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American Back Roads' worthy releases of 2019

Time for a year-end roundup of cool discs (and a few films and books) – mostly Americana. Like other years, there were way too many worthy releases for any such American Back Roads roundup to be complete, and there are no arbitrary, subjective ratings.

By Bruce Sylvester

OK, it's time for a year-end roundup of cool discs (and a few films and books) – mostly Americana. Like other years, there were way too many worthy releases for any such roundup to be complete, and there are no arbitrary, subjective ratings.

A recurring joke about Americana musicians is how dark the genre can be. (“There's nothing I like more than an unhappy country song.” “If y'all wanted to hear happy music, you wouldn't have come to see us.”) Might that come from its roots in blood-drenched trad folk balladry? There's also a healthy dose of post-punk rambunctiousness, not to mention the genre's frankness.

Let's start off with movies. Director Cameron Crowe's rockumentary David Crosby: Remember My Name was merciless in its candor, including when Crosby himself was speaking. His end in one band was portrayed via animation -- a neat surprise. Director Dexter Fletcher's Elton John biopic Rocketman (starring Taron Egerton) was similarly candid and, at the same time, over the top (just like Sir Elton's stage performances). Narrated by Jakob Dylan, Echo in the Canyonavoided the cliches and hyperbole of too many rock docs as it revisited LA's late '60s/early '70s Laurel Canyon scene. I'm among the people delighted by Danny Boyle's Yesterday. Rewriting history, Quentin Tarantino's Once upon a Time in Hollywood was hardly a music film at its core, but moments like a Cass Elliot character cavorting across the set were a gas, though I had to explain to my much younger companion who The Mamas and Papas were (and the Manson Family too).

A one-hour DVD of Newport Folk Festival performances and recent interviews, Peter, Paul and Mary at Newport 1963-65 (Shout! Factory), also available on CD, revisited an era of idealism and hope, a time of seeking (to paraphrase their hit “If I Had a Hammer”) justice, freedom, and love between the brothers and sisters all over this land. The times they were a-changin'.

In director Sam Bathrick's one-of-a-kind documentary 16 Bars, Speech Thomas of Arrested Development works on songwriting with Richmond, VA, prison inmates as a form of therapy in hopes of curbing recidivism. On the soundtrack CD (Light Year/Caroline) -- an impressive collection of hip-hop and Americana – Garland Carr's Steam Train Salvation recalls long-ago prisoner Lead Belly's “Midnight Special.” Backed by an inmate chorus, Carr's “Lay My Burden Down” seems like a 1940s prison field recording by the Lomaxes.

Turning to blues books, Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow's well-researched Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson(Chicago Review Press) did an admirable job of separating fact from legend, delving into his personality, his family background, his futile efforts to be a family man, and his obstacles due to religious members of his community refusing to accept a blues musician. As for his unintended murder, the moth-ball-laced drink wasn't meant for him and wouldn't have killed him had he not already had an ulcer. Moving up to the 1950s, Randy Fox's Shake Your Hips: The Excello Records Story (BMG Books) examined musical, business, and even technological facets of a lo-fi regional label that created an impressive catalog of swamp blues, gospel, and soul during the post-war burgeoning of indie labels.

The vintage blues devotees at Blues Images came through with their annual 12x24- inch wall calendar “Classic Blues Artwork from the 1920s.” The 2020 edition (volume 17 in its series) as ever includes a CD whose first 12 tracks match songs or performers portrayed in the art. Bonus tracks of rare blues reach into the 1950s.

Two box sets stand out in my mind: Going all the way back to the 1920s – the early days of recorded music – Legacy's five-CD companion to PBS's Country Music series subtly conveys links on the chain by song and by family. Bear Family's sweeping 10-CD The Bakersfield Sound: 1940-1974 – with an accompanying hardbound book -- has plenty of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens (avoiding their biggest tracks that collectors probably already have) along with cool obscurities from folks who remained regional artists on local indie labels.

Back in the 1920s and '30s, record companies' talent scouts scoured the South looking for talented performers, Ralph Peer's 1927 Bristol Sessions being considered the Big Bang of recorded American music. A few years ago, Bear Family put out a four-CD box of 1929 sessions in Johnson City, TN. This year marks their 90th anniversary, so the bears put out abridged single-CD 26-song Tell It to Me; Revisiting the Johnson City Sessions including Clarence Ashley's “The Coo-Coo Bird.”

Manifesto Records continued its fascinating series of previously unissued concert tapes by Tim Buckley with his six-octave range. Two-CD, 14-song Live at the Electric Theatre Co., Chicago, 1968 shows him experimenting and cutting across musical genres. We're hearing works in progress as he'd try out a line in more than one ballad before a formal studio recording. A near-eight-minute cover of Johnny Cash's “Big River” takes the song in directions Mr. Cash might never have imagined (but might have admired).

