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A look back at Americana and roots releases

by Bruce Sylvester

Hmm. It's been a good year for Americana and roots music. Let's look back on some worthy discs – some by big stars, some by barely known people. (There were so many strong albums that an article that tried to discuss them all would be so long that few people could finish it.)

We'll start with the best: Alabama-born Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit's part rock/part acoustic “The Nashville Sound” (Southeastern/Thirty Tigers) with its searingly honest songs of small-town white guys whose world seems like a downward slide. Marriage and fatherhood elicit his tender side, as on “If We Were Vampires.” A fine followup to his previous “Something more than Free,” which richly deserved its two Grammys.

An old country hymn tells us that the darkest hour is before the dawn. Mostly from Eady's own pen, the songs on “Jason Eady” (Old Guitar/Thirty Tigers) are often about reaching the dawn. The title track, “Barabbas,” is be worth the price of the CD all by itself.

So's the title track on David Childers' rock/country/folk “Run Skeleton Run” (Ramseur). Based on a contemporary poem, “Belmont Ford” tells of a 1916 flood in the manner of yesteryear's disaster ballads.

Jagged-voiced Lucinda Williams honored the 25th anniversary of her album “Sweet Old World” by returning to the studio to redo its 12 tracks and add four bonus songs (check her raw “Factory Blues”) on “This Sweet Old World” (Highway 20/Thirty Tigers). Those dead-end men who've fueled her lyrics appear in the title track and “Pineola.” “Something about What Happens When We Talk” speaks life's most basic pleasures.

Rural Louisiana highways run through Rod Melancon's part rock/part narrative “Southern Gothic” (Blue Elan). They all have exits in a literal sense, but on another level there are no exits at all, even when one of his walking wounded characters is “Praying for Light.”

Willie Nelson's “God's Problem Child” (Legacy) is his characteristic collection of wisdom, nostalgia and great one-liners (“Your memory has a mind of its own.”). “Still Not Dead” is the 84-year-old's latest laugh at mortality.

Glen Campbell (1936-2017) movingly bid us farewell on “Adios” (Universal Music) with help from friends like Nelson and Vince Gill. “Everybody's Talkin'”and “Am I Alone (Or Is It Only Me)” achieved new meaning sung by an Alzheimer's victim nearing his end.

Does the intuitive closeness in family harmonies come from shared DNA? (Think of the Monroes, Everlys and Louvins.) They've been called harmonies born in blood – a phrase with extra meaning in the case of Shelby Lynne (born Shelby Lynne Moorer) and sister Allison Moorer's “Not Dark Yet” (Silver Cross/Thirty Tigers). Mostly covers here: the title track from Bob Dylan, fellow Alabamans the Louvins' “Every Time You Leave” and Isbell's “The Color of a Cloudy Day.” Allison has said that Jessi Colter's “I'm Looking for Blue Eyes” is the first song she ever learned – taught to her by their father. The sisters penned the aching finale “Is It Too Much,” where they offer each other solace as they offer us insight into the labyrinth of the human heart.

Soft-spoken with his dark baritone on “Colter Wall” (Young Mary's Record Co./Thirty Tigers), Saskatchewan native Wall respectfully references his musical forebears like Woody Guthrie and singing brakeman Jimmie Rodgers. “Me and Big Dave” and “Transcendental Ramblin' Railroad Blues” echo Billy Joe Shaver's writing.

Chicago duo The New Zeitgeist skillfully meld assorted roots genres on “Myths and Mortals.” Jen Reilly's strong, pure soprano is perfect for suspenseful lyrics recalling 19th-century Britain's songs and literature. Cuts with guest pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Maines enjoy a retro honky-tonk vibe.

A broken marriage's pain and rage drives Legendary Shack Shakers' manic frontman J.D. Wilkes's lo-fi tales of revenge – be it romantic or ghostly – on hellbilly/folk/punk “After You've Gone” (Last Chance). Some guitar riffs recall John Lee Hooker's. As for “Single Boy,” imagine the Pogues visiting the Carter Family.

A bit swamp, a bit blues, a bit country, a bit acoustic folk and a lot rock, The Americans' “I'll Be Yours” (Incandescent) is, above all, American music.

There's a gentle innocence to Langhorne Slim's “Lost at Last Vol. 1” (Dualtone). For humor, check his romantic “Zombie.”

