Saturday, November 28, 2015

Rising Outlaw: California's Sam Outlaw Brings Classic Sound To Toronto's Dakota Tavern

There are several acts permeating the musical landscape that have embraced the more traditional sound of country music, some of whom I have written about in this space. A rising star from the California coast made his Dakota Tavern debut in a showcase hosted by his record label, Six Shooter Records.  Sam Outlaw is a pure country artist whose musical sound can range from the easy listening style of a Don Williams, to lyrically clever sounds of Gram Parsons and earlier southern California country-rock.

With a set mainly to showcase the release of his new album "Angeleno", Sam Outlaw played to a packed house on a Toronto Tuesday night a couple of weeks ago.  The intimate setting of the Dakota Tavern was the perfect backdrop for Sam Outaw's fine performance, as it provided Sam the opportunity to deliver some backstory to some of his songwriting. The song "Love Her For A While" was inspired by the aforementioned Don Williams, and listening to it, you could hear Mr. Williams wrap his unique and wonderful baritone voice around the lyrics. "Angeleno", the title track to his Six Shooter release is a song about a couple making their own way with the struggles and tribulations of life.  "Who Do You Think You Are?" is a wonderful tale about love found and lost in Mexico, with a real Mexican-style sound to it.  "Ghost Town" is one of the finest songs you will hear anywhere, it's a beautifully performed tune about cutting one's losses.  

With the increase in profile of pure, traditional country artists and the rise of Americana musicians in the mainstream consciousness, Sam Outlaw is poised to break out to the next level of notoriety.  He has the talent, skill and creativity to maintain the career path he is currently on.  As has long been said in this column, people will always come back to what is real. Evidence of this has been witnessed with the success of artists like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson over the past couple of years, as well as the incredible rise of Chris Stapleton.  Sam Outlaw is poised to join that illustrious company with a solid record in "Angeleno", creative songwriting and a classic country sound that has been missing from the musical landscape for far too many years. 

I would be remiss if I didn't give a brief mention to Sam's record label, Six Shooter Records. Based in Toronto, Ontario, Six Shooter is home to some of the most talented artists in the world, a truly amazing roster.  They are a major player in the Americana scene on both sides of the border. The release of "Angeleno" represents their first foray in to releasing an artist on a global scale, where previously they have been focusing on the Canadian market. Their belief in Sam Outlaw is not unfounded and they have quite rightly made Sam their first artist to release an album under the Six Shooter Records label internationally. I wish them the best of luck and they too move in to the next chapter of their existence.  When you're finished checking out Sam Outlaw, check out the other amazingly talented artists on the Six Shooter roster.  

Check out "Ghost Town" from the great Sam Outlaw

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Country Music Association Signals New Day For Country Music

It's a brand new day in country music.  The morning after Music Row may have signaled a turning of the page from the current bro-country that has relegated mainstream country to near joke status for the past few years.  That's the only conclusion that can be reached following the outcome 49th annual Country Music Association awards presented last night in Nashville.

Perhaps not so amazingly, it took a couple of years of watching the steady rise of Americana artists and the Americana scene in general to start this shift.  The artists in Americana today are just too good to ignore. The awarding, and indeed the coming out party, of Chris Stapleton as the Top New Artist, Male Vocalist of the Year and Album of the Year for "Traveller" is a clear indication that the landscape has changed. The inclusion of Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark at mainstream award shows with Musgraves picking up a trophy for Song of the Year ("Follow Your Arrow") at last year's CMA's showed that the desire for change was beginning to percolate.  With this performance of Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake last night at the CMA's and the fan reaction, it's clear that this change is upon us. 

But wait, that was only half of the performance.  Here is the second half:

Perhaps sensing what could be happening, one had to feel a little bad for Florida Georgia Line, the act that had to follow this performance.  What's telling is in the audience reaction, or rather, their almost non-reaction at the conclusion of the Florida Georgia Line performance.  The crowd was simply blown away by the tandem of Stapleton and Timberlake, and whomever else followed was not going to top it.  In a way, it almost wasn't fair ... almost.  What it accomplished was it showed the glaring and real difference between honest and raw music versus the manufactured material that's been pushed by the major labels on Music Row for the past number of years.  As I've said in this space before, people will always come back to what's real. The consumer doesn't lie: it's why artists like Jason Isbell, Alan Jackson, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, and Kacey Musgraves can all have number one selling albums.  It's why artists like Sturgill Simpson and Nathaniel Rateliff are able to sell records by the boatload and fill theaters. All of these artists are doing this without the benefit of mainstream country radio.

