Gleeful Willie love!

On every blog like this one, my fellow twang geeks are all a-chatter about Naked Willie. I’ve been beating myself up all week, worrying about reviewing it, about what clever things I might say that would make you go buy the album. I mean who am I to judge these songs and review their quality? It’s Willie Nelson for Pete’s sake!

And then I realized… Continue reading

Best of the best "best-ofs"

I sat down to write a sort of “compilations and ‘best-ofs’ that you must own.” But then I realized, really what do I know about what you should own? Nada. So, instead, here is a rambling excursion through compilations I own that feel necessary to my continued existence and Mimi’s as well, since I conscripted her to help me write this. Maybe they are to your continued existence, too, you just don’t know it yet.

GOLD Greatest Hits – Dolly Parton
It feels a little risky, starting right out with Miss Dolly. But really, who doesn’t love Dolly? She’s an insanely talented song-writer. Her singing may not be for everyone but is undeniably beautiful. She’s like a mad genius with the marketing and all. I mean what do you know about her personal life? Nothing! And yet she gives every appearance of being honest, open, friendly and forth-coming all the time. She has amusement parks! Seriously, that’s like my dream someday. Cricketworld! You’d have to be 21 to get in, and have a valid Valium prescription, but hey! We won’t kick you out for being drunk. [You get a theme park, I’m setting my ambitions slightly higher with a banana republic of my very own stocked with guys in grass skirts and no winter.–Mimi]

Oh, got side-tracked, uh, what? Oh, Dolly, she’s written approximately 45,876,351 songs, so it’s not like you’re going to go buy all of her albums anyway. Sadly, I looked to make a link here and it appears GOLD is no longer available, so you’ll have to settle yourself with Ultimate Dolly Parton which looks almost as good. The next best, perhaps.

Dressed in Black and Kindred Spirits – Johnny Cash Tributes, Various Artists
I know you’re not over there thinking, “This isn’t helpful, Cric. I’m going to get one, which should I get?” Because no right-thinking Johnny Cash fan would think anything other than needing to be a completionist. How could you choose between a comp with Steve Earle covering Johnny and one with Dale Watson? Between Keb’ Mo and Hank III? You see now how both are necessary. [KEB’ MO! What more do you need to hear, people?–Mimi]

Lonesome On’ry and Mean: A Waylon Jennings Tribute – Various
The biggest gems here are Dave Alvin singing “Amanda,” Junior Brown’s take on “Nashville Rebel,” Robert Earl Keen doing “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” Which is a) the greatest song ever and b) equally as good when done by REK. (If you’re ever in Nashville and you hear someone’s phone ring with “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” yeah, that’s me!) [This cover is so good I often listen to it on repeat for like 20 minutes straight! And she beat me to that ringtone because she’s a hussy—and will pay dearly when I figure out a way to defeat her that won’t get blood on my shoes.–Mimi] And if you can’t be convinced that you need this album, then can I at least convince you that Henry Rollins doing “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean” is so good that I nearly peed myself the first time I heard it? If nothing else, get you to iTunes to get that perfect track. [Or that new Rhapsody thing even.–Mimi]

Texas Road Trip – Various
When I talk about country music this is what I mean. Well, this and most the rest of the stuff we talk about here at HCT, but man this Texas stuff? Mimi might be on to something with her unholy love of it. This disc wins! Ed Burleson! Gary P. Nunn! Cory Morrow! Robert Earl Keen! Lyrics from this not to be missed from this album:
– The hummin’ of the road keeps hummin’ through my mind
– I’m standing on a bridge I’d like to burn/At the helm of ship I’d like to sink
– Two steppin’ and skinny dippin’
– I guess you were right/The blue bonnets were worth the drive
– You’re all tanked up but no one’s at the wheel
– I believe we’re on the road to wreck and ruin/But the good news is we’re making damn good time
– You know if I had the chance I’d do a chicken dance/After I watched it burn to the ground

This album is filled with driving metaphors for break-ups, truck driving songs and the occasional Bob Wills style “Aha!” just for good measure. [Ah HA!–Mimi] If country music is sometimes too depressing for you, I guarantee you can put this on and it’ll fix you right up, ’til your dancing like a fool in the living room. And if you think you’ll like this you might check out Brewed in Texas [Hey, that’s one I just reviewed below! We are so awesome when we do that.–Mimi] and I have this other insanely awesome one called Best of Texas but as far as the internet is concerned it doesn’t seem to exist, so I can’t link y’all.

