About a man spending one last night with his lover, frozen in the “good times” instead of thinking about the pain that will inevitably ensue. There are plenty of versions of this song that I enjoy, but Johnson’s hits on the exact swirl of genres that just gets to me.
Kevin Coyne: “Pushing Up Daisies” – Garth Brooks
My favorite metaphor about time and the importance of making it count is captured in the chorus of this song.
When I looked through my iTunes to find a song about time, as you might imagine, many of them were reflective and conveyed some sort of sentimentality. But I love this breakneck version of Gillian Welch and David Rawling’s “Wayside (Back in Time)” the best.
As Dan observed in his single review of “Up on the Ridge”, there was a noticeable decline in Dierks Bentley’s music after his well received Long Trip Alone album. It is purely speculative to suggest, but one can’t help but wonder if Bentley himself felt staleness creeping into his music as well. It’s not farfetched for the idea to be true, since Dierks has proven himself to be an astute artist in the past. So, why wouldn’t he notice if there was, indeed, a shift?
Speculation aside, Bentley has taken a break from the routine of his last four albums to create an album that is far removed from what is popular on mainstream country radio and somewhat different than what he’s put on his own previous albums. However, he is still marketing to radio, as his first single, the title track, has been treated like any other Bentley single release. The album is not as adventurous, or as strong, as the Dixie Chicks’ unapologetically acoustic album, but it may be as close to the concept as we have gotten since their targeted mainstream acoustic project, Home.
It has been appropriately publicized that this album is not a pure bluegrass project. Instead, it is close in style to the bluegrass influenced tracks that Bentley has consistently included on each of his studio albums. Yes, mandolin, banjo, dobro and fiddle are ever present, but Bentley is not shy about using drums, exploring subversive melodies (“Up on the Ridge”, “Fallin’ for You”), or deviating from traditional bluegrass rules of engagement along the way. Moreover, Bentley does not possess the high lonesome tenor that is typically associated with bluegrass. He, however, proves himself to be a capable vocalist within the parameters of his unique style of it.
A handful of covers, songs by well respected songwriters, and some of Bentley’s own compositions makes this rootsy album a well rounded set. The best of the covers is bob Dylan’s “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power) and Kris Kristofferson’s Bottle to the Bottom”. While the otherwise solid “Bottle to the Bottom” features a somewhat pointless cameo by Kristofferson, the addition of the Punch Brothers on “Senor” is inspired art. A less successful cover is U2’s “Pride (in the Name of Love).” While Del McCoury’s distinctive tenor does well to do the heavy lifting, the over all recording still lacks the etherealness of the original. Ironically, as they are most closely associated with Americana, the Buddy Miller cover is the most mainstream friendly sounding song on the album. Unfortunately, it is also inferior to Miller’s version.
Among the strongest of Bentley’s songs is “Rovin’ Gambler” (once again, with the Punch Brothers), “Draw Me a Map” (featuring Alison Krauss on background vocals), “You’re Dead to Me” (co-written by and featuring Tim O’Brien”, and “Down in the Mine.”
Bentley wisely enlists the help of some of his creative friends such as the Punch Brothers (with Chris Thile of Nickel Creek fame), Del McCoury, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert, Tim O’Brien, and Kris Kristofferson. Complimented by Jon Randall’s organic production sensibilities, this impeccable support adds a welcome texture to the project. However, the collaborations work best when they are more subtle. For instance, while the prospect of Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson collaborating is, indeed, an appealing concept, the result does not rise to the occasion in practice. Both Lambert and Johnson deliver excellent performances with Bentley on “Bad Angel”, with Lambert’s voice being huskier than usual, but the parts together translate as more disjointed than natural. Likewise, the results of Del McCoury’s and Kris Kristofferson’s contributions were not as successful as one would hope for from such revered artists. On the other hand, the Punch Brothers (who played on several tracks), Alison Krauss, Tim O’Brien, Jon Randall, and Vince Gill (“Fiddlin’ Around”) were used less overtly to greater effect.
With expert musicianship by the best in the business, solid songs, and impressive vocal support, Up on the Ridge is a refreshing album from an artist who is taking a chance with this musical detour while still in the throes of a considerably lucrative career. Not only is taking such a chance commendable, Bentley has created a solid album to justify the diversion.
