King comes from a rock background complete with tattoos and piercings. On this country offering she brings blues and rock tinctures; this inevitably gives the album considerable attraction and personality. She’s got a slightly raspy voice that can hold and belt out a tune: more Etta James than Carrie Underwood. This is her third release and she works with Ross Copperman (Dierks Bentley, Keith Urban, Brett Eldredge, Darius Rucker et al), as the co-producer. The affair has a Bro-Country vibe in terms of hooks, pace and arrangements but Copperman isn’t afraid to use a banjo or fiddle to actually make this a proper country music record. This use of traditional acoustic instruments adds to the tunefulness but there are also some terrific rock guitar riffs throughout.
Dierks Bentley turns up on Worth A Shot and their voices meld well over a vibrant rock arrangement that seems typical of much of the album. It’s not their first duet, it follows Different For Girls from 2016. Miranda Lambert, a pal, also lends a voice on Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home). It’s the lead single off the album and has a great video. Whilst never clumsily resorting to vacuous Bro-Country tropes I really liked Try Jesus, it selects the Good Shepherd as Plan B after disillusion with the opposite sex – “I’m gonna try Jesus / See what all the fuss is about / Thinkin’ I should try Jesus / ‘Cause every other man let me down”.
Refreshing by their acoustic nature are Crawlin’ Mood and Bonafide. The weaving of fiddle and banjo is a great sound and it’s interesting to hear her in this different setting. She signs off with Love Go By, it’s wonderful blue-eyed soul. She sings the song and ushers in an irresistible gospel chorus behind her. The backing is dialed down so any emotion in her voice is upfront and clear.
Eight of the tracks are co-writes with Nashville ‘A listers’, this calibre of collaborator has ensured that the album contains some excellent compositions. If King has a history in rock then taking that stage and studio experience and applying it to something like country pop works out to be a fine marriage. King’s been around for many years, paid her dues and had radio Number 1’s in a number of rock genres. Clearly country is now her career and I wish her success, this is a fine release.
“It’s a love letter to the Rolling Stones from Nashville” says the curator, and the man behind the project, Robert Deaton. Apparently it ties in with it being 60 years (and nine months) since the Stones performed their first gig at The Marquee in London. Their catalogue is a wonderful tour of American roots music whether it’s pop, blues, soul or rock n’ roll but the country music connections are less convincing despite Gram Parsons being a one time buddy of Keef and a few tracks here and there. (Their tongue in cheek pastiche, Far Away Eyes, off Some Girls remains a favourite of mine.) If there’s a challenge in taking a selection of terrific vocalists and unleashing them on a few of the greatest rock songs ever written it’s that some of the charm is in Jagger’s idiosyncratic and unique delivery.
All the arrangements are beautifully constructed with formidable musicianship. The creations are broadly faithful to the originals if updated and I was impressed by the ‘no expense spared’ approach to strings, B3 organs, horns, girly backing vocals etc. In the blurb there’s no appearance of one of the English (US) language’s most pernicious words … ‘reimagining’. I’m pleased about the absence of desecration but this approach makes it karaoke with artists lending their voices.
The album starts very strongly but then starts to drift to still crafted but less memorable tracks. Few tracks have country flourishes although pedal steel can be prominent as on Maren Morris’ wonderful Dead Flowers or Little Big Town’s sterilised Wild Horses. The combination of The Brothers Osborne & The War and Treaty is inspired as this gospel infused version of It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll (But I Like It) is truly epic. Ashley McBryde really leans into (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and she should wave the fee for having had so much fun. Brook & Dunn, blues guitarist (Nashville?) Marcus King, Steve Earle do memorable versions of their covers and Lainey Wilson brings her sensational southern drawl to the funeral paced You Can’t Always Get What you Want and captures the essence of the song.
It’s a really nice album with few songs you’d skip. I’m sure many artists couldn’t believe their luck being invited and paid to sing songs they’ve probably played sometime in their career. If you like the Stones and country music fill your boots. I did!
The Boss’ catalogue stands up there with the best of popular music. However, I lost interest in him in the 80s and Bruce, in fairness, has ploughed on ever since with fairly crafted affairs that always have something to say. I’m unenthusiastic about older artists’ recorded output after their peak. I mean who wants the latest Neil Young, Elton John or Paul McCartney offering?
