Category Archives: Music

Record Of The Week # 119

Ashland Craft – Travelin’ Kind

I must have a word with myself. When I read that an artist has released an album after coming 9th on the US edition of The Voice I worry about their credentials and authenticity. Where are the lonely nights playing to 14 people in bars between Nashville and Chattanooga or the endless poring through their father’s Randy Travis LPs? However, for Ashland Craft it doesn’t matter: she is the real thing.

Snapped up by a major independent label, they’ve pulled together eleven songs of which she’s co-written nine and put her with producer Jonathan Singleton, maybe better known for his song compositions rather than twiddling the knobs. The project has worked fabulously and this is a terrific album. The success is mainly attributable to her complete command of the songs with a confident, ballsy and effortless delivery. It’s a voice that could deliver rock, soul or blues: it’s a force of nature.

The title track kicks off the album with a southern rock vibe. Guitar solos are way behind the beat whilst a harmonica wails throughout. Her slightly rasping voice extracts all you could hope for out of the tune: a paean to movin’ on and no backward glances. Maybe one downside of making your career out of covers is shown on Make It Past Georgia where the vocalisation is pure Billy Currington on People Are Crazy. Pedal steel and a fiddle take it down with Highway Like Me: a beautiful ballad and tune where young bluesman, Marcus King, plays some delicious and very fluid licks in the background. Mimosas In The Morning has a chorus for the radio where she belts out the observation that ‘this ain’t no whiskey conversation.’ Letcha Fly sails along over a fiddle foundation and a snappy snare rhythm before exiting with a picked banjo. Her vocal is pure Jack Daniels and cream in its taste and texture.

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Record Of The Week # 118

Jim Lauderdale – Hope

Lauderdale’s beyond prolific. This clocks in as his 34th album containing 13 tracks. As one of americana’s big names he inhabits the country/rock/pop end of the spectrum but has a number of roots albums in his recent collection. Last year’s When Carolina Comes Home Again was a country release and a homily to the State and it’s music. This album has more mainstream commercial sensibilities but you’ll find some folk, country and even jazz inflections. Lyrically he’s focussed on being positive during the pandemic and mitigating the effect it’s had on peoples’ lives. I think we can all agree that’s a good idea.

With this modus operandii “The Opportunity To Help Somebody Through It” is the first track: it’s a light rock track underpinned by electric guitars whilst Lauderdale exhorts the upside of helping those struggling. It’s an upbeat opening with a memorable chorus and some deft picking. “Sister Horizon” is another easy pop sound with a delightful chorus and an acoustic guitar picking the melody. 

“The Brighter Side Of Lonely “ just emphasises what a nice guy he really must be. He seeks to lift a friend out of a slough of despair. Their “making friends with being sad today” and they should “meet on the brighter side of lonely.” The tune matches the optimism and such a clever lyric is a highlight of the album. Pedal steel introduces “Breathe Real Slow” and it sounds like the Rick Rubin era of Johnny Cash. He adopts a gravelly voice and with a profound delivery advises some retrospection in the face of adversity. The chorus is a another great melody on this pure rock track.

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Record Of The Week # 117

Jacob Tovar – Another Time, Another Place

The camera works it’s way down the side of the train until we find Jacob Tovar standing in the doorway of an open boxcar, he’s stood legs astride, playing acoustic guitar to the wide open spaces that the train’s passing through. “I Felt Love”, with its shuffling beat and the rhythm of a train, fits perfectly. As the shot closes in we see behind Tovar is his four piece band. We immediately know that this must be a steam locomotive upfront as Paul Wilkes is plucking an upright bass. Adding to the atmosphere is a squealing, yet discrete pedal steel, whilst the drums maintain this travelling beat. The words are about a peripatetic musician and the regret he has for being away from home for long stretches. My scene is imaginary but it would have been my video of this first single off the album to encapsulate the magic.

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Record Of The Week # 116

Jesse Daniel – Beyond These Walls

This is a perfect confection of traditional and contemporary country with exceptional lyrics and stories. Daniel released his first album in 2018; this is his third. In this short time garnered praise and awards as a new, authentic talent who can write a fabulous song and deliver it with a magnetic vocal. Here there’s a variety of country sounds from the 60s to the 90s, all drenched in melody and personality. and his partner, and sometime co-writer, Jodi Lyford own their independent record label. He’s clearly an entrepreneur and to complement this acumen he’s assembled a brilliant cast to support him on the record: firstly Tommy Detamore (a seasoned producer with a CV including Jim Lauderdale, Moe Bandy and Sunny Sweeney) was on controls and steel guitar. Detamore’s recruited some ace, veteran musicians to play on the record and they elevate the whole sound. The players include Ronnie Huckaby (George Strait), Kevin Smith (Willie Nelson) and John Carroll (Jim Lauderdale). 

