“Walking Through Clay” by Dirk Powell

Dirk Powell

Walking Through Clay

Sugar Hill Records

5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

When the writing bug hit me in 2000, it was because of roots music. I was listening to wonderful stuff—Lucinda Williams, Kieran Kane, Fred Eaglesmith, Kelly Willis, and the Del McCoury Band, to mention a few names—that few people I knew were listening to, and I felt compelled to share with others the incredible surge of enthusiasm I experienced whenever I heard music that moved me.

I thought, if only others could hear what I hear, they would be transformed as I have been. Walking Through Clay, the fourth album Powell has released—and first in a decade, since the heartfelt, traditionally sounding Time Again—feels and sounds a lot like a summation of what was bouncing around in my wee brain some 14 years ago—if only everyone could hear this, they would get it.

Dirk Powell made his musical bones a long time ago. He has been playing banjo, fiddle, accordion, and near anything else he sets his hands to most of his life, and professionally for almost as long. I don’t have a memory of the first time I became aware of Powell, but I know it was before I heard his amazing collaboration with Tim O’Brien and John Herrmann, Songs From the Mountain. That recording was the first time I really listened to how powerfully he could interpret ‘ancient tones,’ building an eerie bridge from the past.

I’m predisposed toward appreciation when Powell is associated with an album. He has played on or produced some of my favourite albums of the past two decades, from Balfa Toujours’ Deux Voyages and Ginny Hawker’s Letters From My Father, to Darrell Scott’s Theatre of the Unheard and Wayne Scott’s equally brilliant This Weary Way, and more Tim O’Brien albums than can comfortably be listed. Some of the albums are almost unknown (Polecat Creek’s excellent Leaving Eden), while others made numerous ‘best of’ lists in their year of release (such as Laura Cortese’s Into the Dark of last year). Like O’Brien, Powell surrounds himself with quality, and in turn makes any project he is associated with that much more appealing.

An album as intricately woven with the soul of Americana music as this one is can only be held together by an artist with a strong and clear vision, and the ability to experience the collective sound prior to their creation. Powell is just such an artist, a master instrumentalist, collaborator, and arranger.

Walking Through Clay is joyful, even when it occasionally veers toward the dark as it does within “Golden Chain.” It is an album that has to be heard in its entirety to be understood, as to listen to any single particular track is to be afforded only a small measure of the overall production and risk missing the magnitude of its impact. Mindful of the limitations of genre and astute to the enchantment of musical alchemy, Powell blends the electric with the acoustic, allowing the Appalachian sounds that were his birthright to sidle up to the bayou blues that are his choice.

Rarely does an album overwhelm me as Walking Through Clay has. Infrequently while listening to music, a shiver will be caused to run through me, and I’ll find myself forced to clap, just a single, full-bodied release that allows my body to self-regulate itself and bleed-off overstimulation. That sensation found me multiple times this month while listening to Walking Through Clay, and always during one of the album’s highlights, “Some Sweet Day.”

As a wonderful Cajun band does—permitting folks to grab a mouthful before heading back into the melee of a rough-hewn dance floor—Powell allows almost all of these songs an extended instrumental introduction. These melodic explorations establish a context, defining a setting that is palatable before lyrics provide detail and prior to the songs exploding with driving passion.

Walking Through Clay boldly opens with a pair of powerful blues-based songs, the first of which—“Rollin’ Through This Town”—I was convinced featured Blackie & the Rodeo Kings until the liner notes arrived later. It is powerful and melodic, setting the album on a course simultaneously fueled by ingenuity and tradition.

The title track rocks even harder, is rich and deep with its genesis in Powell’s family’s Civil War experiences. Powell spits out deeply-felt, historical images in a near-punk litany, bringing to mind Jason & the Scorchers. This is the exception as Powell has a subtle yet strong voice, not classically individual, but also free of contrivance.

Whether singing, or by playing nearly a dozen instruments—five-string banjo, fiddle, woodtop fretless banjo, guitars—acoustic and electric—and mandolin among them—Powell is the star. By placing his voice and his words at the fore of this collection rather than relying on traditional songs and interpreting the creations of others, Powell has stepped up to be the performer at the front of the stage rather than occupying the position as the sideman and collaborator he long has. It is a brave and, for this set, necessary choice, and he accomplishes the task with great success.

