“The Way I’m Livin'” by Lee Ann Womack

Lee Ann Womack
The Way I’m Livin’
Sugar Hill Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Lee Ann Womack had an extended reign as one of the most prominent country music entertainers of the late ’90s through to the late-aughts. But country music record companies are fickle these days, so Womack returned this autumn with her first album of new material in six years on Sugar Hill.

The Way I’m Livin’ is pure country with all the duality such entails. The difference this time out is that the songs come from a selection of the finest Americana writers of recent decades.

Some songs are sad and sentimental (“Send It On Down,” from Chris Knight and David Leone), while others find her dancing with the devil (the album’s wonderful—but largely ignored by country radio—lead single from Adam Wright, “The Way I’m Livin’.”) Julie Miller’s “Listen To The Wind” provides depth, and allows Womack to cut loose vocally while playing off the band, notably electric guitarist Duke Levine. Also among those contributing songs are Hayes Carll, Mindy Smith, Brennan Leigh, and Bruce Robison, with two.

Folks like Mac McAnally (guitar, piano), Paul Franklin (steel guitar), Hank Singer (fiddle, mandolin) and Glenn Worf (bass) create a throwback country sound that is clearly appealing.

Throughout this expansive album, Womack is in exceptional voice. Too mature to confuse histrionics for passion, to these ears Womack has never sounded better, more comfortable, or assured. “Nightwind” is a showcase for Womack’s singing, with gentle backing allowing her to carry the emotional weight of the song. “Same Kind of Different” sounds familiar, in a light and positive way, from first listen. Roger Miller’s performance of “Tomorrow Night in Baltimore” just missed the Top 10 in 1971; here, Womack flips the perspective and in doing so softens the off-putting tale of a sad man obsessed with a dancer.

“Out On The Weekend” is yet another chance for Womack to shine as she enlivens and freshens Neil Young’s classic song. Instrumentally, the performance is fuller than Young’s, and Womack’s voice is so much warmer; swapping the gender of the teller allows Womack to inhabit the song, delivering intensified vulnerability.

Within an industry where Nashville is reality, there should be room for an artist of Lee Ann Womack’s quality and intensity on the charts and radio. It appears, however, that Womack is going to have to continue creating her own path well outside the commercial country mainstream, much like folks such as Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, and Emmylou Harris did before her.

It has worked out pretty well for them; no reason it shouldn’t for the multiple Country Music Association Award-winning Womack.

 

“Fiddle Tune X” by Billy Strings & Don Julin

Billy Strings & Don Julin
Fiddle Tune X
No label
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Michigan acoustic duo Billy (Apostol) Strings and Don Julin have released their second recording, a live album entitled Fiddle Tune X. It is an animated, forceful collection of mostly very familiar songs, none of which appeared on their debut album of last year.

I have heard it argued—and may have taken this position myself—that a duo cannot play bluegrass as it is impossible to include the necessary elements of the genre with only two instrumentalists. Strings (guitar) and Julin (mandolin) may not feature fiddle or bass, but everything about their stance suggests deep interest in and respect for bluegrass. They are certainly a bluegrass duo.

While the sound may not be bluegrass in its purest form, the essence of the music is certainly concentrated within the duo’s sparse framework. They draw on the fiddle-tune foundation of bluegrass (“Salt Creek”/”Old Joe Clark”), the influence hillbilly and country sounds had on its founders (“Beaumont Rag,” “Walk On Boy,” and “Miss the Mississippi and You,”), and the standards that are at the core of the music (“Poor Ellen Smith,” “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” and “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow.”)

While such a repertoire may appear tired or pedestrian, such is not the case. Strings and Julin bring an abundance of energy to their performance, feeding off each other and their audience to elevate these frequently encountered songs. While most of the songs have been around next to forever, the pair—working around a single mic—have found a way to make the overly recognizable extremely appealing.

Without overstating things, Doc Watson—whose spirit doesn’t seem to be too far removed from these boys’ hearts—comes to mind; you comfortably anticipated how a Doc Watson performance would unfold, but that didn’t stop you from leaning forward to listen. Same here, although the familiarity factor is obviously less apparent.

Strings sings the lead throughout with Julin coming in with complementary tenor. The bulk of the songs were recorded at various venues including small halls, bars, and homes. These songs have the most vigour, with the audiences’ enthusiasm for the duo readily apparent. They play to the crowd rather shamelessly and good-naturedly, extending both “Shady Grove” and “Little Maggie” to six minute-plus jams, guitar and mandolin exchanging the leads while also coming together in impressive displays of companionable accompaniment. The opening pairing of “Beaumont Rag” and “Walk On Boy” showcase Strings considerable flatpicking skills.

