Articles and Interviews – 2009
Here it is the top 30 for 2009. This isn't authoritative in case you thought otherwise. It's just one man's opinion about his favorite CDs of the year, which seemed a cut above everything else. It was incredibly hard figuring out a number one CD for the year between the Avett Brothers, Brad Paisley and George Strait. All three were great albums from different perspectives of country and roots music, and at any one time over the past few days, each was my favorite. Come back in a few days, and who knows? Maybe the order will change.
In fact, in going over the list of CDs out this year, it was a strong year for excellent music - it's just that most of it was on the edge and not the mainstream folks like Keith Urban or the new artists who did not sound all that unique.
Without further adieu...
1. Brad Paisley - American Saturday Night - a complete album from one of the finest guitarists out there. He gets serious on the title track instead of relying on novelty. He is solid from start to finish in a bunch of songs that never lag.... »»»
To say that Lyle Lovett has a great new album in "Natural Forces" is a newsflash akin to announcing that oxygen is now available for mass consumption at no charge. Lovett's musical quality is as automatic as a politician's promise and infinitely more trustworthy, which might lead one to believe that, at a certain level, the Texas singer/songwriter has become slightly jaded by the consistent accolades thrown his way. One would be very mistaken.
Much like her heroes, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless' music has evolved and enjoyed a few reincarnations over the course of her career.
Loveless began working with Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner while still a teenager, before dabbling in North Carolina rock and roll bands for several years. She then joined MCA's Nashville roster from 1985 until 1992, releasing songs like That Kind of Girl and Chains.
If they were asked to list iconic rockabilly artists, whether pioneering originals or revivalists, it would be easy for serious fans of roots rock to name off the great men of rockabilly. But the job of compiling a similar collection of special women rockers would not be quite so easy and obvious.
Since Scott and Seth Avett traded in the shredding indie rock sound of their first band, Nemo, for the front porch bluegrass vibe of the Avett Brothers nearly a decade ago, the North Carolina trio (Scott on banjo/vocals, Seth on guitar/vocals and stand-up bassist Bob Crawford) has come to define the DIY ethic.
Deer Tick vocalist/guitarist/songwriter John McCauley III is clearly a guy who lets his music do the talking. And on the day of our interview, the Providence, R.I. native is letting his talking do the drinking as he simultaneously enjoys a sunny Colorado afternoon and a margarita before getting ready to drive to Portland, Ore. for the next night's show.
Time and tide do funny things to memory. When Matt Ward thinks back to how Monsters of Folk - the new multi-genre indie super group featuring Ward, Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis and My Morning Jacket's Jim James - came to be christened, he recalls that the name blinked into consciousness as though "it just came down out of the sky."
Hot Club of Cowtown is a complex band filled with surprises. Evidence: The two singers trade off lead vocals, but the band also plays a lot of instrumentals. They've been successful as a traditional guitar, violin and stand-up bass combo, but recently added a drummer to mix things up on their latest CD, "Wishful Thinking."
For an artist, a famous name could be both a blessing and a curse. But Holly Williams does not see it that way. The Williams in question is the daughter of Hank Jr., which also would make her the granddaughter of Hank Sr. She also is the half-sister of Hank III.
The pressure presumably would be there, but Williams, who just released her second disc of country, rootsy and singer/songwriter sounds, "Here With Me," after a five-year gap due largely in part to a bad car accident involving her sister, is not shy about embracing the family mantle.
After first coming to the attention of the bluegrass world with his head-swiveling, jaw-dropping rhythm and lead guitar work in Ricky Skaggs' band a decade and more ago, North Carolina native Bryan Sutton, 35, finds himself among the most in-demand session players in Nashville.
Jay Farrar has traveled a winding path since reassembling the scatterlings of Son Volt five years ago. Although Farrar had been in solo acoustic mode for nearly five years, he got the original Son Volt line-up back to the studio in 2004 to record a version of Alejandro Escovedo's Sometimes
for "Por Vida," the tribute/benefit album for the hepatitis-stricken singer/songwriter. Sensing a renewed vigor, Farrar proposed putting the band back together to record a new album, a plan that fell through at the 11th hour.
