Time for the annual ‘best of’ list which I never title ‘best of.’ I always go with Favourites because that is all I can go by: which albums have I listened to the most this past year, which ones have I most appreciated, and which ones do I feel are of an exceptional quality?
In previous years, I’ve written at length, but this year I am restrained by time (hmmm…Christmas Eve/Christmas Morning) and energy (I am bleeding exhausted!) Instead of separating things into genres, reissues, compilations, and other categories, I am just going to present Fervor Coulee’s Favourite Roots Albums of the Year. I am limiting myself to 15 titles this time out—I started out with a comprehensive list of about 80 titles under consideration, but willowed that down to 12 fair quickly, and from there it seemed like 15 was the right number for this year.
What did I notice over the course of 2015? One, I am really tired of folks—and you know who you are—who do good work, who promote the music, and who seem to care about bluegrass and yet use that term to describe just about any and all mostly acoustic, Appalachian-reminiscent music not mainstream country. It can’t all be bluegrass, folks. It just isn’t. Sam Gleaves? Not bluegrass, although there are a couple bluegrass songs there: nice album, though. Dom Flemons? Not even close. Dave Rawlings Machine? Are you even listening? Here’s the measure: if it is on the front page of The Bluegrass Situation…it’s not bluegrass.
I also noticed that there were fewer exceptional bluegrass albums released this year—plenty of mighty fine ones, but not that many that will go down as classics.
I noticed that I am listening to more 60s and 70s R&B/soul music than ever before, and that does take away time from roots writing. But rabba bing bang, I am loving those sounds, from R.B. Greaves to Gladys Knight & the Pips: pure dynamite.
I’ve also noticed that it is increasingly difficult to find the music I like in even the finest music stores. A real drag, that.
I’m also including the source of the music, in the spirit of full disclosure: some folks do worry about the ethics around receiving music for review without cost. I’m not one of them.
Here we go, with Fervor Coulee’s (Donald Teplyske) Favourite Roots Albums of the Year, 2015.
- John Wort Hannam- Love Lives On (Rebel Tone Records) Still Alberta’s finest contemporary, male troubadour, John Wort Hannam continues to meet the rising expectations that come from a decade of exceptional folk-based releases. Love Lives On has not yet displaced Two Bit Suit and Queen’s Hotel at the top of my Hannam list, but both those albums were also year-end favourites, and I enjoy the textures of his rhymes and the subtleties of his insights more with each listen. Singing of universal pleasures (“Over the Moon,” “Love Lives On,” “Gonna See My Love”) as adeptly as he does of specific moments in time (“Labrador”) and place (“Good Nite Nova Scotia,”) Wort Hannam has become a master of storytelling and songwriting. This sixth album is highlighted by the devastating “Man of God,” the song that will follow the songwriter to the end of his time. A beautifully conceived and recorded album, Love Lives On is a masterpiece. (Purchased at Blackbyrd Myoozik.)
- Dale Ann Bradley- Pocket Full of Keys (Pinecastle Records) While she hasn’t garnered the IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year award for the past three years, there is no arguing the consistency and strength Dale Ann Bradley brings to both her live performances and recordings. This self-produced album is one that I have listened to regularly since its release this summer. As the finest country and bluegrass often does, Pocket Full of Keys’ songs reveal the hardships of others as a panacea to our challenges, either providing a path for enlightenment or a realization that one’s own issues are not completely overwhelming: it could always be worse. Dale Ann Bradley doesn’t churn out albums. Analyse her vast catalog and one doesn’t find many tracks that appear to have been recorded simply out of favor or as filler. She is a bluegrass vocalist and true artist of substance and vision, and mentions in the album’s notes that she has always wanted to do an album herself, her own way. She has done it! Pocket Full of Keys is another in a string of significant recordings from bluegrass music’s finest voice. (Acquired via publicist)
- The SteelDrivers- The Muscle Shoals Recordings (Rounder) The SteelDrivers remain a dynamic, driving bluegrass band, a five-piece with a sound and an approach completely their own. The Muscle Shoals Recordings is their fourth album and the group just keeps getting better. The SteelDrivers are a song band, meaning that their strength doesn’t come from fiery instrumental prowess or sweeping vocal harmonies—although they more than hold their own in both those areas—but from the strength of their material. When they choose a song, they have done so for a reason, and it comes through in the performance. Murder songs, drinking songs, love songs, Civil War songs—The SteelDrivers can do them all, and they do so like no other bluegrass band working the circuit. Excellent. (Acquired via publicist)
