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Wednesday, July 01, 2015

a home for the americana diaspora
June 27, 2015
Scott Foley


Yes, we're halfway through this great experiment called 2015. Please allow me to lean back and stroke my chin thoughtfully as I reflect upon my 20 favorite records of the year to date.  In order of appearance, of course. 

Justin Townes Earle  (1/13, Vagrant)
Ryan Bingham  (1/20, Axster Bingham)
American Aquarium  (2/3, American Aquarium)
Kill County  (2/16, Kill County)
James McMurtry  (2/24, Complicated Game)
Andrew Combs  (3/3, Coin)
Ryan Culwell  (3/3, Lightning Rod)
Porter (3/10, Porter)
William Elliott Whitmore  (3/27, Anti)
Spirit Family Reunion  (4/14, SFR)
Alabama Shakes  (4/21, ATO)
John Moreland (4/21, Old Omens)
Charlie Parr  (4/28, Red House)
Chris Stapleton  (5/4, Mercury)
Banditos  (5/12, Bloodshot)
Tallest Man On Earth  (5/12, Dead Oceans)
Deslondes  (6/5, New West)
Jason Isbell  (6/17, Southeastern)
Leon Bridges  (6/19, Columbia)
Nathaniel Rateliff & Night Sweats   (8/21, Stax)

I'll tag Ryan Culwell or Porter as the year's biggest surprises thus far, followed closely by Banditos (docked a surprise point for being on the Bloodshot label, from whom excellence is never a surprise).  Alabama Shakes and John Moreland followed up career defining records with admirable grace, as did Jason Isbell.  Big Names from our genre like McMurtry, Bingham and Earle (Jr) exceeded my expectations.  And long awaited discs from Leon Bridges and Colorado's Nathaniel Rateliff & Night Sweats cemented the deal with soul.  Chris Stapleton saved country music from itself (plus, I just previewed Kasey Musgraves sophomore release in full, and consider me impressed). It's all just plain good, and if I can look forward to 20 equally impressive records for the second half of 2015, I'll be a content programmer.

*  Steve Earle, "Hard-Core Troubadour"  I Feel Alright  (Warner, 96)
*  Steve Earle, "Acquainted With the Wind"  Terraplane  (New West, 15)
*  Richard Thompson, "She Never Could Resist a Winding Road"  Still  (Beeswing, 15)
*  Lindi Ortega, "Ashes"  Faded Gloryville  (Last Gang, 15)
*  David Ramirez, "Harder To Lie"  Fables  (Sweetworld, 15)  D
*  Brent Best, "Queen Bee"  Your Dog Champ  (Last Chance, 15)
*  Chris Stapleton, "Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore"  Traveller  (Mercury, 15)
*  Jessica Lee Wilkes, "Something's Goin' On"  Lone Wolf  (Free Dirt, 15)  D
*  Honey Honey, "Big Man"  3  (Rounder, 15)
*  Charlie Parr, "Temperance River Blues"  Stumpjumper  (Red House, 15)
*  Eilen Jewell, "Pages"  Sundown Over Ghost Town  (Signature Sounds, 15)
*  Deslondes, "Low Down Soul"  Deslondes  (New West, 15)
*  Sam Outlaw, "Ghost Town"  Angeleno  (Thirty Tigers, 15)
*  Andrew Combs, "Month of Bad Habits"  All These Dreams  (Thirty Tigers, 15)
*  Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin, "World's In a Bad Condition"  Lost Time  (Yep Roc, 15)  D
*  Leon Bridges, "Flowers"  Coming Home  (Capitol, 15)
^  Nathaniel Rateliff & Night Sweats, "Howling At Nothing"  Night Sweats  (Stax, 15)  C
*  Samantha Crain, "Elk City"  Under Branch & Thorn & Tree  (Full Time Hobby, 15)
*  Jason Isbell, "To a Band That I Loved"  Something More Than Free  (Southeastern, 15)
*  Centro-Matic, "To Unleash the Horses Now"  Distance and Clime  (Idol, 01)
*  Water Liars, "Let It Breathe"  Water Liars  (Fat Possum, 14)
*  T Hardy Morris, "My Me"  Drownin' On a Mountain Top  (Dangerbird, 15)
*  Left Lane Cruiser, "Heavy Honey"  Dirty Spliff Blues  (Alive Naturalsound, 15)
*  Heartless Bastards, "Black Cloud"  Restless Ones  (Partisan, 15)
*  Giant Sand, "Every Now and Then"  Heartbreak Pass  (New West, 15)
*  Giant Sand, "Brand New Swamp Thing"  Blurry Blue Mountain  (Fire, 10)
*  Lonesome Wyatt & Rachel Brooke, "Miles and Miles"  Bad Omen  (Tribulation, 15)
*  Daniel Romano, "If I've Only One Time Askin'"  If I've Only One Time Askin'  (New West, 15)  D
*  JD McPherson, "Everybody's Talking 'Bout the All-American"   Let the Good Times Roll  (Rounder, 15)

Sunday, June 21, 2015

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
June 20, 2015
Scott Foley

Anytime I'm gone from the mic for a couple weeks, I inevitably return with too many new things to air.  This week, "too many new things" includes a Warren Zevon tribute from Lucero, Have Gun Will Travel's concept album about Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, and former Slobberbone and Drams-man Brent Best.  Also, please don't make me wait too long to hear the rest of Nathaniel Rateliff's new Night Sweats project.  

