I've been thinking it just might be high time I quit my low-down, wannabe-music-critic ways. Whether it's age, shrinking mental capacity or just sheer information overload, I just can't get as excited as I used to get about the contents of the padded manila envelopes that arrive in the mail on a near-daily basis.
I must confess to being in a bit of a retro slump as of late, largely due to my rediscovery of AM radio while hauling loads of yard waste, old house sludge and empty beer bottles down to the Kansas City, Mo., dump and recycling yard on hazy Saturday mornings. I've been spending a lot more time with the farm & feed report, the Royals pre-game show and the classic country spotlight than with the seat-full of new CDs I'm supposed to be reviewing every other month.
There must be something in the muddy Missouri River bottomlands down by the dump that has me stuck in a '60s and '70s countrypolitan haze, completely content to just sip a tall, sweet Miller High-Life and listen to the same old Tammy Wynette, Lynn Anderson, Charlie Rich and Johnny Paycheck songs, over and over again.
Thanks to Mike Ireland, a modest Kansas City singer/guitarist, and his debut CD, Learning How to Live (Sub-Pop), at least I know I'm not the only City of Fountains resident wrestling with this internal dilemma.
Ireland and his local band, Holler, mine the shuffle beat, vibrant strings and dark lyrical domain of the seemingly forgotten Nashville sound to forge a sincere, intense brand of country-rock that sticks out like a sore thumb in today's self-indulgent alt-country wasteland.
Rather than poke fun at country music traditions, Ireland takes an old standard like the dark murder tale, "Banks of the Ohio," and digs deep down into its scary innards, re-inventing it in his own telling so that it seems to have been born anew alongside the 11 stone-cold perfect originals that comprise the remainder of this timeless album. Live, the band soars to even greater heights, revealing a keen sense of dynamics and timing that draw even the most distracted barfly into the sadness and dignity of Ireland's oft-autobiographical songs of heartbreak, loneliness and rebirth.
As one of the few African Americans to ever crack the rigidly white country music establishment, Charlie Pride has always loomed as an enigma, with the topic of the color of his skin overshadowing the many more interesting hues of his music. In Person (Koch), captures the versatile, humble performer at the top of his game, during a 1968 Fort Worth concert.
While the small combo behind him chugs along in the background, Pride's warm, supple tenor rises and falls with impeccable timing on numbers as diverse and melodically challenging as Tom Paxton's "The Last Thing on Your Mind," Jack Clement's "Just Between You and Me" and Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard's "Streets of Baltimore." But it's the off-the-cuff, between-songs monologues about his rural roots and lifelong love of the music that reveal an enthusiasm and sense of wonderment and gratitude that makes this one of the few live country albums(along with Johnny Cash's Live at Folsom Prison and Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels' Live 1973) that really holds its own as a valuable companion to the artist's studio work.
Porter Wagoner's similarly titled live showcase, In Person (Koch), captures an equally sincere, rural-minded '60s country star on stage, back in his Ozark Mountain hometown of West Plains, Mo. If you're a Wagoner fanatic, you'll be in hog heaven, as he carefully winds his way through an old-fashioned, no-frills country showcase, replete with the guest girl singer, Norma Jean, the requisite fiddle breakdowns and the cornpone comedian, Speck Jones.
The band's tight, the songs ("Misery Loves Company," "Foggy Mountain Top," "An Old Log Cabin for Sale") are Wagoner at his best and the crowd eats up every minute of it. But to this old cynical quasi-critic, it all seems a bit forced and faceless, with nary a verbal aside that doesn't sound pre-planned and rehearsed. Still, it's a heckuvalot better than anything on the FM country radio dial these days.
The same could be said 10 times over for Waylon Jennings's landmark 1975 RCA album, Dreaming My Dreams, reissued on CD for the first time by those competent folks at DCC Compact Classics. I've been looking for this one in the CD bins for years, hoping that one day the boneheads at RCA would see fit to mine their real treasure troves and re-release this soulful, gutsy classic.
Along with Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger and Phases and Stages, this album laid the groundwork for the mid-'70s "outlaw" movement, whose primary practicioners and associates -- Nelson, Jennings, Tompall Glaser, David Allan Coe, the pre-"Monday Night Football" Hank Williams, Jr. -- knocked the complacent Nashville brass on its ass with a long-haired, rock-influenced country sound that owed more to the dimly lit Texas roadhouses where George Jones cut his teeth than the vinyl-padded studios on Music Row.
Dreaming My Dreams kicks off with the chunky, ominous electric hum of "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way," rocks its way through side one, then settles into an introspective, late-night groove, thanks to the masterful touch of producer "Cowboy" Jack Clement, whose "Let's All Help the Cowboys (Sing the Blues)" is the quietly majestic highlight of this, Waylon's one true masterpiece.
By showing the world it was, indeed, right and salutary to rock out over a two-four country backbeat, Waylon paved the way for '80s torch bearer Steve Earle to crank up the volume with a country drawl and still earn a loyal alternative following.
Earle's latest experiment is a delightfully tossed-off Sub Pop EP featuring Earle and the guitar-driven Supersuckers bashing their way through a Supersuckers song ("Creepy Jackalope Eye"), an Earle song ("Angel Is the Devil") and a Stones song ("Before They Make Me Run"). Nothing brilliant, but a good time was had by all, including me and the folks down at the dump, who got to watch me hurl dripping bags of inner-city yard gunk onto a mountain of twigs, leaves and compost while this one blared at full volume from my car speakers.