Speaking of country covers, Ian & Sylvia's undated ('60s-early '70s) The Lost Tapes (Stony Plain) is two CDs of 26 previously unissued live performances. The first disc mainly runs through songs associated with them back then (“Darcy Farrow,” “Four Rode By,” and, of course, Ian's “Four Strong Winds”). Disc 2 is mostly covers of songs on none of their earlier albums, including “Sweet Dreams,” “Crying Time,” and “Together Again.”

At 86, prolific Willie Nelson is one of his era's last men standing. Transcending genre labels, Ride Me Back Home (Legacy) continues to wink at growing old (“Come on Time”). The moving title track looks at aging horses' friendships with aging humans.

TRIGGER WARNING: Don't read this paragraph if songs about eating human flesh would bother you. Rural Kentucky native Tyler Childers' songs are pure regional music. On Country Squire (Hickman Holler/BMG), “House Fire”'s ominous banjo seems straight out of a vintage mountain disc, while “Creeker” respectfully borrows from the Stanley Brothers' stark “Rank Strangers.” “Matthew” has a nod to the late Clarence White. There may be far-away influences too. Does the cover's funnyscary picture of him draw on Hindu mythology? As for Saskatchewan quartet The Dead South's Sugar & Joy (Six Shooter), the press notes say it well: “a rock band without a drummer, a bluegrass band without a fiddler... stories of desperation and bad decisions told in fast-paced, brightly-laced bursts...equal parts empathy and fear.” Yes. Re its cannibalism, just deserts are just desserts.

Kentuckian Chris Knight too writes regional music of folks with their backs to the wall. Imagine a mountain Springsteen with a dash of John Prine. Almost Daylight (Thirty Tigers) is his first disc to include covers: Johnny Cash's “Flesh and Blood” and Prine's “Mexican Home” – a duet with Prine himself.

A Canadian transplanted in Nashville, Nick Nace is comically honest about himself on Wrestling with the Mystery(Flour Sack Cape Records). He's got a knack for one-liners. (“Heartbreak is her favorite dirty joke.” “All my old lover's old records still play.”) Think of early Hayes Carll.

A bit like a rural Lou Reed, The Catskill Mountains' Felice Brothers have also been likened to The Band and The Pogues. There's also a bit of King Missile goofiness. The title track to “Undress” (Yep Roc) is a suggestion for international and interpersonal harmony.

Turning to female singer-songwriters with pure voices, there were discs by Alice Howe, Amy Speace, and Jacqui Brown. Howe's golden tones caress her lyrics on 10-song Visions ( produced by Bonnie Raitt's long-time bassist Freebo. Her soothing cover of Sam Cooke's “Bring It on Home to Me” shows her blue-eyed soul side. Speace's formal classical training is clear on Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne(Windbone), whose songs go places other writers might fear to tread (an abortion clinic, the heart of an adult woman who still wishes that she'd been one of the pretty girls).

Produced by Paul Brown (her Grammy-winning husband and guitarist), buoyant Brown's charming debut Love Love Love (Woodward Avenue) is often nurturing, especially on the opening track, “Bend.” Its audio sparkles.

Rhiannon Giddens' collaboration with Italian multi-percussionist Francesco Turrisi, There Is No Other (Nonesuch) reached from delicate art song to spooky Medieval English folk balladry. The eclectic CD's underlying message may be that, despite ethnic differences, beneath the surface we're all actually similar – there is no other.

An often sprightly, sometimes wistful instrumental fling, Cape Breton's Grammy-winning fiddler Natalie MacMaster's Sketches (Linus Entertainment) fuses traditional Scottish and Irish strains with recent compositions.

Given how it glides around the American roots genres – swampy blues rock, western swing, New Orleans, and more – Idaho based Eilen Jewell's Gypsy (Signature Sounds) is impressively cohesive. The so-called queen of the minor key produced the disc herself with her husband/drummer Jason Beek. Its sound is crystalline.

Let's turn to specific songs. We've all heard of shaggy-dog stories. Al Basile's Looking for a Cookie (on “B's Hot House” [Sweetspot]) is a shaggy-cookie story. More seriously, on Helene Cronin's Old Ghosts & Lost Causes(, her song “Mean Bone” speaks of difficulties of leaving behind a family's demons.

My fave shows of the year: Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi on the “There Is No Other” tour. Chris Knight – solo acoustic was perfect for his intense lyrics and vocals.

RIP, Ginger Baker, Dave Bartholomew, David Berman, Donna Carson (of Hedge & Donna), George Chambers (of the Chambers Brothers) Johnny Clegg, Dick Dale, Dr. John, Fred Foster (of Monument Records), Tony Glover, Robert Hunter, Daniel Johnston, Lisa Kindred, Jerry Lawson (of the Persuasions), Roy Loney, Art Neville, Leon Rauch, Leon Redbone, Jack Scott, Peter Tork, Andre Williams.