I have decided to gather together some of the best country and roots rock releases received over the past few weeks and tell you all about them in the hopes you’ll want to check them out. Remember, good rootsy rock and hardcore country is hard to find these days so if you’ve got a hankerin’ for this kind of stuff, well, here it is:
Blue Rodeo – The Things We Left Behind
I would be remiss if I didn’t offer an apology to Blue Rodeo and to their label for not getting to this review of the new two-CD set by Canada’s greatest band (next to Sloan, anyways) a lot sooner. Truth is, I took it out to my car a few months ago as I wanted listening material for an upcoming road trip and just got so used to having it close at hand during long drives (and short ones too) I totally forgot I needed to review it and let you, faithful readers, know about the album I have been listening to almost non-stop since I received it. I guess I also owe you an apology as well because if you didn’t know about this album, you’ve been missing out on one of the most impressive albums this year and one that (at this point anyway) is definitely going to be on my top ten for the year.
Yeah, I said it. It’s that good. But it’s no surprise really, as this band’s been putting out great albums for about thirty years now.
For those who are hearing about Blue Rodeo for the first time, it is definitely going to be my pleasure to introduce you to their music. I’ve been a fan for so long It seems almost as if in a previous life that I first heard them. I first encountered the music of Blue Rodeo when I was much, much younger and tearing up the Western New York countryside with my high school and college pals. Living in a town near the Canadian border allowed for much more interesting radio options, as we got a huge helping of Canadian radio on the dial. Canada has a rule which forces broadcasters (radio and television) to program a certain amount of Canadian content every hour. The Canadian content criteria is as follows: the artist has to reside in Canada, the album has to have been produced in Canada, the album has to be produced by a Canadian, and the songs have to be written by Canadian and all songs played for Canadian content had to meet at least three of these four criteria. So, almost needless to say, I remember those stations playing a lot of Rush, Bryan Adams, Guess Who and whichever idiot it was who sang “Go for Soda”. Every once in a while, some more adventurous DJ would stick in some David Wilcox, a new-wave type band called The Jitters, or a little roots rock band called Blue Rodeo. I first became aware of them when their second album Diamond Mine was released and man, was I impressed. The closest I can come to describing how muuch the band hit me was when I first heard Wilco circa Box of Letters and I thought someone had finally listened to what Blue Rodeo was doing and had adapted it a little bit. That’s how much I think of Blue Rodeo, that Wilco copied them,l you know? I mean, Diamond Mine was like “whoosh” to my brain. Country radio had just started playing Rodney Crowell and Dwight Yoakam and I thought that this country rock stuff was going to get huge as it blended the best of rock but still had a rootsy sensibility and a gritty honesty most bands weren’t offering at the time. Remember, in ’87 when the band released it’s debut hair metal and synth-propelled dance music.were pretty much the only things on pop radio. To hear a band on the radio at that time, sounding like Blue Rodeo did, was a revelation. As the ’90’s came and went, Blue Rodeo continued releasing great albums, many of which went multi-platinum in their native country and garnered great reviews in the lower 48. Expectations were that Blue Rodeo would join the alt.country revolution happening in the States with bands like Whiskeytown, Jayhawks, Wilco et al. and these bands would become huge. Alas, it was not to be but where these other bands fell by the wayside or changed their sound in the late ’90’s/’00’s, Blue Rodeo has kept on, exploring other sub-genres to a point but always centering their sound around their roots rock origin, to their fans delight.
This album is no different. While little tweaks are noticeable in the band’s sound, the album still rests solely at the feet of songwriters/co-leaders Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor. Little did I know while I was listening to the band on the radio in 1987, the Cuddy and Keelor had first met and started playing music together a full ten years earlier. Looking back, whenever I heard their music I always marveled at their songwriting ability and how their music seemed to have a maturity to it, so it makes sense considering how long they have been a team, even back then. There’s no doubt as they moved through band after band together, both their songwriting styles and symbiotic and sympathetic musical relationship became stronger and more well defined, while simultaneously (and paradoxically) become so in tune with each other their songwriting styles mesh perfectly, though it seems from the last few albums most songs are written by one or the other separately, though both have their names on the song ala Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards. Regardless who actually writes them, these songs resonate with the same values the band’s material has always embodied. One new wrinkle on this album is the absence of a regular keyboardist, as the band has guests fill in. Keyboards have always been a big part of the band’s sound so it’s an interesting development for the band. Still, the band’s songs are the key and, on this set, they are top-notch. There’s not a throwaway in the bunch and though few bands can pull off a ten minute song and hold my interest, this set has two and each one, though sometimes meandering, has a flow which kept me mesmerized throughout.
