THE READING ROOM: The Music That Moved Us in 2021
Over the past two years, we have endured the ravages of a pandemic, the miasma of political and social chaos, and the devastation of loss, often obscuring hope in a dark hopelessness that endures even into this season of light. But a beacon of resilience shines in the songs and albums released in 2021 from artists whose albums have filled best-of lists — Allison Russell, Adia Victoria, Yola, and many others.
In my final column of 2021, I share some other albums whose light illuminates the darkness of our world, and for which I am thankful. Some of these are reissues or box sets or retrospectives that offer us an opportunity to hear various versions of familiar songs anew.
Alan Jackson – Where Have You Gone — On his first album of new music in six years, Jackson showcases his canny ability to evoke emotional depth in his smooth ballads, such as the steel-drenched ache of “Things That Matter” or the layered, luscious pop country of “You’ll Always Be My Baby,” which he wrote for his daughter’s wedding, and in his rollicking swing-your-partner-across-the-dance-floor “Way Down in My Whiskey.” Jackson’s album is one of the gems of the year.
Reba McEntire – Revived Remixed Revisited — You can always count on Reba to imagine and innovate, and she revisits her some of her biggest hits on this three-CD set of new recordings, including “Is There Life Out There?”, “Little Rock,” “I’m a Survivor,” and “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” in new arrangements. The disco ball shines brightly on her remix of “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” while she turns up the ’70s pop on the remix of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” Another version of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” — which appears on the CD titled Revival — rides over a soaring, up-tempo gospel-inflected vibe, while her slowed-down new version of “I’m a Survivor” floats along a river of piano rolls. Above all, though, McEntire’s soaring vocals elevate these songs, no matter the remix.
Daryl Mosley – Small Town Dreamer — Mosley follows up his debut album, The Secret of Life, with this stunningly luminous album. The opening track, “Transistor Radio,” alone is worth the price of admission with its gorgeous harmonies and its lilting, perfect blend of instruments. A born storyteller, Mosley delivers tales about hopes and dreams and family and love on this dazzling album.
Sideline – Ups, Downs and No Name Towns — The year closed sadly for Sideline, with the death of their bassist, Jason Moore, in November. On this new album, recorded in 2020, the band delivers their hard-hitting brand of bluegrass, dominated by the stellar picking of its members and its tight harmonies. In addition to the innovative bluegrass gospel “When the Son Rose Up That Morning,” the album contains a couple of songs about life on the road: “Old Guitar Case,” from which the album takes its title, and “I’ll Always Be a Gypsy.”
Various Artists – Landslide Records, 40th Anniversary — As the title indicates, this year marks the anniversary of the label founded in Atlanta that would be the home of artists such as Col. Bruce Hampton and Tinsley Ellis & The Heartbreakers, and that would release the debut albums of Webb Wilder, Widespread Panic, and The Derek Trucks Band. These two CDs contain 33 tracks — including Col. Bruce Hampton & The Late Bronze Age’s “Walking with Zambi,” Cigar Store Indians’ “Mother of the Bride,” Piano Red’s “Rockin’ with Red,” The Lost Continentals’ “Notorious,” and The Derek Trucks Band’s “Mr. PC,” among others — that celebrate the enduring contributions of Landslide to roots-oriented Southern music.
Various Artists – Masters of Slide: Spider Sessions — Almost 30 years ago now, Jerry Douglas and Tut Taylor produced the Grammy-winning album The Great Dobro Sessions. Here producer Phil Leadbetter gathers 23 tunes by the cream of the crop of today’s great resophonic guitar players, including, among others, Fred Travers turning in his version of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind,” Justin Moses scampering through “Fire on the Mountain,” Rob Ickes and Josh Swift strolling through the bluesy “You’re a Freak,” Curtis Burch soothing us with “Amazing Grace,” and Sally Van Meter and Orville Johnson taking us along to a “Tex Mex Shindig.” Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another several decades for another collection like this one.
