Tag Archives: Sugar Hill

Dwight Yoakam: Swimmin’ Pool, Movie Stars

dwightyoakamswimminpoolsmoviestarsSwaggering bluegrass reinterpretations of Yoakam highlights

Commercial country music has become so commoditized by its formulas that it’s often difficult to recognize who you’re listening to. Not so with Dwight Yoakam. Not ever with Dwight Yoakam. Not only is his voice a singular instrument, but so is his taste as an artist. Not that he’s ever sat still in a pigeonhole; he’s maintained a throughline of artistic integrity and fidelity to country music’s emotional foundation even as he stretched the boundaries of country with former partner Pete Anderson, lured Buck Owens back to work, and stripped down to solo guitar for the reassessment of 2000’s dwightyoakamacoustic.net. The outline of this latter solo acoustic jaunt is reprised here, but with a twist of bluegrass applied to catalog selections that favor deserving album tracks over hits.

Yoakam’s interest in bluegrass isn’t new – he was born in Kentucky (though raised in Ohio), and he’s recorded with both Ralph Stanley (“Down Where the River Bends” on Stanley’s Saturday Night & Sunday Morning and “Miner’s Prayer” on Dwight’s Used Records) and Earl Scruggs (“Borrowed Love” on Scruggs’ Earl Scruggs and Friends). He’s had his songs reimagined in bluegrass arrangements, having been paid tribute on 2004’s Pickin’ on Dwight Yoakam, and he’s featured bluegrass arrangements in his live show for several years. But this is the first time he’s settled down in the studio with a bluegrass band for his own album, and buoyed by the first class backing of Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan, Barry Bales, Adam Steffey and Scott Vestal, he finds new layers in eleven of his own compositions and a compelling cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain.”

The opening “What I Don’t Know” turns the original’s simmering accusation into an angry holler, and the lead vocal and harmonies of “These Arms” are sorrowful in a different way than the hard honky-tonk of the original. “Two Doors Down” is sung high and lonesome, without the tenderness and redemptive organ of the original or the stark introspection of the earlier acoustic take. As in his collaborations with Pete Anderson, Yoakam leans on his partners for both tradition and invention. His take on bluegrass is similar to his take on Bakersfield (and Bakersfield’s own take on country): knowledgeable, perhaps even reverent, but never slavish. Everyone clearly had a lot of fun reinterpreting these songs, and their spontaneity is infectious; you won’t put away the originals, but neither will you skip these remakes. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Dwight Yoakam’s Home Page

Brian Wright: Rattle Their Chains

BrianWright_RattleTheirChainsCountry, folk and more from Nashville-transplanted Texan

Waco ex-pat (and recent Nashville immigrant by way of Los Angeles) Brian Wright garnered many positive reviews for his 2011 Sugar Hill debut, House on Fire. His second album for the label (his fourth overall) not only avoids a sophomore slump, but shows tremendous growth in his music, performing and style. Wright is more of a writer than an entertainer (though he is indeed quite entertaining), with music that strives for more than meter-fitting rhymes and a pleasant way to pass three minutes. His latest opens with a soulful electric piano that brings to mind Ray Charles, a jaunty drum beat and a declaration – “never made a promise that I thought could not be broken” – whose wry tone is in league with Randy Newman. It’s a compelling combination, with Wright’s Dylanesque catalog of never-haves stoked by hard-shuffling drums and a driving bass line. The effect is both cool and hot, like a smoldering attitude amid flammable emotions.

