By Lee Zimmerman
While some might be tempted to write Wood Belly off as just another bluegrass band — especially if one is tempted to resort to quick and easy stereotypes as a means of immediate identification — Wood Belly deserve more careful consideration given the fact that their new album. Man on the Radio clearly places equal emphasis on both song and style. Granted, the Colorado-based band adhere to a traditional template and have gained solid standing among the nu-grass elite, courtesy of shared stages with such headliners as the Del McCoury Band, The SteelDrivers, Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle, Wood & Wire, Trout Steak Revival, and Steel Wheels. However, at the same time, they’ve also made it clear that a catchy chorus and a resolute refrain can be essential additives when it comes ensuring success. Its little wonder then that when it comes to engaging an audience, their sophomore set, Man on the Radio, finds them communicating quite convincingly.
Those unawares might mistake Chicago Farmer for…well… a Chicago farmer. In fact, it’s the nom de plume of singer/songwriter Cody Diekoff, an artist who ploughs the traditional turf of a blue-collar troubadour and gives voice to the least visible, but clearly most resilient, individuals among us. Now, with Flyover Country, his sixth solo effort to date, he opts to make a bigger noise, thanks to an album that finds this midwest native teaming with the formidable Texas ensemble, Band of Heathens. The music still retains its intimacy and introspection, but given the Heathens’ backing there’s also an added sense of grit and determination. Not that Diekoff necessarily needs added embellishment; the arrangements are still raw and unadorned, but where before, Chicago Farmer had to work these fertile fields on his own, he now attains an added resolve firmly entrenched in a still-poignant pastiche. Consequently, the possibility of wider recognition becomes a more likely possibility with Flyover Country, a set of freewheeling songs clearly spawned from a populist perspective.
Konrad Wert takes the name Possessed by Paul James while assuming the alter-ego of a plainspoken troubadour whose only mission seems to spread enlightenment and inspiration through a bare-boned musical palette befitting his humble minstrel status. Wert, who hails from Southwest Florida, sings songs that celebrate his rural environs, but does so with the wizened demeanor of a patient observer and champion of those who have no voice of their own. The songs that grace his tellingly-titled new album, As We Go Wandering, suggest a call to action, mostly in the form of a homespun collection of songs that takes a rustic turn on fiddle and banjo. Granted, some of the tracks are of a more temporal variety — “Dance With Me Tonight” and “Don’t Tell Me” in particular — but in a very real way, Wert’s music speaks to larger intents with intimacy and humility sewn into the very fabric of each offering. Touching and tender, simple and suggestive, As We Go Wandering takes its listeners on trails worth traipsing.
Reggie Harris and Greg Greenway are two revered folksingers based in the Northwest, men who have built their careers singing songs of inspiration and enlightenment. They’ve joined forces for a new live album, Deeper Than The Skin, a series of songs and stories revolving around America’s troubled racial heritage and the tangled trajectory wrapped within the threads of its ongoing evolution. Recorded live, these songs offer a heartfelt paean to both triumph and turmoil as related from a personal experience. The songs are barebones to be sure — accompanied by acoustic guitars at most and accapella voices at the very least — but so too, these are hymns of historical standing imbued with a rich legacy of populist appeal. Given the duo’s performances, it becomes a moving experience and a valuable encounter, one that’s especially pertinent for these troubled times. Harris offers an especially inspiring narrative throughout, and for us, the listeners, the insights he provides about growing up as an African American are invaluable. As they state in the liner notes, “It’s an invitation to open your heart and mind to a story of shared humanity that resonates with your own.” So true indeed.
K.C. Clifford is an engaging and expressive singer/songwriter in the tradition of any number of great women who made a career of putting their stories to song — Carole King and Laura Nyro chief among them. On her striking eponymous debut, she and cowriter Dan Walker explore a variety of topics, subjects ranging from her long wait to become a mother to a indelible issues pertaining to social justice and absolute inclusion. With piano as her main accompaniment, she takes an emotive and expressive stance, giving heartfelt commitment to the material and allowing it to resonate and reflect in a personal and poignant way. The songs also provide an opportunity to excise her emotions and free herself of those things that burden the psyche and hold people down. It’s easy to imagine that Clifford will win the hearts of her audiences with her pervasive pop, especially given its erstwhile emotional appeal. Suffice it to say, there’s a new star shining on the horizon.
Salim Nourallah describes himself this way: “I feel like the Texas version of Nick Lowe, except I haven’t entered my silver-haired crooner phase yet.” That’s a fairly apt description given Nourallah’s penchant for writing pop perfect melodies and conveying them in a way that instantly gets under the skin. Better known as a producer — his resume includes the Old 97s, Rhett Davies, Deathray Davies and the like — he’s also been behind the mic for any number of individual efforts spanning the past 25 years. His latest outing, an EP wryly dubbed Jesus of Sad (remember Lowe’s Jesus of Cool?), provides a set of four songs — one, “Misanthrope,” is repeated as a pain version — each of which offer a glimpse at Nourallah’s tongue-in-cheek approach to his material and the subtle shades of nuance he imbues in each offering. One song in particular, “This Doesn’t Feel Like Peace, Love or Understanding” continues to reflect his Lowe largess. Entertaining and intriguing, Jesus of Sad makes for a surprisingly happy encounter.