I love this album. I always look forward to new Blue Rodeo releases because I always know what I am going to get, which is, the best roots-centered rock and roll any band can create. And that’s not to say they rehash the same things over and over or that they’ve run out of ideas. That’s not the case at all and the band has mixed it up over the years with their explorations into psyche rock and their adding a little pop to their sound here and there. What it means is that at the core of every Blue Rodeo release are solid songs with a viewpoint to which anyone can relate. The band refuses to chase after stardom, preferring their listeners find and, ultimately, stick with them on their musical journey. I know I have and will continue to do so. If you give this set a chance, I have no doubt you will feel the same way.
Waylon Jennings – Waylon/Singer of Sad Songs
Waylon Jennings – Love of The Common People/Hangin’ On
Waylon Jennings – Folk Country/Waylon Sings Ol’ Harlan
In their infinite wisdom (and seeking to right horrible music business injustices) the fine folks at reissue label Collector’s Choice has elected to combine six of country outlaw legend Waylon Jennings most interesting and negelected albums onto three CDs. As anyone who has bought titles from the label knows, when Collector’s Choice decides to release something from the vaults, you can be assured that not only will the music will be top notch and sound pristine but the packaging will be lovingly assembled with informative and intelligently written liner notes. Let me assure you these three CDs fall in line with what you would expect from Collector’s Choice. In fact, as much as I love the music (whatever it happens to be, but believe me, I am excited about these Jennings reissues in particular very much. I am and have been for awhile, a huge fan.) Collector’s Choice decides to reissue, the first thing I do when I get one is open it up in a rush so that I can read the liners. For these hot little releases, I was actually camped out at my mailbox for a few weeks as I waited, waited, waited for them to show up. Jennings is a personal hero of mine, not just for his music, which is sublime but also for his general stance against any powers that be that wanted to fuck with him or his music. He pretty much led one of the most interesting lives in the music business and created some of the most enduring music (of any genre) you will ever hear.
Born in Littlefield TX, music became Jennings’ life at an early age. By the age of twelve he was already a professional DJ with his own radio show and had mastered the guitar a full four years before that! After quiitting school at the age of fourteen, Jennings worked his way to Lubbock TX and became a DJ at one of the stations there, befriending Buddy Holly (who was there to play live on the radio), who became his mentor. With Holly’s production help, Jennings recorded his first single, a version of the New Orleans standard Jolie Blon and also filled in as a bass player in Holly’s band The Crickets for their final tour. Just to give you an idea how much the world was destined to hear Jennings music, Jennings was scheduled to be on the fatal flight that killed Holly, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens. The Big Bopper was nursing a cold so Jennings gave The Big Bopper his seat so he could reach the next tour stop earlier in order have maximum time to rest.
Needless to say, losing his friend and being involved in such an odd circumstance affected Jennings greatly and for two years, he stopped performing music. Eventually, he moved to Phoenix, AZ, and re-started his career as a rockabilly artist. Dissatisfied with how his career was going, he moved to L.A. and began getting noticed by larger labels. A&M was first, but dropped him quick when he wouldn’t bow to their demands. Next was RCA and stardom soon followed. Though he ended up becoming a legend after leaving RCA and turning away from the Nashville machine to craft his own brand of hard country, these two-fers chronicle some of the best releases of the RCA years.