His inventories continue with the demons enumerated in “Haunted,” cleverly turning the phrase “I’m trying to right my way out of all I’ve done wrong” and then transforming ‘right’ into ‘write’ by finishing the couplet with “trying to pay off my sins, and pay back my friends, song after song.” There’s another catalog in the experiences of “Weird Winter,” reading like a third-person cousin to the Beatles’ “I’ve Got a Feeling.” Wright’s new music spans folk and country, with flavors of pop, rock (highlighted by a heroic 70s-styled guitar solo on “We Don’t Live There”), blues, soul, gospel and brass-band jazz. Wright leads his backing band (itself a switch from the self-played arrangements of House on Fire) with aplomb, but the folk styles of “Red Rooster Social Club” and “Can’t Stand to Listen” leave extra room for the emotional edges of his voice. This is a finely-crafted step forward from his previous album, showing off both Wright’s ever-sharpening songwriting and growing reach as a performer. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

Brian Wright’s Home Page

Don Williams: And So it Goes

Legendary country vocalist returns from retirement

Luckily for his many fans, Don Williams’ 2006 retirement didn’t stick. His return to the stage is now followed by a return to the recording studio, and this first album in eight years. Even better than having a new Don Williams album, is having a new album on which his vocals still sound great. Not “great for a 73-year-old,” but great for a vocalist of Williams’ uncommon talent and vocal quality. Few are blessed with this sort of expressive tone, and while some may sustain their style, very few sustain the effortless control of their younger years. Williams does just that, easing into these ten songs with a confidence that draws you to the lyrics, characters and stories.

It’s been twenty years since Williams cracked the top of the charts, but he and long-time producer Garth Fundis still have ears for good songs. Longtime band members Billy Sanford and Kenny Malone recreate the magic of Williams’ earlier work, sidestepping the bombast of modernNashvilleproduction. The arrangements deliver just enough drums and bass to give the guitars and fiddles a kick, but not so much as to distract from the singer. Williams picked songs with which he found personal resonance, rather than those he believed would be hits, and his trust inNashville’s writers is rewarded. The songs don’t leap from the record with clever titles, intricate lyrics or operatic climaxes, but each provides an opportunity to spend a few moments with Don Williams as he optimistically considers truth and spirituality, internal strength and rekindled emotions.

A duet with Keith Urban on “Imagine That” shows just what an influence Williams has been on the Aussie country star; and if you listen carefully to the ballads, you can also hear where Garth Brooks picked up a good helping of style. Alison Krauss sings and plays fiddle on the hopeful “I Just Come Here for the Music,” and Vince Gill adds harmony vocals and his guitar to several tracks. This is a warm collection from a singer whose humble, unassuming style provides a welcome relief from commercial country music’s ever increasing grandiosity. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

Don Williams’ Home Page

Kenny Vaughan: V

Nashville super-picker dazzles on his solo debut

Kenny Vaughan’s an A-list guitar-picker, and though he’s made a living playing on some of Nashville’s mainstream product, his bona fides come from backing the cream of Americana acts, including Lucinda Williams, Jim Lauderdale, Rodney Crowell and Marty Stuart. He’s been a member of Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives for a decade, playing Don to Stuart’s Buck, and the group backs him on this first solo album. The Buckaroos comparison comes to the fore in the tight harmony singing of “Stay Outta My Dreams,” and though Vaughan sings “Country Music Got a Hold on Me,” country music isn’t the whole show. Vaughan’s guitar twangs low and mysterious for the instrumental spy soul of “Mysterium” and closes the album with the rockabilly gospel on “Don’t Leave Home Without Jesus.” His playing is impeccable throughout, kicking up echoes of Roy Nichols and picking lines that suggest Clarence White, but maintaining his own style and tone all the while. His vocals aren’t as polished as his strings, but he’s an enthusiastic singer and a canny songwriter who lays down convivial songs grounded in killer guitar and country-rock hooks worthy of NRBQ. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Kenny Vaughan’s Artist Page

Connie Smith: Long Line of Heartaches

60s/70s country hit maker takes a well-turned bow

Country hit maker Connie Smith first broke through in the mid-60s, scoring a chart-topper with her debut “Once a Day,” winning numerous awards and scoring on the charts through the end of the ‘70s. She mostly retired from recording in 1979, continuing to perform live, dropping a few non-LP singles in the mid-80s and a self-titled album in 1998. It’s been thirteen years since that last full-length solo release, and as before, with no mainstream commercial aspirations to sway her artistry, she digs into a rich set of songs, many co-written with her husband and producer, Marty Stuart. The remaining titles are drawn from the country pens of Harlan Howard, Kostas, Patty Loveless, Emory Gordy Jr. and others.

