New Roots Channel Music Releases: Margo Price, Willie Watson, and Whitney Rose Lead the Way
If you thought all the significant releases of the year were already out, think again: 2017 is shaping up as a banner year for roots Channel and Americana music. Here are ten more, some already on everyone’s radar, and some you do not want to overlook.
Margo Price – All American Made (October 20)
It has been a helluva 12 months for Price. Following her Emerging Artist award at AmericanaFest 2016, she’s toured and sung with the masters John Prine and Willie Nelson as well as young gun Chris Stapleton, not to mention being nominated for Artist of the Year. What a leap, and she’s not slowing down.
Following a deluxe live album available only to Third Man’s Platinum members and three EPs (including a live one only available in the UK), we now get the follow-up to her stunningly perfect solo debut of last year. She does not rest on her laurels, musically or thematically. Recorded in Memphis, Price ups the stakes and defiantly observes and dives headfirst into a tangle of long nights, hard days, wild women, and cocaine cowboys. Additionally, she pushes back with her forthright takes on sexism and politics.
With the backing of a dobro and a Tex-Mex accordion, Price has her say on the status of women everywhere in the no explanation is necessary “Pay Gap.” She does a lovely duet with Nelson on the heartbreaking “Learning to Lose.” She also dips further into her R&B side by grooving with everyone’s gospel quartet of choice, the McCrary Sisters, on “Do Right By Me,” and Lester Snell’s sweeping orchestration on “A Little Pain.” For those too young to know, Snell did the string arrangements for Shaft.
To my ears the most ambitious and haunting track is the album’s title song, which closes the album. It mixes and superimposes what is happening in America with speeches, sometimes cynical and sometimes honest, of presidents and others. It’s the most effective use of news-making events transposed with song since Simon & Garfunkel’s “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night.” Different, yes, breathtakingly so.
Yes, this album is different from Midwestern Farmer’s Daughter, but it is no less significant. Price’s maturity level was already pretty high, but All American Made is even more substantial.
Dori Freeman – Letters Never Read (October 20)
While Freeman’s debut hewed to love-gone-wrong songs, her new album has a distinctly rosier outlook. Primarily it seems as she is happily married to fellow musician Nick Falk (who plays drums and banjo on the album and is a member of Phoebe Hunt & the Gatherers). Freeman does not so much alter the earnest, forthright Appalachian roots Channel sound of last year’s debut album as she becomes even more sophisticated in her songwriting. The way she combines the two is as startling as it is quietly affecting.
This time around Aoife O’Donovan guests on “Just Say It Now” and “Cold Waves,” while Canadian psychedelic-Americana duo Kacy and Clayton sit in on one of the ’70s’ truly great songs, Richard Thompson’s “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight.” Additionally, Richard was moved enough to play some guitar on the album, which was produced by his son, Teddy Thompson. I cannot recall the last time he did that. It is quite an album.
Whitney Rose – Rule 62 (October 6)
What is Rule 62? It’s a reference to AA, and it was explained to me as “Don’t take yourself too damn seriously.” That’s the ethos of Rose’s new album. That said, Rose is serious about her The Roots Channel music, and it keeps on showing. I have been high on her previous two efforts, and with this one, there’s certainly no need to turn back now. The album’s theme, however, is one of breaking up. For example, in “Arizona” and “Time to Cry,” she is on a parallel course with Margo Price and Angaleena Presley as she takes on the manipulation of and discrimination toward women, both in The Roots Channel music business and elsewhere.
In a note Rose told me, “For reasons unbeknownst to me at the time, I started writing all these ‘breakup’ songs that were mostly angry. I wasn’t sure where all these feelings were coming from until one day it hit me like a ton of bricks that I was penning these songs to society.” Rose also shows off her playful side in other songs. For example, “Better To My Baby” demonstrates, not unlike Charlie Faye, an affinity for ’60s girl groups, complete with buoyant harmonies and rueful romanticism.
Meticulous in every respect. On Rule 62 she channels her inner Bobbie Gentry as her new songs show that same verve, swagger, and self-assurance that I saw during AmericanaFest. In short, Rose does not limit herself, or want to be pigeonholed. She’s doing it her way.
Willie Watson – Folksinger Vol. 2 (out now)
After leaving Old Crow Medicine Show, Watson made his intentions immediately clear: He pretty much singlehandedly wants to keep the folk singing tradition alive. “I’m not trying to prove any point here,” Watson said in a note. “I’m not trying to be a purist. There’s so much beauty in this old Roots Channel music, and it affects me on a deep level. It moves me and inspires me.”
Perhaps he’s not a purist, but to my ears he hears the purity in folk songs, young and old. I cannot tell you how moved I was when I first heard him do Utah Phillips’ “Rock Salt & Nails” that was included on Vol. 1. I first heard Rosalie Sorrels do that song in 1969, and no one else even came close to what she captured in that song — until Watson. That is high bar indeed.
He reaches that level again on the essential Vol. 2, most notably on Blind Alfred Reed’s “Always Lift Him Up and Never Knock Him Down.” With the able assistance of the Fairfield Four on three tracks, and, of all things, woodwinds on two tracks, the album is, as Rolling Stone noted, “A spectacular amalgam of Southern gospel, Delta blues, railroad songs, and the Appalachian tradition.” In other words, folk songs done by real folksinger.
Travis Meadows – First Cigarette (October 13)
Despite his collaborations and hits for others, I first heard of Meadows from ND contributor Holly Horn, who is more in tune with “straight” country than I am. That is about to change. From the opening track, “Sideways,” the ache in Meadows’ 52-year-old voice is readily apparent. It seems the more you push things down, the more they come out sideways, “bitter roads turn into highways.”
