Scanning The Countryside: What Artists Want From CDs—Still
By now, there’s not a recording artist, country or otherwise, who hasn’t heard that we’re in a new era — fundamentally, a singles era. They’ve all heard how CD album chart leaders are topping those charts with lower sales figures than anyone can remember. And they’ve all heard horror stories (as have followers of The 9513, for that matter) of new artists having a single or two released along with a label’s suggestion or promise that the album they’ve recorded will follow, only to find that the finished CD never sees the light of day. And yet, I can’t help but notice, artists persist in aspiring to make albums, go ahead and make them, and hope to see them reach their audience. Most who this applies to are not playing in, and may not even want to play in, the Super-Holy Cow-Multi-Platinum Crapshoot league, so no; the album impulse is not just about selling and making millions. As some quality new and upcoming releases remind me, there are plenty of reasons artists still choose to focus on albums—and they’re perfectly good reasons.
Take, for instance, It’s Already Tomorrow, the first new album from the mighty Foster & Lloyd in a mere 21 years, set for release digitally on April 26th and on physical CD on May 27th (on the sweetly named “Effin ‘Ell” label, which sounds like a nod to their British Invasion pop-flavored side). There may be a little of “we’re album-era guys, and we think in terms of albums” at work there, though Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd are no strangers to hit country singles. But this is an album that, in its entirety, accomplishes something else. It stakes a claim; namely, that this pair’s got the voices, instrumental chops, chemistry together and song-making ability they’d always had, and, except for the pesky fact that times are different, they’re ready to proceed as engagingly and memorably as in their big label heyday together. Trust me, the record shows that this is exactly so.
It’s got elegiac, expansive country rockers such as the opening, title track, the mule-kick country with rhythm twists of “That’s What She Said” (the sort of Foster & Lloyd cut that made them the country chart answers to Rockpile’s Edmunds and Lowe), and takes the opportunity to introduce their own version of the hooky “Picasso’s Mandolin,” (co-written with and previously recorded by Guy Clark), with Sam Bush on the mando solo. And they show off the band with which they’ve made a few select charity fundraiser appearances, including Tom Petersson from Cheap Trick on bass. This would be an appealing, wide-ranging record if it introduced unknowns named Lester & Floyd, but it simply couldn’t do what it does in a single or two.
With all due respect to recording executives who find advance singles the seductive way to introduce new country artists now, there’s a limit (if an understandable, radio-oriented and marketing-driven one) to what any single can show us about the most interesting artists they might find. There’s a 20-year-old Mississippian to be reckoned with who’s well and more expansively introduced on the terrifically unsubtly named new Tompkins Square CD Ben Hall! You may have heard a bit about Ben as a young guitar player being discovered and introduced around by the late Charlie Louvin in his last months. The historical connection seems right, in the sense that Ben’s the sort of instrumentalist who lists the specific instrument (“1984 Fender Deluxe II run through a 1962 Fender Bassman cabinet”) for the electric side and acoustic, Eric “Roscoe’ Ambel-produced CD. And Ben, I understand, has been doing some extracurricular work for the Country Hall of Fame. The confusion would be to imagine that the sound would be specifically Louvin-related, though the Louvin Brothers’ “Every Time You Leave” closes the CD. Hall is in fact an accomplished, swinging and engaging Travis picker—adept with Merle Travis influenced jazzy country (on Merle’s ““Cannonball Rag,” “Alabama Jubilee,” Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” and the jazz standard “They’ll Be Some Changes Made”) and the acoustic folk style derived from it. More of a surprise: Hall is also a charming, jazzy country singer, as heard on his take on Travis’s “Sweet Temptation” and “Guitar Rag.”
While he’s already been the IBMA Guitar Player of the Year and grew as a musician in public playing with Rhonda Vincent, Special Consensus and his own early bluegrass bands, Josh Williams’ CD Down Home establishes him as a mature solo artist to be reckoned with, more so even than his winning of the IBMA Emerging Artist the Year title last year before he had an album entirely of his own in circulation. (Down Home was set to be released by Pinecastle Records just as they suspended operations, a not uncommon story these days, but this one has a happy ending, with the album deservedly picked up and released a few weeks back by Rounder.) Williams takes on very established tunes by everyone from the Delmore Brothers to Jimmy Martin and Buck Owens and makes them his own. You may be familiar with this dexterous guitar playing, at once fluid and fiery, but what becomes particularly notable about Josh Williams, star attraction, in the course of this album is that he’s emerged as a hell of a soulful, Deep South sort of singer, singular in the way the first generation bluegrass performers tended to be.
With the near-simultaneous releases from the estimable Sierra Hull (featured on this site previously), Williams and Hall, all of whom began playing before they reached the age of double digits but show remarkable maturity, it seems to me that the future of the more acoustic side of country, in varied flavors, is passing into some very worthy and notably accomplished, practiced young hands. And these albums show it.
The oncoming salute CD I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow (Red Beet/Country Music Foundation) reminds us of one more thing an album can do that no single or EP could; no, not the familiar idea of a salute per se, but craftily bringing together diverse, sometimes seemingly quite separated groups of country artists to get there. This consistently strong revisiting of all of those Tom T. songs from a single kids’ album many reading this may have grown up with, produced by dynamic duo Peter Cooper and Eric Brace (both great Tom T. Hall admirers) features performances from Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale and Patty Griffin — a familiar enough Americana grouping but also Elizabeth Cook and Tim Carroll, Jon Byrd and Gary Bennett (with more alt.country rocker connections) Duane Eddy, no less, and such tested traditional country stars as Bobby Bare (senior) and Tommy Cash. This quality line-up, which you couldn’t showcase on anything less than a trusty album’s length, serves to underscore what a keystone artist Tom T. Hall is for a broad variety of performers. Of course, I wouldn’t advise trying to salute an album with a single in any event — albums featuring little white ducks included.
- luckyoldsun: Paul, Good info. It's pretty disgraceful that Billboard editors can't even get musical history remotely right regarding even their own publication. The …
- Juli Thanki: Yep, I'll be there. Looking forward to it!
- Leeann: Wow! The Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited album is so good!
- Jack Williams: I was also there on Saturday, Juli. I really liked Angeleena Presley's set, too. Marty and the boys …
- Jack Williams: I heard the guy who made the documentary talks funny. That's great news. I'll definitely buy a copy …
- Dave D.: Jim Lauderdale's The Other Sessions is my favorite; just a great country records, IMO.
- Paul W Dernnis: It seems that whoever wrote that Billboard article had some bum information. As of 1993, 13 country artists had 50 …
- Leeann: My favorite Jim Lauderdale albums are his collaborations with Ralph Stanley.
- Jeremy Dylan: Correcting my typo, that should be http://jimlauderdalemovie.com
- Jeremy Dylan: @SCOOTER: Depending on where your tastes lie, I'd say I'm A Song (the new record), Pretty Close to the Truth …