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A look back at cool rootsy releases during 2016

by Bruce Sylvester


Hmm. Tis the season to be reminiscing about cool discs that came our way over the course of 2016 – some by stars, some by people who aren't well known at all.

The year began with Lucinda Williams' two-CD The Ghosts of Highway 20 (Highway 20/Thirty Tigers), a reflective, meditation-paced wrestling with the death of her father/mentor, poet Miller Williams, and her ensuing emotional and spiritual questions. Sung in jagged tones, it was one of her most intense albums ever.

“I'm ready, my lord,” Leonard Cohen sang on the title track to You Want It Darker (Columbia). Released only weeks before his Nov. 7 death, its eight poems set to music faced death without fear as he fused Buddhism, Christianity, and the Judaism of his birth while embracing the blossoms and briars of lasting love.

With his weathered tenor and Josh Ritter's partnership in songwriting, Grateful Dead survivor Bob Weir's Blue Mountain (Roar/Columbia/Legacy) told of his personal demons and the ghost towns of America's mythical frontier. Reflections of trad folk and cowboy songs graced this understated gem with vestiges of the Dead's 1970 Workingman's Dead.

Paul Burch's Meridian Rising (Plowboy) was a 20-song semifictional bio of Meridian, MS, native Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman (1897-1933), a buoyant Jazz Age troubadour who became country music's first superstar.

Brother duets hold a hallowed spot in country music history (the Monroes, Stanleys, Louvins, and Delmores, for example). The Cactus Blossoms (brothers Jack Torrey and Page Burkum) captured the pure tones of early Everly Brothers sessions on You're Dreaming (Red House). Listen for the occasional surprise from principal writer Torrey.

Intense and spare, The Bones of J.R. Jones's Spirit's Furnace (a self-release) is the work of one-man band J.R. Linaberry with studio sidekicks. We hear vestiges of long-ago field recordings of prison work gangs as well as backwoods deep South church services. Fans of such neoprimitivism should also check Australia-born C.W. Stoneking's Gon' Boogaloo (King Hokum) with its moments of jungle fever.

Writing all songs and playing all instruments, Shovels & Rope (husband/wife duo Michael Trent and Carrie Ann Hearst ) on Little Seeds (New West) would do faster but not louder and then turn quietly acoustic. “Sunny side down” seemed to be the motif as they warned about a Civil War battlefield and elegized a loved one with “shrapnel in his sound.”

The Devil Makes Three's acoustic Redemption and Ruin (New West) embraced bygone country music's fundamental conflict --Saturday night versus Sunday morning – on mountain-style approaches to songs by Muddy Waters, Charlie Monroe, Hank Williams, Tom Waits, and Townes Van Zandt.

Crime, retribution, and – for some – eventual spiritual redemption fueled Pacific Northwest attorney Clint Morgan's high-octane Scofflaw (Lost Cause) filled with real and fictional American outlaws who love the thrill of robbing banks or even speeding across Texas with a body in the trunk and a roadblock up ahead.

Based on an 1866 murder case in North Carolina, the Kingston Trio's 1958 hit “Tom Dooley” helped to usher in the '60s folk revival. There's always been debate on whether pregnant Laura Foster was stabbed by her fiance, Confederate veteran Tom Dula (pronounced “Dooley”), or by one of his other girlfriends, her cousin Mrs. Ann Foster Melton. (Doc Watson's family were neighbors. Watsons' takes on the case can be found on Youtube.) On five-cut Tom Dooley and Friends (Wooden Door), North Carolina's Rob McHale writes in Dula's voice in “Set Me Free.” In another song, Laura's prescient father urges her to stay home on the day that turned out to be her last.

The duality of toughness and vulnerability laced Reagan Boggs' Empty Glasses (Reckless Bess). Her powerful teen-rape-and-pregnancy tale “Emily” ended in a sort of healing.

The blues is noted for candor, subtle or otherwise. On Bad Brad & the Fat Cats' Take a Walk with Me (Fat Cats), take “Lucky Man”'s verse “I'm a lucky man. My woman finally got a job. Now I can sit around all day and I can act just like a slob.” Then on New Orleans-tinged “Other Side,” we might wonder if he's referring to across town or a life hereafter.

Kudos for lyrics also go to Michigan-based John Latini for the title track to The Blues Just Makes Me Feel Good (Smokin' Sleddog). His “My Town's Got a River and a Train” is the only blues song I've ever heard that uses the word symbiotic.