A large handful of songs were recorded without second guessing or overdubs in a snowbound farmhouse early this year, and it is on these cuts that the duo are at their strongest. Absent the whooping and hollering of the more exuberant members of their fan club, one can more readily appreciate their talents.

Julin’s title tune is a driving bluegrass instrumental that threatens to go by a bit too quickly were it not for Strings’ judicious tempo adjustment on his break. “Dos Banjos,” Strings’ composition, has a real mountain sound with timeless lyrics that could be lifted from a Hobart Smith side. Bill Monroe’s “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz” is perhaps the album’s most pensive tune, and showcases the duo at the highest level. Strings’ playing, while considerable throughout the 17-track recording, is especially appealing here with Julin serving up delicate notes that are terribly impressive. The Stanley Brothers’ “Sharecropper’s Son” is another highlight.

The closing rendition of “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” recorded on Third Man Records Voice-o-Graph is the only jarring bit on an otherwise terrific collection; given this and Neil Young’s indulgent A Letter Home, let’s hope the fascination with this low-fi method is a quickly passing fancy.

Billy Strings and Don Julin have captured some of their favorite live performances within this collection. Augmented with their isolated farmhouse recordings, the duo have crafted a very pleasing set of acoustic music. I anticipate frequently returning to Fiddle Tune X. Especially recommended for those who appreciate Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien.

“Follow the Music” by Alice Gerrard

Alice Gerrard
Follow the Music
Tompkins Square Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Follow the Music is a worthy follow-up to Bittersweet, the album that again brought Alice Gerrard to the attention of the old-time/folk music community. Whereas she had released only three solo albums over the course of twenty years, Follow the Music comes just a year after that exceptional release.

An Alice Gerrard album must be centered around three things. First, her impeccable voice must be front and centre. Equally capable of wringing every bit of darkness from a timeless song such as “The Vulture,” or easing the blues out of a double-barrelled country song like Leona Williams’ “You Take Me for Granted,” Gerrard has long been recognized as a vocal master among her peers and devotees.

Second, there has to be the songs, and on Follow the Music Gerrard and album producer M.C. Taylor have delved into her past for a few (including her own “Love Was the Price”) and into the past for others (“Boll Weevil” and “Bear Me Away.”)

Finally, the production has to be balanced—keep the instrumentation sparse, and let the lady take the songs to the places they must go. Simultaneously, as Gerrard has played with the best, anyone wishing to be one of her backing musicians had better be up to the task.

I would suggest each of these targets have been firmly accounted for within the album’s 46 minutes.

“Follow the Music” is a new song, one that Gerrard credits as “sort of my story.” “Since I was a child, I’ve been looking for a home; been everywhere and I’ve been nowhere at all,” is how she begins this warm lament. With refreshing banjo and resophonic guitar brightening the path, the lead guitar work (possibly from Phil Cook) paces Gerrard’s rumination on the power music holds over many of us. Much of what the song expresses comes in the first minute, but the bulk of the song articulates what we know: “If I follow the music to where I want to go, it will take me to safe harbour and guide me home.” That is what music does for those who embrace its influence.

Each track serves as its own little highlight. “Strange Land” brings to the surface the fear of isolation and “Teardrops Falling in the Snow” is a classic, a heart song of the type seldom heard in today’s country music repertoire. Performing “Wedding Dress,” Gerrard sounds decades younger than her 80 years while still conveying the wisdom of one who knows of what she sings. The touching “Goodbyes,” written by Gerrard’s grandson Adam Heller, brings the album to a duly melancholy close.

Whereas other singers who have released music well into their senior years—Charlie Louvin, comes to mind, as do several Grand Ole Opry stars and even Johnny Cash—had to contend with notably diminished vocal skills, Gerrard faces no such loss. She remains strong vocally, more circumspect perhaps in the notes she attempts but with no deterioration in her abilities apparent.

When Alice Gerrard has completed a song, it has truly been sung. Listening to Follow the Music is a pleasure, and I am so glad that she remains a formidable and important element within folk music.

“I Can’t Wait” by Fayssoux

Fayssoux
I Can’t Wait
Red Beet Records
4½ Stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Rather than complain about the lack of ‘country’ within current country music offerings, how about we do some work and go looking for music that will satisfy our desires?