I wish I was on a summer road trip through Texas right now. It’s really cold in Tennessee. Somehow this led to a conversation in which Mimi and I decided that house hippos probably migrate south for the winter (she says to old people’s condos in Boca Raton). You should know that if we drop HCT posting for any period of time, it may be because we are seeking out their migration route. When we find it, we will be snuggling armloads of house hippos and laughing when they bite us. If you run into us at a show and we are covered in little teeth marks and round bruises, you’ll know that we’ve achieved our goal. Do you think house hippos migrate to Texas? That might give us even more of a reason to go there. [YES! To Corpus!–Mimi]

For a Decade of Sin – Various
I’m betting a lot of you already have this Bloodshot Records comp. And good on you! It’s worth it, especially for Split Lip Rayfield, Wayne Hancock and Hank III together, Bobby Bare Jr. covering Jane’s Addiction, The Bottle Rockets (just for rocking like they do) and a dozen-plus other great songs. I like most everything here, but one of the best things about this album is that you can use it to convert your indie rock friends to real country music. The emo boys in their pegged jeans and flow-be haircuts will surely love this, and then you can start slippin’ Dale Watson and other country crack to them once you’ve got them hooked. [Huh, this plan sounds familiar, where have I heard it before?–Mimi]

*

We switched off in the middle and now it’s Mimi. Smooth transition, I know.

Legendary Country Singer! -Willie Nelson
Legendary Country Singer! is just one of approximately a metric ass-ton of compilation albums that Willie’s put out over the years. It’s one of many that we have, and I picked it sort of at random to discuss how you need some Willie Nelson in your life. This is a good one to go for because it covers most of Willie’s biggest hits as a solo performer, the songs that made him…a legendary country singer. Yeah, that was right there so I used it, cope. [If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were too drunk to come up with something better.—Cric] Starting from Willie’s early days with “Man With the Blues” and running through other highlights like “Crazy” (you know he wrote that, right?) and “The Party’s Over” (source of the famous Monday Night Football catchphrase sung by Don Meredith “Turn out the lights the paaaaaaaaarty’s over…”), this record is a lot like a trip through country music history. The middle part is a salute to my childhood, “On the Road Again,” “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain” (one of my mom’s all-time favorite songs, and the real version is always overlaid with her horrible, off-key wailing in my head), and “Always On My Mind.”

An aside for me rambling: It’s possible that you’ve forgotten just how damned good Willie is at his best. He’s a little trite now, something between a national institution and a punch line (Drugs! Taxes! Silly hair!), but don’t fall victim to the mentality where just because everyone says it’s good, you gotta hate it. Listen to “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” with headphones on and pay attention to every aspect of it: the confessional lyrics, the weary, knowing vocal phrasing, the overall song construction. This is one of my all time favorite country songs. “My heroes have always been cowboys. And they still are, it seems. Sadly, in search of, but one step in back of, themselves and their slow-movin’ dreams.” This is the iconic cowboy used as at once a metaphor for all people who are outside the system and at the same time presented literally for what they actually are, which is solitary figures who live isolated lives of physical misery for very little recompense who are proud and individual. Cowboys are used as metaphor and icon a lot in the American story, and this is the theme song for that. [And we don’t just love Willie because he loves cowboys like we do. His music feels like personal history, like that place in America that you’ve forgotten and a lot like home.—Cric]

Next time you’re watching USA Network at three in the morning, whip out your credit card and order this one.

