Americana album reviews in the summer time

Take a stroll down the American Back Roads column to check the cool Americana releases this summer.
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By Bruce Sylvester

OK, Americana listeners, here's another rundown of worthy new (in one case, forthcoming) discs: reissues, folk revival, singer/writer, and more.

Buck 2021 Reissue Composite

Buck Owens and His Buckaroo's Sweet Rosie Jones and I've Got You on My Mind Again (1968) and Tall Dark Stranger ('69) start Omnivore Records' reissue series of nine of their 1968-74 LPs on Capitol with original cover art and brief notes, additional expanded notes (loaded with good quotes from Buck's autiobio Buck 'Em! co-authored with Randy Poe), and no bonus tracks. What you hear now is what folks heard back then – no more, no less. By '68, Alvis Edgar Owens Jr. (1929-2006) was both musical and business leader in the Bakersfield sound (“American music” in his words). But his string of #1 singles and LPs was on the wane. Reincorporating backup singers was part of his attempt to reclaim country music's top, though (as Poe's breezy new notes relate) when Bakersfield's Merle Haggard's “Mama Tried” kept Rosie's title track stalled at #2, businessman Buck, being Hag's publisher, could cry all the way to the bank. Guitarist Don Rich and steel guitarist Tom Brumley were key to the Buckaroos' overall sound. Chart-topping single “Tall Dark Stranger” was Tom's final track with the band. Might moments in the arrangements be spoofs? Typical of the Bakersfield sound, Buck fused musical genres. Black gospel line “I've got shoes, you've got shoes. All God's children got shoes,” morphs into “We got a bomb, and they got a bomb, and all God's children got a bomb,” on upbeat, harmony-seeking “Sing a Happy Song” from an earlier era of great domestic conflict. And yes, those are riffs from Chuck Berry's “Thirty Days” within post-Woody Guthrie “I Ain't a Gonna Be Treated This a Way.”

One of last year's most exciting compilation reissues, The Last Shall Be First: The JCR Records Story, Volume 1 (Bible & Tire), presented 17 early '70s Black gospel tracks on Memphis DJ and minister Juan D. Shipp's label JCR. The reverend, it seems, wasn't satisfied with local religious releases' audio so he located a good studio, founded the D-Vine spiritual label, and then set up JCR for acts that didn't meet his standards for D-Vine, though some sound phenomenal to me. Now Volume 2 provides another 17 cuts including ensembles from way beyond the Memphis area who sought out Shipp – in part, no doubt, for the brightness and clarity of his sound. Here's a spectrum of downhome Black gospel styles: sacred booty shaking, celestial falsetto flights, fervent testifying. Might Memphis-born Aretha Franklin and Memphis-bred Elvis Presley have loved these discs?

Reaching across the Atlantic and back through centuries, J.B. Harris' Dreadful Wind & Rain's well-annotated Don't You Marry No Railroad Man (Free Dirt) presents Harris, a wood worker, on a banjo he made. This old-timey mountain music – a style that predates bluegrass – was recorded in a century-old sharecropper's shack (now suddenly a studio) on Old Crow Medicine Show's fiddler Chance McCoy's West Virginia farm. A strong, no-gimmick baritone, Harris opens the disc with the romantic betrayal of “House Carpenter.” (In spookier, less-abridged versions of the lengthy ballad – such as Jean Ritchie's and later Bob Dylan's and Joan Baez's -- the errant wife belatedly realizes that she's run off with Satan.) For balance, in less-known “The Little Carpenter” (rooted in a 1933 Kentucky field recording), gold and jewels can't lure away his beloved. Based on a real Appalachian outlaw/hero, “Otto Wood” gets an old-timey approach unlike, say, Doc and Merle Watson's rendition back in '65.

Strong writing that takes directions we don't repeatedly encounter can attract me. Let's conclude this blog with three such discs: Jack Grace Band's What a Way to Spend a Night (Radia), Andy Peake's Mood Swings (Big Little Records), and Malcolm Holcombe's forthcoming Tricks of the Trade (due out August 20 on Need to Know/Proper).

To me, ever since his 2005 I Never Heard You Knockin', Holcombe (like the Watsons, a native of western North Carolina's mountains) has seemed to be in a class by himself with his grizzled, weather-beaten voice, quiet yet intense delivery, and incisive lyrics. A recurring theme on Tricks of the Trade is outsiders looking in on a dream that's passing them by: “P.T. Barnum said, 'A sucker's born ev'ry minute.' I'm standin' in line 'cause I got my ticket for the money train.” “Faith is a fable for some feeble minds.” “Dirty water ain't no act of God.” “Your Kin” looks at immigrant families separated at the border, but if you're not paying attention, the chorus might appear to speak to families wracked by child custody conflict. He ends “Windows of Amsterdam” – a bonus track on some formats of the album – by repeatedly saying the song's (and its title's) last syllable, briefly creating a whole new mood. Multi-instrumentalist Jared Tyler's Dobro lends moments of cheer to the hard-hitting disc that's somewhere between country, blues, rock, and folk. Think of a rough-edged jewel that's best left unpolished.

Variously (sometimes even simultaneously) indie-postpunkish and sophisticated, Brooklyn native Grace comes across a bit like Tom Waits and Randy Newman with late-night blues/pop/jazz for people who aren't looking to be cheered up but can enjoy a subtle chuckle. Carnival organ riffs open the disc before darker elements move in. Sonic incongruity and rapid stylistic shifts abound without sacrificing cohesion – quite an accomplishment for Grace and co-producer Tom Bainbridge. Quiet and mild, “I'm a Burglar” precedes ominously metal-based “Bearded Man,” whose danger vibe is a comic exaggeration. Sure, Caribbean rhythms can introduce the finale, Grace's local homage “Chinatown.”

After decades drumming as a sideman, Nashville-based Peake availed himself of shutdown spare time by doing a low-key, witty disc whose cover art's visual wordplay foreshadows the songs (seven of the 11 from Peake's pen). “Hip Replacement” counsels the seriously untrendy. “If the blues was green, I'd be the richest man you've ever seen.” Among the covers, Chuck Berry's “Johnny B. Goode” gets a zydeco flavor. How hip.