However my interest was piqued when, on social media, I saw a clip of Springsteen bashing out that hallowed Northern Soul classic Do I Love You (Indeed I Do). It’s a remarkable soul number that gets you from the first few bars. Ironically the composer and performer, Frank Wilson, decided with Tamla Motown, not to release the record in 1965 and destroyed all but 5 copies of the 250 initially pressed. As the record seeped out and became a Northern Soul staple it was re-released in 1979 and everyone could get a copy. Of the 5 original remaining 1965 copies one fetched near £26,000 in 2009. That’s ridiculous for a 7 inch single but also testament to the magnificence of the record.
Springsteen has done the song justice and with his lion’s roar of a voice. Throughout the reproduction is faithful to the originals. The producer, Ron Aniello, has played most of the instruments – bass, drums, guitars, percussion, keyboards, vibraphone etc. and the only other players are the backing vocalists and the E Street Band horns. With such a construction it’s clear Aniello has listened closely to these 60 and 70s originals and, in effect, paid homage.
The curation speaks of Springsteen’s youth and what he heard of the radio. In fact I feel the same with versions of What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted (jimmy Ruffin), When She Was My Girl (The Four Tops), I Forgot To Be Your Lover (William Bell) and Someday We’ll Be Together (Diana Ross and the Supremes). All these played on my Triumph Herald car radio, crackling on AM. However it’s the former member of the Impressions, Jerry Butler, who provided the title track and also Hey, Western Union Man that are newer delights to my ears.
Springsteen has a majestic voice that’s maybe short on subtlety or sweetness but here he lives every song and has the range to sit above the arrangements and literally take your hand and lead you onto the dance floor. I’m not sure I’ll be listening out for the next Springsteen release but this, however, is a 5 star gem.
I have to start by telling you that I’ve written 30 album reviews for Country Music People (CMP) this year. I receive records/files to review from the magazine. In addition but not for review I ask for lots of major artists albums and recommendations from the editor. As a consequence my list is distilled from a lot of music. I add to this my own purchases or streamed favourites.
Not many of the albums make it to be my ‘Record Of The Week’, and amongst the discarded artists are some platinum acts, which is a measure of the disappointing quality that’s been coming my way this year. However, I’m happy to volunteer these as my best of the year.
1. Ashley McBryde presents Lindeville
With the world now at her feet McBryde convened a Nashville workshop with other artists and friends; this was the result. Anna and I saw her at Leeds University in the spring and the former refectory where I saw B B King, The New York Dolls and Sparks amongst many others was sold out and jumping. So Leeds does Country music, obvs. Here are a set of vignettes about small town America dripping humour, heartbreak, getting by and nostalgia. The production values and variety of country sounds are exceptional.
2. Molly Tuttle – Crooked Tree
As I mainly write about Americana for the magazine I regularly get the acoustic roots genre of bluegrass to write about. Frankly, it’s like lager, always consistent but never memorable. I have a theory that his other writers have vetoed receiving it! However, I’ve found complete joy with this release. This is a wonderful combination of melody, voice, musicianship and stories. Truly vibrant and refreshing. She’s a star, look out for her.
3. Jaimee Harris – Boomerang Town
This Texan bowled up to The Crescent in York last month and her brief set was wonderful with confessional and intimate songs about small town America. Her voice is a delight and she can write and play a tune. I think she’s destined for a lot of recognition and success with this album.
4. Amanda Anne Platt – The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea
Platt has been on the periphery of real stardom and recognition for years and despite a long time band behind her she’s the lead and writes and sings interesting Americana Country songs that come together like a series of short stories. Her tunes and lyrics on the 20 track album are excellent and a new release from her is like a much anticipated meet up with a dear old friend.
5. Kameron Marlowe – We Were Cowboys
Commercial Country Pop isn’t my bag generally. I have visions of no one listening to this easy sound on the radio as they flip burgers in South Carolina or take the kids to school. This may not be his time but if the next album is anywhere near as good as this he’ll be cluttering every US country radio playlist. He’s got a terrific voice, better lyrics than most bro-country and some great tunes.
6. Bruce Springsteen – Only The Strong Survive
The Boss has been granted an indulgence by his record label and this three sided LP is a selection of Soul music covers. His bellow of a roar, some well chosen classic songs and a faithful creation of that 60s sound make this a compelling listen. Maybe I’m a Soul boy at heart (where are my dancing shoes)?
