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Music Reviews

Marshall Chapman

Marshall Chapman

Songs I Can’t Live Without

TallGirl Records

Songwriters do cover albums for a variety of reasons – lack of material, contractual obligations – but I suspect neither is the reason for Marshall Chapman’s Songs I Can’t Live Without. First, she’s been creating records since the late ’70s (starting with Me, I’m Feelin’ Free from 1977) up to 2013’s masterful Blaze of Glory. And she owns her own label -TallGirl Records, so that’s out. No, sometimes they just want to share their inspirations and give you a glimpse as to what motivates their work.

The result, in Chapman’s case, are 9 cuts that show her varied influences. Beginning with a majestic “Tower of Song” from Leonard Cohen, which sets the stage for the record – “I’m just paying my rent every day in the tower of song”. Some of her favorites seem close to home, such as Bobby Charles’ “Tennessee Blues” or “I Still Miss Someone”, the Johnny Cash classic. Others draw from her younger days, such as the Carole King/ Gerry Goffin “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” or even further back, such as “I Fall In Love Too Easily”, which was a hit for Frank Sinatra in 1956. Her version of “Turn the Page” proves the old adage that states there aren’t any bad songs, just bad versions, because her treatment is affecting in a way that Bob Seger’s original wasn’t.

Chapman is backed with the same musicians that made Blaze of Glory such a success, with Neilson Hubbard on drums, Dan Mitchell on keys, and one of Nashville’s most valuable players, Will Kimbrough on guitar. Kimbrough has honed his style to the point where less is more – a spooky slide lick here, a subtle chord progression on “Don’t Be Cruel” for example, and overall the mood of the record is haunting and personal, and by the time the final cut, “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” fades, you feel you’ve been on a journey with Marshall Chapman, and a better person for it. Stellar.

www.tallgirl.com

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Music Reviews

Green Leaf Rustlers

Green Leaf Rustlers

From Within Marin

Silver Arrow Records

Now understand, I ain’t against old hippies getting high and rippin’ on some tunes, in fact, I want to be one someday (soon!). And when the old hippies in question are Chris Robinson (Black Crowes, etc), legendary bassist Pete Sears (Hot Tuna, Jefferson Starship, Rod Stewart), the guitarist from The Mother Hips Greg Loiacono, guitarist/pedal steel player Barry Sless (David Nelson Band) and drummer John Molo (Phil Lesh Quintet) playing Gram Parsons and J.J. Cale covers, well, light me up.

Which, to be fair, is required to fully appreciate From Within Marin, drawn from the groups early 2019 shows in Marin, and recorded – “captured” – by the ears of the Grateful Dead, Betty Cantor Jackson. The result is a two lp featuring cosmic country songs from Parsons (“Big Mouth Blues”), Dylan with a relatively howling “Positively 4th Street” , Johnny Cash (“Folsom Prison”), and a go on J.J. Cale’s epic “Ride Me High”. You get the picture. In fact, to fans of the live music on archive.org, this set will sound familiar. Once you get immersed in the tributaries of the Dead, to the point to where you are commenting on moe shows, for example, you live and breath this stuff. These players obviously do – their touch is unmistakably Garcia-influenced, but with a decidedly Nashville elan to it. Robinson is, well, Chris Robinson. Love him or hate him, he sounds completely natural on this stuff, and the rest (particularly the steel of Sless) cast a funky, groovy vibe to the material. I imagine that a Green Leaf Rustlers show is a dancing, singing gathering of the tribes, just with a really rad house band.

Now, if stoned jams (expertly crafted as they are) leave you running for the door, steer clear of From Within Marin. But for us old hippies, sit down on the couch, fire up the vape, and enjoy. Your soundtrack has arrived.

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Music Reviews

Tami Neilson

Tami Neilson

Chickaboom!

Outside Music

When I put on Chickaboom! I had visions of a singer in a dive roadhouse somewhere on the road between Memphis and Nashville in the mid-60’s. I imagined someone who’s been doing session work in Memphis with the great Stax artists, then gets on the bus and does the same with all the great country artists on Music Row. When Tami hits the road on her own, she takes all she’s learned and mashes it all together. Gospel, country, blues, rockabilly and soul are all just colors in her palette. When Neilson sings, she stops all conversation. She commands attention and you’re only too happy to give it.

