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 (Page 2)
The Boxcars "Familiar With The Ground" (Mountain Home)
Sarah Borges "Good & Dirty" (EP) (Dry Lightning)
The Cactus Blossoms "You're Dreaming" (Red House)
Kristy Cox "Part Of Me" (Pisgah Records)
Robbie Fulks "Upland Stories" (Bloodshot)
The Grahams "Glory Bound" (Three Sirens)
Jon Hatchett Band "Jon Hatchett Band" (Self-released)
Joey + Rory "Hymns That Are Important To Us" (Gaither Music Group)
Loretta Lynn "Full Circle" (Sony Legacy)
Barbara Mandrell "The Lost Columbia Masters" (Real Gone Music)
Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers "Sacred Memories" (Rebel Records)
Tami Neilson "Dynamite" (Outside Music)
Margo Price "Midwest Farmer's Daughter" (Third Man Recordings)
Ralph Stanley "The Complete Jessup Recordings Plus!" (Real Gone Music)
Waco Brothers "Going Down In History" (Bloodshot)
Gene Watson "Real. Country. Music." (Fourteen Carat Music)
Various Artists "WAYFARING STRANGERS: COSMIC AMERICAN MUSIC" (The Numero Group)
The Boxcars "Familiar With The Ground" (Mountain Home Music Company, 2016)
(Produced by Ron Stewart & The Boxcars)
Modern-day bluegrass twang, with a strong Americana-country streak, similar to recent albums by the Steel Drivers, et. al. This is a younger band, with a sound rooted in tradition though open to the future -- they play a lot of original music, most of it written by various bandmembers or other contemporary composers. Notably, there aren't a bunch of golden-age-of-bluegrass standards on here, indeed, the cover song that stands out is one by Americana icon Townes Van Zandt, though there's nary a Bill Monroe or Stanley Brothers tune to be heard. The band features Keith Garrett on guitar, Gary Huffman on dobro, Adam Steffey playing mandolin, Ron Stewart on guitar and Harold Nixon on bass, with all of the guys sharing vocal chores and harmonizing beautifully throughout... and I thought the dobro work was particularly nice, reminding me of '70s-era Jerry Douglas, before he got all fancy and stuff. If you're looking for a good, strong contemporary 'grass band, you should give these guys a spin!
Sarah Borges "Good & Dirty" (EP) (Dry Lightning Records, 2016)
(Produced by Eric Ambel, Marcos Viele & Tim Hatfield)
The Cactus Blossoms "You're Dreaming" (Red House, 2016)
(Produced by J. D. McPherson)
Kristy Cox "Part Of Me" (Pisgah Records, 2016)
(Produced by Jerry Salley)
A nice solid set from Australian singer Kristy Cox, who has recorded several albums down under, but is a newcomer to Nashville-ian shores. Though she emotes in an early Trisha Yearwood-ish country style on a few tunes, mostly this is a bluegrass-crossover set, with a sound that will feel pretty familiar to Alison Krauss fans... Good stuff, too: standout tracks include "Baby, You Ain't Baby Anymore" (a novelty number written by producer Jerry Salley that I could see becoming a hit someday) as well as "The Part Of Me (That's Still In Love With You)", a complex and utterly downbeat bummerdelic song about love in a death spiral, and the album's true gem, a mega-tearjerker father-daughter song called "Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore." Why doesn't he pray anymore? Well, 'cuz he just died and she's going to his funeral, and she's thinking about all the times they argued and how she always thought she was right and he was being a big jerk and... and... And, excuse me, I gotta go call my kid! Anyway, this is a fine album, and for most Americans a welcome introduction to a dynamic new artist. If you're an Alison fan, you'll wanna check Kirsty out, too!
Robbie Fulks "Upland Stories" (Bloodshot, 2016)
The Grahams "Glory Bound" (Three Sirens, 2016)
(Produced by Dave Garza)
From the title, I thought this would be a gospel collection, but just for the record, it's mostly secular... This double-disc set includes a full-length album of diverse Americana -- country twang, blues and soul-colored folk-pop -- along with an additional five-song EP that includes alternate versions of two of the songs, and collaborations with guests such as the Watkins Family and the Milk Carton Kids, as well as a cover version of "Broken Bottle," which was written by Alejandro Escovedo. The lead vocals are mostly by Alyssa Graham, with modest, understated harmonizing from Doug Graham. She has a wide range, which for me is most appealing when she evokes Gillian Welch, and starts to lose me when she crescendos into a blues-mama mode. Mostly it's a pretty compact, acoustic-based sound, showing their mastery of various styles, though mostly anchored in bluegrass and modern twang... Lots of sweet pedal steel (particularly on "The Spinner," which is an album highlight) and a few fiddle licks from old-timer Byron Berline, who fits in just fine with this band of young'uns. Lots here for contemporary Americana fans to latch onto!
