The past two days have been very busy at Fervor Coulee, the busiest two days since the blog launched. I thank all of you for that, and again I’m hoping you are finding music recommendations that will lead you to new discoveries. Here are the top five- but really six- entries in my list of Favourite Albums of the Aughts. Thanks for all the feedback, too. Best, Donald
- Paul Burch- Last of My Kind 2001- I couldn’t believe it when this album remained atop my list through several revisions. But it deserves its place. Not only was it my introduction to a singer and songwriter who has become a favourite, it is a crackerjack recording in its own right. Back when my CD collection was several thousand albums lighter that it is now, I returned to this album time and again. It was, for me, a perfect storm- a bringing together of mountain influences, literature, and damned good songwriting and performance.
Commissioned to accompany a reading of Tony Earley’s Jim the Boy, the album took on its own life to allow readers and listeners to hear more from the characters, to experience more of their internal observations, struggles and challenges. Coming out at around the same time of O Brother, Where Art Thou? the visuals were fresh in mind without requiring Burch to indulge in extended prose. Instead, Burch- and Earley, of course- could concentrate on the impact and emotions of their characters. Given all that, Last of My Kind is remarkable as one doesn’t need to have read the novel to appreciate its impact. I heard the album well before searching out the book, and as a result I felt I already knew Jim, his uncles, and estranged extended family.
As I type these words, I am again listening to Last of My Kind– probably for the first time in three years. The album is all Burch, recorded and performed at home, seemingly in isolation in the same manner I imagine Earley wrote the novel. From the opening bars of “Aliceville Rag,” Burch sketches a sepia-toned setting of time and place. As we move through the album, to “Up on the Mountain” through to “Amos’s Blues” we meet complex characters brought to life by Burch’s interpretation of Earley’s imaginings.
None of this would matter if Burch’s approach to the music was less than attentive. When I first reviewed the album, I wrote words that hold true for me now: Burch’s compositions capture the essence of Earley’s novel- carefully constructed phrases that read simple but contain a spark for life and common-sense wisdom. The melodies pleasantly linger and the album constructs another layer to Earley’s characters and reinforces the novel’s [straight-forward] but intriguing plot.
When I set out to create this little list of favourites from the last decade, I wouldn’t have expected Last of My Kind to top the list. (Really, I didn’t even think about what would be on top.) Now that it has, nothing seems more natural, nothing would be more right. It was one of the albums I started with when I initiated this journey into writing about music. It is an immensely enjoyable slice of My Kind of Music. It is only fitting that it sits atop my list as my Favourite Album of the Aughts.
2. Dale Ann Bradley- Catch Tomorrow 2006 When a favourite artist takes a great leap forward, one is sometimes left behind. Not so with Dale Ann Bradley’s remarkable Catch Tomorrow album. The sound she had worked so hard to achieve was finally realized through the production support of Alison Brown. Every song on the album is memorable, and she explores not only bluegrass and its foundation- including a duet with Larry Sparks- but she brings in new songs, fresh perspectives, and even a bit of musical history with the Irish band Lunasa on “When the Mist Comes Again.” Dale Ann made Chris Stuart’s “Julia Belle” a standard, while already classic songs- “Live Forever” and “Me and Bobby McGee”- are revitalized. There isn’t a missed step anywhere, and while other artists may be off-putting with slickness in pursuit of a similar sound, Dale Ann and Alison have created an album that breathes its quality rather than having had its breath squeezed from it in the pursuit of perfection. An ideal contemporary bluegrass recording.
3. Maria Dunn- …For A Song 2001 (Albertan/Canadian) I can’t say much more about Maria Dunn than I already have. She is a tremendous writer, one who bridges old world charm with modern trials and situations. I have seen her live more times than I can count, and she always sparkles. …For a Song remains my favourite album although it may not be her best. The songs just wash over me, and her voice- with just a hint of the Old Country punctuating each phrase- is beautiful. Defying classification as adeptly as Van Morrison and Sinead O’Conner, Dunn produced a compelling album of ballads that entwined her influences within a lush, invigorating tapestry. Find her music.