Brewed In Texas: The Original Texas Happy Hour – Various
Brewed In Texas: The Original Texas Happy Hour is another label compilation, this time Compadre Records. It starts off pretty damned solid with Cory Morrow wailing out “Staaaaaaayin’ out late in a honky tonk bar!” and with John Rich slotted in the second track position, I knew this one was going to get on the heavy rotation list pretty fast (“I came down here to drink a beer and watch the rednecks fight…” ah, yeah, this sounds like one of my evenings down home—the track’s called “One Bud Wiser,” and it’s full of that country-music specific word-play that most fans of the genre love—me included).

This record could have been compiled by us–themed around drinking, containing tracks by Jerry Jeff Walker, Wayne Hancock, Todd Snider, and covers of such old stand-bys (of ours) “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound” and “Whiskey River”! [Of course this album does require you to sit down with some Maker’s and a PBR when you listen to it. But it’s a rockin’ time, so hopefully you won’t be crying in your beer when it’s over.—Cric]

Are you listening here? This is a DRINKING album, go buy it, pronto!

If you still aren’t convinced, there’s a song called “The Everclear Song” about drinking Everclear in high school by Roger Creager that reminds me that some experiences are generationally universal. And another called “Ol’ Milwaukee’s Best” about the beer that was ubiquitous in my youth—the redneck isn’t put on around here, folks. [Nor does it come off very easily, even when we try.—Cricket]

And now for something completely different!

Classic Mountain Songs From Smithsonian Folkways – Various
Ok, first off, let’s just state for the record that I hate most of the “bluegrass revival” crap going on right now because it’s soul-less and inauthentic. I find kids from the suburbs who drive SUVs singing about coal-mining to be a cognitive dissonance not to be borne without six shots of Makers and a shotgun.

This album is something completely different from that coffee house, cooler-than-thou b.s. In case you’re unfamiliar with Smithsonian Folkways: Man, if you don’t know about them, then you’ve got so much to look forward to! That’s awesome, get over there and start buying!

I grew up with people calling this music “hillbilly music” and not meaning that in a disparaging way. It was simple description by people who were themselves mountain people. This is traditional music that clearly shows the bones under the skin: British Isles-influenced melodies and fiddle-work, religious lyrics, songs about misery and pain and death. There are some recognizable tracks here to ease you into this and make you feel nostalgic for a life that most of us know nothing about, such as: “John Henry,” “Sixteen Tons,” and “Amazing Grace.” If you’re looking to get into traditional music and have no clue about it at all, this would be a perfect starter, because it’s sort of a primer for Mountain music (Dock Boggs! Doc and Merle Watson! Coal-mining laments! Barbry Ellen!). The high points for me are “I Am a Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow” (because I am sort of stupid for church harmonizing) and “Conversation With Death” (because it’s everything wondrous and perfect about traditional music—pure and unadorned and beautiful and painful in equal measure). [Despite the repeated themes of death, sadness and misery, I find this music really uplifting. There’s a deep soulfulness to it that expresses how people find joy in things like, oh say, singing, even though their lives aren’t joyous in the day to day.—Cricket]

If this particular genre is not your thing (which means you clearly have something wrong with you), just hop over to the Folkways site and I promise there will be something for you. [Something good, like train songs. More on that here later.—Cricket]

We can agree on foreign policy, religion and money, but not on this

Willie Nelson–Songbird and Teatro

Cric sent me Songbird with the one sentence remark: “You are morally obligated to review this album.” Due to the truth of this remark, I will. I really do not want to say the things I have to say about it, but, Christ on a cracker, okay, I’m doing it.

My one sentence summation of Songbird is this: It hurt my soul.

On the surface, this record was expressly made for me, and, as is the nature of such god-sends, the pudding is singularly lacking. The album is a collaboration between one Mr. Ryan Adams, and the demi-god of country music, Willie. Since Willie has had a very good run of collaborative records (see: Teatro), one would have expected Songbird to be another seminal album from a legend.