Last night the world was introduced to an incredibly gifted talent in Chris Stapleton. As my friend Nelson Gullett of WDVX radio in Knoxville, Tennessee tweeted out last night, he's been listening to Chris Stapleton for about 30 years, both as a solo artist and in the bluegrass band The Steeldrivers.  Today marks a new chapter in the career of Chris Stapleton. I'm happy that he's from the Americana family and wish him well as he enters this next phase of his career.

The beginning of the CMA awards show saw the return of an icon paired up with a superstar that has been an amazing supporter of Americana artists over the last couple of years.  In an entirely appropriate performance of his latest single, I think we can safely answer the question: we are indeed, ready for the country.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Concert Review: Hardin Burns, Sportsmen's Tavern, Buffalo NY - October 11, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, I made the 2 hour trek to one of my favorite music clubs to check out a duo that's been writing and performing together since 2009.  The show at the Sportsmen's Tavern was one of the final shows (as of this writing) on their fall tour supporting their 2014 release "Down The Deep Well."

The early impression one gets from Andrew Hardin and Jeannie Burns watching them perform, is they are pure Americana artists.  The songwriting is tight, relevant and not afraid to tackle the controversial as evidenced by "The Call", a song that was inspired by the circumstances surrounding the sudden death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.  A story told from the perspective of a still sober addict, "The Call" speaks less about the passing itself, speaking more to the temptation felt daily by recovering addicts.  A great blues number, "Smokestack Lightning" and "Beware of Darkness", a George Harrison cover, highlighted the incredible musicianship of Andrew Hardin.  He is one of the finest acoustic guitar players I have seen live.

Not to be outdone is Jeannie Burns.  Her signing and songwriting can take you back to the times of early Emmylou Harris, as shown on the country rock flavored "Stars Are Shining." The song "Underbelly Blues" is a great protest song which speaks to the perils of hydro-fracking, with corporate greed at the forefront.  Her singing of "Lake Charles", the Lucinda Williams classic would make Lucinda herself smile.  

When watching Hardin Burns, the respect they have for one another is clear.  They have recognized that each artist brings something special to the table and has allowed them to create a partnership that can last for a long time.  Their respective backgrounds have enabled them to tap in to each others creativity which has led to a stellar piece of work with "Down the Deep Well", as well as creating a wonderful stage presence that locks the listeners in.  When this duo gets back on the road, you would do well to check them out.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Concert Review: Jamey Johnson, Webster MA, Sept. 20, 2015

As my friend Baron Lane of the Twang Nation blog has said on more than one occasion, "not all music from Music Row is garbage."  When he was saying these words, he was talking about the great Kacey Musgraves, but I know he would agree that those words also apply to one of the real outlaws of modern day country music, Jamey Johnson.

I have long been a fan and supporter of Jamey Johnson, his work and his desire to complete his craft in his own way.  It is in the similar vein of one of the original Outlaws, Waylon Jennings.  For better or worse, the music business has changed from when Mr. Jennings would try and do things differently.  Waylon was able to score a long and lucrative recording contract extension from RCA Records, his longtime record label home where he scored his most memorable and successful hits.  This attitude more or less got Jamey Johnson kicked off of his major record label.  Most (and I suspect Jamey himself) would agree that this turn of events was the best thing that happened to his career ... doing things your own way, in your own time and on your own terms can be very liberating.  It shows in his performance.

My vacation took me away from my usual time in Nashville for the Americana Music Conference and Festival this year, and brought me to the New England states.  While there, my wife and I attended the Jamey Johnson performance at the Indian Ranch Amphitheater in Webster, Massachusetts.  And what a performance it was.  To attend a Jamey Johnson show is to attend a lesson in the history of modern country music.  Mr. Johnson indeed took the sold out attendees to school on this September afternoon.