7. Mary Gauthier – Dark Enough To See The Stars
This is a quote from Martin Luther King , which took Gauthier’s fancy to include. She’s a unique artist that draws you into stories with raw and disarming emotion about events and times that we all know so well. The lyrics border on poetry and the tunes fit like a glove.
8. Willie Nelson – A Beautiful Time
‘A legend’ doesn’t do his stature justice. This album of crafted tunes veers lyrically dangerously close to a valedictory with his reflection on a long and successful life. Sentimental, humorous and full of wisdom. I’d usually be suspicious of the creative merit of an album made by a chap 89 years old but class will out. Beautiful indeed.
9. Edgar Winter – Brother Johnny
Thanks to the Mighty Jessney of Vixen 101 fame I get to listen to a lot of blues. A lot of it is rollicking and heartfelt fun but not all of it sticks in the memory. Winter now a sprightly 75 released a tribute album to his blues legend brother, Johnny, who died in 2014 at the age of 70. (Frankly, judging by what Johnny ingested or drunk during his life it was a miracle he clocked up such an age!) This is a 17 track tribute with a list of guitar wielding guests that can’t be beaten: Joe Bonamassa, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Billy Gibbons, Joe Walsh etc. A complete joy.
10. Various Artists – Something Borrowed, Something New: A Tribute to John Anderson
If you haul out John Prine, Tyler Childers, Luke Combs, Ashley McBryde, Eric Church and their like and pair them with this strong Country songwriter’s catalogue then you’ve nailed one of the albums of the year. Unlike a lot of tributes then Anderson is still alive and this compilation is a terrific introduction to his talents
(I went to see Mary Gauthier play a club in York and supporting her, and also playing acoustic guitar for her, was her partner Jaimee Harris. (There’s a review of the gig on the website) Mary was good Jaimee was similarly memorable and coincidentally Harris was releasing a new album at the time. This is that album. A true find.)
Surprisingly this is only Harris’ second album. When you hear the depth and quality of her songwriting you’ll realise she has a lot to say with a wonderful engaging voice that trills. The aching melodies colour these vignettes perfectly. A berth on the prestigious Thirty Tigers label suggests her opportunity has come. Originating from Waco, Texas, she’s steeped in the great pantheon of singer songwriters from the state; this knowledge informs her songwriting and not least the lyrics that seem seldom to waste a word.
The ten songs here are adapted but autobiographical about her life and demons. There’s a deep dive into her personal troubled history of addiction (The Fair and Dark Haired Lad) and often coping with loss (Fall (Devin’s Song). A further song about death, How Could You Be Gone, is one of two co-writes with Mary Gauthier and this song has already appeared with Gauthier taking the lead on her own 2022 Dark Enough to See The Stars. It’s an unusual take on grief as the narrator wanders around the funeral of a close friend in a distraught state attempting to cope with their bewildering loss and the stultifying demands of the occasion.
The songs are acoustic based with sparse additions of strings or electric band accompaniment. It all creates an intimacy for her confessional story telling. Her title track, Boomerang Town,relates the story of an early life of two young lovers. With her plaintive tones she paints a bleak picture of a grinding and hopeless life in a small town and the overwhelming desire to escape. However, it appears futile to have such an aspiration. I immediately thought of Springsteen’s The River with its protagonists’ early demise and the inevitable life of drudgery preoccupied with existence rather than living. You’re left thinking ‘what might have been’.
Two songs seem to be lighter and let some sunlight into this often-intense listen. Good Morning, My Love has a beautiful tune and as she plays guitar Mark Hallman plays a selection of keys to sweeten the chorus. Love Is Gonna Come Again is an uplifting ballad giving reassurance to the listener that despite their low state then things will get better. Courtney Marie Andrews has recently arrived as an Americana songbird with a considerable gift as a songwriter; I’d now add Harris as a contemporary.
Mary Gauthier saunters on to the stage and puts her hand over her eyes, looks out to the couple of hundred fans packed into York’s bijou venue, The Crescent, and asks, “York, have I been here before?” the audience chuckles. She picks up her guitar and continues, “I can’t remember where I’ve been…. but it’s good to be back!” and then we’re into The Meadow from her last release Dark Enough To See The Stars, the first of 13 songs and brief readings from her book Saved By A Song. This was the ninth gig on a 10 date tour of England with one appearance in Edinburgh.
