Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer – The Flower Of Muscle Shoals

They haven’t allowed smoking in years, but the rafters still have that slight air of stale cigarettes.  The Fire Department long ago made them sweep up the sawdust, but of course you can never really get rid of all it.  The Polaroids above the bar are too faded to know who’s in them, unless of course you know who’s in them.  The same brand of beer has flowed from the taps for 50 years, and it’s brewed in supertanker-sized vats in St. Louis or Milwaukee.  Aside from the beer, the most important thing to know about this place is that every Saturday night there’ll be a band that’s equally perfect for a two-step with your girl or getting lost in a longneck.  They’re a dying breed nowadays with the popularity of outlaw music and Jaeger shots, but thankfully the old-fashioned honky tonk still exists in wide swathes of America where soul is still more important than style.

While the jukeboxes in these wonderful havens of Americana tend to be loaded with George Jones and Merle Haggard, there’s a new album from Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer that fits in like a favorite pair of boots.  The Flower Of Muscle Shoals is everything you want in good old classic country music, but with all original songs from Morrison it’s like finding a time capsule full of new stuff that’s decades old.

Over And Over And Over Again is one of my favorites on the disc.  Morrison channels some of the sorrowfulness of Raul Malo into a lament about tying one on to forget, “if I tie it tightly, it won’t come undone.”  There’s a nice little Jones or Haggard fatalism in I’ve Won Every Battle, But Lost Every War.  It’s not all melancholy.  Nighttime Is Here On the Valley celebrates the annual event, be that a rodeo or harvest festival, or sometimes just another Saturday night, “they whistle and they cheer, and they guzzle their beer”.  San Luis and Hobbled And Grazing add some sweet Norteno swing from Morrison’s youth growing up in New Mexico.

Morrison cover In case you’re wondering, The Flower Of Muscle Shoals refers to Cahalen’s wife.  The song is a good microcosm of the whole album.  It’s romantic and redneck and twangy and I’ll be damned if it isn’t one of the best records I’ve heard all year.

Americana 2014, The Sounds, Part 3

Every fall, The Americana Music Association gathers members, artists and music fans together in Nashville for its annual conference. Starting with the annual Americana Music Awards and continuing through four days of showcases and panel discussions, it is a tremendous celebration of Americana music.

Here are my highlights among the many live performances I saw over the 4 days I was there.  You can also check out Mayer’s favorites.


Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives.  I’ve written about how good Stuart is in a live show before.  But he’d kind of drifted off my radar the past few years.  Then I scored a ticket to a taping with Stuart and his band for Mojo Nixon’s SiriusXM radio show.  What an incredible hour of entertainment.  From trading jabs with Nixon, “stand up Mojo…if you still can”, to country rapping about the weekend, to playing along note for note with every song on Outlaw Country while waiting for the show to start, Marty entertained us at every point.  Oh, then there was his actual set of music.  Drawn mostly from his new album, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, it covered everything from rock and roll to gospel a cappella.  Along the way we also were reminded just how fine a guitar player Stuart is.

Carlene Carter.  I also caught a taping Carlene Carter did for SiriusXM.  With a career that stretches from her early teens in the 60’s to present day, she has a rich heritage of just her own musical path.  Then throw in the Carter family experiences and it’s a microcosm of country/Americana music.  The highlight was when Jeff Hanna, of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and half a dozen other musicians who had gathered in the XM studios reprised 1972’s seminal Will the Circle Be Unbroken.


Trigger Hippy.  Joan Osborne and Jackie Greene.  You don’t really have to say anything more to know it’s going to be a good show.  And yet that generates expectations with many that would be hard to meet.  Yet they and the other band members put together a potent combination of virtually every style of music you can imagine and blasted right through those expectations.  The worst thing for me is realizing this might be a one-time-only project.