On her first major-label album, Lambert reveals herself as a fiery, spirited artist with a lot to say, and a clever voice with which to speak. Her sharp songwriting skills, though a work in progress as we’d later learn, take her naturally from aggression to desolation and back again. But most notably, through Kerosene, Lambert got the traditionalists to pay a little more attention to mainstream country music and its more promising artists. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Kerosene”, “I Can’t Be Bothered”
Kris Kristofferson, This Old Road This Old Road has not have received as much mainstream attention as Kristofferson’s recent appearance in Ethan Hawke’s Rolling Stone article; an unfortunate fact, given it was the legendary writer’s first album of new material in 11 years. With This Old Road, Kristofferson shines a spotlight on the world much in the same his earlier writing shined a spotlight on himself. The result is an overtly political album with more depth than most modern attempts have been able to produce. – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “The Last Thing to Go”, “Pilgrim’s Progress”
Guy Clark, Workbench Songs
The recordings of the songs that Guy Clark, one of country music’s most respected modern songwriters, has written for the most popular artists in country music are typically polished by the best Nashville musicians and slick producers. But Clark’s own albums tend to be more organic, with spare instrumentation that somehow manages to avoid sounding anemic as a result. His well worn voice sings these eleven melodically and lyrically strong songs with warmth and the kind of emotion that easily captures the listener. It’s one of the best albums of his deep catalog that spans over thirty years. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Walkin’ Man”, “Expose”
Wynonna, What the World Needs Now is Love
It’s hard to believe that it’s been six years since Wynonna’s last proper studio album. This collection is easily one of her best, with effective covers like “I Want to Know What Love Is” and “Flies On the Butter”, along with socially conscious material that provokes thought instead of pandering to already held beliefs (“It All Comes Down to Love”). – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Sometimes I Feel Like Elvis”, “Rescue Me”
Lee Ann Womack, I Hope You Dance
The massively successful title track powered this album to triple platinum, but it also overshadowed the excellent songs surrounding it. For those who explored the album beyond track two, there were some of Womack’s finest moments on record, as she had the good taste to plunder the catalogs of Bruce Robison (“Lonely Too”), Bobbie Cryner (“Stronger Than I Am”), Julie Miller (“I Know Why the River Runs”), and Rodney Crowell (“Ashes By Now”). – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Lonely Too”, “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger”
Chris Thile, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground
This is the first album from the band that would eventually become Punch Brothers. Garnering a Grammy Award Nomination in 2006, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground is a solid bluegrass album with classical sensibilities and extraordinary instrumentation. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “Wayside (Back in Time)”, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”
Ralph Stanley II, This One Is Two
Hyperbole alert, but it’s hard to think of a more beautiful-sounding traditional country album from this decade, or one which more comfortably merges old school aesthetics with modern production polish. Stanley corralled a number of meaty story songs here, but it’s the combination of his warm baritone and the lush instrumentation that gives this gem its quiet strength. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Cold Shoulder”, “They Say I’ll Never Go Home”
Various Artists, Livin’ Lovin’ Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers
Tribute albums too often feel redundant, as well-meaning artists deliver nice but forgettable imitations of classic records. Not so with the Louvins’, which sticks veteran and current artists alike on the Bros’ close harmonies and sees each intriguing combination (Pam Tillis and Johnny Cash? Why not!) triumph. I daresay it’s as good an introduction to the duo’s work as any compilation of their own recordings. – DM
Recommended Tracks: “How’s the World Treating You?”, “Are You Teasing Me”
Todd Snider, The Excitement Plan
Snider mostly avoids both political themes and complex arrangements on his latest record, emphasizing his greatest strength as a writer instead: his uncanny ability to make the most specifically personal have universal resonance. Listen out for a wonderful cameo from Loretta Lynn on “Don’t Tempt Me.” – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Barefoot Champagne”, “Money, Compliments, Publicity (Song Number 10)”
Mark O’Connor, Thirty-Year Retrospective (Live)
Mark O’Connor’s Thirty Year Retrospective is a double instrumental album of his live performance with Chris Thile, Bryan Sutton and Byron House. The album covers a wide range of Mark O’Connor’s career, presenting a range of instrumental country, bluegrass, new grass and jazz with the detail and care often only applied to classical music. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “Caprice No. 4 in D Major”, “Macedonia”
Interview emerging country music stars today and it may surprise you—especially if you listen to the radio—that they are all influenced by Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and (if they play mandolin) Bill Monroe. When you find that they also claim to emulate artists such as Garth Brooks, George Strait, Alan Jackson or whoever else has recently gone platinum (with the exception of the Dixie Chicks), it can be almost discouraging to consider that few are even that traditional.
This brings us to Sarah Jarosz, whose debut with Sugar Hill Records, Song Up in Her Head, presents a very different view of influences and a noticeably different performer in its eighteen year old co-producer.