Comparisons to The Band go far beyond Levon Helm’s contributions to “Abide With Me,” which also features Amy Helm. Powell isn’t afraid to employ propulsive beats, while ensuring the breezy influences of New Orleans, zydeco, and Cajun traditions be maintained. In a very different but no less soulful manner, the Bobby Charles’ influenced “That Ain’t Right” explores another side of Louisiana music. “As I Went Out A’Walkin’” is populated by ghosts from the hills crossing centuries to play fiery stringband music.

Aoife O’Donovan, quietly establishing  herself as the go-to harmony foil of modern Americana, sounds gorgeous on “Goodbye Girls,” while Martha Scanlan’s “Sweet Goes the Whistle”—one of only three songs not written by Powell—is seamlessly absorbed into this marvelous blend.

I don’t pretend to know much about Kentucky, where Powell’s family originates, or Louisiana, which Powell has chosen to call home, but when he sings “I’m never going to leave Louisiana” in David Egan’s “Spoonbread,” I believe him and experience a connection to his aching, dark, joyous and life-affirming world.

Walking Through Clay—dedicated to the departed Helm and Powell’s great-great- grandmother—connects historical and musical traditions  into a wonderfully refreshing and surprisingly contemporary roots rock album that is destined to be one of the year’s finest.

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“The Love I Have for You” by Miss Tess & the Talkbacks

Miss Tess & The Talkbacks
The Love I Have For You
Signature Sounds
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

I became a fan of Miss Tess & The Talkbacks with the release of Sweet Talk. It’s good news that she stays in the groove with this latest release. The only downside is it’s an EP with only seven numbers. That’s probably a matter of budget rather than a lack of material.

Sweet Talk had strong swing influences with touches of Western swing, country, and jazz. This new CD is rockabilly-tinged country. Included is the country standard “Night Life,” one of Willie Nelson’s best compositions (in company with dozens of others) and impressed upon the hearts of real country music fans by his and Ray Price’s recordings. Formatting for the radio generally means a track less than four minutes but I’ve always hoped for a jam version of “Night Life” on a recording. There’s such a great opportunity for multi-instrument vamping with this song, and the Talkbacks could have done this. Unfortunately, they didn’t. Their version follows the same formula of singing and instrumental breaks as the Nelson and Price versions but, hey, it’s good music. Miss Tess’ voice is sultry with some edge and she does this blues message well.

She offers a softer side with “The Alabama Waltz,” a Hank Williams composition that he rarely performed and gave to Bill Monroe, who released the first recording of it. Miss Tess’ version, which features some beautiful work by guitarist Will Graefe, is a sentimental story, not unlike Patti Page’s Tennessee Waltz, but not quite matching the pathos of Williams’ version (but how many singers can?). When Williams sings, “I was sad and blue, downhearted, too; it seems like the whole world was lost” you easily believe his words. This was an interesting choice by her.

Miss Tess is in her element with “Sorry You’re Sick,” a bouncy song that fits her style perfectly, giving it more texture than its composer’s 1982 version. Ted Hawkins is hardly a household name but it’s our good fortune she’s brought new life to this number. She mirrors tracks with Bonnie Raitt on another uptempo number, “Give It Up Or Let Me Go,” and she keeps that feeling with “Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad.” Listening to her cut of this number you catch yourself twitching, wanting to snap your fingers or pat your feet or something, opposed to the mellow, take another sip of beer version of composer Randy Newman.

Her other cover song is a remake of Neil Young’s “Hold Back The Tears.” She chose to make it a 4/4 ballad while Young did it with a Latin beat.

The only original number is the title track. It’s tempo is slow but it has drive punctuated by bassist Larry Cook and drummer Matt Meyer, the latter thankfully not part of the thump-THUMP crowd of drummers often heard today.

If you like the rockabilly sound you’re going to love Miss Tess.

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“Cross My Heart + Hope to Die ” by D.B. Rielly

D.B. Rielly

Cross My Heart + Hope to Die 

Shut Up & Play

4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Where do rock ‘n’ roll and roots meet?

Right here, my friend. The title says is all: Rielly promises to be true, but knows he won’t be. Can’t be.

He couldn’t be a purist if he had to, and in being so completely eclectic, he embraces the heart of Americana—stringband, zydeco, blues, and soul, country, jugband, gospel, and parlor music—a heart that is fired by a rock ‘n’ roll backbeat.

D. B. Rielly is yet another of those under-known purveyors of music embraced by a select, fervent collective of listeners who have somehow tripped across his gems within overwhelmingly crowded streams of social media. To listen to D.B. Rielly and not love him is akin to smelling bacon and not salivating.

I first encountered Rielly three years back when he released the remarkable album Love Potions and Snake Oil. That set was amazing. This one, more so by a factor of Tony Joe White.