At 70, Smith hasn’t the tight vocal control of her younger years, but she still delivers the heart and soul of a country song. Stuart, who produced her last album, knows a thing or two (or three) about framing his wife’s singing in twang and blues. Backed by a small combo of guitar (by the stellar Nashville player, Rick Wright), steel, bass and drums, Smith and Stuart checked into RCA’s legendary studio B for four days – enough time to lay down a dozen tracks the old-fashioned way – seamlessly weaving together new and old songs into a collage of busted hearts, half-hearted protestations, dried tears, resignation and forgiveness.

Highlights include powerful covers of Johnny Russell’s “Ain’t You Even Gonna Cry” and Johnny Paycheck’s “My Part of Forever,” the bouncy acceptance of “You and Me,” and Dallas Frazier’s newly-minted “A Heart Like You.” The set closes with the original “Blue Heartaches” and the spiritual “Take My Hand.” The latter, sung with her three daughters, renews the faithful chapter of Smith’s career that grew in the late ‘70s. There’s a world of experience in Smith’s singing – both personal and professional – and together with Stuart she’s revived the experience of ‘60s and ‘70s country without treading in nostalgia. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

MP3 | Long Line of Heartaches
Connie Smith’s Home Page

Jim Lauderdale: Reason and Rhyme

Country songwriter Jim Lauderdale reteams with Dead lyricist Robert Hunter

There’s a select set of modern musicians who’ve found fortune in Nashville, yet maintained (or in the case of Patty Loveless and Dolly Parton, developed) bluegrass credentials. Jim Lauderdale hasn’t had the level of commercial success as Vince Gill or Ricky Skaggs, but his songs have been turned into hits by George Strait, Mark Chesnutt, and Patty Loveless, and he’s won critical accolades for this own work. He’s a favorite of roots listeners, a valued collaborator to a wide variety of other musician’s projects, and like Gill and Skaggs, he’s maintained a deep connection to bluegrass, including collaborations with Ralph Stanley and Donna the Buffalo, and his own Grammy-winning Bluegrass Diaries.

For the past few years, Lauderdale’s work has intertwined with the history of the Grateful Dead, including his participation in The American Beauty Project, and extensive songwriting with former Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Lauderdale’s previous collaboration with Hunter, Patchwork River, was an electric affair that blended country, rock, blues and Southern soul. Their latest set reaches back to the string band and harmony sounds of 2004’s Headed for the Hills, but with purer (but certainly not pure) bluegrass arrangements. The result reflects the specific talents of each participant: Hunter’s lyrics reaching places you don’t often visit in bluegrass, and Lauderdale’s Buck Owens-ish drawl adding country twang to everything he sings.

Hunter’s writing fits the curves of Lauderdale’s melodies with ease, drawing the listener to words and rhymes as well as the stories. You may never figure out what “Tiger and the Monkey” is about or how Hunter put himself into the person of a boxer who beat Jack Dempsey, but you’ll have a lot of fun singing along. More traditionally, the self-loathing “Don’t Give a Hang” hides its sorrow in a curmudgeon’s complaints, and the deep longing of “Love’s Voice” is emphasized by the way Launderdale drags the verses and charges into the chorus, contrasting happy memories with present day pain.

