My (belated) best albums of 2012
- Various Artists – This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark * (2 CD set) When writers as esteemed as John Prine, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Robert Earl Keen, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kris Kristofferson, Darrell Scott and Ray Wylie Hubbard interpret a man’s songwriting, you know he’s a “songwriter’s songwriter.” But Clark’s no esoteric technician. He carves rough-hewn tales illuminated by glimmers of the heart, traced with bittersweet memory, toughness and love — battered and resilient, as in the insouciant hope-against- fate of the long-distance love ode, “Dublin Blues,” a smaller-canvas variation of Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather.” Clark’s jaunty melodies invariably fit the lyric and sentiment like a Randall knife swinging in a perfectly woven sheath.
- Various Artists — We Walk the Line: A Celebration of The Music Of Johnny Cash CD/DVD Note blog on this at https://www.nodepression.com/profiles/blogs/they-have-the-back-of-the-man-in-black-a-johnny-cash-celebration
- Jamey Johnson — Living For a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran. Like Guy Clark, Cochrane cut to the heart of the matter with uncanny precision and insight, Clark with perhaps a bit more color. But here’s poetry stripped to its essence (“I Go to Pieces” of course; the terse jukebox ode “A-11” replays insistently like any “our song”) Johnson, a wise young traditionalist, exquisitely complements another heavyweight lineup, including Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Elvis Costello, Ray Price, Bobby Bare, George Strait, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Cochran’s own voice, reciting a few lyrics.
- Iris DeMent — I Sing the Delta. DeMent struggles with writer’s block, I suspect, because her creativity is so entwined with the nagging particulars of living (think of her classic “No Time to Cry”). Here she plumbs the Delta depths, allowing them to seep up through her singing and songs. Her clarion voice, for me, often catches healing sunlight to warm its hardest heartache. Her parallel struggle with faith abides with life as a wordless prayer to traditions that die off and rise again.
- Tedeschi Trucks Band Live — Everybody’s Talkin.’ It’s a tossup between DeMent and Susan Tedeschi for my favorite contemporary roots singer, rating DeMent’s disc slightly higher as a stronger personal statement. But no woman interprets others with more soulful zeal and sensitivity than Tedeschi. A fine guitarist, she has a musician’s mastery of her vocal instrument. Add arguably the greatest living slide guitarist, Derek Trucks and, on this live set, a stone jammin’ horn band, and you’ve got roots music gumbo boiling to the heavens, “Bound for Glory.”
- Kathy Mattea — Calling Me Home. Mattea’s disarmingly conceptual album calibrates the universal human longing for home as a timeless refuge. The dramatic and poetic friction arises as she deftly frames her Appalachian hills as threatened by the very industry — coal mining — that sustains it; one of contemporary America’s most pressing environmental/societal conundrums.
- Dr. John – Locked Down. Black Key Dan Auerbach’s poised reins facilitated this outrageously shambling parade of lusty self-mythologizing swamp-and-gutter groove. Dr. John has lived the quintessential New Orleans street hustler-hipster life. The music’s chug-a-lug roiling and left-handed aphorisms excavate comedy, tragedy and human possibility. His exotic yet sly wit exudes empowerment, as if he’s tossing out fistfuls of mojo like Mardi Gras talismans.
- Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than The Driver of The Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. Yes, she’s a self-conscious artiste, yet Apple tells a musical tale as vividly as any vernacular folk artist, and with such idiosyncratic brilliance that it’s too this-that-‘n-the-other-way not to feel authentic. That’s how this artist manages the balance between her most arch conceit and the primal cries that sear a streak to the tip of her consciousness.
- Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel about Me Now. Earle’s double-dose of nominal paternal legacies (Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt) may help explain his personal struggles as he tries to be his own kind of singer-songwriter. He makes this warts-and-all confession-and-reflection work with slushy stylistic mélanges and a voice as palatable as tawny port, aged by time’s missteps and lessons. And he’s loosening up his style, which sweeps away any glimmers of preciousness.
- Field Report – Field Report. Few recent songwriters have fingered the crusty surfaces of life’s pains, confusions and compromises with more openness, honesty or deftness. So depth arises, in breaking buds of poetry. Christopher Porterfield and band add just enough harmonized refrains and ratty-couched sonics to deliver songfulness as quietly wounding experience. He opens up key moments as if experiencing them for the first and fiftieth time. (Field Report is the debut album of the Milwaukee folk-rock band Field Report (previously incarnated as Conrad Plymouth) which has received plenty of national press raves and provided the group with strong touring.)
Howlin’ Wolf — Smokestack Lightning: The Complete Chess Masters, 1951-1960 He’s still baaaad! And evilll!
* Released in December 2011, the Guy Clark tribute missed most 2011 “best of” lists, but won the 2012 Americana Music Association album of the year award. — Kevin Lynch