Who is D.B. Rielly? Hell if I know—he doesn’t tour northern Canada too often. His website bio reads, in full:
“D.B. Rielly was born in the hearts and minds of lonely widows. He was raised by traveling vacuum cleaner salesmen and fed a strict diet of Cream of Wheat and Gilligan’s Island until, at the age of three, he was sent off to receive his education at the I Don’t Like Your Attitude, Young Man, Academy of Discipline.

Decades later, realizing he’d never be able to snatch the pebble from anyone’s hand, they “graduated” him. D.B. was unprepared for a world full of choices, opportunity, reality TV, and boy bands, so he wandered—clutching tightly to the only memory he had left: the sound of a Hoover Deluxe 700. It’s no surprise that he gravitated toward the accordion—and is shunned by music-lovers everywhere.

So back on the road he goes. You may spot him hitching a ride somewhere, anywhere you’re headed is fine. You may spot him in a deserted diner trying to look up the waitress’ skirt. But one thing is certain: “wherever dogs are howling and little children are holding their ears, you’ll find D.B. Rielly and his squeezebox.”

In other words, I wish he was my dad.

Rielly brings to mind several disparate artists of greater renown, and is none the worse for these comparisons. “Moving Mountains” sounds like something Paul Birch might have recorded a decade ago on his brilliant Last of My Kind, and “Wrapped Around Your Little Finger” is a funky little Louisiana-influenced country tune that reminds me of Dwight. Bobby Charles’ bluesy essence find second life within Rielly’s hopeful “It’s Gonna Be Me.” The female protagonist in the lively “Roadrunner” is the one D. B. won’t let get away; the restraining order is in the mail.
Two solo numbers, “Come Hell or High Water” and “Your Doggin’ Fool,” serve as highlights. With multi-tracking, Rielly weaves guitar, accordion, percussion, and banjo into interesting and dense musical tapestries, revealing his individuality while embracing the music of his roots. Really, there isn’t a down moment within Cross My Heart + Hope to Die‘s all too few 35 minutes.

Bob Seger’s song of 40 (!) years ago, “Turn the Page,” is revitalized by Rielly and his band, maintaining its lonesome vibe while nourishing it with banjo, percussion—via washboard—and especially Hiromasa Suzuki’s guitar. The urgency of this road song is magnified through Reilly’s intensified treatment. It is the albums only non-original.

Like Scott Miller, Mike Plume, Kate Campbell, Antsy McClain and a couple ten thousand others who are devoted to making their kind of music—come hell or high water—D. B. Rielly is a songwriter, singer, and musician of immeasurable quality.

Dang me if I can figure out why Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan are on every radio station from there to here and D. B. Rielly ain’t. He’s like Marty Stuart with an accordion. Buddy Miller without friends. Roy Orbison without glasses, and Iris Dement with testosterone.

D. B. Rielly is just plain good.

Listen.

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“The Definitive Doc Watson” by Doc Watson

Doc Watson
The Definitive Doc Watson
Sugar Hill Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Doc Watson’s recording career began in 1962, but his presence seems to extend back into history much further than that. Born in North Carolina in 1923, and blinded by disease in his first year, he soaked up every note he could hear—over the radio and from the family Victrola—and by his death in 2012 had become to the American acoustic music what Mark Twain is to American literature. One can hear a little bit of everything that came before and what came after Watson in the music he made. While Samuel Clemens wielded a cigar, a pen, and a wit that was both friendly and fearless, Arthel Lane Watson’s tools were a nimble clawhammer banjo, a booming guitar—steel-stringed and flat-picked, always—and a voice strong and broad enough to sing just about every type of song an American might care to sing without the aid of electricity.

Watson, who recorded dozens of albums and played thousands of sets, made plenty of music for any archivist to come up with countless representative permutations, but Sugar Hill’s Fred Jasper’s playlist of  34 songs on this two-disc set spanning one and three-quarter hours hits the spot for newcomers and longtime fans alike.

The first 10 tracks—save a brisk guitar duet on “Black Mountain Rag” with John Herald—feature only Doc, on stage or in studio with either a guitar or banjo, in the first three or four years as a national performer. His relatively youthful presence is as distinct and commanding as that of legends like Son House and Mississippi John Hurt who were being re-recorded near the end of their lives spent mastering their art. Watson, who had half a century of music yet to come, was already masterful: effortless on a languorous “St. Louis Blues,” brooding on “The House Carpenter,” which one should compare and contrast with Bob Dylan’s take from The Bootleg Series, Vol.1, and swaggering on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Anniversary Blue Yodel (Blue Yodel #7.”