Seven years ago, while requesting an autograph from Chris Thile, Sarah Jarosz, not yet a teenager, expressed interest in, someday, playing music with Chris Thile. Since then, she has added Darrell Scott, Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas, Aofie O’Donavan, and Abigail Washburn—all who appear on her album—to her most often quoted list of influences. As a result, we are presented with an impressive, but much less calculated list than one might expect from a newcomer. Given that these are some of my favorite artists, it also sets a high bar with this particular reviewer. Fortunately for this recent high school graduate who plays mandolin, guitar, clawhammer banjo, octave mandolin, piano, and toy piano (we will get to that) on her debut album, these lofty expectations are not beyond her ability.
Song Up in Her Head opens with its title track, a progressive bluegrass number that will remind listeners (in no small part to Chris Thile’s contribution) of progressive acoustic prodigies of the past. While those influences certainly exist, it would be a mistake to use them to typecast Jarosz, who has as much in common musically with Darrel Scott or Gillian Welch as she does with the progressive acoustic scene.
From the well-written “Tell me True,” which rolls comfortably upon tight lyrics and a repeating chorus, to “Left Home,” and impressive vocal number with the outstanding Aofie O’Donovan singing harmony vocals Jarosz more than establishes her songwriting credentials penning eleven of thirteen tracks on the album. Particularly notable is the balance between youth and maturity that seems to exist throughout these songs. Presenting the experiences of Sarah Jarosz, they only occasionally feel adolescent, always managing to escape the self-importance rampant among pop music acts her age. The finest example of this comes in “Broussard’s Lament,” a challenging song written in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that came out of “an interview on the Sunday morning news program “Meet the Press,” with a man named Aaron Broussard. His interview was heart wrenching, and it inspired me to write the tune.”
Inserted neatly between her songs are two well-chosen covers, Tom Waits “Come on Up to the House” and The Decemberists “Shankill Butchers.” While the Tom Waits cover is notable, “Shankill Butchers” excellent production makes it stand out. Using a toy piano along with Sarah’s compelling vocals, its mood ideally fits the modern nursery rhyme to the degree that it outshines the original recording.
Despite being an accomplished singer and mandolin player Sarah Jarosz does not go out of her way to list Bill Monroe as an influence—and the thing is she doesn’t have to. Unlike those pronouncing the influences that they feel they should have, with Song Up in Her Head you can hear influences being explored side by side with the effects of her colleagues close mentoring. Sarah Jarosz’ debut is delightfully distinct; supplementing her own talents with the best just-off-the-radar artists available today she has found a voice that will undoubtedly continue to produce eloquent music for another fifty years.
Since the announcement of the “indefinite hiatus” of progressive acoustic darlings Nickel Creek, despite a history of diverging solo work, releases from Chris Thile and Sean Watkins have been shackled by expectations of a Creek-like sound. Much like releases from her former band mates, Sara Watkins’ self-titled debut is not a surrogate Nickel creek album. Instead, it is an album that is purely individual, combining the talent that we have already witnessed with more than a few surprises.
Opening with “All this Time,” a rolling country tune driven by pedal steel and the familial blending of Sean Watkins on background vocals, we are treated to a contemporary cut that draws heavily on traditional country sounds. Other successful uses of pedal steel include a smoky rendition of Tom Waits’ “Pony,” and “Any Old Time,” a Jimmie Rodgers song, performed as western swing.
Produced by John Paul Jones, the album continues with a collection, which while grounded in bluegrass and country, is as complex and eclectic as the guests that play on it. Among the artists making appearances are bluegrass artists Rayna Gellert, Ronnie McCoury, Tim O’Brien, and Chris Eldridge; Americana artist Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings; and former Nickel Creek band mates Chris Thile and Sean Watkins.
Through covers and original songs, with the exception of the overly slick “Too Much,” each song easily meshes with the next despite its range. There is the hauntingly elegant “Bygones,” with its genre-bending beauty; the energetic “Long Hot Summer Days,” a melding of blues, folk, and bluegrass; and the subtly presented “Give me Jesus,” a traditional song arranged by Sara and Chris Thile. While Watkins was not a major writing contributor to Nickel Creek, she is the sole writer of six of the fourteen tracks for this project.
The album also includes two instrumental tracks. “Freiderick,” as well as “Jefferson,” the former co-written by the two Watkinses and the latter composed by Sara alone, are capable instrumentals with a heavy Celtic influence. It should be noted that the mandolin on both tracks is played by Ronnie McCoury, avoiding a Nickel Creek reunion that—while intriguing–no doubt would have only distracted from the album.
Sara Watkins’ debut is new and refreshing; it is a blending of retro flavors that remains contemporary, while avoiding the manufactured nostalgia that so often creeps into both Nashville and alt-country music.