The week leading up to AmericanFest offers up a slew of outstanding new roots music releases, from a couple that you most likely have heard about and a bunch more that I do not want to drop off the map. Here goes.
Various Artists - King of the Road: A Tribute to Roger Miller (Aug. 31)
Roger Miller did not write novelty songs. His biggest hits superficially could be taken that way, but if you listen just a bit more closely they were empathetic tributes to loners, outsiders, and others who just did not fit the workaday great American dream. They were also tinged with a certain sadness, a loneliness even, that only those outsiders could know. Unfortunately, they overshadowed the depth and breadth of his other songs. This well-conceived tribute album of 30 songs lovingly performed by a musical who's-who (e.g., Alison Krauss, Ringo Starr, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam, Kacey Musgraves, Rodney Crowell, Blind Boys of Alabama, Loretta, Emmylou, Dolly) will hopefully make you as big a fan as I have been. It should also make you scramble to find the original versions.
While most of the attention will deservedly go to "Old Friends," done by three of Miller's closest friends — Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Kris Kristofferson — the killer track is Mandy Barnett's "Lock, Stock and Teardrops." She tears it up from the floor up. We also get some intro banter from the man himself, demonstrating in just a few seconds his wit and a self-deprecating manner that made him a friend to many Nashville outsiders and outlaws before they became famous. The album is more than a tribute; it embodies all that Roger Miller was — the most misunderstood, misinterpreted, and unlikeliest of country music greats. Don't take my word for it, here's what the King of Roots Music writers, i.e., ND's Henry Carrigan, has to say in his review of the album.
Mandy Barnett - Strange Conversation (Sept. 21)
As if her contribution to the Roger Miller tribute was not enough, Barnett comes along with the best country album of the year. First a bit of history to newbies: Following an outstanding debut while still in her teens in the title role of the musical play Always ... Patsy Cline, not one but two different labels in the '90s proffered Barnett as the next big thing in country music. Despite being well-reviewed, that did not exactly happen. But Barnett did not go away; she continued performing, contributing to soundtracks, and eventually recording some albums for specialty labels, including the marvelous Sweet Dreams, an uncanny rendition of Cline covers, and a Don Gibson album.
For Strange Conversation, she traveled to Muscle Shoals to record country soul at its best. With her smoky voice that's deepened and become even more expressive over the years, Barnett takes songs from Lee Hazlewood to the Ted Hawkins title song and kicks ass with them all, but in a way that's fine and mellow, as Billie Holiday might say. I asked her about tackling "Puttin' on the Dog," and she said: “The idea of singing the Tom Waits song, that’s so far out the box for me. I had a ball cutting it. It’s wild, and a little sloppy and erratic. So I could sing with reckless abandon and put my soul into it.” I disagree. I've been a Waits fan since 1973, and I can say Barnett nails that one too.
With no disrespect, this is the record Lee Ann Womack wishes she could've made. (For a taste, check out Rolling Stone's premiere of "More Lovin' " here.) It's also available as a PledgeMusic project with lots of extras. She was outstanding on WoodSongs in Kentucky last week, and if you'll be at AmericanaFest next week, I strongly urge to catch her Thursday night set at the Mercy. I will certainly be there.
Marc Ribot - Songs Of Resistance 1942-2018 (Sept. 14)
Over a 40-year career, Ribot has released 25 albums and has been a beacon of New York’s downtown/experimental music scene. But he may best known outside New York as a major contributor to the substantial work of others, including Tom Waits, Buddy Miller, and Laurie Anderson. With his second album of the year he has collected a set of songs that speak to this political moment with all the ambition, passion, and fury he and his musical sisters and brothers can muster. He draws songs from the World War II anti-Fascist Italian partisans, the civil rights movement, and Mexican protest ballads, as well as his own compositions, and features a wide range of guests, including Waits, Steve Earle, Justin Vivian Bond (one-half of the wonderfully subversive Kiki & Herb), Syd Straw (a personal fave from our Golden Palominos days), Tift Merritt, Sam Amidon, and Meshell Ndegeocello, who wowed me at Big Ears earlier this year.
For Ribot the album was not just an act of protest, but also a path to discovery. “I went through a lot of self-examination," he told me in a note. "I kept asking, ‘What gives us the right to perform this song or access this history or change this lyric?' The struggle to find out which songs to perform, how (and with who) to perform them — to learn how we can live the musical ideas from our past NOW — is ongoing, and it extends beyond music.” Ribot and the rest do not mince words on these blatant anti-Trump/GOP anthems that are meant to rally anti-fascist forces and disturb the complacent. This is a necessary record for the quagmire we find ourselves in. It says: We will not be silent; we will not stand idle and permit a vocal minority to bully America into submission: we shall not be moved.
