Roots Watch: Some Records I Think You Ought to Hear

Barry Mazor | March 28th, 2012

Keeping up with the sheer volume of new releases that might be of interest to people reading this column is always a challenge, practically impossible, and while I don’t plan to do it often, I figure that one way to play some catch-up here is just to line up some brief comments on recent releases that I want to spotlight and with a reasonable or unreasonable amount of enthusiasm, recommend:

Lyle Lovett’s new (and apparently last one) under his Curb Records contact that goes back to the mid-‘80s is entitled Release Me, demonstrating in that alone his usual combination of precision and innuendo. ) And yes, it also refers to a fine fiddle-driven shuffle version of the oldie you may know from Wells, Price, or ( if you’re less fortunate) Humperdinck. Lyle’s managed to put out as many immensely listenable, witty, musical and varied records as anybody in roots music in the same period, and managed to convince some people it was all country, even when presented as Large Band jazz.  He’s always been more of a singer-songwriter at heart, but has managed to include rhythm, sex, wit and even fun in what might be included in that definition— which remains all too rare. This one seems the opposite of a leftover release; it’s a new run through of the great range of records he’s made on the label, including everything from an original about encountering a hooker on Christmas Eve (“The Girl With the Holiday Smile”) to Martin Luther’s “Keep Us Steadfast.’ (Some of you will remember Marty; he had quite a run during the New Traditionalist Credibility Scare back around the turn of the 16th Century.) Arrangements vary from Large Band to an acoustic trip with his buddies Viktor Krauss and Ross Kunkel, and songwriters taken up from Townes Van Zandt (in one of the most infectious arrangements of the very, very often recorded “White Freight Liner” I’ve heard), to Broadway’s Frank Loesser. There are vocal duos with K.D. Lang (the “Release Me” turn), Kat Edmonson, and Sara Watkins. And it’s going to get played around our house a lot.

Things being what they are in country, honky tonk revivalists come and go (often quickly) but Moot Davis was one that stood out for me for vocal chops and musical smarts when I first saw and heard him almost a decade ago. He’d taken some time off and parted company with former producer-band mate Pete Anderson, but has now re-emerged in the excellent company of the Fabulous Superlatives plus Chris Scruggs on steel, on his new CD Man About Town, produced by Kenny Vaughan. This one includes a surprise, forceful, duet with Elizabeth Cook, “Crazy in Love With You,” and Moot shows more confidence than ever—and authority—in handling the material, throughout. The instrumental back-up is as on –target as you’d expect from what’s very arguably the best intact, working county band around. (And yes, as followers of this site have been notified, Marty Stuart, known to appear regularly with those same guys, has his Nashville Vol. 1: Tear The Woodpile Down CD out next month; it has the engaging combination of hard country covers and new ones in the mode that Mr. Stuart seems to come up with so effortlessly—and there’s a Marty duet with Hank Williams III.)

• In alt.country rock:  The pedigrees on the next two should give you some idea what to expect, which is to say, they begin with new songs with traction.  Jon Dee Graham, Freedy Johnston and Susan Cowsill—formidable names (and talents) within that sphere all—will have out shortly At Least We Have Each Other as “The Hobart Brothers with Lil Sis,” and the song craft and edge these people are known for will show. …The combo of the Waco Brothers and Paul Burch, on the other hand, may surprise some, but there have been Nashville appearances built around British Invasion pop influenced shows by the Waco’s Jon Langford and Burch before. They go back a ways, whether making melodies or rocking, and this is an opportunity for Paul to plow into his less traditional side. This new Wacos/Burch CD, The Great Chicago Fire, can be intense as Bloodshot label releases tend to get—but again, there’s the notable songcraft.

• Elsewhere in Americana: Julie Lee is a sort of closely held secret, a long appreciated but under-the-radar local Nashville treasure. She’s an earthy, bluesy songstress who brings old time country into her sonic mix, but who’s rarely recorded.  (She tends to be pulled up on stage by Nashville celebrities of many stripes.)  Her new CD, Julie Lee & the Baby-Daddies, offers the rare chance to hear a most excellent singer; the “Baby-Daddies” reference regards some of the guys whose kids she’s baby sat along the way on the side, including Mike Bub and (once again) Kenny Vaughan. (She had an utterly charming show featuring her various friends and neighbors at the Station Inn a few weeks back.)…Also known around Nashville and deserving to be known more widely: compelling, nuanced singer and songwriter Jessica Stiles, whose latest CD, The Latest Stiles (indeed), features her traditionalist country style (tales of heartbreak, honky tonk shuffles), original ballads, and guest appearances by the likes of Randy Kohrs and Josh Williams.

The New York area favorites The Demolition String Band, fronted by my own very talented old friends and one-time neighbors Elena Skye and Boo Reiners, have always matched quality bluegrass style (and level) instrumental chops with edgy song choices and creations; their new one on Varese Sarabande Records, Gracious Days, takes on writers from the Ramones to Mickey Newbury, and several strong compositions from Elena… And listen, if you’ve known The Steep Canyon Rangers mainly from their work with Steve Martin, do check out their oncoming CD Nobody Knows You; their marriage of quality bluegrass instrumental work and vocal harmonies that are tight and clean but more in a polished pop or pop folk than high-lonesome bluegrass vein is producing music that’s at once refreshing, reminiscent of some sixties experiments along those lines from, say, The Dillards, and irresistibly listenable.

And in blues:  I firmly recommend hearing the intriguingly experimental And Still I Rise from the Heritage Blues Orchestra, featuring Bill Sims, Jr.  and his daughter Chaney (a remarkable, flexible vocalist), percussionist Kenny “Beady Eyes” Smith and a horn section, which pulls off sophisticated turns on Son House, Muddy Waters and Lead Belly informed by jazz and orchestral music.  Thumbs up, too, for the very different, modern blues rock (likely to appeal to, say, North Mississippi All-Stars or Black Keys fans) of the Scissormen on Big Shoes: Walking and Talking the Blues, which includes an insightful DVD film on the band from Robert Muugge,  and Lurrie Bell’s infectious, The Devil Ain’t Got No Music, an album-length exploration of handclapping gospel blues— unusually enough,  Chicago style. He takes on Tom Waits’ “Down in the Hole;” Joe Louis Walker and that same said Bill Sims, Jr.-Kenny Smith duo guest.

  1. Rick
    March 28, 2012 at 9:27 pm

    Interesting stuff Barry. I think I will bite on the Moot Davis and Elizabeth Cook duet if I can download the single. Its got to be better than Elizabeth’s duet with Chuck Mead on “Pickin’ Wild Mountain Berries” which sadly didn’t work and any level…

    I think any album featuring Susan Cowsill should always contain at least one Cowsills’ song from the 1960’s. I think “Hair” would work well with the Hobard Bros. and Lil Sis! (lol)

  2. Leeann Ward
    March 29, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    I’ll have to check some of these out, particularly the Julie Lee album, since I like Stillhouse Road.

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