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Saturday, September 24, 2016

a home for the americana diaspora
September 17, 2016
Scott Foley

Here's the question:  Does every band need to "mature"?  If last year's album sounds just like this year's album, do we accuse the band of spinning its wheels?  Conversely, is that band selling out if their approach changes noticeably from one record to the next?

Drive-by Truckers tore out of Athens (by way of AL) in the latter days of the 20th Century, purveyors of gloriously unpolished gems like "Living Bubba" and "Nine Bullets".  2002's Southern Rock Opera earned widespread accolades if for no other reason than for having the balls to release a double album song cycle in praise of Lynyrd Skynyrd.  What's followed from Dirty South and Brighter Than Creation's Dark and 2014's English Oceans has traced Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley through lineup changes, cleaner sounds and a deeper mythology, shedding Jason Isbell, John Neff, Shonna Tucker and others in their wake.  But the output's been admirably consistent, establishing the band as among the best American bands of the aughts.  One of the heartier branches of the Routes & Branches musical shrubbery.

We're used to enjoying a new Wes Freed illustration with every Drive-by Truckers release.  The band's 11th record instead bears the striking image of a U.S. flag at half mast.  American Band could be called their "state of the union" album, stepping back to take stock of all that's led to the lowering of Stars & Stripes depicted on the cover.  Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley talk borders and guns, war on culture and on populations, individuals caught in the crosshairs and a country gone awry.  Both have shown themselves to be smart writers since the start, but "What It Means" and "Surrender Under Protest" feature some of their most direct and effective social commentary to date.  While there are moments of anger and accusation on American Band, the pervading spirit is one of observation and concern.  Overall, it's a tighter, more deliberate collection than listeners might expect.

Songs like "Ramon Casiano" are also quick to establish a driving and tuneful guitar groove, the true story of two radically different lives converging at the point of injustice.  "Killing's been the bullet's business / Since back in 1931 / Someone killed Ramon Casiano / And Ramon's still not dead enough".  "What It Means" lopes along on an unexpectedly restrained acoustic strum that builds over nearly 7 minutes.  Patterson Hood assumes the prophet's role, naming names and raising questions, but the response is ours to decide. "We're living in an age / Where limitations are forgotten / The outer edges move and dazzle us / But the core is something rotten".   "Guns of Umpqua" juxtaposes the gorgeous Oregon Cascades with the senseless Roseburg school shooting.

"We're all standing in the shadows of our noblest intentions of something more / Than being shot in a classroom in Oregon / It's a morning like so many others with breakfast and birthdays / The sun burned the fog away, the breeze blew the mist away / My friend Jack is having a baby / And I see birds soaring through the clouds outside my window / Heaven's calling my name from the hallway outside the door".  

Elsewhere, Mike Cooley unleashes "Filthy and Fried", a rambling rocker that juggles scattershot stream-of-consciousness phrases and immediately stands among his best.  "The old man's world was more doing than thinking and the doing was more cut and dried / Now girls collect trophies as much as the boys and come home just as filthy and fried".  

While American Band finds the outfit widening its perspective to encompass goings on in Oregon, St Louis, Florida and elsewhere, one of Hood's most moving contributions finds him reflecting on his identity as a Southerner from the porch of his Portland home.  "Ever South" is built on little more than martial drums and a blunt bass, a history lesson that resonates in the heart of one man.  "Everyone takes notice of the drawl that leaves our mouth / So no matter where we are we're ever South".

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.

As though we need more, this week also brought me full copies of new records by Reckless Kelly, Matt Woods, Dwight Yoakam and Hiss Golden Messenger, each of which could nose its way onto my yearly favorites over the next several weeks.  Less pressing but more essential is Charlie Rich's devastating 2002 "Feel Like Going Home".  And there's nothing I'm looking forward to more than Alejandro Escovedo's pending collaboration with Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey.

