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Monday, January 13, 2020

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
January 12, 2020
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

Last April it happened with Daniel Norgren.  The eclectic Swedish roots artist broke onto my field of vision last year, several records into his career.  I like to think I keep pretty close tabs on who's doing what, where, but there's only so much space in my restless ears.  Now the same has happened with Bart Budwig, an Oregon resident who recorded his debut collection more than a decade ago. The discerning Fluff & Gravy label will be releasing Budwig's Another Burn On the Astroturf on January 24, assuring that those of us with short attention span have even less of an excuse to plead ignorance.

On one of those earlier cuts, Bart Budwig asks, Where have all the average people gone?  That's the songwriter in a phrase, boasting numbers that portray him as a luckless Everyday Joe, a cosmic country lawn gnome as one reviewer put it.  But this bystander masterfully wields a blunt sense of the absurd and a soulful vocal delivery that's anything but common.  After years of honing his instruments, Budwig comes across like a hybrid of John Prine and Nathaniel Rateliff, perhaps with a little touch of Harry Nilsson's flair for the theatrical. For the occasion of Another Burn, he's written some new songs and re-recorded a couple others, surrounding himself with a talented cadre of associates on the highest profile release of his career.

Budwig's early records range from live in studio to downright lo-fi, setting up the mics and just pressing RECORD. This new project doesn't turn those tables entirely, but Another Burn presents a fuller, more realized edition of his loose, understated vibe.  And while country and folk have served as the vehicles for Budwig's songs to date, the new collection skews confidently in a more soulful direction, a strategy that allows his uncommon vocal gift to shine.

A fireside strummer on 2018's Sabai, "Time For Two" kicks in with Stones-y fervor and an indelible guitar riff courtesy of the man behind last year's An American Forrest record.  With ecstatic yelps and a briskly walking piano line from Seth Kinzie, Budwig and friends generate an immediate jam worthy of the aforementioned Night Sweats.  I started cleaning my place when you came through / Tried to dust off my heart, got dust on you.  It's an infectious sonic party set to lyrics about a man who doesn't necessarily have the bandwidth for a meaningful connection: Just need a place to sleep / Maybe eat some fried chicken, brush my teeth.

"Rolling Stoned" struts with a similar simmer, with the added bonus of a John Craigie harmonica solo.  The off-the-cuff appeal of Budwig's previous recordings is even stronger on these full band sessions, lending songs a ramshackle spirit that frequently shifts into a deeper groove, though tunes are rarely allowed to stretch out beyond three or four minutes.  The instrumental confidence is juxtaposed with the abiding spirit of Ain't I good enough to fall in love with / Am I better off being alone.

It seems Bart Budwig has never taken himself more seriously as an artist than on Another Burn.  That said, the self-directed sense of the absurd that has characterized his work to date remains strong on pieces like "The Sock Song".  The easy-going country-soul boasts group harmonies and barroom slide guitar, likening wayward laundry to a wandering lover: You always said relationships / Are like a pair of dirty socks / One of them likes staying / One likes getting lost.  "Human Again" features one of Budwig's most impressive deliveries, remarking how that rare love connection might at least temporarily erase those feelings of inadequacy: If I could find the will to stay / And you could find a way to bend / We'd run through the trees, make love on our knees / It's good to feel human again.

While he masquerades as a hapless average joe, there's a classic songwriter beneath Budwig's facade, an artist who plumbs some lovely emotional depth from time to time.  "First To Go" might recall a barebones Bonnie Prince Billy piece, rough hewn and deceptively vulnerable.  Allison Oleander's devastating "Oh Mother" pulls aside the curtain to reveal the effects of alcoholism on a family, punctuated by graceful harmonies and mournful fiddle from Ben Walden: He can only love you so much when he's chosen to drown.  One of the CD's real revelations is the reinvention of Nick Drake's "Northern Sky", replete with Budwig's trumpet and some lovely jazz touches and a Van Morrison-worthy vocal.  A collaboration with The Hackles, "Four Leaf Clover" has been featured on a couple earlier albums, though it's never sounded so complete as it does here, with its brief flares of electric energy.

Of course, Another Burn On the Astroturf has cast my attention to Bart Budwig's rich back catalog, contributing to my growing appreciation for his work.  In light of the strong step forward on these new sessions, I would hope Budwig and his cohorts, like Rateliff, might be able to expand their spotlight eastward from their northwest stronghold. There is already a steady-rolling wave of attention from a number of worthy music blogs like ours, perhaps brought on by the Fluff & Gravy label's trustworthy track record.  With a little help from his friends, there's some hope that Bart Budwig won't be feeling like one of the average people for too much longer.

- Innocence Mission, "On Your Side" See You Tomorrow  (Therese, Jan 17)  D
- Cotton Jones, "Glorylight and Christie" Tall Hours in the Glowstream  (Suicide Squeeze, 10)
- David Dondero, "Thought I Was a Hurricane" Filter Bubble Blues  (Fluff & Gravy, Jan 17)
^ Bart Budwig, "Four Leaf Clover" Another Burn On the Astroturf  (Fluff & Gravy, Jan 24)
- Lilly Hiatt, "Brightest Star" Walking Proof  (New West, Mar 27)  D
- Jonathan Wilson, "In Heaven Making Love" Dixie Blur  (Wilson, Mar 6)
- Christopher Paul Stelling, "Lucky Stars" Best of Luck  (Anti, Feb 7)
- Mary Bragg, "Don't Walk Away (feat. Drivin' n' Cryin')" Think About It ep  (Bragg, Mar 6)  D
- Sturgill Simpson, "Little Light" Metamodern Sounds in Country Music  (High Top Mt, 14)
- Panhandlers, "No Handle" Panhandlers  (Next Waltz, Mar 6)  D
- Darrell Scott, "My Sweet Love Ain't Around" Sings the Blues of Hank Williams  (Full Light, tbd)  D
- Tre Burt, "Caught It From the Rye" Caught It From the Rye  (Oh Boy, Jan 31)  D
- Bonny Light Horseman, "The Roving" Bonny Light Horseman  (37d03d, Jan 24)
- Mike & the Moonpies, "Sunday (live)" Live at WinStar World Casino & Resort  (Moonpies, 16)
- Steeldrivers, "I Choose You" Bad For You  (Rounder, Feb 7)
- Maria McKee, "Page of Cups" La Vita Nuova  (AFAR, Mar 13)
- Bill Fay, "Salt Of the Earth" Countless Branches  (Paradise of Bachelors, Jan 17)
- Promised Land Sound, "Otherworldly Pleasures" For Use and Delight  (Paradise of Bachelors, 15)
- Nathaniel Rateliff, "And It's Still Alright" And It's Still Alright  (Stax, Feb 14)  D
- Benjamin Tod, "We Ain't Even Kin" Heart Of Gold Is Hard To Find  (Tod, 19)
- William Prince, "The Spark" Reliever  (Glassnote, Feb 7)  D
- Alone at 3am, "Burn the Town" Midwest Mess  (Sofaburn, 12)
- Frazey Ford, "Azad" U Kin B the Sun  (Arts & Crafts, Feb 7)
- Terry Allen, "Abandonitis" Just Like Moby Dick  (Paradise of Bachelors, Jan 24)
- Brandy Clark, "Who You Thought I Was" Your Life Is a Record  (Warner, Mar 6)  D
- Ron Pope, "Take the Edge Off" Bone Structure  (Brooklyn Basement, Mar 6)
- Secret Sisters, "Hand Over My Heart" Saturn Return  (New West, Feb 28)
- Califone, "Romans" Echo Mine  (Jealous Butcher, Feb 21)
- James Steinle, "Back Out On the Road" What I Came Here For  (Steinle, Feb 7)  D
- Bedouine, "Dusty Eyes" Bedouine  (Spacebomb, 17)