For a millennial Daniel has already lived enough for a lifetime of stories, including beating substance abuse. This shows in his songs: “Gray” tells of a good friend who’s addicted and has begun slipping away. His clear and mellifluous voice tells the story over an acoustic guitar, before a piano contributes a few chords in advance of a viola adding the heart wrenching emotion. Equally bleak but compelling is “Clayton Was A Cowboy”. It’s a story of a successful, swashbuckling rodeo cowboy who’s on the circuit, living fast and loose. A lively dance rhythm, with some fabulous finger-picking and a slapped snare beat, helps recount his life and demise in the ring over five verses.

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Record Of The Week # 115

Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, Jon Randall – The Marfa Tapes

These three Texans met in Marfa to perform 15 songs in an informal lo-fi setting. Marfa is known as a cultural hub in West Texas. Randall and Ingram have recording careers but here they’re sat with Lambert as part of a successful occasional writing team on her recent releases. Randall has a CV that stretches back a long way including association with Country royalty as well as being an in demand producer. Ingram’s recording output has had success but it’s his contribution as a songwriter, not least, to some of Lambert’s most memorable songs which seems his métier. If bonds were needed between the three, their composition of the multi-awarded “Tin Man” from her 2016 The Weight Of These Wings album is one; and not to forget their ability to harmonise so sweetly and their love for their home state.

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Record Of The Week # 114

Tylor & The Train Robbers – Non-Typical Find

Tylor Ketchum heads up a band of principally his two brothers and his father-in-law. On their third release they’re joined by another famous brother, Cody Braun of Reckless Kelly who takes up production duties. The sound is similar to their 2019 release The Best Of The Worst Kind. However, here Braun brings more commercial sensibility and some celtic flourishes as he adds fiddle and mandolin.

Ketchum is a terrific wordsmith; on the opener “Equation of Life”, he offers a philosophic take – “There’s bigger places and better things to come / Instead of trading time I think you might try spending some / Because change equals money and money always makes sense /  When you spend time well you get back time well spent.” When you hitch this to the acoustic based americana country sound, with pedal steel in the background, you’ve got a wonderful 50 minutes ahead of you. Ketchum’s voice is commanding and the mix rightly puts it to the fore throughout.

The band is tighter than the lid on a recalcitrant jar of jalapeños: they weave around each other and deliver effortless solos; and predictably the brothers harmonise better than most on the choruses. “Staring Down The North” has an outlaw vibe where the band quickly hit the afterburners. Ketchum picks his acoustic guitar and extols the virtues of adopting a positive attitude. A prowling electric guitar trades punches with a Hammond B3; I can imagine that this must be sublime played live. “Jenny Lynn” is an album highlight and refers to Ketchum’s wife. It’s a paean to his enduring love as he misses her whilst he’s away. Acoustic guitars play the melody with pedal steel and sentimental Irish fiddle adding to this touching lament. 

The title track, “Non-Typical Find”, is a story about the untimely demise of two unfortunates after a car crash on the highway. The driver appears to have been distracted and spaced out and his unlucky female passenger picked the wrong car to flag down whilst hitch hiking. This six minute epic brought to mind the type of engaging story he told on his last album with “The Ballad Of Black Jack Ketchum”, again another misadventure (that ends in a hanging!) “Lemonade” is another lyric that has you concentrating on every word. A beautiful melody enhanced by a picked banjo and insistent snare driven rhythm. 

The air should be black with hats as we celebrate this wonderful album. Mine is airborne.

Record Of The Week # 113

Blood, Sweat & Tears – New City

I was visiting Dave at Castle Electrics. This is not an easy experience. Dave runs a small shop in Acomb where he stands behind a cluttered counter in the absolute chaos of stacked washing machines, refurbished Dyson vacuum cleaners, kettles, lamps, mounds of pieces of paper and a phone he seldom answers. However, what he doesn’t know about appliances isn’t worth knowing. I was attending the Temple of Spark to discuss the swapping of an extractor canopy. Escaping him often necessitates the type of quality excuse such as you’re late for an appointment with the Queen or it’s the final countdown for a nuclear attack. Aside from this chore Acomb offers the best charity shop in York for second hand CD’s and occasional LP finds. After Dave accepted my apologies (and I’d promised to give Her Majesty his regards) I migrated to the next temple.

