featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
September 30, 2018
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
You know when you run into an old acquaintance, and there's that awkward moment when you're not really sure if you should hug them or just keep your arms to yourself? But if you had your druthers you'd just let loose with the hug? That's how I'm feeling about October. But before we fully commit to the month of pumpkins and leaves and sweater vests, I'd like to pound a nail in September's coffin by summing up my favorite things from the month passed.
WHAT's SO GREAT ABOUT SEPTEMBER?!!
Ruston Kelly, Dying Star (Rounder, Sep 7)
William Elliott Whitmore, Kilonova (Bloodshot, Sep 7)
Alejandro Escovedo, The Crossing (Yep Roc, Sep 14)
Kristina Murray, Southern Ambrosia (Loud Magnolia, Sep 21)
The Pollies, Transmissions (This is American Music, Sep 28)
I couldn't live with myself if I didn't fudge a bit to allow John R Miller's first-rate Trouble You Follow, which was actually released on August 31st. Regarding October, we're especially looking forward to full records from Will Hoge, Larry & His Flask, Becky Warren and Jamie Lin Wilson. Bring it/them on.
There's been a lot of talk lately about what americana is and isn't. Between you and me, I don't care. I choose to defend my own lane, to play music that makes sense to me, and to knock down silly walls rather than to build them. Having said this, I'll also admit that there's a certain early alt.country sound that I'll always point to as the pure, distilled spirit of what we do at Routes & Branches.
Turns out John Howie Jr was around quite a bit during those formative days, contributing to acts that helped define and delineate what I refer to as "our kind of music". Two Dollars Pistols brought us a trio of essential alt.country documents, including '98's Step Right Up, '02's You Ruined Everything, and a personal favorite collection with fellow North Carolina artist Tift Merritt in '99. Once his work with the Pistols had played itself out, Howie created Rosewood Bluff, which drew his music beyond its early country-tonk roots.
Now comes John Howie Jr's first proper solo record, Not Tonight (Suah Sounds), largely written during a little known relationship with Sarah Shook for whom he played drums for a spell. It can be said that the eleven new songs document heartbreak as opposed to serving as just another breakup album, granting listeners a front-row seat to the raw and real turmoil of a middle-aged single father and twice-divorced romantic.
I find Howie's voice to be one of the true treasures of alt.country, a tried-and-true baritone that carries all the gravitas and soul of John Doe or Dave Alvin. On Not Tonight it's brought to the front of the stage in all its resonance and its vulnerability. Howie's delivery is never perfect on songs like "Happy", which allows for emotion and humanity to shine through the cracks. His performance on the album's opener, "Wish My Heart", is earnest classic country: She stays out late most every night these days / And I can't say that I fault her for her ways / If I had some place to go then I'd leave too / I just wish my heart would tell me what to do. It's not the sound of a man drowning his sorrows in drink or generating a fiery grudge, a refreshing trend that winds throughout these songs.
Not Tonight is produced by Southern Culture on the Skids' Rick Miller, who helps create a lot of space around Howie's voice. And these songs are not necessarily what we've become accustomed to with the Pistols or Rosewood Bluff, offering more confessional ballads than barfights. The band boasts members of Howie's current act, as well as folks from the Disarmers and other denizens of the North Carolina roots scene, with Howie himself behind the drum kit. On songs like "Back When I Cared", he lays down a steady groove that serves his stuff well, even as it overflows what we usually think of as country percussion. It's one of the real appeals of Howie's music, which is fully rooted in country even as it branches confidently into early rock and rhythm & blues. While there's a sturdy line between his own music and that of the country masters, Howie also claims inspiration for the sound of these songs from Nikki Sudden and Scott Walker.
You'll hear him apply his own touch to "When I'm Not There With You", which finds Howie fronting Two Dollar Pistols once again. It's a song that portrays the writer climbing the walls at home while his girlfriend is out on the road or on the town, a scenario that recurs throughout the collection. Matter of fact, Howie almost comes across as a homebody on "Underground", or at least a man who can no longer see himself as part of her scene: You're hangin' out with kids and I haven't felt so old in so long. I analyze music more than men, but that brand of self-awareness is rare in both instances.