Opening up with "Playing the Part", a top 40 track from his award-winning album "In Color", and following up with an ode to the beloved record executives that he has no time for these days, Jamey deftly moved from hits that received some airplay such as "High Cost of Living" and his signature song "In Color", to the most popular song he wrote for someone else, that being "Give It Away", a monster hit for George Strait.  But it was the history lesson Mr. Johnson was teaching that were the highlights of the show.  Covering his well known influences such as the aforementioned Waylon Jennings ("Luchenbach, Texas"), to Johnny Cash and a surprise performance of the great Don Williams hit "Your My Best Friend", Jamey showed he has all the bases covered when it comes to showcasing the country music of the late 1950's to 1970's that laid the groundwork for the artists of today.

It has been well documented of Jamey's longtime and deep friendship he shared with the late, great songwriter Hank Cochran.  Mr. Cochran was represented very well in this set by Jamey's stirring rendition of "I Fall To Pieces", written by Hank Cochran and became a classic hit known the world over as performed originally by Patsy Cline.  Another of Mr. Cochran's compositions was performed as well, as Jamey gave a nod to "the Voice", Mr. Vern Gosdin with "Set 'Em Up Joe", a song that reached number one for Vern in 1988 and was covered on Jamey's "The Guitar Song" album.  

An artist like Jamey Johnson comes along once in a generation.  He has the ability to unify the past with the present by educating the audience on the importance of both.  Jamey accomplishes this by delivering an outstanding musical performance with songs that have affected and influenced his career.  He responds to the pressure of being a standard bearer for the traditional side of country music and its outlaw ways by writing and performing songs with thoughtful lyrics and stories which paint a picture of all the elements of the great country songs of the past ... love, loss, happiness, revenge, marriage and divorce, with no sign of the tailgate parties that so over-populate mainstream country music today.  Jamey continues to tour throughout the fall, check out his tour page and mark the calendar to check out this one of a kind talent and entertainer. In the meantime, enjoy this clip of Jamey's track "Between Jennings and Jones."

Monday, July 27, 2015

Album Review: Amy Black, The Muscle Shoals Sessions

Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  The very mention of that little town in the southern United States always catches the attention of a true music fan.  It is a place of historical significance, a true melting pot of musical genres that had led to some of the greatest recorded music in history. Artists like Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Seger, The Staple Singers, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel and Willie Nelson are just a few of the legends that have created some of their best work in those hallowed studios. Indeed, when artists record at the FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, magic happens. How could it not? The artists, from the lead singer, to the producers, to the musicians, all push themselves just that little bit more. 

Such is the case with The Muscle Shoals Sessions (Rueben), the latest release from Amy Black. For this project, Amy takes her music in a completely different direction, fusing soul, country and blues.  This move from her comfort zone pays off handsomely, as this record is one of the most underrated albums of 2015.  It's a stellar piece of work that is unique to the Americana landscape today.  

The album kicks off appropriately with a sultry version of Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home", starting with a simple guitar and Black's powerful vocals. This introduction gives way to a purely funky version of this classic, and it sets the bar high for the rest of the album.  Black re-introduces us to the spoken word concept in a portion of the Spooner Oldham/Dan Penn written "Uptight, Good Man", a performance that perfectly captures the message for women to not settle for anything less than the good man they desire.

"Watch Dog" perfectly captures the everything that you would expect from an album paying hommage to the history of the music of Muscle Shoals.  Originally a hit for Etta James, Ms. Black breathes new life in to this soul classic with her powerful vocals and backed by a piercing horn section and outstanding background vocals by Ann and Regina McCrary (of McCrary Sisters fame).  From this great funky number that's built for dancing, the album moves to one of its real highlights. "Starting All Over Again" is a beautifully written song about the painful realization one feels when they realize they must dial the relationship back a step or two.  She captures the emotions perferctly, detailing the tough task ahead with the hope that the relationship will move forward and prosper with this step backward. It's an adult song for an adult subject. 

While there are some brilliant selections that have been covered on this record, this is more than a cover album. Not to rest on her laurels, Ms. Black makes valuable contributions to this album with her own songwriting.  She takes us to the back rooms and the back waters with the swampy-sounding groove of "Get To Me."  "Woman On Fire" kicks things back up a notch with a pounding back beat that helps capture the sultry feel of the song, which once again highlights Ms. Black's vocal prowess and showcases what the McCrary's can bring to a song with their backing vocals. "Please Don't Give Up On Me" is a beautiful song of regret and apology, it is one of the finest songs on the album. If the goal for Amy Black was to contribute songs that stand with the spirit that is the music from Muscle Shoals, than we can conclusively say, mission accomplished.

