Ralph Stanley & Friends
Man of Constant Sorrow
Perhaps the uninitiated may have “discovered” Ralph Stanley through his participation in the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, For those who have spent their lives appreciating the man and his music, Ralph Stanley is a certified living legend — not to mention one of the last remaining links to that first generation of bluegrass musicians who blazed the trail for newgrassers and traditionalists alike. Even though he threatened retirement not long ago, the 87-year-old singer is back with a new duets album, available through Cracker Barrel stores.
The narrative surrounding Aaron Watson’s The Underdog makes it an album that is easy to root for: Buoyed by more than a decade of goodwill and fan support and a deft pre-release promotional push, the album surprised many with its #1 bow atop Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, surreptitiously around the same time that erstwhile Sony Nashville CEO Gary Overton made his controversial remark about how artists who don’t get played on country radio “don’t exist.” The Underdog, the twelfth album from a traditional-leaning Texas singer-songwriter known as much for his humility as for his music, provided a perfectly timed counterexample to Overton’s short-sighted arrogance.
For all of their commercial successes and industry recognition, The Mavericks were never a band that bowed to popular trends in country music. On Mono, the second album of their full-fledged revival, they play even faster and looser with genre conventions than ever before. The result is an album that, if not necessarily their best—What a Crying Shame and 2013’s In Time set particularly high standards— may be the most purely fun album of The Mavericks’ career.
More so than her artfully-turned phrases and her novel, evocative imagery, perhaps Gretchen Peters’ greatest gift as a songwriter is her mastery of perspective. Peters’ ability to shift her narrative voice to create fully realized, authentic characters whose emotions and experiences drive her songs has very few peers, and that particular skill serves her well on Blackbirds. A meditation on mortality, Blackbirds highlights a variety of experiences and points-of-view on matters of death and loss, and it’s that multifaceted perspective that gives the album such remarkable depth.
Though she’s recorded steadily since the late 80s, Texas singer-songwriter Kimmie Rhodes hasn’t enjoyed either the commercial or critical cachet of many of the other alt-country and Americana acts. Both Wynonna and Trisha Yearwood have recorded her songs, but she hasn’t been a steady go-to songwriter like, say, Gretchen Peters or Kim Richey. That’s largely the result of how unassuming Rhodes’ work routinely is: Her songs are never less than well-constructed and are always observed in plainspoken but effective lines, while her singing hinges on her gentle, wispy voice.
All-Time Greatest Hits
In the eleven years since the release of LeAnn Rimes’ first Greatest Hits package, she’s certainly released enough material to fill out a second installment. But the song selections of her new All-Time Greatest Hits clearly position it as a replacement rather than a continuation, with 13 of its 20 tracks having already appeared on her original 2003 retrospective.
Tomorrow is My Turn
Although Rhiannon Giddens has been a fixture on the Americana circuit as the frontwoman for the terrific Carolina Chocolate Drops, it’s on her solo debut, Tomorrow Is My Turn, that Giddens truly announces herself as an artist. On a shrewdly chosen collection of songs that draw from a diverse sample of American roots music, Giddens and producer T Bone Burnett showcase a fearless approach to genre that never once allows easy signifiers to interfere with her forceful and intuitive interpretations.
The Phosphorescent Blues
In reviewing their 2010 album, Antifogmatic, I noted that Punch Brothers were “rapidly evolving into a string-band version of Radiohead.” That assessment comes to full fruition on The Phosphorescent Blues, at once the band’s most obtuse and most accessible album.
Opening with the 10-plus minute suite of “Familiarity,” Punch Brothers have never been so forward with their hybrid of classical sophistication with prog-inspired Bluegrass, as the track ebbs and flows between “Amen!” exclamations right out of high mountain gospel and intricate vocal harmonies that would fit seamlessly on Brian Wilson’s SMiLE. The band’s technical virtuosity is on full display on the instrumental performances of wondrously complex arrangements by DeBussy and Scriabin.
Greatest Hits: Decade #1
Hits compilations have become an odd thing in the digital age, as they give both hardcore and casual fans little reason to purchase. The new tracks can be downloaded if you’re interested. The hits that you would’ve wanted, you’ve probably downloaded anyway.
So kudos to Carrie Underwood for putting together a collection that’s worth purchasing in physical form, with beautiful artwork and liner notes, and for putting together a track listing that doesn’t cut corners in any way. Every single hit is included, and she’s had a ton of them so far, all consistently good and quite a few that have been great.
Write You a Song
A surprisingly entertaining debut effort, Jon Pardi’s relentless enthusiasm infuses even mediocre material with enough energy to make it listenable. Of course, that’s the advantage of a debut album. Even if the material isn’t fresh, the artist is.
So the real promise for Pardi’s future is his ability to write and record songs that are a cut above the average radio fare of the day. He does this on the best tracks of Write You a Song, most significantly on the title track, where a traveling musician leaves behind a one night stand in every town, but basically says, “Hey! When you hear that song of mine on the radio, I wrote it about you!”