DISClaimer Single Reviews: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, Lucinda Williams, John Prine

John Prine

The abiding importance of song craftsmanship is on full display in this week’s Americana disc survey.

Darrell Scott, Marshall Chapman and Steve Forbert are here to remind us of what excellence has come before, via their new collections of cover tunes. Jason Isbell, Allison Moorer, Steve Earle and more are here to represent what troubadour excellence remains with us today.

The Disc of the Day prize goes to Lucinda Williams. One of Americana’s “founding mothers” is still creating at the top of her game.

I have previously reviewed The Marcus King Band in this column. By virtue of the fact that its leader is releasing his first solo CD, Marcus King becomes our DisCovery Award winner.

How lucky are we that ALL of these diverse talents live and/or work among us here in Music City?

LUCINDA WILLIAMS/Big Black Train
Writers: Lucinda Williams/Tom Overby; Producer Ray Kennedy & Tom Overby; Publisher: none listed; Highway 20/Thirty Tigers
– Lucinda goes dark and spooky in this stunningly beautiful meditation about a descent into mental depression. She was the first artist in Americana music to earn a Gold record. That was with 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and the three-time Grammy Award honoree has re-teamed with producer Ray Kennedy for Good Souls Better Angels, from whence this terrific, echoey track comes.

MARSHALL CHAPMAN/Tower of Song
Writers: Leonard Cohen; Producer: Neilson Hubbard; Publisher: none listed; TallGirl
– This Nashville treasure begins her new CD with this masterpiece Leonard Cohen lyric. Her distinctive, conversational, spoke-sung delivery drawls while Will Kimbrough’s guitar twangs expressively. The starkly-produced, evocative album is called Songs I Can’s Live Without because it is a collection of covers from the likes of J.J. Cale, Cash, Carole King, Bob Seger and Elvis. Maah-shul makes them all her own. Even “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

STEVE EARLE & THE DUKES/John Henry Was A Steel Drivin’ Man
Writers: Steve Earle; Producers: Steve Earle; Publisher: none listed; New West
– One of the greatest folk singers in Nashville history returns with a classic sounding saga of the iconic John Henry. As always, he delivers it with effortless charisma. The song is drawn from Earle’s new collection Ghosts of West Virginia, which (prior to the pandemic) he performed as the “soundtrack” of Coal Country, a theater piece about a fatal 2010 mining explosion resulting from corporate corruption.

STEVE FORBERT /Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues
Writers: Danny O’Keefe; Producer: none listed; Publisher: none listed; Blue Rose
– Forbert’s new album of covers is titled Early Morning Rain. The collection’s launching track is his whispery, lonesome, haunting version of Danny O’Keefe’s 1972 folk-pop hit. His talent endures. More power to him.

JASON ISBELL & THE 400 UNIT/What’ve I Done To Help
Writers: Jason Isbell/Michael Kiwanuka; Producer: Dave Cobb; Publisher: none listed; Southeastern
– Strings shimmer, percussion brushes nervously and guitars cry in the background as Isbell’s tenor aches and soars in a song that questions his life’s purpose amid a world in crisis. The new album is titled Reunions, and it goes without saying that it is essential.

LORI McKENNA/When You’re My Age
Writers: Lori McKenna/Hillary Lindsey/Liz Rose; Producer: Dave Cobb; Publisher: none listed; CN/Thirty Tigers
-I adore this woman. This ballad is sung from the point of view of a mother gazing backward and forward on behalf of her growing-up child. Backed by stark, sympathetic piano, percussion and cello, her direct, honest, plain-spoken, warm singing voice has striking resonance here. The song is an advance track for an album titled The Balladeer, due on July 24.

DARRELL SCOTT/My Sweet Love Ain’t Around
Writers: Hank Williams; Producer: none listed; Publisher: none listed; Full Light
– Darrell Scott Sings the Blues of Hank Williams is an album whose title perfectly describes its contents: It is not a greatest-hits repertoire, but emphasizes the Hank songs that reflect the legend’s blues influences. This swampy, deep-South, earthy, dramatic performance kicks things off with rocking, stomping force. Don’t miss Darrell’s dad Wayne Scott’s emotional rendition of “When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels” or Darrell’s delightfully yodel-embellished “When You’re Tired of Breaking Other Hearts” later in the set. His guitar, slide and piano work throughout the collection are awesome.

ALLISON MOORER/Nightlight
Writers: Allison Moorer; Producer: Kenny Greenberg; Publisher: none listed; Autotelic/Thirty Tigers
– Moorer’s current CD and memoir are both titled Blood. This tender, exquisite ballad is at its emotional center as an ode to love, sisterhood and courage. “You’re the first light, last light/You’re my daylight, my moonlight….my nightlight.” In sum, heart-touchingly lovely. The book is harrowing and real. The album stands on its own as a masterwork.

MARCUS KING/One Day She’s Here
Writers: none listed; Producer: Dan Auerbach; Publisher: none listed; Fantasy
– This guitar-slinging wunderkind is a talent who can veer from Southern-rock intensity to smoldering soul with amazing panache. The phenom is a funk/R&B falsetto dude in this flawless, admirably slick, groove-soaked outing about the mystery lady who got away. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear it was recorded by Gamble & Huff in Philly in the mid-70s, instead of here and now in Music City. It comes from King’s breakout debut solo CD, El Dorado.

JOHN PRINE/I Remember Everything
Writers: John Prine/Pat McLaughlin; Producer: Dave Cobb; Publisher: none listed; Oh Boy Records
– This is said to be the late Prine’s last recorded song. If so, it’s a helluva way to bow out, a fond, wistful, heartfelt farewell to a lover. We all felt like he was our dear friend, and he was, to the last note.

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About the Author

Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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