Roots Watch: Late Summer Records I Think You Ought to Hear

Barry Mazor | July 25th, 2013

Labels large and small have opted for highly seasonal release calendars that have a slew of new records coming out between mid-August and mid-September, like school lunchboxes. So I’m taking this column to offer some quick views and previews of several handfuls I’ve found notable. (“CDs” doesn’t nail it any more, and “releases” is giving up too much to market-speak, so I’m back to calling these ordered, packaged sets of recordings “records.”)

Alan Jackson: The Bluegrass Album. Not officially out until September 24th, this is one of the country albums of the year—no question about it. I’ve long been partial to the borderland between bluegrass and hard country, a fuzzy, fruitful area that’s yielded some strikingly good change-ups—from George Jones or Rose Maddox singing bluegrass to Jim & Jesse or the Osbornes harmonizing honky tonk. Alan Jackson’s added a new, no doubt lasting example of how well the blend can work, rounding up some of bluegrass’s best instrumentalists to back him, and bringing his non-genrefied, distinctive vocals to the arena. Tim Crouch’s fiddle and Rob Ickes’ dobro are prominent, and Don Rigsby and Ronnie Bowman provide vocal backup. Jackson’s grassy take on “Wild and Blue” is a classic in itself, and there are new songs designed for the occasion, from both Alan himself and the Wrights.

Vince Gill & Paul Franklin: Bakersfield. This new, clearly multi-chapter volume in Vince’s career, the one where he gets to do whatever he damn pleases, is certainly working out well so far. This time, soulful singing meets soulful steel. Gill’s played with steel player Franklin for years; currently, in the Time Jumpers; so this is no spur of the moment pairing. “Bakersfield” here means songs of Buck and Merle, with the accent on numbers, fast and slow, shuffles and ballads, where the steel fills and solos have room to play off against Vince’s vocals. Some of the numbers are less familiar, though the always returned to “Together Again” is a highlight.  I have no idea why they’d want to revive Merle’s catchy but belligerent (and, let me suggest, datedly topical) “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” now, with so many great Bakersfield songs to choose from, but each to his own.

 

Willie Sugarcapps: Willie Sugarcapps. Made up of Nashville Americana stalwarts Will Kimbrough and Grayson Capps, the latter’s guitarist Corky Hughes, and the roots rocker duo “Sugarcane Jane”—(spouses Savana Lee and Anthony Crawford), all originally Alabama “Third Coast” natives, this coalition of strong songwriters and singers have come up with a funky set of new songs that prove that storytelling balladry with strong folk and old time influences need not be all medium intensity, rhythm-challenged or sexless. The record’s fun, funny, sometimes touching and generally catchy; laidback here, raucous there. Several people in this group, as you might figure, can pick. What a concept.

 

The Band of Heathens: Sunday Morning Record. Now this coalition of roots rock songwriters already has a strong track record as a band, having done that toughest of things, effectively blending the differing singer-songwriter sensibilities into a formidable whole, and sustaining a group identify strong enough to play around some, with blues, psychedelia, country rock and pop. There’s an altered line up in this fourth outing, due out Sept. 17th, and a sound the band describes as more introspective; it’s certainly a quieter, more restrained outing, with notable 1970s country rock influences; the essential strength of the vocals and songwriting very much remains.

Jason Boland & the Stragglers: Dark & Dirty Mile. If you missed this one when it came out this spring—don’t. Boland and company have so many of the necessary unreconstructed hard country skills, and the sound is not all that far from what, say, Jamey Johnson has had a large shot at bringing to mainstream releases and charts; songs like “Ludlow,” on labor history’s Ludlow massacre, are more pointed than country-pop radio would ever take, but when Boland sings “it’s a brokenhearted world that we inhabit,” you’ll believe him.  You’ll know what he means.

 

Chris Young: A.M. He’s had the combination of accessibility, pop gloss, vocal strength and bouts of interesting songs and singing to achieve both commercial and considerable critical success; that same combo is evident on this next record, due out Sept. 17. Some of the up-tempo stuff sounds like typical fist-pump-along country radio fodder (the title song,  “Nothin’ But the Cooler Left,” “Lighters in the Air”); but as has been the case with Mr. Young, there are resonant, hooky ballads as well, particularly “Forgiveness,” “Text Me, Texas,” “Lonely Eyes,” and “Goodbye.”

Britt Gully: Jimmie Rodgers’ Guitar. The Mississippi-based country traditionalist got the chance to play Rodgers’ most celebrated guitar, the Martin with “Thanks” on the back housed at the Rodgers Museum in Meridian, and he’s made the most of it here. It’s all kept relatively simple, but aces Mac McAnally and Carl Jackson (both, like Jimmie Rodgers, honored by historic markers on the Mississippi Country Music trail) and contemporary string and horn players back Gully and his bluesy, plaintive, time-smashing vocals. It would be worth to some just to hear Rodgers’ guitar on Rodgers’ songs recorded with contemporary quality sound, but these are performances to savor.

