“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.

 

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“Family, Friends & Fellowship” by Steve Gulley

Steve Gulley
Family, Friends & Fellowship
Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Steve Gulley is at home with a bluegrass, country, or gospel song. A favorite spot in his bluegrass performances is when he steps up to the mic to sing George Jones. Gulley typically sings in the lead register, between baritone and tenor but can hit the tenor part when he needs to. If you had to pin his voice to a genre, it’s more country than bluegrass but bluegrass isn’t totally about that high, lonesome sound. He’s a veteran performer, from his young days in Renfro Valley to time with Doyle Lawson and helping found two very popular groups, Mountain Heart and Grasstowne. Now he’s released his first gospel CD.

Family, Friends & Fellowship has elements of country as well as bluegrass, easily slipping from one to the other. “The Man I Ought To Be” is classic country music. Fiddles, steel guitar, bass—it will stop a country music lover in his or her tracks just to savor that kickoff. The message is a good one, too, talking about the struggles of living a Christian life. One of its great lines is “I never felt so tall as when I fell down on my knees.” His wife, Debbie, sings harmony and she doesn’t take a back seat to anyone with her singing ability. Gulley co-wrote this song and wrote “Scars In His Hands,” a number he recorded with Mountain Heart, one of their best songs. On this cut he’s joined by Kenny and Amanda Smith plus Jason Burleson playing mandolin and Brandon Godman, who plays fiddle on several tracks.

“What Would You Have Me Do” is a story about the dark times of life that Gulley wrote, hoping its message might help someone along life’s way. Some of the CDs multi-track supporting artists are Phil Leadbetter (resophonic guitar), Mark Fain (bass), Ron Stewart (banjo, fiddle), Stewart’s bandmate Adam Steffey (mandolin) and Tim Stafford (guitar). On the country numbers you’ll hear Les Butler paying piano and Terry Crisp on steel with Mark Laws providing percussion on most tracks. These are some of the best musicians in bluegrass and country. Bringing together such a diverse group likely means at least some of them recorded their tracks remotely, but that had no effect on the quality of the end product.

Another family-affair song is “God’s Not Dead,” with Gulley’s parents Linda (lead) and Don (baritone) joining Steve and Vic Graves (bass vocals). Gary Robinson, Jr. and Bryan Turner (both members of Gulley’s new band, New Pinnacle), Stuart Wyrick and Scott Powers contribute, too. Graves also sings lead on an 1893 hymn that’s one of my favorites, “I Must Tell Jesus.” Gulley turns to his old boss and friend Doyle Lawson to help on “Pray For Me” and a nice arrangement of Hank Williams’ “House of Gold.” Lawson sings baritone while Don Gulley sings lead. Don Gulley is a veteran radio announcer and performer and is clearly in his element on this CD.

Carl Story co-wrote “Light At The River” and one of my favorite singers, Ricky Wasson, shares the lead duties on this good old song. A great partnership lasted a few good years when Paul Williams played in Jimmy Martin’s band. One product of their relationship was “Stormy Waters.” Harking back to their days together in Renfro Valley, Gulley sings this one with Dale Ann Bradley. He reaches into southern Gospel to give us a G. T. Speer song, “I Never Shall Forget the Day,” along with Joe Mullins, a singer who ranks high in my list of favorites. Debbie Gulley sings harmony then takes her turn on lead with a touching number that leads to some soul searching, “Could You Walk a Mile.” This is a number we should all listen to carefully. Another song from southern gospel that will touch your soul comes from Ronald Hinson, “That I Could Still Go Free,” featuring Debbie Gulley and Mark Wheeler on harmony. What a great song this one is.

The CD closes with a song that probably all of us know, “Jesus Loves Me,” featuring grandson Mack on the intro and Alan Bibey on mandolin.

This is Gulley’s first gospel CD. After you hear it you’ll be hoping it’s not his last.

“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.

“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.

“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.

“Mac Wiseman Sings Old Time Country Favorites” by Mac Wiseman

Mac Wiseman
Mac Wiseman Sings Old Time Country Favorites
Rural Rhythm Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

1966. I remember it well because that’s the year I graduated from high school and started college. I was playing in the Starlighters, a local country band that was pretty danged good. Mac Wiseman wasn’t on my horizon. Neither was bluegrass. Most of the people in the band couldn’t stand it, especially the banjo.

But Wiseman, “The Voice With a Heart,” was a well established and popular performer in both the bluegrass and country worlds as well as dipping into folk music. Still active today, albeit with a lighter schedule, you’re most likely to catch him on RFD-TV’s Country Family Reunion, though he recently performed on the Grand Ole Opry. He started out as the bass player for Molly O’Day, joined Flatt & Scruggs then Bill Monroe and later struck out as a solo artist. His voice and the way he styles a song has made him one of my favorite arists. Many others love his work, too. He was inducted into the IBMA Hall of Honor in 1993 and will become a member of the CMA Hall of Fame within a few days.

In 1966 he made a mono LP (Sings Old Time Country Favorites [RRMW-158]) for Uncle Jim O’Neal, owner of Rural Rhythm, the only recording he ever did for them. It was reissued in 1973 (Singing Country Favorites [RRMW-258]) with an electric guitar and bass plus drums overdubbed to make a stereo effect. It was reissued again in 1997 (20 Old Time Country Favorites [RHYCD-258]) and that one is still available. The original recording featured Wiseman on guitar, Rudy Thacker on guitar, and Peggy Peterson playing Dobro. This CD was re-mastered from the original tapes with “Wildwood Flower” as a bonus track. It was recorded with the other tracks but not released. There’s not much information available on Peterson but she does appear in the credits of several records of that era (including works by J. E. Mainer and Jim Eanes) and is mentioned in Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass by Murphy Henry. Thacker was probably the man associated with the Stringbusters in the Cleveland area (the LP was recorded in Ohio, possibly Akron).