The first two-fer contains a couple of albums very integral to Jennings’ later career when he was regarded as an outlaw in the music business. When “Waylon” was being recorded in the late ’60’s, he was already chomping at the bit to gain control of his music as he was very dissatisfied with how Nashville was handling him. Though still working with his longtime producer Danny Davis, you can detect Jennings’ dissatisfaction with his sound and the choice of rock and roll cover of Brown Eyed Handsome Man by Chuck Berry is one of the ways Jennings would strike back, using the song to create tension not just with his performance but with the subject matter. Jennings gives each oif the other songs a unique spin and the album is quite an overlooked gem. By the time Singer of Sad Songs was recorded, Davis had been jettisoned in favor of Lee Hazlewood who took Jennings’ interest in rock and roll (as well as his own bnatural rebellious streak) and ran with it, producing one of the most dynamic albums of Jennings’ career. Nearly every song is a tour de force, with Jennings pouring every ounce of himself into every one of them, giving rollicking performances at every turn. At one time this was one of Jennings’ most hard-to-find albums. Thanks to Collector’s Choice it can now be enjopyed to the fullest once more.
The second two-fer combines two earlier albums by Jennings, when he was still trying to find his way and put his own stamp on his music which was pushed to country music audiences even when Jennings wanted to rock out. The tentative Love of The Common People is a mixed bag but is worth listening to just to hear Jennings’ struggle to shine through the confines of Nashville. That he manages to succeed more often than not is a testimony to his talent. The following year’s Hangin’ On is another toss-up of tracks, but even the bad ones are very interesting and show Jennings’ reaching to create something new, to encompass his vision for his music out of Nashville’s strict parameters. The use of brass, unique arrangements, tempos and even the use of Jennings’ touring band make this an engaging listen from start to finish and one which I heartily recommend.
The final two-fer begins with his second album, his debut for RCA. Produced by Chet Atkins, it shows Jennings making very safe song choices but nothing that would detract from Jennings’ fine performances of the material, of which a great deal comes from songwriter Harlan Howard. While it is tough to find bits of what Jennings would later become, they are there, if in minute doses. His affinity for the songs of Howard would lead to the other album of the two-fer, Waylon Sings Ol’ Harlan. Not only does Jennings choose well-known songs originally recorded and turned into hits by other artists like Buck Owens but Jennings also chooses to record a clutch of Howard’s lesser known songs, thereby making them his own. A very fine album and what you would expect when you pair one of country music’s most original talents with one of music’s finest songwriters.
Needless to say I am recommending you rush out and buy all three of these reissues. Not only do you get six total hard-to-find Jennings’ albums, but you get some of the most interesting albums ever released by a country artist. Jennings’ growth from Nashville newbie to disgruntled veteran determined to call all the shots in his musical career is both fascinating and exciting ti experience, and it’s all here in the grooves (so to speak) so0 if you get all three reissues, you’ll hear Jennings’ growth from album to album as he chafes at the control the label had on him. You’ll have to get Jennings’ later albums to hear the result of his transformation into ther outlaw country star most know him as today, but these are the first embryonic steps he made towards that result and thanks to Collector’s Choice, you’ll get to hear these great albums once again.
Justin Currie – The Great War
With this new release from Justin Currie, we see the former leader of ’90’s pop sensation Del Amitri returning with the followup to his excellent 2007 debut solo release What is Love For. While Currie’s first solo album was a darker turn from the bouncy mid-tempo pop of his former band, this album finds Currie re-visiting the sound of Del Amitri jangle and all! No doubt part of the reason is the presence of Del Amitri guitarist Mick Slaven who brings his very recognizable style of playing along with him. This solo disc is not just a return to Currie’s so-called “glory days” however, partly because I feel this album shows his glory days are still ahead of him and moreso because anyone who hears this album will hear a new maturity in Currie. And by maturity, I don;t just mean his voice, which has deepened and darkened just a tad from his mid ’90’s hit-making days but also the his songs, which show a depth and the evidence of a life having been lived that his earlier material just didn’t have. My pick for a hit is the infectious opening cut “A Man With Nothing To Do” which is Currie’s post-band take of his former band’s sound – ringing guitars, hummable chorus, and effervescent melody – and is what Currie’s fans want to hear from him. No here’s hoping radio has enough sense to push this track to the moon as it certainly deserves to be heard, as does the rest of the fine record. Pick it up!!