Instead, my soul is a little deader due to Ryan Adams’ chimpanzee-on-crack production. The entire album is discordant, the vocals and instrumentation on the tracks are out of any sort of sane sync. [Shockingly I love this album. I think it’s Mimi who’s on crack. I’m digging the song choices and the orchestration and the production. Who knew Ryan Adams could make something I’d finally like and Meems hates it? Huh.–Cricket]

Given this disappointment, I will review Teatro instead.

If you don’t already own this album, let me convince you of the error of your ways. This is the career “re-envisioning” project for Willie produced by Daniel Lanois. Daniel, as I’m sure you (being a right-thinking person) are aware, is one of the most influential producers of the last couple decades. He was a budding Quebecois producer in Ontario in the ’80s when he was taken into tutelage by Brian Eno (of U2 fame; and speaking of which, Lanois co-produced The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, and Achtung Baby, if you’re into that little-known band) and from there went on to spread his singular aesthetic hither and yon. [He’s done a bunch of really good soundtrack work too.–Cricket]

Lanois has a signature sound that really transforms anything he’s given a free hand on. In the case of Teatro, that comes through not just the production (which is clean, crisp and naked) but in his vibrant guitar work. If you watch the documentary of these recording sessions, made by Wim Wenders, you will see how organic his approach to music making is.

Sadly, a lot of Willie’s music was made in the ’70s and ’80s…need I elaborate? This is mainly a collection of old Willie standards re-cut with Lanois’ gorgeous production, and Emmylou’s backing vocals completely revitalizing them. One of exceptions is Lanois’ own “The Maker”–a song vaguely about Lanois’ native heritage that Willie totally owns in every way. One can say the words “haunting” and “evocative” but by their very nature these words are just vague place-holders for something that is deeply visceral. I can describe the song making me think of a wide lake at twilight, water rippling softly, something ineffable and unfathomable radiating tension over an otherwise placid scene, but the song does what I cannot–makes you feel it.

[This song feels like watching something utterly visually spectacular, like the long shots of the mountains in Brokeback Mountain. It gives you that little shiver in your soul like something has just irrevocably changed inside you but you’d be hard pressed to say exactly what.–Cricket]

Words often point the way, but music brings the mountain to you, Mohammad. For me, it’s also amusing to hear Willie–the quintessential Texan (if they minted their own money, he would be on a five dollar bill)–singing a song so fundamentally Canadian. When you listen to this track (and if I have to hold you down, you will do so), the elaborate, elongated intro is one of Lanois’ calling cards.

“I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye” might be the distillation of the entire album. Willie’s vocals on this track are at once the familiar off-kilter Texan burr and also much more honest than he’s been in many a year (echoing, in a way, Dylan–who Lanois also brought back into relevancy–not just in the vocals but also the theme: death). The slightly ominous Latin guitar work overlaid with Willie’s picking and soft percussion fold together with Emmylou’s backing vocals make a perfect Jacob’s ladder of a song. (Lanois, by the way, also made Emmylou’s career-altering Wrecking Ball.)

This album is an absolute masterpiece. See how those words really mean so little in the face of the power that music has? Want to go on a mini-mental vacation from a canteen in Old Mexico to the Big Bend ending in the primordial forest of Northern Ontario? Buy this album and let’s pretend Songbird was just an alcohol-fuelled nightmare.

[I’m gonna go out on a limb and say, make sure you have both, then you can compare for yourself. In fact, for your edification, here’s my mini review of Songbird: “Rainy Day Blues” is utter perfection, the bluesy-ness works perfectly with Willie’s vocal style. “Songbird” is rich and smooth, this song seems to demand a sunny window seat to sit in while listening. “Blue Hotel”–Willie owns this, but it’s the guitar and Hammond organ that really fit it together for me. “Back To Earth” sounds like classic Willie to me. “Hallelujah” completely blew me away. It’s a wholly different take on this song, with a swoony Hawaiian guitar and Willie… oh, Willie sings it so perfectly. “$1000 Wedding”–I might actually like this version better than the original. For real. “Amazing Grace”–while I’m not a huge fan of this song, I mean really, how many times can you hear a song, but Willie does it justice I find it listenable, which is saying a lotfor me and this song. So there you go. I dig the Cardinals backing Willie and I think wacko-Ryan did a fine, fine job of making something incredibly enjoyable.–Cricket]