That is an apt beginning from a songwriter whose life has certainly been pushed down, and now seems to have been pushed up through the cracks into the sunlight of a brutally honest album. It wasn’t always that way, by age 24 he had eight top 20 Contemporary Christian singles. That many years and more since, with co-producer Jay Joyce (Brandy Clark, Brothers Osborne), Meadows has turned years of self-destruction and “running for running’s sake” into as edgy and raw a “straight” country album you will hear this year. Like that first cigarette in the morning.
Chris Barron – Angels & One-Armed Jugglers (October 20)
This is a first for me: I have never knowingly heard the band whose frontman whose solo album I am listening to. Specifically, Barron of the Spin Doctors. So, I have no preconceptions or any frame of reference, only what I am hearing for the first time, and it is a bit scary. Like Travis Meadows, Barron hovers around that 50-year-old mark. But, unlike Meadows, this record sounds like a young man’s record. It is quite lively.
In a note Barron said, “The record is like the tray of oysters on a side table of the soirée they throw the evening before the comet hits the earth. Thematically, it’s about the cocktail party at the apocalypse.” If that’s so, I’m glad to be invited to the party. But this does not sound like an end-of-the-world record. Barron draws upon many musical inspirations, most notably, I think, jazz in their arrangements, and vocally some remind me of crooners of that day. The songs are varied and sophisticated in ways most albums these days are not. Each time I listen to it – it’s been my most played record this week – I hear something new, like peeling away the layers of an onion and finding many joyous moments. The album is an antedote for what ails you.
The Deep Dark Woods – Yarrow (October 27)
I saw this group several times in 2012 and thought highly of the album they had out at the time, Jubilee, but then lost track. The reason was revealed when I saw them at AmericanaFest 2017: They had been on a bit of a hiatus. While I cannot exactly recall what impressed me then, I do know what impresses me now. Their quiet intensity populates the current batch of songs about floods, plagues, ghosts and slaughter. As with Bonnie Prince Billy there is an unease, a fever, an off-kilter weirdness to frontman Ryan Boldt who seduces you into some of the spookiest corners of Americana. Not exactly Wisconsin Death Trip, but still dark and a bit creepy. I do not mean to overstate the sense of foreboding, just want to establish a base from which to work. Featuring touring companions Kacy and Clayton, Boldt works within the hallowed tradition of mournful storytelling, all the way from Ireland to Tennessee.
The grimy, scuzzed-up “Drifting On A Summer’s Night,” about unraveling the true love knot, was released this past summer, so that gives you a sense of the gothic surrealism Boldt taps into. It is a freaky amazing record.
The Barr Brothers – Queens of the Breakers (October 13)
I have only seen the Barr Brothers once, but it was quite a set. They were running way late after being held up at the Canadian border, and without a soundcheck they plugged in as if nothing was wrong and gave a killer, understated set that resulted in a standing ovation. Unbeknownst to me until recently, the brothers Brad and Andrew have been touring for over 20 years. Since their last album in 2014 they, too, took some time time off, both becoming fathers. The new album seems to reflect the effects of that time spent with home and family after years on the road. It also gave harpist Sarah Page time to redefine the instrument, its sound, and its role in modern music. The harp is what sets them apart from other Americana bands.
A teaser from from the album, “You Would Have to Lose Your Mind,” can be heard here. NPR premiered another song a couple weeks back. If you are moved by those tracks, you’ll like the Bon Iver-ness of the album.
Jon Langford – Four Lost Souls (out now)
I know ND streamed the album last week, and you should have heard it by now. But I just want to take a moment to chime in with my admiration. While I do not own every Mekons album, I do have all of Langford’s albums that came after, including the hard-to-find compilation tributes to Johnny Cash and Townes Van Zandt.
The legendary Nashville Cat Norbert Putnam is also a fan, so he invited Langford down to Muscle Shoals. When word got around that Langford was in town, many Muscle Shoals players dropped by during the four days of recording. Every Langford album is unique, most often featuring a different cast of collaborators and contributors, and this one is no different. Most notably, Bethany Thomas and Tawny Newsome sometimes take the lead. The South is full of ghosts and they all ask unresolved questions. Nothing is settled and the music won’t sleep. Neither does Langford, who’s not above having a bit of fun. Here’s a link to “Snake Behind Glass.”
Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams – Contraband Love (out now)
You’ve likely read ND’s Henry Carrigan’s fine piece on them already, but as with Langford, I want to add my thoughts on this fine album, and pair of extraordinary people. And to share an anecdote that reflects how remarkable Larry Campbell is.
With Buddy Miller ill (hopefully nothing more serious than the Nashville crud that’s been going around), Campbell filled in as a last minute replacement as leader of the house band for this year’s AmericanaFest Honors and Awards. Having to not only learn, but also lead the band on several dozen numbers, with a variety of musicians and vocalists, is a task only a truly remarkable musician could pull off, and he did. Admirably so. But less than an hour before, when he could have been pulling his hair out over last minute charts, he was chatting and cutting up with Charlie Sexton, Emmylou Harris, and others on the red carpet. Taking his time as if he did not have a care in the world. Listen to Larry and Teresa’s new single “Hit And Run Driver” here. Now, go get the record.
Yet again, many thanks to the ND photographers without whom this column would be near impossible. The photo of Travis Meadows is by Joshua Black Wilkins, used with permission. Special note: There are a more than the usual number of photos of Margo Price. They reflect her many sides and how varied her 2017 has been.