“I saw the light from heaven shining all around.” –Dry Bones, traditional, as performed by Graham Lindsey
This weekend we endure the shortest day of the year—all about the darkness and all about the light. The glass is half-empty. The glass is half-full. All the way to the bottom, it’s always the same… Like Hank Williams, we can wander aimless, life filled with sin, or we can can open our eyes and see the light. Since time immemorial, we both fear and celebrate the hibernal solstice. Music also, done well, expresses our primal fears and celebrations, our hopes and dreams. This has been a good year for hopes and dreams in Americana music.
I’ve been a fan of Corb Lund since my radio days at KRFC-FM. This year’s release from New West Records is the result of a CMT-Canada TV special—Corb is a Canadian cowboy through and through. Just like Elvis, Corb & his Hurtin’ Albertans recorded live at the infamous Sun Studio in Memphis. I don’t usually rate Live albums very highly, and I’ve not yet actually caught Corb live in person, yet this effort captures songs he and his band know inside and out, recorded with a classic live-in-studio sound rather than a distorted live-in-concert cluttered sound. This is a good buy if you’re an old Corb fan, or just looking for some solid Outlaw country like it oughta sound.
As a seasonal aside, Corb has a solid thinking-man’s holiday song on New West’s new Americana Christmas holiday album. “Just Me And These Ponies (For Christmas This Year)” is a mature effort by a talented songwriter and performer. The album also features cuts from John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and (scroll down) Nikki Lane among others.
I lost track of Graham Lindsey for awhile, and missed him when he played a late live slot in Fort Collins last. Last I heard from him he’d moved up to my old stompin’ grounds outside Bozeman, Montana. Good country for his alt.country/psycho-folk vibe. This year he released this collection culled from a dozen years of recording, including the track “Dry Bones” originally recorded by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, which Graham had recorded to Youtube from his snowy cabin side. I can verily feel the dark and light playing tug-of-war with my own dry bones in the snowy night.
I don’t know what to make of Sturgill. His name sounds like a fish. The first track of his debut album tells a tale of turtles—like the common folk belief that the world is perched on a never-ending stack of turtles, country music may be said to be perched on a never-ending stack of traditional music mores and conventions. No Depression founder Peter Blackstock observes, in relation to Simpson, that ‘the simultaneous existence of “two country musics” is almost a tradition in and of itself’. As Willie & Waylon played the outlaw to John Denver’s country pop of the 70s, Simpson is poised to channel the outlaw side of country for a new generation. I’m just as inclined to simply track the original Waymore, but there’s an awful lot of critics I trust who think the AMA Emerging Artist of 2014, No Depression members’ chart topper and Grammy nominee is the real deal. At least he might get the kids listening to the good old new Country Music.
OCMS is a high-energy, fun collaborative. This year’s release continues this tradition, with an up-beat string band sound. (Except the first track. The very first cut is really annoying.) The album’s nominated for a Grammy as Best Folk Album, although I can’t think of anybody outside the Grammy’s would consider this Folk music, but when recycled 70’s music is posing as radio-friendly pop country, I’ll take folk-friendly music any day. You can score a free copy of OCMS’ track Firewater on the ATO Records Winter Sampler.
I’m not sure I’m qualified to rank Karen Jonas’ music. I didn’t even notice her until the December ‘best of’ lists started populating the Twitterverse and I haven’t bought her album (yet). For some reason I did notice Twangnation’s Top 10 rank: “This isn’t just an inflected interpretation, but the very evocation through herself of the troubled ghosts of the story —not just wrapping herself in their clothes, but walking a mile in their shoes, and then conveying the pain she knows they felt from the aching of her own blisters.” I went immediately to Spotify and “Wow” is all I could say. This is honest, evocative and well-produced real country music played with heart and soul. Jonas is based out of the DC-area, but is making a visit to Austin, Albuquerque and Santa Fe in January. Weather willing, I expect I’m planning a trip to the state capital next month.
Willie also released another album this month, December Day, but I haven’t really given it a listen. While Band of Brothers doesn’t rise to the creative level of, say, 1998’s Teatro, it’s a solid album with a couple catchy tracks. Willie did my fave track “Hard to be an Outlaw” with Billy Joe Shaver on Letterman this week. Look it up.