This is a finely crafted album that pays hommage to one of the truly great music centers in the world.  It's an authentic and pure tribute to Amy's roots and the sound that has defined music for generations. She's got the soul, she's got the funk and she captures it all on this record.  With "The Muscle Shoals Sessions", Amy Black moves to the front of the class among Americana's finest and most diverse singer-songwriters.  

Monday, July 20, 2015

Mariposa Folk Festival Musings - Part 2

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It’s been just over two weeks since Mariposa 2015 wrapped up and the wonderful memories still linger.  While the main stage had its share of brilliant moments, it was the action on the side stages that were the story of the weekend.

The number of side stages at Mariposa give those in attendance the opportunity to see several acts at one time in a setting that is different than on the main stage.  The side stages are definitely more intimate and, as evidenced in the Mariposa Pub Tent, can turn interactive.  The first such setting that we experienced was the Songwriters Session featuring Irish Mythen, Doug Paisley, Cheryl Wheeler and Adam Cohen.  Wheeler and Cohen would appear on the main stage later that afternoon/evening.  What's most impressive about the daytime sessions (called "workshops" by the Festival) is the opportunity for the songwriter to tell the story behind the song.  For example, Cheryl Wheeler was able to expand on how "When Fall Comes To New England" came to pass. It's a wonderful, descriptive Gordon Lightfoot-esque tune about, well, fall in New England.  The more intimate setting allows for great banter between the artists, as witnessed with Irish Mythen and Cheryl Wheeler.

The real "come to Jesus" moment took place on the Ruth Stage at the next workshop.  A tribute to the songs of Gordon Lightfoot which featured Rick Fines, Tim Chaisson of the East Pointers, Ash and Bloom, Doug Paisley and Turbo Street Funk brought out the man himself in a surprise appearance.  Following Tim Chaisson's version of "Sundown" to open the set, Mr. Lightfoot casually walked to the stage and took a seat to watch the ensemble perform many of his best known hits, as well as some songs from deep in the Lightfoot lexicon. When Mr. Lightfoot appeared, the crowd responded as if greeting a king.  Considering what Mr. Lightfoot has meant to the Mariposa Folk Festival over the decades, it was an appropriate response.

There were many highlights in this one hour session, with the only complaint being that it was only a one hour session.  Doug Paisley performed an outstanding version of "Early Morning Rain", one of Mr. Lightfoot's most widely covered songs, and told a story of meeting Mr. Lightfoot at an autograph session at Sam The Record Man, the once iconic record store in downtown Toronto, Ontario.  Ash and Bloom performed a stellar versions of "Summer Side of Life" and "Rainy Day People", while Rick Fines provided a bluesy take on "Ribbon of Darkness."  The ballsiest performance of the show was "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" by Turbo Street Funk, with a horn section replacing the iconic guitar riff.  All the artists did Mr. Lightfoot proud and were all deserving of the ensuing standing ovation.

The weekday workshops are a great opportunity to discover the amazing talent that exists in this country.  If one could identify the most influential artist over the course of the entire event, the weekend indeed belonged to Irish Mythen.  Originally from Prince Edward Island, Irish Mythen has travelled and resided in many parts of the world.  It is this worldliness that she brings to her writing, which is so incredibly skilled, deep and raw that her work demands that you pay attention.  Her workshop set with the Hamilton, Ontario based celtic band Poor Angus was the highlight of the weekend. The stage presence and chemistry between both acts sharing the stage was infectious, the interaction with the crowd was outstanding, and the performances were the talk of the festival.  To watch Irish Mythen, and to listen to her perform is an emotional experience.  She is one of the most important artists in music today and not to be missed if she comes to your town.

