If you thought 2016 was a stellar year for music, 2017 kicks off with some fantastic new releases. Here are some you may have heard about, but also featured are some you not be aware of, but should also check out. We should all be excited.
Tift Merritt - Stitch of the World
It's been some time since Merritt's last album, Traveling Alone, but that doesn't mean she has not been busy. I chatted with her at a recent gig and not only has she recently moved back to North Carolina from New York, but she was very pregnant as well. She's been part of Hiss Golden Messenger and worked with Andrew Bird, especially on Bird's really fine album last year of Handsome Family covers, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort of ... as well as Hands of Glory from a few years back.
Merritt described this collection of songs, her sixth studio album, as being more outwardly focused. That may have somewhat resulted from her "workshopping" the songs with Sam Beam. “Dusty Old Man,” the album’s first single, recently premiered at Rolling Stone Country, who said, “Powered by guitars from Marc Ribot and pedal-steel wiz Eric Heywood over a bouncy shuffle rhythm from drummer Jay Bellerose and bassist Jennifer Condos, ‘Dusty Old Man’ has more of a bluesy, loose-limbed feel than anything Merritt has ever done.” Listen here.
She has long worked with Heywood (and their interplay is phenomenal), and Ribot's presence here (of whom I have long been a fan) adds a zesty interstellar ambiance that is quite something. The New Yorker has called her “The bearer of a proud tradition of distaff country soul that reaches back to artists like Dusty Springfield and Bobbie Gentry.” I'd add that she is an essential artist working her way to the top of the mountain. Stitch of the World lands on January 27.
Kelley Ryan - Telescope
It's a bit hard to believe that it's been seven years since I first heard Kelley Ryan on a Mountain Stage show otherwise filled with leaded testosterone. Her earlier solo albums, Twist and Cocktails, were enthusiastically reviewed by ND. Now, like a large cup of hot chocolate in the dead of winter, comes Telescope, which, ironically, sounds as wistful as a summer breeze on an unfettered seashore, far, far away. Ryan definitely has her own sound, honed all these many years with her band astroPuppies and work with best friend Marti Jones and Jones' producer-husband, Don Dixon, who again co-helms this album, giving it a sheen, space, and clarity missing all too often in music these days.
The album begins with the noir-ish feel of "The Darkest Stars," with a birth of the cool trumpet underscoring the background as if coming out of a Sam Spade alley. Then Ryan's temptress vocal, "Underneath the sheets tonight, oh boy, several people dancing in my bed ... it's all for me ... the good die young" floating in a David Lynch darkness. But with a martini in hand and a twinkle in her eye.
Another song, "Cigarette," which begins "I got a wicked habit like a cigarette, I pick you you and put you down, but I haven't lost you yet," comes on like a playful take on Kip Hanrahan's version of "Love is Like a Cigarette," then elegantly soothes her way into "boys are watching football, girls are on display, here we are in this big red bar, blowing smoke hey, hey ... breaking me into like a cigarette."
If you've never heard Ryan, she's as playful as she is serious, able to turn phrases like "Jesus in a pickup truck" and "golden boy of ecstasy burn me down" and wrap them inside melodies so lush that you feel you are in a dream world without end. Telescope was scoped last Friday, January 6.
Johnny Staats and Robert Shafer - Music From the Mountains
I am a lucky guy. I get to see and hear Robert Shafer — two-time national flat-picking champion — every Tuesday night when he plays with singer-songwriter John Lilly and bassist Will Carter in their mostly acoustic supergroup, Blue Yonder, at a local venue. (Blue Yonder, by the way, is working on its second album.) One of my treats from last year was seeing him play with longtime friend David Bromberg. I thought he'd only guest on a couple of numbers, but he sat in for a whole set. Wow.