Tami grew up playing across Canada with her parents and siblings in the Neilson Family Band. She opened shows for Johnny Cash, Tanya Tucker and Kitty Wells. Then she married a Kiwi and moved to the other side of the world and started life as a solo artist.

The fun starts with, “Call Your Mama,” a blistering put-down to an ex. Tami asks, “why don’t you call your Mama, See if she wanna make up the spare room for you to stay.” That lacerating sarcasm cuts to the bone on “Ten Tonne Truck.” Tami sings, “Hey, Hey work a little harder… with work and prayer and a little bit of luck, you’ll make so much money you’ll need a ten tonne truck.” Yup, those are the kind of lies we tell ourselves about the “American Dream.”

While it’s fun hearing Tami’s humor, it’s just as fun to hear her pour her heart out in sincere appreciation. “Sister Mavis” is a loving tribute to Mavis Staples and the great gospel singers she worked with. “Hey, Bus Driver” is a riotous rockabilly rumble about the touring life. “Any Fool With a Heart” gives us a lush countrypolitan ballad that evokes Peggy Lee. “Queenie, Queenie,” on the other hand, is a stripped down a blues as you can imagine. With her big voice and some minimal percussion, Tami rocks the house.

So, for a good time, call Tami Neilson.

www.tamineilson.com

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Print Reviews

The Pilgrim: A Wall-To-Wall Odyssey

The Pilgrim: A Wall-To-Wall Odyssey

by Marty Stuart

BMG

Marty Stuart was a country music veteran when he released his 10th album, The Pilgrim in 1999. He had been playing music professionally since he was 12 – in fact, I saw him playing mandolin with Lester Flatt at my high school in the ’70s when he was 15 or 16 years old. After Flatt he joined Johnny Cash’s band before heading out solo, in the mid-’80s. Stuart was part of the rebirth of country music that saw him, Travis Tritt and Dwight Yoakam find success on the charts, but by the mid-’90s the bloom was off the rose so to speak, and Stuart needed something new.

The Pilgrim: A Wall-To-Wall Odyssey chronicles what that turned out to be. Largely ignored upon release, The Pilgrim has since become to be regarded as a masterpiece of pure country songwriting, with Stuart in the role of a man from his birthplace of Philadelphia, Mississippi. After Bill Monroe’s death in 1996, Stuart started collecting his remembrances of the bluegrass legend, that over time became the title song. He gathered his road band, The Rock & Roll Cowboys and headed off to Memphis, where they recorded the song in Sam Phillips Sun Studios.

This lavish tome tracks the origin and birth of The Pilgrim, from the sessions that included Emmylou Harris, George Jones, Ralph Stanley, and Johnny Cash. The initial reaction to the record marked a turning point in Stuart’s career, to the point he fired his band, his manager and struggled to find his place in an industry that had been his entire life. Today, with his band The Fabulous Superlatives, Stuart is a star, with best-selling albums and even a show on RFD-TV. But as he recounts, The Pilgrim holds a special place to him, as well as thousands of devoted listeners. As a concept album, it sits alongside Willie Nelson’s The Red-Headed Stranger, both records being told from the viewpoint of a loner, out of step with the world. The book contains a CD of the album, with bonus tracks called A Traveler’s Companion, featuring cuts left off the original release including more Emmylou, Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs. Listening to the record today shows the timeless beauty of the craft and passion Marty Stuart was able to summon, with songs such as “Hobo’s Prayer”, “The Observations of a Crow” and the title track echoing like few moments in country music. The journey Stuart took in his artistic life with The Pilgrim is compelling, and this book is an enjoyable, informative look at a classic.