The memories of the 55th edition of the Mariposa Folk Festival will remain for a long time. From the artisans selling their wares, to the wide selection of food for purchase, to the lakeside setting and of course the incredible and varied styles of music, the future of Mariposa is looking very bright.  What impressed me most about the festival was the people.  Fans attending the weekend festivities are among the most welcoming, generous and kind people one could ever hope to meet.  They unite once a year for a common purpose, and that is to celebrate the genre of music that inspires love for one another.  Virtually everyone is welcome under this tent.  You can truly live the saying at Mariposa: sing like no one is listening and dance like no one is watching.  And if they are listening and watching, they will cheer you on and on and then join in your fun.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Mariposa Folk Festival Musings Part 1

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One of the longest running folk festivals took place last weekend over the course of three days on July 3, 4 and 5 along the shores of Lake Couchiching and Lake Simcoe in Orillia, Ontario.  The Mariposa Folk Festival took place for the 55th time and in part 1 of a two-part story, we'll talk a little about the festival and why you should go and focus on the headliners of the weekend.

With this being my first experience at Mariposa, I wasn't sure what to expect.  I knew it would be a great time, but I've been used to attending mainstream country music festivals such as Jamboree In The Hills and the Havelock Country Jamboree.  The Mariposa experience is incredible. It is a treasure on the Canadian musical landscape.  The music is first rate, from the main stage to the side stages that operate during the day, and the Mariposa Pub Tent that operates well in to the evening.  You can have virtually any kind of experience that you're looking for at Mariposa.  If you want to have a big party, you can do it.  If you would like a quiet and reflective time, Mariposa offers Tai Chi and yoga classes in the mornings.  If you want to eat first class food and drink first class beer, Mariposa has you covered in that regard as well, with food and craft beer selections to satisfy any palate. An artisans area and artist merchandise tent are also on hand if you wish to purchase music, instruments, clothing and so much more.  Mariposa will take place on July 8, 9 and 10 in 2016, so please join in the fun next summer.

Of course the main reason everyone attends the Mariposa Folk Festival is for the music. This years' lineup featured headliners Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucinda Williams and Adam Cohen closing out the shows on each night respectively.  Supporting on the main stage on Friday night was legendary singer-songwriter Jimmy Webb.  Many of you may not have heard of Jimmy Webb, but you have definitely heard his songs.  Performing with a grand piano as his only accompaniment, Mr. Webb kicked off the show with "Highwayman", which was a number 1 song in 1985 for Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, collectively known as "The Highwaymen."  Next up was Mr. Webb's anti-Vietnam Way song "Galveston", which was recorded by Webb's longtime friend, Mr. Glen Campbell. It was quite interesting to hear Mr. Webb speak about the relationship he had with Mr. Campbell given that some of Campbell's biggest and most famous hits were written by Mr. Webb. Other Webb-penned hits that were written for other artists include "MacCarthur Park" and "The Moon's A Harsh Mistress."  

Mary Chapin Carpenter closed off the mainstage festivities on Friday night and delivered arguably the finest all-around performance of the weekend.  Performing with a two-piece backing band, Ms. Carpenter delivered a wonderful acoustic set that included some of her biggest hits from her mainstream country music days.  A stripped-down version of the Lucinda Williams written "Passionate Kisses" breathes new life in to an already stellar song about everyone deserving happiness in their lives.  Ms. Carpenter's own "The Hard Way" was performed flawlessly with its message of strength while dealing with adversity hitting home with many in the audience.  New music was also introduced with the beautifully written "The Things That We Become" performed and introduced as coming out on an as yet unreleased album.  

Saturday and Sunday headliners included Lucinda Williams and Adam Cohen, son of the late, great Leonard Cohen.  Two showstealers of the main stage on the weekend were complete surprises.  Ruth Moody delivered a beautiful set of Americana and bluegrass, a set that featured a bluegrass version of the Bruce Springsteen hit "Dancing In The Dark."  One of the most talented musicians in the world performed several sets over the course of the weekend, as Gordie MacKeeman and His Rythym Boys set the bar high for Ms. Williams prior to her appearance.  Gordie MacKeeman is one of the premier fiddle players in the world today, and that's not an exaggeration.  A pure entertainer, he can work the crowd, sing, play fiddle and tap dance.  They deliver a show that is not to be missed.  The future of Americana is indeed bright with the likes of Ruth Moody and Gordie MacKeeman on board.

As if the mainstage show in the evening wasn't enough, there were many incredible performances during the daytime on several stages throughout Tudhope Park.  Part two of this write up will talk about those.  You won't want to miss it, I promise.  In the meantime, check out this clip of Lucinda Williams performing West Memphis from the Mariposa Folk Festival on July 4, 2015.  Enjoy!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Who's In Charge?