The meat of this feast—the second half of disc one, the first half of disc two—chronicles Watson’s musical relationship with son Merle, who was a chip off the proverbial old block on banjo and guitar, from the late 1960s until Merle’s death in 1984. They pick some country blues worthy of both halves of that descriptive phrase, and offer a simple, yet exquisite take on the Delmore Brothers’ “Blue Railroad Train.” The first disc ends with father and son enacting the six-minute cinema of the sex-and-death English folk song “Matty Groves,” a track from 1966 that I’d somehow missed up until now, but have been wearing out the last couple of weeks.

Disc two brings in many of the pickers who came after Watson and, following his example, showed that folk and country music—in the original, musicologically correct senses of those adjectives—need not be merely simply played, repetitive music by which one dances in barns. Dan Crary, Sam Bush, Jack Lawrence, Bela Fleck, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Marty Stuart, and Mark O’Connor show here with Watson, and throughout their remarkable careers, why they are regarded the world over as musicians who can play and create music as soulful, complex, or grand as any composer or musician from any other musical tradition.

The Definitive Doc Watson closes with a three-minute romp through “Whiskey Before Breakfast” recorded in a hotel room in 2006 with Sutton, one of the few guitarists worthy of being discussed along with our subject here. It’s striking in that you have to really listen to keep it straight who is playing what—showing that Watson’s shadow looms long—and that you could have labeled this as a recording with Merle from 1970, or as one of Watson’s debut recordings (if there was someone who could pick quite this good in 1962) and it would fit right in.  Just load it up and play it—in order or on shuffle; it’s all great. Steeped in time and shaped by it, Watson is himself timeless.

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“Hammer Down” by the SteelDrivers

The SteelDrivers
Hammer Down
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Bluegrass music is a hard soundscape in which to try and do something new. Synthesized in 1946 by Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and friends, it is still a young musical style, but its unwritten rules and widely practiced traditions have made rare the bands that spring fully formed on the scene with a radically new sound that still deserves the label bluegrass.

A collective of Nashville pickers and singers, the SteelDrivers did that in 2008, integrating the sounds and swagger of outlaw country and blues-rock (though not straight blues, that’s a challenge still waiting to be met) into the bluegrass sound without adding extraneous instrumentation or needlessly complicated arrangements.

They perfected their recorded style with 2010‘s Reckless, which was released with the word that it marked the end of Chris Stapleton’s run with the band, leaving many wondering if the group could retain its power without the wild, gritty soul that the truly gifted lead singer gave the band.

But word soon got out that replacement Gary Nichols was every bit the singer Stapleton was, and Hammer Down confirms it for those who’ve missed the SteelDrivers live shows. Indeed, though after a couple of listens through good headphones I’ve decided that Nichols’ voice is just a tinge smoother than Stapleton’s, I did a few double takes when playing it in the car the first couple of times—the edges are plenty rough enough to leave a mark.

Tammy Rogers’ presence with harmony vocals that are feminine without being soft makes Nichols sound that much stronger, and her fiddle grabs the blue notes and the ancient tones alike. Richard Bailey (banjo), Mike Fleming (bass), and Brent Truitt (mandolin) resist what must be a strong temptation to bash and shred their way through these songs as strongly as Nichols sings them, instead they ride a tasteful swing that make for a wider dynamic range than you realize the first time through.

The ten songs that clock in at 35 minutes are all good, being a bit more varied in subject and arrangement than those on either previous project. The album-closing “When I’m Gone” is a sunnier song that suggests this great band will continue to grow without leaving behind the approach that sets them apart.

 

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“Old Sock” by Eric Clapton & “Electric” by Richard Thompson

Eric Clapton
Old Sock
Surfdog Records
1 star (out of 5)

Richard Thompson
Electric
New West Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Eric Clapton’s place as the godfather of rock guitarists is undisputed—of course because of his brilliant early work, but also because he seems like a nice guy who has outlived greater talents like Hendrix and Duane Allman—but as a solo artist his work has been erratic, reaching a new low with the fittingly—and frighteningly—named Old Sock. All of the adjectives it brings to mind apply to this 12-track, 53-minute set that nearly put me to sleep on a recent road trip.

There are only two new songs here—more about them later—and the remaining 10 are don’t seem to have been chosen for any other reason that the minimal effort they required. A folksy “Goodnight, Irene” and a syrupy “Born to Lose” (from Ray Charles’ country and western phase) would be bad enough, but tossing in three chestnuts from the so-called Great American Songbook in as well, all with shimmering strings and Roy Conniff-style backing vocals, is just painful, surpassing even the dreck that Rod Stewart has been shoveling for the last decade or so.