Everyone I know, rivers to be dragged and tragedies, new ones

It’s settin’ to be hell week or a damn good time here in Nashville. The Americana Music Association is having their big conference in town and everyone is here. No, really EVERYONE: Dale Watson, Scott Miller & The Commonwealth, Corb Lund, Will Kimbrough, Jeffrey Foucault, The Hacienda Brothers, Lisa Hayes, Wrinkle Neck Mules, Dave Alvin, Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, Alejandro Escovedo, the Cherryholmes, the Derailers, Delbert McClinton, and about 700 other folks. The shows are happening all over and all at once, but we’ll be hitting as many of them as we can. If you’re in town or can get to Nashvegas, this is the time come. Full show schedule is here.

So last night I’m out on the town gearing up for this whole week of good shows and the whole place is a buzz with gossip. Rumor mongering everywhere about some “high class” male prostitute named Big Red, and how he was sent to a nice to hotel room, paid cash and then told to wait for the actual client (as apparently an intermediary was needed to broker this deal). Thunder rolled and in walked the real client demanding some rough, all night, mano a mano action that perhaps went down until the sun came up. You know what I’m sayin’?

Yeah, right so I suck at the blind item thing. The fact is sleezy tabloid reporters are going around saying how this story is going to break big! Make everyone forget all about Willie Nelson’s recent troubles. Apparently Big Red signed no non-disclosure agreement and he’s ready to talk. I’ll believe it when I see it, but if it does happen, just remember you read it here first, even if you couldn’t figure out what I’m talking about. Just don’t be namin’ names if you do.

I’m clearly all giddy from drinking too many PBRs last night and hearing too much insane celebrity gossip. I’ll spare you most of it so I can go on about my new favorite soon-to-be celebrities, The New Tragedies. They are on tour with our pal Cory Branan. You can see them both! Two birds with one stone! Check the dates:

9/22 – Fayetteville, AR – The Gypsy
9/23 – Memphis, TN – The Hi-Tone
9/24 – Louisville, KY – Rudyard Kipling
9/25 – Morgantown, WV – 123 Pleasant Street
9/26 – Baltimore, MD – Side Bar Tavern
9/27 – Richmond, VA – Gallery 5
9/28 – Charlotte, NC – Evening Muse
9/29 – Opelika, AL – Eighth And Rail
10/1 – Conway, AR – Sound Stage
10/3 – Kansas City, MO – Davey’s Uptown

And since I know some of you can’t make any of these locations, you’ll have to satisfy yourself with their charming little video. And as before, you can get all their incredibly awesome songs at their site.

In even more cool tour news, Drag the River and Lucero are going out together!!

11/13 – Philadelphia – North Star Bar
11/14 – Baltimore – Otto Bar
11/15 – Richmond VA – Alley Katz
11/16 – Carrborro NC – Cat’s Cradle
11/17 – Charleston NC – Cumberland’s
11/18 – Atlanta GA– Variety Playhouse
11/30 – Conway AR – Soundstage
12/2 – Baton Rouge LA– Chelsea’s Cafe
12/8 – Orlando FL– The Social
12/9 – Orlando FL – The Social

Also check the rest of the dates for Drag the River and Lucero. And hey, if you haven’t pre-ordered and gotten the digital download, the new Lucero album hits the stores next week.

So here it comes, my babies, starting this week a full fall season of alt.country goodness. Are you ready? Am I? It’s comin’ whether I am or not, so I better polish up my cowboy boots and y’all better brace yourselves for a bunch tales of country music goodness.