Along with Jerry Lee Lewis and Glenn Miller covers plus a jazzy variant of trad "Corinna Corinna" (here called "Alberta"), Richard Thompson Band's box "Live at Rockpalast" (Rockpalast/MIG/WDR) puts two 1983-84 concerts on three CDs and two DVDs offering most songs on his then-new LP "Hand of Kindness" plus earlier RT gems like "Wall of Death." Even his band is dancing on swirling Arab-rhythmed "Tear Stained Letter." Never mind that his marriage to Linda had just crashed and burned, he and his team are clearly enjoying themselves.

Slinky and torchy, Eilen Jewell's “Down Hearted Blues” (Signature Sounds) unearths American primitive gems from the likes of Willie Dixon, Memphis Minnie and Big Maybelle. “It's almost like digging for buried treasure,” Boise, Idaho's Jewell remarks. The spare arrangements work.

A founding member of Fabulous Thunderbirds, singer/harmonica man KimWilson shows his ear for choice vintage songs on “Blues and Boogie, Vol. 1” (Severn). His covers of Sonny Boy Williamson II's “Ninety-Nine” and “From The Bottom” bring out the pure fun in the blues.

Hearty-voiced Amy Black's “Memphis” (Reuben) honors '60s-'70s R&B and gospel with her own compositions rekindling the soul in her covers of Otis Clay, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Ruby Johnson.

Detroit-based Thornetta Davis offers solace and strength in her blues blended with gospel and soul on “Honest Woman” ( Ably writing her songs and producing her own CD, she grounds her big, rich voice on years of life's highs and lows, bringing us a disc to restore the human spirit.

Reflecting the genre's broad spectrum, the Blues Foundation's periodic “Challenge” compilation CDs bring together aspiring acts. This fall's worthy 14-song CD “Challenge 33” stretches from Dawn Tyler Watson's gospel/soul “Shine On” to Felix Slim's downhome “I Hate You cause I Love You” to Brody Buster's One Man Band's futuristic vision “2029.”

Guitarist/singer John Nicholas obtained the rights to his long out-of-print 1977 “Too Many Bad Habits” and made it into a live-wire expanded two-CD set on his own imprint The People's Label. The original LP was recorded shortly before he joined Asleep at the Wheel. Its delightful opener, “Mandolin Boogie” resembles the Wheel's exuberant western swing-style fusion of blues, country and rock. Alongside the vintage blues covers, the title track mirrors '70s youthful hedonism.

Eric Bibb – son of 1960s bluesman Leon Bibb – writes of uprooted people across the centuries on quietly hard-hitting “Migration Blues” (Stony Plain). Undertones of African instrumentation enhance his timely messages both as music and as commentary.

Reaching from 1927 to 1935, this fall's 2018 edition of Blues Images' annual wall calendar with accompanying 24-track CD once again includes songs whose original ads are included with the calendar as well as many of those songs' original flip sides.

In bygone eras, folk songs passed along the gore-drenched tabloid news of the day, of course evolving over time in portraying desperadoes, love gone wrong, and a child's dream foretelling a mine disaster. Two-CD, 32-song “Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition” (Great Smoky Mountains Association) warrants its recent Grammy nomination. Roseanne Cash, Sheila Kay Adams and Alice Gerrard sing here. So does power-voiced Jody Stecher with Kate Brislin. Scotland's Archie Fisher's two ballads of the supernatural reflect some of these musical tales' origins back in Britain.

A fascinating geographically arranged five-CD companion to a PBS series, “American Epic






” (Columbia/Legacy) of course showcases blues and country acts dating back to the 1920s and also Native American, Cajun and Hawaiian acts of yesteryear.