- Porter & the Bluebonnet Rattlesnakes, "Don't Hang Up Virginia" Don't Go Baby It's Gonna Get Weird Without You  (Porter, 16)
^ Drive-by Truckers, "Ever South" American Band  (ATO, 16)
- Reckless Kelly, "Moment In the Sun" Sunset Motel  (No Big Deal, 16)
- Justin Wells, "Three Quarters Gone" Dawn In the Distance  (August, 16)
- Courtney Marie Andrews, "How Quickly Your Heart Mends" Honest Life  (Mama Bird, 16)
- Terry Allen, "Amarillo Highway" Lubbock (On Everything)  (Paradise of Bachelors, 16)
- Ward Davis, "Old Wore Out Cowboys" 15 Years In a 10 Year Town  (Hawkville, 15)
- Brent Cobb, "Solving Problems" Shine On Rainy Day  (Elektra, 16)
- Handsome Family, "King of Dust" Unseen  (Handsome, 16)
- Paul Cauthen, "My Gospel" My Gospel  (Lightning Rod, 16)
- Hollis Brown, "Don't Want To Miss You" Cluster of Pearls  (Alive Naturalsound, 16)
- Dwight Yoakam, "Guitars Cadillacs" Swimmin' Pools Movie Stars  (Sugar Hill, 16)
- Amanda Shires, "When You're Gone" My Piece of Land  (BMG, 16)
- Charlie Rich, "Feel Like Going Home" Pictures & Paintings  (Sire, 92)
- Jim Lauderdale, "Lonely Weekends" Feel Like Going Home: Songs of Charlie Rich  (Memphis Int'l, 16)  D
- Hiss Golden Messenger, "As the Crow Flies" Heart Like a Levee  (Merge, 16)
- Tallest Man On Earth, "Rivers" single  (Merge, 16)
- Joe Purdy, "New Years Eve" Who Will Be Next  (Mudtown Crier, 16)
- Wayne Hancock, "Slingin' Rhythm" Slingin' Rhythm  (Bloodshot, 16)  D
- Bonnie Whitmore, "She's a Hurricane" Fuck With Sad Girls  (Whitmore, 16)  D
- Ryan Bingham, "Back By the River (live)" Musical Mojo of Dr John  (Concord, 16)  D
- Alejandro Escovedo, "Heartbeat Smile" Burn Something Beautiful  (Fantasy, 16)  D
- Mountain Goats, "New Chevrolet In Flames" See America Right  (Mt Goats, 02)
- Matt Woods, "Little Heartache" How To Survive  (Last Chance, 16)
- Aaron Lee Tasjan, "Memphis Rain" Silver Tears  (New West, 16)
- J Roddy Walston & the Business, "Don't Get Old (acoustic)" Don't Break the Needle  (Vagrant, 10)
- Langhorne Slim & the Law, "Two Crooked Hearts" Way We Move  (Ramseur, 08)
- Luke Winslow-King, "Change Your Mind" I'm Glad Trouble Don't Last Always  (Bloodshot, 16)

... and your Soundcloud playlist for this week's Episode awaits you below.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
September 10, 2106
Scott Foley

In this, the year of uber producer Dave Cobb, it's appropriate that one of his most worthy offerings comes from a project completed with a cousin, Brent Cobb.  Fact is, the two only became acquainted as adults, reportedly meeting at an aunt's funeral.  Dave has heralded the resulting record, Shine On Rainy Day, as deeply fulfilling, "... everything I wanted to say".  Like Caleb Caudle's release from early this year, or Andrew Combs' 2015 highwater mark, Brent Cobb's fulfilling new collection is a musical revelation.

“South of Atlanta” is a loveletter to a small South Georgia town, to a way of life that still exists (but mostly in our childhood memory).  The music Cobb lays down is as warm and familiar as the small town people he celebrates.  “Lord when I die, let’s make a deal / Lay me down in that town where time stands still”.  It’s a wide open sound, where electric and acoustic share the space with the singer’s charmingly lazy drawl.   

It’s good natured music, too, like the self-deprecating working class romp “Diggin’ Holes”.  Atop a perfect 70s Nashville groove, Cobb apologizes for his shortcomings, “I oughta make my living in a graveyard / Lord knows I’m good at diggin’ holes”

The best music brings to mind friends on a porch, not suits in a studio.  “Solving Problems” paints a picture about buddies shootin’ the shit on a Sunday afternoon.  Silence is broken by meandering conversation touching on marrying well, “Mama Tried” by Merle, buying a jeep and “mak(ing) it through next week”.  At just under the 3-minute wire, it checks all the necessary boxes.  It’s Roger Miller-meets-John Hartford with just the right shade of soul.  It’s as laid back and sneakily literate as early John Prine (the mailman, not the folkstar).

A handful of songs on Shine On, especially “Black Crow” and “Let the Rain Come Down”, recall the humid bluesy rock of Tony Joe White.  There’s an overcast darkness and threat to the songs as the music leaves the front porch and wanders a bit along muddy creeks and shadowy hollers. 

“Shine OnRainy Day” eavesdrops on Cobb and an acoustic, his voice filling the small room.  The title cut is the gentlest moment on the record, but resonates with such a genuine Southern sweetness and melancholy soul:  “Ain’t it funny how a little thunder / Make a man start to wonder / Should he swim or just go under / And ain’t it funny how you learn to pray / When your blue skies turn grey / When there’s nothing left to say …”

