Holding true to the series we started last week, this time we will look at relatively new releases from two still vital old masters and also from two newcomers whose work measures up very well indeed.
Of course, our two old masters have to be Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. For one thing, they’re currently out with their much ballyhooed duet album Django and Jimmie. For the other, many of their contemporaries like George Jones, Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, and Ray Price have all gone on to the heavenly Opry in the last few years. Between having a book on the best sellers list and the new album, Willie is popping up on every talk show on TV. There’s even a ten minute YouTube video on the making of the album.
The album’s title alludes to Willie’s and Merle’s own earliest heroes Django Reinhardt, the gypsy jazz guitarist of the Hot Club of Paris, and Jimmie Rogers, the singing brakeman and first country superstar. All I will say here about their new album is, get it; it’s great. To stay true to my purpose with the blog, I’m going to talk instead about a couple of albums by these masters you might have missed.
Willie Nelson – It Always Will Be
Willie has to be one of the most prolific recording artists of all time because he’s been known to put out three or four albums in a year, especially when you consider his duets. Thus a new one often fails to make much of a splash in the media. Certainly over the last twenty years, country radio has rarely played anything new that he releases. I know It Always Will Be almost slipped by me. Thank goodness it didn’t because I think it’s one of the best he’s ever done, which makes it by definition one of the great country records.
Willie penned the title song that eases you into the CD. It’s an affirming beautiful romantic ballad that speaks to the timelessness of the singer’s love for his woman. On the other hand, “The Way You See Me” though equally beautiful is achingly sad. He knows losing his lover has left him a shell of a man. He sings, “winds blowing warm for the one I love, winds please kiss her for me, but don’t tell my darlin’ that you saw me, looking the way you see me.” The song tears my heart out every time I hear it, yet it’s so beautiful I want to hear it again.
“Be That As It May” written by Willie’s daughter Paula, who joins him on the tune, is a slightly bluesy country number which moves the tempo up just a tad. In fact the first four tunes are slow dances and waltzes of uncommon beauty. But you know Willie’s not going to be too low key, so don’t be surprised when he knocks you out of your chair with “Big Booty” and “I Didn’t Come Here, And I Ain’t Leaving.” Hard to argue with the logic of the latter. Both are classic hell raisers. Then aided by duets with Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams, he eases back off the peddle before closing with a kind of mariachi blues called “Texas” featuring great guitar work by Willie. Actually, the whole CD is characterized by some of Willie’s best guitar playing and the incomparable harmonica of Mickey Raphael.
I say “Texas” is the last song because you’re going to want to ignore the actual closer, Greg Allman’s “Midnight Rider.” It’s an awful rendition that’s so inconsistent in tone and quality with the rest of the CD that it’s inclusion is unexplainable. Fortunately it’s not in the middle of the CD, and you can also simply delete it from your playlists.
Willie’s voice and guitar are superb throughout, the songs are top notch, and his duet partners blend seamlessly with him, which is not always the case on other records given Willie’s idiosyncratic phrasing. If you missed it, don’t tarry now. I can’t speak for all your music sources, but it’s right there on iTunes. I checked for you, so you can get it without delay.
Merle Haggard – If I Could Only Fly
When you pull up Merle Haggard on iTunes or Amazon, you might think he died twenty years ago. Other than his current hit duet with Willie, you have to scroll through a dozen albums before you get to a new collection that’s less than twenty-five years old.
From what I remember and from recent sources I’ve checked, the Hag spent much of the 1990s in disputes with labels and lawyers that stymied his creative output. In the last fifteen years or so, however, he has quietly put out a series of remarkably good albums, arguably as good as anything he’s ever done. Too bad it seems that radio loves to play adolescent country pop records about partying down listening to Haggard and Jones, yet never play actual records by them. But enough complaining, let’s talk about what Merle has been doing all this time.
I could have picked any one of the several albums Merle has released in this latest wave, but I’m going with the one that kicked off this productive period released in 2000 on an indie label, If I Could Only Fly. Quite simply, it’s Merle at his best doing what he does better than most. He wrote or co-wrote ten of the twelve tracks. His guitar playing is sharp, and although his voice may not be as supple as it was thirty years ago, it’s still full, still glides to and around any note and is still able to convey just the right emotion to fit the song. That’s always been one of Merle’s secrets because he writes and sings in such a wide array of moods and rhythms. On this one you’ll find honky tonk blues, western swing, a tinge of calypso, and pensive ballads. No surprise – Merle and his band sound right at home on all of them.