... and exhale.  It seems the rusty ol' music release engine has kicked into gear after giving us all a scare during the holiday season.  Our own 2020 tally, A Routes & Branches Guide To Feeding Your Monster, is once again growing nicely, thank you.  This week saw more than twenty records added to the ranks.  We'll highlight just a handful.  Having added a very good Kelsey Waldon to their ranks in 2019, John Prine's Oh Boy Records launches into the new year with what promises to be a terrific contemporary folk project from California's Tre Burt.  More than five years after her stellar Indian Ocean, Frazey Ford will apply her game changing voice to U Kin B the Sun, on Arts & Crafts Records come February 7.  With his Night Sweats, Nathaniel Rateliff made some unholy racket with two CDs of rock 'n soul.  Those of us here in the Fair Square State remember when the man was a softspoken solo artist.  Rateliff will set his epileptic dance moves on the back burner on Valentines Day, when he shares And It's Still Alright via Stax.  There's a new red dirt/Texas country supergroup on the horizon.  Set March 6 aside in order to dig into the self-titled debut from William Clark Green, Flatland Cavalry's Cleto Cordero, Josh Abbott and John Baumann - collectively performing beneath the marquee as The Panhandlers.  Country super-writer Brandy Clark has tagged the same day for the release of her long-awaited Your Life Is a Record.  And consider us eager to get our ears on Walking Proof  (New West, Mar 27), the fourth full-length in a series that has seen Lilly Hiatt growing by leaps 'n bounds.  Here we go with your weekly ROUTES-cast:

Monday, January 06, 2020

R O U T E S  &  B R A N C H E S  
featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
January 5, 2020
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

Think I'd mentioned that we'd be presenting our favorite records of the decade for this Episode.  For that, scroll down to our post for Dec 29.  Turns out that was actually a fun list to put together, even if the final hours found me flip-flopping.  Jeez, it's hard enough for me to put together a list of my favorite music for a month ...

But with this week's Episode, we climb back on our poor overworked horse and head back out into the frontier in search of new music that matters.  In January alone, we're expecting to encounter fresh new stuff from Drive-by Truckers, Futurebirds, Possessed by Paul James and Terry Allen.  We'll cross paths with Bonny Light Horseman, a supergroup featuring Anais Mitchell, Eric D Johnson and Josh Kaufman.  If all goes as planned, we'll hear from Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, David Dondero and Legendary Shack Shakers.  We're gonna need a bigger horse.

One of our first encounters on this journey of musical discovery is with a longtime compadre.  Left Arm Tan is not a new name to frequenters of R&B.  Our blog has made a regular practice of drawing readers' attention to the Fort Worth outfit at least since 2013's Alticana.  We pursued the boys through Lorene (16) and into 2018's great leap forward, El Camino.  I've never done a word count, but there's a good chance we've expended more words on Left Arm Tan than on just about any other artist.  So it's only fitting that we stride boldly into the new decade with their new self-titled record ringing in our ears.

By way of debuting their 6th record, Left Arm Tan are sharing a series of short videos chronicling the birth of their project, due wherever music matters on January 14th.  You'll find those accounts below, along with a preview - They call the doc Phoenix Rising: An Americana Rockumentary

Like Left Arm Tan's music, the video project is polished but personal.  To quote narrator Alan Cross, They take the music seriously, but not themselves.  Overall, it's a good-natured document that celebrates a genuinely hardworking blue collar band during a time of great trial and challenging transition.  We are re-introduced to the group, from founder Daniel Hines to frontman Brian Lee, and others who have been with Left Arm Tan from several months to a couple years.  Despite the jumbled origin story, each member speaks to a cohesiveness and a common dedication to The Song: They write 'em like they got something to lose.

That's where we encounter the new project, at the intersection of these personalities, experiences and influences.  A couple months ago, they created a new hashtag, #nogenre, highlighting the fact that the new songs weren't necessarily beholden to any single sound.  Not country, trad or alt or Texas.  Not rock or blues or americana.  Left Arm Tan would honor each song and give lead to every lyric, following the muse until it just felt right.  To quote the documentary, At 20, commitment was a word. At 40, it has substance. And that substance has worked its way into the new songs.

Which doesn't mean the new stuff is busy with pretension.  On the contrary, Left Arm Tan have never sounded this comfortable, this dialed into their work.  You won't hear the sweat on "Headlights of Cars", an overcast tune awash in the loss of innocence: We used to dance all night in the headlights of cars.  From a strummed acoustic, the instrumentation builds expertly, layering vocals and adding depth and texture. Lead vocalist Brian Lee is a treasure, applying just the right touch and emotion to the song, never giving into theatrics.  As with celebrated writers like Will Hoge and Lori McKenna, you'll only realize the effort and the focus after witnessing dedication evident in the videos.  I dug a well in the pit of my heart / And named it after you.

That substance reveals itself with some new sounds.  The cosmic wash of "Stars and City Lights", or the brash horns which introduce "Mexicali Run", another from Left Arm Tan's auto-themed playlist: The desert sounds better with Ramones on the radio.  More than most acts of their ilk, they understand how to construct a song, how a tune unfolds to reveal itself little by little.  The mariachi horn break that gives way to Lee's gritty Southern rock yowl.  And the well-honed pop hooks are everywhere.  "Harder To Let Go" follows a young woman as she seeks traction on the streets of LA, shining with Eagles-worthy harmonies.

Left Arm Tan have never been a lyrically lazy act.  Each piece earns its grooves as both a story and a song.  "La Mirage" glances between the curtains from room to room of a roadside inn: From prophets to doubters / And those who just can't believe / Everybody's got a tale and a lesson to pass on.  Flickering hotel lights reveal newlyweds and a lifetime serviceman flirting with divorce.  Possibly the same haunted soldier who narrates the remarkable "Alpha Bravo": Oh Bobby can't you hear my voice / Above the sounds of collateral noise / All zipped up and barely hanging on.

Truth be told, I don't need to admire an artist as a person to enjoy their music.  But you can't help but root for the guys of Left Arm Tan, a bruised and battered band of brothers scratching and clawing their way through a decade of small victories and challenging setbacks that have driven other talented acts off the road.  Even in the wake of a difficult year, the dedication shines through on this new collection, spotlighting a group of road warriors who respond to the challenge the only way they know how.  By continuing to mature as writers and as instrumentalists.  Perhaps there's a little sarcasm in calling their docu-series Phoenix Rises (as the narrator notes, the phoenix has risen until somebody shoots it ...).  Nevertheless, those fifteen-hour recording sessions have given birth to something that should raise Left Arm Tan's profile, songs that deserve to reach the ears of folks listening for new music that matters.

Perhaps it's appropriate the the album's trailing tune is a laconic ode to radio waves bouncing across outer space, unwittingly landing in the ears of aliens.  "Good Ol' Days" is evocative with accordion, horns and guitar: They write 'em like they got something to lose / But somewhere in outer space / There's some old radio waves / And aliens are starting to sway / To songs from the good ol' days ... Damn aliens don't know how good they got it.

