A rock is a rock... A hard place is a hard place... But a road is a road is a road...
- Butch Hancock,
"Moanin' of the Midnight Train"
There's something about the first cold breath of fall, as it bracingly whips through the gray, stagnant, summer-weary streets, that makes me want to catapault myself right over the squat, stoic Con Edison building and onto some lonesome stretch of flat prairie highway.
The kind of sun-bleached, wind-blasted road to nowhere that gets you right out of town and right back into trouble faster than wry Texas songster Butch Hancock can rattle off a tongue-twisting rhyme or sum up a high plains ocean full of frustrations in a single word or phrase. Eats Away the Night (Sugar Hill) casts Hancock's dusty nasal song-stories in a tastefully rocked-up setting, with guitarists Gurf Morlix, Jesse Taylor and Charlie Sexton powering the portentous proceedings.
For a higher-octane dose of strum and twang, turn to Billy Joe Shaver's simply sonic Unshaven (Zoo/Praxis) and Austin guit-steel master Junior Brown's slower-burning (but equally pyrotechnic) Junior High (Curb).
Famed '70s country outlaw songwriter Shaver brings his winsome, life-worn Texas tenor to bear on a host of originals in this crunching live set, recorded at Amazon.comlanta rockspot Smith's Old Bar. Son Eddy's ecstatically metallic Strat licks and hauntingly beautiful acoustic runs weave a densely braided backdrop which unveils itself in thick, glistening cross-sections with every repeat play.
The white-hatted Mr. Brown is a lightning-fast guitar and pedal steel genius whose previous studio efforts masked the explosive kinetic energy that lurks behind every fat, anticipatory note. The five-song EP, Junior High , finally remedies this with crackling re-recordings of the booming Austin baritone's live showcases, "Sugarfoot Rag," "Highway Patrol" and "My Wife Thinks You're Dead."
If it wasn't for craggy English pub rocker Nick Lowe (who got Brown signed to Britain's Demon Records a few years back), we probably wouldn't be pontificating on such lofty matters. Or find ourselves blessed with the option of sampling Lowe's latest rockabilly-inspired stuff in both the mini-CD (Live! On the Battlefield (Upstart)) and 45-rpm ("I Live on a Battlefield"/"Without Love" (Upstart/Diesel Only)) formats.
The Upstart/Diesel Only singles collaboration has also yielded a tasty platter from Atlanta honky tonk revivalists, The Vidalias (the band -- not the onion!), who serve up a sweaty side of "Something She Said" from their meaty Melodyland (Upstart) CD, alongside a bittersweet country cover of The Ramones' "Questioningly."
Onetime Texas homeboy/prodigal son Steve Earle returns to his porch-picking roots on the mesmerizing Train a Comin' (Winter Harvest), an alternately joyful and haunting acoustic country/blues foray in which Earle finally exorcises the demons of self-doubt, depression and dependency he's been battling ever since he hit the limelight with 1986's acclaimed Guitar Town (MCA). A strong supporting cast, including harmony vocalists Peter Rowan and Emmylou Harris, adds to the glow of effortless grace which surrounds this majestic collection.
Emmylou pops up on two of the choicest cuts on Kieran Kane's latest solo effort, Dead Rekoning, the first release on the Dead Reckoning label recently started by Kane and songwriter Kevin Welch. The killer Emmylou/Lucinda Williams collabaration ("Dirty Little Town") and stomping Buck Owens cover ("Love's Gonna Live Here") which open and close Kane's subtly satisfying effort have what it takes to turn the stale Nashville country scene on its hair-sprayed head.
Welch's offering, Life Down Here on Earth (Dead Reckoning), is a more slickly produced folk-rock affair which pales a bit in comparison to his label partner's understated achievement.
It's a long way from Opryland to the Santa Monica Pier, but L.A.-based honky tonker Buddy Miller has assembled a shimmering set of infectious originals and an equally impressive group of studio aces, including the aforementioned Harris, Williams and Morlix, along with singer/songriter Jim Lauderdale and Muscle Shoals veteran Dan Penn. Your Love and Other Lies (HighTone) is a promising debut from a powerful guitarist and writer whose laidback vocal style and melodic gifts might just allow him to sneak his way onto the otherwise moribund mainstream country airwaves.