Producer Randy Kohrs assembled a terrific band of pickers and ran through the entire album in a single day. The result is professionally tight, but still very fresh, with some fine rolling leads and rhythmic vamps from banjo player Scott Vestal, lyrical mandolin picking from Mike Compton and moody draws of fiddler Tim Crouch’s bow. You can catch Lauderdale on the summer festival circuit, where he’ll no doubt be tearing things up with the hot-picked “Fields of the Lord” alongside other great tracks from this latest album and highlights of his extensive catalog. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

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Sarah Jarosz: Follow Me Down

Sophomore outing confidently meshes string band, bluegrass and modern sounds

Though only 19 when she wrote and recorded this set, Sarah Jarosz has pushed well beyond the “prodigy” title of her early years on the bluegrass circuit. Even her 2009 debut, Song Up in Her Head, showed her to be a lot deeper than a musical wunderkind. Her string-band background is still evident on this sophomore outing, but as on the earlier single, The New 45, she also reaches to progressive folk and indie-rock.  The album menu remains the same as the debut: a wealth of original material and an ingeniously selected pair of covers (Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” and Radiohead’s “The Tourist”), played by a mix of her regular musical compatriots (Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan), young bucks (Alex Hargreaves, Nathaniel Smith), guests (Shawn Colvin, Darrell Scott, Dan Tyminski, Bela Fleck), and a dozen more interesting players.

Jarosz stamps all eleven tracks with her musical vision. The haunting tone of her voice, the assuredness with which she weaves through the melodies, and the thoughtfulness of her delivery are all impressive. She isn’t polished from twenty years of roadwork, but instead seems to have been fully delivered as an artist from birth. Even more incredible is how her sure-footedness invites response from the assembled players. Young and old alike respond with terrific ideas, including Bela Fleck’s vamping and banjo solo on “Come Around,” Stuart Duncan’s duet, counterpoint and violin leads on “Floating in the Balance,” and the progressive instrumental jam “Old Smitty.” Her trio singing with the Punch Brothers (and Gabe Witcher’s superb violin) both breaks down and intesifies the mood of Radiohead’s “The Tourist.”

The emotional quality of Jarosz’s singing magnifies the open-ended meaning of her lyrics. The opening “Run Away” extends an invitation that may be one of innocence or sexuality, and the following “Come Around” strains to maintain faith in someone who may be either mortal or godly. Jarosz seeks connection in “Here nor There,” but it’s not clear whether the kinship is with another person or with her musical gift; the latter is explicitly serenaded in “My Muse,” and her adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabell Lee” provides a lyrical story of unconsummated love. It’s often said that you have eighteen or twenty years to write your first album, and only one year to write the follow-up, but with this sophomore outing, Jarosz shows she has both gas in the tank and a long road ahead. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Sarah Jarosz’s Home Page

Tara Nevins: Wood and Stone

Nevins explores her country and Cajun roots

Nevins’ second solo album (her first since 1999’s Mule to Ride) hangs on to the rootsy underpinnings of her musical day job with Donna the Buffalo, but cuts a looser, more soulful country groove than does her long-time group. Without a co-vocalist sharing the microphone, Nevins’ voice carries the album, and without a second writer, her songs stretch out across all her influences, including fiddle- and steel-lined country, second line rhythms and the Cajun sounds of her earlier band, the Heartbeats. The latter appear together on the energetic fiddle tune “Nothing Really,” and individually on several other tracks. Additional guests include Levon Helm (drumming on two tracks), Allison Moorer (tight trio harmony with Teresa Williams on “The Wrong Side”) and Jim Lauderdale (harmony on the acoustic “Snowbird”).