“Further on Down the Road” (Jesse Davis/Taj Mahal), “Till Your Well Runs Dry” (Peter Tosh), and “Your One and Only Man” (Otis Redding) sound like faux-reggae rejects from the 461 Ocean Boulevard sessions, while the late British blue guitarist Gary Moore’s “Still Got the Blues” is most assuredly devoid of any trace of the purported blues. A soft arrangement, a lazy vocal, and a brief guitar solo that could have been pieced together from three or four other solos from different songs just doesn’t cut it.

Neither of the new songs did Clapton write. “Gotta Get Over” almost comes to life, but not quite. It’s a decent song, with a decent vocal and lots of those familiar guitar fills that Clapton does better than anyone, but which have been done to death. The other original is “Every Little Thing,” which may have already wrapped up the award for worst track of 2013. Not only is it another of the faux-reggae lot, complete with a faux-Marley title, but its chorus halfway in assaults the listener with the worst sound that can be captured by a recording engineer: a children’s chorus. After this debacle, I’d be surprised if we ever got a good new track out of Clapton again.

However, the constant stream of great work from Richard Thompson continues. Electric was recorded in Nashville with Buddy Miller producing, with Thompson including, for the most part, just Taras Prodaniuk on bass, Michael Jerome on drums, and, occasionally, Siobhan Maher Kennedy on backing vocal. Without anything to hide behind, Thompson’s strengths as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist—both electric and acoustic—continue to amaze.

“Stony Ground,” “Sally B,” and especially “Stuck on the Treadmill” have the thump and heft of the sort of rock songs that aren’t getting made much these days: a cranky guy belting out pointed lyrics and driving the point home with guitar solos that sound like the gleam on a shiny new barbed-wire fence you glimpse as you’re about to hit it face-first after being thrown over the handlebars.

“Salford Sunday” and “Where’s Home?” have the folk tinge that Thompson’s work has had since his days with Fairport Convention, the latter featuring the incomparable Stuart Duncan on fiddle and some of the Buddy Miller sound that one might have expected on the rest of the disc. (I also wanted a Thompson/Miller guitar duel, but I guess Buddy knew better). “Straight and Narrow” is another rocker that Thompson does well—a grungy look at an unattainable, frustrating vamp—but I’ve never cared for the Farfisa organ sound.

Another Nashville luminary—Alison Krauss—lends her translucent voice to “The Snow Goose.” Though it’s only for a couple of slight passages, the two voices together are as as gorgeous as a summer sunset sliding through the clouds.

Thompson has always been able to write about the bitter and the sweet of mature relationships as well as anyone, and “Another Small Thing in Her Favour” and “Saving the Good Stuff for You” are two more that resonate more deeply than anything new I’ve heard lately.

“My Enemy” and “Good Things Happen to Bad People” are aptly situated near the middle of Electric, and they amount to 11 devastating minutes of haunting melody, harrowing guitar work, and a vocal/lyric meditation on self-hatred and contempt for the world that holds everyone to account. The effect is not quite cathartic, leaving the listener to deal with the scab that’s just been scraped off.

Electric is my frontrunner for this year’s best album, and it’s going to take something remarkable to change that.

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“Bluegrass Bluesman: A Memoir” by Josh Graves, edited by Fred Bartenstein

Bluegrass Bluesman: A Memoir
Josh Graves (Edited by Fred Bartenstein)
University of Illinois Press
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

If you made a Mt. Rushmore for bluegrass music instrumentalists, there would have to be six faces—not five as Bill Monroe originally intended—and that sixth face would have to be the smiling visage of Josh Graves. Burkett Howard Graves, known professionally as “Buck” or “Uncle Josh,” was born in Tellico Plains, Tennessee (Monroe County, oddly enough) in 1927 and popularized the use of the Dobro, or resonator guitar, in bluegrass music.

Others, including yodeler Cliff Carlisle and his Hawaiian steel guitar and Bashful Brother Oswald, who played Dobro with Roy Acuff, had made the slide guitar sound part of country music, but when Monroe’s new brand of music called bluegrass branched off just after World War II, the Kentucky bandleader brought with him only guitar, upright bass, fiddle, and his own rapid-fire mandolin. Joined with Earl Scruggs three-finger banjo style, the new style became a separate and distinct form of country music.

