Album Review Roundup – 2015 (So Good, So Far)

Prologue

In case you’re thinking, hey this isn’t new info, what’s up…I discovered a technical issue with the posting I did last week titled Album Review Roundup – 2015 that prevented the site from opening properly on certain popular devices which are used by many of my readers. Long story short, the fix seems to be to break the post into two parts. For those of you who were unable to open last week’s post, this is the second part, and you should find the first part immediately preceding it. For those of you who were able to open it before, please hang tight. There will be a completely new post next week. I’m sorry for any inconvenience. I’m still an old dog learning new tricks.

Part Two

Part One of my Album Review Roundup for the first half of 2015 focused on soul, roots, R&B, jazz and pop. Now let’s take a look at the best country albums as seen through the prism of Classic Cowjazz R&B. They range from a veteran with a classic country bent, to two stars who rose in the seventies, to a couple of Texas cowboys to the king of western swing. “Hit it boys, aahhh”

Alan Jackson – Angels And Alcohol
The picture of Alan Jackson on the cover of his album Angels and Alcohol depicts a very comfortable man with a slight smile knowing he’s one of the two or three best singers and songwriters in country music. In his early years, I thought he was a very good singer of very good songs. He grew into a great singer who could make even ordinary songs sounds very good indeed. Now with George Strait semi-retired, Randy Travis a mess, Clint Black disappearing and Dwight Yoakam splitting his time between singing and acting, Jackson is the last of the neo-traditionalist generation, who came to prominence from 1983-1990, still standing. Regardless of a song’s tempo, he never hurries a line, he never strains to convey emotion, and he can bend a single note into three – but only when the the song needs him to do so. He also knows he’s an entertainer. In the great honky tonk tradition, he puts out a set of music on this album that you can dance to, laugh to, perhaps cry to and make love to. As an old song says, with this one “he had me at hello.” To show you what I mean, here’s the opening track:

The engineering is superb, so you can fully enjoy the multiple guitar players producer Keith Stegall employs on most tracks. Happy surprise, this real country music album shot to the top of Billboard’s country music album charts and number three on the Billboard 200 soon after its release. Maybe there is hope for classic commercial country music after all.

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – The Traveling Kind

The last couple of years have been good for Rodney Crowell. His 2014 release Tarpaper Sky is in my opinion his most enjoyable album in years. Now in 2015, he has this superb collaboration with Emmylou Harris, The Traveling Kind. Rodney, of course, was a member of Emmylou’s Hot Band in the 1970s and has contributed many tunes to her oeuvre, but some forty years passed before they truly collaborated again on 2013’s Old Yellow Moon. That’s a good album too, but for whatever reason, I like The Traveling Kind better. Maybe it’s the greater preponderance of original tunes – they co-wrote six of the eleven, although the covers are quite good. My one quibble is that the title song doesn’t work for me all that well as an album opener. It’s a good song, but I would have moved it farther down the program. Having said that, it’s a strong collection ranging from the incredibly poignant “You Can’t Say We Didn’t Try” to the honky tonkin’ kicker “If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now.” When I listen to a big talent encounter like this, I want more than good songs. I also want to feel like the the stars are having fun singing together, like they’d be just as happy doing it in my living room as in the studio. I get that feeling here.

Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – Hold My Beer, Vol 1

Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen are two Texas boys, both veterans of the Texas honky tonk circuit which occasionally expands to Oklahoma, New Mexico and sometimes beyond: solid singers and performers who’ve not had the monster hit to propel them to the top of the charts. Along their career path, they became friends who shared a stage with some regularity. They wrote a song about their adventures together, and that led to Hold My Beer, Vol 1.  For starters, how can you not buy an album with a title like that? And then, if you’ve ever had that great friend with whom you’ve shared the highs and lows, how can you resist a song with the refrain, “I guess what they say is true, all you need is one good friend; ’In the Next Life,” I want to be ourselves again?” From that starting point, the album glides into overdrive with the boys’ version of Joe Ely’s “I Had My Hopes Up High.” Let the fun begin.

The chemistry between Randy and Wade is palpable, and all you need is a bit of a breeze, warm sunshine on your face and a cooler full of cold ones to feel like you’re part of the act. There are some solid originals and a couple of tips of the hat to the golden age of country music. Of course the great thing about Texas honky tonks is that the golden age is still alive and well there. Through every swinging door you’ll find acoustic guitars and fiddles, lap steel guitars a cryin’ and cowgirls a twirlin,’ sawdust on the floor and steaks on the grill. ‘Scuse me while I pop a top again.

Asleep At The Wheel – Still The King

When I first heard about Still The King, I thought “oh lordy, the Wheel’s going to the Bob Wills well again.” After all, they released Tribute To The Music Of Bob Wills in 1993 and then Ride With Bob in 1999. Both albums were chock full of Bob Wills’ hits and featured big star guest artists. What’s left to say, or more relevant, to sing on this subject? Well, I should have known better than doubt Ray Benson, founder and long time leader of Asleep At The Wheel. He’s come up with another gem that’s just pure fun whether you’re listening or two steppin’. While he’s repeated a few songs, he’s found plenty that he’s not previously recorded. And while some guests return, like George Strait, Lyle Lovett, Willie and Merle, Ray has found a new generation who dig this music. The guest list includes the Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, Jamey Johnson, Pokey Lafarge, Brad Paisley, Robert Earl Keen, Elizabeth Cook and Carrie Rodriguez. Mix new blood with old, and season with the Wheel’s passion for Bob Wills’ music. The recipe delivers a tasty treat once again.

And sometimes it’s just dessert – the lyrics are only a vehicle around which a whole bunch of musicians strut their stuff.

My opinion of Ray Benson and Asleep At The Wheel is colored by their marvelous performances at two of the Lea Brothers Band’s Western Classic and Barbecues to Benefit the Foundation Fighting Blindness. Plus I’ve had the pleasure of visiting with Ray on his bus and sharing a few stories. He’s a genial giant, talented and warm. Surprisingly given the music he plays, he’s not a Texan at all. Rather he’s from Pennsylvania. I asked him once why he chose western swing as his musical province. He told me that from his earliest days, he loved watching folks dance to his music. He went on to say that when his wanderings brought him to dance halls in Texas, he knew he had found where he belonged. Despite all that, I did wonder if we needed yet another Bob Wills tribute. After listening to this album many times already, I will say that in Ray Benson’s hands, Bob Wills is Still The King.

And don’t forget…
I wrote a detailed review in an earlier blog about Chris Stapleton’s Traveller, and I briefly mentioned Willie Nelson’s and Merle Haggard’s Django and Jimmie. Both albums are near the top of my list of “best of 2015.” Three others that I’m still evaluating but sound promising are James McMurtry’s Complicated Game, Jimmy Lafave’s The Night Tribe, and James Taylor’s Before This World, which I already agree is his best in years. Just because I’m not ready to recommend them, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check them out. If you do, let me know what you think. And let me know if you think I’ve missed a good one.
I love Willie’s and Merle’s album. Since I didn’t write about it in detail in the earlier blog, I’ll leave you with a clip of the two legends together again.

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