Producer Larry Campbell fits each song with a unique groove and adds superb electric and pedal steel guitar. The girlishness in Nevins’ voice and the layering of double-tracked vocals add a hint of the Brill Building, which is a terrific twist on the rustic arrangements. The lyrics cast an eye on relationships that refuse to live up to their potential, with music that underlines the certainty of a woman who will no longer suffer others’ indecision, inaction or infidelity. Three deftly picked covers include the standard “Stars Fell on Alabama” (from the film 20 Years After), the traditional “Down South Blues,” and Van Morrison’s “Beauty of Days Gone By.” Campbell and Nevins work some real magic here, creating a musical platform that often feels a more crafted fit for Nevins’ singing than that of her long-time group. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

MP3 | Wood and Stone
Tara Nevins’ MySpace Page
Donna the Buffalo’s Home Page

Marty Stuart: Ghost Train- The Studio B Sessions

Stuart amazes with the honesty and heart of his country music

Like ex-presidents who turn the mantle of their former office into opportunities to improve the world, talented musicians can turn the freedom of their post-hit years into explorations of that which really moves them. And such is Marty Stuart, whose baptism in bluegrass led to a run on Nashville in the mid-80s and, more successfully, in the early 90s with a four year chart run that included Hillbilly Rock, Tempted and This One’s Gonna Hurt You. His subsequent releases kept his core fans, but provided only middling commercial returns. But as his chart success waned, his artistic vision expanded. 1999’s song cycle The Pilgrim was his most powerful and coherent album to that date, showing off both his musical range and his ability to write songs that are literary, but still communicate on an emotional level.

Throughout the current decade he’s explored gospel (Souls’ Chapel), Native American struggles (Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota), and country and folk standards (Cool Country Favorites). And this time out, Stuart salutes the classic country of his youth, but other than a couple of well selected covers, he uses all new originals to conjure the sounds that inspired him in the first place. What will really ring in listeners’ ears is how natural and heartfelt this is. Like a dancer floating through his steps, Stuart plays songs as an extension of his soul, rather than as a performance of words and music. Recording in the legendary RCA Studio B, Stuart amplifies the echoes of performances past, much as John Mellencamp has on his recent No Better Than This.

Stuart is a country classicist, and his new songs resound with the spirits of Waylon, Merle, Buck and Johnny. The instrumental “Hummingbyrd” recounts the playfulness of “Buckaroo” and the Johnny Cash co-write “The Hangman” retains the Man in Black’s gravitas and frankness. The opening “Branded” splits the difference between Haggard’s “Branded Man” and Owens’ “Streets of Bakersfield,” tipping a musical hat to the piercing guitar of Roy Nichols. Don Reno’s “Country Boy Rock & Roll” gives Stuart a chance to roll out his rockabilly roots, and show off the glory of his band, the Fabulous Superlatives. Stuart and guitarist Kenny Vaughan sing a duet and duel on their electric guitars as drummer Harry Stinson and bassist Paul Martin push them with a hot train rhythm – this one’s sure to leave jaws hanging slack when played live.

The album’s ballads are just as good, not least of which for the emotional steel playing of Ralph Mooney (whose own “Crazy Arms” is covered here as an instrumental). Co-writing with his wife, singer Connie Smith, Stuart sings tales of romantic dissolution and regret. Smith joins Stuart for the exceptional duet “I Run to You,” drawing together threads of Gram and Emmylou, the Everly Brothers and classic Nashville pairings of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The album’s saddest song, however, is “Hard Working Man,” which questions the soul of a nation whose work ethic is undermined by globalization. There’s personal salvation in “Porter Wagoner’s Grave,” but the questions raised in “Hard Working Man” is what will really haunt you.

The album ends with “Little Heartbreaker,” the best Dwight Yoakam song that Yoakam didn’t actually write lately, followed by a short mandolin solo that brings things back to Stuart’s bluegrass roots. The sounds of Stuart’s influences are immediate throughout, but as someone obsessed with country music from his teens, and a protégé of both Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash, this is less a nostalgic interlude than a heeding of his mother’s words: “When you find yourself, if in the middle of nowhere, go back to Jerusalem and stand. Wait on divine guidance. It’s the only guidance worth having.” The recent neo-redneck movement may position themselves as modern-day hellraisers, but this rockabilly, Bakersfield twang and heartbroken balladry are the true sounds of rebellion, or as Stuart describes them, “sounds from the promised land.” [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

MP3 | Branded
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