Thanksgiving is a great holiday because by its very name it pushes you to pause and think about who and what you have in your life for which you’re grateful. At the top of my list right after family and close friends is great music. Despite the turmoil on the business side of the music industry, there are still artists, old and new, that are making new music for us to enjoy. So for this week, here is my third installment of personal favorites released in 2015.
For new readers, I only write about albums I like, and I skew to those you may have missed. Rarely do I write about mainstream artists unless they put out something transcendent. Some of these are old favorites, some are new and some were recommended to me by readers. And I really appreciate those suggestions – keep ‘em coming. After all the point of this blog is to find Classic Cowjazz.
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Darlene Love – Introducing Darlene Love
Complete disclosure: I’ve been a huge Darlene Love fan since I saw her along with her Crystals in a Dick Clark Caravan of Stars rock ’n’ roll show at Raleigh’s Dorton Arena in 1964. In a lineup that included the Supremes, Major Lance, the Shirelles, Gene Pitney and a host of other stars, Darlene and the Crystals brought the house down with a hip shakin’ performance of “He’s A Rebel.” If any singer from those days was screwed, Darlene is at the top of the list, a saga that was most recently chronicled in in the Academy Award winning documentary “Twenty Feet From Stardom.” So yes, I’m inclined to greet any record she releases with “hurrah!”
Still when I heard about her new album, Introducing Darlene Love, I was prepared to be disappointed. I mean the woman’s in her 70’s now; how much voice can be left? Then I saw her perform Elvis Costello’s “Forbidden Night” on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert backed by Elvis, Steven Van Zandt and a big cast of musicians and back up singers. It was a big sound behind a big voice, and it was a joyous triumph. I’m happy to say the full album is is also a blast. Van Zandt as you no doubt know is a mainstay of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. He’s updated the “wall of sound” espoused by Phil Spector, Love’s Svengali back in the 1960’s. Spector always depended on having a voice big enough to stand up to his wall. Darlene was the best he had then, and she’s still up to the task after all these years.
While one might quibble that Van Sandt went overboard with the production a time or two, Love conquers all, whether it’s on “Just Another Lonely Night,” “Love Kept Us Fooling Around,” or on the change of pace “Still Too Soon To Know” on which she’s joined by another of Spector’s big voices Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers. One of the highlights for me is , well, first the back story: Back in the 1960’s, Spector had promised Darlene that he would release her killer version of “River Deep, Mountain HIgh.” Then behind her back, he recorded and released the song with Ike and Tina Turner instead. The record secured Tina’s place in the pantheon of female pop-rock singers. And on such whims, careers were made and dashed. Tina Turner is thrilling on the song, but no more so than Darlene. Over the years she made the song her own, performing it regularly in her live shows. She gives it the full treatment here – a highlight for sure. I only wish Van Sandt had felt the calling to produce this album for Love in, say 1980. Who knows what it might have done for her career.
Joe Ely – Panhandle Rambler
There was a time when Country Music was always referred to as Country & Western Music. Joe Ely’s recent release Panhandle Rambler is a great reminder why. You can think of it as the West Texas bookend to the East Texas Cass County from Don Henley. Ely vocally rambles from the west Texas plains down to the Mexican border along the Rio Grande with this rich cast of characters and tales. The gut string guitar and Tejano feel bring a sense of mystery to “Wounded Creek,” the haunting tale that opens the album. It’s followed by the beautiful Guy Clark plea to his beloved “Magdalene.” This time there’s accordion abetted mystery – will she follow him?
The border atmosphere continues through the gorgeous love pledge “When Nights Are Cold” and the charming “Early In The Morning” which conjures images of beautiful dark haired girls dancing around the evening fire. Then all of a sudden the tempo jacks up to Texas dance hall swirl. And so it goes, from folk flavor to honky tonk to desperate love. Ely is a story teller, and he’s also an entertainer who knows variety of subject matter and tempo are necessary ingredients. Yet he ties it all together through lyrics and melodies that give the music a strong sense of the wide open spaces of the western plains and the rich integration of cultures along the border. The more I listen to Panhandle Rambler the more I feel this may his best album ever; it’s certainly one of them. Either way, he’s in rare air with this release. I give it my highest recommendation.