Cory Chisel’s Soul Obscura.  I was leaving a venue with a vague plan for the evening when I ran into a couple of friends just coming in.  When I told them I was leaving because I hadn’t heard about Cory Chisel, they gave me that are-you-really-that-stupid look.  So I turned around and went back in and got the surprise of the week from Cory Chisel’s Soul Obscura.  In case you’re like me and not familiar with this project, Cory and his band do covers of obscure 60’s soul songs.  And dare I say improve on them all.

Bradford Lee Folk.  Another fortuitous decision on my part.  Without a particular next destination in mind I stuck around for a set from Folk and his Bluegrass Playboys.  With a brain full of heavy lyrics and indie sounds from earlier in the day, the old school bluegrass from these guys was a breathe of fresh air.  Flawlessly executed and with a focused sound, I have no doubt they replicate that experience regardless of your frame of mind.


Joe Fletcher.  Without his band on his latest album and tour, Fletcher underscores his songwriting ability.  His gravelly voice and almost laconic stage presence somehow work in combination to pump excitement into the room.  His was the last set I saw of the weekend, and put a proper exclamation point on all the great music I heard the previous 4 days.

2014 Americana Music Awards

On September 17th, the glitterati of the Americana Music Scene gathered at the historic Ryman Theater for their annual Awards show and presentation.  Mayer and I were lucky enough to procure a seat to the festivities.  You can get a full list of the award nominees and winners here, but these are the highlights from our perspective.


Jason Isbell walked away with a sweep of the big 3 for Southeastern; Artist of the Year, Album of the Year, and Song of the Year.  His performance of Cover Me Up with wife Amanda Shires was excellent, and afterwards he noted that he’d written the song for her.  He recounted how scary it was to sing it to her the first time, and in accepting the Song of the Year award he encouraged the audience to “do what scares you”.


The House Band for the show was led, as always, by Buddy Miller.  This year it also included Don Was on bass, Ry Cooder on guitar, and Ry’s son Rocky Cooder on drums. They were joined by renowned session musicians Tim Lauer (keyboards), Brady Blade (percussion) and the McCrary Sisters (vocals).  A lot of people would argue Miller is the premier guitarist in Americana music today, but after the awards show I think you’d have to say it’s a two-man race with Ry.  Cooder really turned it loose from the opening number, a sizzling version of Willie Dixon’s You Can’t Judge A Book By It’s Cover.  His duet with Flaco Jimenez on a Norteno number was also a highlight, as was his and Miller’s playing on Valerie June‘s “You Can’t Be Told.”

(Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Americana Music)

(Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Americana Music)

The Ryman has been called by many the Mother Church of country music.  The church theme covered several excellent performances, not the least was Loretta Lynn singing Coal Miner’s Daughter on the very same stage she debuted at the Opry 54 years ago to the day from the awards night.  Also taking advantage of the spiritualness of the place was Parker Millsap doing Truck Stop Gospel and St. Paul & the Broken Bones creating their near-religious-experience aura with The Grass Is Greener.

 

 

 

(Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Americana Music)

(Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Americana Music)

Finally, you have to make some kind of effort to pick a favorite in a night with over two dozen performers.  No disrespect to the youngsters, but the edge goes to a couple of veterans.  Marty Stuart And His Fabulous Superlatives nailed a cover of No Hard Time Blues, a Jimmie Rodgers number performed in honor of the Rodgers Museum.  Stuart also brought a train lantern originally owned by Rodgers which gave his introduction and performance an extra air of authenticity. After a heartfelt intro from Keb Mo, who noted the man was doing world music before there was such a category, Taj Mahal did a version of Statesboro Blues that trumped any other version I’ve ever heard, and there are a lot of them.


The evening finished with an ensemble performance of Johnny Cash’s Get Rhythm, that featured Cash family members Carlene Carter and Roseanne Cash.  With that, the audience went into the night and the beginning of 4 nights of showcases that Mayer and I will cover in future posts.

 


Click here for more Americana Music Conference coverage.