- Eric Ambel, "Here Come My Love" Lakeside  (Last Chance, 16)
- Seth Walker, "Way Past Midnight" Gotta Get Back  (Royal Potato Family, 16)  D
- Jesse Dayton, "Holy Ghost Rock n' Roller"  The Revealer  (Blue Elan, 16)
- Southern Culture on the Skids, "Dirt Road" Electric Pinecones  (Kudzu, 16)
- Sara Rachele & the Skintights, "Ain't No Train" Motel Fire  (Angrygal, 16)
- North Mississippi Allstars, "Jumpercable Blues" Keys to the Kingdom  (Songs of the South, 11)
- Dex Romweber, "I Don't Know" Carrboro  (Bloodshot, 16)
- Katy Goodman & Greta Morgan, "Over the Edge" Take It It's Yours  (Polyvinyl, 16)
- Drive-by Truckers, "Filthy & Fried (edit)" American Band  (ATO, 16)
- M Lockwood Porter, "American Dream Denied" How to Dream Again  (Black Mesa, 16)  D
- Jack Ingram, "Old Motel" Midnight Motel  (Rounder, 16)
- Kasey Chambers, "Ain't No Little Girl" Ain't No Little Girl EP  (Chambers, 16)  D
- Angel Olsen, "Shut Up Kiss Me" My Woman  (Jagjaguwar, 16)
- Dexateens, "Teenage Hallelujah" Teenage Hallelujah  (Cornelius Chapel, 16)
- Reckless Kelly, "Moment In the Sun" Sunset Motel  (No Big Deal, 16)
- Eilen Jewell, "Home to Me" Queen of the Minor Key  (Signature Sounds, 11)
- John Calvin Abney, "Weekly Rate Palace" Far Cries and Close Calls  (Horton, 16)
- James McMurtry, "Screen Door" Highway Prayer: Tribute to Adam Carroll  (Eight 30, 16)
- Amanda Shires, "Slippin'"  My Piece of Land  (Shires, 16)
- Tim Easton, "Right Before Your Own Eyes" American Fork  (Last Chance, 16)
- Massy Ferguson, "Santa Fe" Run It Right Into the Wall  (Proper, 16)
- Cody Jinks, "Give All You Can" I'm Not the Devil  (Jinks, 16)
- Kelsey Waldon, "All By Myself" I've Got a Way  (Monkey's Eyebrow, 16)
- Deadstring Brothers, "Talkin' Born Blues" Starving Winter Report  (Bloodshot, 05)
- Coal Men, "The Singer (in Louisville)" Pushed to the Side  (Vaskaleedez, 16)
^ Brent Cobb, "Diggin' Holes" Shine On Rainy Day  (Elektra, 16)
- Paul Cauthen, "I'll Be the One" My Gospel  (Lightning Rod, 16)
- Zoe Muth, "Hard Luck Love" Zoe Muth & the Lost High Rollers  (Muth, 09)
- Wilco, "Quarters" Schmilco  (Nonesuch, 16)  D

So, problem with these Spotify playlists (other than the fact that you gotta subscribe to the service) is that not everything I play is available yet.  This makes for an incomplete listening experience, though it's still a bunch of good stuff.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

a  home for the americana diaspora
September 3, 2016
Scott Foley

I was born on a side road far from here / While the town was burning out my dark window /  I was crowned with a cage of cold barbed wire / And my bottle I keep with me even till now
-- Boz Skaggs

Very nice this week to be contacted by Mr Bill Frater of Freight Train Boogie fame regarding an interview for his No Depression column.  Frater writes "Radio Friendly", shedding light on americana djs, promoters, luminaries and such.  Please take a look at my lil' interview here.  One of my sons called it "dad humor"  -  fathers must be a plenty funny people ...

Also, you'll notice that I've been paying good attention to Lydia Loveless' recent Real release over the past several weeks.  I wrote a piece about it on Charles Hale's Ajax Diner Book Club blog (brought to you by the word "smitten").

Little shorter playlist this Episode, owing to a kind studio visit from cellist singer-songwriter Ben Sollee.  Not a slew of debuts, but following the muse deeper into new stuff from Devil Makes Three, Handsome Family, Dexateens and more.  Hollis Brown have taken a really satisfying turn in a more soulful direction on their new EP.  Plus, I spin a 2001 Songs: Ohia cover of a Boz Scaggs song. I didn't know the thing existed until this week, but it's one of the fullest, most transcendent things Jason Molina recorded.  Fortunately, you can check it out on the Spotify playlist below, if you got the Spotify.

Got a generous mailing from John Calvin Abney this week.  In addition to his laudable new Far Cries & Close Calls record, there was a short typewritten note.  Like from a typewriter.  In an age of mass produced, impersonal communications, it was special to hold the paper to the light, run my hands across the type and know that there was a human at the return address.

Abney's 2015 debut, Better Luck, initially caught my attention because of the involvement of fellow Okie John Moreland.  It earned its spot on the R&B playlist for its mature roots rock writing and originality.  Far Cries exceeds that promise, and should by all means vault the perennial multi-instrumental sideman to a more prominent national position.

"Beauty Seldom Seen" kicks Far Cries into gear, melodic roots pop built on chiming electric guitars and sighing steel. Abney sings with a youthful snarl that might recall early Tom Petty:  It's a long tired dream / Fighting for a losing team / And I feel just like a refugee.  A bright wurlitzer chirps through "Goodbye Temporarily", which also adds violin and harmonica for a mid-period John Mellencamp vibe.  The upbeat, major key spirit of a number of the songs are balanced by accompanying lyrics that are by no means dour, but tend towards self doubt and uncertainty.  I'm not the man that you refused / You're not the girl I left behind me.

Other songs pare the arrangements to a bare minimum and bring to mind the tragic urban folk of Elliott Smith - the vocals are sometimes even double-tracked a'la Smith.  "In Such a Strange Town" is a beautifully, confidently spare acoustic waltz:  I want a picture over a prayer / Maintenance touch, your reticent glare / Star keeper I'm back / Can you tell me / I've confused dreams with memories.  Abney's lyrics are rarely direct, but can be meaningful in a poetically opaque way.

The point to the parade of comparisons isn't to say that John Calvin Abney isn't his own artist.  While there's an appealingly eclectic quality to his music, there's also an accompanying familiarity that abides from one song to the next.  He is neither burdened by the pressure to stay true to any single "vibe" nor driven to wander too far afield in an artificial attempt to be everything to everybody.  At heart, songs like "Jailbreak" simply engage at the most genuine level, appealing to our love of a true tune well constructed.  In that light, perhaps the most apt comparison would be to Ryan Adams.

