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Album Review- Willie Nelson “Band of Brothers”

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Willie Nelson, in all ways, is like Texas. His albums are especially like Texas weather. If you don’t like it, wait a minute, something new is coming soon. “Band of Brothers” is one in what appears to be a series of autumnal looking records packaged as somber reminders that Willie Nelson is really old and a piece of American history. Like the Johnny Cash American Recordings. Unlike those records, Willie shows no signs of loosening the reins. He’s still as full of piss and vinegar as ever, and that’s how we like him.

Exhibit A for Nelson, Willie, Hugh being irrepressible as ever is “Wives and Girlfriends” which manages to make a breezy, fun song out of one of Willie’s corny old man jokes. Exhibit B for Willie “Booger Red” Nelson still being a formidable songwriter is the karate combo of “The Wall” and “Guitar In The Corner.”

It’s weird saying this, but I feel like we won’t know if Willie is still writing classics like “Crazy” because he hasn’t stopped writing and because the sort of interpretive singing where a Patsy Cline or a Ray Price takes a song and makes it such a deep and lasting part of their persona is mostly gone. It’s the same way with Dylan and rock bands. Any chimp could sing a Thomas Rhett or Imagine Dragons song. We’re having a hard time gauging the quality of these all-time champs work because no one else is blowing it up like they used to. Not that a Dylan or a Willie needs the help.

More or less to that end, John Anderson stops by to join in on the “The Songwriters” and Jamey Johnson swaps verses on “From The Git Go.” If they insist on bringing back The Highwayman can we please have Josh Turner and Jamey Johnson filling in for Johnny and Waylon? Both serve admirably in their roles, but Johnson takes the prize for the steely menace in his delivery.

After 48-ish full on albums, what is there to say about a Willie Nelson record? Mickey Raphael’s harmonica gets more sympathetically, gorgeously creaky sounding next to Willie’s ever more patina’d voice and guitar. There’s a Jesus song, a cheating song, an outlaw song, a song about being on the road. You’ve heard a lot of these before, and if you’re listening, you want to hear more of them. If “Spirit” found Willie looking back at life almost 20 years ago and finding love, mystery, and faith the latest Willie records find him as an octogenarian looking back at life and finding it full of badass friends, family, and hustle. Like they say; It’s Willie’s world, friends, and we’re all just living in it.


Album Reviews: Zoe Muth, Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis, Matt Hillyer, John Fullbright

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Basically, this is all the new country music worth buying this week. (edit: there’s a new Betty Soo album out this week. It’s probably good too.)



Matt Hillyer- If These Old Bones Could Talk

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the leader of Eleven Hundred Springs would put out a solo album of swaggering honky-tonk. The album opens strong with “A Little Less Whiskey” and stays the course from there- confident songwriting and twang from a veteran of all the smokey bars. What struck me most was the outright sentimentality of the lyrics, the unashamed, old-fashioned emotion Hillyer has no problem laying down. Even by country standards, he’s not afraid to wax nostalgic or get mushy. It’s a bit disarming at first, because where a lot of people are good at aping the sound of old country, Hillyer has flat-out mastered the heart-on-sleeve tenderness of Lefty Frizell in a way that is refreshing and as I said before, a little disarming. Speaking of mid-century softiness, if you love recitations, you’ll like “Dancing With The Moon,” which takes George Strait’s “The Chair” on one of the early Apollo missions. If you don’t like recitations, there’s lots more of the somewhere between Texas and Bakersfield sounds to soak in. If you like your country like you like your Chevy’s: dependable, sturdy, and thankfully not all that different from what your Dad tooled around in, here’s your man.



Zoe Muth- World Full of Strangers

Zoe Muth, like many of the protagonists in her songs, has an appealing weariness in her voice, like she just got off a long shift in a five year stretch of them at a job she only meant to keep for 6 months. The mandolins and steel from previous albums are gone, and while still working in a country-ish vein, you’ll not find the two steppers you may be accustomed to. Organ, cello and some really punchy drums replace the honky-tonkier instrumentation from her earlier work. Once I spit out the haterade (I REALLY love mandolins and steel), I found all the qualities that I like about a Zoe Muth song; a gently unfolding story, sung in a sly voice. “Mama Needs A Margarita” is two minutes and a little change, while “Taken All You Wanted” clocks in north of five. I couldn’t tell you which one was shorter from listening, such is the way Muth draws you in to a well-worn world, one I will revisit again and again.



Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis- Our Year

The last time this husband and wife duo put out a record it became one of my favorites (and the soundtrack for every time I’ve cleaned the kitchen since then.) While “Cheater’s Game” had a looser, “hey, let’s have fun playing some songs” vibe, “Our Year” is a little more studied in it’s approach, a little more locked into the groove. Which is to say, they do a really good job with “Motor City Man” and “Harper Valley PTA.” It seems to me that Robison sings more this time around, and harmonizes more with Willis. Or maybe the arrangements just highlight that more. The record ends with a resolute, banjo-studded cover of the Zombie’s “This Will Be Our Year”, replacing the disaffected, youthful cool of the original with a heartening touch of defiance, sung by folks who’ve seen enough years together to know. This is the perfect soundtrack for late afternoon patio drinks your s.o.



John Fullbright- Songs

John Fullbright sings like the kinda guy who learned to play piano in church, then immediately got a job playing in the bar across the street. “Songs” also moves from the elemental conflicts between God and the Devil found on his earlier album to more domestic concerns. The songs have an intimacy you’d expect from overhearing your neighbors talk about big issues while trying not to break into argument. Which isn’t to say that this is a boring record just because John Fullbright the rollicking Dust Bowl prophet has become come in and have a glass of wine John Fullbright. There’s a reason reviewers keep mentioning Tom Waits and Randy Newman, not because Fullbright shoots word arrows from behind his piano, letting them fall where they may, but because he’s that good.

Americana has always been here, where the hell have you been?

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As long as country music as been around, there has been an argument about what it is and isn’t. And, like most genres, it’s managed to grow and change over the decades by incorporating new styles that bubbled up around the edges of the establishment. From Bluegrass and Western Swing in the 30’s to Neo-Traditional and New Wave in the 80’s, the people who make and distribute what get’s played on your local country station have kept up, sometimes unsuccessfully, with whatever new sounds might help sell some records.

I’m going to abandon the term Americana now that I’ve used it to get you in the door. I don’t like it, one, because it’s too vague in the sense that Norman Rockwell, barbecue joints and old Chevy’s can be considered Americana. The other reason is that it’s a way to say you like country music without associating yourself with the idea of country music, or any of the conceptual baggage of country music, like being a poor, rural white person from flyover country. Saying “Alternative Country” signals that yes, you are talking about country music, and yes, there is an alternative to the output of the Nashville behemoth.


Enter these two records I found out combing junk stores not too long ago.

photo 2 photo 1


Both hail from the great lost world of the 70’s. These were on small, local labels in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado and feature bands that played the bars and dancehall circuits. Tumbleweed has more of a Burrito Bros, jangly country-rock sound, and The Last Mile Ramblers plays songs that mix elements of different country styles in a manner much closer to the alt-country of the late 90’s. Rockabilly guitars with bluegrass banjos, etc. Either one, if released on a bigger Americana label today, with a decent PR push would probably kill. As it was, these were razor-sharp bar bands in their day, guys who could evidently pack a bar and sell a lot of beer, but not enough to catch the attention of anyone in Nashville. They were country groups that mixed traditional elements with contemporary sensibilities and played the same venues as rock bands. It was alt-country before the word existed. The concept of alternative country existed, but the market niche didn’t exist yet. Bands like Tumbleweed and The Last Mile Ramblers are little reminders that there has always been more than one way to do things, and there’s always been an, if not dissenting, then certainly different voice out on the margins.

We can debate where country went wrong, or who is to blame. (I think we’re all way too hard on Garth Brooks.) What is most interesting to me is that these two records are the products of bands trying to fill two needs, the need to provide live music for bars and dancehalls, and the need to play music that was a different take from the radio had to offer. At the time, mainstream country probably hadn’t alienated enough people to create a big enough market niche.  The last big Country Music revolution to overturn the status quo from the outside (so far), the Neo-Traditionalists like Dwight Yoakam, was just a few years away. But the alternative sounds were out there, they were out there when Bill Monroe picked up his mandolin, when Buck Owens built his empire in Bakersfield, when Uncle Tupelo played their first show.


Nashville has gone it’s way, and “Americana” has gone it’s own way, and there doesn’t appear to be much reason for one market to overtake the other (except maybe to save the world from this gelded jackass)  because they service such different fan bases. And even in the nebulously defined world of Americana, you have Texas/Red Dirt Country, indie-leaning bands, and pop bands like Mumford & Sons. The alternatives to listening to mainstream country are everywhere now, but they’ve always been around. They’ve been in your local dancehall, some backyard party, and sometimes, in the right record bin, waiting for you to blow away the dust and take a chance.