Here are J.P. Harris and the Tough Choices with guest Nikki Lane performing a damn fine rendition of the Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty classic “After the Fire Is Gone.”
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.
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.
Duke Robillard is a blues guitar icon. A multiple Blues Music Award winner and Grammy nominee, if Robillard had stopped at creating the jump blues revival outfit Roomful of Blues in the late 1960s, his contribution to blues music would have been sizable. Jump blues, an up-tempo form of blues often featuring horns that was popularized during the 1940s war years, has an old-timey feel that is a refreshing change from more traditional blues forms.
But Robillard didn’t stop at helping to revive jump blues. Over a career spanning decades, Robillard has explored many avenues of blues, rock and even swing both in his solo work and as a member (replacing Jimmie Vaughan) of the Fabulous Thunderbirds in the early 1990s. Over the course of his career he has also worked with such artists as Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Dr. John. To get a flavor of Robillard’s range, check out the snappy After Hours Swing Session from 1990, featuring Robillard channelling Charlie Christian’s swing-era jazz, and the tour-de-force Living With the Blues from 2002. There is also his 2005 collaboration with Ronnie Earl, The Duke Meets the Earl, which was the first collaboration between these two great Roomful alumni. Last year’s Independently Blue was yet another in a long line of outstanding releases. Robillard also puts on a great show in which his slick swing and jump blues playing distinguishes him from the many other excellent guitarists occupying the field. After a recent concert at the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club, which featured a huge variety of styles, Robillard commented that he would be happy to play swing all night long if his audiences would go for it.
Calling All Blues is an electic mixture, but there are several outstanding tunes on the album. Among the highlights are “Blues Beyond the Call of Duty,” featuring vocals by Sunny Crownover and Robillard’s awesome guitar skills; “Confusion Blues,” with vocals by jazzy vocals by Bruce Bears, provides a hint of Robillard’s jump blues and swing affinity; and “Motor Trouble,” with its slow vibe, could be interpreted as a metaphor for aging. Robillard was joined on the album by the regular members of The Duke Robillard Band, which features Bears on piano and keyboards, Brad Hallen on bass, Mark Texeira on drums. Crownover and a horn section comprised of Rich Lataille, Mark Earley and Doug Woolverton put in guest appearances.
Audio Stream: Duke Robillard, “Motor Trouble”
It can often be both refreshing and insightful to hear a stripped down version of a songs originally performed by a full band. Here’s a great example — Pete Donnelly of the Figgs offering up a solo take on one of my favorite songs from that band’s extensive catalog. The tempo is a touch slower than the original but the performance still maintains some of the song’s glorious edginess.
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.