When last heard from, Charlie Robison released "Good Times " back in 2005 on Dualtone.
No new music since, and in this day and age with the music business in dire straits, waiting so long could be a death sentence for a singer. Fans move on and often aren't so ready to come back.
In some ways, the summer will bring with it all the activities that an 18-year-old high school graduate and musician like Sarah Jarosz might expect. She received her diploma, graduated with honors, accepted a scholarship to attend the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in the fall, and she will be playing at music festivals all summer. Oh yes...and she just released her first album on Sugar Hill Records, featuring performances by Nickel Creek virtuoso Chris Thile, bluegrass legend Del McCoury and Stuart Duncan.
There's a hardscrabble folk-rock vibe on "Roadhouse Sun," the new Lost Highway album from Ryan Bingham and The Dead Horses. When asked Bingham about that sound and the equally tough songs, he replied that it comes from what he knows, what's comfortable.
When BR549 took a hiatus three years ago, frontman Chuck Mead found inspiration in another form of collaboration, as a staff songwriter for Ten Ten Music Group, a Nashville publishing house. All the songs on his first solo effort, the self-released "Journeyman's Wager," except for a George Harrison-penned Beatles cover, come from that fruitful stint.
The first notes of The Greencards' "Fascination," the title track of their third CD, announce a new direction for the band formerly associated with the next wave of bluegrass. The song starts softly, almost imperceptibly before the mandolin strings are carefully plucked and the vocals of Carol Young soar in, smooth and confident.
Alecia Nugent is quick to point out that there's more than a little irony in the title of her third album. Around the time her second album, "A Little Girl…A Big Four Lane," hit the stores, prominent Music City journalist and critic Robert K. Oermann dubbed her a "hillbilly goddess" (which he reaffirms in his liner notes for the new disc), and the sobriquet has stuck to her since, despite the fact that her central Louisiana hometown of Hickory Grove is singularly lacking in hilltops and hollers.
At first blush it would seem an odd fit, backing a female folk-bluegrass singer working on her debut album with Elvis Costello's drummer, Tom Petty's keyboardist and plopping Led Zeppelin's bassist in the producer's chair.
Sure, her brother gets to accompany her on guitar, and a former band mate adds a mandolin run here and there. Yet her steel guitarist isn't known for his Nashville riffs, but, instead, for West Coast-influenced licks for rockers Peter Case, Sheryl Crow and Wilco.
When Dave Alvin thinks back on the single tragic event that sparked his two latest albums, he recalls teetering on the edge of believing that it happened at all.
"This kind of got started as a reaction to the death of my best friend Chris Gaffney, who was a singer, songwriter, accordionist, guitarist and my spiritual advisor," says Alvin. "He'd been playing with my band, the Guilty Men, for years when he wasn't playing with his band, the Hacienda Brothers. So, the first couple of gigs that we did after Chris passed away, I was literally looking for him onstage. There were moments where I'd forgot that he'd passed away. I was like, 'Where's that harmony? Where's the accordion?'"
"I'm a viper of melody/I can roll in most any key/When I open up my heart and sing/I can make the bad times swing" - Viper of Melody
A throwback juke joint crooner with a passion for rockabilly, swing, jazz, the blues and honky tonk, over the course of 14-plus years, Wayne "The Train" Hancock has recorded a string of studio albums praised by critics and music fans alike starting with "Thunderstorms and Neon Signs' in 1995.
John Doe came to fame as the singer/bassist in X, the seminal L.A. punk band. In the late ‘70s, he, along with his then-wife Exene Cervenka, helped define American punk rock. But some were surprised when these two put out "Poor Little Critter on the Road," the debut for a side project called The Knitters in 1986. Among its couple of new songs, and an X re-do, was a beautiful version of Merle Haggard's Silver Wings,
which revealed that Doe had both the skills and the true love to play country music.