Various Artists - Blaze (Sept. 21)
“This short life will soon be over, and my vision will be told, and songs will sound more sweeter, when those pearly gates unfold.” In his song "Pearly Gates," Blind Willie McTell could have easily been taking about Blaze Foley. Foley's legend and songs have grown exponentially in both myth and stature since his unceremonious passing from a bar fight in 1989. Ben Dickey lovingly portrays and sings Foley's songs in this soundtrack to the Ethan Hawke film. Both Hawke, an Austin native, and Dickey have an obvious affinity for the man and his music. Dickey's versions are simultaneously plaintive and introspective, as if to suggest he knew what the future held for him; his relationship with Sybil Rosen being but momentary shelter from the storm.
The soundtrack succeeds by not trying to do too much, and with Dickey's ability to present the man behind the myth without unnecessarily romanticizing him. We get the breadth of Foley's talents here, from the deservedly well-known "Clay Pigeons" to "Cold, Cold World." I saw Gurf Morlix a couple weeks back do the latter, calling it the best song ever written. After hearing Dickey hone into its core, you'll see why. If you do not have a slew of Foley's records already, this soundtrack will make you seek them out. By the way, we also get Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zandt ("Marie") and Alynda Segarra performing "Drunken Angel."
Bronwen Exter - Snakeskin, There (Sept. 14)
I first heard Exter at a festival a couple years back and marveled at her and the band's mix of layered musical textures with rich, sweeping melodies, poetic lyrics, and breathy vocals. In other words, a real triple threat. I later learned that most, if not all, were new songs that are now on this album, her third. I've heard her described as dreamy. I can see that, but it's also a bit misleading as Exter is not some erstwhile ingenue who mistakes "sensitivity" for exploring emotional and intellectual complexities of the life we inhabit. I don't think I'm the first to make a Mazzy Star reference, but Exter's themes are more mature and more immediate, leaving youthful excesses strewn along the wayside like so much excess baggage.
Exter envelopes you in a Lynchian alternate universe, minus the perversity, minus the obscurity, yet ultimately romantic — be it in nature or personal. This perhaps best expressed in the song I am most taken with: "The Creature That You Knew" with its lyrics: "With I could shed a skin to show you / To show you how I grew / Here it is, paper thin, the creature that you knew." For additional insight to this intellectually and emotionally beguiling artist, read this interview with an arts journal in her hometown, Ithaca, New York. She also has an album release show at New York's Rockwood Hall on Sept. 15.
Chandler Travis Three-O - Backward From the Sunset (Sept. 14)
I am a happy man because I have seen this Cape Cod native on several occasions, both fronting his big band Philharmonic and his more compact Three-O. But they have several things in common, most noticeably the complex tapestries Travis weaves, without any hint of the extraneous. Perhaps you could best describe Travis' music as avant folky jazz a la Frank Zappa with the spirit of Randy Newman and Spike Jones, with an introspective lyricism that makes you want to lounge around the house in silk pajamas. In fact, there's a visual element to his shows that's absent from records — he often performs in silk robes.
Well versed in the Great American Songbook and its many derivations, Travis also learned a thing for two about "comedy" during his ten years or so opening for George Carlin, so there's often a sideways glance at life in his music as well as craftsmanship. Take for example "Settling for Less": "I hear it's lonely at the top / Number one is nice I know / But there are so many other nice numbers / So I'm settling for less." A superb record that you sip, savoring its twists and turns, instead of swallowing whole.
Jody Carroll - Back to the Country (Sept. 14)
When I saw Carroll at MerleFest last spring, I was immediately taken with this bluesman, a haunting shaman who conjured up the Delta dust one moment, the Delta mud the next. Plus, he was a striking figure in his Stetson fedora, lean features, and greying beard, wrapped in an unassuming manner that made his music all the more irresistible.
On his newest record, Carroll takes a more Americana-ish look at the blues. Effortlessly switching from National steel guitar to banjo, his look at the country uncovers the waylaid, the forgotten, lost loves, and the blood that permeates even the most casual corners of rural America. But it is not a forlorn return, as he says in one song: "I've been away so long, tell me where to start over again, my friend." And it's never too late to hear another original bluesman who also offers hope to those who want to be set free.
Candi Staton - Unstoppable (Aug. 31)
As with her contemporary Bette LaVette, Staton, on her first album in four years, is on a tear. Grounded in her R&B roots, Staton realizes that time is not on her side, socially or personally. On the former front, she covers two classic protest anthems in different veins, Patti Smith's "People Have the Power" And Nick Lowe's "Peace, Love and Understanding." On the latter, she firmly declares, "The Prize is Not Worth the Pain." The title says it all.
As she said in an NPR First Listen interview, "We're living at a time right now where it's important that music has a lot of influence. We're living in these days that we don't know what tomorrow's gonna bring. We have to get out, and we have to make a difference." With ND's Henry Carrigan's review there is not much I can add, other than to also give it a ringing endorsement.
Now, lie back in your easy chair and enjoy photos of the above-named artsists. Besides, you ain't going nowhere.