone from Dylan and the Byrds to the Neil Young, JJ Cale, Simon & Garfunkel, solo stuff by George Harrison and Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. There are a couple of tracks highlighting recordings by the Nashville Cats themselves -- a rockin' early single by harmonica player Charlie McCoy and one tune by Mac Gayden's session-player supergroup, Area Code 615, as well as country rock gems by the Beau Brummels (who "went country" for one album) and the ever-lovin' Monkees. All in all, even though most music fans will have to have the concept explained to them first, this is a fun collection of tunes, and a nice tribute to the Tennessee superpickers who helped shape the sounds of the 'Sixties and 'Seventies. Definitely worth checking out.
Various Artists "ORTHOPHONIC JOY: THE 1927 BRISTOL SESSIONS REVISITED" (Sony Legacy, 2015)
(Produced by Carl Jackson)
The so-called "Bristol Sessions" were a truly legendary event in country music history, a series of recording sessions held in 1927 when an enterprising Victor Records A&R representative named Ralph Peer set up a shoestring recording studio in a rural Tennessee hotel, and brought to the world the first recordings of the legendary Carter Family, as well as future superstar, blues yodeller Jimmie Rodgers. Other dimly remembered old-timey artists were also recorded, such as gospel singers Alfred G. Karnes and Ernest Phipps, old-timey singer Ernest V. Stoneman, and various stringbands, as well as a slew of local performers who never enjoyed the commercial success of the more luminous stars mentioned above. This album, which is tied to an exhibit being staged in Nashville, honors the Bristol Session legacy with a series of contemporary cover versions of many of the best-known songs by these old-time artists. This is a 2-CD set because each track is accompanied by a long, introductory narration which gives some background on the artists or the songs. And while those of us who are just in it for the music may want to use a little digital technology to craft a tunes-only playlist, the narrations are uniformly informative and fascinating: anyone interested in the history of country and old-time music will definitely want to listen to the spoken word tracks as well, at least once. And the music? It's great. Heroic figures such as Emmylou Harris, Carl Jackson, Doyle Lawson and Dolly Parton are joined by Top Forty types such as Vince Gill, Ashley Monroe and Brad Paisley, as well as a slew of newer, less well-known names like the Church Sisters, Corbin Hayslett and the Shotgun Rubies, laying bare the links from generation to generation to generation. I'm a huge Carl Jackson fan, and he delivers yet another sleek, rootsy folk-country gem here, lending his smooth, soulful touch to each and every track, both as a producer and performer... Highly recommended!
Hick Music Index