- Lula Wiles, "It's Cool" single  (Smithsonian, 19)  D
- Dave & Phil Alvin, "Wild Man On the Loose" If You're Going to the City: Tribute to Mose Allison  (Fat Possum, 19)
- Jakob Dylan, Dhani Harrison, et al.  -  "For Real" single  (BMG, 19)  D
- Wood Brothers, "Little Bit Sweet" Kingdom of the Mind  (HoneyJar, Jan 24)
- Becky Warren, "Full of Bourbon" War Surplus (Deluxe) (Warren, 16)
- Elijah Ocean, "Toms River" Back to the Lander  (New Wheel, 19)
- Legendary Shack Shakers, "Dump Road Yodel" Love From Sun Studio  (Chicken Ranch, Jan 17)  D
- Esther Rose, "Flowers" single  (Rose, 19)  D
- Scott H Biram, "God Don't Work" Sold Out To the Devil  (Bloodshot, 19)
- Jung Shackleton, "Proof of Life (feat. Buck Meek)" single  (Elephant Island, 19)  D
- Secret Sisters, "Hold You Dear" Saturn Return  (New West, Feb 28)
- Jack Broadbent, "Everytime I Drown" Moonshine Blue  (Creature, 19)
- Mail the Horse, "Pitch and Haw" Mail the Horse  (Baby Robot, 19)
- Neko Case, "If I'm Gonna Sink" Touch My Heart: Tribute to Johnny Paycheck  (Sugar Hill, 04)
- Harvest Thieves, "Mercy Kill" As the Sparks Fly Upward  (Harvest Thieves, 20)  D
- Micah Schnabel, "Memory Currency" Teenage Years of the 21st Century  (Here You Go, 19)
- I Can Lick Any SOB in the House, "Break All Your Strings" Mayberry  (Sad Crow, 13)
- Jonathan Wilson, "69 Corvette" Dixie Blur  (BMG, Mar 6)  D
- Carman AD, "Diesel Engine Songs" Wilderness EP  (Carman, Jan 10)  D
- Nathaniel Rateliff, "Summer's End" Marigold Singles  (Stax, 19)
- Trampled by Turtles, "Keep Me In Your Heart" Sigourney Fever EP  (Banjodad, 19)
- William Clark Green, "The One I Was Then" Next Waltz Vol 2  (Next Waltz, 19)
- Gabriel Birnbaum, "Stack the Miles" Not Alone  (Arrowhawk, 19)
- Sarah Lee Langford, "Big Women" Two Hearted Rounder  (Cornelius Chapel, 19)
- Benjamin Tod, "Sorry For the Things" A Heart of Gold Is Hard To Find  (Tod, 19)  D
- Rock*a*Teens, "Count In Odd Numbers" Sixth House  (Merge, 18)
- Fruition, "Where Can I Turn" Broken At the Break of Day  (Fruition, Jan 17)  D
- Joshua Black Wilkins, "Welcome Back Sweet Misery" 17th and Shelby  (JBW, 03)
- Bettye LaVette, "Joy" I've Got My Own Hell To Raise  (Anti, 05)
- Lula Wiles, "You Only Want Me When You Need Me" single  (Smithsonian, 19)  D

We haven't added a ton to A Routes & Branches Guide To Feeding Your Monster lately, in the great music news graveyard that typifies this time of year.  Rising Austin songwriter James Steinle will be bringing a new record our way come February.  What I Came Here For bears the producer's stamp of Bruce Robison.  After a long absence from solo stuff, Will Sexton is joined in studio by the Iguanas for Don't Walk the Darkness (Big Legal Mess, Mar 6).  Longtime LA presence Jonathan Wilson has relocated to Nashville for Dixie Blur (Bella Union, Mar 6), which finds him backed by Mark O'Connor, Dennis Crouch, Kenny Vaughn and others.  We should also have some news soon about the next Harvest Thieves full-length.  Now, your long-awaited ROUTES-cast, your first of the decade:

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
December 31, 2019
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

It's one thing to indulge me as I share my own year-end lists (or decade-end lists, as the case may be).  It's a value-added to share what our favorite artists have been enjoying over the past twelve months.  This is our third post highlighting stuff from these guest editors, each of whom has been exceptionally generous with their time and their perspective, introducing us to new artists and/or helping us understand the influences behind their work. I tend to extend the invite to at least a dozen artists, and have been pleased in years where I've received three or four responses.  This year I distributed those invitations a bit late, but have been thrilled that all but a couple have come back with contributions.  I've always hoped R&B to be a conversation, so this kind of thing is heartening.

With that, we'll head into our most recent submissions.

Matthew Ryan has added to our year-end favorites lists in past years, and his picks have always been well considered.  This year, he released a 7-song collection called The Future Was Beautiful, much of which ended up on our ROUTES-cast playlists.

These aren’t listed in a preferential order per say. And certainly this list could go on and on. Sometimes I’d rather not do this at all because I don’t wish to hurt any of my friends via exclusion in something that might look so considered. This list isn’t, it’s simply what came to mind. Some are obvious heroes that I was so happy to hear from this year with songs that knocked me out and lifted me off the ground. Others are friends and acquaintances that I feel have quietly done some of their best work to date and I wanted to offer some small encouragement to keep going. So here’s my list....
1. Leonard Cohen - Thanks for the Dance
2. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Ghosteen
3. Hammock - Silencia
4. Joe Henry - Bloom
5. Will Webb - Wherever You Are
6. Micah Schnabel - The Teenage Years of the 21st Century
7. Jeremy White - Live! From a Room
8. Justin Townes Earle - The Saint Of Lost Causes
9. Molly Thomas and the Rare Birds - Honey’s Fury
10.  Jesse Malin - Sunset Kids
11. Sammy Kay - Civil/War

Erin Enderlin shared one of our favorite records of the year.  We wrote, Ultimately, Faulkner County tells stories, leaving listeners with the picture of a town haunted by lost souls and dark secrets, folks drifting away from last call with nobody to go home to.  After all, that's country.  Even so, some of Enderlin's most impressive pieces boldly challenge the long established country music traditions. Erin took a moment to shine a light on a couple collections that defined the year for her, with a special note about her number one:
Tanya Tucker - While I’m Livin’
Randy Houser - Magnolia
Reba McEntire - Stronger Than The Truth
Yola - Walk Through Fire
Tanya’s album is my favorite of the year. It’s absolutely perfect. She’s maybe singing better than she ever has - and she’s always been incredible - and the songs and production are the perfect compliments. So awesome to watch her shine.

We heaped some digital praise on Simon Joyner a couple months ago, on the occasion of the release of another of our favorite LPs of 2019, Pocket Moon.  Simon appropriately brings this year's artist picks posts to a close.  Here at R&B HQ, we frequently espouse the health benefits of music discovery, pawing through virtual crates of stuff in search of a sound that we haven't heard before.  For his entry, Joyner has written a brief appreciation of ten projects that check that box for us.
Brian Crook: This World Just Eats Me Up Alive (Ba Da Bing)
“Dark, shambolic songs of life and death from a New Zealand underground music legend (The Terminals, The Renderers).”
Bingo Trappers: Elizabethan (Morc Tapes/Almost Halloween Time)
“I’m not ashamed to admit I recently stood atop a shaky barstool in a crowded bar in Amsterdam after a few beers and proclaimed the BT’s as the best band ever to come out of the Netherlands. This album, the first in six years from the lo-fi, home-tape pioneers, is another masterpiece.”
Peter Laughner: Peter Laughner 5xLP box set (Smog Veil)
“This collects virtually everything Laughner did outside the famous Cleveland bands he was kicked out of before dying in 1977. It apparently took years to compile and it’s worth the wait. One of my favorite songwriters and guitarists (and rock critics!) I don’t know how many songs I’ve written after listening to ‘Baudelaire,’ ‘Cinderella Backstreet,’ ‘Sylvia Plath,’ or ‘Amphetamine.’ His songwriting is the earnest, naked street poetry Springsteen affects. There will be plenty of talented people dying young, as long as the world turns, unfortunately, but there will never be another Peter Laughner.”
Peter Jefferies: Last Ticket Home (Grapefruit)
“A collection of incredible unreleased songs and early singles from the 40-year career of the NZ artist who’s enjoying a renaissance due to reissues of records by his groundbreaking bands, Nocturnal Projections and This Kind of Punishment. His solo records are really important to me. This one is as good as his 90’s records, ‘Electricity’ and ‘The Last Great Challenge in a Dull World,’ in my opinion. Full disclosure, I released this on my Grapefruit Records label but I really do think he gave us one of the albums of the year!”
Roy Montgomery and Emma Johnston: After Nietzsche (Aguirre)
“A collaboration of brooding voices and electric guitars that make for a haunting, cathartic symphony on this under the radar album. It’s as if Glenn Branca and Nico made an album together.”
Jim Shepard: Heavy Action (Ever/Never)
“Another hero who died too young and whose many various essential releases have yet to be reissued. This album gathers unreleased songs from the private collection of one of Shepard’s close friends and it should be a revelation for any fan of Shepard’s bands: V-3, Vertical Slit, Ego Summit, or Columbus underground music in general.”
Mdou Moctar: Ilana, the Creator (Sahel Sounds)
“A trance-inducing psychedelic Saharan rock album from the Tuareg guitarist and his band. Mdou might be the best rock guitarist on the planet right now and he makes it look effortless. Seeing them live is even better than the record too.”
Jim Sullivan: If the Evening Were Dawn (Light in the Attic)
“A gorgeous coda of stripped down acoustic demos of songs from Sullivan’s masterpiece, ‘UFO’ and other unheard songs from a 1969 recording session. It’s so great to have more of his music unearthed and released. Light in the Attic does it again!
Arthur Russell: Iowa Dream (Audika)
‘Love is Overtaking Me’ is one of my favorite albums and ‘Iowa Dream’ continues where that one left off. More posthumous, heartfelt and surprising singer-songwriter pop songs shared by the estate of the avant-garde cellist/composer.”
Carla dal Forno: Look Up Sharp (Kallista)
“Excited to have more mesmerizing experimental electronic pop music from this Australian singer-songwriter. I loved ‘You Know What It’s Like’ from 2016 and this album is even more revelatory. Everyone should check out this music even if it’s not for everyone.”