The album he is currently on is with his longtime friend and frequent musical collaborator Johnny Staats for what's basically a duo album. As you may recall, Staats broke out big time in 2000 when the New York Times did a feature article on him, the mandolin player who drives a UPS truck. That was followed by a feature in People magazine and several national shows. Well, Staats — a multiple award winner for both mandolin and fiddle — may still working his day job, but that has not lessened his playing or his skills a single bit. He has his own band, The Delivery Boys, with whom he tours and records.
Now, Shafer and Staats team up again for this amazing record that takes its name from a local public radio show of the same name by fiddle legend Joe Dobbs, who passed away a few years ago. It is appropriate as this is the type of music Dobbs would showcase, friends sitting around playing and telling stories. Except that Staats and Shafer are the best at what they do.
There are a lot of folks, duos especially, doing traditional music. What sets Staats and Shafer apart on these 14 tracks is that they are not only world-class musicians, but also they were born and raised in the tradition. That is readily apparent in their playing and presentation of the music. That said, they can incorporate other styles as well, a prime example being some gorgeous gypsy swing on this album. Here's their 2010 live set on Mountain Stage. The album is available now. Get it.
Nikki Lane - Highway Queen
Nikki Lane can pretty much hold her own with anyone. That was readily apparent when I saw her last year at DylanFest along with some pretty big names. Given that she’s into a bunch of non-music things as well speaks well for her intellect and energy level. On her long, long awaited third album she seems to be, like many others right now, amping it up, letting the sound drive her sandpaper voice through seemingly ambivalent lyrics.
On this outing, recorded in Denton, Texas, and Nashville, features the Texas Gentlemen as her band and blends sometimes potent, sometimes ambivalent lyrics and near-thrashing blues guitars with a vintage '60s country-pop swagger.
Rolling Stone Country premiered the video for the album’s title track which can be seen here, stating, "It's gritty Southern rock with an extra spike of danger – her guitars always sound like they're running from the law, the drumbeat rolling on the adrenaline of a high-speed chase. Like the vintage she curates for her store, High Class Hillbilly, she's an expert at making relics of the past feel free of any time or place.” Highway Queen comes roaring down the road on February 17.
Brigitte DeMeyer and Will Kimbrough - Mockingbird Soul
Will Kimbrough has taken time away from his solo work and super Americana group Willie Sugarcapps to record an album with Brigitte DeMeyer. Not that that is such a surprise, as they have been playing together some half dozen years and been on a couple of recording sessions together. It should also come as no surprise that the result is a pure delight.
DeMeyer characterizes their blended sound as “wonderfully warm acoustic soul.” Kimbrough and his guitar adds a little bit of everything else, from gospel and early jazz to country and a tinge of bluegrass. It should thus come as no surprise that this is very much an album of the South; you can feel the New Orleans humidity in “The Juke,” a back-porch blues that features Kimbrough on harmonica.
Aided by Wood Brothers Chris and Oliver, I did not need a second listen to be entranced by the album. Then again, anything that Kimbrough puts his name on has always been quite something. Mockingbird Soul arises on January 27.
Whitney Rose - South Texas Suite
Astute readers may recall that Canadian Whitney Rose was one of my picks not to miss at the last two AmericanaFests based primarily on the strength of her first album. Her follow-up is a six-track collection that also marks her relocation to Austin, where she’s taken the orientation very seriously, establishing a residency at the Continental Club for the past two months.
The EP was recorded over two days at Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan Studios in Austin, accompanied by a quartet of veterans from the bands of Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and the Mavericks, who just happen to play in the band Haybale! that holds court at the Continental Club on Sunday nights. That Austin togetherness is quickly apparent from the opening track, “Three Minute Love Affair,” a waltz with a Tex-Mex accordion sensuous feel.
It’s also apparent that she has immersed herself quickly and thoroughly into the Texas psyche and its music. Rose said, “I wanted this EP to be a little love letter or thank-you note to Texas, so I chose the songs that I perceived to be the most ‘Texas.’” So, it should come as no surprise that the non-originals are by songwriters from Austin. It shows that her debut album was no fluke, and she’s now become deeply embedded in the Austin mystic. The EP arrives on January 27.