Merle Haggard – I Am What I Am
Weekend television fare around the homestead when I was young was musically very interesting, to say the least. We used to watch Hee-Haw every Saturday night at 7:00 pm per my father, who absolutely loved the show and its’ corny country-style humor. Though I didn’t realize it then, my dad had very cool tastes in music. It took me years to put it together, but it finally dawned on me after watching years of Hee Haw and B.B. King guest appearances on Johnny Carson (He’d stay up extra late for a King appearance and would often allow me to stay up with him when a musical act he really liked was on the show.) that my dad was a real music fan and, better yet, knew the difference between crap and someone who really had something important to say and/or play. Haggard was one of the artists who, when he would show up on HeeHaw, my dad would get excited about. Of course, Buck Owens was another true legend, but he was a host so was on the show every week. Hag, though, was a different story. He was maybe once every year, maybe every two and it was special whenever he was on. For those shows, dad would put down his crossword puzzles and become transfixed to the TV. As a kid, I had no idea what Haggard meant to my dad or to the music business as a whole, but I knew he had to be important. The fact he was singing and playing on such a show after the life he lived was a miracle of it’s own, and no doubt became a wealth of fodder for his songs.
Born in California shortly after the Great Depression in 1937, Haggard became restless and rebellious after the death of his father when Haggard was nine and was in and out of detention centers during his early teenage years. His only steady interest besides petty crimes was his interest in country music. Haggard’s father was a fiddle player who played in the local bars and hearing his father play honky tonk music no doubt influenced Haggard to pick up the guitar at the age of twelve years old, a gift from his brother who had hoped it would keep Haggard grounded and out of trouble. Depsite Haggard’s quick mastery of the instrument, Haggard was still prone to troulbe making and left for Texas with a buddy when he was 14 years old. After returning home and another spell or two in the juvenile detention center, Haggard moved to Modesto and began singing in bars though his music career never really got off the ground due to Haggard’s penchant for trouble making and the resultant arrests. Haggard received his big break when attending a Lefty Frizzell performance in Bakersfield. Haggard was able to get backstage and ended up singing a few songs for Frizzell who liked his singing so much Frizzell refused to go on stage until the promoter allowed Haggard to sing a song for the audience. This development gave Haggard confidence in his music career, but not enough to keep him out of trouble. Within a year or so, Haggard was back in jail serving time for robbery. Luckily,.he decided to turn his life around and became a model prisoner. Upon his release, Haggard found a job and resumed his career of singing in bars at night. After winning a few talent shows and becoming a local favorite, Haggard was able to quit his job and survive off of the money he was making singing at clubs. He began to record at local labels in the Bakersfield area, which was starting to take off in the world of country music due to Buck Owens having a ton of hits around this time (the early ’60’s). Owens was a proponent of the Bakersfield sound and the town’s favorite son. The serendipity of Haggard being around Bakersfield just when the music world was descending upon it looking for the next Owens was very fortuitous because by 1966, Haggard was a country star in his own right. Needless to say, Haggard had hit after hit right up until the early ’80’s and has recorded sporadically since then, his legend undimished though his sales definitely not what they once were.
This new album from Haggard (hell, any album from Haggard) is a treat as not only did I think he was pretty much retired but he sounds amazingly fresh and rejuvenated on this disc, as rejuvenated as an elder statesman can be, anyway. You have to give it to him to release something this strong at this stage of the game, to be sure, as it can go one of two ways ion cases when elder statesmen try to release new works. Either the album is completely ignored and considered a sub-par last gasp from an artist way past his prime and totally out of touch or the audience realises how special the artist was and accepts the release as a sort of Sermon on The Mount as it were, a legend giving his followers some much needed advice. I am sure Haggard would say this album is just a bunch of songs, but we know better than that, don’t we? A sly turn of phrase, vocals done just so, a line sung and written so perfect it seems almost tossed off because we know Haggard can make country music perfection anytime he wants – this is what a legend brings to the table. That he makes it look so easy when anyone who’s ever tried to write a good song knows it’s harder than hell, is just a testament to the man’s talent, still, after all these years.
