From Doc Watson to a Sun Records Tribute: Ten Notable Roots Music Releases
You may have noticed that the usual weekly columns have been on hiatus for a few weeks, so what better way to signal this one’s return than with a roundup of some significant releases that should be brought to our readers’ attention. It’s a diverse lot, including one book, with nary an ingenue or wannabe in sight. It’s been a revelation listening to so much good music these past couple of weeks. There are, of course, photos to match.
Various Artists – Red Hot: A Memphis Celebration of Sun Records (June 16)
There are few places in the history of music as hallowed as Sun Records, where country, R&B, gospel, rockabilly, and blues artists were welcomed with open arms and the knowing ear of Sam Phillips. One could easily make the argument that Americana was born and nutured in Memphis. So, it is about time there was a fitting tribute.
With Tamara Saviano and Luther Dickinson at the helm, there was little chance that Red Hot would fatally fall into the trap of being reverential and overly nostalgia, or, worse, reimagined for a “modern” audience. While there were certainly going to be guest artists, the first stroke of genius was to secure a crack house band. They did that and more. Dickinson, who also plays, enlisted his brother Cody, Rick Steff, and two simpatico Memphis natives, Amy LaVere and John Paul Keith. This is one kick-ass band that knows the Sun sound by heart and soul that pays tribute not just to the music, but the place and time from which it rose.
Their second stroke of genius was not to cover the well-known or the easily recognizable hits. With a couple of holy grail exceptions, the songs are ones that you feel were so much the standard set by Phillips that they seem ingrained in the walls of those studios. This group of stellar musicians, including Valerie June, Bobby Rush, Alvin Youngblood Heart, and cast members of CMT’s surprisingly good TV series Sun Records, led by Chuck Mead (doing a rambunctious “Red Hot”), retrieved them from the crevices of those walls and brought them back to life again.
Those exceptions noted above are Heart doing a darker, harder edged “Folsom Prison Blues” than you’ve ever heard before. And “Moanin’ at Midnight,” which only the ultra secure, or the ultra foolish, would attempt. But two Mississippians, Dickinson and guest Lightnin’ Malcolm, they dig into Wolf’s tune so deep and adventurous that they had to cut it into two parts, over 13 minutes of pure ecstasy.
In short, it is a rare thing indeed to hear a group of like-minded folks, Saviano included, come together, sharing and trusting one another so completely to create something greater than the sum of its parts. And while those parts are, individually, beyond compare, it is when the album finally ends (all too soon) that you realize you have witnessed something extremely special.
Recorded at Sun Studios and the Phillips Recording studios, the album’s proceeds benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Go here for significantly more insight into the album, Sun and the folks who made this great record.
Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters – (Self-titled) (June 9)
Lyrically driven, the songs on Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters blend the band’s old-school country roots attitude with their shared influences of rock and folk. Platt said of the album, “I think it’s just about life and all that that entails. Including but not limited to death, strangers, birthdays, money, leaving, arriving, seasons, corruption, and love.”
This is the band’s third album in three years, so the prolific Platt is continuing to push her bandmates and expanding their live shows. There is, as with the two before, an easygoing warmth to the album, and a certain kind of knowing. The kind from that comes from being a keen and empathetic observer. From the upbeat “Diamond in the Rough” to the poetic “Eden” to the solemn “Long Ride,” Platt and her band flesh out all that’s real and been missing in country music for lo these many years.
Malcolm Holcombe – Pretty Litte Troubles (out now)
Holcombe is, not unlike Roscoe (but with an extra “e”), an unmistakable original. He’s from North Carolina, but you could swear his Appalachian noir-ish tales were born somewhere at the head of a coal mining hollow of eastern Kentucky. In fact, the second song, “Good Old Days,” from the new album is an ode to his wife’s grandfather, who immigrated from Russia only to wind up a coal miner in West Virginia. Of, course, those “good old days” were full of strife, toil, and backbreaking labor. Sample lyrics:
Fifty cents a bloody day
No child labor laws
Most them lil’ babies died
Disease and alcohol
Another track, “Rocky Ground,” has a Guy Clark feel to it, and sounds as if he could have written it, but Holcombe’s gravely, unwashed vocal makes it more gut wrenching. I thought that even before hearing a later track, “Bury, England,” full of end-of-the-world touring images, where he mentions Clark by name, and singing with “JT.” I took that to reference Townes’ son, who, despite primarily being a professional fishing guide these days, can write and play a mean song of his own.