- Barnstar!- Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out! (Signature Sounds) This Massachusetts-collective does things differently, and as a result their music isn’t what you are likely to find populating the ‘most played’ bluegrass charts. But, if one is open to something a bit outside, perhaps a little less precise and polished, from a group every bit as talented and instrumentally adept as the ‘name’ bands within the genre, Barnstar! may have something of interest waiting for you within Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out! Comprised of songwriters all of whom have music careers outside the band, Barnstar! continues to define their unusual approach to bluegrass music. They ‘get’ the music and are in no way trading in irony, but their bluegrass has an entirely different feel than , say, the Gibson Brothers or Joe Mullins’ Radio Ramblers—their harmonies are irregular when compared to those premier bands that add just a touch of the modern to their otherwise orthodox approach. Barnstar! is certainly ‘in the pocket,’ but their favored cadence is atypical of mainstream bluegrass and thus doesn’t feel constrained by expectation. They have great songs, the best here perhaps “Cumberland Blue Line,” “Six Foot Pine Box,” and most definitely The Faces “Stay With Me.” Oh, and don’t forget Mark Erelli’s “Barnstable County.” And “Delta Rose.” Dang, it is a terrific bluegrass album; not for everyone, mind. If you are looking for Pretty Bluegrass, it isn’t here. (Acquired via publicist)
- Buffy Sainte-Marie- Power in the Blood (High Romance Music) The winner of this year’s Polaris Music Prize, Power in the Blood is the type of album that either hits you from first listen or completely misses. Without judgement, whichever happens is likely a reflection of the listener. This is a powerful album that speaks across generations and cultures, one that can be appreciated both as a creative production to be experienced as a complete album and individually song-by-song. “It’s My Way,” “Power in the Blood,” and “We Are Circling” start the album off with substance and energy, and things just keep developing. She even pulls in some UB40. A wonderful recording. (Purchased at Wal-Mart; hey, I couldn’t find it in an independent shop.)
- Chris Jones & the Night Drivers- Run Away Tonight (Mountain Home) With an immediately identifiable sound and a burgeoning catalog of stellar albums, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers are possibly bluegrass music’s most underrated band. With Run Away Tonight, that has to change. Front-loaded with six original songs—seldom seen in an industry still tied to the tried, tested, and true—Run Away Tonight is one of the finest bluegrass albums released this decade.
Reminding listeners of no one as much as the legendary Country Gentlemen, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers perform bluegrass music with heart and drive. The heart comes from the depth of intensity revealed in every phrase and note sung by Jones, the New York native who has as rounded a bluegrass resume as one might imagine—expert guitarist, sideman, bandleader, songwriter, producer, broadcaster, gently acerbic humorist, playful photographer. The drive begins with Jones’ strong rhythm and lead work, nicely featured in the mix here, and continues through Jon Weisberger’s propulsive bass rhythm playing off Ned Luberecki’s classic 5-string approach and Mark Stoffel’s exquisite mandolin touch. Kudos to Jones and his co-producer Tim Surrett (Balsam Range) and Scott Barnett for this excellent sounding bluegrass experience—listening to this recording on a solid system is a sonic treat.
With an emphasis on the deceptively upbeat aspect of bluegrass, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers kick things off with the court and spark of “Laurie,” from which the album takes its title. Similarly, “Tonight I’m Gonna Ride” feels lively and freewheeling, but is appears as much about failed aspirations and last chances as it is the fulfilment of a dream. Casey Driessen, a Jones colleague from long ago, contributes vigorous fiddle to these two songs. Every song is worthy of attention, not something I write lightly or often. I have long advocated that Chris Jones’ name needs to be inserted into the conversations around Male Vocalist of the Year. Perhaps next time up, the professional members of the IBMA will agree with me. The Night Drivers are as good a band as there is. (Acquired via publicist)
- Amy Black- The Muscle Shoals Sessions (Reuben) Amy Black has become someone to be counted on to provide balanced and lively collections of contemporary Americana, featuring a blend of influences: folk, country, blues, troubadours of all variety, and—way deep down—hints of southern-flavoured soul. Years ago, I wrote that Black reminded me of Kate Campbell and that she had a singing voice “as natural and welcome as lemonade on a sweltering summer’s day, with an amiable tartness lingering within its sweetness.”