One might certainly start with the likes of Ashley Monroe, Brandy Clark, Kasey Musgraves, and Holly Williams. Lee Ann Womack’s latest would be another fine place to visit. Craig Moreau and Doug Seegers recently released albums that would decidedly fall within most folks’ definition of country, and don’t forget Chuck Mead, Jim Lauderdale, Rodney Crowell: call ‘em Americana if you like, but that’s country, too.

Which brings us to Fayssoux McLean, someone that many have heard but many more will not recognize. Back in the last century, Fayssoux Starling received vocal credit on early Emmylou Harris albums, ones that should be on most of our shelves: Pieces of the Sky, Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, and Blue Kentucky Girl. While she counts Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and the aforementioned Crowell as admirers, Fayssoux (her albums are credited to her first name only) has released only a single album previously (2008’s Early,) one of the first to earn the Red Beet imprint.

I Can’t Wait is a pretty exquisite country music album. Again, call it Americana if it makes you feel better, but with its emphasis on instrumental support, vocal clarity, songs of quality, and clean production, this reminds me of the finest country music I’ve heard. I am well aware most country music isn’t acoustic (as this album is), and I’m also well aware that not all country music sounds like this, and thank goodness for that because we don’t need twenty identical albums released every month.

Fayssoux has a vocal approach that is assured, but measured; she isn’t out-belting the karaoke Patsy Clines and Miranda Lamberts. She sings with just enough passion and spirit to allow the song room to breathe. She sings, “You may rise, you may fall, that’s the way it rolls…it’s hell on the poor boy,” within RB Morris’ dark song (“Hell On A Poor Boy”), and you wonder how others have left this song unrecorded. Given a female voice, another layer of desperation is revealed within “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” likely the most recorded song on the album, and there is no reason “When the Thought of You Catches Up With Me” shouldn’t be on every country playlist this autumn…well, beyond the obvious quality it represents.

Fayssoux contributes five originals to the set, each of which can unabashedly stand with the songs from Lauderdale, Kieran Kane (and Sean Locke and Claudia Scott), and Mose Allison not already referenced. The swinging “Ragged Old Heart” recalls a long-gone time (and has some beautiful fiddling from Justin Moses to boot,) while her co-write with album co-producer Peter Cooper, “Golightly Creek,” captures an entirely different mood within its reflections and remembrances.

A pair of songs Fayssoux co-wrote with Cooper and the album’s other co-producer Thomm Jutz are the shining jewels within an album of gems. “Running Out of Lies” (“I’m running into trouble ’cause I’m running out of lies”) is worthy of Harlan Howard, and the Civil War-themed “The Last Night of the War” softly conceals its intensity within its bouncy bluegrass-infused trappings.

With core instrumentation provided by Fayssoux (acoustic guitar), Jutz (more acoustic guitar), Brandon Turner (even more acoustic guitar), as well as Sierra Hull (mandolin, natch), Moses, and Mark Fain (bass), the album benefits from acute vision. Cooper and Donna Ulisse provide vocal harmony, as do Jutz and Turner, again lending to the cohesive qualities of the album’s production. The addition of the splendid “I Made A Friend of a Flower Today,” recycled from the Red Beet Tom T. Hall set of a couple years back, does nothing to upset this balance.
Do you like gentle country music? Appreciate superior lead and harmony vocals within country music? Crave the clean lines of acoustic music and the clarity fine songwriting affords a listener? I Can’t Wait, out last month, should provide the satisfaction such descriptions suggest.

“White Wave Chapel” by I Draw Slow

I Draw Slow
White Wave Chapel
Pinecastle Records
4 Stars (Out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Dublin, Ireland five-piece I Draw Slow presents an attractive and compelling blend of modern acoustic bluegrass infused with a significant dose of Celtic-energy and old-world pride.

Recall again the roots of our bluegrass music, and now imagine even stronger—perhaps less diluted—influence and ties to the traditions and songs the founders of the music had. Now, triangulate the Duhks, the Lonesome Sisters, and Bearfoot with that foundation and you may start to get an impression of the slant this group brings to their modern interpretation of bluegrass.

Siblings Dave and Louise Holden are the songwriters of the band, providing the group with an astonishing range of material. Their lyrics are a bit more poetic and open to interpretation than one generally encounters within bluegrass, but there is no mistaking their commitment to originality within the genre.