This list, by accident, is so male heavy that I might have titled it “Fall Guys.” I wholeheartedly agree with editrix Thanki about the strength and pleasures of the oncoming Brandy Clark album; and highly recommend Pushin’ Against a Stone from Valerie June, the original, provocative Memphis and Nashville-blending singer –songwriter who’s made a splash in England and just brought the music back home. (I’m set to interview her elsewhere.) [We’re going to have an interview with her on E145 soon as well. –JT]

 

And by the way:  This seems to be a season of salute records of note, too. Do check out the Joe Boyd-produced Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake, with Robyn Hitchcock, Shane Nicholson and Teddy Thompson; You Don’t Know Me: Rediscovering Eddy Arnold with Alejandro Escovedo, Chris Scruggs, Mary Gauthier, Jason Ringenberg and together on one record at last, Peter Noone and Sylvain Sylvain; The Big E: A Salute to Steel Guitarist Buddy Emmons, with Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, John Anderson, Vince Gill and Little Jimmy Dickens; and High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama, due out Sept. 17th, with Jason Isbell, Todd Snider & Elizabeth Cook, the Blind Boys  of Alabama, and Old Crow Medicine Show.

  1. Janice Brooks
    July 25, 2013 at 8:31 am

    Such an incredible year. Just wish I could pull a few more listeners.

  2. Jonathan Pappalardo
    July 25, 2013 at 11:56 am

    The new Vince Gill/Paul Franklin record is incredible. I had to pry it out of my CD player long enough to give Pam and Lorrie’s new one a listen, but it’ll get back in there before long. I love each and every track.

    The Brandy Clark album is next on my list. I haven’t given it nearly enough of the attention it deserves. Cannot wait to hear AJ’s Bluegrass record!

  3. Rick
    July 25, 2013 at 5:57 pm

    Barry, what did you mean that “Fightin’ Side of Me” is “dated”? All of us Tea Party types out here feel this song embodies the anger and belligerence we all feel strongly towards the Obama administration! Not only is that song not dated, its more timely and relevant than ever! Crikey mate.

    Of all the albums listed the Alan Jackson Bluegrass recording is the one I’m most interested in, and especially since The Wrights are involved. Maybe Adam and Shannon will realize they too need to make a bluegrass album just to get back into a style of music people might actually purchase again. They’ve been wandering in the wilderness for too long now…

  4. Ann Allen
    August 18, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    I have to disagree on your thoughts about Merle’s song. I feel it is still extremely relevant. Our country is still in a mess…I imagine this is why it was chosen to be in,the cd…..another one of the best and truest songs written.

  5. Barry Mazor
    August 18, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    “Our country is still in a mess”..OK; so there YOU go, “runnin down our country.” right, Ann? Or maybe, just maybe, that would be too slighting and dismissive of YOU.

    As I said–each to his own. The great Merle Haggard is a lot less likely to be dismissive and cartoonish about his fellow Americans (including those he disagrees with about some things) than he occasionally, not generally, was then.

  6. Luckyoldsun
    August 18, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    Seems liberals–and later Merle himself–have taken his belligerent stuff as “ironic” or something of a spoof. I saw Merle performing once and when he sang “Muskogee” and got to the “We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy” line, he stood practically arm-in-arm goofing with with his drummer, who had hair like Pigpen.

    If Vince isn’t being ironic on “Fighting Side,” then I suspect he’s doing it as an anthropologist, offering a lesson in the time and culture.

  7. Barry Mazor
    August 18, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    Merle has described his relation to “Okie from Muskogee” in different ways in different situations and times. Nobody’s ever suggested that “Fightin’ Side” had the slightest irony to it; whether it was simply representation for or easy exploitation of people pissed off about people who were pissed off about the Vietnam War is an open question, I’d say..Applying the lyric to anybody right now would take a lot of mental gymnastics–or myopia.

    Ace country music critic and journalist David Cantwell has a book out next month, “Merle Haggard: The Running Kind,” which looks at what Merle’s been up to with this and other, broader material; I’ll off an early review and preview here in a few weeks. Nuff said for now.

  8. Jack Williams
    August 19, 2013 at 10:03 am

    About thirty years later, Merle Haggard espoused a much different point of view with respect to the Dixie Chicks incident:

    “I don’t even know the Dixie Chicks, but I find it an insult for all the men and women who fought and died in past wars when almost the majority of America jumped down their throats for voicing an opinion. It was like a verbal witch-hunt and lynching.”

  9. Luckyoldsun
    August 19, 2013 at 11:25 am

    JW
    I think Haggard is prone to say whatever he’s thinking at the moment. He seems to hold a lot of views that are completely inconsistent or contradictory. In the ’90s, he had a catchy–but completely muddled song called “Me And Crippled Soldiers” in which he claimed that the Supreme Court “voted to burn Old Gory down”–and suggested that it signaled the downfall of the country. And then there’s your quote about the Dixie Chicks.

    Oh, and then in ’08, I believe Haggard said he was supporting Hillary Clinton for President–though, I don’t know how serious that was.

    So I just listen to Merle for his songs and don’t get caught up in his politics–which may or may not coincide with mine in any given instance.

  10. Leeann Ward
    August 19, 2013 at 1:17 pm

    Ha. That does seem like the wisest thing to do. Luckily, he’s so good that it’s very easy to overlook his personal views on things.

  11. Jack Williams
    August 19, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    Agreed, LuckyOldSon and Leeann.

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