“Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited” by various artists

Various artists
Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited
Masterworks
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Americans love to look to heroes, but seldom for the virtues those heroes actually possess. After all, we put Andy Jackson on Federal Reserve notes and venerate Lincoln as a gentle, wise abolitionist reluctant to wage war. This sort of thing is expected in politics, where the current rulers always refocus history to justify their actions.

When it comes to cultural heroes, it’s less a matter of appropriation than amnesia. We all agree on who is supposed to be cool, but most of us aren’t sure why. The average American knows Johnny Cash as the man in black who went to Folsom Prison because he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But if Cash were alive today singing the songs he sung and saying the things he said at the height of his career, Bill O’Reilly would call him out as some antiwar hippie who’s soft on crime while some termagant on MSNBC would denounce him as a Christian Taliban.

Listen to “The Man in Black” and imagine what a time any current politician with that platform would have asking for votes and campaign money. Imagine self-help preachers like Joel Osteen or TD Jakes preaching that gospel.

Cash released Bitter Tears (Ballads of the American Indian) in 1964, and Columbia Records wasn’t happy that one of their big country stars wanted to make a political statement—they had Bob Dylan to do that sort of thing (but not for much longer, it turned out).

Cash built the eight-song album around five songs from Peter LaFarge, also choosing Johnny Horton’s “The Vanishing Race” and adding his own “Apache Tears” and “The Talking Leaves.” The result is damning indictment of how America has treated its Natives. It may be that because the allegations are specific while not fitting the accepted version of history, Cash was able to get away with it. It’s all just too true to be believed.

While Dylan’s broadsides (like “Masters of War,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”) produced righteous indignation and his ideological anthems (“Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They are a-Changin'”) turned cynicism into hope, the songs of Bitter Tears provoke only somber, resigned reflection—especially now so many years later on Look Again to the Wind.

Steve Earle happily dishonors the thoroughly dishonorable murderous fop of a general on “Custer,” and Kris Kristofferson drives home the hypocritical carelessness with which Americans treat those they’ve sent to war on “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” Both men sound a little more angry than Cash did on his originals, and rightly so given the fact that the last fifteen years or so of war have proved that we still think of fighting for a flag as something glorious.

Emmylou Harris, Norman Blake, Nancy Blake, the Milk Carton Kids, Rhiannon Giddens (of the Carolina Chocolate Drops), and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings all contribute vocals to at least one track, with Welch/Rawlings and the Milk Carton Kids playing on a handful. The Welch/Rawlings nine-minute take on “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” that opens the album is the track I’ll end up listening to the most, but the album’s closer—“Look Again to the Wind,” another LaFarge song not included on Bitter Tears and performed here by Mohican singer Bill Miller—is quite moving.

All the other tracks  are as gorgeous (or ornery, in the cases of Earle and Kristfferson) as you would expect from those artists, but they also carry the weight—50 years on—of unrightable wrongs and lessons never learned. Miller’s harrowing performance gives us a hint of the consequences of the irresponsibility that that caused it all.

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“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.

“Blue Smoke” by Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton
Blue Smoke
Sony Masterworks

2 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Dolly Parton has been making country music for well over fifty years, some of it wonderfully timeless.

In this category, I would place a range of her releases, including early albums such as Just Because I’m A Woman, Coat of Many Colors, and My Tennessee Mountain Home, almost all of those RCA singles from 1968-1979, the reinvigorated burst of early 90s energy on White Limozeen, Eagle When She Flies, and Slow Dancing With The Moon, to more recent recordings including Hungry Again and the Sugar Hill ‘bluegrass’ trilogy that started with The Grass Is Blue in 1999.

But some of the Parton catalog is unquestionably rather disposable—over-produced, throwaway albums; multiple slick duets and soundtrack songs no one needs to remember; silly concepts (2005’s Those Were The Days, for instance); and the plain ill-conceived: 1984’s The Great Pretender and covers of “Walking On Sunshine” and “Peace Train” that will never make sense to me.

One sometimes wonders what Dolly is thinking, but we are impressed by both her longevity and the balls she brings to much of her music. Unfortunately, Blue Smoke has more in common with the questionable aspects of Parton’s recording history.

Blue Smoke has a couple things going for it. Parton re-imagines “Banks of the Ohio” a little, taking on the role of the murderer’s confessor; joined by Bryan Sutton (guitar), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), and especially Carl Jackson (vocals), a fresh interpretation of the oft-recorded classic is achieved. Overwrought it may be, “Unlikely Angel” is the kind of sentimental song that has served Parton well over the years, and features Sonya Isaacs and Rebecca Isaacs Bowman vocally. “If I Had Wings” is similarly overly emotive, but remains listenable.