Almost exactly at the halfway point through "Children Of Children" on Jason Isbell's new Something More Than Free, there is an unexpected drum crack, which ushers in a rain of gorgeous strings.  The strings are pushed aside after a couple measures by a rude cloud of guitar noise, backed by thundering drums.  It's the biggest sound Isbell has ever created, and it cuts a line between his stellar career to date and what's to come. 

As you'll recall, Isbell's Southeastern defined 2013 for me - a moving, visceral collection of personal songs, appropriately recorded sans his 400 Unit backing band.  Southeastern producer Dave Cobb has returned, and so has much of Isbell's band, including Mrs Isbell, Amanda Shires on fiddle and vocals.  Something More isn't necessarily louder, per se.  "If It Takes a Lifetime", for instance, will likely garner a Best Song nod for next year's Americana awards.  A good natured ramble, it connects Isbell to the Guy Clark lineage:  "A man is the product of all the people that he ever loved".  Both "Flagship" and the title cut tread relatively familiar workin' class territory, too.  To date, it's what Jason Isbell has done so well.   

Reports have quoted Isbell that Something More Than Free is a more optimistic, forward-looking collection compared to Southeastern, which earned him an armload of Americana Music Awards for Artist, Album and Song of the Year.  “[I'm] trying to explain relationships between people and relationships with an individual and his or her past, and the sort of things you trade in to be happy the older you get — I think that’s a big concern on this record.”  Forward-thinking, yes.  Perhaps not happier.  Where "Flagship" allows a hopeful glance into a couple's possible future, "How To Forget" counters with self-doubt in the wake of an ex's biting dismissal:  "Was I good to you? Was it hell? Was it fun? Did you think I was the one? Was I good to you?".  "Life You Chose" even goes so far as flirting with the fantasy of reconnecting with an early flame:  "Are you living the life you chose? Are you living the life that chose you? ... Just tonight I realized I am still in your backseat / And nothing I've had since has meant a thing to me".  

Something More Than Free is focused on a future-distant point, but largely haunted by the past.  Where we come from, and why we're no longer there; the undeniable pull of memory and identity.  Songs like "24 Frames" dwell on that line between our yearning for the past and the lure of the future's shining promise.  The single is one of the album's gems:  "You thought God was an architect, now you know / He's something like a pipe bomb ready to blow".  "To a Band That I Loved" is a tremendous and personal ode to Centro-Matic:  "Somehow I'm still out here seeing your faces ..."  No matter how far or how successfully we've moved on, our strings remain tangled with what's gone before.  

Back to "Children Of Children".  It's a song that begins in sepia tones of the small town past.  Isbell's masterful lyrics soon betray that these memories are fraught with guilt and regret, as the tune's early acoustic guitar reveals glimpses of the storm of sound to come.  The electric guitar, the grit and the noise crop up here and there throughout the masterful collection, presenting Isbell as an artist who will become larger than the genre that has embraced his work to date.   

I’ve lived with the record for about a week, to the point where “that new CD smell” has faded a bit.  My relationship with an album is not entirely unlike that with a sweetheart  (wrote the blogger who’s been married for 25+ years): the initial novelty and euphoria, the subsequent “getting to know you” period, and the gradual settling, familiarity and recognition.  I return to this page to confidently announce that I think this is the real thing.  Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free might just be a masterpiece.

*  Tallest Man On Earth, "Fields Of Our Home"  Dark Bird Is Home  (Dead Oceans, 15)
*   Rocky Votolato, "Sparks Of Recovery"  Kindred Spirit  (SideOneDummy, 15)
*  Spirit Family Reunion, "All the Way Back Home"  Hands Together  (SFR, 15)
*  Kristin Diable, "Time Will Wait"  Create Your Own Mythology  (Speakeasy, 15)
*  Jackie Greene, "Trust Somebody"  Back To Birth  (Yep Roc, 15)  D
*  Danny & the Champions Of the World, "Clear Water"  What Kind Of Love  (Loose, 15)
*  Deslondes, "Out On the Rise"  the Deslondes  (New West, 15)
*  Fox Street, "Long Road Home"  Authentic Western Style  (Fox St, 15)  C
*  Alabama Shakes, "Miss You"  Sound and Color  (ATO, 15)
*  Nathaniel Rateliff & Night Sweats, "S.O.B."  Night Sweats  (Stax, 15)  C
*  Shinyribs, "Baby What's Wrong"  Okra Candy  (Mustard Lid, 15)
*  Sam Outlaw, "Ghost Town"  Angeleno  (Thirty Tigers, 15)
*  Banditos, "The Breeze"  Banditos  (Bloodshot, 15)
*  T Hardy Morris, "Young Assumption"  Drownin' On a Mountain Top  (Dangerbird, 15)
*  the Arcs, "Stay In My Corner"  Your Dreamily  (Nonesuch, 15)  D
*  Joe Ely, "Long Snake Moan (live)" Live Shots  (UMG, 80)
*  Old Man Luedecke, "Early Days"  Domestic Eccentric  (True North, 15)  D
*  Phil Cook, "Great Tide"  Southland Mission  (Thirty Tigers, 15)  D
*  Iris Dement, "Like a White Stone"  Trackless Woods  (Flariella, 15) 
*  Lucero, "Went Looking For Warren Zevon's Los Angeles"  All a Man Should Do  (ATO, 15)  D
*  Two Cow Garage, "Continental Distance"  single  (Last Chance, 15) 
*  Have Gun Will Travel, "Spirit Of Discovery"  Science From An Easy Chair  (This Is American Music, 15)  D
^  Jason Isbell, "Children Of Children"  Something More Than Free  (Southeastern, 15) 
*  Brent Best, "Queen Bee"  Your Dog Champ  (Last Chance, 15)  D