Her life story has been tumultuous starting with her adoption and leaving home as a teenager. At a young age the path took in substance misuse, halfway houses and gaining acceptance for her sexuality before study, opening a restaurant and eventually pursuing her music career. She was 36 before releasing her first album. Now a multi award winning sexagenarian her demons have been long cast off and, with the audience in the palm of her hand, she seems wise, compassionate, comfortable, a poet yet still an independent, offbeat observer of life. Dark Enough To See The Stars, covers love and contentment but she’s sensitive to the recent loss of dear friends and the dislocation and challenges of modern times; this pours out from her songs. This includes the profound anguish and mental scars faced by returning soldiers from war zones. For her 2019 Grammy nominated album, Rifles and Rosary Beads, she worked with veterans, active military and their families. They were paired with songwriters and the result was an intimate and cathartic collection of songs. She sang The War After The War and Bullet Holes in The Sky, back to back, with an explanation of the project and how privileged she was to be involved. Her abiding memory was of everyone’s desire for peace.
Gauthier plays acoustic guitar with her partner, Jaimee Harris, also on acoustic and vocals. Harris takes the guitar lead when required and her singing voice adds a little sweetness and melody to Gauthier’s gruffer tones. Throughout Gauthier provides the background to many songs and dips into her book to explain her views on the world or her history. Within Nashville there was a community of artists she came to admire and dearly love. The loss of John Prine ands Nanci Griffith were blows and touchingly she recounts her first group song writing session with artists she was in awe of. They all played a song and eventually it comes to her turn to sing one of her own compositions. She borrows a guitar, plays and then after finishing she starts to hand this upmarket guitar back to Nanci Griffith. Griffith backs away and insists she keeps it. From here we’re into a lament for these friends with Till I See You Again;she sings “May you rest in gentle arms till I see you again.”
The performance is near seamless, sentimental, illuminating and populated with some wonderful songs. In such a small venue disappearing from the stage to regroup for the encore is silly and so as the delighted audience hoot, holler and clap she raises her finger to indicate there will be one more song, Mercy Now. From here it’s to the back of the room to sign the merchandise and greet the fans as we file out in to the chilly air.
(The very talented Jaimee Harris played for a too brief 30 minutes, with a handful of songs, mainly from her upcoming album Boomerang Town released in February. That is something to definitely look out for.)
Terry Barber, Strings’ stepfather, fulfilled everything a biological father could when he entered young Strings’ life; not least, got him interested in bluegrass music. Ever grateful, Strings has now ‘ticked off’ his bucket list making an album with him. With a stellar back up band they’ve recorded a selection of traditional and cover songs. Strings’ nimble fingers continue to make magic on his acoustic guitar and it’s a sound that fans will recognise and like. This follows just over a year from Renewal, an album that cemented Strings reputation as one of the most interesting americana acts around. His emergence and promotion has helped bring bluegrass, as a genre, to a new audience.
His recent albums, whilst bluegrass, do dabble with other roots sounds and he’s not averse to a little folk or other worldly sounds. This variation with its unexpected twists, for me, is the hook with Strings. Me/And/Dad is a very traditional sound. Vocal duties can be shared and Barber’s rendition of Life To Go, originally by George Jones as straight country with pedal steel and a honky tonk piano, is a triumph as his care worn, strained vocals deliver the misery of an inmate reflecting on the wasted life and the fact that he’s not coming out ever again. However, family devotion can go a little too far; his mother Debra joins the duo on Heard My Mother Weeping and her vocal is badly out of tune.
All the tracks are hand picked and have been road tested over decades; it stood to reason the selection would delight. However, the album is truly elevated by the playing of Rob McCoury (banjo), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin) and Grammy winner Michael Cleveland on fiddle. Throughout they all have their own space to solo but come together eventually to fit together like a glove. Your mind will wander to the young Strings sitting at Barber’s knee with a large acoustic guitar under his arm learning this catalogue of bluegrass. It was an important education and aside from the show of gratitude and affection it’s somehow appropriate that Terry now gets a short time in the spotlight.
(I publish reviews that I have mainly written for Country Music People. In the past it included The Americana Music Show. And then on occasion without a publisher I review albums I personally wanted to write up: I hope to get back to that. Anyway, within the following review I make mention, to the readers, that I like Progressive Rock. I suspect that if you’ve been reading my reviews you’ll know that in any case!)
Name me some memorable triple albums? I’ll give you a clue, Woodstock and the Last Waltz by The Band but after this we’re all struggling, aren’t we? In fact, personally, I’d have to dig into a dark past and a love of progressive rock but I worry that we don’t know each other well enough for me to go there. However, in a world where we stream then a triple album is a less expensive and bulky project to deliver but it’s a lot to listen to and care about. Is releasing eight tracks in three versions worth it?