The Country Rockers - Free Range Chicken
If there is a formula for a quintessential "Memphis story," it calls for equal parts weird and wonderful. It’s this mix that permeates the bizarre, delightful rural rockabilly reissue of the Country Rockers’ debut Free Range Chicken. It was originally released on a French label in 1988, and the band pretty quickly had a bit of a cult following after playing CBGB and sharing the stage with both Bob Dylan and the Wu-Tang Clan.
Like so many of those great Memphis stories – particularly of the musical sort – the Country Rockers happened fairly accidentally, when the right person walked into the right bar at the right time. That person was Ron Easley – an accomplished guitarist and bassist who, at the time, was touring with Alex Chilton – and the bar was Dennis’ Place, which you’d call a dive if only the word alone could do justice to its character. It was at Dennis’ Place that Easley stumbled upon The Country Rockers.
Recorded on four track, it’s loose and lively – from the off-kilter take on “Wipe Out” to the traditional honkytonk feel of numbers like “Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin” and “Fan It and Cool It.” The sincerity of “Finally” is a ballad so perfectly quaint that if you close your eyes, you’ll surely find yourself right back at that bar in Memphis. Unfortunately, they disbanded in 1994, and several members have passed away, but the album was bootlegged around and now, with two additional tracks, is available for an authentic listening experience. The chickens flew the coop last Friday, January 6.
John McCutcheon - Trolling for Dreams
John McCutcheon is not a household name, but it should be. I first became acquainted with him when we both lived in southwest Virginia in the '70s: he played a mean hammered dulcimer, I was an avid listener. A few years later, he played a show with Trapezoid (a band way ahead of its time, whose albums are still in print) that remains one of my favored performances ever. I also have his early albums on Rounder and the like. But I had lost track of him until I recently picked up his 38th(!) album, Trolling for Dreams.
While Johnny Cash once referred to him as "the most impressive instrumentalist I've ever heard," the new album features his strong songwriting skills and his generous voice to go along with his great work on guitar, piano, and banjo. He is of the fine, now too-often neglected tradition of the folksingers that he undoubtedly heard while growing up. While I began listening to the album, the person he most reminded me of was Si Kahn, not knowing that the two are close friends.
The album's title comes from a line in the exquisite "She Is." It's filled with images of ordinary activities from the best of the South. In McCutcheon's hands those images take on not just what it means to to be alive, but reveal the sacredness of the everyday. Only after being seduced by the song did I learn that it was written for master storyteller, folklorist, writer, and journalist Kathryn Tucker Windham from Alabama, who passed away in 2011. It's quite some song, and it's quite some album. These dreams become real on February 3.
Various Artists - Unsung Heroes: Songs Of Eleni Mandell
Acclaimed Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Eleni Mandell is being honored with the release of Unsung Heroes: Songs of Eleni Mandell. The 17-track digital-only album features many of her peers, as well as Mandell herself on the new song “Empty Locket.”
Born out of an annual tribute benefit show hosted by Inara George at the Will Gear Theatricum Bontanicum, a community resource and theater in Topanga Canyon, the album came together after George decided to pay tribute to one of their own, Mandell. George has also partnered with the Plastic Pollution Coalition, a global alliance of individuals, organizations, businesses, and policymakers working toward a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts on humans, animals, and the environment.
“It was one of the most intense and memorable nights of my life,” says Mandell, “I was truly moved and humbled by seeing and hearing people sing my songs. I think I had an out-of-body experience.” After the concert, each of the participating artists agreed to record and produce the songs they performed, and this studio album, Unsung Heroes, was born.
Those artists include: Jackson Browne, Lera Lynn, Priscilla Ahn, Van Dyke Parks, Harper Simon, Inara George, Mike Viola, and nine others. It will be available as a digital download on January 20.