Sarah Gayle Meech – Tennessee Love Song
Any album that begins with a song that begins with the lines:
“Sunday morning cup of coffee,
Country music on the AM
Feed the dog and do the dishes,
Steal a few good mornin’ kisses, and
Take it slow,
Weather calls for rain,
But I won’t complain,
Cause there ain’t nothin’ better
Than stormy weather,
And being with you on a Sunday.”
has a damn good chance of getting a preferred spot on my iPod. That really strong first cut, “Stormy Weather,” is followed by a whole batch of strong songs. Even more impressive, she wrote them all and co-produced the album. Aside from Chris Stapleton’s Traveler, this may be the best country record I’ve heard so far in the class of 2015. The songs are well crafted and with enough variety to belie the fact that the whole album is the work of one songwriter. The guitar, pedal steel, and fiddle players are on the money. And the woman can flat sing like a real woman. The overall sound would have to be described as classic country, but it doesn’t sound like a record from “back in the day.” For me, it’s where classic country should have evolved. Meech has had TV exposure on “Justified” and “Nashville,” and she gets played on Sirius XM’s “Outlaw Country.” She even won something called an Ameripolitan Award as Best Female Outlaw. Turns out the Ameripolitan Awards were the brainchild of Dale Watson, so if she can win one of those, she’s cool in my book.
I saw from the tour schedule on her website that she was at Robert’s Western Wear in Nashville Thanksgiving Day and Saturday. A couple of years ago all of the Lea brothers went to Nashville. Two of the boys arrived ahead of schedule and took in an early show at Robert’s. All weekend they raved about the unknown female singer. Maybe it was Sarah Gayle. Who knows? I know this: Tennessee Love Song may not be as potent as “Tennessee Whiskey,” but it’s still might fine, might fine.
The Cox Family – Gone Like The Cotton
Darlene Love wasn’t the only artist screwed by the record companies. The saga of The Cox Family is a similarly heartbreaking tale. They achieve modest success with their first major label album in 1996, and go back into the studio to record a follow up in 1998. Before it’s completed, they are dropped by their record label, probably because the suits can’t figure out where they fit. Are they bluegrass or country or gospel or blues or pop? Too bad because in 2000 they are one of the featured acts in the hit movie “Oh Brother Where Art Thou” starring George Clooney. It could have been a big bump for their career, if they had an album on the market. Even worse, family patriarch and lead male voice Willard Cox suffers an auto accident that year that paralyzes him from the waste down, and soon his wife takes on cancer ultimately passing in 2009.
But some stories have happy endings. The family subsequently finds the 1998 master recordings, and with Alison Krauss as producer begins work to finish the project. Some of Willard’s leads are saved in tact. Siblings Evelyn, Sidney and Suzanne finish the record. The results are superb. Seventeen years after the album was started, it’s not only completed, it sounds as fresh as if it were recorded last month.
In an earlier edition of this blog I wrote about the two branches of country music flowing one from the Carter Family and one from Jimmie Rodgers. While some of the songs like “Imitation of The Blues” and “Honky Tonk Blues” trace back to Rodgers, The Cox Family ethos clearly flows from the Carter Family. Some songs are all acoustic, others have electric guitars and pedal steel. Some are bluegrass, while some are blues. Some are mournful ballads; some are honky tonk. Some have male lead singers, some female. They all have superb musicianship and beautiful four-part harmony. You might not put this record on during a party, but I think you’ll reach for it while sipping a cool drink on the porch. If you liked Orthophonic Joy: The Bristol Sessions Revisited, or Carlene Carter’s Carter Girl, or for that matter most anything by Alison Krauss, you’ll really like Gone Like Cotton. In other words, if you like good folk, country and bluegrass songs, fine playing and beautiful harmony among male and female voices, you should give this record a spin.