The three sets of eight are split into the ‘Hallelujah’ then ‘Jubilee’ and then ‘Joyful Noise’ versions. The first is a sound akin to Childers’ first two album releases (and the albums that placed him on the pedestal.) The powerful yearning Kentucky siren of a voice takes centre stage and the songs sweep you away. He lets his band, The Food Stamps, slip their shackles and play some easy but powerful bluesy rock music as a foundation. In line with their new found freedom there are some long instrumental passages and the title track is the killer cut. The second album ‘Jubilee’ is similar and whilst strings are added throughout his vocal remains similar, and too distinctive to allow the songs to have a different identity. However the string arrangements are very old school and bring to mind Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music from 1962. They are delightful. Charles covered Hank Williams and the opening song on the three albums is another Williams song Old Country Church.
In fact Childers is very attached to the heritage of country music and the Christian values that formed him. He always speaks with sincerity and has importance as a curator of contemporary roots music. A lot of work went into the production with gospel singers providing support and occasional ‘modern’ touches with electronic sounds and some sampled spoken word. Both albums are interesting and whilst they’re not covering new ground for Childers it’s a welcome return to form after the inexplicable and scratchy Long Violent History that might have had a worthy ambition of speaking out on racism but for fans, who innocently shelled out their hard earned cash, it was a major disappointment.
If that was a poor investment then album three, ‘Joyous Noise’, is an indulgence and disposable. I like and have a lot of late 90s electronica and Childers knows the genre well judging by this. We get lots of rumbling bass dance beats with occasional interesting vocal samples but they drone on with you inevitably reaching for fast forward. His voice disappears on Disc 3 and frankly it would take a boxset of Miss Marple to try and identify and relate the versions of these songs to Discs 1 and 2.
He remains an interesting listen and there’s a lot to selectively like here. Be selective.
It struck me, as I listened to Marvel’s third release in five years, about the lot of most of Nashville’s songwriters for hire. They ply their trade around the town, mostly in collaborations and by chance, and practise, they eventually write something exceptional. I’m sure many of the songs, or most of the songs, that these talented tunesmiths develop are excellent but probably nothing that may pay the future rent.He’s now directing his best material to his own releases with Come on Sunshine the latest to drop. This and his two preceding albums are loaded with attractive songs that are delivered with his pleasing and expressive baritone and on each album there are some gems.
Marvel writes in collaboration on all ten compositions and especially with Chris Stapleton, an old buddy. Stapleton also joins him on Don’t Tell Me How To Drink. This belligerent ditty is full of swagger and the title tells you all you need to know. In fact Marvel luxuriates in being a man of maturity and independence of thought; he’s not for following trends or doing much other than ploughing his own furrow. Songs such as Keep Doing Your Thing lay this out pretty clearly and despite his equable stance between the Left and Right it’s probably clear the way he votes.
In addition he’s also not past being sentimental and Fool Like Me is an exceptional blue eyed soul love song that immediately attracted a lot of stars in my iTunes library. Throughout the music has a hard outlaw vibe and pithy lyrics that back up the edge. Put It in the Plate has a funky southern feel with a stomping back beat and some squally guitar; the message is that despite all our missteps and temptations then celestial investment is advised to ensure a positive after life. Wading through the deeper issues that pass through his head then Come on Sunshine has the profundity of a man seeking calm and some light to make it through the night. A wonderful bit of soft rock with pedal steel that captivates.
Up until his late forties Marvel exclusively wrote for the great and the good of country music and enjoyed hits with Gary Allan, George Strait, Jamey Johnson and Chris Stapleton, amongst others. In 2017 he decided to focus on his own recording career and release solo albums. I look forward to every release. This is a fine collection well worth your time.
McBryde’s new album is a collaboration. It really is a tour de force. The title Lindeville needs explaining and to lift her PR it was ‘Inspired by the writing methods of legendary Nashville songwriter Dennis Linde (Goodbye Earl, Burning Love, Bubba Shot the Jukebox), Ashley McBryde set out with a group of her favourite co-writers to work up a project they had no intention of ever recording or releasing.’ And this is what came from that week-long exercise in a rural cabin outside Nashville.
