Roots Watch: Late Winter Record, Video and Book Alerts

Barry Mazor | February 24th, 2014

I’ve got a slew of very worthwhile new roots music material to bring to your attention in this catch-up column, some recently released and some just about to come out, and I’ll just get right at it, by the batch:

African-American women really mixing it up

This is one ripe season for provocative, engaging new records that sound good, from members of a singer-songwriter demographic that’s too often underrepresented in roots music coverage. Banjo-, cello- and guitar-playing Leyla McCalla’s debut album Vari-Colored Songs will get a lot of play at our house. It’s a salute to the late, music-loving poet Langston Hughes, with songs she’s built on some of his unrecorded, pungent bluesy and narrative lyrics, plus some musical turns from her own Haitian forebears, and musical and vocal backup from her friends in the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The self-titled new CD from the Kenyan born, Seattle-based singer-songwriter Naomi Wachira keeps it simple and direct; she marries tightly crafted, thoughtful lyrics about love and faith (“It’s an honor and a privilege when I can say I’m alive”) with infectious African and American rhythms; she references Tracy Chapman and Miriam Makeba as influences—and you can hear that. Ursula Ricks’ My Street is the belated, rich recording debut of a Baltimore grandma with a deep, horn-like voice that fits somewhere between Nina Simone and Al Green (not bad company) with 1970s soul-influenced horn and string backed arrangements of her own observant songs.  People often refer to the dependably charming Catherine Russell as a jazz singer, given her family ties to New Orleans jazz history, but as her new release Bring It Back shows once again, she can sing most anything—and might. There are indeed horn-backed swing era tunes that swing—but also blues derived from Ida Cox vaudeville and down home Wynonie Harris R&B jump.


Americana artists with rhythm

They don’t always major in that, you know. But Amelia White does, on her new collection Old Postcard (out March 4), which (yes; true) has sweet, pointed lyrics about family and dreams and Nashville, but jumps out at you for its hooky song structures and polished, enveloping Americana/pop sounds– ably contributed to by such East Nashville instrumental stalwarts as Pete Finney, Tim Carroll, Jon Byrd and Anne McCue.  Traditional roots music veteran Dirk Powell—the fiddle and banjo ace called on to record with everyone from Levon Helm to Irma Thomas and Jack White, has delivered one of my favorite albums of this young year in Walking Through Clay, which is everything you might want a rolling, rocking Appalachia-Cajun roots rock album to be. His singing’s as strong as the expected instrumental chops on display. The debut, self-titled CD by young Parker Millsap instantly establishes him as someone to watch—and to hear. He writes fresh, pointed, sometimes acerbic storytelling songs about the Pentecostal/Oklahoma Plains world he grew up in; they move.  Fans of Jason Isbell and John Fullbright should check this new artist out; I suspect that his name will soon come up in that company. Less common than country stars returning to bluegrass roots, habitually excellent bluegrass singer-songwriter Donna Ulisse in her new release Showin’ My Roots, returns to the mainstream country of Dolly, Loretta and Tammy she’d focused on earlier, but with ace bluegrass backing, and it’s a pleasure throughout. And the many fans of Moot Davis’s brand of updated, energetic honky tonk will be pleased, once again, with his Kenny Vaughan-produced new release, Goin’ in Hot, which will be out in April.


Blues to choose

Blues Hall of Famer Joe Louis Walker is remarkably dependable about coming up with albums that vary urban blues, R&B, gospel and rock in ways that don’t get tired; that’s true again with his new CD Hornet’s Nest, which moves easily and engagingly through fresh, grungy new modern blues numbers of his own devising (often co-written with the talented Hambridge and Fleming pair that wrote for recent James Cotton and Buddy Guy outings), plus turns on ‘50s R&B and even the Stones’  “Ride On, Baby.”  James “Boogaloo” Bolden, the Houston singer-horn player who’s led B.B. King’s band for over 30 years, has a rarity, a true multi-talent, multi-vocalist (both sexes), guitar, keyboard and horn blues band at work on the new CD No News “Jus’ the Blues.” It’s thick, immaculate, and soulful.


DVDs–Yes; Really

In YouTube world there’s not the continuous release of notable DVDs that there was when I was doing regular roots music video columns for No Depression magazine, then American Songwriter, but there are two new ones that matter, with more on them of great note than you’d want to download performance by performance anyway.  The Guitar Artistry of Doc Watson, on Rounder/Vestapol, adds to an already formidable line-up of Doc videos the Stefan Grossman-run line’s put out, but this one is truly career spanning and features prime Watson all through the years doing—as he did—old time country, folk, rockabilly and blues. Duets with son Merle are among them, and none repeat performances of earlier collections.  What could be better?   Watch, too for the mid-March release of You Are There, on Shanachie DVD, a very welcome addition to their previous cullings from the rightly celebrated color Gannaway Opry star films of the 1950s, this time, focusing on more traditional artists—1950s Bill Monroe, the Louvin Brothers (very rare), Sam & Kirk McGee, and Grandpa Jones among them, plus, as a bonus, all of the Hank Williams Kate Smith TV show appearances.


Related Books

Jason Mellard’s important book Progressive Country is not specifically about outlaw music making in 1970s Austin or the lineup at Armadillo World Headquarters; it places that scene and the players in it–hippies and hillbillies, politicos and football coaches alike—in looking at how the ‘70s changed the world’s perception, and Texans’ own perceptions, of what a “Texas man” was and signifies, before and after the ‘cosmic cowboys” moment. It’s a cultural and social history, in which the music, self-evidently, plays a key part, and those who want to understand more about how and why that scene happened and how it’s mattered will find the book illuminating.   Nashville’s Tamara Saviano, manager, consultant and record producer for the likes of Kris Kristofferson and Guy Clark, takes a touching and gutsy, often-surprising look back at her sometimes wrenching coming of age in her memoir The Most Beautiful Girl.  Music shapes the story of her pre-music fame life and almost as much as a trying, intense family relationships.  Recommended.


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