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A home for the americana diaspora
June 6, 2015
Scott Foley

My soul's a lion's den 
There ain't  no place to hide 
Heart's an engineer 
Out on his last ride

A couple years ago I made space on my radar for an act called the Tumbleweeds, fronted by Sam Doores.  Now beneath a far stronger marquee, the Deslondes drop their heralded self-titled debut on New West Records. Mr Doores is just one of the 5 writers and 4 vocalists who fuel the collective's New Orleans country-soul.  Along with bassman Dan Cutler, Doores has previously moonlighted with fellow N'Orleans artist Alynda Lee Segarra in Hurray For the Riff Raff.  As a patchwork woven of so many musical visions, the record jumps from early rock influences to honky tonk, Doug Sahm-inspired country and even gospel touches.  A degree of the Deslondes' charm comes from their loose, streetcorner spirit, like hobo buskers with an electric guitar who just happen to have de-trained for a quick trackside performance.  The record's retro compass also comes across in its consistently thin production, sounding at times like something harvested from the Woody Guthrie archives.  The Deslondes are at their best when they're under the influence of that Louisiana country-soul.  The lazy bar band opener "Fought the Blues and Won" is built upon a Fats Domino style piano roll, while "Real Deal" finds guidance under the star of Doug Sahm.  The backslider gospel of "Those Were (Could've Been) the Days" recalls sometimes touring partners Spirit Family Reunion:  "I ain't drunk darlin' / I just been drinking ".  The Deslondes comes to a close on a hidden gem, the piano ballad "Out On the Rise", whose bluesy Sunday morning groove and unexpected clarinet solo could've been overheard from a second story window in the band's Holy Cross neighborhood home.  

Lots of other strong material this Episode, including another glimpse into the Chuck Ragan /Rocky Votolato split EP, and some hard stuff at the hands of Left Lane Cruiser and Barrence Whitfield.  Onetime Gouger and Trisha, Jamie Lin Wilson brings us her debut solo record, and there's some deep down soulful material from Honey Honey and Danny & the Champions. 

Next Episode, you'll be kept company by Tarnation's Andy D, who will be sitting in for me.  Please treat him well, and I'm told he'll do the same for you. 

*  Porter, "Natural Disaster"  This Red Mountain  (Porter, 15)
*  John Moreland, "Heart's Too Heavy"  High On Tulsa Heat  (Old Omens, 15)
*  James McMurtry, "Copper Canteen"  Complicated Game  (Complicated Game, 15)
*  Leeroy Stagger, "Something Beautiful"  Dream It All Away  (Rebeltone, 15)
*  Chuck Ragan, "Before Dust"  Kindred Spirit  (SideOneDummy, 15)
*  Dwight Yoakam, "Liar"  Second Hand Heart  (Reprise, 15)
*  Lydia Loveless, "Bad Way To Go"  Indestructible Machine  (Bloodshot, 11)
*  Ray Wylie Hubbard, "Down By the River"  Ruffian's Misfortune  (Bordello, 15)
*  Left Lane Cruiser, "Tres Borrachos"  Dirty Spliff Blues  (Alive Naturalsound, 15)
*  Barrence Whitfield & the Savages, "Incarceration Casserole"  Under the Savage Sky  (Bloodshot, 15)  D
*  Chris Stapleton, "Parachute"  Traveller  (Mercury, 15)
*  Jimmie Dale Gilmore, "That Hardwood Floor"  Jimmie Dale Gilmore  (Hightone, 89)
*  Jamie Lin Wilson, "Just Like Heartache"  Holidays & Wedding Rings  (JLW, 15)  D
*  Yonder Mt String Band, "Ever Fallen In Love"  Black Sheep  (Frog Pad, 15)  C, D
*  Ben Miller Band, "Prettiest Girl"  Any Way Shape or Form  (New West, 14)
*  Chatham County Line, "Love I Found"  Tightrope  (Yep Roc, 14)
*  Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard, "It's Only Money"  Django and Jimmie  (Sony, 15)
*  Michael Dean Damron, "20,000 Miles"  When the Darkness Come  (MDD, 15)
*  Hollis Brown, "Sandy"  3 Shots  (Hollis Brown, 15)
*  Amy Black, "Please Don't Give Up On Me"  Muscle Shoals Sessions  (Reuben, 15)
*  Levon Helm, "You Better Move On"  Imus Ranch Record  (New West, 08)
*  Honey Honey, "Back to You"   3  (Rounder, 15)  D
*  Richard Thompson, "Broken Doll"  Still  (Beeswing, 15)
^  Deslondes, "Those Were (Could've Been) the Days"  the Deslondes  (New West, 15)
*  Old 97s, "Big Brown Eyes"  Too Far To Care  (Elektra, 97)
*  Danny & the Champions of the World, "This Is Not a Love Song"  What Kind of Love  (Loose, 15)  D
*  Ryan Adams, "New York New York (live)"  Live At Carnegie Hall  (PaxAm, 15)
*  Dawes, "Somewhere Along the Way"  All Your Favorite Bands  (HUB, 15)  D

Friday, June 05, 2015

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
May 30, 2015
Scott Foley


Let me shine a light on what I'm doing here.  Every month about this time, I'll take a quick look back at the best music that month had to offer.  I'll select my five favorites, as well as a Colorado-based release if such a thing presents itself.  While I tend to debut stuff as songs become available, nothing will make this list until I've had a chance to hear the entire thing.  F'rinstance, even though I debuted a tune from Chris Stapleton's Traveler way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I didn't hear the whole collection until this month.  See?