Lyrically this is an album where you hang onto every word and musically it’s straight country with the songwriters finding excellent tunes whether sad, upbeat or amusing. A nod must go to John Osborne for his arrangements, sounds and the accomplished band that played throughout.
Her collaborators are several but include Brandy Clark, Aaron Ratiere and Brothers Osborne. Each track is a complete gem and occasionally interspersed with some 30 second joke adverts for the businesses in ‘Lindeville’ such as the diner, pawn shop and funeral parlour; if you were doubting this was a lot of fun then lyrics like ‘The cheapest destination / For two for one cremations / Forkem family funeral home’ may convince you, especially when sung à las Andrew Sisters! Brenda Put Your Bra On is a hilarious short story. The neighbour’s husband is messing with the babysitter and after being caught in flagrante delicto the wife’s now dismantling the siren of his desire. This rumpus has become a spectator sport and Brenda is urged to join the viewing albeit with her own support in place. It’s a near funky rock rhythm with McBryde, Caylee Hammack and Pillbox Patti replicating beautifully bitchy trailer park trash personas. Some of the lyrics are virtually unprintable, brilliant!
If this is earthy then the whole album is based on small town strugglers whether they’re the architects of their own downfall or simply victims. The Brothers Osborne’s Play Ball has the best of sentimental country lyrics: a lonely good man who has little but bad luck helping others and maintaining a positive attitude against all the odds. Clark sings If These Dogs Could Talk where she introduces the trailer park’s pooches and the infidelity, drug deals, discrimination and secrets that they discretely observe – ‘If these dogs could talk / They’d sure tell on you / We’re all lucky barkin’ is all they can do / They dig up your secrets, they know all your trash’.
Benjy Davis takes on Gospel Night At The Strip Club; his plaintive vocals create a form of prayer vibe as he paints a picture of those in the club and their human frailties seemingly existing rather than much else. It’s lower than downbeat but the pathos and empathy for the characters he describes is profound and captivating. The collection of females who work on the album come together to sing Bonfire At Tina’s. It’s an anthemic songwhere McBryde leads Hammock, Clark and Pillbox Patti in a call and response about the injustices small town women suffer – ‘Got cheated on – light it up / Don’t get paid enough – light it up / Don’t get laid enough – light it up / You got a joint – light it up’. Spine tingling. After the earnest craftsmanship of these songwriters creating magic there’s an easy piece of alchemy when they take on the Everly Brother’s When Will I Be Loved with a joyous ‘get up on your feet’ arrangement.
Kameron Marlowe, an excellent writing team and two accomplished producers have concocted a fabulous Bro-country debut with many memorable tracks. Marlowe’s terrific voice, despite his tender years at 25, is full of allure, expression and carries you along with his stories about growing up, heartbreak and small towns. His path from car parts salesman to a recording studio with Dan Huff involved some appearances on The Voice, where his vocal prowess was recognized. His talent also includes songwriting; he wrote his first single, Giving You Up, and co-wrote another nine songs on this album. (Brad Hall produced the earlier released single and EP’s swept up and added to this album.)
The title track is a cracking starter but Country Boy’s Prayer is even better; delicious couplets like ‘And I know I’ve left you hangin’ / Like that cross around my rear view’. At a stroke without explanation we know he’s a God fearing boy full of regret and probably driving a truck. Similarly Steady Heart – “When you mix my calloused ways with her sweet touch / She’s a candlelight in all my dark” is top-drawer wordsmithery. Humour can also be found, Granny’s Got A Garden (For G’maw Jan), is an affectionate portrait of his grand mother who reaches for weed “When her back gets to hurtin’ / You might smell somethin’ burnin’ / It’s a different kinda sowin’ / More than just tomatoes she’s growing”.
The surge in quality that comes with the hiring of top songwriters and producers is immeasurable. Dan Huff’s worked with many country and rock acts and what he brings to his work is a selection of sounds. His rock band backing has genuinely interesting guitar breaks and funky rhythm patterns as opposed to the rock torpor purveyed by session men of slappy snare drums and recycled screeching guitar passages. In addition there are many acoustic moments and even some slide and fiddle, Fool Me Again startsgently and the band, when it arrives, is dialed down. Marlowe has a voice that needs complementing not accompanying. Runnin’ Out On You follows the same pattern: just drink up that voice. Sublime. Marlowe does completely rock out on the closer Long Way Down with a girly chorus and no pretence at country.
Marlowe could be massive. It takes small but important differences to go from run-of-the-mill to stellar (and move away from the Bro-country crowd.) Marlowe has it all.
