“Elana James” by Elana James

Elana James
Elana James
Smarf Records
4 Stars (out of 5)

Except for a stint in Bob Dylan’s band, fiddler Elana James has been singing and swinging with hipsters Hot Club of Cow Town since she and guitarist Whit Smith cooked up the combo in 1996. On her self-titled debut, she steps out and steps up with a big-time baker’s dozen of originals, faves, and surprises.

The saucy see-you-later “Twenty-Four Hours a Day” that opens Elana James immediately says, “Hop in and hold on. You’re mine for the next forty minutes.” No problem. Before she finishes following up with a beautiful broken-hearted cover of Dylan’s “One More Night,” you need only decide whether to look over her shoulder and lean into the next turn or lay back and enjoy the ride.

And what a ride! James swerves, swoops, and darts gracefully among the traditional “Goodbye Liza Jane,” the traditional sounding “All the World and I,” the super-charged “Down the Line,” the gorgeous “Eva’s Waltz,” and the torchy “I Got it Bad (and That Ain’t Good).” Backers Bruce Brackman (clarinet), Dave Butler (guitar), Mark Hallman (brushes), Luke Hill (guitar), Joe Kerr (piano), Beau Samples (bass), and the legendary Johnny Gimble add traction throughout.

By the time she pulls in with Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “I Don’t Mind,” you no longer need worry about your heart. It belongs to Elana James!

by Tim Walsh

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“The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show” by Johnny Cash and friends

Johnny Cash
The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show
Sony Columbia Legacy
5 stars (out of 5)

I was in journalism grad school when Johnny Cash died, the same week that John Ritter died of a heart attack. In a seminar on entertainment writing taught by the entertainment editor at the Chicago Tribune, we debated which death was bigger news, which deserved higher placement on the page. Of course I said Cash, obviously. No matter how well Ritter pretended to be gay to fool Mr. Furley. (Although his performance as a gay character in Sling Blade was a nice contribution to a great movie.)

Exhibit A in my argument, which I thought would sway my baby boomer teacher, was The Johnny Cash TV Show, which was tremendously popular on CBS from 1969 to 1971. As Tom Brokaw and everyone else born between 1946 and 1964 never tire of telling us, it was a divisive time in America. And Cash’s presence in so many living rooms was a significant reason that gap didn’t grow even wider.

On the show, he sang and spoke against the Vietnam War and for his Christian faith without offending anyone except the network censors. He refused to change the line “I’m wishin’ Lord that I was stone” in Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.” He sang-spoke the “son of a bitch” line in “A Boy Named Sue” just moments after stomping out two of the sacred Ryman Auditorium’s footlights with a look in his eye just like an all-worked-up Lonesome Rhodes from the Elia Kazan masterpiece “A Face in the Crowd.”

But everyone loved it, the long-hairs who shuffled into the Ryman after hanging out in the Broadway bars all day and the beehive housewives and grandmas who came all the way from Tulsa or Wheeling or Dayton and would pretty near faint if anyone but Johnny talked like that around them.

Cash had a charisma, almost an aura, say many of the people who knew him. Something like what Elvis had, just as wild but more regal. I’ve always wondered if that was true, or just something that people say to make themselves feel more special for having been around a famous person.

I’ve settled that question in my mind after watching The Best of The Johnny Cash TV Show, two DVDs of magnificent moments from the CBS vaults. The parade of talent that Cash brought on the show was unbelievable, but it was the guest stars themselves who can’t believe Cash’s arm is around them and they’re about to sing with him.

After Eric Clapton, along with a pre-Duane Allman Derek and the Dominos, plays a pleasant version of Chuck Willis’ “It’s Too Late,” Cash arrives to shake Clapton’s hand, while the perfect guitarist and devotee of American music for an instant looks like he’s staring right at Robert Johnson’s ghost, afraid, awed and giddy all at once.

Bob Dylan was Cash’s guest on the first show, no longer the spindly speed freak, the electrified jester who became for many Americans one of the personae most typical of the hated and feared counterculture. Bob’s back on acoustic guitar, recovered from the near-fatal motorcycle wreck that may have saved him beating Jim Morrison to the dead, sainted poet gig. He’s gained a little weight, grown a scruffy near-beard and, apparently because he stopped smoking cigarettes, sings in a Dudley Do-Right tenor that had me convinced that I had put a record other than “Nashville Skyline” on my friends parents’ turntable the first time I heard it.