Historically I’ve found some splendid blues CD’s amongst the copious Cheryl Cole, James Last and Robbie Williams detritus. This time after an unproductive scan through the CD’s I turned my attention to the LP’s. Inevitably budget label classical LP’s abounded plus Engelbert Humperdinck, Jim Reeves and Petula Clark to the fore. I’m often happy to snap up the Country music ones as I add to my knowledge of the history of the genre but that’s not the reason for the search. Lurking in the pile was a tatty sleeve of the above album. A quick glance at the vinyl revealed something in quite good nick. It seemed worth investing £1.

Blood, Sweat & Tears were an American band of nine players who enjoyed their chart success in the late 60s and 70s. In fact they had platinum records in the US and topped the charts with two of their albums. “Spinning Wheel” was probably their most successful song in the UK charts. I like brass led soul jazz but when combined with rock it all seems just a loud and meandering affair where I worry that the players are having a lot more fun than the listener. This album, their eighth, was released in 1975 and saw the return of the Canadian lead vocalist David Clayton-Thomas to a line up that included trumpets, trombones, saxophones, tuba along with the expected complement of drums, keyboards, bass and electric guitar. My speculative purchases hit the record deck at least once and then gather dust thereafter if they’re not worthy.

I’ve now being playing this for weeks. I love it.

It helps that some of my favourite records are by The Average White Band and Tower Of Power and this sound picks up from both these acts although in a strict chronological order B,S&T came first. The two big draws are the vocals of Clayton-Thomas and the brass arrangements that rage and sooth as they work through a variety of styles and tempos. Their intent is laid bare with the first track “Ride Captain Ride” a tour de force of 70s Soul Funk. Clayton-Thomas’ muscular and commanding vocals sweep you along. They reminded me of a very powerful sports car trundling at an easy pace but the burble of the V8 reminds you that at any time they could propel him, and you, seamlessly with volume and emotion to a different place. “Life” follows with a ridiculously funky bass line with all the hallmarks of the New Orleans legendary songwriter’s work, Allen Toussaint. Horns electrify the chorus and Swede George Wadenius takes the spotlight with an electric guitar solo.

“I Was A Witness To A War” could be a show tune such is the wistful melody. The vocal has pathos and impact as the story unfolds of the horror of it all. One of the composers, Danny Meehan, had a varied career as a performing artist and songwriter following service in the Korean War and receiving The Purple Heart. You can safely conclude any ideas in the lyrics were received on the front line. Side One finishes with a traditional sparsely arranged blues song “One Room Country Shack”. Clayton- Smith delivers over a picked acoustic guitar; later on an acoustic slide joins. A quick tour of YouTube shows that this version is head and shoulders above that of John Lee Hooker or Buddy Guy. No small achievement.

Ultimately the album is a covers collection with only three of the ten songs being composed by band members. Janis Ian’s “Applause” is an interesting choice to start Side Two. Ian has become a revered singer songwriter who’s still touring. This whimsical story is about what each artist seeks in a live performance. It’s sad and poignant. The song is populated with some beautiful horn arrangements that demonstrate several styles and paces from baroque chamber music to jazz harmonies with trumpets playing the same tune note for note. Randy Newman arrangements always borders on a comedy style or a straight singer songwriter unadorned piano ballad. “Naked Man” from his 1974 critically acclaimed Good Old Boys is the former and gets the full band on vocals as Clayton-Thomas sounds like Tom Waits. The lyrics get so wacky that he is unable to stop from breaking into a laugh whilst delivering a verse. More predictable and chart orientated is the cover of “Got To Get You Into My Life” from 1966’s Revolver by The Beatles and also covered by several other artists. We play out with a composition by the drummer, Bobby Colomby, “Takin’ It Home”. It’s a brief coda starting with a sensational Bill Tillman saxophone lead but more to the point reminds us it’s Colomby’s sublime sophisticated drumming that has propelled and held this whole wonderful album together.

