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American Back Roads picks for 2020

Bruce Sylvester picks noteworthy occurrences and favorite Americana  releases of 2020.

By Bruce Sylvester

December brings rundowns of cool discs, DVDs, books and the like over the past year. There's no way such lists could cover everything worthy, but here are some of American Back Roads faves – big sellers, barely known discs, and more.

Willie Nelson First Rose of Spring

Willie Nelson's First Rose of Spring (Legacy) is like a meditation on his 87 years of fun, joy, sorrow, mistakes and wisdom gained. It's typical Willie – an understated stroll from mainstream country to art song (the finale, Charles Aznavour's “Yesterday When I Was Young”) – usually with country/jazz backup. By now, Willie has evolved into a superb interpreter of songs. Producer Buddy Cannon himself penned gorgeous “Blue Star,” which could have been perfect for John and June Carter Cash in their twilight years except it hadn't yet been written.


Rough and Rowdy Ways

His characteristic surreal fusion of pop culture, politics, history, trad folk, mythology, and religion, Bob Dylan's two-CD Rough and Rowdy Ways/Murder Most Foul (Columbia) seems “three miles north of Purgatory, one step from the great beyond” to borrow his words. Disc 2, 17-minute “Murder Most Fowl,” takes the concept behind “American Pie” to new depths in revisiting a defining moment for his generation, President Kennedy's assassination in 1963.


Prove It on Me

With Prove It on Me (Stony Plain), Greenwich Village-bred slide guitar whiz Rory Block continues her series of pared-down CDs honoring early blues champs. This one spotlights women – the renowned (Bessie Smith) as well as often-overlooked ones (Arizona Dranes, Lottie Kimbrough). The only new song, Block's largely autobiographical “Eagle,” is among the strongest.


sunnysiders bridges

A century ago, our earliest blues recordings were regional music. On their aptly named The Bridges (Dancing Bear), the Croatian duo Sunnysiders show how global the blues have become. Backing instrumentation was sent from England and Shanghai. The disc was mixed in Memphis. With whiffs of the ominous, the taut duo has clearly absorbed the blues classics. “When You Come So Near” calls Canned Heat to mind.


Chickenbone Slim

Out in San Diego, retro blues/swing guitarist Chickenbone Slim fills Sleeper (Lo-Fi Mob) with a rogues gallery of vivid characters like the vampire stalker looking for a midnight meal. His tall-tale elegy to Country Dick Montana calls to mind mythic odes to Paul Bunyan and John Henry. Might I detect a parody of paranoia elsewhere?


Johnny Nicholas Mistaken Identity

Louisiana voodoo and comic love-life problems (even in the same song) mark long-ago Asleep at the Wheel guitarist Johnny Nicholas's Mistaken Identity (Valcour), a gumbo of the region's musical styles and more. The title track has a Dan Hicks vibe. “Tight Pants” is a retro spoof of hormones in overdrive.


Joni Mitchell Archives Vol. 1The Early Years

As for reissues, young Joni Mitchell's brilliance is immediately clear on five-CD Joni Mitchell Archives: Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967) (Rhino). Here's her first recording session, done at a radio station with a DJ manning the controls. Small concerts and a birthday tape for her mother too. Her deliveries evolve as songs get repeated over various live performances. She tells audiences the origins of some.


Lou reed ny

Marking its 50th anniversary, Rhino reissued Lou Reed's searing New York with extras like an out-of-print concert video of its songs followed by (audio only) his detailed account of the Grammy-nominated, gold-certified punk disc's evolution. He kept the back-up basic so his lyrics would get more attention. Could the “Dirty Boulevard” of the album's AIDS-era Manhattan be seen as a metaphor for our present day?


Bobby Bare Sings Shel Silverstein Plus

Bobby Bare Sings Shel Silverstein Plus (Bear Family) — eight CDs of 1972-83 recordings – brings out the range of the late cartoonist/children's book author's humor, empathy, and perception. What a renaissance man.



As ever, Blues Images' annual 12x24” wall calendar and CD – 12 Classic Blues Songs from the 1920's-1950's, Vol. 18was illustrated with 12 long-ago ads and promotional photos with 12 accompanying remastered 1927-37 platters. The 2021 package's eight bonus tracks come from the first blues recordings at Memphis Recording Studio (AKA Sun Records) – all by Lost John Hunter in 1950.


The Last Shall Be First- The JCR Records Story, Volume 1

For pure authenticity, The Last Shall Be First: The JCR Records Story, Volume 1 (Bible & Tire) presents 1970s Black Memphis-area gospel tracks bringing rhythm, drive, and soul booty-shaking to the holy word. Think of early Staple Singers discs. The 17 groups enjoy clean, clear audio over a spectrum of multitextured gospel styles. Ooh, The Dixie Wonders' falsetto flights on “Someone Who Cares.”