In addition to some Interesting Weather, May brought us a gob of good music.  Tallest Man On Earth offered Dark Bird Is Home, demonstrating a fuller, more produced sound.  The return of Lonesome Wyatt & Rachel Brooke, Bad Omen, was still wonderfully mired in a swamp of lo-fi buzz.  Sam Outlaw's official full length LP, Angeleno, was given a lovely ameripolitan bent by producer Ry Cooder.  And Emmylou and Rodney (Harris and Crowell, respectively), will win shiny awards for the second volume of their collaboration, Traveling Kind.

My earliest taste of Will Hoge came back in 2006 with his blessedly over-the-top "Woman Be Strong".  After nonstop touring, a horrific scooter accident and a truck commercial, that Will sounds little like the Will that brings us the paeon to rural 'merica, Small Town Dreams.  I've made fun of the fact that each of these new songs is ready made for another Toyota spot, but I'm also quick to praise Hoge's peerless skill at painting pictures of small town life.  He's the songwriting equivalent of a Norman Rockwell.  Or is he the mainstream country Springsteen? 

I've been waiting for Sonic Ranch, Whitey Morgan & the 78s' new LP, since the Michigan artist dropped his first collection in '08.  After a batch of covers, a live record and a bare bones acoustic tribute to his grandpa, Morgan has finally delivered a lineup of timeless country originals.  Sure, there are covers, but the remarkable fact is how brightly his own honky tonk, americana and country numbers shine alongside those classics. 

Perhaps you'd be surprised to hear that I don't party.  Like a dolphin on skis (or, apparently, Will Hoge on a scooter), I don't know that I'd even know where to start.  That said, if I were the partyin' type, I'd like to think I'd party best to a soundtrack of dirty garage-born stuff like the Banditos. It's all you could want from Southern rock, a precarious balance of boogie, blues and rock 'n roll bluster. 

Speaking of the South, you might recall that Alabama Shakes' 2012 Boys & Girls landed like a bomb on R&B (check out my post from Nov 12 2011, where I link to a post "that might change your life").  After years of nonstop touring, the world gradually caught up with my discovery, and the pressure of a follow up was tremendous.  This month's Sound & Color could never compete with that initial Shakes encounter, but it's so damn good to have more new music from Brittany Howard and the boys. 

I think I’ve been reserving a space on my favorites list for Chris Stapleton’s Traveller since hearing about the writer’s pending solo debut months and months ago.  This after hearing only his work with the bluegrass supergroup SteelDrivers, and maybe harboring a passing familiarity with a song or two he’d penned for the day’s biggest mainstream country acts.  Perhaps it was something as superficial as Stapleton’s look:  yards of hair flowing from a cowboy hat tugged low enough to obscure any glimpse of his eyes. The popular response pegs him as an "outlaw" country guy, and “Might As Well Get Stoned”“Outlaw State of Mind” and  “Devil Named Music” assure that the “o” word will be easily attached to Stapleton’s resume, though he’s far bigger than the tired outlaw sub-genre. In the midst of all this hard livin’, heavy drinkin’ and deep sinnin’, there is a brutal honesty to Chris Stapleton’s music.  When too much country is played with a wink or a tongue jammed in cheek, there’s none of this pretense to The Traveller.  Perhaps no song speaks to this better than “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore”, a stark, barebones story that quietly breaks hearts.  Molasses slow, with wheezing harmonica mimicking the sound of a miles-away train.  Daddy doesn’t pray anymore / Guess he’s finished talking with the lord / He used to fold his hands and bow his head down to the floor / But Daddy doesn’t pray anymore”.  His take on "Tennessee Whiskey", which has been covered by acts from George Jones to Jason Boland, reveals the deep, genuine soul in Stapleton's vocal instrument.  More edgy pieces like "Parachute" and "When the Stars Come Out" allow the singer to explore the full power of his classic voice:  "One of those LA nights / When the stars come out and shine / They burn so bright / They drown the downtown lights ..."  

Maybe next week I’ll start giving some thought to the half-year mark of 2015.  At this point, it wouldn’t be premature to declare it a year when much of the appeal in our kind of music came from the country corner. 