In a series of recorded interviews that Fred Bartenstein has shaped into Bluegrass Bluesman: A Memoir, Josh Graves tells us how his Dobro playing was able to cut in and become a partner in what quickly became a highly stylized dance. First with Mac Wiseman and, starting in 1955 with Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, Graves’ tone-rich, loud Dobro sound—the right hand influenced by Scruggs’ picking style, the left hand by Lightnin’ Hopkins and other black blues players—cut through the other noise to become an accepted part of a music played by hard-headed men whose main innovation was to tweak and then codify tradition.

At 176 pages (including a foreword from Neil Rosenberg, an introduction from Fred Bartenstein, and 16 pages containing 41 great black and white photographs) Bluegrass Bluesman is a slim volume, but that’s one of its virtues. The effect is that of spending a a day on the bus with a genial host who has lots of great stories not only about himself, but of many of the founders of one of America’s unique contributions to world music. Some of portraits are less-then-flattering, but there’s nothing vindictive or gratuitous, just the confirmation that our musical heroes are people too, and that their foibles and faults sometimes had important effects on the music just as their incredible talents did.

About 20 pages are dedicated to short tributes and remembrances from well-known colleagues, friends, and acolytes, and there’s a short appendix from Bobby Wolfe about Graves’ best-known guitars that will be of great interest to many.
Bluegrass Bluesman belongs with Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: The Life of Bill Monroe, Traveling the High Way Home: Ralph Stanley and the World of Traditional Bluegrass Music, and Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story as essential portraits of musicians essential to the history of bluegrass music.

“Country Funk: 1969—1975″ by Various Artists

Various Artists 
Country Funk: 1969-1975 
Light in the Attic
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Before seeing advertising for this album, I’m not sure I had read the term “country funk” anywhere. I may have, but I don’t recall doing so. Country soul, yup. Country swamp. Memphis country. Delta country. I had heard of them all, but country funk is as good as any of them, I suppose. I knew what type of music would be on an album called Country Funk: 1969-1975: a bass throbbing, guitar-riff rich, sultry and lusty amalgam of reality, equal parts inner city blues and Chickasaw County kissin’-cousin country.

Larry Jon Wilson’s performance of “Ohoopee River Bottomland” in Heartworn Highways may have been my gateway into this music, but having spent 30-plus years listening to country, rock, and soul music, I was more than primed to fall under its spell. Following paths from Clarence Carter, Kate Campbell and Bobbie Gentry to Spooner Oldman, Charlie Rich and Tony Joe White, I’ve amassed a huge appreciation for music that combines the grittiness of real country with the effortlessness of thoughtful soul.

I resisted downloading Country Funk simply because I decided early on that this was an album that I wanted on vinyl. It just seemed to be appropriate to hear this album on a turntable. I’ve not ‘gone back’ to vinyl with the enthusiasm others may have for two simple reasons. One, I never completely left vinyl behind: it is tough for me to pass by a garage sale without looking for a box of records. I don’t know if vinyl sounds better than digital versions of music, but I know I appreciate it more and have recently lugged my twelve or thirteen boxes of records around the new basement more times than I should have. Secondly, regularly spending $25 or $30 for a vinyl album has never made sense to me. I have bought a half-dozen contemporary releases on vinyl—Mark Davis’ Eliminate the Toxins and the Del McCoury Band’s Bill Monroe tribute immediately come to mind—but it is still a special occasion when I buy new vinyl.

Based on my experiences with the Karen Dalton and Kris Kristofferson packages of a few years back and their more recent Louvin Brothers album, I knew Light in the Attic releases were well done. It therefore made sense to me that I would lay down $24.99 plus tax for this rather concise examination of a music I’ve felt a kinship toward.

Before we get to the music contained on this two-album set, a word about the package. Gatefold sleeve with an illustration that absolutely does justice to the 12×12 format; Jess Rotter’s line drawings and colours work beautifully to set the scene for these (mostly) early ‘70s recordings. Jessica Hundley’s notes provide some context, most importantly pointing out that no one was setting out to make music within a genre: people were just making music. She highlights Bobby Darin’s place within the compilation, and uncovers insights from artists including Dennis Caldirola, Dick Monda, Jr., and Tony Joe White. I would have liked more information about Larry Jon Wilson, Bobbie Gentry (whose name Hundley misspells as Bobby), Johnny Adams, and especially Gritz and Jim Ford, but what is contained provides a starting place.

