Nick Ferrio’s been performing on Canada’s indie country scene for several years, and released his self-titled full-length debut last year. He’s back with a new 45 (and yes, that is a 7″ disc of vinyl that spins at forty-five revolutions-per-minute beneath a turntable’s diamond stylus) that includes a new A-side, “Half the Time,” backed with the album track “Other Side of Town.” The top side is a lament of a lost love whose draw has yet to let go, the flip is even more pained as the of object desire is just across town in the arms of another. Available individually or by subscription to Seventh Fire’s record club. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
Merrilee Rush and the Turnabouts
After his innovative 1970 debut, Total Destruction to Your Mind, Swamp Dogg (born Jerry Williams, Jr.) continued to cut fine soul albums, despite a lack of big label distribution, chart action or major sales. His deep industry experience provided the background to create commercial hits, but Williams chose a more purely artistic route, chasing a muse that was equal parts southern soul and idiosyncratic outspokenness. Using funky bass lines, sharp horn charts and a voice that suggested the keening sound of General Norman Johnson, Williams’ records offer a surface of commercial soul, but topped with lyrics of social observation and absurdist humor. His fourth album isn’t as radical as his debut, but the grooves are deep and more uniformly funky, and while there’s nothing as politically provocative as 1971′s “God Bless America for What?,” Williams’ wit remains sharp on “Mighty Mighty Dollar Bill” and “I Couldn’t Pay for What I Got Last Night.” There’s New Orleans flavors heard in a few tracks and the original album’s cover of Wilson Pickett’s “Midnight Hour” is joined on this reissue by a funky bonus track of “Honky Tonk Woman.” Also added as a bonus is a seven-minute live take of “Mama’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe” recorded in the studio of San Francisco’s legendary KSAN-FM. Alive’s digipack reissue includes Williams’ irreverent original liner notes and a six-page insert that includes Williams’ equally irreverent new liner notes. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
British guitarist George Breakfast’s soulful sound wouldn’t be particularly out-of-place in Muscle Shoals, Austin or even underground Nashville. There’s a raspy Americana edge to his voice, and a gospel-inflected strut to of his songs that suggest everything from light ’70s country to Little Feat inspired funk and Commander Cody-styled jump blues. The vocals are charmingly rough in spots, but the backing musicians are fluid and tight, and the melodies and lyrics are insinuating. Anyone looking to rekindle the 1970′s warm infusion of country, blues, R&B, Cajun, soul, funk and gospel will enjoy this one. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
Clinton Gregory had a run of Top-100 country hits in the early ’90s, but both his releases and commercial success became scarce by mid-decade. He returned last year with Too Much Ain’t Enough, his first album in more than a decade, and doubles down with this return to his bluegrass roots. Gregory started out as a fiddler, playing festivals as a child and breaking into Nashville as a session musician. His return from country crooning to tightly harmonized bluegrass is a superb spin, fueled by an obvious love of these songs and sounds. The band’s five-piece line-up reanimates a repertoire that leans almost entirely on the traditional canon. Rather than trying to stretch the genre, Gregory plugs into the formula’s original energies, making room for instrumentals, multipart harmonies and his moving lead vocals. This is no small task in a genre whose tight constrictions can leave its music sounding moribund. Gregory’s journey home plugs into a musical place that was engrained rather than learned, and the result is terrifically compelling. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
After relocating from New Orleans to Los Angeles, soul queen Irma Thomas largely disappeared from public view for a few years. But a series of singles produced by Jerry Williams (a.k.a. Swamp Dogg) on the indieCanyon, Roker and Fungus labels led to this eight-track release in 1973. Williams had proven himself a talented musician and producer, and in the latter capacity he leaves behind the absurdist humor of his own records to bring Thomas a helping of Southern soul and West Coast funk. Thomas’ new material, much of it written by Williams, has plenty of bite, but it’s more personal than broad. The wistful drama of her early Minit and Imperial sides had given way to something heavier, more worldly-wise, weary and womanly. When she sings of broken relationships, it’s from the experience of being spurned rather than the hope of being accepted, and when she takes stock of her life, she’s not afraid to highlight problems with the balance sheet. The transition from her earlier work is particularly apparent in a remake of “Wish Someone Would Care” which evolved from heartbroken yearning to mortally wounded. Alive’s 2013 reissue adds two bonus tracks, including the pre-album B-side “I’ll Do it All Over You.” This little-known album caught Thomas in a fiery and outspoken mood, and its return to print makes a welcome addition to her better-known releases. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
For most artists, a twenty-eight track collection of their biggest chart hits would be a fair representation of their commercial success. In Eddy Arnold’s case, twenty-eight #1 singles only very lightly skims the surface of nearly thirty-nine consecutive years of chart success that stretched from 1945 through 1983 (he struck out, though not without a few good swings, in 1958). A singer of such renown inspires numerous reissues and collections, including hefty Bear Family boxes (1 2), but this is the first set to include his entire run of chart-toppers, from 1946′s “What is Life Without Love” through 1968′s “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye.” Within that 25-year span, Arnold evolved from a twangy country star in the ’40s to a Nashville Sound innovator and resurgent chart-topper in the mid-60s.