*  Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, "If You Lived Here"  Traveling Kind  (Nonesuch, 15)
*  Far West, "Bitter Drunk & Cold"  Far West  (Wooden Tapes, 11)
*  Kasey Chambers, "Bittersweet"  Bittersweet  (Sugar Hill, 15)  D
*  Lindi Ortega, "To Love Somebody"  Faded Gloryville  (Last Gang, 15)
*  Whitey Morgan & the 78s, "Low Down On the Backstreets"  Sonic Ranch  (El Paso, 15)
*  Will Hoge, "Growing Up Around Here"  Small Town Dreams  (Cumberland, 15)
*  Sam Outlaw, "Who Do You Think You Are"  Angeleno  (Thirty Tigers, 15)
*  Deslondes, "the Real Deal"  Deslondes  (New West, 15)
*  Nathaniel Rateliff & Night Sweats, "Howling At Nothing"  Nathaniel Rateliff & Night Sweats  (Stax, 15)  D, C
*  Alabama Shakes, "Future People"  Sound & Color  (ATO, 15)
*  Lonesome Wyatt & Rachel Brooke, "Death Watch Blues"  Bad Omen  (Tribulation, 15)
*  Giant Sand, "Hurtin' Habit"  Heartbreak Pass  (New West, 15)
*  Banditos, "Cry Baby Cry"  Banditos  (Bloodshot, 15)
*  Langhorne Slim, "Strangers"  Spirit Moves  (Dualtone, 15)
*  State Champion, "Don't Leave Home Without My Love"  Fantasy Error  (Sophomore Lounge, 15)
*  Heartless Bastards, "Hi-Line"  Restless Ones  (Partisan, 15)
^  Chris Stapleton, "Daddy  Doesn't Pray Anymore"  Traveller  (Mercury, 15)
*  Chuck Ragan, "Vagabond"  Kindred Spirit EP  (SideOneDummy, 15)  D
*  Shelby Lynne, "I Can't Imagine"  I Can't Imagine  (Rounder, 15)
*  Fox Street, "Our Garden"  Authentic Western Dress  (Fox St, 15)  D, C
*  Jimmy LaFave, "Beauty of You"  Night Tribe  (Music Road, 15)
*  Eilen Jewell, "Needle & Thread"  Sundown Over Ghost Town  (Signature Sounds, 15)
*  Rhett Miller, "Wanderlust"  Traveler  (ATO, 15)
*  Richard Thompson, "All Buttoned Up"  Still  (Beeswing, 15)
*  Leeroy Stagger, "Something Beautiful"  Dream It All Away  (Rebeltone, 15)  D
*  Hollis Brown, "Highway 1 (w/Nikki Lane)"  3 Shots  (Hollis Brown, 15)
*  Milk Carton Kids, "High Hopes"  Monterey  (Anti, 15)
*  Yawpers, "Faith and Good Judgment"  Spokesbuzz Vol 5  (Spokesbuzz, 14)  C

Sunday, May 24, 2015

a home for the americana diaspora
May 23, 2015
Scott Foley

Nominees were announced this week for the Americana Honors & Awards.  While my own year end favorites lists only occasionally and accidentally cross over with the AHAs, there's still a good deal of integrity in their list (as opposed to the Grammys, the American Music Awards or the Billboard Awards, f'rinstance, which I'll occasionally still follow for the sake of cultural literacy or comic relief).  I figured this year I'd try my hand at a bit of prognostication, handicapping the AHAs in light of who "should" win and who will likely walk away with some of the ugliest trophies since I won the Pinewood Derby at the age of 10 (vs Bobby Bonds, who told me he hoped my wheels fell off).

Emerging Artist
First Aid Kit, Houndmouth, Nikki Lane, Doug Seegers, Shakey Graves
Given his rags-to-less-rags backstory, it'd be cool to see Doug Seegers walk away with this recognition.  First Aid Kit were one of the foremost crossover artists of the past year, but I don't know that they're necessarily an act that the americana community has fully claimed as their own.  Houndmouth's Little Neon Limelight is worthy of recognition, but its later release date will threaten their chances.  That leaves Nikki Lane and Shakey Graves.  Should Win:  Shakey Graves has been laboring beneath the threshold of popular awareness for a number of years, and he has an integrity and artistic vision that will serve him well for years to come.  Will Win:  I have no problem with Nikki Lane earning this recognition.  She's the genre's own choice to be their next official sweetheart. 

Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn, Lone Bellow, Mavericks, Punch Brothers, Shovels & Rope
Not necessarily the sexiest AHA, I think this race is between the returning Mavs, beloved by the americana community, Shovels & Rope, who have already won a couple things two years back, and Bela & Abigail.  Shovels' Swimmin' Time merits some love, but the record doesn't have the momentum of the other candidates.  Bela & Abigail are in the running for the genre's First Couple, but I think the AHA will go home with Raul Malo & co, who have been engaged in a victory lap since their 2013 return.  Tight race, though. 
Should Win:  Shovels & Rope.  Will Win:  Mavericks.

Shakey Graves, "Dearly Departed"; Lucinda Williams, "East Side of Town"; John Hiatt, "Terms of My Surrender"; Sturgill Simpson, "Turtles All the Way Down"; Steve Earle, "You're Best Lover That I Ever Had"
This is the year's weakest list, but it features the year's most sure thing.  Hiatt is the sentimental favorite here, with as much of a personal look back as he's ever offered.  Let's just jump to the obvious, however, and crown Simpson's masterwork.  With the perfect meeting of the classic and the visionary, "Turtles" leaves absolutely nothing to be desired. 
Should Win:  Sturgill Simpson.  Will Win:  Sturgill Simpson

Shakey Graves, Lucinda Williams, Sturgill Simpson, Lee Ann Womack, Rhiannon Giddens
After my inaugural listen to Giddens' record, I predicted it would earn the Grammys' nod for something or other (though prob'ly not the AHAs).  Womack's collection marks a career resurgence, but it's also a batch of covers, which will prevent it from advancing.  Shakey Graves deserves something this year, but he's a longshot versus beloved vets like Lucinda.  Her double CD is generous and worthy of runner-up status, but really made no Grand Statement for the genre or the artist.  Simpson's Metamodern Sounds can check both of those boxes, giving our kind of music a new prominence, and boosting Simpson onto the genre's most prominent podium after just two solo records.  Also, it was Routes & Branches' choice for last year's favorite LP, which counts for absolutely nothing. 
Should Win:  Sturgill Simpson.  Will Win:  Sturgill Simpson