The music is ’bout what you would expect. Album cuts and singles from various labels. Sixteen tracks, from the familiar and readily available (Jim Ford’s “I Wanta Make Her Love Me,” Tony Joe White’s “Studspider,” and Bobby Charles’ “Street People”) to entirely new, to me at least. Dale Hawkins, who I only know from “Susie Q,” gets things started with the shout-out “L.A. Memphis Tyler Texas.” Choice cuts include Johnny Adams’ brilliant “Georgia Morning Dew” and Link Wray’s “Fire and Brimstone,” a track that reveals more in four minutes than every version of “Rumble” I’ve ever heard. While Cherokee’s “Funky Business” doesn’t really go anywhere, it is a cool little tune, and I wouldn’t mind hearing more from them.

An album project such as this one should introduce listeners to under-appreciated artists, and this set does that through the music of Gray Fox (Dick Monda, Jr.), Dennis the Fox (Dennis Caldirola), Gritz, and John Randolph Marr. Caldirola’s “Piledriver” captures the drive-in movie sensibilities that I recall from the early to mid-seveneties, and yes, I went to a lot of drive-in movies with elder siblings and cousins in those days: the song doesn’t really come together into a coherent song, but seems ideal as written for a trucking exploitation movie that was never made: I can see Susan George as the “mean, mothertrucker of a girl.”

Like “Piledriver,” some of these songs have novelty appeal. Others, like Larry Jon Wilson’s “Ohoopee River Bottomland” and Johhny Jenkins’ “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” are timeless. The Bobbie Gentry track, “He Made a Woman Out of Me” was the second most successful single off her Fancy album, but never came close to the country top 40 and isn’t likely to be heard on classic country radio. Its sophisticated arrangement seems at odds with ‘country funk,’ but her voice and what sounds like an amazing band pull off this “Strawberry Wine” forerunner; I would love to know who was playing on this- and every- track, but no session notes are provided.

The biggest surprise on the album for me was the inclusion of Mac Davis, who I am only familiar with from a couple country hits and as a guest star on various 70s and 80s variety shows and movies. “Lucas Was a Redneck” is culled from Davis’ most successful album Stop and Smell the Roses, and is a killer track. Here, singing unsympathetically of a Tupelo boy born “one half stupid, the other half dumb,” Davis sounds a little like Larry Jon Wilson. This scathing indictment of southern bigotry and self-limiting behavior makes me want to investigate a singer I’ve never given more than a passing thought toward.

I was very satisfied with my purchase of Country Funk: 1969- 1975 on vinyl. I will enjoy listening to the album several more times and I know I’ll be sent on wild journeys as I seek out the music from most of the included acts. As mentioned, information about the backing musicians would have been appreciated, and I was especially disappointed that a download code wasn’t included with the album, a feature that I mistakenly believed was a ‘given’ with modern vinyl releases as I’ve received one with every other recently purchased vinyl package.

“Legacy” by the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band

Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band
Legacy
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Like the sight of a well-groomed baseball field, the styling of a Fender Stratocaster or the strength of a 1965 Ford Mustang, the sound of Peter Rowan’s voice to me represents freedom, and a particularly American brand at that. Half-controlled, half-wild, that voice can convey the high lonesomeness of bluegrass (Rowan was indeed once a lead singer/guitarist for Bill Monroe himself) as well as the liberation of the sort of rock that has influenced bluegrass.

The band he’s chosen—Keith Little (banjo), Jody Stecher (mandolin) and Paul Knight (bass)—supports his supple voice well, preferring to trade off tasteful licks rather than rip blistering breaks. Rowan, who wrote or co-wrote 10 songs on this 13-track, 48-minute effort, kicks things off with two strange but memorable songs over simmering grooves: “Jailer Jailer” and “The Family Demon.” In the former, the prisoner asks to remain imprisoned, among other strange sayings, and in the latter, the narrator matter-of-factly relates his travails with alcohol and abuse.

The gentle, plaintive mourning song “Father, Mother” gives way to “The Raven,” a rollicking tune in all the ways that its namesake by Poe is precise and measured. “So Good” is just that: a hippified ramble with Gillian Welch singing backup and David Rawlings cross-picking his Epiphone. (Though for some reason he doesn’t get to take a full solo.)

“The Night Prayer” is another aptly named tune, a gentle nostalgia for the traditional child’s bedtime prayer, while “Don’t Ask Me Why” is a woodsy, loping tune that ends up being a guide to living and loving.

Stecher steps to the fore with a growling vocal turn on the traditional “Catfish Blues”—one of the better blues/bluegrass crossovers I’ve heard—and on his self-penned “Lord Hamilton’s Yearling,” on which Tim O’Brien appears as guest fiddler.

