The dearth of quality country music has been examined sixteen ways from Sunday over too many years. Yes, there is good stuff to be found and sometimes even on the charts—Chris Stapleton, Margo Price, Elizabeth Cook, to name three—but so much of what passes for country today…okay, you stopped me: thanks—you’ve heard this one before.
This weekend the annual ‘country music jamboree’ happens about a hundred kilometres from me, and that means the mainstream media will trip over themselves to profile the tens of thousands who travel, camp, and party for three or four days. All this for a lineup that I wouldn’t walk across the field to listen to, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band excepted. (I’ll be heading a hundred klicks down different highways for a bluegrass fest that will be largely ignored by the MSM. And that’s okay—who am I to judge? Although I will.)
Today, three country albums that I think you should consider. Country music isn’t any one thing, but dammit it has to be good. What’s the point otherwise?
Coming from Louisiana, Yvette Landry & the Jukes featuring Roddie Romero’s debut album is a platter that will appeal to anyone who craves a modern spin on ‘fifties and early ‘sixties rock ‘n’ roll filtered through a country foundation. Think Brenda Lee with the Everlys or Bobby Charles with Mandy Barnett. This isn’t hayseed country (much as I can love that) but Ameripolitan (is that how Dale Watson spells it?) with a heavy dose of the vibe I associate with Memphis soul, not to mention a bit of a Cajun kick.
Fronting a crackerjack band including Derek Huston (saxophones) and Josef Butts (deep bass), Landry (“Three Chords and the Truth,” the Sara Evans song from two decades ago) and Romero (“Homesick Blues,” the first of four Bobby Charles covers, and that ain’t too many) trade off on the leads while coming together on several sweet songs (“I Almost Lost My Mind” among them) in duets from which honey drips. The album notes label it ‘Louisiana swamp pop,’ but to my ears it nuzzles up to that warm and troubled place that only true country music reaches.
The guitar work from Romero is especially lively, whether on plaintive tracks including Charles’ “Grow To Old,” one which Huston again shines, and Jermaine Prejean is a tasteful drummer, ideal for this set. Eric Adcock adds various keys including Wurlitzer.
Louisiana Lovin’ is an exceptional album that is most obviously an endeavour of passion and heart. Yvette Landry & the Jukes featuring Roddie Romero love this type of music, delivering a set of music that is firmly rooted in traditions while sounding eminently appealing for contemporary audiences.
Traditional-based (think Merle, Buck, George, and Johnny Darrell) country music isn’t frequently encountered unless you search it out, and it takes some effort to find the good stuff. Good thing folks like these populate the hither and yon. Trust me, here: Blue Yonder deserves a listen, or seven.
West Virginia-based Blue Yonder, a trio comprised of songwriter John Lilly (rhythm guitars and lead vocals), Robert Shafer (electric), and Will Carter (bass and harmony) augmented by Tony Creasman (drums), have released a strong, wide-ranging country album.
With the twang of Billy Cowsill and Marty Brown mixed with Rex Hobart’s honky tonk attitude, John Lilly is a force to be appreciated. Blue Yonder’s efforts are made more significant comprised as they are by original songs of quality including “Lonely Hour,” “Rough and Ready Heart,” and Memories and Moonlight.”
With the spirit of “Me and Bobby McGee” running through it, the lead track “Standing On the Side of the Road” highlights the freedom of specific moments in time. Elsewhere, emotional connection and responsibility are lost, as in “Windswept.” “Well-Acquainted with the Blues” has Lilly making considered word choices to advance his hardwood testimony, in shuffle time. “Tombstone Charlie” and “Green Light,” with a rockabilly beat, speed things up from the album’s mid-tempo majority.
Rough and Ready Heart is a magnificent little album of throwback country. Love it.
A connection to place is as essential to songwriting as it is to literature. That Dennis Duff relates to his home area is obvious listening to this songwriter’s showcase.
Anyone can hire a band, just make sure you have cash on hand. But, Duff has outdone himself here: Colby Kilby (co-producer, guitar, banjo, mandolin, Dobro) [and, as an aside, should be at Blueberry this weekend with the Travelin’ McCourys], Jason Carter (fiddle) [also, all things McCoury], Alan Bartram (bass, harmony) [ditto, McCourys] and Andy Leftwich (fiddle.) A finer bluegrass band possible? And more than being ‘slingers for hire,’ these musicians fully commit to Duff and his songs.
Now, all that talent can also be easily wasted. Not so here. Duff has the songs, and a home-hewn voice as natural as his subject matter. I quite like his singing style, unpolished as it may be. “Mr. TVA” looks at the effect of moving people off their land, and “Road to Dover” explores the land of memory. “When the river took the barn, the crib and all the corn, Daddy finally said, ‘It’s time to leave,'” shows the ties that bind people to their home in “37 Flood.” Duff’s take on betrayal, revenge, and incarceration “Castle on the Cumberland” is outstanding.
Additionally, Duff calls on guests to give voice to a few of his songs, an unconventional approach to be certain as he doesn’t appear on five of the album’s nine songs.
Far as I am concerned, Brooke and Darin Aldridge haven’t taken a wrong step in almost ten years. That continues with their taking charge of “TC and Pearl,” a telling of familial bonds and faith. Paul Brewster [who should also be at Blueberry this weekend with Kentucky Thunder] take a couple leads, the spirited lead track “Wilson Holler” and “Iron Hill.” Bradley Walker is joined by Holly Pitney on another song revealing a strong bond with the land, this one the gentle closing number “When I Leave Kentucky.”
One of the album’s strongest performances is delivered by Mountain Heart’s Josh Shilling. “Night Riders” is a historically-based tale of tobacco farmers working collectively against the force of ‘big tobacco’ to monopolize the industry, and Shilling nails the desperation of those protecting their own and facing down a foe with injustice on their side.
Also worthy of note is the strong artwork by Leeah Duff. Song samples available.
Bluegrass is country music, and on this concise album Dennis K. Duff delves into his family’s experiences to bring the past out of faded memories. At its best, bluegrass (and country music and literature) do this consistently, teaching listeners about events and lives that can be far outside our own. It isn’t ham-fisted at all, it’s taking a slice of someone’s life and making it relevant for others. Songs From Lyon County, featuring several world-class voices- including Duff’s- stellar bluegrass instrumentation, and high quality, original songs can’t be lost in the shuffle. Find it. Now. (Okay, you can be forgiven for waiting until it is available September 7.)
There you go, three country music albums that I suggest will be better than anything heard at Big Valley Jamboree this coming weekend. Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee.