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Grayson Capps – If You Knew My Mind

A quick search for the “top Americana albums of 2005” reminds us of some fine records from that year by the likes of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, Okkervil River, My Morning Jacket, and the ever-interesting Bobby Bare. One that didn’t get much attention back then was this excellent set of music from Grayson Capps, If You Knew My Mind, released a decade ago by the small-yet-mighty Nashville/L.A. outpost called Hyena Records.
One of the songs on the album, “A Love Song for Bobby Long,” was the title track to a movie of the same name, based on a book by Capps’ father and starring none other than John Travolta and Scarlett Johansson. One would think that would’ve generated some considerable buzz, but the film was met with mixed reviews that tended toward the negative. The soundtrack (though it was an interesting mix of Los Lobos and Helen Humes) was generally disregarded, and Capps’ album flew, most unfairly, under the radar.
Thanks to the tasteful folks at Royal Potato Family — who are behind the excellent new set from 6 String Drag — this record’s getting a well-deserved second chance with Americana music fans. And rightly so. It’s an album that’s beautifully grand in its poetry and charmingly disheveled in its presentation.
The opening line of the opening song, “Get Back Up,” says it all. “Yesterday was a very fine day, indeed,” he growls over a dirty harp-driven blues. “I got a bottle of beer, went outside, and brushed my teeth.” He puts on dirty clothes, goes back to work because he’s “got to make the money to give the money away at the rich man’s store.” There are too many great lines in the Resonator-rich title cut to pick just one but this slice of humor — “I know you’re 22 and I ruined your life. But please, pretty baby, put down that kitchen knife” — is a good place to start.
“Slidell” starts out as a story about “five people who got murdered by a drunk woman talking on her cell phone,” but is ultimately about the narrator’s own Slidell story, which includes being drunk at every turn and for every miniscule event. After the slow R&B groove of “I Can’t Hear You,” we get to witness the aforementioned “Love Song to Bobby Long,” the heart-wrenching Dylanesque story of a former football hero — a dispassionate dreamer gone drunk, an anti-hero of Bruton, AL.
“Eliza’s in the ground. Thunder is her moan,” recites Capps in the Faulknerian stream of consciousness that is “Graveyard.” Halfway through the record, Capps tears open a can of Texas blues on “Mercy,” the modern day equivalent to “Sympathy for the Devil” (and just as spine-chillingly soulful). “Yesterday I had a dream. I could fly through the sky. Then I woke up in a sweat, not dead yet, but on the ground,” Capps sings over the subtle Rhodes and Resonator arrangement of “Lorraine’s Song.” “Here comes,” he says as he counts off the lovely ballad “Washboard Lisa,” a tune as tender as the best ballads from the pens of Crowell or Clark. “Buckshot” is a blood red fuzzy guitar rock tune that bridges the space between “Washboard Lisa” and the funky rhythm and blues of “How’s I To Know.” The original recording ends with the ballad “I See You” before the RPF people tacked on a live version of the blues classic “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed & Burning” — a clever tune about how his woman ran off with an “Australian banjo player with a fake Southern accent” — and a sweet outtake of “Washboard Lisa.”
Indeed, this is a record most grand in its poetry, even though they are simple lines about simple people living simple lives. The tracks are exceptionally well-played examples of the great Southern music tradition, loosely approached but tightly delivered. This 10-year-old record is as good as anything being made today. Props to the Royal Potato people for bringing it back to light.

James McMurtry – Complicated Game

James McMurtry was an outstanding songwriter right out of the box, but learning the art of record-making took a while for him, and he was close to 20 years into his recording career when he cut 2008’s Just Us Kids, his best and most effective album. If you’d imagine that McMurtry would use Just Us Kids as a template for his next studio album, you’d be selling the man short; 2015’s Complicated Game is a similarly superb showcase for McMurtry‘s songwriting, but the feel and the themes of the album are decidedly different, and it demonstrates the man has more than one card up his sleeve. McMurtry brought in modern-day swamp rocker C.C. Adcock to co-produce Complicated Game with Mike Napolitano, and while the album doesn’t reflect most of Adcock‘s sonic hallmarks, the work has a looser and more casual feel than Just Us Kids, with a back-porch immediacy in the performances and a sound that’s uncluttered and accurate but just the slightest bit overheard, which meshes well with the tenor of McMurtry‘s songs. Small-p politics and the malaise of the George W. Bush years informed most of the tunes on Just Us Kids, but Complicated Game deals more in character studies, with McMurtry singing of people trying to make sense of life on America’s fringes rather than dwelling on the larger forces that brought them there, though it’s clear that the characters in “Carlisle’s Haul” and “South Dakota” can’t help but think they live in places that aren’t what they used to be. But the greatest strength of Just Us Kids is also what makes Complicated Game another winner — McMurtry is one of the best American songwriters in the game, inhabiting the lives of the people he writes about with an unaffected sincerity (the fact the very Texan McMurtry can sing convincingly from the point of view of a New England fisherman or a Long Island working stiff says a lot), and filling his lyrics with telling details that are sometimes witty, sometimes affecting, and always brilliantly observed. And McMurtry has learned the art of effortlessly selling his songs, both in terms of his vocals and his interplay with the studio band. The difference between the guy who made 1989’s Too Long in the Wasteland and the man who cut Complicated Game is the more mature McMurtry has figured out how to deliver the fine songs he writes and get their qualities on tape, and Complicated Game confirms he’s not only remembered this valuable lesson, he’s finding new ways to refine what he knows, and this album is another triumph for one of America’s most rewarding tunesmiths.

