Walker’s sophomore album is one of the most enthralling releases of 2020. The Texan kicks off this 10 song epic with “Voices”. Riding over a pedal steel, Walker delivers a song about being broken and contemplating ending it all – “I might put this truck in neutral / Let it roll into the lake / First I’ll finish off this bottle / So it looks like a mistake.” With a heartfelt vocal drenched in Dwight Yoakam inflexions, he appears to be past the worst and attributes his rescue to a caring love but the dark shadows remain. “True Love” lights the after burners and Trey Pendergrass’s drumming heralds a change of pace. It’s on this track you’re now convinced that he has a voice that’s the platform for a long career.
There are a variety of sounds and paces on this album. (Kudos to John Pedigo’s production). Nothing is more striking than “Cupboard”. Imagine a rockabilly cover of “Sultans Of Swing”. Some beguiling fast picking guitar from Wade Cofer is an album highlight whilst some B3 organ whistles behind. Along the way we get time signature changes. “Bronco Billy’s” gets more string magic as Walker, on acoustic, and Adam Kurtz, on pedal steel, duel at pace. The song mines traditional country with lightning fret board runs.
Lyrically there are some curved balls in here. “Boat Show Girl” recounts the ennui of women paid to drape themselves across boats for sale at a show. He certainly can write a lyric – “You stand there on your altar / Astroturf beneath your feet / Like a redneck Statue of Liberty / This phrase rings out as you greet / ‘Give me your tired your poor / Your huddled masses waiting on the shore / May you board this fiberglass vessel / And not feel empty anymore’”. “User” is a musing on a relapse into using drugs, with an addictive hook. A brass chorus leads the band as Walker’s jovial delivery precedes his probable demise.
“Play You A Song” adds harmonies to the arrangements along with a traditional selection of instruments such as banjo and fiddle. If there’s a debate as to whether he’s paid his dues at several Texas hoedowns then this is his calling card. On “Loving County” Pedigo twiddles the dial on the electric guitar sound to give it a distant and fuzzy reverb whilst a slow vocal is pure Dwight Yoakam; no complaint on my behalf.
Walker takes a variety of sounds and it’s his comfortable mastery of so many styles and layered arrangements with fabulous compositions that elevate this into a contender for ‘album of year’ category for many Country fans, including this one.
Ted Russell Kamp’s latest release is a joy. This was recorded mainly in his ‘Den’ in LA. The album set off to have a soul feel; in general it’s mission accomplished if you grant him a licence for adding a heavenly slug of rock. To lift the vernacular of the accompanying PR, his day job is “holding down the bottom end for bands as diverse as Shooter Jennings, Jessi Colter, Whitey Morgan, and others”. However, it’s clear he’s a lot more talented than a bass player for hire; this is his 12th solo release. Throughout the songs are interesting, varied and provide a platform for his virtuosity: bass, acoustic guitar, dobro, keys, trombone, trumpet and banjo.
The arrangements and voice have a soulful sway with a rhythm that’ll move your feet. He’s invited friends to share duets including Shooter Jennings on the opener “Home Sweet Hollywood” and Kirsten Profitt on “Take My Song With You”. John Schreffler’s electric guitar lights up many of the tracks. “Word For Word” and “Saint Severin” are memorable for some fluid solos. “Waste A Little Time” heads further south than Tennessee with a Shinyribs’ vibe. A honky tonk piano and horns ignite this nicely; even the words display a certain NOLA insouciance. “Hobo Nickel” stays in Louisiana with some delightful Dixieland trumpet and trombone from Dave Richards.
The full band tracks are top class but when stripped down his ear for a tune and arrangement are outstanding – “Rainy Day Valentine” is a voice over bass melody that Lowell George would have been glad to call his own. “Only Son” is a gentle ballad and starts with Kamp accompanied by his acoustic guitar before the band joins in and the melody is driven by Dan Wistrom’s pedal steel.
This is a very consistent 14-track release engaging throughout and exuding craft and melody. The only negative is that he’s having far too much fun: maybe he’s the antidote to 2020?
If you’ve been making music for as long as septuagenarian Marshall Chapman has, you have earned the right to pick someone else’s songs and make them you own. The South Carolinian released her first album in 1977 and is respected in her own right as a songwriter. Here she visits classics by Leonard Cohen, Bob Seger, Carole King, Elvis Presley and others. On the first listen Betty LaVette came to mind: a careworn voice that is perfectly matched to the selection. It’s redolent with all life’s experience, carrying authority and never to be hurried. Both these ladies bless each cover with a new interpretation and poignancy that makes them convulse with gravitas that simply arrests you.
Neilson Hubbard’s production is terrific. He understands her talents and the essence of each cover to pitch it perfectly. Her voice is set atop a sparse and atmospheric acoustic sound with Will Kimbrough adding deft but important flourishes on electric guitar. She starts with Leonard Cohen’s “Tower Of Song”, only a person of a certain age can sing “Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey / I ache in the places where I used to play”. Bobby Charles’ masterpiece “Tennessee Blues” is faithfully reproduced, which didn’t need any adaptation; it fits her like a glove. Given her Southern heritage and laid back groove any JJ Cale song would fit, and she picks “After Midnight”.