Lucinda is not easy. Her music is not country music, but it’s country blues not to fit radio-friendly pop or rock ‘n roll (as if they played rock ‘n roll on the radio any more than they play tradition country anymore). Lucinda is blues for country people, or country for rock people, or something like that. She’s also not on Spotify—the service even seems to block her off my mobile playlist I built with one of her tracks I have on the old Mac at home. I get that, because if you’re a Lucinda fan you’ll make the effort. If you’re just getting to know Lucinda, listen for her on Americana radio, since she’s on the top of the charts the last few weeks. For the now, check out her NPR Tiny Desk concert, including my pick single “West Memphis”.
I miss Jason Isbell’s contributions to the Truckers, but Mike Cooley seems to have stepped up to fill the gap and make the band more of a partnership with Patterson Hood. This is an album, rather than a collection of songs, but these guys usually come across that way and I’ve let the album run more than a few times since it was released in March.
New West records brought out this record in May, but I didn’t pay it much attention. There was something there, but I couldn’t quite figure it out. I’ve remedied that in the last few weeks as I noticed her pop up on the end-of-year lists. Nikki reminds me of Neko Case, when Neko first came out with The Virginian. This is alt.country, AM radio Country, sparse and echoing and fun. At first this was distracting, but I got over it. When I gave her my ears she broke my heart.
I like Rosanne Cash. She’s smart, talented and a real leader in the music industry today. A lot of people like this album, sending it to the top of the AMA Radio chart for 2014. The first track is catchy, and I streamed the album—the full album, front to back—several times trying to catch the vibe. The vibe is there. I was just hoping for a bit more, but her OK is still better than most anything on pop radio these days.
Nickel Creek, Rodney Crowell, and John Hiatt also all released strong albums that placed in the Americana Radio Top 10. On first listen I liked the new Nickel Creek but the goofy electric jive just didn’t hold up for me. It was good to see them back together anyway. Initially I also rated highly Mary Gauthier’s Trouble and Love, Justin Townes Earle’s Single Mothers, Carrie Elkin & Danny Schmidt’s For Keeps, and I do really like them a lot.
Some live music I saw that reminded me not to forget the good stuff from 2013 (and 2012…)
Ten Sleep, Wyoming’s most famous performing songwriter, Jalan Crossland would probably be world-famous if he would play Nashville’s Music Row game. He’s happy to do his own thing from his Rocky Mountain home, and I appreciate that dedication to quality over quantity. Equal parts profound and obscene, traditional and modern, Crossland is both entertainer and artist. I would likely have rated highly his new album, No Cause for Despair, if I would have laid my hands on it (or if he had put it up on Spotify, oh well something to look forward to).
West Virginia Appalachia via Brooklyn, the Sweetback Sisters have a sweet sound I am so glad I got to experience first-hand. I put their 2011 album Looking for a Fight right onto my iPod and it quickly rose to top of my personal rotation with several fine cuts, original and cover. I wanted to be sure of my initial impression before I posted my review on No Depression, and their record held up with a great variety of traditional country, Bakersfield and Texas Swing. The Sisters are now touring the NE states with their Christmas show.
Bonnie Sims is a Northern Colorado country music crackerjack. She & her Clydes played a barnburner show at the buffalo camp south of Cheyenne, good old real country music you can two-step to. She’s also played around Denver with my friends in Halden Wofford & the Hi-Beams. That’s a win-win for everybody as far as I’m concerned.
Halden Wofford and the Hi*Beams are Grade A, guaranteed real country music from the heart of Denver, Colorado. I’m a long way from Avo’s in Ft. Collins and the Swing Station in LaPorte, but I hope they swing down to Durango or I can catch them on a big city trip up north. In the meantime, their last CD Rocky Mountain Honky Tonk is a rip roaring good time.
And a couple other 2013 releases that held up well:
- Jason Isbell, Southeastern – coming into his own and out of the shadow of the Drive-By Truckers, this album earned Isbell both Artist of the Year and Album of the Year from the Americana Music Association (AMA).
- Brandy Clark, 12 Stories – after winning CMA song of the year for Kasey Musgrave’s hit “Follow Your Arrow”, Ms. Clark brings a touch of twang to this year’s Best Country Album Grammy nominations. It could just be considered new again, as Warner Brothers recently signed her to a major label deal and will be re-issuing the record.
- Jus Post Bellum, Oh July – OK, I’ll fess up, I just heard this rootsy Minnesota-by-way-of-Brooklyn indie-folk, Americana-ish group just the end of this year. So their release Oh July is new to me, and it is on Spotify. I’m thinking Lumineers with lefsa. Keep an eye on this foursome, friends.