Arnold was always more of a crooner than a honky-tonker, and even when singing upbeat tunes like “A Full Time Job,” you can hear pop stylings edging into his held notes. 1953′s “I Really Don’t Want to Know” drops the fiddle and steel, and is sung in a folk style to acoustic guitar, bass and male backing vocals. 1955′s “Cattle Call” finds Arnold yodeling a remake of Tex Owens’ 1934 tune, a song he’d recorded previously in 1944. The new version featured orchestrations by Hugo Winterhalter and signaled crossover intentions that would come to full fruition a full decade later. Arnold’s chart success dimmed in the face of rock ‘n’ roll’s rise, but by 1960 he’d regained a foothold, and by mid-decade he’d transitioned fully to countrypolitan arrangements.
In 1965 Arnold once again topped the charts with “What’s He Doing in My World” and his signature “Make the World Go Away.” Backed by strings, burbling bass lines, the Anita Kerr Singers and Floyd Kramer’s light piano, Arnold rode out the decade with a string of Top 10s and his last five chart toppers. He pushed towards an easier sound, but his vocals always retained a hint of his Tennessee Plowboy roots, differentiating him from more somnambulistic singers like Perry Como. Real Gone’s collection includes an eight-page booklet with liner notes from Don Cusic and remastering by Maria Triana. Tracks 1-21 are in their original mono, tracks 22-28 in their original true stereo. Though there’s a great deal more to be told, a spin through Arnold’s chart toppers provides a truly satisfying introduction to his catalog. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
Though country music is most typically associated with the Southern United States, its impact has been felt all around the world. In addition to Nashville and Texas exports, a strong but little-known strain developed among Australian aboriginals in the second half of the twentieth century. American songs were repurposed to tell stories of harsh conditions in the outback, and lyrics of country-to-city migration, drinking and prison all found resonance in the freewheeling down-under. But Australians also stretched the genre with localized stories, locations and slang, and dark themes of social injustice that had more in common with America’s folk, blues and outlaw movements than country’s mainstream.
Roger Knox, known as both the Koori King of Country and the Black Elvis (check out his early work on Best of Koori Classic), has been an Australian favorite for more than 30 years, but like so many from outside Nashville, his music has always been too country for country. His parallels to other outspoken artists are many, but none more so than Johnny Cash, whose sympathies for the repressed, downtrodden and imprisoned are mirrored in Knox’s work. On this first new record in nine years, Knox revisits the history of aboriginal country music, reworking his own contributions and covering classics of the genre. He’s backed seamlessly by Jon Langford’s Pine Valley Cosmonauts, with guest appearances by Dave Alvin, Sally Timms, Kelly Hogan, Bonnie Prince Billie, The Sadies and Charlie Louvin. The latter, heard on “Ticket to Nowhere,” is thought to have been making his last recorded performance.