With a rude swagger, hellbent guitar and pounding drums, "Weekly Rate Palace" is the record's most direct bar band rocker.  On a record that's so smartly arranged and impressively played (primarily by the man himself, it would seem), it's heartwarming to hear such a freewheeling racket from Abney and friends.  It's just another sharp tool in his belt, another shade on a record that ranges from bright and brash sunlight to overcast and introspective.

- Songs: Ohia, "Sweet Release" Burlap Palace: Tribute to the Muscle Shoals Sound  (Soundgun, 01)
- Shinyribs, "Victoria" Desperate Times: Songs of the Old 97s  (Jeff Neely, 16)
- Devil Makes Three, "I Am the Man Thomas" Redemption & Ruin  (New West, 16)
- Shakey Graves, "Tomorrow" In Case You Missed It: 15 Years of Dualtone  (Dualtone, 16)  D
- Porter & the Bluebonnet Rattlesnakes, "Don't Hang Up Virginia" Don't Go Baby It's Gonna Get Weird Without You  (Chris Porter, 16)  D
- Angel Olsen, "Never Be Mine" My Woman  (Jagjaguwar, 16)  D
- Dexateens, "Fellowship of the Saturday Night Brotherhood" Teenage Hallelujah  (Cornelius Chapel, 16)
- Hollis Brown, "Cold City" Cluster of Pearls  (Alive Naturalsound, 16)
- Lydia Loveless, "Midwestern Guys" Real  (Bloodshot, 16)
- Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster, "Laid Low" Constant Stranger  (Big Legal Mess, 16)
- BJ Barham, "Reidsville" Rockingham  (Barham, 16)
- Jack Ingram, "I'm Drinking Through It" Midnight Motel  (Rounder, 16)  D
- Justin Wells, "The Dogs" Dawn In the Distance  (August, 16)
- Shelby Lynne, "Lonesome" Identity Crisis  (Capitol, 03)
- Courtney Marie Andrews, "Rookie Dreaming" Honest Life  (Mama Bird, 16)
- Handsome Family, "Tiny Tina" Unseen  (Handsome Family, 16)
- Dwight Yoakam, "Purple Rain" Swimmin' Pools Movie Stars  (Sugar Hill, 16)
- Luke Winslow-King, "I'm Glad Trouble Don't Last Always" I'm Glad Trouble Don't Last Always  (Bloodshot, 16)
- Arliss Nancy, "Dufresne" Greater Divides  (Arliss Nancy, 16)  C
- Shovels & Rope, "St Anne's Parade" Little Seeds  (New West, 16)
- Elliott BROOD, "Garden Rivers" Mountain Meadow  (Six Shooter, 09)

Friday, September 02, 2016

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
August 27, 2016
Scott Foley

And I'm up too damn early in the morning / Watching the world around me come alive / I need more fingers to count the ones I love / This life may be too good to survive  --  Shovels & Rope

It's been way too long since we celebrated music that's just plain dumb fun.  Think songs about drinking and cursing and having relations.  Think Dexateens and their new collection, Teenage Hallelujah.  After weeks of touting Music That Matters, with Important Lyrics and Earnest Sentiments and Stuff To Think About, this Episode we draw attention to music that appeals to a different bone.  And I mean no harm here.  I heap only the highest praise on bands like the Dexateens who can create music that is both musically satisfying and emotionally immature.  It's Patterson Hood taking us to "Buttholeville", or Rhett Miller reflecting on "If My Heart Was a Car".  Or Elliott McPherson picking us up in the Dexateens' "Shake n Bake Astrovan".

Think that Southerners spend their entire day eating cornbread and raising hell?  Well, try "Eat Cornbread Raise Hell".  Hailing from the wilds of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Dexateens' songs are actually profoundly Southern, steeped and soaked in the mythologies of the South.  Because that rich dark dirt still clings to their roots, the stereotypes, criticisms and put downs directed at their fellow Southerners are as acceptable as Harry Crews' love/hate characterizations.  As loose and sloppy as early Replacements, Dexateens are at their best just pounding away with equal glee and futility.  Fondness and frustration.  "Old Rebel" builds on slammed drums and beaten bass before succumbing to a fuzz of muddy guitar, calling out the foolishness of neighbors who pine for the resurrection of bygone symbols from the blue-and-gray to "Ronnie Van Z" and the KKK.   It's no coincidence that former Dexateens have ventured from the nest to bring the fire to flag bearing bands like Drive-by Truckers and Lee Bains III & Glory Fires.

Which isn't to say that the Dexateens apply the same blunt hammer throughout Teenage Hallelujah.  "Fellowship of the Saturday Night Brotherhood" tears the curtain between Saturday night and Sunday morning. Other pieces like "Working Hands" or "Treat Me Right" still trip along with the same shambling punk spirit, though they also feature some acoustic shading and an atypical softer touch.

Then we're back to the title cut, a 2 1/2 minute fight song that incorporates the irresistible rhythms of early garage rock and blues.  On the Pop Matters blog, frontman Elliott McPherson puts a bow on it:  "Some of this record was written about fun recreational stuff that we enjoy doing down here in Alabama and the hungover yearning for repentance that comes when you overdo it.  Raising children, raising hell, spiritual searching, Alabama football, and of course old fashioned rock and roll".