Getting back to great song titles (and jumping ahead a bit into early 2017) there's rustic slide guitarist Sonny Moorman's "You Made All My Blues Come True" on the Blues Foundation's International Blues Challenge #32 (The Blues Foundation), which recognizes nine up-and-coming blues acts. As for strong song segues, the CD moves from Hector Anchondo Band's "Tall Glass of Whiskey" to acoustic guitarist Bing Futch's regret-laden "Drinkin' and Drivin' Blues," a number that could stand next to Roy Acuff's long-ago "Wreck on the Highway."

Northern California blues guitarist Charlie Baty took a break from Little Charlie & the Nightcats to do Skronky Tonk (Eller Soul) by Little Charlie and Organ Grinder Swing, a 13-track guitar/Hammond organ/percussion foray into vintage swing, jazz, and pop with suave raindrops of notes falling on us like pennies from heaven.

As a kid in Greenwich Village, bottleneck guitarist/singer/writer Rory Block heard aging country blues legends play in her father Allan Block's sandal shop. Keepin' outta Trouble: A Tribute to Bukka White (Stony Plain) continues her Mentor Series, which has previously saluted Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Son House. White's “Aberdeen Mississippi Blues,” “Fixin' to Die Blues,” and “Panama Limited” stood beside a homage to Booker T. Washington White (1906-77) from her own pen.

The Rolling Stones' relationship with the blues has always been symbiotic. Their stripped-down Blue and Lonesome (Interscope) paid homage to the Chicago blues greats they'd covered back at their start in the early '60s. No studio megaproduction, its 12 songs were recorded in a quick three days with Eric Clapton sitting in on two numbers.

Then there were reissues as well as first-time-ever releases of long-ago sessions.

Jeff Buckley's You and I (Columbia/Legacy) offered 10 mesmerizing 1993 solo vocal/acoustic guitar demos that preceded his debut Grace. He described the dream that inspired the title track. Among the covers, The Smiths' “I Know It's Over” now seems prophetic.

Jeff's near-operatic father Tim Buckley's Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974 (Omnivore) showed him morphing from poised folk baroque to jazz, soul, and gutsy blues rock. The intense CD's notes were excellent.

John Gorka didn't identify with the engaging folk/country arrangements on his first attempt of his debut LP, I Know. Three decades later, the bittersweet songsmith with the big comfy baritone reconsidered the sessions, realized how good they were, and released them on Before Beginning: The Unreleased “I Know” – Nashville 1985 (Red House). Good move.

Josh White (1914-69) took his suave Piedmont blues from South Carolina to New York City cafe society. His 1955 Josh at Midnight (now on Ramseur) was low key until you considered the lyrics.

Previously unissued live sessions and home recordings filled Mahalia Jackson's 74-minute collection of salvation-shouting Moving on up a Little Higher (Shanachie). Roaring, soaring powerhouse Jackson (1912-72) paved the way for Aretha Franklin.

During the '60s and '70s British Invasion, Muswell Hill's bleary-eyed Kinks reached back to England's music hall tradition while presaging punk. The expanded two-CD, 33-track reissue of their characteristically cynical 10-song Everybody's in Show Biz (RCA/Legacy) added alternate mixes and studio outtakes plus previously unissued 1972 Carnegie Hall shows that of course included earlier hits. A live “Alcohol” (originally done on their previous LP, Muswell Hillbillies) was especially arch.

Back in 1995, Gillian Welch's debut Revival helped to launch the American primitive movement. Lately we've heard little from her save in her longtime partner's Dave Rawlings Machine. Her two-CD, 21-cut Boots No. 1: The Official Revival Bootleg (Acony) marked the debut's 20th anniversary with alternate versions and remixes, outtakes (“Wichita”), and demos. No cuts from the original release. Versions of her tour de force “Orphan Girl” opened both discs. Was that a riff from “These Boots Are Made for Walking” that guitar ace Rawlings playfully inserted amid his Johnny Cash-style licks on droll outtake “Dry Town”?

As for books on music, the best I encountered this year was Tamara Saviano's candid Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark (Texas A&M University Press). The grand old man of Americana songwriting, Clark had the strength and honesty to tell friends and family to hold back nothing when talking with her.

RIP Mose Allison, Signe Andersen, David Bowie, Oscar Brand, Guy Clark, Otis Clay, Merle Haggard, Harold Hardesty, Dan Hicks, Sharon Jones, Paul Kantner, Lonnie Mack, Sir George Martin, Scotty Moore, Prince, Leon Russell, Ralph Stanley, Kay Starr, Allen Toussaint, Glenn Yarborough, John Zacherle.