(If you’re tempted then I can tell you that this lurks on Spotify or Apple Music or at any leading record outlet)

Record Of The Week # 112

Maia Sharp – Mercy Rising

A move to Nashville from LA with the end of a long term relationship and the coming to grips with a new home fostered a desire to move on in many ways. This confessional album muses on relationships coupled with many wry observations and desires about those around her. She’s a great wordsmith and the music nods to several genres with singer songwriter being the most evident although this sits comfortably in the country/americana orbit. Sharp has made her living by being principally a writer for other artists; credits read the (Dixie) Chicks, Trisha Yearwood, Terri Clark and Kim Richey (whose sound she is probably closest to on this latest album.)

Her voice is a siren call: warm with an impressive range that’s conveys emotions that come thick and fast through ten songs. From the sarcasm of “Nice Girl” to the lustful “Not Your Friend” she sings over a sophisticated soundtrack of smooth beats and the varied, sublime guitar sounds of Joshua Grange. The arrangements are uncluttered and you feel that every note has arrived in just the correct place after considerable collaboration. Sharp herself is accomplished multi-instrumentalist and wearing her producer’s hat, she demonstrates impressive mastery of the controls.

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Record Of The Week # 111

Blackberry Smoke – You Hear Georgia

On YouTube you’ll find a video of the band in Nashville’s RCA Studio A easing their way into “You Hear Georgia”. It shows a band of 20 years laying down a butt-stirring rock groove whilst Dave Cobb cheerleads from the sidelines, no doubt pleased at the magic that’s being created. Cobb is still the prolific go to producer for Americana. Such is the demand that apparently he’s booked up three weeks after he’s dead. The latest album from Georgia’s finest is the very essence of 70s Southern Rock: a bluesy rock platform, soul vocals, an irresistible bass line and some raw electric guitar riffs; it contains all the vital ingredients. If you care to add occasional honky tonk piano and a soaring slide guitar you’ve elevated your dish from the ordinary to fine dining. Grab a napkin.

The jagged guitar riff on the opener “Live It Down” commands your attention the instant it sounded. This is classic blue collar rock – “Reachin ’up from the bottom / I tell ya it’s a bitch / It’s a helluva thing to break yo back / Just to make another man rich” sings principal song writer, vocalist and guitarist Charlie Starr. Next we’re into the title track, still as dirty and soul stirring but slower, giving more space to the funk and the backbone-debilitating snare rhythm. Starr says “Lyrically, the song is about the South being misunderstood. It’s obviously a rough and tumble world, and there’s a lot of bad people. But there’s a lot of good people too.” To add to the groove there are some scintillating electric guitar passages. I knew this was going to be fabulous 40 minutes.

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Record Of The Week # 110

South Pacific (soundtrack)

I’ve been sorting out some records. I’ve a pile of LP’s that were my mother’s. What do you do with these old pieces of vinyl? Several were loved and played regularly, sadly leading to them being badly worn and scratched. So the solution is establishing if they’re actually playable. This exercise led me to the stage, and then film musical, South Pacific. I was astounded by how magnificent it was. It seems I had all these melodies and vocals etched into my psyche. The setting is an idyllic island in WW2 where a US base is located. On the island the personnel strut their stuff in high jinx and courtships. In the meanwhile the locals look on with their attractive yet simpler life. All this is set against an imminent deadly battle with the Japanese.

You’ll know many of the songs if not necessarily the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. They created some of the most important popular music of the mid to late 20th Century with Oklahoma! The King & I, Carousel and The Sound Of Music amongst their creations. In addition they wrote with other collaborators; so their canon of work is more considerable and brilliant. If’d you asked me to sing one of the songs I could have probably got most of them but it wasn’t until I spun the disc that I realised I knew them all.

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Record Of The Week # 109

Garrison Starr – Girl I Used To Be

This is a beautiful album of strong heartfelt vocals and sublime melodies, sung over simple arrangements. Starr is well into double figures of album releases but to her credit she’s still turning out music of considerable quality. There’s a definite pop sensibility housed in an Americana sound. My research I found her being interviewed after opening for Steve Earle in 2003; all this suggests a recognition of her talents and circulation, for some time, amongst the luminaries of Americana. 

However the album doesn’t come from an overly confident artist in her pomp, but one whose trauma of dealing with her sexuality in a Mississippi fundamentalist Christian community still haunts her several decades later. The nine songs deal with anger, loneliness, rejection, anxiety, lost time and eventual empowerment as she surfed a wave of hostility related to her identity as a lesbian. A gay female musician is not an unusual story nowadays, especially when you consider her contemporaries. However, it must be a difficult journey and I remember the audacity and bravery of Mellissa Etheridge’s 1993 ‘coming out’ album Yes I Am.