Hanging Tree Guitars

With similar authenticity, rough-edged Hanging Tree Guitars (Music Maker Relief Foundation) assembles 12 acts' cuts over about 30 years, sounding like an old Lomax field recording. We hear blues, gospel, folk, joy, lament, and dreams of a future better than their Jim Crow world offers. Dr. G.B. Burt's “Clock on the Wall” overflows with the soul sound that evolved years after Johnny Ace's 1953 original “The Clock”


New Riders of the Purple Sage

The effervescent New Riders of the Purple Sage's previously unissued Field Trip (Omnivore) is from a 1972 festival in Veneta, OR. The repertoire is typical Riders: John (“Marmaduke”) Dawson's writing plus a few oldies. Canada-born Buddy Cage had just brought his bubbly pedal steel into the northern California pioneer country rock band.


Bill Kirchen

Telecaster master Bill Kirchen's two-CD The Proper Years (The Last Music Company) brings back his three 2006-13 discs on Proper. His comic writing stands out on songs revisited from his days with dieselbilly satirists Commander Cody's Lost Planet Airmen. “I ain't never had too much fun,” says it all.


Getting back to new recordings rather than reissues, Rusty Ends & Hillbilly Voodoo's The Last of the Boogiemen (self-release) shares Kirchen's and the Airmen's retro eclecticism and hedonistic humor. “Cottonmouth Rock” envisions dance and romance among reptiles who don't have all the needed body parts.


“Less is more” is the key as singer/writer Paul Kelly and pianist Paul Grabowsky (a fellow Australian) bring maturity and sophistication to Kelly's compositions over the decades on Please Leave Your Light On (Cooking Vinyl). Grabowsky – a composer for film and theater – presents Kelly's music as art song.


For me, 2019's most astounding soundtrack was director Sam Bathrick's documentary 16 Bars showing Todd Thomas (Speech of hip-hop Arrested Development) working in a Virginia prison with a rudimentary recording studio in its rehabilitation program. This year 16 Bars appeared on DVD (Lightyear Entertainment). Focusing on four articulate and musically talented inmates, it presents their songs (rap and singer/writer) and their candid accounts of troubled lives, even going into their home communities for talks with their relatives.


000 - Time Between cover - published by BMG

Turning to books, The Byrds' original bassist Chris Hillman's autobiography Time Between (BMG Books) takes us from an abruptly disrupted Southern California boyhood up through The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, Desert Rose, and more. Besides his music, he digs into his personal demons (most of all his beloved father's suicide) and spiritual development. Dwight Yoakam's foreword describes the book well: “succinct directness and profoundly innocent emotional candor.”


Blues legend Robert Johnson's step sister Annye C. Anderson's conversational Brother Robert (Chicago Review Press) – written with Preston Lauterbach – gives us an insider's view of the events, the food, and the people he put in his songs.


Compliments of Covid, I only got to two concerts in 2020 – both great though they couldn't have been more different. From western Canada, Dead South brought Boston's House of Blues the tightest pacing and most imaginative light show I've experienced in years. This was the first time I'd seen one of their warm-up acts, manic Legendary Shack Shakers, anywhere but in a small club, where leader J.D. Wilkes can interact a lot differently with his audience. The other show was by little-known folk/blues singer/writer/guitarist Greg Klyma at Stubblebine Lutherie across the Charles River in Somerville. Here's a link to one of handlebar-mustachiod Greg's videos so you can discover his wit for yourself: 

With concert tours out of the question, some artists helped us preserve a sense of normalcy through online performances, often from their homes. I enjoyed Klyma's, Adam Ezra's, Hayes Carll's, and Richard Thompson's. (Carll and wife Allison Moorer's duet on recently deceased Billy Joe Shaver's “Live Forever” is stunning.) Old Crow Medicine Show's Ketch Secor's mostly weekly Hartland Hootenanny is in a class by itself.

Newly founded to present online concerts, Mandolin has been staging Richard Thompson (starting with an evening of his early songs), The Jayhawks, and plenty more. The professional camerawork provides closeups of people's facial expressions, guitars, hands at work, and tattoos too – which few of us would get in a concert hall. Lucinda Williams's cover series Lu's Jukebox includes salutes to Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and Memphis music. The joy on Lucinda's face during her band's instrumental breaks makes her shows all the happier for us too. Between songs, she relates their importance to her – like how as a teenager, listening to Bobbie Gentry made her realize that she didn't have to be a soprano to be a singer.

On a serious note, among the people rising to the occasion amid 2020's crises, Dolly Parton contributed $1 million to Vanderbilt University's Medical Center's research leading to Moderna's Covid vaccine. She also did distinctly Dolly testimonials on a few burning issues, revising “Jolene”'s bridge into a joke about hand washing. (Speaking of “Jolene,” check Ryan Cordell's rewrite titled “Vaccine.”)

RIP, Johnny Bush, Charlie Daniels, Mac Davis, Joe Diffie, Judy Dyble, Justin Townes Earle, Paul English, Julie Felix, Tom Finn, Peter Green, Roy Head, Jan Howard, Stan Kesler, Hal Ketchum, Little Richard, Steve Martin (of the Left Banke), Jamie Oldaker, David Olney, Phil Phillips, Charley Pride, John Prine, Harold Reid, Kenny Rogers, Joseph Shabalala, Billy Joe Shaver (his final video), Jerry Slick, Maynard Solomon, Eric Taylor, Jerry Jeff Walker, Steve Weber.

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