4. James Reams & The Barnstormers- Troubled Times 2005 I have likely played albums from Brooklyn-based (but via Kentucky) James Reams than any other bluegrass act this decade. I do know Troubled Times was the second most played album during the year and a half I hosted the bluegrass show on the Olds station. Reams’ bluegrass may not be ‘perfect’ in the way a Rhonda, Skaggs, or Dailey Vincent album may be, and it is all the better for it. Excellent original songs (“Hills of My County” about mountain top removal coalmining and “Eye of the Storm”) blended with under-heard songs from outside writers (Robbie Fulks’ “Cold Statesboro Ground” and Marvin Goins’ “Head of the Holler”) have kept this one in my CD player for more than five years.
5. John Wort Hannam- Queen’s Hotel 2009 (Albertan/Canadian) Seldom does one get to experience musical history being made. I hope I’m right in stating that this is the last album we’ll hear from John Wort Hannam where the reverberations are localized to Alberta and western Canada. The international folk world needs to sit up and pay attention to this man. There are few like him. Get him on a stage with a Joe Ely or a Guy Clark and he’ll hold his own, I’m certain.
Down to the Wood- Up All Night 2003 (Albertan/Canadian) Okay, I’m an idiot. I knew going into this project I would manage to screw things up somehow, and of course I did. Somehow, in scanning the shelves, examining my inventory list, and racking my brain, I missed Up All Night. Ridiculous, given how much time I’ve spent not only listening to the album but swapping scotch with the trio at various festivals. So, allow me the additional indulgence of revising my list to allow for two #5 albums. Had I not overlooked the album, this is about where it would have landed.
When I hosted the radio show, DTTW was by far the most played band and since Up All Night is their only recording it was the most played album. For good reason. What the album may lack in original material- only one band written song, that being Curtis Appleton’s very strong “Shameless Drive”- they make up for in enthusiasm, energy, and passion.
The band was blessed with one of Alberta’s most proficient and tasteful guitarists in Marc Ladouceur, and his many influences- blues, Celtic, folk, and naturally bluegrass- shade this album’s arrangements all the way through. With three lead voices, natural spontaneity that transferred from the stage to the studio, and an understanding of traditional brother harmonies that served them well, Up All Night was an ideal document of the group’s early days. That they never came together to record a follow-up was unfortunate but not unexpected, given the various factors that place pressure on a regional bluegrass band- careers, finances, family, and limited stages.
I love listening to this album- and am listening to it again as I type- and continue to be impressed by the band’s maturity and vision. They weren’t content just to duplicate the songs they heard on scratchy old bluegrass cassettes and albums. Give a listen to “Crossroad Blues/The Old Crossroads Is Waiting,” a formidable piece of music that has Mr. Monroe meeting up with Robert Johnson on a dusty rural road. That took balls, and they pulled it off not only in the studio but on stage time and again.
For a while, Down to the Wood was the most entertaining Canadian bluegrass band I was fortunate to hear. Up All Night is a terrific album and is well-deserving of a place on my 151 favourite albums of the decade.
What just missed the Top 150? Amongst others: Sam Bush Circles Around Me 2009; Alejandro Escovedo Real Animal 2008; Various Artists The Songs of Fred Eaglesmith 2003; Ian Tyson- Yellowhead to Yellowstone and other Love Stories 2008; The Grascals- The Grascals 2005; Ron Block- Faraway Land 2001; Blackie and the Rodeo Kings- Let’s Frolic Again 2007; The Notorious Cherry Bombs- The Notorious Cherry Bombs 2004; Acoustic Syndicate- Crazy Little Life 2000; Audrey Auld Mezara- Lost Men & Angry Girls 2007 Patty Loveless- Mountain Soul 2001
Again, sincere thanks for spending time at Fervor Coulee.