Trini Lopez – The Rare Reprise Singles — Lopez, who died in August 2020, was probably best known for his hit “Lemon Tree” and for his rousing version of Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer.” He put out a number of non-LP singles on Reprise Records between 1962 and 1970, and most of them are collected here for the first time on CD, including a rocking “A-Me-Ri-Ca,” written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. Other songs include the Buddy Holly-esque “I’ve Lost My Love for You,” “The Bramble Bush” and “The Ballad of the Dirty Dozen” (both from the film The Dirty Dozen, in which Lopez starred), and Lopez’s rockabilly take on Boudleaux Bryant’s “Let’s Think about Living.”
Laura Nyro – Go Find the Moon: The Audition Tape — Although Nyro left us with much memorable music, she died far too young at age 49 in April 1997. Her songwriting casts a bewitching spell; Nyro possessed a gift for language, and she lived within words and turned them into talismans that ushered us into the dark shadows of pain and hurt and just as quickly guided us into the light of the street corners where doo-wop groups crooned. On this CD, we have the chance to hear Nyro at the start of her career; it contains the first song she performed at the session, “And When I Die,” as well as songs such as “Enough of You” that she never officially released.
Various Artists – There Will Be Joy, with the ‘Free Sound’ of Michael, Righteous & Peace —This has been a very good year for gospel music, especially with the reissues of music celebrating the work of record labels that launched and provided a home for many gospel artists. This two-CD set collects many of the songs that Harold Freeman recorded in his Free Sound Recording Company in Chicago in the late 1960s through the late 1970s. Among the highlights are New Friendship Baptist Church Choir’s “To Be Faithful” and “I Hear God,” Pearl McGee’s “Oh Sing,” Reba Harris & The Paraders, “He’s Everything to Me,” and Rev. Maceo Woods & The Christian Tabernacle Choir’s “Hello Sunshine.”
James Cleveland (Book by Robert Marovich) – The King of Gospel Music: The Life and Music of Reverend James Cleveland — This four-CD set is accompanied by a detailed and insightful 80-page book by gospel scholar Robert Marovich. The set gives Cleveland, whom many now recognize from Amazing Grace, the film of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 performance, his due, and the CDs trace his career from his first recording, “Oh What a Time,” in 1951 to his final recording, “God Said He Would See You Through,” in 1989. The set also includes Cleveland’s perhaps most influential song, “Peace Be Still,” from the album of the same name that revolutionized gospel music, encouraging choirs, quartets, and artists to perform their music in non-church venues such as auditoriums and arenas.
Connie Smith – Latest Shade of Blue — This box set deserves its own column. The four-CD set contains nine albums of Smith’s Columbia recordings from 1973 to 1976. This set joins two previous Bear Family sets featuring Smith’s RCA-Victor catalog from 1964 to 1972—Born to Sing: Her Complete Recordings, 1964–1967 and Just for What I Am: Her Complete Recordings, 1968–1972. As Marty Stuart writes in his introduction to this set: “When asked to describe country music, Connie Smith’s standard answer is ‘It’s the cry of the heart.’ Her cry of the heart is her singing, and it’s a powerful thing to behold.” The albums contained in this set are: A Lady Named Smith, God is Abundant, That’s the Way Love Goes, I Never Knew (What That Song Meant Before), I Got a Lot of Hurtin’ Done Today, The Songs We Fell in Love To, Connie Smith Sings Hank Williams Gospel, Joy to the World, I Don’t Wanna Talk It Over Anymore. The CDs are accompanied by a lavishly illustrated book that includes country music historian Barry Mazor’s elegant and detailed biography and session history, which are alone worth the price of the set. This collection is one of this year’s highlights.
The Best of The Rest
Deana Carter, Did I Shave My Legs for This?: 25th Anniversary Edition
Carly Pearce, 29
Erin Enderlin, Barroom Mirrors
Colebrook Road, Hindsight is 2020
Various Artists, Country Faith Bluegrass
Skip Ewing, Christmas
Elvis Presley, Elvis Back in Nashville
Sam Cooke with The Soul Stirrers, The First Mile of the Way
Various Artists, Sacred Soul of North Carolina