Great Thanx to all the artists who participated in this year's poll!  I post this from one of my favorite coffee shops deep in the wilds of the Colorado Front Range, a warm retreat from the weather of the world.  My hope is that a little of that warmth finds its way to you readers, and that you disperse it among your own music community.  It's that strong spirit that we carry forward into the new days, years and decade to come.

Happy New Year.

Monday, December 30, 2019

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
December 29, 2019
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

WHAT's SO GREAT ABOUT the 2010's?!!

We have just one more of these lists to send your way before we head into the first weeks of the new decade.  Appropriately, this one showcases my favorite records of the past ten years.  On the surface, it's an easier challenge than our recurring year-end lists.  I finished the initial run-through several weeks ago, and felt pretty good about the results.  As usual, doubts and whatabouts crept in, and I created a second list of things that might belong on that first one.  That addendum soon became longer than the initial list, and I crumbled like a discarded sheet of Christmas wrap.  What was I thinking?  How did I ever leave off CDs X Y or Z?!!  Is it better to include two projects by one artist, or to err on the side of diversity?  Anyhow, what we have here today is simply the stuff that I enjoyed more than a lot of the other stuff.

As with previous lists, I've pulled comments from my past posts when possible. The parenthetical part reads (Label, Month and Year of Initial Release).

30. Benjamin Booker, Benjamin Booker  (ATO, Aug 14)
I knew Booker was my man as soon as I launched into the first track of his debut and realized that I had no idea of the lyrics he was spitting. From New Orleans, the 24 year old cites Gun Club, T Rex and Blind Willie Johnson among his influences - my initial take planted him in an unkempt garden between early Shane McGowan and Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott. As a guitarist, he seemingly plays with his knuckles, rattling away with a Chuck Berry riff on "Violent Shiver", or exploding into pure, unrecognizable (lovely) distortion on cuts like "Chipewa" or "Have You Seen My Son" (not to mention that unholy howl of a voice). Most impressively, he is one of the few artists since Violent Femmes who cut a rare line between gospel and punk.

29. Mount Moriah, How to Dance  (Merge, Feb 16)
Heather McEntire is as strong a writer and vocalist as Heartless Bastards' Erika Wennerstrom or Hurray For the Riff Raff's Alynda Segarra.  Where Wennerstrom trades in heavy, darker shades, McEntire's music (esp. her new songs) works in bright, natural colors.  Upon first listen, songs like "Baby Blue" and "Calvander" burst with nature imagery.  It's my habit to listen to an album once or twice through before looking at other reviews or promo material.  It was only after looking into the packaging that I found the album's dedication:  This album is dedicated to anyone who has ever felt the cold shadows of oppression or discrimination; to the misfits, the outcasts, the loners, the misunderstood, the underdogs ...

28. Will Johnson, Hatteras Night a Good Luck Charm  (Undertow, Mar 17)
It's the record I was praying Will Johnson would make.  Some songs allow him to explore his untapped skill as a TVZ-type troubadour, while others permit him to indulge in noisy Centro-matic squall.  Like the LP's cover, Hatteras Night is a whole lotta dark, shot through with a cold but abiding little light.  It's a short story (or maybe a cinema vignette) masquerading as an album.

27. Lydia Loveless, Real  (Bloodshot, Aug 16)
I remember heading into a record store during my mid-teens in Grants Pass, Oregon. I can't even recall the name, though I do remember searching my soul in deciding whether to purchase the Ramones' End of the Century, Pretenders' classic debut, or Rachel Sweet's Protect the Innocent. The fact that I opted for the latter speaks loudly for my state of mind at the time. Nevertheless, Lydia Loveless' new album would've fit fine beside all of the above, a retro punk-fueled slice of pop glory that surpasses all expectations. You'll still hear twang now and then, primarily in Loveless' inescapable drawl, but it's nothing more than an ingredient in the mix rather than the driving spirit.

26. Courtney Marie Andrews, May Your Kindness Remain  (Mama Bird, Mar 18)
At a time when decency is hard to find in the public sphere, kindness can be revolutionary, and personal connection can be essential:  When you're trying to be tender / But instead you come off cold / When your sweetness surrenders / To the cruelness of this world.  The songs on May Your Kindness Remain aren't political in the protest sense of the term.  But Andrews does indirectly acknowledge the current state of affairs through these stories.  The title track locates some small salvation in the simple wish that we hold fast to that spark of kindness, of humanity, even as our other trappings may fade:  If your money runs out / And your good looks fade / May your kindness remain ...

25. Lee Bains III & Glory Fires, There is a Bomb in Gilead  (Alive Naturalsound, Mar 12)
Once a member of Dexateens, Bains' new group is currently touring with another hot Alabama band, the Alabama Shakes.  His Glory Fires achieve that difficult balance between deep Southern soul and hard On tracks like "Ain't No Stranger" and "Centreville", Bains howls in front of a band that will please any fan of the garage-y grunge of bands like Black Keys.  Other tunes sound like they could've been penned by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. 

24. Chris Stapleton, Traveller  (Mercury, May 15)
The popular response pegs him as an "outlaw" country guy, and “Might As Well Get Stoned”,  “Outlaw State of Mind” and  “Devil Named Music” assure that the “o” word will be easily attached to Stapleton’s resume, though he’s far bigger than the tired outlaw sub-genre. In the midst of all this hard livin’, heavy drinkin’ and deep sinnin’, there is a brutal honesty to Chris Stapleton’s music.  When too much country is played with a wink or a tongue jammed in cheek, there’s none of this pretense to The Traveller.  Perhaps no song speaks to this better than “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore”, a stark, barebones story that quietly breaks hearts.  Molasses slow, with wheezing harmonica mimicking the sound of a miles-away train.  Daddy doesn’t pray anymore / Guess he’s finished talking with the lord / He used to fold his hands and bow his head down to the floor / But Daddy doesn’t pray anymore

23. Patterson Hood, Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance  (ATO, Sep 12)
It's just that for every great Patterson Hood DBT tune, there was another where I felt he tried a bit hard to be dark and gritty.  More recent albums have seen his writing relax a bit, still focused on the down and out, but less cartoonish, more nuanced.  That trend is realized on his third solo work, the stellar Heat Lightning Rumbles In the Distance, which offers Hood's most poetic, diverse material to date.  DBT members crop up throughout a record that boasts more careful arrangements than we've seen from Hood's previous work.  Like all of his songs, these are character-driven pieces, so haunted and steeped in the mythology of the South that it's not hard to imagine that Heat Lightning reportedly began as a semi-autobiographical novel.  From the title track, Heat lightning rumbles in the distance / The sun's falling west of the trees / The old oak's gone and the house is falling down / But the ghosts are a comfort to me ...

22. Hiss Golden Messenger, Lateness of Dancers  (Merge, Sep 14)
But at the moment the sun is shining right on me / And the road is shimmering in the haze / Oh Ione, your daddy's just as dark as can be / But I can be your little rainbow too ... It's a jewel of a record that comes at the perfect time in our collective discovery of Hiss Golden Messenger.  It's a wandering through the wilderness that will eventually lead back home.  A plunge into a chilly creek that heightens the senses and makes us feel more alive. 