Country radio hasn't been too kind to its elder statesmen as of late. So you'll probably never get a chance to hear Willie Nelson's lightly swinging, mellow-toned Just One Love (Justice), on which the Red-Headed Stranger and a combo of accomplished pickers reprise some of the honky tonk and western swing standards ("This Cold War With You," "Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette") that inspired Willie during his formative (a.k.a., clean-shaven) years.
Hardcore converts to the Willie Way will also want to shell out the bigger bucks for the 60-song A Classic & Unreleased Collection (Rhino), a compilation of early, live and previously unissued cuts that trace the deceptive growth of Willie's scraggly beard and the development of his genre-eluding sound.
Volumes 1-3 (Legends of Western Swing, Legends of Honky Tonk, Legends of Nashville) of Rhino's beautifully packaged Hillbilly Fever! series are a great primer for those interested in a deeper plunge into the gem-studded mines of country music history, allowing you to revel in the digitally remastered Light Crust Doughboys' sly "Pussy, Pussy, Pussy," Johnny Bond's "Sick, Sober and Sorry" and Faron Young's "If You Ain't Lovin' (You Ain't Livin'
Those still thirsty for more along these historical lines should check out John Walker's well-informed History of Country Music page on that overhyped World Wide Web. Home to the longest URL in the Land of Lincoln and some mighty fine musical samples from Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and Bob Wills, whose work is heard in a broader historical context on the budget-priced mystery import of the month, Howdy! 25 Hillbilly All-Time Greats (Living Era). For only $10, you get all of the above and even New York opera singer Vernon Dalhart's 1924 hillbilly megahit, "The Wreck of the Old '97."
If you're digging this lonesome railroad/early country thing, The Delmore Brothers' Brown's Ferry Blues (County) is an essential addition to that special part of your CD collection your significant other will never, ever understand. Face this fact, ignore it completely and immerse yourself in the sweet harmonies, propulsive tenor guitar runs and melodic river blues of the controversial brother duet that got kicked off the priggish Grand Ole Opry for hitting the bottle in the late '30s after laying down these stone-cold 78-rpm Alabama jams.
Don't be alarmed by the whoops, coos and yelps that echo forth from your clucking speakers when you slip Hollerin' (Rounder) into your unsuspecting CD player. It's not the soundtrack to a David Lynch film, but just another dying American art form -- a once-common rural means of communicating with a distant neighbor, blowing off steam or expressing great gobs of glee -- captured in all its eccentric glory at a mid-'70s National Hollerin' Contest in eastern North Carolina.
Equally raw, but a bit more accessible, are the soulful, calypso-drenched a capella and acoustic guitar gospel sounds fashioned by Bahamian "rhyrming singer" greats Joseph Spence, Frederick McQueen and Bruce Green on the stately '60s field recording compilation, Kneelin' Down Inside the Gate (Rounder).
It's obvious that great gospel and impassioned blues and soul stem from the same musical roots -- a lesson that's hammered home with a feverish intensity on Rock & Roll Sermon (Memphis Archives), a delightfully diverse collection of rocked-up '40s and '50s gospel obscurities from a host of guitar-playing, choir-leading preachers, reverands, elders, et. al.
One listen to The Two Gospel Keys' chugging "If I Never See You Anymore" or Brother Willie Eason & His Gospel Guitar's slide-driven shouter, "I Want to Live (So My God Can Use Me)," and you'll be going down that long, open road feeling good.
Most of the releases reviewed in Rootin' Around can be found at your local roots-friendly record/CD store, in the ever-expanding CD section of our very own Rootin' Bookstore or online at Miles of Music, Roots 'n' Rhythm Mail Order, Rockhouse Music and Village Records.
Addresses of harder-to-find labels are as follows: Sugar Hill, Box 55300, Durham, NC 27717-5300; Upstart/Rounder, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140; Winter Harvest, Box 60884, Nashville, TN 37206; Dead Reckoning, Box 22152, Nashville, TN 37202; HighTone, 220 4th St., Oakland, CA 94607; Justice, Box 980369, Houston, TX 77098; Living Era, 1 Beamont Ave., London, W14 9LP, U.K.; County, Box 191, Floyd, VA 24091; Memphis Archives, Box 171282, Memphis, TN 38187.
- By Kevin RoeKevin Roe