Other new stuff this week from Kent Eugene Goolsby, John Calvin Abney and Aaron Lee Tasjan.  With John Paul White, Courtney Marie Andrews, that's enough to cause a guy to wonder if he's subconsciously attracted to three name artists ...  Best Song Ever for this week comes from Shovels & Rope's forthcoming Little Seeds record.  As cited above, it a sweet, sparse celebration of friendship.

- Karen Dalton, "Something On Your Mind" In My Own Time  (Light In the Attic, 71)
- Billy Bragg & Joe Henry, "Hobo's Lullaby" Shine a Light  (Cooking Vinyl, 16)
- Greensky Bluegrass, "Take Cover" Shouted Written Down & Quoted  (Big Blue Zoo, 16)
- Southern Culture On the Skids, "Freak Flag" Electric Pinecones  (Kudzu, 16)
- Gourds, "Wired Ole Gal" Blood Of the Ram  (Eleven Thirty, 04)
- Justin Wells, "Going Down Grinnin'" Dawn In the Distance  (August, 16)
- Kent Eugene Goolsby, "Loveless Prayers" Temper Of the Times  (Goolsby, 16)  D
- Lori McKenna, "If Whiskey Were a Woman" Bird & the Rifle  (McKenna, 16)
- Hiss Golden Messenger, "Tell Her I'm Just Dancing" Heart Like a Levee  (Merge, 16)
- Aaron Lee Tasjan, "Little Movies" Silver Tears  (New West, 16)  D
- Hollis Brown, "Don't Want To Lose You" Cluster of Pearls  (Alive Naturalsound, 16)  D
- Richmond Fontaine, "Don't Look and It Won't Hurt" The Fitzgerald  (El Cortez, 05)
- John Prine w/Susan Tedeschi, "Color Of the Blues" For Better Or Worse  (Oh Boy, 16)
- John Calvin Abney, "Beauty Seldom Seen" Far Cries and Close Calls  (Horton, 16)  D
- Lydia Loveless, "Same To You" Real  (Bloodshot, 16)
- John Paul White, "I've Been Over This Before" Beulah  (Single Lock, 16)
- James McMurtry, "Screen Door" Highway Prayer: Tribute To Adam Carroll  (Eight 30, 16)  D
- Carolyn Mark, "In Another Time" Come! Back! Special!  (Roaring Girl, 16)
- Dwight Yoakam, "These Arms" Swimmin' Pools Movie Stars  (Sugar Hill, 16)  D
- Courtney Marie Andrews, "Irene" Honest Life  (Mama Bird, 16)
- Brent Cobb, "Black Crow" Shine On Rainy Day  (Elektra, 16)
- Jesse Dayton, "Daddy Was a Badass" The Revealer  (Blue Elan, 16)  D
- Townes Van Zandt, "Pancho & Lefty (live)" Live At the Old Quarter Houston Texas  (Tomato, 77)
- Shovels & Rope, "St. Anne's Parade" Little Seeds  (New West, 16)
- Amanda Shires, "WhenYou're Gone" My Piece of Land  (Shires, 16)
^ Dexateens, "Teenage Hallelujah" Teenage Hallelujah  (Cornelius Chapel, 16)  D
- Tim Easton, "Elmore James" American Fork  (Last Chance, 16)
- Whiskeytown, "Waiting To Derail" Strangers Almanac  (Geffen, 97)

Saturday, August 27, 2016

a home for the americana diaspora
August 20, 2016
Scott Foley
Our souls are a little older / But you can't tell we learned a thing / If there's twelve that god invited, we're thirteen / We're the last one to know it's over / And the first one to have to beg / We're the dog that crawled for miles on broken legs / We're the dregs
Justin Wells was a quarter of Kentucky's Fifth On the Floor, sharing vocals and songwriting duties with bandmates over the space of a handful of increasingly good releases.  Even with that abiding appreciation, Wells' debut solo record lands as an unanticipated achievement.  The cover of Dawn In the Distance features a beaten suitcase on a weathered wood floor next to a door - no indication if that luggage is coming or going.  Wells himself has commented that the road takes something away from folks who love to be at home.  On the flip side of the coin, people who thrive on the road leave something behind upon returning home.  This fragile balance shadows several of these new songs, stories of home and experience wisely and soulfully told.

As the title might suggest, "Going Down Grinnin'" rambles along good-naturedly with enough twang 'n bang to tangle your neckbeard:  I'll pass a paved road and wherever it goes / Give me a destination that nobody knows / I'll go poor and I'll go young / By the battered beat of a beat down drum.  Gospel harmonies float above chugging percussion and rubbery reverb guitar lines.  It's Wells' own "seize the day" proclamation, custom built for a dusty backroads bounce along potholes and ruts.

But Wells' songs tend to dive deeper than that, bubbling with thoughts and sentiments that are revelatory at times.  While maintaining a positive musical vibe, "Highway Less Taken" harbors a darker take on life between the ditches.  I guess it never made much sense on paper / Ever quarter you make is gone before it sees a dimeIf it was god's intention to make me better / I'd have some more to give than words that rhyme.  With the rest of Dawn In the Distance, it's impeccably produced and arranged, as steeped in dark country as anything from Fifth On the Floor, but with a full-hearted Memphis soul that was lacking from Wells' earlier stuff.