Ranging from the Carter Family to Bing Crosby to Bob Dylan to Julio Iglesias, similarly eclectic three-CD “The Roots of Popular Music: The Ralph S. Peer Story”(Sony Music Latin) demonstrates the ongoing influence of Peer (1892-1960), an astute talent scout, record producer and song publisher who understood how to present regional music to outside markets. The box supplements Barry Mazor's strong Peer bio “Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music”

Rock Beat Records' series of CDs of previously unreleased 1960s concert tapes include Phil Ochs, Doc Watson and Mississippi John Hurt. Ochs's two-disc “Live in Montreal 10/22/66” has its share of youthful rebellion (“I Ain't Marching Anymore”). “Crucifixion” – his response to President Kennedy's assassination – proves him one of our most poetic political songsmiths. On Hurt's “Live at Oberlin College 4-15-65,” his singularly gentle blues is relaxed and congenial. Watson sounds the same on “Live at Purdue University 3-19-64” from the start of his national career, even before son Merle joined his act. “It's easy,” blind Doc nonchalantly remarks after an dazzling riff.

Clarence Ashley (1895-1967), Watson's sometime bandmate back in the '6os folk revival, resurfaced on excellently annotated and mastered “Live and in Person: Greenwich Village 1963” (Jalopy), whose 14 trad songs include an 1807 murder and shape-shifting Satan tricking an unfaithful wife.

“Woody Guthrie: The Tribute Concerts: Carnegie Hall 1968, Hollywood Bowl 1970” (Bear Family) puts back into print (expanded onto three CDs) two '70s LPs of fundraisers to fight Huntington's chorea, the degenerative nerve disease that felled him in 1967. Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Peter Fonda and the magnificent Odetta were among the singers and narrators. Being a Bear Family venture, the box's accompanying books are phenomenal.

For seasonal music we haven't already heard far too often, the superb “Cool Blue Christmas” series (Contrast) concentrates on 1920s-60s blues, R&B, and gospel with separate jazz and country volumes. It realistically presents Christmas records' spectrum: sacred, lascivious, down and out, comic. Except for some tracks in the earliest package, the audio quality is quite good. Various takes of a few songs such as“When Was Jesus Born” bring home their evolution over the years.

A few 2017 CDs' cover art stands out. The Downhill Strugglers' good-time pre-bluegrass “Lone Prairie” (Jalopy) shows the trio performing on stage, though their bodies have no heads. On the cover of Angeleena Presley's spitfire “Wrangled” (Mining Light/Thirty Tigers), she's bound, gagged and furious. Its songs use bad high school experiences as a metaphor for Nashville's music world.

Now let's turn to autobiographies. Arizona-born Jessi Colter's “An Outlaw and a Lady” (Thomas Nelson), written with David Ritz, is a good-hearted woman's perceptive look back at a childhood shaped by her Pentecostal-preacher mother, a teenaged marriage to guitarslinger Duane Eddy and then her often challenging years with country outlaw Waylon Jennings. Her speculations on the roots of his substance abuse are penetrating.

Fans of Oklahoma-born Wanda Jackson could assume that her similarly frank “Every Night Is Saturday Night” (BMG), written with Scott B. Bomar, would have spunk and humor. It also opens fire on the Grand Ole Opry – as she'd done earlier in “Goldmine” interviews. As for her youthful romance with Elvis Presley (who, with her father, convinced her to move beyond country into rock back in the '50s), “I'm a lady, and a lady never kisses and tells.” These days, that's refreshing.

OK, it's time to look back on videos. In The Revered Peyton's Big Damn Band's ebullient “We Deserve a Happy Ending” (the opening track on “Front Porch Sessions” [Family Owned/Thirty Tigers]), the slide guitar/washboard/drums/vocal trio is happily oblivious to a series of comic disasters on their porch.

Post-punk/bluegrass Whiskey Shivers take blood-splattered noir to new levels with their nightmarish video to “Cluck Old Hen” (from “Some Part of Something” on CBM/RARR). The barefoot boys also made their big-time film debut (usually shod) playing a rival act in director Trish Sie's warm-hearted female bonding/gross-out/musical comedy sequel “Pitch Perfect 3.”

The Legendary Shack Shakers' funny/scary video “Sing a Worried Song” (from “After You've Gone”) recalls long-ago comic animation and hi-di-hi-di-hi-di-hay man Cab Calloway's vocal jive. Fans of Squirrel Nut Zippers' earlier video “Ghost of Stephen Foster” should enjoy it. The “Worried Song” video foreshadows Shack Shakers' leader Wilkes's forthcoming solo “Fire Dream” (Fat Possum/Big Legal Mess), which, with help from Dr. Sick of the Zippers, is more gypsy jazz than hellbilly.

Stay tuned for more cool music as 2018 progresses.