The pulsing title track starts off promising, but goes off the rails when Parton and album producer Kent Wells insert a little too much into the proceedings: this snapping, southern sing-a-long could have been great, but ‘clickety clack’ and ‘choo-choo, woo-woo’ are a bit much, as is the mid-song testimonial. It becomes a bit of a—forgive me—train wreck. Three of the male Grascals appear here either instrumentally or vocally, as does the deep-voiced Christian Davis.

The majority of the album is tinged in desperation. “Lover Du Jour” comes off as pathetic, “Miss You-Miss Me” is cringe inducing, and “Try” is just plain heavy handed. A song that could have been good, “Home” is beaten down by relentless drums, guitar effects, and confused production choices. Duets with Kenny Rogers (“You Can’t Make Old Friends”) and Willie Nelson (“From Here to the Moon and Back”) are better than expected, but both were previously released elsewhere.

A cover of Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands On Me” is supposed to be part of her, in Dolly’s words, “never-ending desire to try to uplift mankind.” Unfortunately, there is nothing inspirational about the song, and Parton’s revamping of the lyrics and inserting the occasional ‘Lord’ to the proceedings does nothing to bridge a fairly significant gulf between the self-indulgent, hair-metal original and Parton’s attempt at country gospel. At least she didn’t try to reinvent “Every Rose Has A Thorn” as a crucifixion observance.

I love Dolly Parton’s music. I love the spunky firebrand image she has created, the assertiveness with which she conducts herself, and I appreciate her commitment to her home community. “The Bargain Store,” “Joshua,” and “The Seeker” are three of the greatest songs ever written, regardless of genre.

So it pains me to write a review of Blue Smoke that is largely negative. But, that’s how it goes. If you unleash a stinker, someone has to call you on it.

And, she has.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“These Tears I’ve Cried” by Steve Scott Country

Steve Scott Country
These Tears I’ve Cried
self-released
3 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Here is another good entry in the country-rock field, songs called country by the radio stations and people who buy the records, but sound like rock music. There are any number of rock bands from some decades ago—like Credence Clearwater Revival—that you could plug into the playing of these tracks and no one would miss a beat. In that vein of music, Scott has come up with some good songs (all written by him). The title song is a ballad with the steel guitar the primary lead instrument. A good steel player can reach out and grab your heartstrings and the steel in this song has that sound, it just doesn’t match what he’s singing. He doesn’t touch you with the lyrics.

One issue for me is Scott’s elocution. He breaks out of the soundalike clutch of “country” singers on the radio today but his pronunciation is unusual. It’s not a twang, it sounds more like an affectation but seems to be his normal way of singing. It takes some getting used to before it stops stealing your attention from the song.

“Thoughts On Fire” is a love song that has some nice touches with an easy beat on a flattop guitar and some steel and fiddle in the background. It lapses into country-rock mode on every verse, though, with a wall of sound that makes it hard to sort out the background instruments. The music follows the country-rock formula with a bit of diversity in the kickoff then a lot of licks strung together through the rest of the song. It would be interesting to hear a country record with the instruments having space in each song, playing some creative fills and lead breaks that are more than just bending strings and making a lot of noise.

“Geronimo (You’ve Got Me Wonderin’)”has an unusual kickoff. Scott sounds like he’s down in a well doing some swamp rock, reminiscent of the theme song to Justified. This one has some interesting stuff in it. The lyrics don’t grab my attention and I could do without the thud-thud back-beat of the drummer, but there’s some resophonic guitar and very bluesy keyboard/organ work in this number.

“Don’t Say You’ll Walk Away (Tonight)” mixes some interesting, quiet mandolin work mixed with loud guitars crashing in the background. The guitar break is more of a formula than a solo. Like many of his songs, you have to work to piece together a cohesive story from his lyrics. This doesn’t seem unusual for this style of music so there are undoubtedly significant numbers of people who can get into this groove. I have to admit I miss songs like “Lonesome 7-7203.” They told the story; you didn’t have to piece anything together.

There’s good music here for fans of the country-rock-indie (the CD was #32 on the Roots Music Report for November 2013), lots of crashing guitars and a strong drum beat so you can dance. If “Come Sundown” is one of your favorites, you’ll be disappointed.

 

“Great Big World” by Tony Trischka

Tony Trischka
Great Big World
Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

If you’re not sure of Tony Trischka’s banjo cred, take it from Bela Fleck:

Tony was the right guy at the right time to take advantage of all the new lessons that were being taught right and left by Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Miles Davis and so many more…and apply them to banjo music. This enabled him to propel the fine art of banjo playing three giant steps forward.

That’s from Fleck’s liner notes to Great Big World, aptly titled when one considers that the diverse and beautiful sounds Trischka makes on this 13-track disc are possible only in the musical world that he did so much to create.