Produced by Darrell Scott, Holcombe’s 14th album reflects Scott’s astute musicianship. Complete with pedal steel, harp, mandolin, and more, it provides the most “polished” of backgrounds. In other hands, it could have resulted in a catastrophe, and while it certainly makes Holcombe’s darkness more accessible, it underscores just how much in control Holcombe is. And how much he understands his music and its message. It is essential listening.
Anna Coogan –The Lonely Cry of Space & Time (out now)
During an intermission of the Met’s last opera of the season, Der Rosenkavalier, I thought of Coogan’s latest album, The Lonely Cry of Space and Time. Though the operatically trained Coogan is more Klaus Nomi than Renée Fleming, at their respective cores both are concerned with the passage of time, and the spaces and people in between. Despite the trappings, they can be lonely adventures.
Coogan’s singular guitar (which can also be heard on Johnny Dowd’s recordings) is often, like the Marschallin’s soliloquy in Act 1, reflective yet wandering, restrained yet expansive, holding on yet letting go … or, how far the journey from here to a star? Lyrically, Coogan shows no fear in exposing her vulnerable side, not necessarily a hopeless romantic, but a romantic nonetheless. Even in an apocalyptic time, and perhaps for a child, in “Burn for You:”
You whose company I seek
Wide-eyed and waiting in the wings
Oh but too beautiful
To see the world burning down
Oh let the oceans rise
To the shining skies
I will burn for you.
The songs, some written with her drummer and singular bandmate Willie B, sometimes ride the waves of an extreme force, sometimes juxtaposing words and music, sometimes a parallel course, and never less than intriguing using that trained voice to great effect. For another take on this absolutely lovely record that, like Iris Murdoch once said, invigorates without consoling, see Lyndon Bolton’s ND interview.
Allison Pierce –Year of the Rabbit (out now)
Following two decades with her sister in the Pierces, the Alabama-born songwriter teams up with producer legendary Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Ray LaMontagne, Paul McCartney) for her first solo album. Far different than her duo work, this debut leaves behind what made her a well-known name in the “pop” world and embraces a stripped-down approach that’s primarily just her and Johns, with Gabe Witcher on fiddle for two tracks, and Greg Leisz on pedal steel on another.
The album was no spur-of-the-moment decision to become more of an Americana artist, but rather I understand she wrote these songs over a period of years knowing they did not fit the Pierces’ sound or persona. Coming across like a reticent Jenny Lewis, with a touch of the best of Linda Ronstandt, Pierce more deeply explores many of the of emotional worlds that were merely hinted at, or glossed over, during her previous 20 years of making music.
A standout track is “Sea of Love,” with its deceptive plaintive lyrics that pack a lovely punch extolling the virtues, with an undercurrent of uncertainty, of human relationships all to decidedly country beat.
Jim Lauderdale – London Southern (June 30)
The always restless Americana Lauderdale has again stepped outside his “comfort zone” and recorded his new album in London using Nick Lowe’s backup band and producer, Neil Brockbank.
Lauderdale said in a note,“I wanted a different sound, kind of a throwback to the early ’60s. All the players had the same sort of experience I did, only from where they were. So it was that thing of how much British musicians loved American music, and how they interpreted our roots, then we interpreted them. They love a lot of the same things I do, only from a very different perspective … it was very American to British to America to Britain to America to, well, here.”
But the songs are, after all, what have set him apart for the past three decades. A master collaborator, for this album he wrote with longtime hard country collaborators Odie Blackmon for “We’ve Only Got So Much Time” and Kendall Marvel for the decidedly not-country “I Can’t Do Without You.” He also enlisted blue-eyed soul denizen John Oates for “A Different Kind of Groove” and “If I Can’t Resist.”
Planned or not, these songs came together while Lauderdale was on tour in England and Scotland. In fact, the song that is now a staple of his live shows,”I Love You More,” just sorta fell right out. Long a Beatles fan,”No Right Way (To Be Wrong)” and “Don’t Let Yourself Get In The Way”sound like something the Beatles could’ve done in their pre-Revolver days.