Rhiannon Giddens, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Lucinda Williams, Lee Ann Womack
Isbell won 2014's Album, Song and Artist AHAs, and I can't imagine they'd be so generous with a guy whose follow-up record won't be released for a couple more weeks. Don't worry, he'll show up again on next year's list.  Until then, I can't see any other selection than Sturgill Simpson.  It's been his year.  
Should Win:  Sturgill Simpson.  Will Win:  Sturgill Simpson

For the love of god, please don't put money on these forecasts, though if you do I wouldn't turn down a percentage of the winnings to put towards my library in Hawaii.  Still, I'm not certain if Vegas is taking odds on the AHAs ...

It's my opinion that the americana world needs Sam Outlaw. His debut, Angeleno, trades in an increasingly rare sort of SoCal countrypolitan.  Produced by Ry Cooder and son Joachim, the record comes across as simultaneously retro and immediately relevant.  While the specs vary, think Andrew Combs or JP Harris, both of whom walk a similar path on recent album, paying homage to sounds of the past while dragging those traditions into a more contemporary light - anything less might come across as a hollow impersonation.  

We're ushered into Angeleno on a warm breeze of strings courtesy of "Who Do You Think You Are".  A couple measures later and we're introduced to another central element of Sam Outlaw's sound, the mariachi horns and Latin rhythms that crop up throughout.  The voice is easy and likeable, occupying a tone with the twang of Dwight Yoakam and the lazy romanticism of Justin Townes Earle or Cale Tyson.  "Keep It Interesting" is an ode to "mixing it up" for the sake of the relationship:  "No one stays long / In a love gone cold".  Outlaw's partner in harmony, Molly Jenson, provides a perfectly charming counterpoint, like Tift Merritt or even Sheryl Crow at times.  "I'm Not Jealous" reveals another aspect of Angeleno, a wry sense of lyrical humor that is so welcome in these days of dumbed down "bro country" and self important rock.  Watching as an ex paints the town, Outlaw only half convincingly declares, "I'm not jealous of them / I'm embarrassed for you". At the height of his powers, he is able to repurpose Carrie Underwood's hit on "Jesus Take the Wheel (and drive me to a bar)". 

Like Andrew Combs' All These Dreams, the production surrounding Outlaw's songs cannot be discounted.  The Cooders have constructed a perfect countrypolitan diorama, from Joachim's brushed percussion to the tastefully distributed pedal steel and fiddle touches, and the occasional subtle bed of sad, sad strings.  When executed to the degree of "Country Love Song", the result is ready made for the more traditional edges of contemporary country radio (where such a thing still exists).  Likewise Outlaw's "Ghost Town", which recognizes both the sun bleached romanticism and the sadness inherent in his adopted SoCal home.  Like the act of assuming the Outlaw moniker into his stage persona (it's a family name), there's a boldness and an authenticity to this debut release. 

*  Lucinda Williams, "This Old Heartache"  Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone  (Hwy 20, 14)
*  Doug Seegers, "Angie's Song"  Going Down To the River  (Rounder, 14)
*  Kenny Knight, "One Down"  Crossroads  (Paradise of Bachelors, 15)  C
*  Hip Hatchet, "Ladies Night"  Hold You Like a Harness  (Hip Hatchet, 15)
*  Ryan Culwell, "I Will Come For You"  Flatlands  (Lightning Rod, 14)
*  Samantha Crain, "Outside the Pale"  Under Branches & Thorn & Tree  (Full Time Hobby, 15)
*  Calexico, "When the Angels Played"  Edge of the Sun  (Anti, 15)
^  Sam Outlaw, "Jesus Take the Wheel (and drive me to a bar)"  Angeleno  (Thirty Tigers, 15)  D
*  Wilco, "Casino Queen"  A.M.  (Reprise, 94)
*  State Champion, "Fantasy Error"  Fantasy Error  (Sophomore Lounge, 15)  D
*  T Hardy Morris, "Painted On Attitude"  Drownin' On a Mountain Top  (Dangerbird, 15)
*  Banditos, "No Good"  Banditos  (Bloodshot, 15)
*  the Sonics, "Look At Little Sister"  This Is the Sonics  (Re:Vox, 15)  D
*  Dwight Yoakam, "Little Sister (acoustic)"  (Reprise, 00)
*  Sturgill Simpson, "It Ain't All Flowers"  Metamodern Sounds In Country Music  (High Top Mt, 14)
*  Lee Ann Womack, "Tomorrow Night In Baltimore"  The Way I'm Livin'  (Sugar Hill, 14)
*  Rayland Baxter, "Yellow Eyes"  Imaginary Man  (ATO, 15)  D
*  Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, "I Just Wanted To See You So Bad"  Traveling Kind  (Nonesuch, 15)
*  Lonesome Wyatt & Rachel Brooke, "If the Beasts Should Hunt Us"  Bad Omen  (Tribulation, 15)
*  Shakey Graves, "Big Time Nashville Star"  And the War Came  (Dualtone, 14)
*  Langhorne Slim & the Law, "Strangers"  The Spirit Moves  (Dualtone, 15)  D
*  Michael Dean Damron, "Am I the Only One Drinking Tonight"  When the Darkness Come  (MDD, 15)
*  Iris Dement, "Listening To Singing"  The Trackless Woods  (FlariElla, 15)  D
*  Brown Bird, "Raging Squall"  Axis Mundi  (Supply & Demand, 15)
*  Shelby Lynne, "Be In the Now"  I Can't Imagine  (Rounder, 15)
*  Will Hoge, "Guitar Or a Gun"  Small Town Dreams  (Cumberland, 15)
*  Shovels & Rope, "Evil"  Swimmin' Time  (Dualtone, 14)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
May 16, 2015
Scott Foley