 

Jake Xerxes Fussell – Jake Xerxes Fussell

North Carolinian blues folksinger and guitarist Jake Xerxes Fussell grew up in a household steeped in the heritage and culture of the American South. The son of a noted Georgian folklorist, Fussell‘s youth was spent riding around with his dad while he documented old bluesmen, string bands, and Native American artists. It’s the kind of real deal Americana education that thousands of aspiring Harry Smith scholars would kill for and, to his credit, he made the best of it, apprenticing with regional blues legend Precious Bryant, traveling the country learning songs by ear, and using his connections. Surprisingly, one of the best things about Fussell‘s self-titled debut is how loosely he adheres to notions of what is or what is not “authentic.” The material comes from the great rural blues and folk traditions of the South, but his interpretations are relaxed, unfussy, and full of his own unique personality. Produced by experimental guitarist William Tyler and aided by a motley crew of Nashville vets, Fussell rolls through an often obscure yet timeless set of early blues and folk tunes with an understated grace and easy charm. Alternating between electric and acoustic guitar, his fingerpicking style is full of nuances and his warm voice resembles a slightly more ragged Paul Burch. There’s a distinct rock edge to cuts like “Let Me Lose” and “Pork and Beans,” with their full rhythm sections, double-tracked vocals, and organ parts. Other standouts like the lovely “Star Girl” mix old-time beauty with drifting pedal steel and atmospheric guitar effects. He’s not afraid to mess with the formula a bit, but neither is he showy. The way everything hangs together so seamlessly suggests a poise beyond his years. This is the kind of subtle record unlikely to make immediate waves, but with a staying power that will call for repeated listens.

The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band – So Delicious

The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band release their fifth album, So Delicious, on a revitalized Yazoo Records via Shanachie. Yazoo is a storied blues label and it’s a good fit for the Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, a trio from the backwoods of Indiana whose members desperately wish they hailed from the Delta. Such geographical displacement has a long history in American music — in the back half of the 20th century, John Fogerty‘s swamp rock from San Francisco might be the best known — so Peyton and his crew don’t feel like charlatans: they’re Americans who like to live in their ideal fantasy world. The funny thing about So Delicious is that for showing up on a blues label, it can rock pretty hard, something the clattering opening “Let’s Jump a Train” makes plain, but the Big Damn Band aren’t the Black Keys; they don’t pump up and amplify their blues for arenas, but are happy to sit on a front porch during a hot Sunday afternoon. That’s an intimate situation and, appropriately, the group slides some sweetness onto So Delicious, such as the gentle “Scream at the Night” and the ode to family “Pickin Pawpaws” (also quiet is the spectral solo slide guitar of “You’re Not Rich,” but that haunts instead of comforts). Still, the operative order of this record is a bit of full-tilt boogie and good times, an album that acknowledges there’s nothing finer than pot roast and kisses from the one you love. In other words, this is big, burly blues whose heart belongs at home.