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Record Of The Week # 108

Sara Watkins – Under The Pepper Tree

Multi-instrumentalist Watkins has recorded an album of standards for children….no, no please bear with me it’s wonderful. I must admit on getting the brief from the magazine I wondered what I’d done to upset the mothership. However parking all reservations I dipped in. Covers can be a corruption of your favourite memories but if you look at the track listing it’s certain that at one time or another you’ll have sung several if not all of the songs on the album. If you’re a parent you may have also crooned these songs to placate a fractious offspring in the backseat or as you lie on a bed in the early evening, fighting the pulling powers of sleep, whilst your little precious shows no signs of wearying.

Watkins has a beautiful ethereal voice that immediately sounds like a mother singing to a child with all the tenderness that might have. She’s joined by several guests throughout including Nickel Creek and I’m With Her on a couple of songs. The arrangements are delightful and the sound is acoustic, lush and entirely enchanting. The album progresses seamlessly with the mood maintained throughout as if raising the volume or changing the gentle acoustic accompaniment might spoil the moment (or wake the child).

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Record Of The Week # 107

Mac Leaphart – Music City Joke

Mac Leaphart is new to me and one of the most delightful discoveries I’ve recently had. The recruitment of Brad Jones  (Hayes Carll, Chuck Prophet, Over The Rhine amongst many) as producer is inspired and Leaphart’s accompanying notes, with the album, talk of Jones being a demanding task master who extracted the best out of him. Leaphart has constructed 10 superb stories, some allegories, with exceptional americana country tunes. He’s also the possessor of winsome tubes that reminded me of Boo Ray or Ryan Bingham.

‘She got knocked up and kept on drinking / Smoked a half a pack a day / She didn’t want that baby / But, she had him anyway’ are the first words you’ll hear on “El Paso Kid”, about a child who didn’t have an auspicious start in life but was determined to beat adversity. This story is played out to a traditional country tune with Will Kimbrough playing acoustic guitar and Fats Kaplin weaving sonorous delight on the fiddle. Kaplin has played with a lot of country and americana royalty including John Prine. That connection is pertinent as Leaphart’s lyrics and sound are redolent of this master’s work. 

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Record Of The Week # 106

Esther Rose – How Many Times

Sonically this is an upbeat record, in contrast to the slough of despair that apparently inspired the album. Rose’s third long play release comes on the back of a tough couple of years as regards matters of her heart. However, as you listen closely to songs about failed relationships, the lively americana country tunes roll out. She has the melancholy resignation of a woman who’s been passed up and is now moving on to her next lost cause. She’s quite a collector and relays the stories with honest reflection and deprecation. Her voice is occasionally (and interestingly) off-tone and fragile but mainly fits the mood and her range carries the arresting tunes.

“How Many Times” has her standing in the shower until the water runs cold and taking pills to cope with a broken heart. This single release has her voice over a snappy snare beat whilst the fiddle plays around a chorus of voices to make the melody a little country. “Keep Me Running” is a pacy highlight with the fiddle of Lyle Werner again to the fore. All the tracks on the album are underpinned by an upright bass and give the album an acoustic feel. Throughout Laura Cantrell came to mind because of the short personal stories and the type of acoustic country and roots she purveys.

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Record Of The Week # 105

Lainey Wilson – Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’

After three years of living in a caravan, hoping for a break in Nashville, Wilson is starting to get traction. The album includes earlier single releases. A check on the internet sees her being identified as ‘one to watch’. This isn’t her first release but now there’s discernible momentum, with a major record label behind her.

She has an expressive and mellifluous voice often backed by harmonies on the chorus. The backing doesn’t lean on traditional instruments and is a pop rock confection with the odd acoustic guitar and mandolin. If that isn’t enough country for you then her voice and breadth of sounds compensate. The triumph of it all is that the ‘session musician catatonic contribution’ with its digital homogenous hard brittle finish is absent and in its place vibrancy, authenticity and funk. It’s hook-drenched and radio friendly.

The alchemist is Jay Joyce: he is amongst the doyen of country producers with Ashley McBryde, Eric Church and Brothers Osborne on his CV. And you can see how His earlier rock career influences his contribution, thoughtfully applied rather than the usual bro-country torpor. Lyrically it tumbles into Nashville storylines of small towns, drinking, partying, ‘single and free’, ended relationships and knee bending for the legends of country music including the song “WWDD” (What Would Dolly Do?).

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