How can a guy who explores such dark recesses be so friendly?  I talked Wendell Berry, Mark Twain and Tom Robbins with William Elliott Whitmore and Mrs Whitmore this week, and got a couple excellent live cuts from WEW as well.  We talked family farms, mortality and radium poisoning, and tried to think of another Iowa artist besides Greg Brown.  Sometimes I go into these interviews a bit reluctant to give up the airspace, but more often than not the artists prove engaging and I go all Terry Gross on them and next thing I know we've eaten up half an hour.  

But there's still good ol' recorded music to be enjoyed, and this week we shed light on new stuff from Willie & Hag, Michael Dean Damron and Dead Confederate and Diamond Rugs contributor T Hardy Morris.  Left Lane Cruiser's Dirty Spliff Blues is becoming more promising with every unleashed cut, and I flirted with the notion of giving this week's review space to a much deserved reflection on Chris Stapleton's solo debut.

Instead, I decided to rejoice in the arrival of the complete Banditos record from our fine friends at Bloodshot. Based upon my theory of the Beards Per Band ratio, the Birmingham-by-way-of-Nashville sextet demanded my attention as soon as I saw the announcement of their debut.  The collection opens like a drunk man falling down some dark stairs, a full-tilt boogie that barely clings to the rail(ing)s.  The Banditos boast a trio of vocalists, including the natural force that is Mary Beth Richardson.  Our kind of music is packed with female vocalists who are soulful, sweet, sexy or slick, but it's the rare frontwoman who crosses over into the "ballsy" territory.  On "Waitin'" or the immeasurably bluesy "No Good" Richardson more than holds her own in that tangle of beards, coming across with all the attitude and ability of Janis.  It takes a capable instrumentalist to sound as reckless as the Banditos do throughout their album.  Guitars are hard and heavy, with drums and organ pounding away like the classic 60s blues-rock outfits.  A closer listen will be rewarded with frequent banjo sightings between all those electric strings.  "Still Sober (After All These Beers)" will compete with "Jesus Would've Let Me Pick the Restaurant" for 2015's best song title, not to mention all the chooglin' and flirtin' with disaster that one would expect from a Southern rock outfit.  More trad types might find relief in tunes like "Blue Mosey #2" or "Ain't It Hard", songs that are reduced to an acoustic simmer.  "Cry Baby Cry" could cure those ills, however, with shared vocals and a boogie piano that belongs in a dusty roadhouse somewhere.  This morning I heard old rockinghorse Roger Daltrey arguing that rock music was not dead, that it could be tracked to bars and small clubs across our country on any given night.  I would agree that acts like the Banditos are part of that underground contingent keeping the garage-born spirit of rock alive.

*  Ryan Adams, "Hardest Part (live)"  Live At Carnegie Hall  (PaxAm, 15)
*  Cat Power, "Willie"  the Greatest  (Matador, 06)
*  Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard, "Unfair Weather Friend"  Django and Jimmie  (Columbia, 15)  D
*  Hayes Carll, "(I'm Gonna Start) Living Again If It Kills Me"  Lowe Country  (Fiesta Red, 12)
*  Kill County, "Neighbor Dogs"  Broken Glass In the Sun  (Kill County, 15)
*  T Hardy Morris, "My Me"  Drownin' On a Mountain Top  (Dangerbird, 15)  D
*  Amy Black, "Tighten Up"  Muscle Shoals Sessions  (Reuben, 15)
*  William Elliott Whitmore, "Civilizations"  live in studio
                     "Don't Strike Me Down"  live in studio
                     "Ain't Gone Yet"  live in studio 
*  Left Lane Cruiser, "Whitebread n' Beans"  Dirty Spliff Blues  (Alive Naturalsound, 15)
*  Michael Dean Damron, "20,000 Miles"  When the Darkness Come  (MDD, 15)  D
*  Jason Isbell, "24 Frames"  Something More Than Free  (Southeastern, 15)
*  Shinyribs, "Sacred & the Profane"  Okra Candy  (Mustard Lid, 15)
*  Whitey Morgan & the 78s, "Still Drunk Still Crazy Still Blue"  Sonic Ranch  (Whitey Morgan, 15)
*  Chris Stapleton, "Tennessee Whiskey"  Traveller  (Mercury, 15)
*  Great Peacock, "Desert Lark"  Making Ghosts  (This is American Music, 15)
*  Giant Sand, "Home Sweat Home"  Heartbreak Pass  (New West, 15)
*  Nikki Lane, "Can't Get Enough"  All or Nothin' (deluxe)  (New West, 14)
^  Banditos, "Blue Mosey #2"  Banditos  (Bloodshot, 15)
*  Tallest Man On Earth, "Slow Dance"  Dark Bird Is Home  (Dead Oceans, 15)
*  Houndmouth, "Say It"  Little Neon Limelight  (Rough Trade, 15)
*  John Moreland, "High On Tulsa Heat"  High On Tulsa Heat  (Old Omens, 15)
*  Caroline Spence, "Whiskey Watered Down"  Somehow  (Caroline Spence, 15)

