This week’s column was going to be the final one of the year that focuses on new and upcoming roots music releases. But as there are more coming out than one column can hold, I'll do another one in a couple of weeks that highlights albums that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle. For now, the ones that follow are essential, five of the year's best. Plus, there's a heads-up on notable Record Store Day roots exclusives.
Various Artists – At the Louisiana Hayride (Dec. 8)
Bear Family Records has released many outstanding sets over the years, but this time it has surpassed even its own high standards. The At The Louisiana Hayride set is a 20-CD set comprised of 559 tracks from 167 different artists from 1948 to 1960 and a lavish 224-page hardback book (LP sized) full of photos and memorabilia. Most of the tracks have not been heard since they were first broadcast, and many of the photos have never been seen outside the radio station's walls, let alone published.
The Louisiana Hayride was a live three-hour broadcast on KWKH out of Shreveport, and, like Nashville’s Opry, was the place for country music fans to be on a Saturday night, either in the audience or on the radio. While the Opry may be more well-known, the Hayride did not play second fiddle to anyone. Rather, it gave its audience experiences, such as a young Elvis, that the Opry never would. While both presented the stars of the day, as well as lesser known folks, there was more of an edge to the KWKH show. Let me put it this way, even if it's a bit oversimplified: It’s the difference between Sinatra and Dylan. On the Opry you got the former, on the Hayride, you got both.
Prime example is after the Opry refused Elvis in 1954, he took his own brand of rockabilly blues to the Hayride airwaves before anyone knew what he or his music was about. Included here are 15 prime Elvis performances, including “That’s All Right” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” During his last appearance in 1956, the crowd went completely nuts. It seems they put Elvis on the show’s first hour, with two more hours to go. So what does the MC do when a crowd just won't let up? He comes back on stage and utters, for the first time heard anywhere, these famous words, “Elvis has left the building.” You hear the full version on this set.
We also get to hear two different Hank Williamses: first as a newcomer and later as a seasoned, troubled vet after being booted off the Opry. There's also an unreleased version of “I’m A Long Gone Daddy.” Another is the first recorded live version, from 1955, of George Jones’ breakthrough hit, “Why Baby Why.” You hear what made Buddy Miller include it as a staple of his live shows.
Also included are unadorned gems from Johnny Horton, Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash (who also hawks doughnuts), June Carter, Roy Acuff, the Louvin Brothers, Ray Price, Roger Miller, and Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw. Also included from my home state are the Bailes Brothers (whom my parents knew) and Wilma & Stoney Cooper: both sets of artists are in the West Virginia Musical Hall of Fame. The list goes on, but suffice it to say we get to hear most of the great country artists of the day giving their best to their fans.
I hesitate to call this set a “historical” one, even though it is. It is more than that, and it is more than nostalgia – we get to hear what live country music was like with an audience of its time. Nowadays we can listen to all the studio recordings we want, anytime we want, anyplace we want. It has all become too easy, too polished, and we experience it only through the eyes and ears of today. But to be able to go back in time when something was fresh and new, when you had to go out of your way for something special and to be part of that audience, is an experience that only time travel can achieve. This is the closest we will ever get. This set is certainly the release "event" not just of the year, but of the decade. You can get marvelously lost in these recordings, and you have that gorgeous book to guide you through Mr. Peabody's wayback machine.
Additional information, including a five-minute video and a listing of all 559 tracks, on this magnificent box set can be found here.
Richie & Rosie – Nowhere in Time (Nov. 10)
I have a banjo friend who calls Richie Stearns the Jimi Hendrix of the banjo. It was a sound that he perfected during his days with the seminal band The Horse Flies. I do not disagree with that, but this time, on their second duo album, Rosie Newton takes up that mantle on three blistering instrumentals, all of which leave you breathless and somewhat emotionally drained as you wonder how in world she is driving those tunes. And having seen them perform the album live this past summer I can attest that Newton does it in such an unassuming manner that makes it all the more enthralling.
Stearns was already a legend when Newton joined him years back, but after playing with him, and with many other bands such as the Duhks, it is apparent she has come into her own on this album. Not just her fiddle playing, but also her plaintive yet wistful vocals are more self-assured. She also continues her love of Townes van Zandt songs, taking the lead on his most tender love song, “I’ll Be Here in the Morning.”
The album is an invigorating mix of the traditional with the ethereal. Stearns is without a doubt not just a master of the banjo, but the only person I have ever heard who is also a metaphysical one – in both his playing and songwriting. In becoming a cohesive whole, his lyrics, music, and playing is like the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop or Rothko's paintings – they are journeys. Stearns is the embodiment of that T.S. Eliot line, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” What I am trying to say here is that no one, and I mean no one, plays the banjo like Stearns.
Newton is his match, and goes one further by not only being an eager partner in those journeys, but also enabling their sound to be grounded. A prime example is "Golden Bear," which is the most captivating song I have heard all year. Subtexted with Newton's minimalistic fiddle and mournful vocal, Stearns' syllepsis of life, love, and everything in between is like nothing you have heard before.
The first recorded instance of a banjo-fiddle combination was in 1756, and we can never know what that duo sounded like or what they played. However, in these capable hands, hearts, and sensibilities, Stearns and Newton make you wish you could hear them play every song ever written. I think I'll send a copy of the album to Steve Martin. While he has certainly acknowleged some extremely capable and deserving players, it is apparent he has yet to hear Richie Stearns.
Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn - Echo in the Valley (out now)
Speaking of the banjo, are there any more ubiquitous names associated with it than these two? As a follow-up to their Grammy-winning debut as a duo, this time they explore the role the banjo has played in Appalachian music and traditions. For better, but mostly worse, coal and its miners have been central to the region.
They do several mine-related songs here, notably “Come All You Coal Miners,” written as her husband lay dying of TB by Sarah Ogan Gunning, both a daughter and wife of a miner. It is a rabble-rousing song that leaves no doubt of her feelings: “I am a coal miner’s wife, I’m sure I wish you well/Let’s sink this capitalist system in the darkest pits of hell.” But all is not doom and gloom: Fleck and Washburn also include traditional tunes such as “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains” and a version of Fleck’s “Big Country,” framed by the traditional Appalachian tunes “Sally in the Garden” and “Molly Put the Kettle On.”
All this is done by two consummate artists who approach the banjo in different ways. Fleck has virtuosic, jazz-to-classical ingenuity while Washburn grounds the union with an earthy sophistication of a postmodern, old-timey sensibility. This truly a match made in heaven.
Various Artists - Tribute to the Travelin’ Lady: Rosalie Sorrels (out now)
Some stories are so important to the fabric and history of a land that they require tremendous time and effort to tell. Such is the story of the life and times of singer, songwriter, social activist, slam poet (long before there was such a term), and self-proclaimed lover of life, Rosalie Sorrels.
My journey with Sorrels began as a teenager when I first heard her at the 1969 Philadelphia Folk Festival sing “Rock Salt & Nails.” Even now, that night haunts me. I soon found out all I could about her and the writer of the song, Utah Phillips. That began a journey that despite the intervening years and the many side roads I feel I am still on.
This album took four years of selfless dedication to make happen, but Sorrels’ story is told here in magnificent fashion, chronicling the kind of life most only read about in fiction. This labor of love was produced by another well-known Idaho musician and longtime friend to Sorrels, her Sister Troublemaker Rocci Johnson.
Forty-four artists recorded Sorrels’ songs for this four-CD set, including Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Peter Rowan, Eliza Gilkyson, Loudon Wainwright III, Peggy Seeger, Laurie Lewis, Eilen Jewell, and Mollie O’Brien & Rich Moore. Some, including Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, Tom Russell, and Jimmy LaFave, recorded their own songs written for or about her. Russell’s song, which opens the set, alone is worth the price of admission.
You’ve heard the story about Ginger Rogers: She did everything Astaire did, and did it backwards and in high heels. Sorrels did the same as male folksingers, except when she left her husband for the road she did it with five children in tow.
Such was and is the influence of a fellow troublemaker whose name does not ring many bells outside a relatively small circle of friends, confidants, and interlopers such as myself. For the sake of brevity, perhaps Hunter S. Thompson said it best in his liner notes of Sorrels’ album, Travelin’ Lady: “Her songs cut so close to the bone I get nervous listening to them.”
While the digital version of this set is readily available, I urge you to track down the physical copy that includes a 36-page booklet with full liner notes, photos, memorabilia, musicians’ bios, and quotes about their friendships with Sorrels. Go here for more information.
Grayson Capps - Scarlett Roses (Dec. 1)
Listening to Capps' first solo album in six years you realize, if you did not already, that, first, he is the gravitas that cements Willie Sugarcapps, and, second, he is the essence of all things Americana. While Capps has been around for some time, I was a bit late to the game, not knowing about him until the film A Love Song for Bobby Long. But I made up for it afterwards, including booking him for a show in my hometown.
Capps’ Southern gothic underpinnings infuse his sound with an earthiness whose vulnerability becomes more apparent upon repeated listenings. Yes, he has that foot-stomping, goodtime feel down pat, but you can also feel the tug of mortality is not too far away. Even so, with a sound that is reminiscent of a fused Townes van Zandt and Waylon Jennings, the good times come crashing down, and inward, on “Taos.” Befitting Hendrix and Zeppelin, in Capps' capable hands the song is an eight-minute magnum opus heading, in darkness, toward that idyllic metaphor, but by morning it all goes horribly wrong. Instead of finding refuge and safety, there is only grief and suffering.
No, this is not a downer of album, not by any means. On the contrary, it displays the depth of emotion and intellect that Capps has long demonstrated in his music, and his dedication to its ethos. It is essential listening.
Roots Record Store Day Exclusives (Nov. 24)
Here are some gems to seek out at your favorite independent record store on Black Friday:
Benjamin Booker-Live For No One
Chuck Berry-The London Sessions
Gary Clark Jr.-Come Together
Papa John Creech-Papa John Creech
Jerry Garcia & Howard Wales-Side Trips, Vol. 1
Willie Nelson-Yesterday’s Wine
Preservation Hall Jazz Band-Run Stop & Drop!!
Muddy Waters-Best of Muddy Waters
Various Artists-Gentle Giant: The Songs of Don Williams
Besides, what else is there to do early on a chilly morning after Thanksgiving?
Now, scroll though some fabulous photos, including some special ones provided by the KWKH Archives of the Louisana Hayride and the estate of Rosalie Sorrels. Many thanks to all.