Several of these songs have become closely associated with Wiseman through the years. “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight” traces back to the Carter Family, though he cuts out the middle two verses on this record. This song is a good example of a curious choice made by singers, more so in the first half of bluegrass history than the second but not unheard of today. A man will sing a song clearly intended for a woman without changing the words.

And when the dance is over and all have gone to rest

I’ll think of him, dear Mother, the one that I love best

He once did love me dearly and ne’er from me would part

He sought not to deceive me, false friends have changed his heart

It’s not as if the words are set in stone. Wiseman’s version varies slightly from the lyrics attributed to the Carter Family, but there seems to be a reluctance to change from first person to third person. This can be disconcerting when you first hear it.

Many of the songs on the album feel abrupt, shortened. The Vince Gill/Asleep At The Wheel version of “Corrina, Corrina” runs three minutes. The CD’s version is 1:36. This is a familiar song dating back to 1928 and recorded in several genre by a long list of artists. My guess is the choice was made to make most songs short so more songs could be included. An LP could hold twenty to twenty-two minutes of playing time on each side and each song has some delay until the next one. Math tells the story. It’s an understandable decision but still a trade-off.

Another “Wiseman” song is “I Saw Your Face In The Moon.” It dates back to 1937 and Governor Jimmie Davis. “Midnight Special” bears Wiseman’s melodic touch but many may associate it with CCR or Johnny Rivers. It probably dates (in print) to Howard Odum in 1905 and has been recorded by artists as varied as Lead Belly, The Kingston Trio and ABBA. Wiseman may have the gentlest touch of all.

On the gospel side are a very short “When They Ring Those Golden Bells” and “Just Over In Gloryland.” “The Black Sheep” has a message of forgiveness that isn’t gospel but is still an uplifting message of right in the end. Other familiar numbers are “Wreck of the Old ’97,” “The Georgia Mail” and “More Pretty Girls Than One.” “Rovin’ Gambler'” runs only 1:51 but there are so many variations of this song (as with most of these) that it’s not necessarily shortened and, in this case, you feel like he finished the song instead of just cutting it off. Listen to “Little Mohee” and you’ll hear where “On Top of Old Smokey” borrowed its melody.

“Mary of the Wild Moor” has a long and interesting history and many artists have recorded it, including Sara Evans in 2001 who heard it on a Dolly Parton recording. “Little Blossom” is a beautiful but grim number, the story of a little girl killed accidentally by her drunken father. Then there are the simple songs that don’t say much of anything but were still popular at one time. “How Many Biscuits Can You Eat” was recorded by artists like Split Lip Rayfield, Grandpa Jones and the Coon Creek Girls while “Turkey In The Straw” dates back longer than anyone can remember. “Sourwood Mountain” is another song with unknown beginnings, part lament, part nonsense. Parts of it were used by the Grateful Dead in Sugar Magnolia.

This is a welcome half-century look back at a recording by one of the greats of bluegrass and country music. It’s a reminder of the history of the music and might influence some listeners to look back for one of their next cuts when they record.

“Chapter Two” by Carolina Story

Carolina Story
Chapter Two
True Bearing Entertainment
3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Carolina Story is the husband and wife team of Ben and Emily Roberts. Chapter Two is the followup to last year’s well received Chapter One, reflecting the continuing maturation of their music. One downside to be noted: it is an “extended play” CD, jargon for only getting six tracks.

Their voices blend well together. The lead song is a story about friendship on the road, though I have to admit I’m still trying to match “It’s Almost Over Now” with the lyrics, uncertain about what is almost over. Friendship? Traveling together? Anyway, it’s a pleasant song for listening. Their music is modern country with some tracks not far removed from classic country. “I Won’t Let You Down” is a story about courtship and has the formula for their music. The session band plays backup, throw in a few licks and a kickoff on each song but avoid sparkle of their own. It’s about the singers and the lyrics. The band members are capable musicians, including Chad Cromwell playing drums (and I still wish someone would let the drummer be creative), Billy Panda playing guitar and Michael Rhodes on bass. They’re joined by steel player Dan Dugmore and Darrell Scott playing guitar, bouzouki and mandolin. It’s too bad they never get a chance to express their talent with an instrumental track or extended breaks, but that’s country music, especially modern country.

Their signature is singing as a duo. They sound great together but I think they could add more diversity to their sound by playing off each other, one singing and one responding or some similar arrangement on more tracks. For some reason, constant duoism wears on my ears. Ben does take the lead on “When I Was Just a Boy” and it works well, telling of the warnings he received from his parents and how he hasn’t always listened. “Crash and Burn” is a rocking song and should have a chance at the hot new country market. “I’m Gonna Love You Forever” is another track with Ben taking the lead and Emily joining in on harmony.

They certainly have their fans, including Manuel, the man behind all the rhinestones you’ve seen on the Opry for so many years. They’re averaging over 130 shows a year for the past five years and that’s a lot of wear on your soul and sneakers. Good music and a bright future – they have a lot going for them.