Bruce Burton – On The Avenue
People east of the Rockies don’t typically think of Los Angeles as a hotbed of country music, but after all this is the locale that brought country into rock with the likes of Linda Ronstadt and the Byrds. Now up and coming singer/songwriter Bruce Burton arises from the LA country scene. He actually wrote most of his songs on the record while holed up for ten days in a hotel in New York City recovering from girl trouble. Then for the recording back in LA, he set aside his own multi-instrumentalist’s ego and brought on board some outstanding studio musicians, including a terrific guitar player named of all things Easy Pickens. He commented in a piece on CDBaby.com that he kept picturing being in the studio with Floyd Cramer, Jerry Reed and the Jordinairs sometime in the sixties. “I was listening to a lot of Buck Owens, Flatt and Scruggs and Merle Haggard at the time.”
Every time I get ready to list my favorite cuts, I hear another that I feel I just can’t leave out. But OK, if pushed I really like the opener “Won’t Ever Love Me Again,” “When You Fell Out Of Love With Me,” and “Turn Back The Time.” Still, I could just as easily pick three others. Plus I’m only talking about favorites from among the songs he wrote. That skips mentions of his covers of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” by the great Texan Townes Van Sandt and “Midnight Train To Georgia,” which is probably closer to the way former Ole Miss QB Jim Weatherly wrote it than the incomparable version by Gladys Knight & The Pips.
Burton has the elusive quality of authenticity in his writing and singing. His voice is in that male country sweet spot right between tenor and baritone, and he never sounds like he’s trying too hard. In fact, regardless of a song’s tempo, On The Avenue just has such a nice, relaxed, dare I say Southern California vibe about it. Nothing is rushed or strained. It all adds up to some awfully good listening whether you’re cruising down the highway, sippin’ a cool one on the porch, or looking for a tonic to perk up a cold, dreary late fall afternoon.
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
Change of pace alert!
I’m not sure where to begin talking about this self titled album, but here goes: A guy named Nathaniel Rateliff grows up in Missouri, teaches himself to play drums then guitar, and at 18 moves to Colorado where he becomes a highly regarded folk singer. His album In Memory of Loss is hailed by Amazon as the number one album you may have missed in 2010. He tours with the neo-folk darlings The Lumineers. He releases another similar folk album in 2013, but it’s ignored by his label. Then boom, out of nowhere comes Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Night Sweats, on Stax records no less. He goes from folk singer to leader of a band that sounds like the early Rolling Stones backed by a blazing horn section and fronted by Sam & Dave.
The first song, “I Need Never Get Old,” charges out of the gate with guitars riffing, horns wailing and vocals soaring. I’m not sure, but it may have singed my eyebrows. So what happened? As Rateliff told Rolling Stone in an interview for an article published in September, after his initial success with neo-folk, his career kind or went nowhere, and he found himself working in his garden figuring his brush with musical success was over. But he couldn’t let go of a primal thought – “At an early age, I loved Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and doo-wop,” he says. “I wanted to make that music for such a long time, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it without being cheesy.” Soon he dropped his hoe, rounded up several of his friends in Denver, and in a couple of weeks they had an album’s worth of new songs. Apparently none of these guys is from Wisconsin ‘cause there’s no cheese on this disc.
From the opener, the record steams through several scorchers until it reaches “SOB,” the first single. When the tune begins, it sounds like a cross between Thurston Harris’s opening of “Little Biddy Pretty One” and an African-American call and response spiritual. Then the chorus lifts off like Roy Hamilton’s chorus of “You Can Have Her.” The song is “all about drinking your way through a breakup” as Rateliff told Rolling Stone. It’ll be three of four listens before you even care about that, there’s so much energy unleashed. From there, the album shifts gear ever so slightly and begins to vary the rhythms and tempos just a bit. This is not to say it tones down. Rather, you have time to say to yourself, hey this is not rock, and it’s not really neo-soul. Man, this is Rock “N’ Roll – and I like it.
I have to thank my niece Susan for bringing these guys to my attention. They may not be for everyone, but… If you like the early Stones, and if you like Otis Redding’s live recordings where he’s constantly in danger of going over the edge – and in fact slips across a time or two, then grab this album, put the top down on your Chevy, and turn it up all the way. And then pray you get a chance to see them live.
(Note to our readers in Virginia, DC and North Carolina, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats will be in Norfolk on December 12 and Richmond on December 14. Go to nathanielrateliff.com for details on venues and times.)