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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

a home for the americana diaspora
March 26, 2016
Scott Foley

Careful listeners of Routes & Branches surely noticed that this week's program was a rebroadcast of a quality show from a couple months ago.  Word around the station had it that I got more calls than when I'm actually broadcasting live.  Hmm.  I had to work at my other job on Saturday, so I went in early (early) Friday morning to prerecord a new show.  I spent more than two hours in the studio, pretending to be a dj to the best of my abilities.  I saved the file, but when I went back to preview it, there was nothing there.  Hence, the "greatest hits" broadcast ...

Which only means that next week we'll be jamming more new stuff than usual into your two hours, including debuts from Hard Working Americans, Robert Ellis, Michael Kiwanuka and a 3-disc collection of Dead covers featuring every quality artist in the known universe, including Phosphorescent.  We'll also enjoy the year's most curious cover:  Sturgill Simpson taking on Nirvana with the Dap Kings horn section.  Does it work?  Spoiler: It works.

The old sundial on the lawn reminds me that we're just about a quarter of the way through 2016 already.  Where has the time gone?!  When will the damn snow melt so that we can see the grass again?  Usually as the month draws to a close I'll feature my five favorite recordings from the past several weeks.  This week, however, I thought I'd try this:


Specifically, let's talk songs.  I'm much more of an album guy, but I already spend more than my fair share of time focusing on my favorite records.  Instead, here are my favorite americana, and roots music tunes from January thru March.

^ 1. Margo Price, "Hands of Time" Midwest Farmer's Daughter  
Prediction: At year's end Price's "Hurtin' (On the Bottle)" will sit at or near the top of dozens of favorites lists.  For me, this album opener is the collection's true gem, a sentiment cemented by her heavenly performance this week on Conan.  A vocal delivery for the ages, an arrangement that bundles countrypolitan, honky tonk and contemporary "cosmic country" into an origin story worthy of Loretta, Hag, Tanya or Sturgill.  All I wanna do / Is make a little cash / Cause I've worked all the bad jobs / Busted my ass. / I wanna buy back the farm / And bring my mama home some wine / Turn back the clock on the cruel hands of time.  

2. Mount Moriah, "Baby Blue" How To Dance  
A close second, this one also follows its thread back to the classic country writers, though it also keeps one foot in the spooky shadow world of contemporary indie folk.  Here is where I argue that there are few voices more capable of bridging this musical span than Heather McEntire.  In just the six words of the refrain, she generates a whirlpool of melancholy:  Are you gonna let me win?  

3. Caleb Caudle, "Piedmont Sky" Carolina Ghost  
I watched the cardinal dust the night off its wings / My soul was shattered til I heard that red bird sing.  There's not a song on this list that makes a good noise sound so effortless.  From the burbling organ to the pedal steel fills and the short keyboard break that verges on cheesy, Caudle trades in musical ideas that are so familiar as to be taken for granted.  A decade of hot and heavenly summers / Waiting on an angel to call my number.  

4. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, "Something Real" Something Real  
I try to avoid using the word "boogie", though I think I'll have to use the "B" word in praise of the title cut of Lukas Nelson's new collection.  Is this chooglin'?  Because I've sworn off that word, too.  Vocally, Lukas has never sounded more like his pa.  Musically, he's never sounded more like his own man.  

5. Harvest Thieves, "Bob Dylan's 78th Hangover" Rival  
Here's the best Trampled by Turtles song never recorded by TbT.  It's a song that could be plunked onto a midperiod Old 97s LP without missing a beat.  The three part harmonies owe as much to the high lonesome sound of bluegrass as they owe to the lonesome, high sound of the Avetts.  And sometimes you really can tell a good song by its title.  

6. Freakwater, "Asp and the Albatross" Scheherazade  
While I'm very much a lyrics guy, I have no idea what this song is about.  For now, let's just say it's about how the voices of Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin can weave, soar, crack and battle like none other.  

7. Lucinda Williams, "Can't Close the Door On Love" Ghosts of Hwy 20  
The older Lucinda grows, the less she enunciates.  The less she enunciates, the more she breaks my heart.  This understated teardrop is as sweet as anything she's recorded, on a brilliant but often brilliantly abrasive 2-disc collection.  No current artist does country-soul as well as Lucinda.  

8. Donovan Woods, "On the Nights You Stay Home" Hard Settle Ain't Troubled 
Woods puts such a soft touch on this one, never over emoting when a whisper will do.  I know you wonder if I sleep alone / On the nights you stay home.  Paranoia, jealousy, infidelity, it's not the feel good jam of the quarter-year. Per Mr Woods:  "I was trying to make a song about dreadful, ruinous jealousy that might make you dance a bit".

9. Richmond Fontaine, "Wake Up Ray" You Can't Go Home ...  
Is there a better song about a domestic dispute that ends in a finch escaping into a snowstorm?  Willy Vlautin's offering is certainly in the top 5.  All I remember now is running through the snow / Looking for Little Joe / As the wind blows.  It's the highwater mark of a record that stands as the pinnacle of Richmond Fontaine's career.

10. Parker Millsap, "Morning Blues" Very Last Day  
I'm not afraid of empty / I'm afraid of all alone.  This is a simple acoustic blues, garnished with some fiddle, mando, and a performer emptying his bag of vocal tricks.  Since I'm only allowing myself one song per artist, I'll remark that you could just as easily switch this one out with Millsap's more Louisiana flavored gem, "Pining".  Or the manic album opener, "Hades Pleads". 

11. Aubrie Sellers, "Loveless Rolling Stone" New City Blues  
Yeah, I added a number 11 to my top 10.  In the "battle round" I couldn't decide between Parker and Aubrie, so I put them both through to the next round.  Whereas the year is full of roots artists efforting a more contemporary sound, I'd argue that nobody this year has been more successful that Ms Sellers.  It's too bad the keys are swingin' off the steering wheel tonight / It's too bad that I had to say goodbye.  

Next week I'll be back, fumbling around live on air.  I believe the following week you'll have the opportunity to express your appreciation for Routes & Branches and KRFC in a monetary fashion during our Spring Membership Drive.  If you'd like to "prime the pump", head to the station's website and drop a dime or two to get us started.  If R&B does well, I promise not to use the word "chooglin'" for at least another year ...

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