Howie and Shook share cowriting credits on the record's most vulnerable moment. With just his own acoustic and a cello accompanying, that baritone is showcased to its full effect on "She'll Lose My Heart": I drove up to that man's apartment at 6:15 last Sunday morning / Hit the lot as I parked it I saw my baby's car I let the storm begin.
Have to admit that I never read about the Howie/Shook romance in TMZ, and based on these saaaaad lyrics the thing was probably never meant to be. To our benefit, however, it all fueled the foundry that produced this new music. I've always appreciated that Howie's bands were genuine purveyors of country-based music, never driven by irony or embracing the exaggerated posturing of a costumed tribute band. The stark recordings on Not Tonight seem to be fired by real emotions, which tend to produce real music. Real good music. Our kind of music.
- Daniel Romano, "If I've Only One Time Askin'" If I've Only One Time Askin' (New West, 15)
^ John Howie Jr, "Wish My Heart" Not Tonight (Suah, 18)
- Kristina Murray, "Made in America" Southern Ambrosia (Loud Magnolia, 18)
- Stryker Brothers, "The Bottle" Burn Band (Scriptorium Rex, 18)
- Backsliders, "Throwin' Rocks at the Moon" Throwin' Rocks at the Moon (Mammoth, 97)
- Nick Dittmeier & Sawdusters, "Walking On Water" All Damn Day (Eastwood, 18) D
- Town Mountain, "Down Low (feat. Tyler Childers)" New Freedom Blues (Tone Tree, 18)
- Nathan Bowles, "Fresh & Fairly So" Plainly Mistaken (Paradise of Bachelors, 18)
- Lucinda Williams, "Jailhouse Tears" Little Honey (UMG, 08)
- John Hiatt, "Poor Imitation of God" Eclipse Sessions (New West, 18)
- Pistol Annies, "Interstate Gospel" Interstate Gospel (Sony, 18) D
- Jerry David Decicca, "Burning Daylight" Burning Daylight (Super Secret, 18)
- William Matheny, "Flashes & Cables" single (Misra, 18) D
- Golden Smog, "Corvette" Another Fine Day (UMG, 06)
- Pollies, "You Want It" Transmissions (This is American Music, 18)
- Goshen Electric Co, "Gray Tower" single (Secretly Canadian, 18)
- First Aid Kit, "All That We Get" Tender Offerings EP (Columbia, 18)
- Adam Faucett, "Sober and Stoned" It Took the Shape of a Bird (Last Chance, 18)
- Adam Hood, "Easy Way" Somewhere in Between (Soundly, 18)
- Candi Staton, John Paul White & Jason Isbell, "I Ain't Easy to Love" Muscle Shoals: Small Town Big Sound (Dreamlined, 18) D
- Ben Pirani, "Try Love" How Do I Talk to My Brother (Colemine, 18) D
- Sarah Borges & Broken Singles, "Lucky Rocks" Love's Middle Name (Blue Corn, 18)
- Dirty River Boys, "Wild of Her Eyes" Mesa Starlight (DRB, 18)
- Will Courtney, "Drunk On Your Songs Again" Crazy Love (Super Secret, 18) D
- Jamie Lin Wilson, "Death & Life" Jumping Over Rocks (JLW, 18)
- Neilson Hubbard, "That Was Then" Cumberland Island (Proper, 18) D
- Rosanne Cash, "Everyone But Me" She Remembers Everything (Blue Note, 18)
- Chuck Prophet, "Pin a Rose On Me" Age of Miracles (New West, 04)
- Anna St Louis, "Desert" If Only There Was a River (Woodsist, 18)
- Marissa Nadler, "Are You Really Gonna Move to the South" For My Crimes (Sacred Bones, 18)
The country music supergroup Pistol Annies resurfaced with three new songs after a long period of hint and rumor. And William Matheny releases a terrific cover of a standard from his Centro-Matic labelmates. In 2014, Candi Staton included a glorious cover of a little-known song by James LeBlanc on her Life Happens album. Now she reprises that performance with some help from John Paul White and Jason Isbell. And as a contributor and a producer, Neilson Hubbard has become a fixture in the roots music world. It's hard to believe he'll be releasing his first new solo collection in about a decade.