Monday, May 11, 2015

home of the americana diaspora
May 9, 2015
Scott Foley

Couple posts ago, I burbled on in praise of a song that has the ability to change lives - at least mine.  From Tallest Man On Earth, "Sagres" swept my feet out from under me.  The very first time I heard it I happened to be spinning it on one of my Mix shows, basically just airing it unheard while chatting with another programmer.  My second time through "Sagres" happened later that same day.  On my ride home, I realized the relative error of my ways, that I had inadvertently broadcast the profane line that so fittingly pulled so much together for me:

It's just all this fucking doubt  

Granted, that's just one line from a lifechanging song, and one haunting song from an album that pairs perfectly with last year's Lateness of Dancers by Hiss Golden Messenger.  Both Lateness and Tallest Man's Dark Bird Is Home trade in what might carelessly be termed indie folk, created by artists who perform under aliases much larger than their given monikers.  

When the lo-fi guitar 'n voice recordings of Sweden's Kristian Matsson first reached the radar of bloggers, he was damned with a Dylan comparison.  Like most other Dylan sightings, this one was off target, focused superficially on Matsson's slightly nasal delivery and his rambling lyrical tendencies.  The sound of Tallest Man on Earth has grown over the ensuing decade, coming to incorporate a more diverse range of instrumentation and production, though still focused on Matsson's lo-fi vocals and poetically restless lyrics.  Early reports declared Dark Bird more of a full band record, and the first glimpse of "Sagres" confirmed those suspicions.  "Darkness of the Dream" gallops along like Springsteen for all the song's romantic yearning.  With a few exceptions, songs are built on a strummed or fingerpicked acoustic guitar.  Even the quieter, more pared back pieces such as "Singers" and "Fields of Home" are shaded with tape echoes and effects, grainy horns or the cloudy piano of "Little Nowhere Towns". 

Despite his increasingly crowded studio, Dark Bird remains quite a personal collection.  Matsson has intimated that parts of the record address his recent divorce, "what lead up to that and what happens after".  Beneath the production and the rapidfire delivery, Matsson's lyrics aren't always easy to discern (early, unofficial efforts on lyrics sites have been downright puzzling). When the clouds part for a line or two, the glimpses can be revelatory.  There are seemingly confessional moments such as "Little Nowhere Towns", as well as a couple genuinely optimistic passages.  The album closes on one of the latter times:  "Suddenly the day gets you down / but this is not the end / no, this is fine". 

*  Charlie Parr, "Remember Me If I Forget"  Stumpjumper  (Red House, 15)
*  Porter, "Harder Stuff"  This Red Mountain  (Porter, 15)
*  Amy Black, "Bring It On Home"  Muscle Shoals Sessions  (Reuben Records, 15)
*  Hillstomp, "Cardiac Arrest In D"  Darker the Night  (In Music We Trust, 10)
*  Alabama Shakes, "Miss You"  Sound & Color  (ATO, 15)
*  Ray Wylie Hubbard, "Stone Blind Horses"  Ruffian's Misfortune  (Bordello, 15)
*  Kristin Diable, "I'll Make Time For You"  Create Your Own Mythology  (Speakeasy, 15)
*  Lucinda Williams, "Pyramid of Tears"  Por Vida: Tribute To the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo  (Or Music, 04)
*  Jason Isbell, "24 Frames"  Something More Than Free  (Southeastern, 15)  D
*  Jayhawks, "Ain't No End (live)"  Live At the Belly Up  (Belly Up, 15)
*  Calexico, "Follow the River"  Edge of the Sun  (Anti, 15)
*  Shinyribs, "Dead Batteries"  Okra Candy  (Mustard Lid, 15)
*  Allison Moorer, "Storms Never Last"  Lonesome On'ry & Mean  (Dualtone, 03)
*  Whitey Morgan & the 78s, "Good Timin' Man"  Sonic Ranch  (Whitey Morgan, 15)
*  Jimmy LaFave, "Never Came Back To Memphis"  Night Tribe  (Music Road, 15)
*  Will Hoge, "They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To"  Small Town Dreams  (Cumberland, 15)
*  Dave Alvin, "Blue Wing"  King of California  (Hightone, 94)
*  Chris Stapleton, "When the Stars Come Out"  Traveller  (Mercury, 15)
*  Kenny Knight, "Carry Me Down"  Crossroads  (Paradise of Bachelors, 15)  C
*  Shelby Lynne, "Sold the Devil (Sunshine)"  I Can't Imagine  (Rounder, 15)
*  John Statz, "Queen of the Plains"  Tulsa  (John Statz, 15)  C
*  Have Gun Will Travel, "Kerosene & Candlelight"  Mergers & Acquisitions  (Suburban Home, 09)
*  Lilly Hiatt, "Somebody's Daughter"  Royal Blue  (Normaltown, 15)
*  Rhett Miller, "Lucky Star"  Traveler  (ATO, 15)
*  Giant Sand, "Man On a String"  Heartbreak Pass  (New West, 15)
*  Lonesome Wyatt & Rachel Brooke, "Miles and Miles"  Bad Omen  (Tribulation, 15)
*  Carrie Rodriguez, "Steal Your Love"  Love & Circumstance  (Ninth St Opus, 10)
*  William Elliott Whitmore, "Healing To Do"  Radium Death  (ATO, 15)