Bob sings “I Threw it All Away,” which no doubt sent many of his fans into fits because the lyrics contained no circus geeks, blind commissioners or mules who prefer to have jewels and binoculars hanging from their heads.

Instead, it’s a simple folk/country song, not too far from “Girl from the North Country,” the tune that Bob did on his first album and that he sings with Cash here, the two voices too big to blend together.

Other acts not usually found in Nashville (though Bob did record Blonde on Blonde there in 1966) were on: Creedence Clearwater Revival scraping away on “Bad Moon Rising,” a startlingly comely Linda Ronstadt and her miniature miniskirt duetting with Cash on “I Will Never Marry,” Joni Mitchell duetting on “Long Black Veil,” a pairing which must hold some sort of record for most disparate voices singing at the same time on network television.

The usual country suspects turn up, all of them looking great and sounding greater: Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride, Conway Twitty, Ray Price and a young, chubby Hank Williams Jr.

Bill Monroe and Mother Maybelle Carter send chill up the spine with their dignity and creativity. The Everly Brothers nearly made me cry with “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine,” accompanied by their father, legendary guitarist Ike Everly.

Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis are simply wonderful, but they are still doing what they did 15 years ago, which is why they rank a degree or two lower in the pantheon of Southern white music than the eternal Cash and the mercurial Elvis.

Also incredibly significant for the time, and tremendously satisfying musically, are performances by Stevie Wonder (“Heaven Help Us All”), Ray Charles on a smoldering, revelatory “Ring of Fire,” and Louis Armstrong, duetting with Cash on “Blue Yodel No. 9,” just as he did on the original recording with Jimmie Rodgers.

There’s a dozen or so more artists in the more than three hours of tape, but it’s of course Cash that just amazes. The honesty bout his failings, the courtly manners along with the raw individualism, the love and respect he imparted to everyone, the love and awe toward June. No TV writer or director can manufacture that, no actor can summon that up. Using the sense of a word that most people in television today simply couldn’t comprehend, one can say that The Johnny Cash TV Show was reality television at its very best.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Spirit on the Prowl” by Emily Singleton

Emily Singleton
Spirit on the Prowl
Bell Buckle Records
3 stars (out of 5)

It’s shaping up to be a long, cold winter, but singer-songwriter Emily Singleton has an even better excuse to cozy up to a roaring fire.

Backed by a capable crew of musicians, including Jim Hurst on mandolin, and Becky Buller on fiddle, Singleton tells scary stories and piles on the wintry atmosphere with her latest, Spirit on the Prowl.

A silvery, ethereal vocalist in the mold of folk-pop singers like Joni Mitchell and Alison Krauss, Singleton’s most gratifying influence is Jacqui McShea, of 60s-era British folk-rockers Pentangle.

That influence is most evident in “Sweet Becky at the Loom,” a traditional lyric set to Pete Sutherland’s breathtaking, British folk-style melody.  The distinctive, modal character of traditional folk is also present in Singleton’s originals,  “Shadow of a Mountain,” which tells a story that seems straight from the oral tradition, and “A Little Jaded,” with a decidedly more contemporary viewpoint.

Singleton proves equally adept at Irish folk in “Rise Up My Love”, a traditional melody with lyrics adapted by Singleton and her guitarist husband, Dave Higgs. Higgs’ bright pennywhistle, nimble guitar filigrees, and spare, orchestral strings underscore the Celtic feel.

Those same strings turn two drastically different tunes – Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter’s Night” and the Stanley Brothers favorite “Little Maggie” – into stark, compelling chamber folk.

The traditional “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow” benefits from old-timey instrumental backup and a bluesy vibe, while a folk-revival take on the Carter Family chestnut “Keep on the Sunny Side” gets a lift from a swinging bass line.

Singleton’s “Hobo Railway” is the most overtly bluegrass-style track, with a bone-chilling sketch of the eponymous hobo’s character:  “He’d give you love / So he could take it / Then he’d leave / You on a whim.”

Singleton deserves credit for embracing the ethnic character that so many contemporary singers throw away when they interpret folk and traditional tunes.  It’s enough to give a traditionalist hope – even with a long, cold winter ahead.

by Maria Morgan Davis