By Bruce Sylvester
It's been a good year for Americana music – especially the American primitive kind. Here's a quick look at some of 2015's cool releases.
Jason Isbell's Something More than Free (Southeastern/Thirty Tigers) shows generations of people struggling to keep their heads above water (“I'm just lucky to have the work.”). A son feels guilty for robbing his teenaged mom of her girlhood (“all those years I took from you just by being born”). Think of Bruce Springsteen characters moved to the speed-trap towns of red-clay Alabama.
Steve Earle's Terraplane (New West) digs into the blues in various forms: white country, Chicago, rock. After goofy romance with Steve himself delivering Windy City harp riffs, two songs of totally different moods reflect the end to his marriage to Allison Moorer. “The Tennessee Kid” recycles the Faust legend. Hidden at the end of the second disc of the album's deluxe edition, we find Steve's worthy rendition of Delta blues hero Robert Johnson's “Terraplane,” from whence the package draws its title.
Then there's root stomp (as Lance Canales describes his The Blessing and the Curse on Music Road). The term also fits discs by Charlie Parr and the Legendary Shack Shakers. With his rough-hewn voice and arrangements, Canales (a janitor of Mexican and Native American ancestry) lets us know that there's a darkness at the edge of the fertile fruit fields in his native central California. The wordless vocal call and response to his slashing guitar of the finale, “Stomp It Out,” sounds like gospel in a back-country juke joint on a Saturday night.
Moving over to Jello Biafra's label, Alternative Tentacles, the Legendary Shack Shakers on The Southern Surreal are more eclectic and less hellbilly than on earlier CDs.Leader JD Wilkes can in a moment seem both feral and erudite. Take multi-entendre “MisAmerica.” Billy Bob Thornton's guest narration “The Dog Was Dead” is a chilling look at quality-of-end-of-life questions.
Though Charlie Parr's a Minnesota man, his rough-hewn Stumpjumper (Red House), with its banjo and sawing fiddle, has the vibe of porch music from a bygone Kentucky's mountains. His close-to-nature songs show little need for civilization. As his religious moments turn ominous (“When Jesus gets here, he's gonna burn this whole town down,” in “Empty Out Your Pockets”), we understand why Wilkes, soloing, did shows with him this year.
Now let's look at four 2015 discs by women – Joy Williams, Angela Easterling, Sue Massek, and young duo Anna & Elizabeth.
On Venus (Sensibility/Columbia), Joy Williams gorgeously sings amid the ashes of devastating losses: her father's death and her Grammy-winning duo the Civil Wars' abrupt midtour breakup. With several producers and co-writers, her textures and tempos are ever shifting from classical/goth to Afro-pop. Artistically speaking, she's weathered the storms of civil war.
Angela Easterling's soprano is angelic on Common Law Wife (De l'Est), unlike her lyrics, which can be personal, political, or simultaneously both in the Springsteen/Earle vein. “Throwing Strikes” (in the voice of a failed baseball pitcher who returns to a town on its way down) ends in emotional release that recalls a scene in Depression-era Bonnie and Clyde. Look closely at her cover art for a glimpse of her sense of humor.
Acoustic discs by Sue Massek and by Anna & Elizabeth embrace the sounds of a long-gone America. Powerful in its simplicity, Massek's Precious Memories (Strictly Country) revisits the highly charged ballads of Kentucky coal mine union organizer Sarah Ogan Gunning (1910-83). Pristine Anna & Elizabeth (Free Dirt) honors the Appalachian mountain sounds and songs that Bill and Charlie Monroe heard as children before Bill revved them up to create bluegrass .
No, The Fade in Time (The Nest Collective/Thirty Tigers) by barefoot Sam Lee & Friends isn't exactly Americana. Still, as Lee visits Britain's gypsy caravans to track down old ballads, he's continuing the work of A.P. Carter, Francis Child, Olive Dame Campbell, A.L. Lloyd, the Lomaxes, and others in preserving songs at the roots of American music. Like folk revivalists Pentangle starting in the '60s, Lee knows that trad songs can be done with instruments and arrangements totally unlike how people heard them in days of yore.
My favorite tribute album of the year, Cold and Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins (Eight 30), salutes Venice Beach, California, street performer Hawkins (a Biloxi, Mississippi, native), who died New Year's Day 1995 at age 58. Kasey and Bill Chambers' title track, Tim Easton's “One Hundred Miles,” and Mary Gauthier's characteristically noir “Sorry You're Sick” stand out.
The surprise disc of 2015 came from Bob Dylan (no surprise). Shadows in the Night (Columbia) is devoted to strong songs Frank Sinatra had recorded but wasn't noted for. Sometimes it works. Ending the CD with “That Lucky Old Sun” is a masterstroke. Later in the year, we got The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12 (Columbia/Legacy), an intriguing six-CD box of Dylan's experiments and works in progress when creating Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. One disc consists of 20 “Like a Rolling Stone” takes. Fans on a budget can do quite well with an abridged two-CD, 36-track version of the box.
Bear Family (the Cadillac of reissue labels) honored the 60th anniversary of Tennessee Ford's “Sixteen Tons” with Portrait of an American Singer. With five CDs and an accompanying hardbound book, the box presents Ford's suave skills and more. Producer Cliffie Stone enhanced Ford's comic country boogies of his early career with the best of West Coast country studio musicians. Then, when such boogies' popularity dwindled, Jack Fascinato entered the scene to produce Ford in a hipster pop/jazz format. “Sixteen Tons” was their maiden collaboration.
And lastly, here's an Americana disc to look forward to early next year: Luther Dickinson's low-key Blues & Ballads: A Folksinger's Songbook, Volumes 1 and 2 (New West). Recorded informally with various friends over a lengthy period, it's a portrait of his native North Mississippi hill country – its music, its mojo, its religion, its floods and fires, its women, its wind. We hear the region's fife-based blues, nearby Memphis funk, and reinterpretations of songs Luther did within North Mississippi Allstars. Mavis Staples duets on “Ain't No Grave,” a quiet elegy to their recently deceased dads: Staple Singers founder Pops Staples and producer Jim Dickinson. Blues devotees can sense the legacies of Junior Kimbrough, Otha Turner, and Mississippi Fred McDowell here.
RIP, Bonnie Lou, Little Jimmy Dickens, Bob Johnston, B.B. King, John Renbourn, Allen Toussaint