By Lee Zimmerman
Suzi Ragsdale may have come from a storied gene pool — after all, her father was singer-songwriter Ray Stevens — but over the course of her own career she’s created an indelible impression all on her own. She’s written songs for Dierks Bentley and Miranda Lambert, contributed backing vocals to albums by Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams Jr., toured alongside Guy Clark and Darrell Scott, and, more importantly, recorded any number of albums on her own beginning with her initial efforts 25 years ago. However, that’s all the more reason to wonder why she’s kept her silence as a solo artist for the better part of a decade. Granted, a six song EP may be small recompense to those who have anticipated her return, but happily Ghost Town clearly compensates for any perceived absence. The emphatic tones of songs such as “Wildlowers” and “Bonfire,” and the closing caress of “The Ending” each clearly connect on even initial encounter. Credit Ragsdale’s easily engaging vocals and a superb cast of backing musicians who add a supple touch to these vibrant yet varied arrangements. As a result, it’s certainly fair to say that Ghost Town is quite haunting indeed.
Starting her career at Amherst College, Jonatha Brooke met Jennifer Kimball and initially made her name as half the duo that called themselves The Story. She since went on to carve out a most credible solo career, one which found her combining the folk finest of her earlier efforts to an emphatic approach she was able to deliver all on her own. Sadly, the rollercoaster ride that is the music biz found her an unwilling passenger and she was forced to venture out on her own, building a solid fanbase and releasing a number of outstanding albums in the process. Her latest, The Sweetwater Sessions, is no exception as well as a testament to her tenacity and the emphatic impression she embeds in each of her efforts. The songs are especially strong, and Brooke delivers them with a combination of flourish and finesse. “Taste of Danger,” “Scars” and “Prodigal Daughter” set the mood immediately ate outset, but it’s clear her confidence is sustained throughout. What began as a recording workshop with some ace players turned into what she describes in the liner notes as a retrospective work given “a visceral ‘live’ in the studio record.” The results reflect what happens when ideas and inspiration can manifest as a solid musical manifesto. Likewise, a vibrant version of the Beatles “Hide Your Love Away” caps the accomplishment.
Peggy James has everything it takes to make an emphatic impression, not only amongst today’s country community, but also with the pop purists who will find much to admire within this classic context. Her new album, Paint Still Wet, finds her sturdy vocals and assured arrangements complementing one another to an exceptional degree, but in addition, it’s her songwriting skills that will guarantee the material makes an enduring impression. Song such as “Holdin’ Hands,” “Nothin’s the Same” and “Sailor Knots” brings fond memories of the girl groups that dominated the AM radio band during the early to mid ‘60s, while the assertive sound of “Let’s Fly Away,” “Fallen Star” and “San Antone” sound like veritable Americana anthems even on first hearing. “Can’t Do Lonely Anymore,” on the other hand, sounds like a long-lost Kitty Wells classic. Born in the Midwest but currently residing in the desert Southwest, James makes music that boasts a timeless appeal, and even though she’s a relative newcomer with a small but devoted following, it’s clear she possesses the confidence and creativity to attract a mainstream audience and headline status at the same time.
Paul Burch is a musician, composer, and record producer well known in Nashville music circles for a lengthy list of solo efforts, his work with ongoing collaborators WPA Ballclub and his extensive contributions to recordings by an eclectic array of other artists, among them, R&B great Candi Staton, country legends Ralph Stanley and Ray Price, and Dire Straits expatriate Mark Knopfler, in addition to such upstarts and insurgents such as Vic Chesnutt, Ryan Adams, Bobby Bare Jr., the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, and Exene Cervenka. Notably too, he also contributes to the freewheeling collective that calls itself Lambchop. So too, his own work continues to find new and varied avenues of exploration, as expressed through Burch and WPA’s striking instrumental EP, aptly titled Origins of Departure. Here he runs a gamut, from the jazzy tones of “Jimmy the Gator,” the tropical sway of “Hula Blues” and the atmospheric “My House in the Catskills” to the lively Latin phrasings of “Lunch with Jose Marti in Echo Park” and the spacial sprawl of “Country With Maps.” Burch is clearly adept at altering his template, and if the circumstance was right, Origins of Departure would certainly work as a soundtrack for some mesmerizing motion picture, given that its series of soundscapes are flush with mood and melody. Credit Burch and company for finding their own cool groove.
It wouldn’t be entirely off the mark to suggest that Brian Lisik as a musical chameleon. Given the five albums he’s released to date, it’s clear that he’s not only a pop perfectionist, but also an artist who’s able to adjust and adapt his template as needed to accommodate his robust revelry. Consequently, his latest effort, the tongue in cheekily titled Goodbye Stoopid Whirled, is anything but what the name might suggest. (This is after the same man who dubbed a previous album Happiness Is Boring.) It is instead a smart, well-paced series of songs that shine with the untethered enthusiasm and exuberance that have been a hallmark of Lisik’s career all along. He is a changeling however; practically every one of its entries reflects a key influence, whether its the Dylan-esue delivery of opening track “Don’t-Ray-Me,” the effusive Buddy Holly-like feel of “Happy All the Time,” the down-home drawl bringing to mind Roger Miller in “Looking for You,” or the rapid-fire rock of a Ventures variety imbued in the instrumental “Call It Liquid Timing (Part I).” Indeed, Lisik’s clearly absorbed those classic sounds well, using them to his advantage while creating a perfect potpourri of energy and effort. Wow… what a winner!
Greg Copeland seems something of an enigma. After a promising major label debut in the early ‘80s, a a personal and professional kinship with Jackson Browne, and later, a promising sophomore set released some three decades after his debut, he abandoned the music business and settled into a new livelihood as a lawyer. That could have been the end of the story were it not for his decision to give music one more shot and try his hand with a much-belated third LP titled The Tango Bar. Suffice it to say it was well worth the wait, but to Copeland’s credit, it doesn’t come across with a big bang, but rather a softly sung series of quiet, contemplative melodies that maintain a lowered gaze and hushed, unobtrusive circumspect. “Scan the Beast” makes the emphatic impression, courtesy of its ominous arrangements and darker designs, while “Lou Reed” pays homage to its namesake in a cool and convincing manner. In fact, there’s not a single song here that fails to etch a positive impression. Copeland’s credence is derived from the fact that he can maintain his easy tones and tempos while still making music that connects on a subliminal level. Credit Copeland with knowing the advantage of nuance rather than noise.