Most songs are energetic and uplifting, although the lyrics of few are bright. For example, I’ve no clue to the inspiration of “Grand Hotel,” but it doesn’t appear to have been a positive experience; still, as with much contemporary, young, and innovative bluegrass, the desired emphasis is placed on mood and feel and in these areas I Draw Slow excel.

More straightforward are “Valentine,” an exploration of character, and “Whiskey Mirrors,” a case of star-crossed lovers, perhaps. Louise Holden has a charming voice, one I can well imagine listening to for hours within the confines of a pub or coffeehouse. Most songs appear to have been built around Adrian Hart’s fiddle, which is not to suggest that the 5-string of Colin Derham is hidden. Neither should Dave Holden’s guitar be discounted, and his playing is most appealing within the album closing “Old Wars.”

Each of these 13 songs offers something different, but it certainly isn’t terribly close to what most would consider traditional bluegrass.

But, it isn’t that far removed either!

(editor’s note: If you’re a fan of The Wire or Game of Thrones, check out I Draw Slow’s video for “Valentine,” featuring Aidan Gillen (aka Tommy Carcetti and Petyr Baelish))

“Curve and Shake” by Walter Salas-Humara

Walter Salas-Humara
Curve and Shake
Sonic Pyramid
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

I came to the Silos late. The first new album of theirs I heard was likely When the Telephone Rings a decade ago, but I’ve filled in some of the gaps since with their self-titled album of 1990 being a favorite.

I’m certainly no expert on the music Walter Salas-Humara has made—either as the stable core of the Silos, under his own name, or his many other projects—but I do appreciate his creations when encountered.

My first impression of Curve and Shake was that it sounds like an album Lou Reed could have made had he been an entirely different person and artist. I’m pretty sure I know what that means, but have no idea if it connects with anyone else.

Curve and Shake is a rock album, certainly a roots-rock disc. Very different from the personal desperation—and heavy guitars—heard within Florizona, within this set of Salas-Humara’s songs I hear echoes of Warren Zevon’s, Alejandro Escovedo’s, and especially John Mellencamp’s work, which aren’t bad places to land, but not where I normally go when listening to The Silos.

And a reminder, I suppose, that this isn’t the Silos.

The grim reality of the title track is buoyed by heartening percussion, and the simplicity of “I Love That Girl” is reflective of the song’s hopeful, but far too innocent, protagonist. “Uncomplicated” is heavier sonically and spiritually while “Hoping For A Comeback,” again awash with Latin percussion, is optimistic.

In general, positivity rules Curve and Shake. Lyrically and musically, Salas-Humara is seemingly is a good place, and while this album isn’t going to push aside the Silos and Come On Like The Fast Lane, it does encourage me to continue expanding my knowledge of what Walter Salas-Humara offers.

“Live at the Isis” by Town Mountain

Town Mountain
Live at the Isis
self-released

3 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Asheville, North Carolina’s Town Mountain hasn’t released an album since Leave the Bottle broke through in 2012. That well-received disc opened some doors for the quintet, and it appears that they have been on the road for much of the interim.

They won a couple of IBMA Momentum Awards in 2013, and their name has been mentioned as one that needs to be experienced ‘live’ for full effect. Not surprising then that they’ve put together a set recorded earlier this year to encourage table sales until the next recording is ready to go.

Live at the Isis includes a handful of songs from Leave the Bottle—including the exceptional “Lawdog” and the impressive “Up the Ladder,” a soulful bluegrass song that I quite appreciate. Selections from earlier releases include “Tarheel Boys” and “Texas/New Mexico Line.” Another older song, “5 Shots of Whiskey,” reaches quite a ways past bluegrass into Americana/country-shuffle territory.

Town Mountain features a new bassist with this release as Nick DiSebastian signs on. The core of the band— vocalists Robert Greer (guitar), Phil Barker (mandolin), and Jesse Langlais (banjo) with fiddler Bobby Britt—remains consistent.

The recording does sound a bit flat to my ears, much like a show simply captured off the soundboard often does. Perhaps that is the case here, but one would expect more effort to have gone into the live recording to ensure the dynamic qualities of the band’s performance were fully captured.

I must admit I never need to have another live bluegrass album include “Orange Blossom Special,” no matter how ably it is performed; who are the folks who are actually clamoring to hear that one over and over again?

Hardly an essential recording, Live at the Isis provides those of us who have yet to see the band live a small (31 minute!) sample of their show. That the recording is a bit aurally soft is a disappointment.