Roots Watch: Looking Forward, Looking Back

Barry Mazor | December 18th, 2012

Year’s end is all at once “make a list” time, “last chance to bring it up” time and “turn the page” time, so I thought I’d keep all of that in mind this column and point you towards some recent roots and country releases, reissues and re-visits in particular, that strike me as worthy of more attention, and alert you to some first quarter 2013 country and roots releases that I’ve had the chance to hear and find exciting.

Due out January 22 and already getting a lot of play at our house is a rarity so far, a terrific new CD’s worth of uncollected Buck Owens material, Honky Tonk Man: Buck Sings Country Classics on the impressively creative, relatively new Omnivore label. The frugal Mr. Owens left very few cuts unreleased; the material on this one is culled from quality early 1970s multi-track Buck & the Buckaroos recordings laid down at the same time mono versions recorded as overdubs for Hee Haw broadcast performances but never released as record. The songs are largely 1950s rhythmic honky tonk hits of the sorts that had influenced Buck and the band, from Ray Price, Johnny Horton, Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, plus some turns on more current numbers from Waylon Jennings and Charley Pride. Even with Buck’s voice circa 1972 a little lower, and the rhythms slightly less crackling than at the mid-Sixties Buckaroos peak, this is engaging music Owens appreciators will need to hear.

In an embarrassment of riches (pun only slightly intended), Don Rich Sings George Jones, a never-heard album’s worth of exactly what the title suggests, produce by Buck in Bakersfield in July 1970, will be released the same day. There’s no precedent for a solo vocal album from Buck’s harmony cohort, but if you’d figure that Don Rich singing “The Race is On,”  “Just a Girl I Used to Know,” “The Window Up Above “  “White Lightning” and “Walk Through This World with Me” would make a great record—well, it does. Perfect material for a voice we didn’t get to hear this way often enough.

John Hartford: Aereo-Plain/Morning Bugle: The Complete Warner Brothers Recordings. (Real Gone Music) A charmingly off-the-wall, daring and vastly influential 1971 album (Sam Bush maintains that newgrass and associated bluegrass and rock amalgams would never have shown up without it) people who know Hartford’s 1971 experimental break-out have been awaiting it’s quality reissue on CD for years—and here it is, just released, plus some bonus tracks, on a 2-CD set coupled with its slightly more sober follow-up LP. Aereo-Plain, produced by David Bromberg, introduced Hartford’s “(Baby Do You Wanna) Boogie,”  “Back in the Goodle Days,” and the warning that country powers-that-be would “Tear Down the Grand Ole Opry,” via a great collaborative band that includes Norman Blake, Tut Taylor, Vassar Clements and Randy Scruggs.

He Is My Story: The Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes (Tompkins Square). You may have missed this excellent well-engineered and documented new release of the 1926-28 recordings of the blind, piano-pounding, vocally soaring Pentecostal songstress but the 16-track, sonically alive set of these absolutely landmark recordings is not to be missed.  These were the first recordings ever (and Ms. Dranes the first artist recorded), with uninhibited, blues, boogie and ragtime-influenced gospel singing and instrumentation; the pathways from here to Mahalia Jackson, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis are all nakedly evident in retrospect, and astonishing.  There’s a well-researched companion booklet from Austin’s Michael Corcoran placing the raw music, Dranes’s story, and how those all came to be.

Rosie Flores’s labor of love, the preparation and release of the last, still rocking and smooth recordings from a key rockabilly queen, Janis Martin: The Blanco Sessions (Cow Island Music), recorded in Blanco, Texas in 2007, prove, as Rosie intended, that “the female Elvis” was on top of her game until the end.  The album’s no leftover; the country ballads and rocks outs alike will demand your time and repeated play. Janis relished performing, and you can always tell that. (Read the Engine 145 feature on Flores and Martin here.)

Sandy Denny: The Notes and the Words (Universal/Island) is a 4-CD, 75-track set of demos, outtakes and rarities, 1967-77, from the songwriter and influential vocalist whose clean, Anglo-roots vocal interpretations continue to echo in performances by today’s folk artists, rockers and, for instance, the recent Alison Krauss-Robert Plant collaboration alike. They range from acoustic recordings from her early solo folk years to performances with Fairport Convention, Fotheringay, and on to her later solo career, including demos of some Denny songs few if any got to hear, and the last song laid down before her death in 1977. The material has been well culled and presented, and manages, even in the wake of a good many Denny reissues since, to be fresh and surprisingly contemporary.

By the way: Electric, the much-anticipated next CD by Ms. Denny’s one-time band mate, Richard Thompson, produced by Buddy Miller, out on February 5, will prove that collaboration to be as fruitful as many would have hoped and expected.  The music—including guitar on the level you’d expect, the very best–covers virtually every side of the varied Thompson repertoire, from rockers to ballads, traditional to edgy, the lyrics glum to witty (See: “My Enemy” and “Good Things Happen to Bad People,” two new strong ones for the RT songbook). There are vocal backup appearances by the previously mentioned Ms. Krauss, and by Siobhan Maher Kennedy.  Gary Allan’s CDs come in two sorts, far as I’m concerned, very good and excellent, and the next one, Set You Free, out January 22, is of the excellent variety, with his usual mix of strong-minded introspective songs that never indulge in special pleading, and that hooky tough country, lighter pop blend that gives country a good name and, by my count, could yield as many as a half-dozen hit-worthy entries, especially in the second half of the album. The first-ever Kelly Willis-Bruce Robison full collaboration-duet album Cheater’s Game, due February 12, is another winner, built on both originals and takes on songs they love like Dave Alvin’s “Border Radio;” Willis’s vocal on the catchy “9,999,999 Tears” (which is a lot more than 96) is as strong as any form her Nashville or years. Watch too for new songs from Kris Kristofferson on Feeling Mortal, due January 22, including the typically honest to the bone title track, and a salute to “Ramblin’ Jack,” Elliott, no doubt.

  1. Janice Brooks
    December 18, 2012 at 9:08 am

    I did read about the Buck and Don material and can’t wait to here it.

  2. Rick
    December 18, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    I will definitely have to check out the Buck and Don Rich CDs. Should be quite a good spot of fun!

    If Kelly Willis’ voice didn’t warble so much, and she stayed on pitch, I might be a fan! Ummm, never going to happen. I did enjoy her duet with Monte Warden in “The Only One” and admit it was quite enjoyable though.

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