A core unit of guitarist/vocalist Michael Daves, mando picker Mike Compton, fiddler Mike Barnett, and bassist Skip Ward join Trischka for trad-grass arrangements of Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight,” and—with Chris Eldridge on guitar and lead vocals—”Say Goodbye.” Daves and Aoife O’Donovan trade vocals on the latter part of “Belated Wedding Hoedown/Angelina Baker,” with the Trischka-penned instrumental first half setting up Stephen Foster’s familiar melody perfectly.

Trischka’s instrumental compositions have always been both intricate and tuneful, and that’s what he delivers with “The Danny Thomas,” “Promontory Point” (with Steve Martin on banjo), the solo front parlor picking of “Swag Bag Rag,” and the seven-minute “Single String Medley,” which features a unique tune for each of the banjo’s five strings.

“Great Big World/Purple Trees of Colorado” is another seven-minute frolic, with Noam Pikelny picking second banjo and longtime Trischka pal Andy Statman pitching in with both mandolin and clarinet.

Trischka is also a gifted lyricist whose melodies work just as well sung as played, and it doesn’t hurt to have voices like harpist Maeve Gilchrist (who also adds her harp to “Ocracoke Lullaby,” which indeed does sound like a gentle night on the coast of its eponymous island), the ethereal Abigail Washburn (“Lost,” arranged with violin, viola, cello, flute and clarinet), and Catherine Russell, who’s backed by Dylan sideman Larry Campbell on pedal steel and latter-day Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbidge for the ecumenical gospel rave-up “Joy.”

All that’s enough to make this one of the finest records released this year—and to serve as proof that Trischka can do well whatever he sets his hand to—but the coup de maître is “Wild Bill Hickok,” a miniature Western with laconic vocals from Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and narration by John Goodman.

“A Dotted Line” by Nickel Creek

Nickel Creek
A Dotted Line
Nonesuch Records
2 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

It’s been a decade and a half since Nickel Creek released their self-titled third album, the one that introduced them to music fans outside the bluegrass festival circuit that Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and her brother Sean Watkins had been popular on since they were kids.

Now in their thirties, each is rightly considered among the very best musicians on their instruments—especially Thile, who is nothing less than the Babe Ruth of the mandolin. But their sum here on A Dotted Line is considerably less substantive than their parts.

Twee is the word that kept coming to mind as I listened to this one several times. Rather than trusting their talent to just play, the trio can’t get out of their own way when it comes to writing, choosing and arranging material.

Even on what could have been a simple and beautiful instrumental track like “Elephant in the Corn,” they have to throw in a couple of bits that are—to copy and paste from my dictionary app—”affectedly quaint.”

I suppose Thile thinks he’s being Byronic on “Rest of My Life,” “Love of Mine,” and “You Don’t Know What’s Going On,” but he’s really still just doing John Mayer’s tired act. What’s worse is that Sean tries the same thing on “Christmas Eve.” You’d think a couple of grown men would know how to talk to women more effectively, but I guess when you’re in a band, you can let that part of your game slide.

Sara comes through with lead vocals on the disc’s only two listenable tracks, the self-penned perfect pop of “Destination” and a gorgeous take on Sam Phillips’ “Where is Love Now.” Her voice is as sweet as it was on “The Hand Song,” but she’s got the maturity that her bandmates don’t.

The most important track here is the cover of “Hayloft,” by Canadian indie rockers Mother Mother. It took great skill to play and produce a track so awful, which makes it so disappointing that these three seem so intent on proving their hipster bona fides when they should just relax and play (see the Infamous Stringdusters).

“Taproot” by Three Tall Pines

Taproot
Three Tall Pines
self-released
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Taproot is a six-song, 23-minute EP, the third studio effort from New England bluegrass/Americana quartet Three Tall Pines.

Dan Bourdeau (guitar, vocals), Nick DiSebastian (bass, guitar, vocals), Joe Lurgio (mandolin, vocals), and Conor Smith (fiddle, vocals) are joined by guest banjo picker and producer Ron Cody on five bluegrass standards and one fine Bourdeau original—the decidedly Welchian “Stonewalls.”

TTP won’t be mistaken—especially vocally—for most of the bluegrass bands that include “Walls of Time,” “Crying Holy,” and “Angel Band” in their repetoire, and that’s a good thing. Their arrangments have a hint of the rock/jam band sound to them, getting the right mix of reverent and refreshing.

Smith’s playing throughout is especially good, and he’s joined on two tracks by a couple of fellow fiddlers to great effect: Britanny Haas on a soaring “Raleigh & Spencer” and by Haas and Lauren Rioux on “With Body & Soul.”

This was my first notice of TTP, and I’ll be looking forward to more material, especially original compostions as good as the lone example here.