21. Margo Price, Midwest Farmer's Daughter  (Third Man, Mar 16)
With her name on the credits of nearly every song here, Margo Price proves herself a country writer who should be gratefully embraced by the powers behind her genre.  Midwest Farmer's Daughter offers yet another generous lifeline to mainstream country's drowning masses.  Americana crowds have already grabbed ahold as they did with Brandy Clark and Sturgill Simpson.  I killed an angel on my shoulder / With a fifth of Evan Williams / When I found out / You were never comin' home.

20. Austin Lucas, Between the Moon and the Midwest  (Last Chance, May 16)
More than anything it's his voice, a remarkable and otherworldly instrument I first heard on 2007's Putting the Hammer Down.  The following year brought a collaboration with Chuck Ragan exploring bluegrass, gospel and old timey sounds on the beautiful Bristle Ridge.  I can do no better than to introduce Lucas' new record by quoting the opening lines:  I've been told to walk away / Nearly every time I've made an album / I hear there's no good men left / Everyone in Nashville's deaf / And sad songs are a thing of the past / But if I'm an old photograph / Worn and torn and fading fast / In a frame that's shattered, laying on the floor / Maybe this old picture/ Like an old vinyl record / Could be dusted off and loved just like before

19. American Aquarium, Burn Flicker Die  (Last Chance, Aug 12)
A number of my favorite blogs have already championed Raleigh's American Aquarium and their sixth album Burn Flicker Die.  Recorded in Muscle Shoals with Jason Isbell at the helm, the new songs boast the best of both of those influences, with the blues and soul inherent in Alabama's legendary studios and the grit and lyrical grace of Isbell's own work.  There's a definite working class toughness to BJ Barham's songs:  You're just a two pack habit with a southern accent / I'm a pearl snap poet with bad tattoos.  But like the best writers, Barham is not ashamed to allow light shine through the cracks or to wear his tattered heart on his sleeve.  Nights like these the drugs don't work / They just get in the way instead of picking me up / I wish my addictions didn't mean so much / But we all can't be born with that kind of luck

18. Delines, Colfax  (El Cortez, Apr 14)
There's great songwriting and then there's the writing of Willy Vlautin.  Previously a musician who also wrote novels, Vlautin has morphed into a novelist who also writes songs.  The frontman for Richmond Fontaine, Vlautin is the author of four excellent stories, including February's The Free.  He'll also go down in my book as the force behind what just might be my favorite record of 2014, the Delines' Colfax.  While his is not the voice you hear (that'd be the Damnations' Amy Boone), those are his words, so perfectly couched in the latenight country/soul groove created by Boone, Richmond Fontaine's Sean Oldham, Decemberists' Jenny Conlee "and friends" (including Tucker Jackson's pedal steel and Freddy Trujillo's bass).  I'm a tremendous fan of Vlautin's previous work, but in some ways the music on Colfax seems to have more in common with his books than his albums.

17. Brittany Howard, Jaime  (ATO, Sep 19)
As the undeniable force behind Alabama Shakes, Howard announced her arrival with 2012's Boys & Girls, an album that largely altered the musical swath we cut for Routes & Branches.  The follow-up, Sound & Color boldly widened that lane, as Howard expanded the Shakes' sound into unforeseen territories of funk 'n soul.  For my purposes, I wanted nothing more than more of the same.  But for the brashest, boldest vocalist in our kind of music, that meant pushing again.  Pushing so far beyond expectations that Jaime merited a separation from Howard's band.  It demanded nothing less that redefining her cut of alien funk, song after song finding her exploring a new pocket, stretching that uncommonly warm and expressive voice in ways that bring it all back home.  She is our Nina Simone.

16. Yola, Walk Through Fire  (Easy Eye, Feb 19)
Where Brittany Howard sought new avenues of expression, Yola's debut full-length warms with the familiar trappings of roots and soul.  With producer Dan Auerbach, she  delivers her songs in arrangements that remind us of these elements that helped birth out kind of music, sounds that should have been there all along.  With baskets of award nominations and end-of-year plaudits, there is the sense that Yola is poised to attract the attention of even more listeners as we head into the next decade.  As she proves on a newly-released take on Elton John's notoriously difficult to sing "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road", she really can sing anything.  For that reason, we're so lucky that Yola has chosen to stake her claim using americana music as her home base.  

15. Alejandro Escovedo, Burn Something Beautiful  (Concord, Oct 16)
Whether with True Believers, Rank & File or as a solo veteran, no artist has more thoroughly and successfully explored the full range of musical expression possible in roots music.  He's also proven himself a worthy collaborator over the years, pairing with Stephen Bruton, Jon Dee Graham, John Cale, Chuck Prophet or Tony Visconti for worthy results.  Burn Something certainly rises to these lofty standards, a true pooling of talents with Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck, along with contributions from John Moen, Kurt Bloch, Corin Tucker, Kelly Hogan and Steve Berlin.  With guitars just this side of rude, and some of Escovedo's most relevant writing in years, it's nothing less than a rebirth.

14. John Murry, Graceless Age  (Evangeline, Apr 13)
Murry sings in a slurred baritone that resonates on a level somewhere between the junky hymns of Alejandro Escovedo and the American mythology of Springsteen.  But this is far from your grandpa's americana.  Some songs are almost unbearably sparse, with others slogging through thick levels of feedback, gospel backing vocals and the mumble of barely audible conversation. Murry admits that he is largely influenced by the literature of Faulkner and others, and that touchpoint is evident from start of finish here.  Whether these are intensely personal recollections or the ghosts of an overactive literary imagination, John Murry's Graceless Age is anything but.  

13. Jason Isbell, Southeastern  (Southeastern, Jun 13)
Fresh off an Americana Music Award for his "Alabama Pines" song, Jason Isbell returns with the album of his career.  In addition to the award recognition, Southeastern arrives in the wake of a newfound sobriety and a marriage to Amanda Shires.  None of which means that these new songs are necessarily more upbeat and positive than anything else he has ever written.  Matter of fact, Isbell's victories have seemingly prompted a bout of artistic self-reflection.  Only "Super 8" demonstrates the raucous, devil may care spirit that might have permeated Isbell's earlier work with the Drive-by Truckers.  "Elephant", for instance, is a brutally, beautifully honest portrayal of a man in love with a woman ravaged by cancer:  But I'd sing her classic country songs and she'd get high and sing along / She don't have a voice to sing with now / We burn these joints in effigy and cry about what we used to be. / And try to ignore the elephant somehow, somehow

12. Lucero, All a Man Should Do  (ATO, Sep 15)
Based on a recent on air appearance at R&B's home station, the guys from Lucero continue to make bad choices, to drink too much and to make uncommonly good music.  That said, the young romantic punks from earlier records have more or less grown into soul searching romantics.  Lucero's music has evolved as well, from hard spitting punk to Memphis roots soul replete with horns and barroom piano.  The commonality through it all is the maturing vision of frontman Ben Nichols, who continues to live it all and to sing about it. When it landed on my desk late this summer, I dearly wanted/needed/expected the record to be this good.

11. Lee Bains III & Glory Fires, Youth Detention  (Don Giovani, Jun 17)
Nobody has generated more of a buzz 'n racket this year than Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires. Youth Detention is punk. And, like the best punk, the double-CD gives us reason to rage while also issuing a rally cry and reminding listeners of what matters in the midst of a social shitstorm. Youth Detention is a truly remarkable document, like a shoebox jammed full with a jumble of memories, impressions, frustrations and identities.

10. Yawpers, American Man  (Bloodshot, Oct 15)
Even as I praised the Yawpers' earlier work, I recognized that the band was a step or two away from self-sabotage.  True, punk isn't punk if it's pretty.  Danger and unease are an essential part of the equation in a band like Cook's.  I'm cautiously encouraged by American Man, however, and we should be eager to follow the trio's story as they cope with the bright lights of relative success - ie, landing near the top of the Routes & Branches year-end favorites list ...  