Even saying that 2008 was a great year for Dailey & Vincent may be an understatement. The bluegrass duo dished out a well-received debut disc, scored a big hit single in bluegrass circles with By the Mark,
played a zillion concert dates and cleaned up at the International Bluegrass Music Association awards last fall.
But that was then, and "Brothers From Different Mothers," their dozen-song sophomore release, is now.
After beginning his musical ascension as lead singer with the eclectic country band The Mavericks during the 1990s, Raul Malo has continued to shed the shackles of limitations heaped upon him by the Nashville machine and corporate labels. He has never cared being forced into a particular genre. That is why now free of all conceived expectations, Malo came out swinging once again with his first original solo material in seven years.
With only a cursory glance at our economy, it's safe to say America is down in an emotional valley, rather than riding high upon a hill. Unemployment is on the rise, the housing market has tanked, and the stock market is seemingly in a schizophrenic state of confusion. America's history is comprised of both "Hills and Valleys."
"I think the hard times...I won't say it makes people more honest, but it makes ‘em search a little bit deeper about some things, and then maybe honesty comes into play on some levels," says Butch Hancock, who is one-third of Texas' fabled The Flatlanders, releasing a new disc, "Hills and Valleys" in late March.
Put the words and the rootsy, restless music aside for a moment. "Midnight at the Movies," the second Bloodshot Records release from 27-year-old Justin Townes Earle, has another striking element: the generous, double-panel photo spread inside the CD package that seemingly features everybody involved with the album's creation. The photos fall somewhere between candid shots and formal sittings. Think senior pictures if, that is, you went to an especially cool high school and the photo backdrop was funky antique-yellow wallpaper.
It's barely six weeks into 2009, and already it's been a banner year for Ray Benson. In January alone, Benson took his band, Asleep at the Wheel, to perform in Washington, D.C., during the presidential inauguration festivities. A couple of days later, he met the newest little member of western swing's most recognizable band, as Asleep at the Wheel drummer Dave Sanger and vocalist Elizabeth McQueen brought their infant daughter Lisel to Benson's Bismeaux studios for her own little debut.
Dierks Bentley wasn't complaining at all about his new CD, "Feel That
Fire." But it comes at a time where Bentley spends a lot of time on the
road, has a new daughter and always seems to be in motion. "At times,
it was organic, and at times, looking back on it, it was a lot of
work," says Bentley in a phone call in early January from Memphis on
the opening night of a tour. "We spent two years making this record. It
was the most time consuming and probably the most expensive I've ever
A decade ago, Gurf Morlix was cruising through his musical life with an enviable reputation as a renowned sideman and growing credibility as a producer. His 11-year creative collaboration as guitarist, bandleader and backing vocalist with Lucinda Williams culminated with his production work on her eponymous 1988 album and 1992's "Sweet Old World."
Once standing on stage at the Grand Ole Opry as a rising star as the lead singer for Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, bluegrass guitarist Ernie Thacker now struggles from his wheelchair on a daily basis.
Putting together a best of list gives a chance to revisit CDs good and bad that came out during the year. And the compilation, of course, is far from definitive.
While some may be hamstrung by a "Top 10," Country Standard Time is not. As a result, our best of consists of the "Top 18" plus honorable mentions. The list includes some tried and true country stars, an artist going back to her West Virginia roots, a comeback album, some great bluegrass albums, even an unknown band from Brooklyn (Yes, there is country music in Brooklyn).
Who avoided the sophomore slump? Who's the best new artist? And what took home the Kiss of Death award?
This is just one person's opinion, but here goes the best of 2008:
1. Alan Jackson - Good Time (Arista). AJ has been a solid purveyor of traditional country since the get go with odes to small town America, rural life and love, not to mention a sense of humor. Jackson proves ultra generous with 17 songs on a most meaty, enjoyable, enduring batch of songs.... »»»