One of the biggest problems with mainstream country music was starkly revealed earlier this week with controversial comments made by radio programming consultant Keith Hill.  In an interview with industry publication Country Aircheck, Hill had these comments regarding the key to success of mainstream country radio stations:

"If you want to make ratings in country radio, take the females out.  The reason mainstream country radio generates more quarter hours from female to male listeners at the rate of 70 to 75 percent, and women like male artists.  The expectation is we're principally a male format with a smaller female component.  I've got about 40 music databases in front of me, and the percentage of females in the one with the most is 19 percent.  Trust me, I play great female records, and we've got some right now; they're just not the lettuce in our salad.  The lettuce is Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that.  The tomatoes of our salad are the females." (Read the full article taken from The Tennessean here)

Now, setting aside the fruit and vegetable analogy, if we examine these and other comments in the article, it reveals what I and I'm sure many others can see is a real problem with the state of country radio.  If we look back over the years, we can see that this problem has existed for what could be considered generations, if we really look back on it.  Focusing on the recent past, the problem I can see is this ridiculous notion of consultants steering the ship.   The consultants at radio are in essence telling the listener what they would like to hear, when the reality is it should be the listener directing what gets played and what doesn't.  That is to say, it shouldn't be so much about the name of the singer that automatically gets the record played on radio, it should be about the quality of the song and whether or not people like it.  Male or female shouldn't play any part of determining whether or not the song gets played.  If the song is good enough and the people respond, it's on the air.  In my view, it was this attitude that took legendary artists like George Jones, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton and more currently Alan Jackson off the air over the years.  Those artists and others like them were releasing high quality material, only to summarily dismissed at radio.

The comments from Keith Hill this week have drawn comparisons to other comments a few months ago from former Sony Music executive Gary Overton where he said he often reminds his staff "if you're not on country radio, you don't exist."  Overton's comments drew the requisite firestorm on twitter and other media outlets, but I don't see the parallel between the two.  In looking at the big picture, Gary Overton is in a different field than Hill.  While I don't agree with the comments stated by Overton, I can see where he was coming from in making those comments.  His job is to sell records at a major record label, where profit and the bottom line are key.  It seems more of a statement to motivate his staff to get out and sell the single to radio, sell the record, create a buzz for the artists, and so on.  It's an inaccurate statement to be sure, as the advent of Facebook, YouTube and the internet in general has made it possible for independent artists to not only survive, but thrive in the music business.  As a veteran of the music business, I found Overton's comments were the sign of a more outdated way of thinking than a total insult to artists like Jason Isbell and Charlie Robison, both of whom took great offence to Overton's comments.  

As of this writing, the story has not gone away and you can keep following on The Tennessean, Nashville's daily newspaper.  Since the comments were first reveals, Hill has clarified his comments in an interview with the Tennessean.  Unfortunately, the backlash has included death threats, which is nonsense.  His colleagues have spoken against his philosophy, with Country Music Television president Brian Phillips stating that the industry should stop creating these arbitrary and imaginary rules that hinder the business in the long run.  

To close off this piece, I think it's best to let one of the pioneer's of this business say all that needs to be said. Take from it what you will.  Enjoy everyone!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Album Review: Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, "The Travelling Kind"

If one were to examine a list of all the greats that have contributed to, and indeed built the very foundation of, the Americana genre, that list would most certainly include Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell.  Indeed, it could be reasonably argued, that Harris and Crowell are in the top ten of the most influential Americana artists in its still relatively young history as an acknowledged musical genre.  Which makes it all the more special that they have chosen to collaborate once again for “The Travelling Kind” (Nonesuch).  Released today, this is the second collaborative album for the two and it comes just two years since their first effort together, “Old Yellow Moon.” 

Their history together is well known, with Crowell once performing as a member of Harris’ famous Hot Band. That was some forty years ago.  It’s this history the two have together that makes a project like “The Travelling Kind” and its predecessor special.  In fact, it could be argued that the title track is based somewhat on that friendship and history the two artists share together.  Co-writing seven of the eleven tracks on the album, on can only hope that this collaboration will continue in the years to come.