9.  John Moreland, High on Tulsa Heat  (Old Omens, Apr 15)
Time will gradually decide how High On Tulsa Heat stacks up against John Moreland's earlier classic.  A week into the experience, it's my sense that the album's return to Moreland's fuller sound will earn it a wider audience, and it certainly won't hurt that there's already more promotional effort behind it than there was for the entirety of the Throes campaign.  It still remains to be seen if the mainstream can recognize and embrace such a broken and beautiful body of music, let alone a stained two-day shirt, a worn trucker's hat and hair that probably hasn't seen a comb for a good while.  I've not doubt that the folks who have already so strongly embraced Moreland's work will take the same ownership of Tulsa Heat

8.  Alabama Shakes, Boys & Girls  (ATO, Apr 12)
More than a year ago, in a written intro to my November 12, 2011 playlist, I made brief mention of an unknown band, and linked to a live recording of "You Ain't Alone".  "This link," I wrote, "just might change your life". 

7.  Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music  (Hilltop Mt, May 14)
Despite my Routes & Branches tagline, looking down my list there is a lot that is only tangentially linked to country music, if at all.  Sturgill Simpson, however, stands for all that I love about the genre.  If you're not paying attention to the lyrics of "Turtles All the Way Down," it's as classic and traditional a vocal delivery as you're bound to find.  "Long White Line" is pure honky tonk.  But then there's the incredible instrumental freakout which closes "It Ain't All Flowers," or the left-field cover of When In Rome's 1980s hit "The Promise".  Metamodern Sounds is not only firmly rooted in the immediately recognizable traditions, it has arguably preserved the genre during a time when what passes for mainstream country has largely unmoored it from its past. 

6.  Drive-by Truckers, American Band  (ATO, Sep 16)
Freed's colorful art projects a cartoon-like impression of Southern life.  We recognize the faces and the broad caricatures, the dark and almost sinister proposition of working class existence.  On American Band, Drive-by Truckers set aside the fables and stories to talk about the warm blood flowing from real people on our streets.  For a band that's flirted for nearly two decades with the edge, it's an impressively mature, measured and heartfelt gesture.  The guitars continue to play loud and the ghosts of Muscle Shoals continue to haunt these songs, even as we struggle to understand the weight that's bringing down the country and our possible role in raising the flag.

5.  Arliss Nancy, Simple Machines  (Suburban Home, Nov 12)
Even once I fell hard for Fort Collins' own Arliss Nancy, it wasn't until I had spent some quality time with Simple Machines that I realized it was worthy of being more than just my favorite Colorado album.  Arliss Nancy's appeal is more elusive.  They have definite punk roots, but also demonstrate an ability to write and play with an atypical finesse.  Lyrically, there is a working class mythology to Arliss Nancy's songs, a youthful disillusion that might even place them in a similar vein as later Replacements or earlier Hold Steady.

4.  Neko Case, Hell-On  (Anti, Jun 18)
Each year, I do my best of honor our commitment to playing music that matters (insert fancy trademark sign here).  This year, that means recognizing one of the most fearless, uncompromising voices in all of music.  While the music world pats itself awkwardly on the back for a cursory celebration of women in music, I'd say that there's not an artist that has presented such a literary masterpiece, not a performer who has exhibited such strength and such fury in the past twelve months.  Case not only stares down the monster, she grabs it by the jaws and devours it.  In a year when Important Statements are in fashion, she simply does what she has done for years.  Neko Case messes with our mythologies, and defines 2018.  

3.  Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free  (Southeastern, Jul 15)
I’ve lived with the record for about a week, to the point where “that new CD smell” has faded a bit.  My relationship with an album is not entirely unlike that with a sweetheart  (wrote the blogger who’s been married for 25+ years): the initial novelty and euphoria, the subsequent “getting to know you” period, and the gradual settling, familiarity and recognition.  I return to this page to confidently announce that I think this is the real thing.  Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free might just be a masterpiece.

2.  John Moreland, In the Throes  (Last Chance, Jun 13)
Fact is, I am here to praise a man whose new album seems to have shown up on most of my favorite blogs over the past two weeks.  John Moreland's In the Throes is as big a thing in these circles as an artist like John Moreland can be.  And still he deserves more.  Even with all these preliminary accolades, a friend told me of a brilliant Moreland show recently in Denver, attended by almost nobody.  This might be the nature of our kind of music but, if justice prevails, Moreland will have a good deal more company on his next trip thru the state. 

1.  Lydia Loveless, Indestructible Machine  (Bloodshot, Sep 11)
One of the things that first drew me to Bloodshot was the fact that underneath nearly every early release lay a consistent ethos. Their music sounded dangerous. Waco Brothers, Whiskeytown, Old 97s, Split Lip Rayfield. Music that might scare your grandmother, altho it was all inspired by stuff in your grandfather's collection. Reportedly from small town Ohio, Lydia Loveless' music makes sound dangerous again. So much that sets out to meld country music with punk spirit simply comes off sounding clownish and empty. Loveless' music sounds honest. And honestly dangerous. As a singer, her voice recalls classic country pipes, while at the same time spitting and growling and cursing - Bloodshot actually sent two discs: The original, as well as the censored, with sonic holes punched throughout (like where she advises to, "Write me a love letter / In the gravel with your piss ...").

Couple things stand out about these blurbs.  First, I find it remarkable how my writing has changed over the past ten years, or how writing has become more of a focus of the blog than our playlists.  Of course, a decade ago I was firmly ensconced at a radio station.  My liberation from that servitude redefined the latitudes of what we do here, even as it posed new challenges and new reasons to be frustrated.  I'd also note that the online playing field has been redefined, with several prominent blogs coming, going and evolving.  Today, R&B stands as one of the few purveyors of longform original commentary, a rarity in a field that's increasingly defined by cut-and-paste content and audio/video streaming.

That's it.  Now we reset the tables for the next decade of americana, and roots music.  We clear the deck in hopes of more excellence and evolution of our kind of music, fully expecting to be thrown into orbit by new artists, musical ideas and unreasonable whims.  As I say, even though I have an alarming tendency to drift into the collective we, ours is a radically individual vision, just the opinions of one guy.  And this one guy is greatly appreciative of anyone else who might find some worth in what happens here, maybe even sending a friend or three our way.  And it's especially heartening when an artist, label or promoter recognizes the reciprocal nature of what we're doing and recommends our site to fans and followers.  Our numbers are growing every year, folks looking for something Else.  But I'm guessing we'll still be here even if those levels flatten out or take a downturn.  In the end, it's just how I encounter and interact with some of the music I appreciate.  God help us all.


Tuesday, December 24, 2019

by Raaber Way
featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
December 23, 2019
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

A couple Episodes ago, we shared some year-end favorites lists from a few of our favorite artists.  I find these consistently enlightening, a quick glance behind the curtain at the stuff that might make an artist tick.  As luck would have it, we've got a couple additional contributors who have handed in their homework.

The enigmatic Mat Davidson of Twain made some beautiful noise in 2019.  Beginning the year by releasing a pair of EPs, he followed in November with the full-length Adventure (all on the really reliable Keeled Scales label).  Here's what's been fueling Mt. during these prolific months:
Little Mazarn - IO (Self Sabotage)
Little Wings - People (Kyle Field)
Erin Durant - Islands (Keeled Scales)
Arthur Russell - Iowa Dream (Audika)
Aldous Harding - Designer (4AD)
0 Stars - Blowing On a Marshmallow in Perpetuity (Babe City)

Matt Woods' Natural Disasters earned a place on both our favorite songs and albums list for 2019. The past year has seen Matt looking for musical fulfillment in heavier sounds and worthy writing:
I have definitely been enjoying the most recent release from our Florida pals Have Gun Will Travel, Strange Chemistry. They are bringing a more rock and roll vibe on this one. I have also been listening to the new Sturgill Simpson album which has also tapped into a more rocking vibe. I think a lot of folks have tapped into that lately, including myself. I have been getting my solid songwriter fix from the likes of John R Miller's new one, The Trouble You Follow, and Robert Ellis' Texas Piano Man.  