The bulk of Dawn came together in the wake of the dissolution of Wells' band, a challenging crossroads that found him touring with Matt Woods and continuing to put pen to paper like nothing had changed.  "Can't Break My Heart" permits another glimpse into Justin Wells' great potential as a country music writer.  With indelible pedal steel and a voice that's pure gravel, Wells vows to tilt against the windmills of reason and expectation.  You can take my guns / Take my pen away / But I've got a heart a little stronger than it was yesterday.

The quote that introduces this Episode is pulled from a piece that has largely defined and haunted my music week.  "The Dogs" is Dawn In the Distance's masterpiece, a cri de coeur that might tear a jagged hole in the pantheon of road songs.  I retreat somewhere and cover my wounds / And pray to god that the checkout's noon / If there's any luck left it'll be halfway clean.  It's a song that rivals White Buffalo at his most passionate, that satisfies a finicky pop ear as fully as Reckless Kelly, and carves apart the heart as fiercely as John Moreland.  Most importantly, it epitomizes the kind of heart-on-sleeve spirit that drives Justin Wells.  The man can sing about the valor of his working class family one moment, then cast a jaded eye at his own life choices as a struggling songwriter the next.  Give Dawn In the Distance a listen, then tell me that it doesn't drag you under its spell for at least the next week or two.

- Tallest Man on Earth, "Time of the Blue"  
single  (Merge, 2016)
- Tallest Man on Earth, "Rivers"  single  (Merge, 2016)  D
- Drive-by Truckers, "What It Means" American Band  (ATO, 2016)
- Massy Ferguson, "Dogbone" Run It Right Into the Wall  (Proper, 16)
- Left Lane Cruiser, "Chevrolet" Beck In Black  (Alive Naturalsound, 16)
- Sara Rachele & the Skintights, "Ain't No Train" Motel Fire  (Angrygal, 16)  D
- Devil Makes Three, "Come On Up To My House" Redemption & Ruin  (New West, 16)
- Bad Livers, "How Dark My Shadows Grown" Delusions of Banjer  (Quarterstick, 92)
- Southern Culture on the Skids, "Dirt Road" Electric Pinecones  (Kudzu, 16)  D
- Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster, "The Dirt, the Bells & I" Constant Stranger  (Big Legal Mess, 16)
- Cody Jinks, "I'm Not the Devil" I'm Not the Devil  (Jinks, 16)
- Kelsey Waldon, "False King" I've Got a Way  (Monkey's Eyebrow, 16)
- Uncle Tupelo, "No Sense In Lovin" Anodyne  (Sire, 93)
- Joe Purdy, "Cursin' Air" Who Will Be Next  (Mudtown Crier, 16)
- Reckless Kelly, "Who's Gonna Be Your Baby Now" Sunset Motel  (No Big Deal, 16)
- Tony Joe White, "Hard To Handle" Tony Joe  (Warner, 70)
- Todd Snider, "Funky Tomato" Eastside Bulldog  (Aimless, 16)  D
- Courtney Marie Andrews, "How Quickly Your Heart Mends" Honest Life  (Mama Bird, 16)  D
^ Justin Wells, "The Dogs" Dawn In the Distance  (August, 16)  D
- Amanda Shires, "Harmless" My Piece of Land  (Shires, 16)
- Greensky Bluegrass, "Past My Prime" Shouted Written Down & Quoted  (Big Blue Zoo, 16)  D
- Kasey Chambers, "Guilty As Sin" Wayward Angel  (EMI, 04)
- Paper Bird, "To the Light" Paper Bird  (Thirty Tigers, 16)  C
- Big Shoals, "Only God Knows" Hard Lessons  (Big Shoals, 16)
- Lydia Loveless, "More Than Ever" Real  (Bloodshot, 16)
- Coal Men, "Depreciate" Pushed To the Side  (Vaskaleedez, 16)
- Katy Goodman & Greta Morgan, "Bastards of the Young" Take It It's Yours  (Polyvinyl, 16)  D
- Evening Bell, "Tail Light" Dying Stars  (Evening Bell, 16)  D

And that's right.  Starting this Episode I'm dragging R&B into the 21st Century by making available a Spotify playlist for most of the songs above.  While you'll be lacking my pithy asides and sagelike insight, you'll at least have the music.  Next thing you know, they'll put a man on the moon ...

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
August 13, 2016
Scott Foley

Concerts.  Live music.  Secret:  I sorta hate 'em.  Or perhaps it's just that I resent them.  It's been several years since I attended a show.  I trace this back to my years as a concert promoter, setting up shows big and small, unplugged coffee houses and festivals.  Even then, I would love putting together the season's calendar.  It would all be downhill from there.  I'd introduce the artist, then find a quiet room and settle up.  I'd go back on stage after intermission to introduce the act, then leave to clean up the place.  There were few if any artists who were real jerks to me.  Richard Buckner and  his drummer/girlfriend disappeared shortly before showtime because I didn't provide them with enough beer and they figured there had to be a supermarket closeby ...  Most were just in the zone, doing their job to entertain.  The only people who struck me as truly, genuinely nice people were Robin & Linda Williams.  They played songs by request for my kids during sound check, and seemed really grateful for the work.