Something Borrowed, Something New: A Tribute to John Anderson – Various Artists
Anderson’s a Nashville songwriter/performer who’s well respected. He’s had his chart success over the decades but nowadays he’s only known to the cognoscenti. This compilation doesn’t come a moment too soon. The producers have done a remarkable job and the reason why is summed up by, co-producer, Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys) “We weren’t trying to piddle around and make the normal tribute record. It had to be the best singers with the best songs and the best arrangements, and they had to come into the studio. This wasn’t like, ‘Mail me the song, and we’ll put it together.’ I think it makes this record unique. I don’t think most tribute records are done like this. I think that’s why it sounds like a cohesive album. It feels like an amazing mix tape.” The song selection is excellent switching between singer songwriter, country and southern rock. The lyrics show Anderson’s gift to pen a pop chart country cliché or a weighty story dripping with pathos.
The stellar contributors include the Brothers Osborne, Tyler Childers, Eric Church, Luke Combs, Jamey Johnson and Ashley McBryde. No cost has been spared on the musicianship or arrangements whether it’s the strings behind the acoustic “I Just Came Home to Count the Memories” by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings or the southern rock funk à la Little Feat with mesmerising slide and honky tonk keys behind Nathanial Rateliff on “Low Dog Blues”. The main difference between the originals are the production qualities and the stronger voices of the covering artists.
The album starts with “1959″ sung by John Prine. (It’s wonderful to have a new track by this dearly departed legend). The lyric could have been written by him. He reflects on his young love, going to fight in Vietnam and the desertion of his lover. She’s previously written ‘I love you always’ yet marries another while he’s away on active service. Years later he still thinks of her. Poignant and arresting. Luke Combs takes on “Seminole Wind”, a lament about the changes experienced by the Native American tribe as the marshy waters of Florida were drained. A solo piano introduction leads to a Southern rock arrangement and elevate this to a true rocking delight.
Ashley McBryde covers one of Anderson’s biggest commercial successes, “Straight Tequila Nigh”t. A tipple that gets the woman, at the bar, through the recurring heartache of a lover long gone. Brothers Osborne take on a classic country lyric of “You Can’t Judge A Book (By The Cover)”. The title says it all as they implore their quarry to give them a second look. An artist new to me, Sierra Ferrell, takes on Anderson’s 2020 composition, “Years”, a co-write with Auerbach, and this arrangement drops the original electric guitar and strings and becomes a country folk stomp where the clear and pure mellifluous voice and fiddle create an earworm. Another album highlight.
This year has seen a few excellent cover/tribute albums of lesser known artists. Included in this are Neal Casal and Jerry Jeff Walker, both have been done justice and this is a very worthy addition but possibly more pleasing as Anderson is still around. The whole album’s top drawer. You must search it out.
Earle has recorded and released tributes to Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and now he completes his ‘teachers’ with ten songs of his former friend and erstwhile employer, Jerry Jeff Walker. Earle played a concert celebrating Walker’s life and then took the Dukes to New York to record this album. Walker made a career purveying country outlaw music after starting out with the folk scene in New York. He eventually found his base in Texas. Whilst recording close up until his death in 2020 his main output was in the 70s. If his catalogue isn’t familiar to you then you’ll know his most commercially successful song: “Mr Bojangles”. This has been covered by everyone including Sammy Davis Jnr, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan and Robbie Williams.
With the Dukes Earle covers a selection of songs and does justice to Walker’s work providing a platform to his interesting lyrics and generally upbeat rhythms and melodies. There’s no dramatic reinterpretation and the Dukes play beautifully in the background and the attractive female harmonies provided by Eleanor Whitmore add sweetness to Earle’s occasionally grizzled tones. The album sets off with “Gettin’ By” where the message asserts that getting by is his stock in trade. The song has a driving rhythm with some heavy snare pounding, swooping fiddle, tasteful pedal steel and delightful harmonies.
In fact Earle gives full rein to the band and there are many fine solos from the band that colour all the interpretations. Walker had a curiosity for the working man and “Charlie Dunn” recalls a cobbler of enormous skill grafting in the back of a shop whilst the boss is ‘up front, countin’ his gold’. The curation of songs by Earle kept me engaged throughout and showcased Walker’s ear for a tune. The selection embraces some of Walker’s most rowdy songs such as “I Makes Money (Money Don’t Make Me)” to the delicate love song “Little Bird”. Melodies are obviously outlaw but there are some cajun flavours and the album finishes with the blues “Old Road” where Earle’s ragged harmonica gives it a raw edge.