Arguably the least promising songs deliver the most pleasure – “Don’t Be Cruel” swings. Dan Mitchells’ honky-tonk piano bolted to Hubbard’s snare brushes is uplifting and managed to purge The King’s version from my mind after a few listens. “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” reminds me of my youth and maybe the odd campfire and tambourine as it does Chapman who recounts her love of the song starting when she was 8 years old. This last song includes a spoken passage that is homely and delightful over a gospel backing. A fabulous exit from a fabulous album. After only nine tracks may we have volume two, please.
As I researched Grelle’s latest release, the difficulties for artists making a living in these lockdown days became apparent. My searches often uncover interviews with major outlets and acres of copy for me to sort the wheat from the chaff to try and understand the person and their music. Not in this case. I found myself watching Grelle’s Facebook Live Post. You’ll see a bewhiskered bloke sat in a box room in front of various signs. These are links for making payments. In the meanwhile he intersperses songs from his latest excellent release by waving T shirts around at tempting prices. It’s not easy out there.
Despite the penury I can find a positive: it enables Grelle to observe the realities around him. He produces four-minute documentaries like “It Ain’t Workin”: a tale about occupants of a run down house with limited access to healthcare or decent accommodation. The earlier, now prosperous, generation has clambered out of this area but don’t appreciate the lot of the folk whose journey they once shared. The lachrymose delivery could be John Prine or Loudon Wainwright III. The song is performedover a picked acoustic guitar until violins, viola and a cello join and make this into one of my tracks of the year. No lectures here just a request that you reflect on those less fortunate.
However, it’s not all profound and he directs his fragile and unique voice to the thorny matter of love. “To Be That Someone” is a passive courtship where he tells her “Don’t you know I’d walk with you anytime. Doesn’t matter how far. And I’d be happy to be that someone”. I’m sure we’ve all been here. Half the 10 album tracks are with a band and the electricity lifts the pace and energy. “Space and Time” hits an irresistible Creedence Clearwater Revival or Stones groove and Josh Cochran, on electric lead, adds some 70s fascination. Similarly “Mess Of Love” with its ska rhythm could have you up and dancing as he ruminates on the couples’ ineptitude in the art de l’amour.
So if we’re back to the T-shirts then Grelle has worn it, seen the movie and written the book. There’s a wisdom that you’ll find alluring: he’s lived every part of these stories. It’s a care worn voice bolted onto a variety of sounds that can be beautiful ballads or hearty rockers with, on occasion, interesting time signature changes. It’s four years since his last release; let’s hope it’s not so long before the next.
Jason Isbell is an artist who can do no wrong. His mantelpiece is probably buckled from the weight of industry trophies. He’s the current involuntary torchbearer of Americana with qualifying credentials which include a catalogue of some fine music, peer worship, an apprenticeship in the Drive-By Truckers and the ‘correct’ political views. In the US media and record industry this combination generally creates an unstoppable, unthinking, commercial momentum and fawning reviews. With such a malaise I’d usually distance myself, however, his seventh release confirms the garlands around his neck are hard won and worthy.
There are no dramatic shifts in sound from his other four releases of original material since 2013. He still captivates with music and lyrics that cover a wide breadth of topics. The topics are usually introspective and acutely personal. Dave Cobb produces again. I like this album for its consistency more than his other three releases.
“What Have I Done To Help” is a fine opening with a bass that underpins a lighter acoustic topping with Isbell self-flagellating over his apparent lack of action to help those he has the ability to help. It’s a recurrent theme for Isbell who laments those less fortunate. He believes either his skin colour or status isolate him from their cruel realities. On this album his guitar gets more fluid and adopts many sounds. Here it wails seductively under a repetitive, yet satisfying chorus. “Be Afraid” turns on his fellow artists who fail to speak out about social issues: their self pre-occupation displays an acute lack of self-awareness. The song is 80s rock with a loping snare drum beat and an anthemic chorus with lots of REM guitar reverb. Terrific.
In the same way “Overseas” hits a heavy rock groove. An insistent and thudding beat eventually gives over to an electric solo guaranteed to sell a few million air guitars. Apparently there are two angles to the story; it was initially spawned out of separation from his musician wife (Amanda Shires) when she embarked on a solo tour. The first opening bars of “Running With Our Eyes Closed” has you again back in the 80s with a Mark Knopfler guitar sound, however, the song broadens out to generic FM Radio rock. All the time Isbell can pick a deft phrase or riff. The voice is uniquely mellifluous; the words, melody, arrangements are perfect throughout.
