We sometimes forget that the Americana field has more than its share of name-brand stars.
Amid the hundreds of unclassifiable, and usually forgettable, acts who populate this genre are a number of folks who are justifiably famous throughout the music world. In recent country columns, we have noted the new releases by Emmylou Harris, Michael Martin Murphey, Ricky Skaggs, Gene Watson & Rhonda Vincent, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Kasey Chambers and Buddy Miller, all of whom fit comfortably under the Americana umbrella.
Today, we have such stellar contributors as Steve Earle, Jakob Dylan, The Avett Brothers and Gillian Welch on our desk. Our Disc of the Day goes to someone who should be just as well known as they are, Sugar Hill’s Sarah Jarosz.
The DisCovery Award goes not to a person, but to a thing. It is a highly inventive, home-grown Nashville concept album called The 1861 Project.
GILLIAN WELCH/The Way It Goes
Writer: Welch/Rawlings; Producer: David Rawlings; Publisher: Acony/Do Write/3rd Revision/Bug, BMI; Acony (track)
—If Gillian’s music on her new The Harrow & The Harvest CD had a color, it would be sepia. On this track, as throughout, her guitar intertwines delicately with David Rawlings’ instrument. The fatalistic/nonsense lyric is given a typically dry reading with David drawling harmony on the title phrase. The whole collection is somewhat same-y sounding, but their groove is so hypnotic that it really doesn’t matter.
PATTY GRIFFIN/I Love
Writer: Tom T. Hall; Producer: Peter Cooper & Eric Brace; Publisher: Sony, BMI; Red Beet/CMF (track) (www.songsoffoxhollow.com)
—The tribute CD I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow begins with Patty’s luminous rendition of the songwriter’s most famous “children’s” song. Lloyd Green’s steel guitar sighs sympathetically behind her. Elsewhere on the album, Buddy Miller gets to do a delightful “Sneaky Snake.” Bobby Bare sings “I Care.” Jim Lauderdale essays “I Like to Feel Pretty Inside.” Tom T., himself, drops by to help Fayssoux Starling McLean perform the set’s one new song, “I Made a Friend of a Flower Today.” Ditties such as “Everybody Loves to Hear a Bird Sing,” “The Song of the One-Legged Chicken,” “How to Talk to a Little Baby Goat” and “I Wish I Had a Million Friends” are recommended for children of all ages.
MINTON SPARKS/Her Purse
Writer: Minton Sparks/John Jackson; Producer: Brandon Bell & Kristin Tschida; Publisher: Mountain Sparks, ASCAP; Mountain Sparks (track)
—Minton Sparks is arguably Nashville’s most creative entertainer. She inhabits the character of a middle-aged Southern lady. Her pieces are spoken, with John Jackson’s guitar providing audio coloring. She always carries a pocketbook on stage, so beginning her current CD with this track describing the contents and the sentiment of her mother’s is perfectly suitable. She is best experienced in person, but Minton Sparks Performing Live at The Station Inn in the Heart of Downtown Nashville is the next best thing.
STEVE EARLE/This City
Writer: Steve Earle; Producer: T Bone Burnett; Publisher: Exile on Jones St., ASCAP; New West (track) (www.steveearle.com)
—Steve wrote this for the New Orleans based HBO television series Treme, on which he appears in one of the secondary roles. Or did, until his character was shot dead last season. It is a brooding ballad of the city’s steadfast refusal to drown. His bluesy delivery is backed by stuttering trumpet, slow bass thumping and strummed acoustic guitar, all of which are just stark enough to put the focus firmly on the message. Grammy and Emmy nominated, it appears on his terrific new CD I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, which is his most “country” collection in years. His debut novel, also out now, has the same title.
PEGI YOUNG/Foul Deeds
Writer: none listed; Producer: none listed; Publisher: none listed; Vapor (track) (www.pegiyoung.com)
—The title tune of the album by Neil Young’s wife Pegi is a loping waltz about abandonment. Her light soprano has a tart/sweet quality that sounds best on starker tracks like this one, rather than on the more electrified ones.
SARAH JAROSZ/Run Away
Writer: Sarah Jarosz/Alissa Bonagura; Producer: Gary Paczosa & Sarah Jarosz; Publisher: SoRaw/Almo/My Plum Songs/Alright Love!, BMI/ASCAP; Sugar Hill (track) (www.sarahjarosz.com)
—She tours on the bluegrass circuit, but her music is really closer to acoustic pop. This lead-off track of her new Follow Me Down CD captures how blissfully airy and haunting she can be. Instruments swirl in jazzy circles around her hushed, fluttering vocal. This woman is essential listening.
JAKOB DYLAN/Down On Our Own Shield
Writer: Jakob Dylan; Producer: T Bone Burnett; Publisher: Sugarmoonmusic, ASCAP; Columbia (track)
—I’m rather late in writing about this, but Jakob’s Women + Country album has been a nearly constant presence on my house sound system for months. With the aid of the ubiquitous Mr. Burnett, Bob’s son has achieved a stunningly ear grabbing sound that combines earthy rhythm, echoey twang and campfire folk. Harmony vocals by Neko Case and Kelly Hogan are particularly noteworthy. I chose this rumination, but you can “drop the needle” on “Everybody’s Hurting,” “Nothing But the Whole Wide World” or any of the other tracks and fall in love with this extraordinary record.
THE AVETT BROTHERS/Murder In The City
Writer: none listed; Producer: Rick Rubin; Publisher: none listed; American Recordings (track) (www.theavettbrothers.com)
—As a general rule, I don’t like live albums. But this is one group whose superb recorded works are sometimes outshone by its concert performances. The Avett Brothers Live, Volume 3 is not some “filler” release between studio recordings. Rather, it is an exciting document that stands on its own as a listening experience. If you’re already a fan, your favorites (”I and Love and You” for instance) are probably here. This starkly strummed family portrait is greeted with wild cheers by the crowd. But, then, so is just about everything else.
JOHN ANDERSON/The Turning Of A Field
Writer: Stan Webb/Thomm Jutz/Peter Cronin; Producer: Thomm Jutz; Publisher: Stan Webb/Thomm Songs/Samoline, SESAC; Cohesion Arts (track) (www.1861project.com)
—The 1861 Project is an ambitious song cycle about the Civil War. This 17-song CD is subtitled, “Volume 1: From Farmers to Foot Soldiers.” The unmistakable voice of John Anderson kicks things off with this evocative portrait of a man plowing his land as war winds rise in the distance. Other notables who portray the various songs’ characters include Irene Kelley, Marty Stuart, John Brannen, Richard Dobson and Dana Cooper. Impressive acoustic-folk work.
ROBERT ELLIS/What’s In It For Me
Writer: Robert Ellis; Producer: Robert Ellis & Paul Moore; Publisher: Roger Elvis/New West Independent, BMI; New West (track) (www.robertellismusic.com)
—This ballad from his Photographs CD is carefully arranged with an echoey background vocal chorus, deliberately chorded piano and a judiciously played steel guitar. The Texan’s trembling vocal of a loser coming home is note perfect.
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