Arthur Dodge & the Horsefeathers are my favorite Great Plains purveyors of gnashing, oh-so-slightly twangy guitar-rock. Cadillacs, Ponytails & Dirty Dreams (Barber's Itch) is Dodge's 2nd full-length CD on an ambitious, but hard-to-find Lawrence, Ks., indie label. As a result, your best bet is to grab this one on the Web and forget about stumbling upon it in your local megastore.
A pity, as this one speaks to the worn-out rocker in all of us, and could go over big on college radio, if only given a chance. Dodge's bar-honed vocals mesh perfectly with the unlikely crash of guitars and pedal steel, and the whole affair makes you want to get in your car and roll all the windows down, stick your head out the window and drive really, really fast til you find a Sonic Drive-In and a cherry lime-ade.
If you drive as far as New Mexico, you can't help but run into ex-New Yorker Jono Manson, who's still holed up in Santa Fe on his self-imposed exile from the long-gone Lower East Side roots rock scene he helped create. Little Big Man (Paradigm) finds Manson's stuttering guitar, raspy voice and wonderful sense of melody in great shape, thanks in part to the crunching, hard-rock backdrop provided by producer/guitarist Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, songwriter/guitarist/fiddler/singer Joe Flood and drummer Will Rigby.
Flood (the man who, not too long ago, had all of New York's East Village Nightingale, Continental Divide and Ludlow St. Cafe denizens yelping along to his Mumbo Gumbo band's anthem, "Miss Fabulous") has a new CD of his own. Hotel Albert serves as a great introduction to this multi-instrumentalist and songwriter's many talents shown off in this bluesy set of jazz-inflected originals and covers.
He has emerged as an in-demand studio musician (The Band, Blues Traveler, Kelly Willis, The Bottle Rockets, Mojo Nixon, Manson) and rock and country writer since moving to the more peaceful climes of Guilford, Connecticut, and this CD is a worthy reminder that there's a lot more to the man than his studio and writing credits let on.
Another New York roots club veteran who's still plying his trade all over Lower Manhattan is Ron Sunshine, a harmonica-playing jazz, blues and r&b vocalist who is equally at home on a P-Funk number as he is on Billie Holiday's "Them There Eyes." Thanks to the resurgence of popular interest in '40s swing culture, Sunshine's finally getting the regional respect he's long been due, affording him the opportunity to lay down some of his funkier originals on his self-released Soul Drug (Golden Bug). Led by Sunshine's stacatto harmonica and Craig Dreyer's rippling tenor sax, Sunshine and company put themselves through an extended, polyrythmic jazz/funk work-out that lets all the players exercise their chops without stepping on one another's toes.
Sunshine's swing/lounge persona would be at home on Skip Heller's evocative, late-night St. Christopher's Arms (Mouthpiece), a lilting, after-hours combination of aching country heartbreak and low-light torch song crescendos. Sounding just a bit like Lyle Lovett at his most sincere, Heller deftly navigates the highs and lows of Harlan Howard's beautiful "It Takes One to Know One" and Nat King Cole's "Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good to You," before shifting into a wistful Italiano shuffle on the original, "Ti Quero."
Another new discovery that sits right between my Tammy and George CDs in my car door storage compartment is Oh Susanna (Stella), the self-titled debut EP from a powerful new Western Canadian singer-songwriter named Suzie Ungerleider (who prefers to go by the more easily remembered Oh Susanna, in the spirit of our North American folksong heritage).
In the short space of only six, starkly produced songs, Oh Susanna manages to convey the huge sense of lonesome space, ghostly characters and relentless wandering that beats at the heart of the empty American West. With a big, high-mountain voice the likes of Iris DeMent, Oh Susanna has me feeling real good about everything down-home, pure, simple and real.
Which is the way I always get to feeling when a CD from my favorite acoustic guitarist, New Jersey hold-out El McMeen, arrives in a plainly marked envelope, hiding the wonders that lie beneath the brown paper wrapping.
Acoustic Guitar Treasures (Piney Ridge) is McMeen's most diverse, stately efforts yet, blending haunting Celtic ballads like "Lord Inchiquin" and "Sheebeg and Sheemore" with traditional numbers such as "Pretty Maid Milking a Cow" and Stephen Foster's "Hard Times, Come Again No More." McMeen delivers them all with a grace and majesty that makes this the perfect CD accompaniment to, say, a simple, country wedding ceremony in the late afternoon Iowa sun...
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 and artists mentioned in this month's column are as follows: Mike Ireland, Box 120186 Kansas City, MO 64112; Koch, 2 Tri-Harbor Ct., Port Washington, NY 11050; Barber's Itch/Arthur Dodge; Paradigm/Jono Manson, 67 Irving Place South, NY, NY 10003; Joe Flood; Golden Bug/Ron Sunshine, 528 9th St., Brooklyn, NY 11215; Mouthpiece/Skip Heller, 106 W. 49th St., Minneapolis, MN 55409; Stella/Oh Susanna, 1363 Fountain Way, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6H 3T2; Piney Ridge/El McMeen, Box 73, Mountain Lakes, NJ 07046.
- By Kevin RoeKevin Roe