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Print Reviews

The Ragin’ Cajun

The Ragin’ Cajun

by Doug Kershaw with Cathie Pelletier

Mercer University Press

I’ve read loads of musical memoirs, but rarely have they been as compelling as The Ragin’ Cajun from the “Louisiana Man” himself, Doug Kershaw. Born in the southern Louisiana bayou in a little town called Tiel Ridge, Kershaw describes a way of life that most would find completely foreign. Raised on a houseboat, Kershaw and his brothers (Rusty and Peewee) lived in the deep swamps where simply getting by was extreme. They lived off whatever the bayou gave them, from mink hides to fish. He grew up speaking Creole French, didn’t own a pair of shoes until he was sent to school and suffered the loss of his father due to either a suicide or a drunken accident with a shotgun. He was surrounded by Cajun music and was able to play most any instrument but settled on fiddle, and he used it to take him from grinding poverty of the bayou to sharing the stage with jazz violinist Jean Luc Ponty and renowned classical violinist Itzahk Perlman.

His first national recognition came from appearing on Johnny Cash’s TV show from the Ryman, where he first met Bob Dylan. Kershaw’s mix of cajun, rock and roll and rockabilly were new to ears in 1969 (a situation that hasn’t changed much since then) and he had his first hit with the autobiographical “Louisiana Man”. It made him a star, but the downside was steep.

The Ragin’ Cajun documents Kershaw’s struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, starting with pep pills that musicians used to combat fatigue. Soon a potent combination of uppers and Chivas came to rule his life, ending his first marriage and rendering him nearly destitute. He is unsparing in his account of that part of his life, and by all accounts Kershaw is a real SOB – or as Mama Rita, his mother said it a fils de putain, – high or sober.

Thankfully Doug Kershaw survived, and at age 83 still performs a bit, and has written one of the most enjoyable accounts of a musical life in The Ragin’ Cajun. The Louisiana Man is a unique voice, a genuine rarity in American music. Laissez les bons temps rouler – Doug, you did good.

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Event Reviews

The Talbott Brothers

The Talbott Brothers

CSPS Hall Cedar Rapids; Iowa • 02/20/2019

The Talbott Brothers concert on Feburary 20th took place at the restored landmark, CSPS Hall, in the NewBo district of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The venue has been a cultural center for artists and musicians since 1890 and was the perfect venue for The Talbot Brothers second visit. Back by both popular demand, and their own affinity for the people and atmosphere, they put on a fantastic show

Nebraska born and raised brothers, Nick and Tyler, are not only talented musicians and songwriters but also very humble and genuine people. Our local record shop, The Analog Vault, which is located on the first floor of CSPS hall, hosted a 45 minute meet and greet with the brothers directly before the show. And while they arrived in Cedar Rapids to sub-zero temperatures outside, inside they were greeted with warm affection and obliged pictures, signed autographs, and spent time with each person before performing a quick song and heading upstairs to start the show.

Nick Talbott

Jeremy Glazier
Nick Talbott

They started the show with Tyler on mandolin, Nick on guitar, and ran through “Running Man” from the 2015 album Places, “Free As a Bird” from the first album The Road, and “We Got Love” from the 2016 album Gray. Between songs, they genuinely connect with the audience and bring you along with their musical storytelling. You feel that each song is a tangible, important piece of their lives, and in return for such honesty, the audience stays completely hushed until the end of each song.

They performed a total of 18 tracks that span all 3 albums as well as 4 covers. They did Neil Young’s “Old Man”, Bill Withers “Ain’t no Sunshine”, “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash, and an extremely tastefully done version of the co-written Greg Allman/Kim Payne song “Midnight Rider”. 3 of the 18 were new songs, not yet out on any album, named “Mannequin”, “Without a Doubt”, and “Family”.

Tyler Talbott

Jeremy Glazier
Tyler Talbott

The duo were set up in front of the main stage on a raised platform that put them within feet of the audience and provided a very intimate show. Before the last song of the evening they step away from the microphones, stand directly in the audience, and play what they call a very personal song in the aforementioned “Family”. That song is like their coat of arms or family crest and was a beautiful way to end a great night of music with The Talbott Brothers.

They will be back out west touring multiple dates in both California and Arizona with stops in Maryland and Missouri in June. I believe in these brothers so much that I’ve personally contacted friends and family in Colorado, California, and Arizona to catch shows. Consider this my personal invitation to see some great music and while you’re there, grab some cd’s and meet a couple of true gentlemen.

www.thetalbottbrothers.com

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Music Reviews

Todd Snider

Todd Snider

Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3

Aimless Records

In these morally troubled times, society needs a man unafraid to yell bullshit. Todd Snider is that man. In fact, he states it loud and proud on the closing track of his newest release, with “A Timeless Response to Current Events”, which, summed up…is bullshit.

Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 is around the 20th release for the Portland-born troubadour, and since his debut release from 1994, Songs For The Daily Planet, Snider has become a 21st century Pete Seeger (another songwriter not immune to calling bullshit either, but using more correct language, I guess), although his path of inspiration seems more Jerry Jeff Walker (Snider’s early mentor) then the New York banjo-picker. For his newest record he returns to Johnny Cash’s cabin, which the country star had made into a recording studio, and is run by his son, John Carter Cash. He had recorded there with his jam band Hard Working Americans, but this time out, it’s just Todd solo, with vocal help from Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, and the result is another sharp set of Todd’s reflections on the world.

From the dream that brought him to Cash Cabin – an actual dream involving Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash dancing in the moonlight – described on “The Ghost of Johnny Cash” – to a great example of the lost art of storytelling with “Talking Reality Television Blues”, Snider is funny yet poignant, indignant but caring on moments such as “Watering Flowers in the Rain”. The albums ambiance will be familiar to long-time fans of his live shows, just Todd, a guitar (in this case, Johnny Cash’s century-old Martin) and some harp thrown in for effect. Now, some moments are better than others – “The Blues on Banjo”, well, Todd admits he can’t play one, so there’s that. But songs such as “Like a Force of Nature” or “Just Like Overnight” rank alongside some of his greatest songs, and shows the barefooted songwriting rascal to be just the man we need in these dark days. A grateful nation salutes you Todd Snider. Keep calling out the bullshit.

www.toddsnider.net

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Music Reviews

Jim Wurster

Jim Wurster

Life

Y&T

Jim Wurster is another in a distinguished list of musicians who made their living as school teachers like Rick Rizzo of Eleventh Dream Day and Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices. For 33 years, Wurster taught history by day and made music when he could. His new album, Life, has the long view perspective of the historian jaded by knowing the folly of humans all too well.

For these sessions, Jim collaborates closely with producer Jack Shawde who plays most of the instruments on the record. Shawde crafts sympathetic settings for Wurster’s words with textures that suggest Dire Straits, Richard Thompson the final recordings of Johnny Cash.

Jim’s songs are reflections of the sorry state of the world. “Cold Hard World” offers sketches of down and outers making just trying to hang on. “Master of Deception” calls out the hucksters and con men that increasingly run the show. He sings about the shell game of disinformation and the silencing of dissent. “Standing In The Fire” takes direct aim at the evangelicals who sell out all their Christian values for their MAGA caps.

You’d be right in thinking that Life is not a sunny record. Most of the songs are overcast, if not downright gloomy. Wurster’s collaborations with Diane Ward (“Saline” and “Sweet Melody In The Wind”) offer a break in the clouds. The last tune is the darkest on the album. “Guns and Money” was originally written in response to the Columbine massacre and revised in the wake of Parkland. It’s a sparse tune for delicately plucked acoustic guitar and world weary voice. It’s a chilling incitement of the NRA and their enablers who accept any abomination as long as the guns are making money. As a teacher and a caring human being, the tragedy of these endless mass shootings wears heavily on Jim Wurster. He puts his words and his money where his heart is. All proceeds from this record benefit March For Our Lives.

www.jimwurster.com

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Music Reviews

Lefty Frizzell

Lefty Frizzell

An Article From Life: The Complete Recordings

Bear Family Productions

There was a time when giants walked the earth. They had names like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash…and Lefty Frizzell. Born William Orville Frizzell in 1928 in Arkansas, Lefty helped create an uniquely American art form – country and western music, and his vast impact is felt on every honky-tonk stage and jukebox. The songs he wrote or popularized form the basis of “classic country” and have been recorded by thousands, ranging from Dwight Yoakam – “Always Late With Your Kisses” or Merle Haggard with “I Want To Be With You Always”. Willie Nelson recorded an entire album of Frizzell – 1977’s To Lefty From Willie and The Band’s remarkable reinvention of Frizzell’s 1959 hit “The Long Black Veil” on Music From Big Pink introduced many (including myself) to a previously unheard genre – one that Frizzell helped create.