The Muscle Shoals Sessions has that absolutely infectious deep soul groove permeating every song. Spooner Oldham brings emotional and historical depth to the proceedings, laying out funky Wurlitzer and organ. Will Kimbrough is back. Vocal certainty is provided by the McCrary sisters, Ann and Regina. Notable horn players are also present, with Charlie Rose taking the lead and playing trombone, while Steve Herrman (trumpet) and Jim Hoke (saxophone) are featured.
Recorded in the legendary FAME studios, Black compositions like “Get To Me” and “Woman On Fire” sizzle with energy, while “You Gotta Move” and “Bring It On Home” are more passionate and controlled. Classics abound with “You Left Your Water Running” and Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” closing the disc with wisdom found only in the finest of songs.
When she laments, “I know I hurt you deep down inside, I know you’re angry I understand why,” one could be forgiven for believing Black to be interpreting a long forgotten Otis Redding gem. She isn’t, of course—the song is a new one, and is as strong as anything else on the album. Black’s performance here proves all the evidence necessary, should one require it, that she is legitimately a country soul singer of the most significant variety. She smolders without seduction—there is nothing here but genuine, aching need—while the band explores rhythms of the finest order. Black pays tribute to Don Covey and Etta James with a blistering rendition of “Watch Dog,” while her interpretation of “Gotta Serve Somebody” further elevates the album by exploring the more spiritual side of soul music.
Amy Black ‘gets it’ and hopefully we do, too. The Muscle Shoals Sessions deserves to be heard by all who appreciate the funkier, soulful side of roots music. Amy Black just keeps getting better.
- Pharis & Jason Romero- A Wanderer I’ll Stay (Lula Records) One of the most respected old-time duos currently recording, Pharis and Jason Romero create acoustic music in a vein not dissimilar to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Without drifting toward mimicry, this couple from Horsefly, British Columbia likewise captures within their finely crafted songs the richness that exists within seemingly uncomplicated songs and arrangements.
I can attest that everything I hear within this album is flat-out faultless. Within “Backstep Indi,” Jason Romero coaxes the gourd banjo to travel from southern traditions to East Indian experimentation, while the instrumental backing for “The Dying Soldier” is as beautifully mournful as anything recently heard. Pharis Romero is an expressive, generous vocalist and impressive songwriter. She has a strong voice that more than holds its own within the aural environment created by the duo and their co-producer David Travers-Smith. Like Welch, she asks universal questions (“Why do girls go steady, when their hearts are not inclined”) and makes stark declarations (“Your father he’s a merchant and a thief”) that immediately establishes perspective while sketching stories and characters that engage listeners’ imaginations. When she sings, “There’s no time, honey there’s no time,” you accept her assertion.
This time featuring Josh Rabie (fiddle), John Hurd (bass), Marc Jenkins (pedal steel), and Brent Morton (drums) on select tracks, A Wanderer I’ll Stay has a full sound although not significantly different from their previous Long Gone Out West Blues; the same intimacy is present and certainly their attention to detail has not wavered. As with that release, the packaging is beautifully executed with all practical considerations accounted. This is a stunning acoustic folk recording. (Acquired via publicist)
- Kathy Kallick Band- Foxhounds (KathyKallick.com) As is Tim O’Brien, Kathy Kallick is always a bit of an adventurer and you can never be sure what her next recorded outing might bring. When she has the band with her, you are assured high-quality, literate and respectful bluegrass music: they never take their audience for granted, never rest on their laurels. Such is the case with Foxhounds, an album that starts off with a new song in tribute to Bill Monroe and continues with an exciting exploration of the range and depth of the bluegrass tradition. There are old songs including “Banjo Pickin’ Girl,” a lively rendition of the first Richard Thompson song I ever encountered (“Tear Stained Letter,”) and a bright and spirited take on a Monroe instrumental, “Kentucky Mandolin.” But the album’s greatest strengths lay within Kallick’s new songs including “So Danged Lonesome,” “Longest Day of the Year,” and “Snowflakes.” Especially enjoyable is the fiery “I’m Not Your Honey Baby Now,” a song to which I will continue to return. The band is top-notch throughout, and all members are featured in a variety of ways including vocally. (Acquired via publicist)
