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American Back Roads heats up to start the summer

Bruce Sylvester's online roots/Americana column, American Back Roads, hits this summer running with hot releases from Tom Jones, Nina Simone, Chris Gill, Paula Cole, the “first lady of American roots music, ”Maria Muldaur, and others.

By Bruce Sylvester

OK, it's once time to survey a few recent releases – mostly rootsy, all worthy.


With Surrounded by Time (S-Curve), Tom Jones – AKA Sir Tom Jones and, pre-fame back in Wales, Thomas Jones Woodward – is at 80 the oldest person ever to debut an album of new material at number 1 on Britain's official album chart. It's his first CD in five years after taking time to heal from his wife Linda's death after 59 years of marriage. Their relationship at the end explains the opener, “I Won't Crumble with You if You Fall” from the pen of Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagan. Drawing from his enormous record collection, he also covers Bob Dylan, Todd Snider, Tony Joe White, and Malvina (“Little Boxes”) Reynolds, who might be delighted and amazed at his raging vocal and video of her “No Hole in My Head.” (More on Todd later this blog.) This time around, Jones's Delilah is the Biblical temptress in trad gospel/blues “Samson and Delilah” with a final verse Tom penned from hard-learned experience. The New Wave backup to Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam's 1970 “PopStar” enhances the humor of Tom recording it at this point in his career. Credit Ethan Johns (here producing with Tom's son Mark Woodward) with jumpstarting Tom's music with 2010's Praise & Blame like Rick Rubin did for aging Johnny Cash. It's not unusual for outstanding singers to evolve over the decades. Jones – with Johns' aid – has done it magnificently. As he told Lee Zimmerman in July's Goldmine, “When I started off I was a tenor. I've got a lot of timbre in my lower region now, which I didn't have before. When I started out, I was 24. My voice was higher than it is now, but I think it has more character now.” The veracity of his delivery is matched by the voracity of his listening and record collecting Incidentally, some of his recent YouTube videos are downright startling in their visuals.



More good news: Nina Simone: The Montreux Years and Etta James: The Montreux Years (BMG), marvelously mastered two-CD sets inaugurating BMG's series of live recordings from Switzerland's prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival. Each set's first disc shows interesting sequencing in cherrypicking performances from various fests. Each one's second disc presents the singer's Montreux debut – Simone's in its entirety. At 76 minutes, Etta's nine-song second disc excerpts her first European concert ever. Bursting with confidence, her package includes a medley of her classics (“At Last,” “Trust in Me,” “Sunday Kind of Love”) and three penned by her Chess label mate Jimmy Reed. A cover of Ray Charles's “Drown in My Own Tears” has testifying like she heard as a child in church. No telling what she'd drop into her lyrics: a nursery rhyme, a period catch phrase, 1920s hokum blues. Her savvy bands could move from full force to discreet and spare – funny too if you pay close attention.

Simone's deliveries on her 29-track set are as imaginative as the package's art. Her classical piano training is clear from the start. She recognized no barriers at all between musical genres, even playing “Good King Wenceslas” riffs in Rodgers and Hart's “Little Girl Blue.” Four songs' highly different performances on the two discs reflect her creativity. An expatriate to Barbados, Liberia, and ultimately France, Simone (born Eunice Kathleen Waymon) spits out pain and anger stemming from Jim Crowism in her homeland and her own personal demons. Her brother Sam Waymon comes in on organ, percussion, and vocals on her 1968 Montreux debut. As on Etta's package, the festival's guiding light, the late Claude Nobs, pitches in with a bit of harmonica. By the way, BMG has just reissued her first LP, Little Girl Blue, from 1959, in a slightly expanded form.



Thanks to the past year's traumas, at times I want to hear music whose instrumentation won't shake my nerves and rattle my brain, to borrow a phrase from Jerry Lee Lewis. Music that doesn't need volume to make its points – like Mississippi bluesman Chris Gill's Between Midnight and Louise (self-release). Just his voice and vintage guitars recorded with two mics and an amp. It's regional music in the easy-going vein of Mississippi John Hurt rather than his stark-toned brother-in-law Skip James. As for song titles, “Back to Paradise” is nostalgia, while “Walking through Eden” refers to a town named Eden. Played in open G on a 1931 National Duolian, the title track was inspired by a road sign you can see on the CD's back cover. “Song for Honeyboy” stems from the late Honeyboy Edwards' autobiography The World Don't Owe Me Nothing with the last verse referring to Hubert Sumlin's deathbed request to hold his guitar one last time. Based on kitchen-table conversations with his grandmother, “Fleas and Ticks” is played on a 1930s Supertone. For all the highways in Gill's songs, there's a lot of home too.


