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Monday, June 12, 2017

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
June 11, 2017
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust

I was poking around a respected but fairly mainstream music site this week, and came across a piece that caught my eye.  It pointed out some of the more worthy "tribute" records released in the past several years, prefaced with a remark about how these things were typically interesting as novelties but maybe not so much as abiding musical statements.  As I've mentioned here in past posts, I do have a thing for a good compilation or tribute album, and I think I tend to include covers as a regular part of what I do.  I'm going to shed light on four recent releases that take different approaches to the tribute compilation.

Mark Heard was an artist who ably walked the line between Christian and roots music, respected by both camps.  Heard passed away several years ago at age 40, and has been the subject of at least one other worthy tribute in 1994's Strong Hand of Love.  Behind the lead of Jeff Grantham and Phil Madeira, Treasure of the Broken Land: the Songs of Mark Heard assembles an impressive collection of familiar artists, sharing their take on songs that probably aren't too familiar to most.  Last year's pleasant surprise, Matt Haeck, drags "Dry Bones Dance" into the roadside honky-tonk.  Adding horns and a welcome veneer of blues 'n soul, the duo Birds of Chicago keep "Rise From the Ruins" close to the chapel, while Rodney Crowell's delivery of "Nod Over Coffee" brings what is arguably Heard's best known tune into a more contemporary roots setting.  Contributors like Amy Speace, Drew Holcomb and Lily & Madeleine do great vocal justice to a genuinely strong and underappreciated writer.  Buddy Miller, who played a part in that 1994 tribute, sounds perfectly at home on the title track.  While Mark Heard's original music suffers somewhat from dated production and timebound arrangement, these appreciations bring the songs up to date, allowing them to shine.

While I've followed and respected Brandi Carlile's career since her 2005 debut, I haven't made a point of adding her music to R&B playlists.  Cover Stories: Brandi Carlile Celebrates 10 Years of the Story is a benefit for War Child.  The two disc set features Carlile's remastered originals as well as an impressively diverse CD of covers recorded by friends and admirers.  Of all these compilation albums, Cover Stories allows interpreters to stray furthest from the originals.  Margo Price's "Downpour" is a tuneful ballad that would fit perfectly among much of Midwest Farmer's Daughter.  It's been awhile since Anderson East ran off with Miranda Lambert, and his "Josephine" is more soul than contemporary folk.  Ruby Amanfu delivers "Shadow On the Wall" through a stirring blues filter.  Shovels & Rope present a stripped, harmony rich "Late Morning Lullaby", while Dolly Parton's version of "The Story" reminds us what a treasure we have in her timeless, angelic voice.  On the opposite end of the spectrum is fellow treasure Kris Kristofferson.  His delivery is wrecked and dry, half spoken and half sung, but it comes across as pure perfection on the highlight, "Turpentine".

Whereas the Mark Heard tribute presented familiar artists tackling unfamiliar songs, and Cover Stories found well-known artists bringing a new perspective to fairly recent work, our third compilation finds beloved musicians paying faithful tribute to familiar songs from long ago.  Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams was curated by Garth Fundis (who worked with the man in the 70s), bringing together established acts from the country mainstream alongside names from the more contemporary americana scene.  Most of these are songs I heard repeatedly on my mother's a.m. radio growing up in rural Southern Oregon.  Among the more mainstream contributors, Dierks Bentley and Pistol Annies are standouts.  Brandy Clark takes a sweet pass at the charmingly simple "I Believe In You".  I'd throw Keb Mo's "Lord I Hope This Day Is Good" in that same batch.  Chris and Morgane Stapleton bust a collective lung emoting through "Amanda", while Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires are conversely restrained on a moving "If I Needed You".

Finally, in conjunction with a Public Television series, Music From the American Epic Sessions presents today's artists recording their versions of yesterday's tunes on recording equipment from long ago. The wide-ranging deluxe edition features a schizophrenic array of contributors reaching from Nas to Elton John, Pokey LaFarge, Stephen Stills and Alabama Shakes.  Executive producers Jack White, T Bone Burnett and ... Robert Redford present a fascinating account of American music from the 1920s, when the record industry began finding value in regional, vernacular folk music a'la Mississippi John Hurt, Carter Family, Dock Boggs, or Robert Johnson.  Highlights of the set include Alabama Shakes' spirited jump through Memphis Minnie's "Killer Diller", as well as Los Lobos' faithful run through the venerable mariachi piece "El Cascabel".   Given my sloppy soft spot for trad gospel, I can't pass by the Avett Brothers' pair of hymns without removing my hat.  Their work harkens back to the brother band's early stuff, replete with approximate harmonies.  And because it's Bettye LaVette, we'll make an extra deep bow for her gloriously soulful rendition of "When I Woke Up This Morning" and "Nobody's Dirty Business".  Especially given the current day's focus on sonic perfection, it's most heartening to hear the legends like Elton John or Beck in such a raw setting.  And let's not pass by a pair of duets between Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, sounding exactly as god intended.  Extra props to White and Burnett for including Latin and Hawaiian music among the more commonly celebrated American faire.  On the former, Ana Gabriel is a passionate fireball.

- Richard Buckner, "Do You Wanna Go Somewhere" Sir Dark Invader vs the Fanglord  (Low Noise, 05)
- Steve Earle, "So You Wannabe an Outlaw" So You Wannabe an Outlaw  (Warner, 17)
- Joseph Huber, "Sons of the Wandering" Suffering Stage  (Huber, 17)
- Jade Jackson, "Goodtime Gone" Gilded  (Anti, 17)
- Cale Tyson, "Somebody Save Me" Careless Soul  (Tyson, 17)
- Filthy Friends, "Any Kind of Crowd" single  (Kill Rock Stars, 17)  D
- GospelbeacH, "Hangin' On" Another Summer of Love  (Alive Naturalsound, 17)
- Matthew Ryan, "Close Your Eyes" Hustle Up Starlings  (Ryan, 17)
- Amanda Anne Platt, "Things We Call Home" Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters  (Organic, 17)
- Whiskeytown, "16 Days" Strangers Almanac  (Outpost, 97)
- John Moreland, "Love is Not an Answer" Big Bad Luv  (4AD, 17)
- Slaid Cleaves, "Drunken Barber's Hand" Ghost on the Car Radio  (Candy House, 17)  D
^ Anderson East, "Josephine" Cover Stories: 10 Years of the Story  (Looking Out, 17)
- Justin Townes Earle, "There Go a Fool" Kids in the Street  (New West, 17)
- Steelism, "Roulette (w/Ruby Amanfu)" Ism  (Intoxicating Sounds, 17)
- Banditos, "Healin' Slow" Visionland  (Bloodshot, 17)
- Steph Cameron, "Daybreak Over Jackson Street" Daybreak Over Jackson Street  (Pheromone, 17)  D
- Matt Urmy, "Gotta Be True" Out of the Ashes  (Red Light Library, 17)
- Iron & Wine, "Call It Dreaming" Beast Epic  (Sub Pop, 17)  D
- Wrinkle Neck Mules, "Cadillac Limousine" The Wicks Have Met  (Lower 40, 07)
- Deer Tick, "Sea of Clouds" Deer Tick Vol. 1  (Partisan, 17)  D
- Pistol Annies, "Tulsa Time" Gentle Giants: Songs of Don Williams  (Slate Creek, 17)
- Jason Isbell, "White Man's World" Nashville Sound  (Southeastern, 17)
- Joan Shelley, "Push and Pull" Joan Shelley  (No Quarter, 17)
- Lee Bains III & Glory Fires, "Whitewash" Youth Detention  (Don Giovanni, 17)
- Chris Stapleton, "Up To No Good Livin'" From A Room: Vol. 1  (Mercury, 17)
- Will Hoge, "Little Bit of Rust (w/Sheryl Crow)" Anchors  (Edlo, 17)  D
- Taylor Childers, "Lady May" Purgatory  (Hickman Holler, 17)  D
- Pokey LaFarge, "Good Luck Charm" Manic Revelations  (Rounder, 17)
- Molina & Johnson, "Almost Let You In" Molina & Johnson  (Secretly Canadian, 09)

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