Isbell can be an open book and his life and family providing fertile predicaments to plunder. He’s been an alcoholic and throughout his recordings he never runs from the struggle. “It Gets Easier” sums up his daily battle “It gets easier but it never gets easy / I can say it’s all worth it, but you won’t believe me”. Likewise he visits the joy and responsibilities of fatherhood on “Letting You Go”. Like Brandi Carlile’s “The Mother”, it’s a song of wonderment and slight awe at this prized possession. Over a slow beat with occasional slide guitar moments he delivers a beautiful tune. Here he moves the timeline along to her eventual flight to lead her own adult life. Touching and articulate.
I said ‘hard won’ because you don’t release such albums without a lot of reflection, graft and inspiration. From the first listen you know you’re in the presence of something important. Wisdom and reflection pour from each song; wrapped up in the most delicate and economic wordsmithery. He now has a run of releases that justify the genuflection. I’m on one knee as I write this.
Lund is from farming stock in Alberta, Canada. His continuing foothold in a working life makes his lyrics authentic and authoritative; many are fashioned into stories with pathos or wisdom and others are simply hilarious with fabulous wordplay. His version of modern Western, rockabilly and Alt-Country is a unique sound that’s crafted by a band that has been behind him for over 15 years. The sound is always bordering on live, raw and propelled by Brady Valgardson’s drumming which gives all his releases energy that make you reach to turn the volume up. His 10th release of original material Agricultural Tragic is his strongest album for many years and has a level of consistency that makes it a compelling record.
I’m rather partial to the Braun family. There are four brothers who split into two bands. One is Reckless Kelly and the other is Micky & The Motor Cars. The latter’s Long Time Comin’ release was one of 2019’s strongest. Now in 2020 we get a double album from the older siblings – Willy and Cody. The sound is probably more country than rock and the themes they sing are the well used tropes– love, loss, homecoming and family all often involving cinematic sweeping vistas of the USA.
Willy Braun explains that American Jackpot was already recorded when he pulled the band together again to record American Girls. On both albums Willy wanted to talk about everyday American themes and in part the current political climate in the USA. At this point I might flinch but in fairness it has a light touch. “North American Jackpot” starts with a piano and rock introduction before Willy reflects on the changes in the USA over 300 years from the The Mayflower’s arrival (and America embracing newcomers) through to today where he “watches the fading lamplight that once lit the golden door”. Elegant words for his point of view, which goes onto to celebrate his country and what a fine place it is to live. Other more impactful social commentary comes on “Put On Your Brave Face Mary” where Willy laments, in a ballad, about the suicide rate of the military. Anthemic and impactful.
Ledger’s debut is a prize: pairing his languorous yet captivating voice and lyrics with T Bone Burnett’s production, Ledger’s delivered one of this year’s unexpected delights. The partnership drew this comment from Ledger – “I think we’re each attracted to the more sinister aspects of folk and roots music, and we each have a desire to keep music alive while finding a way to make something new out of it.” You get an album that seems at first listen, a near conventional traditional Country album, but starts revealing some shadowy corners and wider genre sensibilities as you become acquainted.
Burnett has let the voice do the talking and what a siren to follow. Over 11 songs the sound swings from straight Buck Owens (“Starlight”) through to 70s British pop with sci-fi images (“Electric Fantasy”). Burnett’s assembled band played the 2009 Grammy winning Raising Sand for Alison Kraus and Robert Plant. Their accomplished playing here is measured and varied.
Caudle’s distinctive voice harbours doom as the band chugs into life on “Better Hurry Up”. This steamy swamp rocker urges alacrity as time slips away with a message about your own personal journey. The simple song structure has a chanting chorus of voices including John Paul White and Elizabeth Cook. “Monte Carlo”, “Dirty Curtain” & “Reach Down” all have that New Orleans swamp vibe and provide a welcome breadth to the sounds on this album.
John Jackson (Jayhawks) handled production responsibilities. He brought a fabulous band and a ‘live’ sound, which enabled each song to have more impact. Much is made in the PR material that the recording was done at Cash Cabin Studios on Johnny Cash’s estate. If the location had a meaningful impact then this small and intimate setting clearly brought the best out of all the players.
If I was bragging I’d tell you I bought my first Dylan album in 1974 – Before The Flood. I say this because we all know that any affection for Bob carries kudos for the follower. It suggests that you are serious about your popular music – its history, construction and icons. However, I haven’t dwelt on his catalogue until the last few years. Of course I knew a lot about Dylan through the 70s onwards. I’d collected a couple of the 60s albums but I’d only played them once in a while. If pressed I’d say that Blood On The Tracks was the meisterwerk. Now I’m starting to truly listen to his catalogue and trying to reconcile all I hear with his own personal development. The earlier stuff is exceptional.
Another Side Of Bob Dylan was his fourth release and came out in 1964. By all accounts the ‘voice of a generation’, with his protest songs, disappointed the masses by abandoning his rôle as their spokesman. There’s still considerable profundity in most of the songs but none that you can trace back to the upheaval of 60s America. The upheaval came in the form of the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam war, Kennedy’s assassination and the growing non conformity of a generation that regularly protested and abandoned the uniform of dress codes and short hair. Peace and love were just around the corner.