These days, I know radio djs who build their show around concert news.  Look who's coming to town!  Here's a song from them!!  Support live music!!!  I'll do this on rare occasion, but my broadcasts are 99.8% dictated by my own skewed musical vision, rather than beating someone else's drum.  If I've decided to play something, then I find out they'll be touring through, I might make a mention of it, just to have something to say.  I'll do the concert calendar thing when an artist takes the stage and encourages fans to listen to my show or read my blog.  Gotta be a two way street, right?

Not that I begrudge fans of live music.  But to me, it's all about the crush.  It's about loud places and drunk people and no place to park.  It's about rude people who talk rather than listen, and about rabid, well-meaning fans who sing along with every word.  Now that I think about it, the last show I attended was Steve Earle with Alison Moorer.  It was a pretty good concert, all-in-all.  Steve brought along a drum machine and I wondered how long it would be before Alison was ex number 8.  People at the bar talked and carried on as though there were no show.  It smelled like beer and weed.  Damn I'm getting old ...

No R&B broadcast this week, as the station has (ironically) chosen to air sounds from a local music festival.  Hence, no playlist.  Next week, we'll be back chasing our elusive muse with new stuff from Artists You Oughta Know like Justin Wells, Chad Remnant, Molly Parden and more.

Not to mention Courtney Marie Andrews.  She stares out from the cover of her third record, Honest Life, framed by a fringe of bangs and Joni-straight hair, maybe fresh off a walk along the streets of 1970s Laurel Canyon.  There's a bit of that fabled folk-rock spirit in Andrews' voice and in her songs, though she's most recently from Washington state, having just finished some work as a guitarist with Damien Jurado.  Songs on Honest Life are the product of a long-ish germination, developed during a period when Andrews had settled into a workaday job in out-of-the-way Washington - you can find sweet acoustic videos for some of the album's songs online from a couple years ago.  She calls it a coming of age collection, and several of the songs seem to be written to a younger sister (or a more naive self).  From "Irene":  You are a magnet Irene / Sometimes good people draw troublesome things.  It's a song that can't help but remind me of Joni Mitchell's "Carey".  There are few artists to whom female singers are as frequently compared, and even fewer who actually live up to the compliment.  While she's coming from a different place musically, Andrews earns the honor.  Her voice swoops and dodges on "Irene", Gain some confidence Irene / When you speak let your voice ring out.  Like a handful of the songs on Honest Life, it's a song built as much on piano as guitar, bridging the span between singer-songwriter folk and contemporary americana.  "Rookie Dreaming" occupies a similar musical territory, an unhurried shuffle in defense of a young life in the making.  I was too broke, too shallow to dive deep / Too busy carrying the weight of everything.  Even in her youth, Andrews is too wise to make Grant Statements about the lessons she's learned, offering instead an unfinished self-portrait of a woman perched at the brink of experience.  Like Samantha Crain, she can do pretty and she can do strong, as well as vulnerable and gritty.  "How Quickly Your Heart Mends" is one of the record's more country leaning cuts, boasting one of Andrews' most confidently scathing deliveries:  The jukebox is playing a sad country song for all the ugly Americans / Now I feel like one of them / Dancing alone, broken by the freedom.  It's a bitter but beautiful piece, with pedal steel providing a fitting honky-tonk setting.  What makes Andrews different than your average broken heart is that she's as bitter about her -ex as she is about her own desperate choices.   I can't believe I got all dressed up / Put on this dress that you love / Only for you to go and pretend like all those years meant nothing.  That pedal steel and self-deprecation carry into "Table For One".  It's a road song about a life lived among strangers:  Cause I'm a little bit lonely / A little bit stoned / And I'm ready to go home / You don't want to be like me.  Courtney Marie Andrews' Honest Life marks another quality release from the proudly independent Mama Bird label out of Portland.  As I've mentioned previously, you certainly can't judge a release by its label.  Nevertheless, it's a smart choice to pay attention to purveyors of genuinely original stuff like this.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

a home for the americana diaspora
August 6, 2016
Scott Foley

I attended seminary for a year after my undergrad program.  That was enough to dissuade me from joining the ranks of the traditionally religious.  I love religious language, however:  sin and salvation, devotion and doubt, grace and baptism.  Unfortunately, the language has been co-opted, broken by religious literalists, estranged from its original poetry.