Jon Hatchett Band "Jon Hatchett Band" (2015)
Available on CD Baby
Joey + Rory "Hymns That Are Important To Us" (Gaither Music Group, 2016)
Loretta Lynn "Full Circle" (Sony Legacy, 2016)
(Produced by Patsy Lynn Russell & John Carter Cash)
As seen in the new documentary profile that accompanies this album, Loretta Lynn remains one of country music's great unreconstructed hicks, a farm girl who conquered Nashville through her talent and sheer force of will, back in the early '60s when Nashville was going upscale. In her early hits, Lynn reaffirmed country's working class roots and kept her Kentucky twang intact even when she rose to become one of the great ballad singers of the countrypolitan era, and she reconnects with her own roots on this fine new album, a confident, understated retrospective that includes some of her own old hits, a few other country classics, and a new tune or two as well. The album was co-produced by Patsy Lynn Russell -- one of Loretta's musically-inclined daughters -- and John Carter Cash, at his House Of Cash studios, with promise of more sessions to come. The production is pleasantly simple and unpretentious, framing the songs and Lynn's vocals as straightforward country and country-pop, leaving aside the lavish, over-the-top style of contemporary Nashville. It works quite nicely, and you can still hear that fierce young gal from Butcher Hollow in Lynn's voice, coming through loud and clear, singing the kind of music she likes best, while all the Nashville fads come and go, breaking like little waves against the lighthouse rock that is Loretta Lynn. Included here are two duets: Elvis Costello croons along on "Everything It Takes," while Willie Nelson hits a nice, sympathetic old-timer groove on "Lay Me Down." This one's certainly worth checking out!
Barbara Mandrell "This Time I Almost Made It: The Lost Columbia Masters" (Real Gone Music, 2016)
A lavish reissue of country-pop queen Barbara Mandrell's 1974 album, This Time I Almost Made It, with bonus tracks that include outtakes from the album and demos she cut at her first sessions for Columbia, back in 1969-70. For fans (and she's got many!) this is a nice trove of stuff that by and large has never made it on CD up until now.
Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers "Sacred Memories" (Rebel Records, 2016)
(Produced by Joe Mullins)
A nice, straightforward all-gospel bluegrass set with smooth super-picking and plenty of sweet vocal harmonies... The repertoire is a mix of old and new, with guest performers that include the Isaacs family on "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" and Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White Skaggs pitching in on "Sacred Memories." Soul and sincerity galore... Fans of Doyle Lawson and other spiritually-inclined bluegrassers will enjoy this album.
Tami Neilson "Dynamite" (Outside Music, 2015)
(Produced by Delaney Davidson & Ben Edwards)
Margo Price "Midwest Farmer's Daughter" (Third Man Recordings, 2016)
Ralph Stanley "The Complete Jessup Recordings Plus!" (Real Gone Music, 2016)
Waco Brothers "Going Down In History" (Bloodshot, 2016)
Gene Watson "Real. Country. Music." (Fourteen Carat Music, 2016)
Various Artists "WAYFARING STRANGERS: COSMIC AMERICAN MUSIC" (The Numero Group, 2016)
It's simple enough for the crate-diggers and playlist generators of today to look back at the independent "private" country music of yesteryear and make fun of what they hear (and see, in the case of album-art mockers...) Much to their credit, the folks at The Numero Group take the job seriously and give the semi-pros and 'Seventies stoners on this compilation a fair shake, presenting the artists on their own terms, as earnest, creatively ambitious purveyors of a kind of proto-Americana hippie twang, picking up where Gram Parsons, et. al. left off, taking the country-rock vibe of the East and West coasts into the heartland of America, into barrooms and motel lounges in the nation's most remote locales. As the album title implies, this collection leans heavily on the more psychedelic side of hippie-era twang, with heavy debts to the Dead and the Byrds, and to a lesser extent, to cosmic folkies such as Tim Hardin and Tom Rush. (There are also several female singers who bear an eerily prescient similarity to Lucinda Williams, notably Mistress Mary, on the appropriately uber-mopey "And I Didn't Want You" as well as Kathy Heidiman on "Sleep A Million Years." Go figure.) Anyway, this is a very strong set, well-curated and admirably un-ironic, and includes a lot of hard-to-discover obscuro gems... As someone who's been delving into off-the-radar, obscuro country artists for a while now, a few of the names were familiar to me, but most were not. I like that. A lot. The more you dig into this stuff, the deeper you can go, and the history of self-released country twang has plenty of surprises left to offer even the most devoted explorer. Personally, I'd love to hear a few albums worth of more straight-up traditional twang, but all this hippie-dippy stoner stuff is great, too. Kudos, Numero... once again!
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