The Word – Soul Food

Fourteen years elapsed between the Word‘s raucous self-titled debut offering and Soul Food. All the members of this supergroup — pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph, keyboardist John Medeski, and the North Mississippi Allstars (Chris Chew and Cody and Luther Dickinson) — have had full and demanding careers in the interim. Randolph was only 22, had played one gig outside his church, and had just one released track when he joined his bandmates in 2000. Soul Food was cut in New York and at Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studio in Memphis, and picks up where its predecessor left off. Musically, this is a much tighter record — none of these tunes get to the six-minute mark — but the raw, joyous, exploratory spontaneity remains; it’s just more focused. Blues, R&B, and gritty roots rock & roll are plentiful here, as is a more formal approach to gospel, but there are other sounds too. On the first soul-drenched single (and album opener), “New Word Order,” gritty Southern R&B meets the prophetic Pentecostal tradition of Randolph‘s spiritual home, the Church of God in Christ. On “Come by Here,” a squalling minor-key juke joint blues runs head-on into pre-Thomas Dorsey African-styled chants in a chorale of male voices. Randolph‘s solo screams atop Medeski‘s spiraling B-3 and keyboards and Luther‘s razored fills. Suggesting a young Mavis Staples, Ruthie Foster guests on “When I See the Blood,” a straight-up Southern gospel romp. Randolph and Medeski trade fills and fours throughout, and the entire clattering rhythm section gets as funky as it does gritty. The first of the two parts of the title track is framed inside a breezy Polynesian vibe, kissed by soul, while the second crosses funky R&B guitar with martial snares and breaks, punchy organ chords, and Randolph‘s many-toned pedal steel coloring in the frames. It eventually becomes a rave-up where the spirit of the Allman Brothers Band (whose second “home” was playing N.Y.C.) meets the groove of Otha Turner’s Fife and Drum Corps at Stax! “You Brought the Sunshine” is straight-up reggae with a dubwise Chew bassline framing a gospel piano, bluesy pedal steel, and jazzed-up B-3 and guitar vamps. “Swamp Road” feels like Booker T. & the MG’s playing in a shake shack. Luther‘s tough jazz-blues solo above Cody‘s in-the-pocket beat steals the cut. Amy Helm duets with Luther on the set closer, “Glory Glory.” What begins as a rowdy country boogie becomes a Southern-fried country gospel stomper, adorned by Wurlitzer piano, hard-swinging acoustic six-string with flatpicking breaks, brushed toms and snares, thumping standup bass, and wily pedal steel. It’s a fitting sendoff because it is an affirmation of all the Word express as a band. All these years on, Soul Food may sound as revolutionary as its predecessor, but it is stronger and far more adventurous musically.

Gretchen Peters – Blackbirds

Songwriter Gretchen Peters is a go-to for artists seeking material whose lyric depth matches its hooks. She continually goes into the marrow, revealing secrets that result in defining decisions and cathartic actions. This is especially true of her own recordings and Blackbirds takes these to an entirely new level, one shared with peers like Mickey Newbury (It Looks Like Rain) and Bruce Springsteen (Nebraska). Here she explores mortality with an unflinching gaze through a variety of unique character perspectives and musical styles. The album was co-produced by the artist with keyboardist Barry Walsh and guitarist Doug Lancio (bassist Dave Roe and drummer Nick Buda round out the band’s core). The title is a murder ballad one of three tunes co-written with Ben Glover. Lancio‘s grimy, distorted guitar recalls Neil Young‘s with Crazy Horse. Walsh‘s organ and guest Will Kimbrough‘s slide mandola color a brooding narrative that dyanmically explodes in the chorus and delivers a startling conclusion. “When All You Got Is a Hammer” is a rocker though Kimbrough tempers the tension with a charango. Jerry Douglas adds dobro and Jason Isbell‘s on backing vocals. It’s a tale about a war veteran unable to cope: “Well they show you how to shoot and they show you how to kill/But they don’t show what to do with this hole you can’t fill…” Poignancy is equally resonant on songs with gentler approaches. “The House on Auburn Street” — with Kim Richey on backing vocals — is a tribute to an absent friend. It frames the irony of suburban America as a mirror for darkness, addiction and violence. “When You Comin’ Home,” is an Americana a duet with Jimmy LaFave, thgat offers a narrative about lovers separated by addiction. On “Jubilee,” Peters sings country gospel accompanied only by Walsh‘s piano and David Henry‘s cello. Her protagonist regards death as the love’s spirit freed from the prison of the flesh; thus it can return to its origins. “Black Ribbons,” a brooding Cajun-tinged folk-blues, becomes a roiling rocker. Pump organ, accordion, electric guitars, banjo, and drums frame the protagonist saying a helpless, despairing goodbye to his wife in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The lone cover, David Mead‘s tender but steely “Nashville,” is about the death of a relationship. “The Cure for the Pain” is set in a hospital room during the waning moments of life. Peters’ protagonist experiences first anger at her plight, then moves toward the peace acceptance brings. The title cut is reprised with a different arrangement to close. Blackbirds is unsettling, but far from depressing. It is a profound, poetic, career-defining album from this recent member of Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. She knows how messy life is.