The selections profile rough-and-ready cowboys from a frontier that lasted decades longer than the American West, natives imprisoned and stripped of their cultural practices, prejudice expressed openly and in misguided assimilation programs, and homesick emigrants whose delicate memories are like sensory poems. The devastating effects of forced social alienation – broken families, alcoholism, arrest and prison – play similarly to those essayed by Johnny Cash of Native Americans, but amid the privation and heartache are threads of optimism, expressed both in response to hardships and in positive exclamations of place and pride. This is a truly moving collection of songs and performances, and a good introduction to a pocket of country music likely to be unfamiliar to even the most adventurous listener. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
There may never have been as iconoclastic a country artist as David Allan Coe. Though his rejection of Nashville norms drew parallels with the outlaw movement, he always seemed a notch wilder and less predictable than Waylon, Willie and the boys. Reared largely in reform schools and prisons through his late-20s, his bluesy 1969 debut, Penitentiary Blues, didn’t predict his turn to country, but certainly showed off the outspoken songwriting that would sustain his career. At turns, Coe was a rebel, a rhinestone suited cowboy, a biker and a successful Nashville songwriter. After a pair of albums for Shelby Singleton’s indie SSS label, Coe hooked up with a rock band for a couple of years, wrote a chart-topping hit for Tanya Tucker, and signed with Columbia in 1974.
This 1977 release on Shelby’s Plantation label appears to have been recorded in 1973, on the eve of the songwriting revolution fueled in large part by Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver and Guy Clark. All three are represented (Kristofferson with “Why Me,” Shaver with “Ride Me Down Easy” and Clark with “That Old Time Feeling”), along with Mickey Newbury (“Why You Been Gone So Long”) and Jackson Browne (“These Days”). Coe finds a deep resonance with these then-contemporary songs, but the way he pulls older selections into his universe is even more impressive. He converts John Greer’s early-50s “Got You on My Mind” from R&B to country-soul and turns Johnny Cash’s Sun-era tragedy “Give My Love to Rose” into a mournful ’70s ballad.
Coe wrote only two of the songs here, the sympathetic “Mary Magdeline” and the prescient “Fuzzy Was an Outlaw.” Both exhibit the sort of blunt honesty that would become his trademark. By the time this album was released in ’77, Coe had charted “You Never Even Called Me by My Name,” “Longhaired Redneck,” and “Willie, Wayon and Me,” but Texas Moon drew little public notice and has been left unreissued on CD until now. Real Gone’s reissue includes a 12-panel insert with new liner notes by Chris Morris, and original front and back cover art. The latter includes vintage mug shots and a list of Coe’s incarcerations. This isn’t the place to start a David Allan Coe collection, but it’s a missing chapter that the singer-songwriter’s many fans will enjoy having available again. [©2013 Hyperbolium]
As part of the Pistol Annies, Ashley Monroe’s star power was obscured by the outsized shine of her bandmate, Miranda Lambert. Though the Annies share lead vocals, they present themselves as a trio, with only Lambert’s fame standing out individually. But stepping out for her second solo album, Monroe’s singing talent is front and center. She sings in a voice that’s both innocent and world-wise, tipped with the sweetness of Dolly Parton, and with a sense of faith unshaken by life’s bumpy road. The title track, co-written with Guy Clark, is a showcase for this balance, laying out a path of endless forks that forges onward with hope and optimism. Monroe keeps the vocal intimate, even a bit shell-shocked, busting out in hints of wonder and pride only in the chorus. You can sense Monroe’s grit, another trait she shares with Parton, but also humbleness as she mirrors the song’s story in her vocal tone.
Producers Vince Gill and Justin Niebank serve Monroe perfectly with old-school productions of keening steel, crying fiddles and slip-note piano, but modern studio sonics that keep the album from sounding retro. It’s a much better setting for Monroe than her 2006 debut, Satisfied, fitting the delicate parts of her voice more supportively and pushing her toward traditional country phrasing. You can hear the difference in her remake of “Used,” sung here with a grace that escaped the earlier version. Monroe’s material balances blue-tinged autobiographical ballads with honky-tonk humor, the latter heard in the call-to-marital-duty “Weed Instead of Roses” and a sassy duet with Blake Shelton, “You Ain’t Dolly.” At only nine tracks (and under thirty minutes), this album ends too quickly, but with the Annie’s 2011 breakthrough advancing Monroe’s profile, her second shot at solo stardom is sure to be a success. [©2013 Hyperbolium]