Merle was 63 when this album was released, and his perspective in his writing reflects the time in his life, as it always has. His lyrics on songs like “Wishing All These Old Things Were New” are so candid they’d be shocking if they came from a lesser talent. On others they reflect a family man longing to be home from the road – “Leavin’s Getting Harder” of “If I Could Only Fly,” or a father’s confessions both of his love and his shortcomings -“I’m Still Your Daddy.” He’s also still able to show his wit in the double entendre laden “Bareback.”
Merle is truly an Old Master. This album, and several that followed, prove he did in fact return.
Jason Eady – Daylight & Dark
We’ll start our look at a pair of newcomers with Jason Eady. Eady was born and first started singing in Mississippi, but when he began working in Texas, he found his voice as a songwriter. At first his music might have been referred to as Americana albeit with a twinge of country. In 2012, he hooked up with Nashville based producer Kevin Welch, known for his indie streak. Their collaboration produced a marked shift toward traditional country music that resulted in two albums produced back to back AM Country Heaven, and in early 2014, Daylight & Dark. I have them both but give a slight edge to the latter in part because of its thematic consistency.
Eady’s voice has a classic timbre and emotional control reminiscent but not imitative of so many of traditional country’s finest singers like Vern Gosdin and Don Williams. Welch kept the instrumentation spare on Daylight and Dark allowing the guitar, pedal steel and fiddle, as well as Eady’s voice, room to be heard. The top shelf musicians include Americana Award winner Fats Kaplin on peddle steel and fiddle, and guitar player extraordinaire Richard Bennett, who has backed a range of singers from Emmylou Harris to Barbara Streisand. They add texture that beautifully complements but never crowds the vocal.
Most of the songs are newly written by Eady, giving lie to the fear that nobody knows how to write real country music anymore. As he says on his own website, “The moment I came up with the first verse and chorus of ‘Daylight and Dark’ was a breakthrough. I understood that what I wanted to convey in the album is that life is not simple. Most songs don’t do that. They’re either happy or sad. But life doesn’t work that way. Most of the time we live somewhere in between. And that place is between the daylight and the dark.”
Although the serious theme inspired by the title song is carried through several songs, the tempo of the tunes is quite varied. Eady and Welch found places in the lineup for a couple of barroom kickers as well as a classic country duet. The album has songs that reveal harsh truths and lines that cut, but it also has lines that tickle and melodies that glide like cowboy boots on a dance floor. It is, after all, real country music.
Heather Myles – Sweet Talk & Good Lies
Heather Myles sounds as if she was more likely influenced by Dwight Yoakam, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard than Patsy or Tammy. And she certainly bears no resemblance to Faith, Carrie or Taylor – thank god. Hers is straight ahead Bakersfield style country built for honky tonks and dance halls. Myles came by her sound naturally having grown up on a ranch in Southern California. If she had come along 10 or 15 years earlier during the neo-traditional era spawned by Strait, Travis and Yoakam, she would probably have been a major star.
Despite arriving during an era when country radio rarely plays country music, she managed to put out a series of very fine albums. I have a couple of them. I’ve chosen to recommend Sweet Talk & Good Lies as a place to start primarily because of her rendition of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” a fun duet with Dwight Yoakam on “Little Chapel,” and her nod to Detroit’s glory days, ” Big Cars.”
The rest of the set is strong as well, especially “One Man Woman Again.”
The tune “Little Chapel” is a great example of the misdirection inherent in the Bakersfield branch of country music. It’s not a typical weeper. Rather it refers to a couple running away to a “little chapel on the Las Vegas strip, where the preacher looks like Elvis, and we could even strike it rich.” You’ve got to love it.
I also really like her album Highways & Honky Tonks, and if you want to cherry pick a great cut not on either album, go for “Rum & Rodeo.”
Final note for the week
I hope and your friends and family had a great and music filled Fourth of July weekend. I’m a little late with this post due to excessive celebration. I’m on vacation for the rest of the week, so I will not be posting next Monday. I’ll be back with more recommendations and fun music info on July 20. ‘Till then, as Dwight Yoakam would say, “turn it on, turn it up…”