We reviewed Robbie Fulks' full-length labor-of-love, 16 back in the innocent days of early November.  In addition to a couple 2019 releases, Robbie provided what's definitely the most wide-ranging list we've shared to date.  While R&B is driven by new stuff, the spirit of musical discovery encompasses music from earlier years as well.  On any given 30-song ROUTES-cast, we'll feature 24 current tracks alongside a half-dozen songs from the past.  The search for these can be as rewarding as our neverending hunt for novelty.  Here's the list Robbie Fulks shared:

Carly Simon - every record from Hotcakes on
Wendy Waldman - self-titled
Jems - self-titled
Pistol Annies - Interstate Gospel (Sony, 18)
Eric Dolphy - Out There (Concord, 60)
Arto Lindsay - Cuidado Madame (Northern Spy, 17)
Junglepussy - all
Ludacris - Chicken-n-Beer (Island, 03)
Jenny Scheinman & Allison Miller - Parlour Game (Royal Potato, 19)
Jamie Drake - Everything's Fine (Anti-Fragile, 19)
Chris Stapleton - Traveller (Mercury, 15)
Buddy & Julie Miller - Breakdown on 20th Ave South (New West, 19)
Dallas Frazier, Tell It Like It Is (Capitol, 67)
Brennen Leigh - album in progress
Talk about diversity!

Recently, I was laying awake wondering what makes Kill County purveyors of such an original sound.  The Austin-based act (who I called one of the best kept secrets in our kind of music) issued Everything Must Die in August, their fourth full-length of uncompromising dark 'grass-n-country.  Ringo responded to our request with the following:
My list for 2019 (and for any year really) includes new and new-to-me records. I used to be embarrassed about these kinds of late discoveries (only just now hearing Fred Eaglesmith's 6 Volts for example). However, I have come to understand and appreciate the delay of discovery as a function of life; they dovetail into all the other things (namely any number of assorted lessons and skills) I probably should have already known.
1.  Daniel Bachman - The Morning Star - So this record came out in 2018, and If I had had my shit together, I would have included it in that list. Truth be told I actually bought this record in 2018, but didn't really get into it, for one reason or another, until this year.  That said, this is my favorite of his records-not a record 'tethered to the past', but open and exploratory and free.  I keep coming back to this record and wonder how someone is able to conjure up this sound; it is so patient and weird and beautiful.
2.  Simon Joyner - Paper Moon - This record is more like the previous Grass, Branch, and Bone than the heroic Ghost centered records, and I tend to prefer this style- the straight forward but clear production, the imagery, and writing is front and center.  Some other review of his record this year said something to the effect of, 'nobody writes a song like Simon Joyner' and that, amid a beguiling potential points of entry into his work, might be the most succinct thing you can say about him.  Either way, this record spent a lot of time on my record player this year and it is just another example of his extraordinary work.
3.  Pharis and Jason Romero - Sweet Old Religion - Pharis and Jason not only are great song writers and players, they maintain a rural banjo workshop that produces some of the world’s finest banjos.  Another 2018 record, and the first of two Canadians on the list, they drawn instant comparison with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, but I think those fade quickly; Jason and Pharis easily hold their own in songwriting style and skill.
4.  Fred Eaglesmith - 6 Volts - This record came out of nowhere and slayed me.  A friend told me to look up ‘Trucker Speed’ and I spent the next two weeks listening to the record non-stop.  I became an instant fan of his Springsteen-like Nebraska vibe and wit.  I’ll be spending 2020 catching up on Fred Eaglesmith.
5.  Tyler Childers – both Purgatory and Country Squire - I think Tyler Childers is a great songwriter, and if on paper he isn't anything we haven't already seen in 50 years of traditional country-bluegrass American music, he has a great (if understated) band and songs that make you hit repeat.  Which is not something we have already (readily) seen in 50 years of traditional country-bluegrass music.
6.  Mississippi Records Mix Tapes – Assorted - I spent a lot of time in 2019 listing to a whole bunch of cassette tapes purchased from Mississippi Records.  I am not sure how to explain these mix tapes, as they represent a massive spectrum of American and international music curated by the iconoclastic Mississippi Records.  the tapes are cheap (4 bucks) and contain an incomprehensible range of styles beyond what I can try to describe but ballpark fits between early Bakersfield to Nina Simone to Ethiopian piano composers - all gems.
7.  JD Crowe and the New South – ‘Rounder 0044’ - The oldest record of the list and potentially bearing some evidentiary provenance for a number of above listed music.  I have only recently begun to accept, beyond previous claims, that I actually like bluegrass music.  However, this was only made possible by records like this (and the near constant companion of Norman Blake records).  

Finally, Big Thanks to Ags Connolly, who also accompanied his selections with some insightful reflections.  Ags' Wrong Again reached us in November, narrated by one of my favorite voices in all of country music.

Jason James - Seems Like Tears Ago (Melodyville) - Jason is always the first name out of my mouth when anyone asks me who is making the best traditional country music these days. He loves George Jones but he's no tribute act. His original songs easily stand up alongside the classics. The production on this album is also exquisite.
Michael Dart - Fightin' the Wars (Dart) - This is the best under-the-radar record I've heard all year, and probably beyond that. Mike is a friend from Austin who I rate highly. I backed his crowdfunder for Fightin' the Wars to be supportive but had no idea how good this thing was gonna turn out. It's full of excellent guest musicians and the co-production job by Mike and guitar player Chris McElrath is awesome. Most of all though, the songs are great. This album is definitely Mike's magnum opus.
Leo Rondeau - Right On Time (Rondeau) - Another one that went under the radar. Leo and I did a UK and Ireland tour in support of this album back in April. I was already a big fan of his songwriting having seen him in Austin before, but I think this might be his best album. Leo has a lot of great songs that haven't even been released yet, and it's kind of criminal that he's not better known 
Roger Alan Wade - Simmering Rage (Knoxville) - Roger is one of my favourite songwriters ever and, in my view one of the best around today. Any album release of his is a big event for me. This one is very much in the vein of his last few, in that it's a mostly-serious voice and guitar affair. He's perhaps better known for his funnier songs (some of which were used in Jackass by his cousin Johnny Knoxville), but I think Simmering Rage represents him at his best.  
Chris Knight - Almost Daylight (Drifter's Church) - As with Roger Alan Wade, a new Chris Knight album is always a big thing for me. This is the first one from him in seven years, which makes it even more special. Chris has a very distinctive style that he doesn't deviate from much which is what people love about him. It's gritty, gravelly and sometimes grim. A song like 'Send It On Down' is typical of the great slice-of-life type songs he can write, and which I'm very envious of.  
Honourable mention: The Country Side of Harmonica Sam - Broken Bottle, Broken Heart (El Toro) - I was familiar with this Swedish band from the Ameripolitan world but this album is by far their best in my opinion. It includes a lot more original stuff, plus the excellent 'My First Broken Heart (Since My Last Broken Heart)' penned for them by Jake Penrod. They have mastered the classic honky tonk sound in the same way Jason James has. It's just a lot of fun to listen to.

God I love my work.  As previously announced, we'll be looking back at our favorite albums of the past decade for next week's Episode (debuting the week of January 5).  I was talking to my son yesterday, who told me that the 2010's actually draws to a close this time NEXT year.  I simply don't care.  That train is leaving the station, son.  I'd just as soon cast my lot alongside every other blogger and their dog, who have been posting their own lists over the past couple weeks.

So enjoy your Christmas.  Sink into the melancholy, embrace the joy.  Check the porch for wryly smiling packages.  And in those rare moments when obligations are few and you can retreat to a quiet corner in your mind, maybe between the pages of a book or the grooves of a record, revel.

