This week is all about that country grammar. And the Grammys.
Wrecking Ball: Deluxe Edition
Nonesuch has released an impressive deluxe edition of the landmark Emmylou Harris album, Wrecking Ball. For those who are new to the set, this is the edition you should buy. But it’s also worth the upgrade for those who already have this set in their collection.
Produced by Daniel Lanois, this album was a stunning departure for Harris, so much so that she personally requested that it not be eligible for the country charts. That’s funny in retrospect, given that alongside legends like Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young, the album was anchored by compositions by up-and-coming songwriters like Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, and Julie Miller. With further cuts by writers like Anna McGarrigle, Steve Earle, and Rodney Crowell, Wrecking Ball helped set a template for what would become a vibrant Americana scene over the years that followed.
Today, a single could be any one of the following: a CD sent to radio for airplay; a digital download released in advance of an album; a music video released to online websites and dwindling television outlets; and in a lovely throwback, a seven inch vinyl single sold in the indie record stores that have managed to outlast the chain stores that once threatened their existence.
A Song About Time.
Here are the staff picks:
Tara Seetharam: “For the Good Times” – Jamey Johnson
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.
One of my favorite tracks from Lambert’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was her spin on Gillian Welch’s “Dry Town.” I’m happy to report that her new single, “Only Prettier”, has a twangy guitar hook that’s nearly identical to the one that underscored that album track.
But wow, is the arrangement surrounding it more ambitious. Lambert’s quickly built a reputation as being a progressive artist, so it’s easier for her to get a free pass on a record that sounds like a misguided attempt to remix a country song for mainstream rock radio. The thrashing guitars drown out the steel guitar and come close to overshadowing a great vocal performance from Lambert.
The 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 4
Pam Tillis, It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis
By the time she released a tribute to her father Mel, she’d become something of a legend in her own right. So it’s no surprise that she approached Mel’s stellar songwriting catalog as if she was recording any other studio album, taking the best of the bunch and making them her own. Bonus points for preserving the original fiddle breakdown from “Heart Over Mind” while making that classic shuffle a forlorn ballad, and a few more for hitting the archives of the Country Music Hall of Fame until she found a forgotten gem that should’ve been a hit back in the day (“Not Like it Was With You.”) – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Mental Revenge”, “Detroit City”
Dwight Yoakam, dwightyoakamacoustic.net
Yoakam takes a new, inspired spin on the greatest hits album concept, presenting us with a hearty sampling (over 20 songs) of his catalog served acoustic style. It simply works for the country legend. He introduces some delightful new twists and turns to his old classics, and as it should go with acoustic music, the album is driven by unadulterated, raw vocals, coupled with honest storytelling – the purest form of country music. – Tara Seetharam
The 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 3
Martina McBride, Timeless
McBride has a voice that would have been as relevant in country music fifty years ago as it is today, and her album of cover songs exemplifies this. She doesn’t attempt to move any of the songs to a different level, but instead inhabits the artists’ original style with precision and spirit. The result is a pure, respectful homage to the country greats. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Make The World Go Away”, “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down”
Felice Brothers, Yonder is the Clock
The Felice Brothers are the least-known among the members of ‘The Big Surprise Tour’ headlined by Old Crow Medicine Show and featuring Dave Rawlings Machine with Gillian Welch, and Justin Townes Earle. Melding country-rock and folk-rock, they are roots-influenced and made their start playing in the subway. While it may take an extremely big tent to call them “country,” consistent Dylan comparisons make Yonder is the Clock hard to ignore. – William Ward