Let's Get Happy Together

Now (like Tom Jones) in her seventh decade of recording, Maria Muldaur richly deserves being called “first lady of American roots music” for all her digging into blues, jazz, and pop going back to the 1920s. Her good-time collaboration with New Orleans street octet Tuba Skinny, Let's Get Happy Together (Stony Plain), overflows with Crescent City joie de vivre. Most songs come from her female forebears like Lil Hardin Armstrong (Louis Armstrong's collaborator and second wife), who penned the title track. For good measure, “Be Your Natural Self” and “Big City Blues” are from cross dresser Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon. Irving Berlin's sad-sack “He Ain't Got Rhythm” gets a vocal interpretation borrowing from Billie Holiday's. With six Grammy nominations over the years, Maria certainly warrants a seventh now. Her informative notes give especial praise to her recent discovery Valaida Snow: “She was known as 'Little Louis,' 'Queen of the Trumpet' and was referred to by Louis Armstrong as 'the second best trumpet player in the world.' How could I have studied this music for so long & never heard of her?? That's the beauty of our rich musical legacy ... the more you delve into it, the more there is to discover & enjoy!” She concludes, “It is my hope that by sharing the origins of these tunes, you will be inspired to look up these wonderful artists yourself on YouTube & start exploring & enjoying the endless abundance of incredible music they left us!” Thanks, Maria.


Paula Cole

Paula Cole too turns to our musical heritage on American Quilt (BMG/Renew), ten trad and jazz/pop standards handed down by the likes of Bessie Smith, Odetta, and Johnny Cash. Whereas back in 1930, Bessie sang “Back Water Blues” mid-tempo straight through with discreet cornet and piano backup, Cole's rustic-rock take gives brief spotlights to the fiddle and to the guitar. Songs' textures shift within tracks. Some of her vocals are subdued. Elsewhere she pulls out all the stops. The quiet moments are among the most effective.



A boogie-woogie pianist and Americana singer/writer, Olympia, Washington-based Clint Morgan caught my attention back in 2016 with conscince-free “I Love Robbing Banks” on his Scofflaw. His new Troublemaker (Lost Cause Records) has its share of delusional guys unwisely in love. For mixed emotions, “Hangman Woman” (“got a heart just like a noose”) ends with his pleading, “Turn me loose,” while backup singers chant, “Don't turn me loose.” Ambition-lampooning “The Cover of the Living Blues” stems from Dr. Hook's 1973 “Cover of 'Rolling Stone'.” Johnny Cash and Sun Records devotees may note that Morgan's “Big River” cover has a verse that's not on Cash's 1958 Sun single but was sung on his demos and later by Waylon Jennings in The Highwaymen. For serious moments, there are “Hurricane Harvey”and (with the McCrary Sisters) folk/gospel “Go Down, Moses.” Kinky Friedman, Bob Margolin, and Watermelon Slim help out, too.


First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder

The seeds of Todd Snider's First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder (Aimless/Thirty Tigers) were sown when he responded to the shutdown with Sunday livestreams. Fatback rhythms and backup singers create a New Orleans vibe. Of course, there's stoner humor-wisdom: “It's a fine line between reason and absurdity,” “There's no time like eternity,” “If faith moves mountains, what's it take to leave them alone?” In serious moments, he elegizes John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, Col. Bruce Hampton, and Yonder Mountain String Band's Jeff Austin. As for our environment, “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” talks of a plastic-laden ocean. Late on the disc, on “Agnostic Preacher's Lament” a con artist minister hesitantly asks for holy help when his parishioners discover his larceny.


Party for Joey- A Sweet Relief Tribute to Joey Spampinato

Ah, NRBQ: a band in a class by itself – eclectic and sometimes seeming like perpetual teenagers. Created by Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, Party for Joey: A Sweet Relief Tribute to Joey Spampinato (True North) is a fund-raising effort for singer/writer/bassist/founding Q member Spampinato, who's seriously ill with cancer. Co-founder Al Anderson opens the disc with “You Can't Hide” from the Q's debut LP, 1969's appropriately titled NRBQ. Among the 14 songs Joey penned or co-wrote, Ben Harper teams up with Keith Richards, Charlie Musselwhite, Benmont Tench, Don Was, and Don Heffington (who died in March) on “Like a Locomotive,” Robbie Fulks dons a retrohillbilly accent on “Chores,”and Bonnie Raitt joins the current Q on “Green Lights.” Penn and Teller's “Plenty of Somethin'” is in a class by itself.