Rarely does a legend return with a record this vital. As anyone who listens to music knows, when a legendary artist returns with a new album usually we are treated to some tepid release by someone who has not only lost most of their creative juice but also most of their interest in performing and is only coasting on past triumphs, just trying to collect some extra coin by putting out something decidely subpar. Not in this case. Not at all. While Haggard is defintely older, with someone of his caliber and the style of music for which he is known, older is almost better. The songs have an immediacy and a nuance that only someone who has been everywhere and done everything and has those experiences to relate can bring to them. The old tradition of sitting down and listening to your elder’s stroies and advice comes into play here. Not only can listeners still hear great music from Haggard, but, on another level, he also brings the knowledge and a certain gravitas to his performances and songs most artists never acquire. Think Johnny Cash on his last four albums or the recent Solomon Burke comeback to get an idea of the quality of music Haggard is still capable of making. To me, this is a no-brainer: all music fans have to own this. It’s that simple.
Jakob Dylan – Women and Country
Every time I hear Jakob Dylan’s music I flash back to high school. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many of my friends were worried about what their parents thought about them – their reputation, their grades, their choice of girlfriend, their choice of college, their choice of career and on and on. One friend I knew was so worried about doing the right thing by his parents and making sure he was accepted into his father’s college so he could follow in his old man’s footsteps that he was continually stressed out to the point of popping pills to calm himself down. Now consider how Jakob Dylan must have felt before persuing his career in music growing up as the son of quite possibly the greatest lyricist and songwriter (not to mention musical icon) of all time, Bob Dylan. Talk about your high expectations. And not just from his dad, who was most likely just happy his son was doing what he loves to do, but from the rest of the world who has and will judge anything Jakob does by his father’s work. Most likely the junior Dylan just said ‘fuck it’ and started writing songs and joining bands like most aspiring musicians, but I wonder how I would’ve taken it and how my poor friend in high school would have reacted to having to match up to that kind of talent and reknown.
Of course, Jakob Dylan has had his own measure of success. With a handful of albums released (no small feat on its’ own) and none universally panned (most have been unanimously praised, in fact), Jakob Dylan and his band The Wallflowers scored a few hits in the mid-90’s before settling down into a more low-key yet consistent level of fame which does not usually engender monster sales numbers but elicits a steady amount of sales and much press notice. He is in an enviable position as an artist – able to sell just enough to get mainstream attention yet isn’t saddled with the burden of being a “pop star” and having to compete with his father in that arena.
On his newest release, Jakob Dylan returns to his solo career without his band The Wallflowers and to the sound he established on his first solo album, the mostly acoustic Seeing Things. Unlike his band’s breathrough release of 1996, Bringing Down The Horse, this album (as well as his first solo disc) trade the well-polished rock and roll for a grittier, rootsier, and simpler sound with Jakob Dylan’s songwriting suitably stripped to the bones though the arrangements are very inspired. Dylan succeeds handily at juxtaposing his songs’ simplicity with the nuanced and varied arrangements he uses, creating music that demands to be listened to over and over so that everything can be caught. While it must be daunting to have a father who’s considered one of the greatest songwriters ever, when listening to this record it is easy to hear Jakob is his father’s child. The talent is there, in spades.
While this album probably won’t have any hits, this is moreso due to the current state of radio and the music business than the quality of Dylan’s songs. Musically much more rootsy and heartfelt than the tepid dance drivel usually clogging up the airwaves, Dylan is one of the few artists (his dad would be one of the others) able to take the point of view and experiences of the common man and then distill them into a lyric both powerful and emotionally accessible and then marry the lyric to compelling music which shakes you with its’ spirit. While Jakob Dylan’s career will no doubt always be weighed against his fathers’, anyone with any true musical discernment will be able to hear the greatness Jakob regularly reaches. For sure, this album counts as Jakob Dylan’s best yet.
