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American Back Roads rounds up Americana music in 2021

It's time for this year's last Americana roundup of recent cool releases as well as a look back at 2021 as a whole – a year unlike any most – if not all – of us ever experienced before.

By Bruce Sylvester

OK, it's time for this year's last roundup of recent cool releases as well as a look back at 2021 as a whole – a year unlike any most – if not all – of us ever experienced before.

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Previously unissued live performances by Marianne Faithfull and Muddy Waters comprise the second set of releases (this time, single CDs of over 70 minutes) in the superbly remastered Live at Montreux series on BMG. Faithfull's – culled from five 1995-2009 fests – may be the most intense concert disc I've ever heard, starting with the sad delicacy of Van Morrison's “Madame George.” The strong notes speak of her “half sung half spoken smoky rasp” “expressing all of life's cruel complexity.” With her ravaged yet aristocratic voice, eight-minute “Sister Morphine” revisits years of addiction and homelessness. “Song for Nico” salutes an early inspiration whom she never actually met. Reaching back to her teenage 1965 pop period, “Come and Stay with Me” (which she tells the crowd she hadn't done in 35 years) has guitarwork that could practically step off a Byrds disc of the day in contrast to other tracks' imaginative punk-to-jazz stylings. Hers is a voice that's both weary and powerful, ending the disc with the rage of “Why D'Ya Do It.”

  

A true boss man of the blues, guitarist McKinley Morganfield (1913-83) created his stage name from nicknames his playmates and grandmother had given him back in Mississippi. Mud personified Delta blues migrating north to evolve into Chicago blues and then adapting to attract rock fans – the 1960s British Invasion being early imitators and conservators. Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman plays behind him on two of the three 1972-77 shows excerpted on Mud's Live at Montreux. Pianists Lafayette Leake and Pinetop Perkins, guitarists Buddy Guy and Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson, and harpmen Junior Wells and Jerry Portnoy are there too in a collection that of course includes his standards like “Mannish Boy” and “Rollin' and Tumblin'.” All Montreux CD sessions come from the private collection of the late Charles Nobs, the festival's founder and coordinator, who gave performers free rein to do as they wished on stage. His library of live performance tapes – not only of his festival – is reportedly the largest in the world.


With its frequent concern for current events and social justice, Americana singer/writers aren't always cheerful or optimistic – especially these days. Reaching across hipster spoken-word jazz, rock, blues, and Woody Guthrie-style folk, Nathan Bell's Red, White and American Blues (It Couldn't Happen Here) (Need to Know) shows people “running on a razor like it didn't have an edge” in a society whose “future's one long con.” Gritty chants from Regina McCrary of gospelaires The McCrary Sisters underpin “Retread Cadillac,” an homage to Lightnin' Hopkins. The son of poet Marvin Bell (“the original dead man,” say the notes), Nathan describes “When You're Dead” as “Ghost reflects on his dire circumstances,” but those circumstances sound pretty nice. Would Woody Guthrie like this one?

Similarly, Ward Hayden and the Outliers' rocking retro-C&W Free Country (self-release) titles one song “All Gone Mad.” The next cut's refrain, “I picked a bad time to quite drinkin',” typifies country music's knack for one-liners. Sprightly arrangements can accompany downbeat lyrics. He knows not to spell out too much in a murder ballad. We hear Biblical references and moments of soft romanticism. At times, New England native Hayden's writing seems like a cross-country travelogue, though “the devil rocks the cradle” in a state that will go unnamed here. Is his aside “Let's get real gone,” a nod to young Elvis Presley's “Milkcow Blues Boogie” recorded at Sun Records in Memphis.

Her sole disc released during her tragically short life, Eva Cassidy's Live at Blues Alley came out in her Baltimore/Washington home region just months before her 1996 death of melanoma at age 33. The Blix Street label honors the album's 25th anniversary with a remastered reissue with sound so bright that you almost feel like you're there with her in the Georgetown bistro as she shows off her upper register and vocal acrobatics on Irving Berlin's “Blue Skies” before easing into her exquisite ballad skills on Buffy Sainte-Marie's “Tall Trees in Georgia” and Sting's “Fields of Gold.” Lenny Williams's imaginative piano on “Honeysuckle Rose” fits its co-author Fats Waller's playful spirit. Eva could move around her wide range of musical tastes while maintaining her show's cohesion.

Speaking of superb singers recording on (here, what's become) their home turf, Sarah McQuaid's The St Buryan Sessions (Shovel and a Spade) was done in an abbey dating back to the 10th century in myth-filled Cornwall on the west coast of England. Think of long-ago June Tabor's poised contralto but with some warmth. Microphones placed around the church enhance the ambiance. On “In Derby Cathedral.” she sings counterpoint with herself. Like Cassidy, she offers Johnny Mercer and Joseph Kosma's translation “Autumn Leaves,” here bringing in a French verse from Jacques Prevert's original. “If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous” leaves us wondering if she's listened to Richard Thompson too.

Wesley Stace – the artist formerly known as John Wesley Harding, reputed love child of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan – has been likened to Dan Hicks and recently deceased David Frishberg, not to mention Randy Newman, for Late Style (Omnivore) with subtle arrangements by long-time collaborator David Nagler. To some extent it's about the hangers-on and wannabes of the Los Angeles showbiz scene – or maybe anyplace's. And it's a wry take on romance. “The California Fix” moves a line from Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl era “Do Re Mi.” into the present. As for adapting a marketing slogan, “Honey, if you lived here, you'd be homeless by now.” Word choices and references befit Stace's Oxford education. Harp flourishes and other ironic moments of sweet instrumentation befit song characters beguiled or even taken in by their own dreams.

Nathan Evans Fox's Wasted Love (44) is pure regional music – loving but wary of his turf by birth's “minefields of cornfields” for “just another Carolina boy singin' 'stead of speakin' in tongues.” Fox can hold a heavenly high note like the best of country singers borrowing soul vocal techniques. Besides his savvy song sequencing, he's got a sense for lingering midline in a song: “I believe in good, I believe in good, I believe in good trucks.” Quiet but incisive, Wasted Love's the disc I've listened to most lately.

Album schedules being what they are, Mick Kolassa's Memphis-grounded Uncle Mick's Christmas Album (Endless Blues) was recorded last summer in 95-degree heat. The Bluff City's blues, rock, soul, and folk are his eight-piece crew's metier. “There must have been some mojo” in Frosty the Snowman's old silk hat when he leads a second-line strut down Beale Street. “Jingle Bells” too goes places it's probably never been before. Kolassa's guitar languidly sizzles on a cover of Johnny Moore's “Merry Christmas Baby.” In the spirit of holiday giving, 100% of the disc's net proceeds will go to the Blues Foundation.

   

Now let's look back at some of my fave discs over the year.

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Another veteran with seven decades of recording, singer/researcher/keeper of the flame Maria Muldaur (who's earned the sobriquet first lady of American roots music) teamed up with far younger New Orleans street octet Tuba Skinny on Let's Get Happy Together (Stony Plain). Some of us needed a disc like this that overflows with Crescent City joie de vivre.

At age 80, Tom Jones (by now, Sir Tom Jones) set a record for being the oldest person to debut an album of new material – Surrounded by Time (S-Curve) – at the top of Britain's official pop chart. Digging into his huge record collection, he chose pungent songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, Todd Snider, Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagan, and Malvina Reynolds, delivering them with force and depth that came from his decades of singing, life experience, and wisdom gained.

Sturgill Simpson once again redid some of his earlier songs, this time as hard bluegrass (the original acoustic style pioneered by Bill Monroe) on Cuttin' Grass Vol. 2 (High Top Mountain/Thirty Tigers).

Goldmine readers might be interested in knowing that back-catalog (oldies) record sales are outpacing sales of recent releases. Brilliant singer/pianist Nina Simone was well represented in this regard in 2021 as BMG put out two-disc The Montreux Years (inaugurating its series of tapes from the Swiss festival), Little Girl Blue (her 1959 debut album on Bethlehem) and '59 Bethlehem comp Nina Simone and Her Friends including outtakes from her debut's sessions plus tracks from Chris Connor and Carmen McRae.