Among the tracks that the two didn’t write together is an excellent cover of the Rodney Crowell written “No Memories Hanging Round.”  The song was originally a top 20 hit in 1979 for his then-wife Rosanne Cash and Bobby Bare.  The soaring beauty of Harris’ voice, harmonized with that of Crowell give the song a fresh take that stands right alongside the hit version.  The Lucinda Williams penned “I Just Wanted To See You So Bad” is so good and so perfectly performed musically and vocally that it surpasses the outstanding original version.

This album of course is more than just covers of past hits.  It is a deep album exploring many themes and stages of life as only veteran artists can.  “You Can’t Say We Didn’t Try” is a heartbreaking story of love lost, written by two artists who have lived through the tale. “Higher Mountains” is beautifully performed as only Emmylou Harris could deliver, and delves in to facing the unknown of what’s next at the end of a life well lived. The project rounds itself out completely with a couple of songs that are just plain fun, with the rockabilly influenced “Bring It On Home To Memphis” and the Cajun spiced “La Danse de la Joie.”

It is rare when two artists of this caliber get together to work on an excellent, award winning album and still remain steadfast friends.  That happened when Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell created a masterpiece with “Old Yellow Moon.”  It is rarer still, when those same two artists come back together two years later and create another masterpiece that surpasses the previous release.  That has happened with “The Travelling Kind.”  This album is a piece of art, an outstanding collection of stories from two of the greatest and most influential artists of our time.  This is an album of the year candidate, in any year. 

In the meantime, before you go out and pick up "The Travelling Kind", check out this great video courtesy of the Late Show with David Letterman, featuring Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Steve Martin, Amos Lee and Mark O'Connor.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Album Review: The Honeycutters, "Me Oh My"

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One of the more underrated musical centers in North America is the Appalachian Region of the United States.  Which is quite shocking when you think of it, considering this area was really the birthplace of modern music with the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers creating the first recordings in 1920’s Bristol, Virginia.  In this century, the region is still a hotbed for roots music with skilled bands and musicians plying their trade daily.

A couple of hours away from Bristol east on Interstate 40, you will find the city of Asheville, North Carolina, a bustling city of music and art nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains.  The Honeycutters are a product of this city and they have just released their third studio album “Me Oh My” (Organic Records).  A solid, straight ahead country music record, “Me Oh My” further establishes The Honeycutters as one of the top regional Americana acts on the east coast and readies them for a larger audience.

All 14 songs on this album are written by lead singer and group founder Amanda Anne Platt, who also produced the album.  While Amanda may be the current creative force behind The Honeycutters, it is the combination of her strong song writing and the wonderful talent of her bandmates that make this album and this act work.  The harmonies are tight, and the musicianship is first rate.

Starting off with a great two-step song “Jukebox”, the album takes the listener on a journey of love and loss, longing, fulfilment and redemption … all things that make up a great country record.  The title track is a solid piece of work, reminiscent of classic Mary Chapin Carpenter, both in its subject matter of the strong woman and vocal delivery by Platt.  “Carolina” is a beautiful homage to the bands home state of North Carolina, while acknowledging the desire to explore life outside her borders. “Edge of the Frame” is another winner where the female character is at a crossroads with her chosen partner in life and clearly has a decision to make on her future. 

The Honeycutters also delve back in to some past work with two solid tracks that are included on this album.  According to the album’s liner notes, “Wedding Song” was written for a friends’ wedding present.  A nice mid-tempo song with great, clever lyrics such as “when I’m with you honey it’s like money, like I’m throwing loaded dice.”  You can’t help but smile when listening to this song, it’s very well written and beautifully performed. “Little Bird” is one of the few slow songs to appear on the album and broaches the subject of love lost.  It’s also the song that brought greater attention to the songwriting talents of Amanda Anne Platt, as it was chosen as a finalist in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2011.

The Honeycutters’ “Me Oh My” is one of the great country/Americana albums to be released this year and is a clear reflection that this band is developing in to one of the top flight Americana acts.  If you like traditional country music, this album is as good as it gets.  You will not find songs about drinking from solo cups, tailgates, or driving around in the mud.  Just straight up country music in its traditional form from a band that is skilled and smart enough to deliver the real goods.  The sky is the limit for The Honeycutters.  Do yourself a favor and add this album to your collection, you'll be glad you did.