Front Country – Sake Of the Sound

Six one, half dozen another.  That old saying is supposed to be all about things being the same, but I think there’s a perspective difference that gets lost.  As an example, many bands have a wide range of genres on an album in part because they’re still looking to find their sound.  A few, relatively few in my experience, do it because they’re so adept at such a wide range of styles they’re just looking to keep things fresh and open it up a bit.  Clearly the latter situation applies on the debut album from San Francisco Bay-area band Front Country,  Sake Of the Sound.

The band started as an impromptu gathering of acquaintances to play a few sets at a local club.  They didn’t officially form until last year, when they took the Colorado high country by storm, winning best band competitions at both Telluride and Rockygrass.  That high country sound really comes out on the aptly named Colorado, and Glacier Song, featuring banjoist Jordan Klein on vocals.  One Kind Word and Like A River, a Kate Wolf tune, also have a classic bluegrass sound.  There are a couple of really nice instrumental numbers, including Daysleeper, that starts out a bit like bluegrass chamber music.  And guitartist Jacob Groopman takes vocal lead on a speedgrass verison of an obscure Dylan song, Long Ago, Far Away.

When the album really kicks into high gear, though, is when you add lead vocalist Melody Walker’s voice to the pickin’ and shuckin’.   The title song just soars over the instruments and sets Front Country apart from mere mortal bluegrass bands.  Rock Salt & Nails lays out an emotional charge and a steely determination that original author Utah Phillips couldn’t possibly have imagined, as talented a songwriter as he was.

W169~PrntOption And then there’s the opening cut, Gospel Train.  My description is going to be mundane–it starts out with an a Capella gospel chorus, and then kicks into a traditional bluegrass arrangement.  But it is so well executed, when you listen to it again after hearing the full album, it’s like the band is just showing off.  Because they can.  You should go listen to Front Country.

Lost & Nameless and Other EP Gems

Several good EP’s have crossed my listening desk over the summer, and while individually there wasn’t quite enough material in each of them for a full review, they’re all worth a listen.

First up is the latest from Lost & Nameless, When You Walked Into the Room.  I first ran across this group early in the year when their Empty Spaces EP came out.  I noted at the time they had a fun and diverse sound, and their new release continues down that path.  The title cut opens the EP with an up-temp0 commentary on love-at-first-sight that will give you a chuckle, “you turned your head in my direction and my future was planned out.”  Say Goodbye features the youngster in the band, Kimberly Zielnicki, on vocals along with guest Todd Phillips.  Have We Lost has a definite new grass sound, while May I brings in a touch of gospel.  The EP ends with an acoustic, fiddle-drive piece, Matthew’s Reel/Reel a Levis Beaulieu.  I’d comment on who plays what, but with just about everyone in the group playing half a dozen instruments, you’d need a scorecard.  So instead just sit back and enjoy a really fine band with roots from Ireland to Austin.

Next, I’ll call  your attention to Strikes And Gutters, the latest release from Brian Pounds.  Pounds is perhaps best known as one of the contestants on last season’s The Voice.  A couple of tunes on this EP, Hold My Head High and Sunday Dress, certainly reinforce the idea of a pop country crooner.  Somewhere, Maybe Carolina is a little more old school country.  Keep My Hands To Myself, my favorite on the disc, has a clear soul sound to it.  The EP finishes with Jesus, Don’t Let Me Die (On My Feet) that’s part prayer and part assessment of a situation familiar to all too many folks.

The last EP is not exactly Twangville material.  The only twang you’re going to hear out of The Nightowls is if someone breaks a string in a live show.  An Austin band by way of 60’s Detroit, with some Bootsy Collins thrown in for good measure, The Nightowls have dropped an EP of “B-sides” from their album last year, Good As Gold.  If you’re old enough to know what a B-side is, you’ll remember that it was no reflection on the material, more just a commentary on what the label liked, and this set reflects that.  The Feel Good gives you a taste of Funkadelic-style soul.  Nobody Ever Wants To Leave was chosen as the official song of the Austin Convention & Visitor’s Bureau.  After All has some old school Stevie Wonder sounds to go with the Motown vibe.  Either Way finishes the EP on a high note with the horns asserting themselves in all the right places.