- Corb Lund- Things That Can’t Be Undone (New West Records) Corb Lund’s tenth album of (mostly) rural rooted, countryside music, Things That Can’t Be Undone shows Alberta’s favourite son writing even more concisely than previously while tackling subject matter both heady and impacting (“S Lazy H,” “Weight of the Gun,” and “Sadr City,”) heartfelt (“Goodbye Colorado” and “Sunbeam,”) and slightly frivolous (“Talk Too Much” and “Washed-Up Rock Star Factory Blues.”) While Lund has for years provided engaging music that was obviously influenced by folks like Tom Russell and Ian Tyson, he has increasingly infused his songs with his own individuality. This album continues that journey. (Legal download)
- Ron Block- Hogan’s House of Music (RonBlock.com) One of the most thoughtful minds in bluegrass, and a danged fine banjo and guitar player, Rob Block is best known as one-fifth of Alison Krauss & Union Station. He has recorded a series of well-received albums, in my opinion the first of which (Faraway Land) is a modern classic. Here he goes back to his roots and influences, recording an instrumental bluegrass album filled with classic (but not too overly familiar) songs. Having purchased digitally, I don’t know who is playing what or where, but I suppose I don’t really need to: it is completely wonderful. (Purchased via iTunes)
- Willie Thrasher- Spirit Child (Light in the Attic) Three of Willie Thrasher’s songs were featured on the groundbreaking triple album set of last year, Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966–1985, a release that would have topped my chart last year had I heard it then. Spirit Child is a reissue of Thrasher’s 1981 album, and it spent a solid week in my car once I bought it. I may not understand everything on this album, but I think I get it. Folk, rock, and country influences abut to create a remarkable listening journey. (Purchased via eMusic)
- Jayme Stone- Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project (Borealis Records) With a multitude of collaborators, Jayme Stone cuts a wide swath through the legacy of Alan Lomax: it is much like putting a collection of Smithsonian Folkways albums on random, and one becomes increasingly overwhelmed by the intensity of the wide-ranging performances. There is mountain music here, island and African sounds, English and Scottish folk songs, and blues, ‘grass, and chants all performed to the highest levels of performance that retain the ‘authentic’ (whatever that means) and natural state of the songs. (Purchased via iTunes)
- Jerry Lawson- Just a Mortal Man (Red Beet) As I’ve headed further into the rabbit warren that is vintage R&B and soul, I have found few modern practitioners of the art that appeal to me: even the best seem to try just a little too hard. Not Jerry Lawson. It sounds like the music just flows from him, and when he launches into a song a deep as “Wine” or as sad as “Never Been to Memphis,” you know you are experiencing the real thing. (Purchased via eMusic)
- The Cox Family- Gone as the Cotton (Rounder) Forgive us for thinking we might never again hear new music from The Cox Family. It has been almost twenty years since Just When We’re Thinking It’s Over, and excepting an appearance in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, not much has been heard from Alison Krauss’s favourite Louisianans. Given the quality of the music contained on Gone Like the Cotton, an album started in 1998 and completed within the last year, it is surprising that Krauss and Rounder Records didn’t consider buying the project from Asylum and the Warner’s group at some point in the ensuing years. Eventually, and thankfully, the impedance to unveiling the album was removed, the recorded files were located and freshened with new vocals from the current lineup of the Cox Family siblings Evelyn, Sidney, and Suzanne complementing father Willard’s vocal takes from the late 90s.
The newest song and title track, written by Sidney and Suzanne, is a nearly-unadorned family biography. With only the minimalist of guitar accompaniment, the siblings sing of their grandparents, their parents, and their community with devotion and love. It is a stunning and appropriate closing to a heartfelt recording, one that captures in four minutes a lifetime of experience. The result is a type of country music that is seldom encountered in contemporary times. Beautifully executed with confidence that comes through on every song, Gone Like the Cotton is a masterful recording. (Acquired via publicist)
By limiting myself to 15 titles, I’ve not been able to include folks like Ryan Boldt, The Honey DewDrops, Big Country Bluegrass, Tim O’Brien (for his SOS Series), Rex Hobart, Anna and Elizabeth, Samantha Martin, Dar Williams, Donnie Fritts, Pop Staples, Gordie Tentrees, The Hillbenders, Norma MacDonald, and a whole lot of other very fine artists. A great deal of excellent roots music was released in 2015. Thanks for checking in at Fervor Coulee; hopefully we’ll see you in 2016. Donald