American Back Roads: Ray Charles, Billy Joe Shaver and Kinky Friedman + more

This American Back Roads post looks at a box set, two previously unreleased concert discs, a totally new album, a book, and a wall calendar/CD package.
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By Bruce Sylvester

Hmm. What's interesting among recent releases? In this American Back Roads post we'll look at a box set, two previously unreleased concert discs, a totally new album, a book, and a wall calendar/CD package.

TrueGeniusCover

“Everybody wants to feel good but everybody's got to cry,” was a musical motto for Ray Charles (1930-2004). Marking – more or less – his birth's 90th anniversary, six-CD True Genius (Tangerine) presents 90 tracks from his post-Atlantic and -Swing Time sides after he founded his own label (named for a favorite food) so he'd own his subsequent masters. The music came out of the rural Georgia Baptist church, but – like Rhiannon Giddens now – he cut across genres: pop, blues, R&B, jazz, country. His duet partners included Lou Rawls, Cleo Laine, Hank Williams Jr., Chaka Kahn, Billy Joel, and Eric Clapton. Gorgeous “Seven Spanish Angels” with Willie Nelson topped the country charts in 1985. Of course, his 1962 groundbreaking megaseller Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is represented here along with re-recordings of earlier Atlantic hits like “What'd I Say.” On the final disc, a 38-minute, nine-song heretofore unreleased 1972 concert in Stockholm, his backup singers the Raelettes' vocals on “Games People Play” deliver us back to the church services of his youth on what may be his only rendition of the song that's ever been issued.

  

Cover Art FINAL OSF-V8 5 1500 (3)

The Man in Black's groundbreaking At Folsom Prison would soon be released at the time of Johnny Cash at the Carousel Ballroom – April 24, 1968 (BMG/Renew) in San Francisco. Grateful Dead's soundman Owsley Stanley handled the boards. Here's the evening's first of two shows. Performing with his Tennessee Three and new bride June Carter Cash, he seems relaxed on his typical concert cornucopia: singles from his years on Sun, “Ring of Fire,” songs of outlaws, the downtrodden, and Native Americans. He's having fun mugging on “Bad News.” On “Orange Blossom Special” – originally meant as a fiddle showcase – his harmonica creates train sounds. June sings abbreviated Carter Family standards. The tape cuts off amid her “Tall Lover Man.” Plenty of songs here aren't on his live Folsom or 1969's San Quentin prison albums. Stanley left the tape recorder running after Cash left the stage so the disc closes with the announcer's final words and sounds of the audience leaving. The booklet's art recalls 1968 San Francisco's hippie/flower power vibe. The Carousel's site would soon become Fillmore West.

  

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Back in 2002, Billy Joe Shaver (1939-2020) ignored his doctor's advice to have quadruple bypass surgery after a midconcert heart attack abruptly ended a tour with humorist/mystery writer/gubernatorial candidate/fellow Texas renegade Kinky Friedman. Still grieving recent deaths of his mother, wife, and son/musical partner Eddy, Shaver joined the Kinkster on an Australian concert tour with Billy Joe (as the press notes say) “singing like his life depended on it.” Here at last on Live Down Under (Omnivore) is the Sydney show with his soul-baring writing and Kinky's nothing's-sacred comedy. Decades earlier, Waylon Jennings's Honky Tonk Heroes had jump-started his writing career. News of Waylon's death reached them midtour so there's an elegy to him and Shaver songs he'd covered. Great backup trio. Check the acoustic guitar runs near the end of “You Asked Me To.” Of course there's “Live Forever.” And check the Kinkster's humor for yourself.

  

Tommy Womack COVER

As Nashville-based Tommy Womack says in the press notes to I Thought I Was Fine (Schoolkids), “I wanted to rock this time. They've called me an Americana artist for over 20 years, and it's a great important genre; I've got nothing against it. I've had a great time being part of the movement. But one day a while back, I had an epiphany. I thought, Hey, I hate Dobros anymore! And if I hear another song about a train in the key of G, somebody's gonna get hurt'” Somewhere between The Replacements and Todd Snider, his writing seems to hold back nothing: Memphis family's occasional encounters with Elvis Presley over the years; the lifelong damage of a pedophile priest with surreal recall of molestation. Two covers here: Frankie Laine's religious ballad “I Believe” made into rock and Cole Porter's calm combination of proper etiquette and premeditated murder “Miss Otis Regrets.” Womack's writing is just about the most real I've encountered in a long time.

  

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Michael Elliott's admiring and incredibly detailed biography Have a Little Faith: The John Hiatt Story (Chicago Review Press) traces his life and career from Indiana boyhood in a problematic family to sobriety and a long-standing happy marriage to his third wife. There's minutiae galore on his sessions as well as sessions where others covered him. Along the way, we read how he tossed off a chorus for the soundtrack of The Border's title song with the film's producer listening outside the bathroom window. And how Krist Novoselic accidentally inspired “Perfectly Good Guitar.”

  

Blues Images 2022 Calendar front cover (300 dpi, 10x10)
Blues Images 2022 Calendar back cover (300 dpi, 10x10)

Last but hardly least, for you early-blues devotees, there's the annual 12x24” wall calendar Classic Blues Artwork from the 1920's from Blues Images (www.bluesimages.com) with, as ever, 12x12” ads and photos for 1926-35 discs, a 12x12” calendar of historic blues events, and a 24-track CD of each month's song plus 12 bonus tracks – nine from 1940s radio broadcasts by Lead Belly, whose “Packin' Trunk” opens the disc and calendar. The audio for his four NBC numbers is crystal clear. Inevitably a few songs from collector's aged 78 RPM platters have surface noise. Henry Thomas's pan flute shows Canned Heat's roots. Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Memphis Minnie, and “Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith appear too.