Lauderdale also uses horns, the Hammond organ, gospel-like backing vocals and, at times, a Leon Russell-like vocal in his latest exploration of the foundations of Americana music. Well, he wasn’t awarded the AMA’s Wagonmaster Award last year for nothing.
Emily Barker – Sweet Kind of Blue (out now)
I ran across Australian Emily Barker some years ago, and despite recording some 10(!) albums in various guises and mixing of genres, I had not really caught up with her till she became part of the Americana supergroup Applewood Road. Since then, I have been making up for lost time. With the new album, she’s returned to the soul and blues influences that first inspired her to become a singer/songwriter. She made the pilgrimage to Memphis and recorded it at the Sam Phillips studio with natives Rick Steff, Dave Smith, Dave Cousar, and Steve Potts.
Paradoxically, she wrote the stunning “Sunrise” on a road-trip while touring Sweden during the peak of the long-lasting sunlight of its summer. Barker said in a note that it’s about escaping and seemed only fitting to record it in the States with the national theme the allure of the open road. It’s about leaving a dead-end life behind and thoughts of life’s possibilities, with an incessant Muscle Shoals beat. Contrast that with Barker’s piano-focused, introspective tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe in “Sister Goodbye,” and it is apparent that she’s not some cultural interloper, but a true believer who has it in her blood. A welcome addition to the neo-soul pantheon.
Charlie McCoy, with Travis Stimeling – Fifty Cents and a Box Top: The Creative Life of Nashville Session Musician Charlie McCoy (published last week)
While Charlie McCoy will forever be known in certain circles for being the person primarily responsible for transforming Dylan’s “high, wild mercury” sound that he heard in his head into actual music, McCoy had been a legendary Nashville session musician for years. Even now, over 50 years later, having done work for everyone, recorded dozens of albums under his own name, and being the leader of the Hee-Haw TV band for 20 years, he remains an in-demand collaborator and touring artist.
Finally, after being interviewed for scores of books and articles (notably in Dylan in America), McCoy, along with country music writer Travis Stimeling, is telling his story of those many years. If you are looking for dirt on folks he’s known or recorded with, this is not the book for you. What you get is his story and the significance of music in his life.
As there is little I cannot add that is already covered by Henry Carrigan in his piece some time back, I’ll leave you with a link to it.
Doc & Merle Watson – Never the Same Way Once – Live at the Boarding House – May 1974 (June 23)
In the early 1970s, the Watsons were recording for Poppy/Tomato Records (and produced by Nashville’s Jack Clement), which attempted to increase their popularity by giving them a more of a commercial sound. But live they remained well-grounded in their roots even when expanding their song selections. As live recordings from this time period are rare, this 7-CD set, recorded over four nights by legendary Dead soundman Owsley Stanley, features over 90 tracks by the flatpicking master and his son that range from bluegrass to swing to rockabilly to blues and contemporary folk.
Also included are a 16-page booklet of contemporaneous photographs and an interview with bassist T. Michael Coleman, who performed on these recordings, and an original essay by David Holt, four-time Grammy winner and a long-time Doc Watson collaborator. MerleFest attendees know these two guys well. In short, this set demonstrates Doc and Merle’s versatility during that golden era that was the mid-1970s.
Sleepy Joe Lee – Open Late (out now)
Last but not least, direct from that hotbed funky blues town, Dayton, Ohio, comes Sleepy Joe Lee with a guttural sound reminiscent of Tony Joe White and the best of Dr. John, with a bit of a lyrical Todd Snider thrown in for good measure. Not that Lee is derivative. This record could have easily come 40 years ago when the pot that we take for granted today began melting in earnest, when the genre walls were crumbling and there was a great sense of musical adventure to be found on every street corner.
Lee not only talks the talk, he also walks the walk. He can sway the blues just as easily as he can rock them. He kicks off the album with a swampy “Mumbo Jumbo” before igniting love in “7×7.” He can also slip into a soulful, introspective mood like he does in “Say a Little Prayer,” a plea for all of us. Then with a driving force, brings home the danger in a cover of “The Needle and the Damage Done” that makes you quiver in your boots.
The album, only his second, is fraught with such an emotional intensity that it makes you wonder how he’s not recorded more, or better known. I know I wasn’t until a photographer friend said I should check him out. He was on the mark, and you should be too.
Note: The Sleepy Joe Lee photo is by Hannah Calhoun, used with permission.