Drive-By Truckers – The Big To-Do
Beginning with 1998’s Gangstabilly, Patterson Hood and the rest of Drive-By Truckers has shown themselves to be country rock’s pre-eminent force, running with the roots rock gauntlet long after bands like Wilco, Son Volt, and Old ’97’s have made concessions in their sounds for mass acceptance. From their genesis onward, Hood and and his gang have combined their love of all things Southern, warts and all, with an irrepressible rock and roll spirit anchored by the band’s vaunted three guitar onslaught. Though the band’s first three albums made waves due to the band’s emergence as the , it was the band’s two CD opus A Southern Rock Opera that put the band on the map. Not that the album sold well, thanks to the band’s decision to release it themselves before being signed by roots label Lost Highway, which reissued the album a few years later to a big fanfare but very modest sales. Weak sales could not curb the impact of this release, however. Not a rock opera like those who have heard The Who’s Tommy or Jesus Christ Superstar might expect, the album is more of an extended song cycle about a Southern Rock band who eventually works itself up to the big-time. Seem familiar? Since it was a topic Hood and his fellow bandmates knew a lot about (since they we’re living it), the band was able to give the intelligently written and creatively executed songs added depth and resonance. With the album came a cache of respect which put the band on the map. Sure, they had excellent work before, but no one can listen to that record and not realize the band took it to another level. It was this cache that allowed the band to recover fast from their eventual release from Lost Highway and snag a deal at New West that saw the band release a handful of discs solidifying their reputation as one of the best bands to emerge from the South in thirty years. The band has now switched to ATO in hopes of broadening their audience. God knows they deserve it though it remains to be seen if the band can adapt their Southern Rock tendencies to something the rest of the masses can grasp.
For this new album on ATO, Hood and his cronies use the old-fashioned boyhood dream of running away to join the circus as fodder for the album’s songs. As premises go, it’s not bad at all and the possibilities are many. As usual, Hood and his compatriots deliver the goods. With song contributions from bandmembers Shonna Tucker and co-founder Mike Cooley, Hood manages to deliver the band’s best album since Southern Rock Opera and, hell, I am wondering if this is just the band’s best record, period. While some will no doubt bemoan the departure of Jason Isbell, his presence is not missed on this album and that’s not to dismiss the impact he had on the band, just to state that Hood and company have more than made up for his departure and any weak links have been plugged and then some as Hood has turned in some of the best songs of his career while Tucker and Cooley contribute nicely to the song cycle. Cooley, especially, impresses here with his songs “Birthday Boy”, “Get Downtown” and the album closer “Eyes Like Glue”. While Hood is definitely the driving force of this band, he undoubtedly has the best musical seconds of any band in recfent memory. My question is how does Hood and the band continue to do it? I once heard something about contracts with the Devil, but Hood’s still got his soul and plenty of it, since its’ drenched all over this record so it can’t be that. Either way, it’s the best record they’ve made since Southern Rock Opera so there you go.
When all is said and sang, the Drive-By Truckers may end up as the best Southern Rock bands of all time, displacing Lynyrd Skynyrd and even one of my own persoanl faves, The Allman Brothers. While Skynyrd and the Allmans captured the spirit of the time and had many memorable songs (and even a few hits) the Drive-By Truckers have better songwriters and a more fully-formed sense of what the band is about and what can be accomplished. Granted, some of this self-awareness comes from the impact and music of the Allmans and the other pioneering Southern Rock acts, who were there first and did one hell of a job when firing on all cylinders but I feel the Drive-By Truckers speak for today’s South as much as the Allmans and their peers spoke for their South, only the Drive-By Truckers do it a little more impactfully and intelligently while rocking just as hard, if not even harder than the legendary Allmans et al. Let’s put it this way: as great as “Jessica”, “Whipping Post”, and “Gimme Three Steps” are, on any given day Hood and his group can write something more insightful and powerful than any of those classics. The only thing holding their songs back from being classics is not enough people are hearing them. Which is a shame. Don’t miss out – pick up this album and play it as loud as you can!!