ROUTES & BRANCHES
home for the americana diaspora
November 5, 2017
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
So last week I mentioned that we'd be removing the wraps from this year's favorite albums list on or about November 26. Let's reserve December 31 for my favorite songs of the year. In between we'll throw some Christmas at you, and maybe an Episode devoted to stuff we've whiffed on during 2017 (though I don't know that there's much).
Apparently, I harbor quite a few pet peeves. Foremost among my collection is the common practice of giving an artist a "pass" simply for who they used to be. It genuinely baffles me how, like our muscles and joints and ligaments, human creativity can sometimes become flaccid and underperforming with age. How is it that someone can show such tremendous talent as a younger adult, then cruise into their middle age and beyond on nothing but fond memories? On R&B, I'd like to think that an artist has to earn their part in our playlist with every new release. In large part, this explains why I haven't played a new Willie Nelson record in years. Or Neil Young.
It also leads us to our take on Lee Ann Womack's ninth release, The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone. It's so seldom that a performer not only stays relevant, but reaches for new levels of artistry at this point in her career. I think she started appearing on certain americana radars around the time of 2005's There's More Where That Came From. 2014's The Way I'm Livin' cemented that transition from country pop hitmaker to neo-trad roots singer-songwriter, garnering Womack nominations for both the Americana Music Association's Album of the Year and the Grammy for Best Country Album. With seven cowrites and a newfound commitment to exploring the soul of country music, her new collection resets all expectations.
Fact is, Lee Ann Womack has always proven herself an exceptional judge of writers, pairing with names like Stapleton, Chris Knight and Brent Cobb prior to their popular recognition. Lonely the Lonesome & the Gone finds her working with Waylon Payne, Cobb and Adam Wright on a truly eclectic range of material, from the trad country weeper "End of the End of the World" to her haunting mastery of "Long Black Veil" and the dirty Texas soul of "All the Trouble".
That latter track sets the stage for the sturdy thread of soul that weaves through the record. It also serves to remind us of Womack's uncommon grace as a vocalist. Like Shelby Lynne or Miranda Lambert, she is fearless and discerning when employing her super powers. "All the Trouble" stands as the darkest, most swampy thing she's ever recorded. Her vocal runs can be both sexy and sinister, borrowing both from the angels of gospel and the devils of the blues.
Womack fairly transforms one of my favorite cuts from last year, Brent Cobb and Andrew Combs' "Shine On Rainy Day". It's song that both writers have recorded, but neither mines the levels of soul and sweetness of this version. It's also one of several pieces that plugs in a somewhat fuzzy electric guitar to compliment the deliberately swampy/lush production (both courtesy of guitarist/producer and husband Frank Liddell). Where "All the Trouble" threatened a stormy forecast, most of Lonely the Lonesome & the Gone opts for a mood of overcast melancholy.
See "Hollywood" as an example. A subdued and forlorn track in the tradition of Bobby Gentry or Dusty Springfield, it portrays the flickering flame of an expired relationship. Both parties go through the motions, never especially acknowledging the hollowness of the "I love you's" and "Good nights". With literal doo-wop backing vocals and sentimental strings, it's a retro weeper. See also, "Sunday", another Womack cowrite that feeds the soul with its grooves and another stellar vocal.
While Womack's new collection sounds as current as Stapleton or Sturgill, the artist has always made a point of bearing a torch for tradition. In addition to "Long Black Veil", you'll find her tearing through George Jones' fiery "Take the Devil Out of Me" and slinking through Harlan Howard's "He Called Me Baby". The latter is a five-minute class in delivering a vocal, alternately cooing like a young Patsy Cline and belting like Candi Staton. A number of weeks ago, I devoted similar praise to Nicole Atkins' retro-tastic Goodnight Rhonda Lee. But where that record was a bit more self-conscious in its embrace of early rock and trad country, Lee Ann Womack comes across as more genuine and less campy in her satisfying tribute. It's the difference between approximating the tradition, serving it, or incorporating the tradition in your wider wheelhouse.
- Hellbound Glory, "Empty Bottles" Pinball (Black Country Rock, 17)
- Tom Vandenavond, "Brick by Brick" You Oughta Know These By Now (Hillgrass Bluebilly, 17)
- White Buffalo, "Heart and Soul of the Night" Darkest Darks Lightest Lights (Unison, 17)
- Mark Porkchop Holder, "Sad Days and Lonely Nights" Death and the Blues (Alive Naturalsound, 17)
- Chris Stapleton, "Scarecrow in the Garden" From A Room Vol. 2 (Mercury, 17)
- Nathaniel Rateliff & Night Sweats, "Trying Hard Not to Know" Live at Red Rocks (Concord, 17)
- Pontiac Brothers, "Straight and Narrow" Doll Hut/Fiesta en la bibioteca (Frontier, 85)
- Gasoline Lollipops, "Soul Mine" Soul Mine (Ellenburg, 17) D
- Ronnie Fauss, "New Madrid" Last of the True (Normaltown, 17)
- Drew Kennedy, "Sing This Town to Sleep" At Home in the Big Lonesome (Atlas Aurora, 17) D
- Hayes Carll, "Magnolia Wind" single (Next Waltz, 17) D
- Steve Earle, "Loretta" Townes (New West, 09)
- Ruby Boots, "It's So Cruel" Don't Talk About It (Bloodshot, 18) D
- Anderson East, "King for a Day" Encore (Elektra, 18)
- Mapache, "Chico River" Mapache (Spiritual Pajamas, 17)
- Jim James, "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" Tribute to 2 (ATO, 17) D
- Langhorne Slim, "Zombie" Lost at Last Vol. 1 (Dualtone, 17)
- Americans, "Stowaway" I'll Be Yours (Incandescent, 17)
- Blitzen Trapper, "Stolen Hearts" Wild & Reckless (LKC, 17)
- Porter & Bluebonnet Rattlesnakes, "Don't Hang Up Virginia" Don't Go Baby ... (Cornelius Chapel, 17)
- Nick Dittmeier & Sawdusters, "Ever Since You Left Town" Midwestern Heart/Southern Blues (Dittmeier, 16)
- Joe Henry, "Hungry" Thrum (Edel, 17)
- Jeffrey Martin, "Sad Blue Eyes" One Go Round (Fluff & Gravy, 17)
- Sharon Jones & Dap-Kings, "Call on God" Soul of a Woman (Daptone, 17)
- Elliott BROOD, "Gentle Temper" Ghost Gardens (Paper Bag, 17)
- Bloodhounds, "Indian Highway" Let Loose! (Alive Naturalsound, 14)
- Deer Tick, "Cocktail" Deer Tick Vol. 1 (Partisan, 17)
- Hiss Golden Messenger, "Jaw" Hallelujah Anyhow (Merge, 17)
- Wilco, "Myrna Lee" AM (Special Edition) (Reprise, 17)
- Wilco, "Sunken Treasure (live on KCRW 11/13/96)" Being There (Deluxe Edition) (Reprise, 17)