While Little’s lead vocal does credit to Carter Stanley’s “Let Me Walk Lord by Your Side,” Rowan includes a couple of great new gospel tunes: “Turn the Other Cheek” and “God’s Own Child,” a gorgeous quartet featuring Ricky Skaggs and the inimitable Del McCoury, dog-whistle tenor in fine form.

“Across the Rolling Hills (Padmasambhava)” closes the album, a nature tune that mimics the rhythm of the free horseman in the lyric, giving Rowan a chance to mix in a little Buddhism with his Americana classic.

“Live at the Old Idaho Penitentiary” and “Skinny Mammy’s Revenge” by Hillfolk Noir

Hillfolk Noir
Live at the Old Idaho Penitentiary
http://www.petometz.com
2.5 stars (out of 5)

Hillfolk Noir
Skinny Mammy’s Revenge
http://www.petometz.com
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

The most recent releases from Boise, Idaho’s Hillfolk Noir, led by Travis and Alison Ward, are lively, risk-taking examples of what can happen when musicians throw their fate toward the wind.

Live at the Old Idaho Penitentiary and Skinny Mammy’s Revenge are billed as field recordings, capturing the group—on Old Idaho a seven piece, on Skinny Mammy a quartet—in their natural environs within Boise. The recordings are unencumbered to the point of pretentiousness—a few mics, no sound system in the case of the former, a single mic to analog tape in the case of the latter, 20-track project. Fortunately for Hillfolk Noir, they overcome affectations with aplomb.

Recorded in late 2009, Live at the Old Idaho Penitentiary is an inconsistent, ten-track offering played before a small but appreciative audience. Travis Ward carries the water throughout, singing the lead parts over instrumentation that—excepting the percussion—stays largely in the background.

Mandolinist Thomas Paul comes to the fore on occasion, as on “Johnny’s Last Run,” but the intricacies of the band’s arrangements are frequently lost due to production decisions. “Sleeping Under Stars” and “Stealin’” are exceptions where the band is allowed to cut loose a little and this is captured in the recording; unfortunately, the trade-off is that Ward’s vocals are more distant.

The malfeasance often captured in traditional songs is also present including in the slight but enjoyable “N. Idaho Zombie Rag,” featuring the walking (dead) bass of Mike Waite.

Far from perfect, Live at the Old Idaho Penitentiary is an album to which one may not frequently return. Still, as an artefact of a time and place in a group’s development, it serves a purpose.

Subtitled The Gage Street Market Sessions, Skinny Mammy’s Revenge features better sound quality and production than its predecessor and as a result is a more complete and listenable project.

Featuring a dozen Travis Ward originals, this album would stand proudly even without the inclusion of various blues and folk standards; with them, the album becomes an hour-long pleasure.

A gorgeous take of Jean Ritchie’s “The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” is bookended by a pair of old-time blues numbers, the first a Ward original. “Broken Record” is one of several Ward compositions contained herein that could have been lifted from a Revenant reissue while “Ragged and Dirty Blues” is familiar from any number of performers including Willie Brown and Sleepy John Estes. A pair of Henry Thomas, Texas blues are ably covered, “Run, Molly, Run” and “Charming Betsy,” while “The Coo Coo” and “Jack of Diamonds” are given a blues bent.

Ward’s songs may not have the authenticity of centuries old standards, but he has mastered the art of replicating their structures. Seldom using more than a dozen lines of lyrics, his blues-based creations, among them “Dyin’ Bed Blues” and “Mr. Wilson’s Lament,” contain the genuine ache, frustration, and turmoil found in tunes much older than he.

Ward uses a resonator guitar throughout, providing a naturally amplified sound to the recording and he lays out some finely played blues riffs. Alison Ward maintains a strong instrumental presence on Skinny Mammy’s Revenge, contributing banjo, saw, and laundraphone which is, I believe, washboard as well as harmony vocals.

Like other old-time revivalists, Hillfolk Noir has found a way to mix their own sound with that of musicians who performed several generations ago. Depending on the song, their music has both old-time, Appalachian string band and Delta blues qualities, making for an uncommon but ultimately sustaining dissonance.

What sets them apart from Old Crow Medicine Show and their ilk is an insistence to not allow themselves to get ahead of the music; by not allowing for pop culture compromise throughout Skinny Mammy’s Revenge, Hillfolk Noir allows their largely unadorned music to stand on its own—for better or worse—and to be absorbed by listeners discovering these types of sounds for the first time.