Wood & Wire – The Coast

Usually when you think of beach songs, margarita-infused numbers from the likes of Jimmy Buffett or Kenny Chesney come to mind. For Austin bluegrass band Wood & Wire, though, the beach conjures different images. “The Sea Wall,” off their latest album The Coast, tells a darker tale about beaches, one fraught with hurricanes, erosion and the wrath of mother nature.
“Here’s a less traditional sounding tune from the album written about the Sea Wall in Galveston, TX, that was built as a result of The Storm of 1900, one of the deadliest hurricanes of all time,” the band tells The BGS. “It’s also about the rising tides and shrinking beaches in the area.
“Over my lifetime, I’ve seen the beach get smaller and smaller and seen homes in the area succumb to beach erosion. I wanted the tune to feel intense and interesting, with non-conventional chords and harmonies that evoked certain emotions. Trevor and Dom really helped me come up with a cool arrangement to make that happen”

Hank Smith & Lindsey Tims – Impulse

The knockout vocals of Charly Lowry make Dark Water Rising’s soulful roots tunes worthy of attention; the tasteful arrangements and alluring harmonies increase the allure. Banjoist Hank Smith and fiddler Lindsey Tims teamed last October to release Impulse, a masterful collection of classical-Americana crossover and progressive bluegrass instrumentals. Georgia trio Crying Wolf mark modern folk with punchy flatpicking and pretty co-ed harmonies. Raleigh’s Chris Hendricks adds pop rock.

Dwight Yoakam – Second Hand Heart

Dwight Yoakam recalibrated his career with 2012’s 3 Pears, returning to his former home of Warner and reconnecting to the nerviness of his first albums. With Second Hand Heart, Yoakam continues this unfussy revival, sharpening his attack so the record breezes by at a crisp, crackling clip. Once again, he’s reviving himself through reconnecting the past but what gives Second Hand Heart life is specificity, both in its songs and sound. The former is what makes the greatest initial impression, as it seems as if he’s synthesized all the big Capitol Records acts of 1966 into one bright, ringing sound. To be sure, there’s a fair amount of Bakersfield here, especially apparent on the loping drawl of “Off Your Mind” and the crackerjack rockabilly of “The Big Time,” but the Beatles loom even larger than Buck Owens, surfacing in the chiming 12-strings of “Believe” and harmonies of “She” and evident in the general spirit of adventure that fuels Second Hand Heart. Some of Dwight’s tricks are familiar — the jet propulsion of “Man of Constant Sorrow” borrows a page from the glory days of cowpunk — but his execution is precise and he never lets the record settle in one groove for too long, not even when he tears through “Sorrow,” “Liar,” and “The Big Time” at a breakneck pace. Such sequencing gives Second Hand Heart momentum but what lasts are the songs, a collection of ten tunes — all originals save the standard “Sorrow” and the sweet denouement “V’s of Birds” — that are sturdy yet sly, their hooks sinking into the subconscious without ever drawing attention to themselves. All this means is that Second Hand Heart is prime Dwight Yoakam: traditional yet modern, flashy yet modest, a record that feels fresh but also like a forgotten classic.

Pokey LaFarge – Something in the Water

Some artists who evoke the styles of the past seem to have spent every waking moment of their adult lives struggling to sound as if they were born in a different decade. Pokey LaFarge, on the other hand, makes music that suggests he somehow passed through a wrinkle in time from 1929 to 2015, complete with his banjo in hand; LaFarge’s music never seems forced, but flows from him naturally with an easy grace, a playful insouciance, and a confidence in his talent that stops well short of arrogance. After jumping to the big leagues with his self-titled 2013 album released by Jack White’s Third Man label, LaFarge has ambled back to the independents; Something in the Water is his first album for Rounder, the venerable roots music label, but Something ranks with his best recorded work to date, maintaining the rootsy sway and swagger of his earlier albums but boasting stronger instrumental interplay and an extra dose of pep that makes the finished product especially winning. LaFarge not only sounds like a jazzbo from the age of ragtime, he writes like one, and from the vintage exotica of “Goodbye, Barcelona” and his celebration of Midwestern high life in “Knockin’ the Dust Off the Rust Belt Tonight” to his tribute to the women you don’t introduce to your mother on “Bad Girl” and the title cut, LaFarge pens songs with plenty of wit and a melodic sense that straddles the gap between vintage country and trad jazz. LaFarge is lucky enough to have a band just as committed to this sound as he is, and his accompanists help make Something in the Water pleasingly full bodied and dynamic. And producer Jimmy Sutton gives these sessions a live-in-the-studio tone that mimics the ambience of a vintage 78, but with modern-day clarity and detail. Pokey LaFarge delivers something old and new on Something in the Water, and no matter how much he reaches to the past for inspiration and influence, he’s able to make his music sound fresh and alive, and this is his strongest studio set to date.