It wasn’t a random pick of an artist Earle revered. Earle spent time with Walker as his ‘designated driver’. Earle was starting out learning his trade and playing whenever he got an opportunity. Walker was important as Earle learned his trade. Ultimately it’s an interesting spin of using ‘tribute’ as an excuse to produce a faithful covers album with the relative ease that entails compared to composing original compositions. However, ultimately, it does nothing to dimish Earle and adds to Jerry Jeff Walker’s memory.
Gauthier’s 2018 release Rifles & Rosary Beads was rightly nominated and won awards. It was a cathartic and powerful album where she collaborated with US military veterans and created songs that addressed their traumas from operating in war zones. By way of her having the skill set and empathy to undertake such a difficult project then her personal history has been difficult and the journey character forming. As a consequence her work is always a deep dive and reflects her life, its vicissitudes and more importantly coming out the other side.
Sonically this is a delightful listen with achingly beautiful melodies that compliment her lyrics. The arrangements and instrumentation, which include strings, are layered and sit behind her vocals. “How Could You Be Gone” has her literally disorientated as she attends a funeral in a fog of indecision and grief: it’s easy to relate to her distress. “Dark Enough To See The Stars”, a title she openly admits to having taken from a Martin Luther King quotation, has a crisp and clear vocal over an acoustic guitar and piano. She’s joined on harmonies by her partner Jaimee Harris. As their voices swoop and soar she looks to what those dearly departed friends, whether John Prine, David Olney or Nanci Griffiths, gave her during their lives to hold onto as a positive.
However there are also songs about love such as “Amsterdam” and “Fall Apart World” where she covers the quality of her partner and the joy and strength their bonds give her. “Thank God For You” has some strident piano. The tune and arrangement could be lifted from Randy Newman: no bad thing. Again her gratitude is set against the challenges she’s overcome of early abuse and drug dependency. She now has an unconditional love that gives her purpose and hope. Eventually a gospel organ joins the song; as we play out the only thing missing is an ‘Amen’.
I expected thoughtful lyrics about the human condition but probably not such a great sounding album. This is a very fine release.
So another Willie Nelson album. Apparently it’s his 92nd in a sixty year recording career, surely he’s got nothing new to say and he’s flagging? Not a bit of it, it’s an absolute triumph. Lyrically interesting (reflective and on occasion amusing) with thoughtful compositions. The band knows more is less and plays beautifully with a variety of paces and arrangements. We’re just left with the unanswerable question of how does he do it? He must be well past wondering if he’s still cutting it, however, most assuredly he is.
There are five joint compositions with his producer, Buddy Cannon, and like the remainder of the album these are all crafted. Whilst never maudlin “I Don’t Go To Funerals” is a humorous take on his eventual demise. He’s stating his disinterest in the Departure Lounge and if pressed on the subject he’s focusing on the welcome committee of country legends when he lands. “Don’t Touch Me There” is classic two step country. With a suppressed snare beat the pedal steel gives it a 1950 or 60s feel and Nelson picks some latino acoustic guitar runs. “Don’t touch me there / That’s where my heart lives / And it just ain’t fair /And if you care don’t touch me there”. My kind of country and a perfect two and a half minutes long.
The rest are compositions that fit him like a glove. Shawn Camp’s “A Beautiful Time” – “If I ever get home / I’ll still love the road / Still love the way it winds / Now when the last song’s been played / I’ll look back and say / I sure had a beautiful time”. You can see why it became the album’s title track. It’s a wistful vocal on a slow shuffle of a rhythm with piano underpinning the melody and a pedal steel providing delicious flashes of sentimentality. “Dusty Bottles” in its title alludes to a certain vintage. This time the fine wine is Nelson, he says “Lord, I miss bein’ young” but wisdom, judgement and memories are attributes he savours and they only come with wrinkles. It’s an acoustic ballad with some melancholy harmonica in the background as he adeptly picks on his guitar.
The two covers include Leonard Cohen’s “Tower Of Song”. If ever there was a song for the older man this is the one: “I ache in the places where I used to play”. References to Hank Williams are also made for a country artist. Nelson’s cover never strays from the original and when you had perfection in the first place then why tinker. Legends are people who keep delivering year after year. Let’s hope there’s more to come. Peerless.