Various Artists - Hillbillies in Hell, Volume 3
One of last year's unexpected treats was a two-disc set, Hillbillies in Hell. Now those real gone folks at Iron Mountain Analog Research have unearthed another sweet 16 tunes of timeless testaments of warm temptations, cold graves, sinful trysts, murder, and suicide that take you down, down the deep dark ladder and the many rings of hell. Last time the songs were brought to you by mostly unheralded hillbillies and hayseed balladeers, and while there are some of those this time around, there are also some more well-known names: Stringbean, Anita Carter, and Freddie Hart.
Most of the songs are somewhat obscure rarities that have not seen the light of day in years. But one, Leon Ashley's "Laura (What's He Got That I Ain't Got)," released on his own label, was a #1 hit on the country charts in 1967. It's a sweet, if a bit pro-forma, example of a man pining for a lost love, with an implied, yet not that subtle, double entendre. Then you get to the end, where he has a gun to his head about to pull the trigger.
Anita Carter lends her pure voice to "Satan's Child" from 1963, which echoes the sentiments of the Louvins' "Satan is Real." But this time it's Satan's child: A "raven beauty, heart as black as a raven's wing" that tempts the man into forsaking home and family, into murder, eventually resulting in his own execution. Murder again takes place in country stalwart Autry Inman's "Six Rounds of Love and Hate" (complete with Floyd Cramer-like piano and Jordanaires-like backing vocals) about a spurned lover lying in wait to off the new lovers.
Yes, youngsters, these were once acceptable tunes heard on family-values radio stations back in the day. Now, they have been lovingly restored for your licentious listening pleasure. A limited edition of 666 vinyl copies will also be available. This bat out of hell arrives on January 27.
Kasey Chambers - Dragonfly
During AmericanaFest, Chambers gave us a preview of the new album, including the absolute stunning "I Ain't No Little Girl" that had everyone, and I mean everyone, in the audience when she performed it during her multiple performances walking on eggshells as we watched her unflinchingly pull her heart out, contemplate it like Hamlet with his skull, put it back in, and defiantly sew up the gaping hole. It was the singular moment(s) of the week, bar none.
The double album dragon flies on January 20 in Australia, but is only available in the US as a digital download. For now, at least.
Bob Dylan - The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3
What are we up to now, 13 volumes of Dylan's bootleg series? Well the first one was, since it had three discs, titled Volumes 1-3. Just think if he'd kept that up, we'd be up to Volume 70 or something. Anyway, while this album is still available on CD, it has been long out of print on vinyl, and even used copies go for big bucks on eBay. But that will be rectified on January 27, when it will again be available in a special five-LP box set. When it was first released in 1994, the LP was considered dead and his label pressed very few. Now, with vinyl sales the highest they've been since that same year, the powers that be think this is a good time for it to be re-released. This is special not just for those who were not able to get a copy, but also for those who already have it, because Dylan's LP pressings of late have been very good. Certainly better than in 1994, when the record companies were conning folks into believeing CDs offered "perfect sound forever."
Peter, Paul and Mary - 50 Years with Peter, Paul and Mary
The first standalone concert I ever saw was Peter, Paul and Mary. I had seen them on TV, heard their music and like, and was even more taken with them live. I immediately ran out and bought their live two-LP set. Now, I get to relive some of those memories and more with this new DVD celebrating their many accomplishments.
I suspect many are like me: we think we know them. But this documentary by four-time Emmy award winner Jim Brown features rare and previously unseen TV footage, including a BBC program from the early 1960s that shows them performing many of their best-known songs. This DVD takes you back a few years earlier, when they were really at the peak of their artistry, when they dominated the Billboard charts, and folk music was part of the great fabric of popular music.
From their involvement in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, and through the decades of their other social involvements, we see firsthand a group that was in many ways taken for granted. We were not fully aware of either their musical abilities or their personal commitments. In other words, we get to see and hear folks who were front and center of the folk music scene that has spawned so many myths, memories, and talents. It's out now.
Note: The Paul Stookey photo is by Chuck Morse, the John McCutcheon photo is by Bob Pangle, and the photo of Eleni Mandell was featured in her interview with Kim Ruehl in ND.