"I've got a bad, tortured soul" Cody Jinks sings by way of introduction.  I've been living for the past week with his fifth record, I'm Not the Devil, and I'll admit this is hardly a revelation.  The Fort Worth resident's 2015 release, Adobe Sessions, appeared at or near the top of the year end favorites lists of several genre bloggers.  Because of his stint as a heavy metal frontman, his beard and copious tattoos, it's easy to apply the "outlaw" stamp to Jinks' music, though I'd argue that his songs are wider ranging, more thoughtful and dwell on far fewer stereotypes.  More than on his earlier albums, Jinks turns a jaded eye towards a world of broken dreams, likening himself on "Vampires" to Holden Caufield's alientated "catcher in the rye".  Jinks assumes the role of a prophet, though he's not out to catch anyone's soul but his own.  Unlike the biblical prophets, he's much better at pointing out what's gone wrong than at heralding an easy solution.  On the stellar "Heavy Load", he warns "The train jumped track some time ago".  With a classic country baritone, Jinks and producer Joshua Thompson build a smart and satisfyingly full sound, with trad fiddle and steel driven hard by a heavy electric band.  The record's title cut takes a hushed, acoustic approach to a personal song of repentance:  "I'm not the devil you think that I am / There ain't no excuse, I'm just a man / I slipped and I fell and got out of hand /  But I'm not the devil you think that I am".  One of the collection's simpler moments, it's arguably among the best country songs of the year.  There are respites to Jinks' dark prophecy, most specifically in the hell-bent-for-asphalt "Chase That Song".  Even here, the driving honky tonk rocker is more of a litany of personal faults and warnings from "a son of a son of an SOB" than a carefree ramble between the white lines.  If there's any salvation on I'm Not the Devil, it might lie in the Saturday Night / Sunday Morning dichotomy that's been inspiring country music since back when it was just called "music".  "Church At Gaylor Creek" harkens to simpler memories of Jinks' childhood, times of church, faith and family.  Even then, the singer warns, "That church was a long time ago / I'm talking distance and years / I'm not certain that I could even get there from here".  Another highlight, "Give All You Can", grants us a hint of hope.  An eloquent, yearning piano ballad, it reveals Jinks as a far more honest and deeply feeling soul than your average cartoon outlaw:  "The dark places I go ain't just on the road / Between the lines, between the pews it's the same".  The chorus relies on a line that he repeats like a mantra:  "You give all you can / Give all you can / When you give all you can, give some more".  With a transcendent, anthemic gospel outtro, it could be the altar call that provides a fleeting balm for the singer's tortured soul.  Cody Jinks is just starting a late Summer, early Fall tour with Whitey Morgan, another worldly, worthy artist on the cusp of the contemporary outlaw movement.  There's a good chance that rowdy crowds will celebrate the arrival of the bearded songwriters with a communion of whiskey and weed.  For those converted by Jinks' music, the morning after could offer a generous amount of food for reflection.

Elsewhere on this Episode, we debut at least a couple more of these Nashville singer-songwriters who have gotten around to releasing their own records.  Kelsey Waldon's 2014 record earned accolades from no less than Rolling Stone, who called her an artist to watch.  Ubiquitous producer Dave Cobb has produced a record for his brother Brent.  We  hear new high profile releases from Reckless Kelly and from Amanda Shires.  And we talk about Paste Magazine's admirable but flawed effort at the Best Alt.Country Albums Ever.

- Cody Jinks, "Mamma Song" Adobe Sessions  (Jinks, 15)
- John Prine w/Iris Dement, "Who's Gonna Take the Garbage Out" For Better or Worse  (Oh Boy, 16)
- Dale Watson, "Sit and Drink and Cry (live)" Live At the Big T Roadhouse  (Red House, 16)
- Parton, Ronstadt & Harris, "Wildflowers (Alt.Take 1986)" Complete Trio Collection  (Rhino, 16)
- Caitlyn Smith, "Tacoma" Starfire  (Skylark, 16)
- Buddy Miller, "My Love Will Follow You" Your Love and Other Lies  (Hightone, 95)
- Tim Easton, "Killing Time" American Fork  (Last Chance, 16)
- Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster, "Laid Low" Constant Stranger  (Big Legal Mess, 16)
- BJ Barham, "Unfortunate Kind" Rockingham  (Barham, 16)
- Kelsey Waldon, "All By Myself" I've Got a Way  (Monkey's Eyebrow, 16)  D
- Turnpike Troubadours, "Come As You Are" single  (Single Lock, 16)  D
- John Paul White, "What's So" Beulah  (Single Lock, 16)
- Hiss Golden Messenger, "Biloxi" Heart Like a Levee  (Merge, 16)
- Paper Bird, "Don't Want Half" Paper Bird  (Thirty Tigers, 16)  C
- Reckless Kelly, "How Can You  Love Him (You Don't Even Like Him)" Sunset Motel  (No Big Deal, 16)  D
- Brent Cobb, "Solving Problems" Shine On Rainy Day  (Elektra, 16)  D
- Amanda Shires, "When You're Gone" My Piece of Land  (Shires, 16)  D
- Handsome Family, "Back In My Day" Unseen  (Handsome, 16)
- Lori McKenna, "Bird & the Rifle" Bird & the Rifle  (McKenna, 16)
- Eric Ambel, "Here Come My Love" Lakeside  (Last Chance, 16)  D
- Lydia Loveless, "Same To You" Real  (Bloodshot, 16)
- Luke Winslow-King, "I'm Glad Trouble Don't Last Always" I'm Glad Trouble Don't Last Always  (Bloodshot, 16)  D
- Coal Men, "Depreciate" Pushed To the Side  (Vaskaleedez, 16)  D
- Whitey Morgan, "Hard Scratch Pride" Whitey Morgan & the 78s  (Bloodshot, 10)
^ Cody Jinks, "Give All You Can" I'm Not the Devil  (Jinks, 16)
- Drive-by Truckers, "What It Means" American Band  (ATO, 16)
- Devil Makes Three, "Champagne and Reefer" Redemption & Ruin  (New West, 16)