Roots Watch: Late Summer Records I Think You Ought to Hear
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.
- luckyoldsun: I think the number one country murder ballad is "Frankie and Johnny"--by Jimmie. Also, how about "Delia's Gone" from Harry Belafonte …
- Juli Thanki: Colloquial use of "fantastic" as a synonym for "excellent" dates back to the 1930s. And if it's good enough for …
- Paul W Dennis: I think "Banks of The Ohio", "Miller's Cave" and "It's Nothing to Me" are far creepier than several of the …
- Paul W Dennis: The Hight article is interesting, although I don't know that I would describe it as fantastic, but then I know …
- Dana M: I'm actually excited to hear a new Reba album. As for the Alan Jackson tour, I hope he announces Canadian …
- nm: Agreed. A good job by three very smart women.
- Deremy Jylan: The Hight piece is tremendous reading.
- Juli Thanki: Much like the music of Aldean and FGL, Michelob Ultra is favored by college kids and too much exposure will …
- Tom: ...michelob ultra seems to be a brew from hell.
- luckyoldsun: Maybe he was just changing out of his hunting clothes. At least he didn't do the full Randy...um Monty.