His first two singles – 1950’s “If You’ve Got The Money (I’ve Got The Time)” and “I Love You A Thousand Ways” launched Frizzell’s career, and until his death in 1975 Lefty continued to write and record, and this lavish Bear Family box set contains everything he released, and some – including demos and transcription recordings – that he didn’t. Weighing in (and I do mean weigh, the set is around 20 pounds) with 361 tracks and a 250+ page hardback book, this is the definitive collection of a country music “founding father”.

Frizzell was a Jimmie Rodgers fan from early on (and recorded many of his songs), and while he wasn’t quite able to yodel as well as Rodgers, his way of singing – including his knack of dropping down the last syllable in a phrase an octave and then returning back – has influenced everyone who sings country. One can’t imagine the classic honky-tonker, the late Keith Whitley (who had a hit with Lefty’s “I Never Go Around Mirrors”) sounding as he did without growing up listening to Frizzell’s records, and Merle Haggard acknowledges Frizzell as “the one who taught us all to sing”.

In addition to everything Lefty released, the box set includes I Love You A Thousand Ways: The Lefty Frizzell Story, written by Lefty’s brother (and country music star on his own) David in audio book form. An Article From Life, by Charles Wolfe with updates from Daniel Cooper and Kevin Coffey has been expanded from it’s previous inclusion in other Bear Family sets. It gives you Frizzell’s life and times – hard knocks and all, along with rarely seen pictures and memorabilia that documents his phenomenal achievements, as well as showing the rise of country music from Nashville to the West coast.

Clocking in at over 857 minutes, this is not something you can absorb in a weekend, but the depth of material of one of country music’s icons shouldn’t be rushed, but rather savored over a lifetime. Lefty Frizzell helped create country music, and in doing so crafted a bit of America’s DNA. One can’t imagine popular culture without his contributions, and thanks to the Bear Family and An Article From Life, you won’t have to. Without a doubt, an essential chronicle of history.

www.bear-family.com

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Music Reviews

Amanda Shires

Amanda Shires

To The Sunset

Silver Knife Records

It’s been quite a ride from her West Texas roots, playing fiddle for the Texas Playboys to becoming a Nashville singer/songwriter, but Amanda Shires doesn’t seem the sort to bide her time. She and her husband Jason Isbell have become the East Nashville version of Johnny and June or Waylon and Jessi – deservedly so.

In her previous five solo releases Shires didn’t venture far from a largely acoustic sound, with her delightful warbling voice and strong fiddle, but her latest, To The Sunset adds a sonic sheen to the 10 tracks that long-time fans might need a while to get used to. Produced by uber Nashville producer Dave Cobb (who also plays bass on the record, along with Isbell on guitar, drummer Jerry Pentecost and keyboardist Peter Levin), the record starts with “Parking Lot Pirouette”, full of backwards tape noises and distorted guitar that wail as Shires recounts a past assignation. Next up is “Swimmer”, a cut from her 2011 album Carrying Lightning, redone in a more indie-rock style, with Isbell’s guitar dropping delicate arpeggios in the background.

Shires wanted the songs to have atmosphere, and that they certainly do. It’s just an atmosphere that sounds more like St. Vincent or Bjork than say, Bob Wills. The insightful word play that was a highlight of her previous solo work is still there, but it’s competing now with drum machines, synths and Auto Tune. On some numbers, such as the closing “Wasn’t I Paying Attention?”, a Southern Gothic account of a man gone bad, it works. But on numbers such as “Mirror, Mirror” the production overwhelms the song, and will probably sound a bit dated a few years down the line. But as her husband sang convincingly last year on “White Man’s World” – “Mama wants to change that Nashville sound/But they’re never gonna let her” – Amanda Shires is that mama, and To The Sunset shows that she’s not waiting around for permission to do any damn thing she wants. Brilliant and unsettling in equal doses, one can’t wait to hear what she does next.

amandashiresmusic.com