Bear Family remained the gold standard for reissues. With 472 1940-60 tracks from our nation's capital plus a hardbound book, rarity-filled 16-CD R&B in D.C. showed phenomenal record searching, document research, and even detective work. Here's young Marvin Gaye's first recorded solo within a group.

As for astounding 1970s Black gospel, two volumes of The Last Shall Be First: The JCR Records Story (Bible & Tire) preceded its contemporary comp Sacred Soul of North Carolina produced with Music Maker Foundation. Excellent audio quality.

The year's most interesting label in terms of reissues was surely Omnivore with its omnivorous tastes: A nine-CD series of 1968-74 Buck Owens albums plus 22 of his duets with Susan Raye on Together Again. A collection of the late Steve Goodman's demo tapes (It Sure Looked Good on Paper) as well as The Best of Steve Goodman. From 1956, Allen Ginsberg at Reed College: The First Recorded Reading of “Howl” & Other Poems. Radio transcriptions from 1951-52 sequenced by songwriter on two-CD Something Wonderful: Peggy Lee Sings the Great American Songbook. Trini Lopez's The Rare Reprise Singles. Billy Joe Shaver and Kinky Friedman's long-unreleased Live Down Under, a 2002 Australian concert pairing Shaver's soul-baring songs with the Kinkster's nothing-sacred humor.

Even less than nothing (if that's possible) was sacred for garage/cowpunk The Beat Farmers with the late Country Dick Montana. Their reissued debut album, 1985's Tales of the Wild West (now on Blixa Sounds) had a bonus disc, a concert CD. The expanded 30th-anniversary reissue of Violent Femmes' Why Do Birds Sing? (now on Craft) also came with a live CD.

  

Cool videos of the past year: those from Tom Jones's Surrounded by Time and The Felice Brothers' From Dreams to Dust (Yep Roc). Legendary Shack Shakers' official “Rawhide” vid to go with their 2021 album Cockadoodledeux (Alternative Tentacles). Alice Cooper's ”Love Will Change the World” came out too late last December for my 2020 year-end review.

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My votes for best cover art would go to Simone's Montreux package and Rhino's well-conceived four-CD Aretha Franklin released at the same time as Aretha's biopic Respect.

Emerging from shutdown, I made it to a grand total of three live performances this year. Musical and cultural researcher/singer Dom Flemons (an original member of Carolina Chocolate Drops and self-styled “American songster”) played a range of stringed instruments, quills, and bones while delving into the little-known history of Black cowboys. A few months later, I got to an open-air show by Rhiannon Giddens and Friends (specifically, multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi and bassist Jason Sypher) that – as in her earlier Chocolate Drops days – showed an enormous range of musical interests. And, the day after Thanksgiving, one of my favorite up-and-coming singer/writers, Alice Howe, clearly had fun backed by a rock band led by her producer/bassist Freebo (Bonnie Raitt's long-ago collaborator). This was the first time I'd seen her someplace other than a folk club. Few singers can caress a lyric like she can. You can check out the entire show at

Let's bring back a 1960s line: That was the year that was.

Forthcoming disc I'm curious about: Whatever's in the works in BMG'S Live at Montreux series. Delta bluesman Son House's Forever on My Mind (Easy Eye Sound) – a previously unissued tape of a 1964 concert done shortly after three young blues devotees located 62-year-old House in Rochester, NY, and convinced him to return to performing.

RIP Ron Campbell, Hedge Capers, Sarah Dash, Bill Emerson, Don Everly, George Frayne (Commander Cody), David Frishberg, Courtney Grainger, Nanci Griffith, Tom T. Hall, Dusty Hill, David “Chicken” Hirsch, Stonewall Jackson, Carlos Marin, Ellen McIlwaine, Paddy Moloney, Bob Moore, Robin Morton, Michael Nesmith, Mick Rock, Jimmie Rodgers, Ronnie Tutt, Bunny Wailer, Charlie Watts, George Wein, Warner Williams.