It's a new year / And you don't look your age / Everyone seems so happy celebrating winter this way / What time does it end / And when can I go / Get into that car / And drive through the snow  --  Simon Joyner, "New Year's Song"

Friday, December 20, 2019

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
Christmas 2019
Scott Foley, purveyor of gift receipts

I was a lucky kid when it came to Christmas.  Every year, the family would select the most sprawling, shapeless Oregon fir for our tree.  After we festooned the beast with ornaments, my mother would spend a couple days hanging tinsel, strand by strand until the thing shone like a star.  Wider than it was tall, the tree held court over its own ecosystem in the corner of our living room, gradually attracting carefully wrapped presents around its base until they overflowed and had to be piled in front of the fireplace on Christmas morning.  Even if we got an early start, unwrapping could last well until the afternoon, with my mother always last to open her gifts.  Damn straight my brothers and I were spoiled.

Even in the midst of a tsunami of tinsel, there were still moments of solemnity, silent nights to offset silver bells.  I credit at least some of that to evenings spent in a living room lit only by tree lights reflected off tinsel, playing LPs by Barbara Streisand, Neil Diamond, Ray Conniff Singers and Andy Williams.  In the ensuing years, when I've been able to harness that spirit it was often because of music.  Sure, Paul Anka and Kingston Trio were replaced by Phil Spector and "Fairytale of New York", but it hasn't been Christmas until we've dug into our crate of hymns, carols and songs about snow.

Which is why you'll find holiday music on our blog about this time every year.  For me, it's about stirring that spirit, capturing what can be an increasingly elusive thing.  It's about the peace that might be found above all this bustle.  There can be a lot of stress and resentment surrounding the holidays, but for me it's always been about mining the days for moments of meaning and space for reflection.  Of course, since it's R&B we're still talking about music that matters.  Even through the holidays when new music can be sparse, we never stray from the mission that guides us during the unholiday months.

So during the week(s) to come, you'll enjoy new tracks in the snow from favorites like Hiss Golden Messenger and Molly Burch.  You'll stare longingly into your late night hot chocolate to the tune of Samantha Crain and Los Lobos.  And perhaps you'll gather beneath the still bright star above the stable beside Ass Ponys and Fruit Bats.  And if it kindles something small and warm in your heart, then we've done our work.

For my dollars, there's not a warmer seasonal offering than A Molly Burch Christmas Album.  As I've written several times, our best Christmas records are those that are also really good albums, period.  Those classics tend to blend a few strong originals with thoughtful passes through seasonal classics.  From Austin, Burch has brought us a pair of recent albums of dreamy indie folk, melancholy originals with a bit of a wink and a healthy layer of retro trappings. That's just what you get on her holiday project, albeit with more uplift-per-groove than on those everyday collections.

Yes, you'll find your red 'n green standards here.  "I'll Be Home For Christmas" is a classically pretty reading, and she's backed by a host of kids on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas".  Burch has some fun during her run through George Michael's contemporary standard "Last Christmas", featuring campy banter with actor and comedian John Early.  But the spirit of Christmas Album is in Burch's non-standard array of cover songs.

By any measure, Ella Fitzgerald's Swinging Christmas is a perennial go-to for purveyors of fine holiday records.  Molly Burch delivers a gorgeous reading of that classic's "Secret of Christmas", her voice beautiful alongside the solo harp.  "What the Lonely Do At Christmas" comes courtesy of The Emotions, a jazz 'n soul stunner whose melancholy rings consistent with much of the collection: The silent night / I know it's gonna be joy to the world / But it's gonna be sad for me.

Famously sung by Dolly Parton for the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Burch imbues "Hard Candy Christmas" with a deep feeling absent from most of the umpteen covers over the years.  The closing refrain finds the singer repeating Oh I'll be fine, even after admitting that she's barely getting through tomorrow.  Very few will recall "Snowqueen of Texas" from the Mamas & the Papas, brought back to light on Burch's cool country take.  Perhaps a more palatable alternative to "Baby It's Cold Outside", Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann's "Coldest Night of the Year" is probably best recognized for Bruce Cockburn's version.  Burch's duet with Jesse Woods owes more to a lesser known recording by Vashti Bunyan.  And no heart will be left unstirred in the wake of her take on ABBA's "Happy New Year", a song that leaves the listener wondering What lies waiting down the line / In the end of '89 ...

Molly Burch handles each of these with an admirable balance of cheer and moodiness, her voice a wonderful vehicle for both.  She adds a pair of stylish originals to the sessions, capped by the sweetly stinging "New Year Love":  I spent Christmas alone this year / And I want that to be the last time.  With lyrics like that, A Molly Burch Christmas Album probably won't be your first choice to soundtrack opening presents on a bleary-eyed Christmas morning.  But our holidays tend to be characterized by long stretches of solitude, spiced with fleeting moments of togetherness and community cheer.  During those more inwardly-focused times, there might be nothing better this year.

- Steve Earle & Allison Moorer, "Nothing But a Child" To: Kate - a Benefit for Kate's Sake  (Western Beat, 05)
- McCrary Sisters, "Away In a Manger (feat. Jerry Douglas & Keb Mo)" Very McCrary Christmas  (Rounder, 19)
- Langhorne Slim, "Deck the Halls (With Boughs of Holly)" Dualtone Christmas  (Dualtone, 19)
- Field Medic, "Santa Made Me Do It" single  (Run for Cover, 19)
- Fruit Bats, "Baby in the Hay" You Wish: a Merge Records Holiday Album  (Merge, 19)
- Peggy Sue, "Silver Bells" Surf Xmas  (Peggy Sue, 19)
- Hiss Golden Messenger & Lucinda Williams, "Christmas in Prison" You Wish: a Merge Records Holiday Album  (Merge, 19)
- Andrew Bird, "Christmas is Coming" Hark!  (Loma Vista, 19)
- Diamond Rugs, "Christmas in a Chinese Restaurant" Diamond Rugs  (Partisan, 12)
- Delta Spirit, "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" Dualtone Christmas  (Dualtone, 19)
- Brandy Clark, "Merry Christmas Darling (feat. Charlie Worsham)" single  (Warner, 19)
- Ass Pony, "Last Night it Snowed" Lohio  (Waterhead, 01)
- JD McPherson, "Red Bows (For a Blue Girl)" single  (New West, 19)
- Eric Bachmann, "I Was Made for Losing You" You Wish: a Merge Records Holiday Album  (Merge, 19)
- Kathleen Edwards, "It's Christmastime (Let's Just Survive)" Dualtone Christmas  (Dualtone, 19)
- Los Lobos, "Christmas With You" Llego Navidad  (Rhino, 19)
- Kacey Musgraves, "Present Without a Bow (feat. Leon Bridges)" Kacey Musgraves Christmas Show  (UMG, 19)
- William Bell, "Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday" Soul Christmas  (Atlantic, 68)
- Wade Bowen, "Once Upon a Christmas" Twelve Twenty-Five  (Bowen Sounds, 19)
- Kevin Morby, "Blue Christmas" single  (Dead Oceans, 19)
^ Molly Burch, "Snowqueen of Texas" Molly Burch Christmas Album  (Captured Tracks, 19)
- Pogues, "Fairytale of New York (feat. Kirsty MacColl)" If I Should Fall From Grace With God  (Warner, 88)
- Josh Ritter & Milk Carton Kids, "Gospel of Mary" single  (Pytheas, 19)
- Puss n Boots, "Christmas All Over Again" Dear Santa  (UMG, 19)
- Gabe Lee, "Christmas Day" single  (Torrez, 19)
- Bill Orcutt, "White Christmas" Bill Orcutt  (Palialia, 17)
- Amanda Anne Platt & Honeycutters, "Christmas On a Greyhound Bus" Christmas On a Greyhound Bus  (Organic, 19)
- Samantha Crain, "Christmas for Cowboys" Blackwatch Christmas Vol 9  (Boondice, 19)
- Jenny Owen Youngs, "Maybe Next Year" single  (Fisher & Porcupine, 19)
- Pearl Jam, "Someday at Christmas" single  (Ten Club, 19)

Your Christmas ROUTES-cast, wrapped with a bow, buried beneath tinsel and shrugging off the snow: