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Asleep at the Wheel – Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys

Technically, it’s been 16 years since Asleep at the Wheel last saluted Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys — with 1999’s Ride with Bob, recorded for the short-lived DreamWorks Records — but it’s never like Ray Benson‘s ensemble ever strayed far from Western Swing. Their first album in 1973 was chock-full of Wills standards and their last, 2010’s It’s a Good Day, showcased former Texas Playboy Leon Rausch, so Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys is squarely in the group’s comfort zone. Fortunately, Asleep at the Wheel never sound too comfortable on this generous 22-track tribute. Part of that is down to the decision of Benson and company to construct Still the King as an outright party, inviting old and new friends to sit in and sing both classics and nuggets from the deep Wills songbook. Having star after star take the center stage keeps things lively, particularly because the guest list is sharply balanced between old friends like Merle Haggard, George Strait, and Lyle Lovett — fellow disciples of Wills, one and all — with newer roots acts like the Avett Brothers, the Old Crow Medicine Show, Kat Edmonson, the Time Jumpers, and Elizabeth Cook. Everybody is welcome, no matter if it’s Jamey Johnson slurring his way through “Brain Cloudy Blues” or Brad Paisley running roughshod across “My Window Faces the South,” or Carrie Rodriguez and Emily Gimble joshing through “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and it’s fun to hear Asleep at the Wheel accommodating each of their styles. This casual versatility points out who the real star of the show is, though: it remains Benson‘s group, whose way with Western Swing has only grown more soulful over the years. Clearly, Asleep at the Wheel draw sustenance from the music of the Texas Playboys, finding life within these old songs, and their love remains infectious and palpable after all these years.

Whitney Rose – Heartbreaker Of The Year

Whitney Rose is a Canadian country singer and songwriter in love with the countrypolitan era. For her, the Nashville of Peggy Lee, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, and new traditionalists Keith Whitley and Patty Loveless still exists. Her acclaimed self-titled 2012 debut displayed that to some degree, but Heartbreaker of the Year proves it definitively. It was produced by the MavericksRaul Malo, who also sings and plays on it, accompanied by some of his bandmates, as well as Canadian guitar slinger Nichol Robertson and others. What’s most interesting is Rose‘s singing voice: it sounds thoroughly contemporary, even as it recalls Lee‘s sultry pop approach, Dolly Parton‘s sincerity, and Tammy Wynette‘s confidence. Speaking of Wynette, the cover here of Phil Spector‘s “Be My Baby” is thoroughly retooled, with Malo and Rose recalling the late queen’s duets with George Jones. The other remake is an understated reading of Hank Williams‘ “There’s a Tear in My Beer.” The rest are Rose‘s songs, and they shine. The bluesy title track, with its nocturnal Telecaster twang and finger-snapping rhythm, can only be called “country noir.” “Little Piece of You,” with its upright piano, whining pedal steel, and tight guitar shuffle, lies right on the seam between countrypolitan and vintage girl group pop. “The Last Party” is a honky tonk weeper, with backing vocals from Malo. The ache in the lyric is underscored by the simmering passion in Rose‘s delivery. She has plenty of sass too, as uptempo tracks “Lasso” and “The Devil Borrowed My Boots” attest. The former melds vintage country & western and surf while the latter has a vamp that recalls “Harper Valley PTA,” but has more shimmy than swagger. Heartbreaker of the Year reveals that Rose can craft killer hooks, deliver slippery lyric turns, and create provocative juxtapositions in her arrangements to accommodate her voice. On this album she extends the boundaries of classic country music without erasing its boundaries or sacrificing it to the realm of nostalgia. Heartbreaker of the Year is one of 2015’s most welcome surprises.

Corb Lund- Things That Can’t Be Undone

Canadian country songwriter Corb Lund made a left turn on 2014’s Counterfeit Blues with a twist on a greatest-hits album: He and his Hurtin’ Albertans revisited catalog tracks by re-cutting them live at Sun Studio in Memphis. It was a half-rockabilly boogie and half-honky tonk stage burner. Things That Can’t Be Undone is a return to new material, and a more logical extension of his Juno-winning 2012 set Cabin Fever. Working in Nashville with producer Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson), these ten songs combine Lund‘s rambling, Canadian frontier cowboy take on country with Cobb‘s modern sonic vision of it. Opener “Weight of the Gun” updates both Merle Haggard‘s “Mama Tried” and Steve Earle‘s “Devil’s Right Hand.” The lyric and melody are pure country, but the musical arrangement comes straight out of the early Northern Soul playbook. The fit is seamless; the production underscores the poignancy in the lyric. “Run This Town” is a stellar, busted love song. Retro in feel, it’s bathed in warm, reverbed pedal steel and lead guitar, strummed acoustics, brushed snares, and Kristen Rogers‘ gorgeous harmony vocals. Choogling razor-wire rockabilly drives “Alt Berliner Blues.” Its metaphorical narrative takes on U.S-style capitalist expansion after the Cold War without a bit of preachiness. “Alice Eyes” is an intimate, sad love song, co-written with Austin, Texas’ Jason Eady. A Beatles riff is the fuel for “Sadr City” and Cobb delivers production magic to the most devastating song on the set. Lund‘s words juxtapose the view of a haunted vet against a melody fueled by a jangly guitar hook, strummed and spacy pedal steel, and shuffling snare. Layers of reverb effects assert instruments at unexpected times, adding even more heft to particular lines. “Washed-Up Rock Star Factory Blues” is a darkly humorous indictment of the music business in grooving trucker honky tonk and offers a lyrical nod to David Allan Coe‘s “Take This Job and Shove It.” The cut-time 2-step “Goodbye Colorado” sonically recalls the outlaw Nashville sound of the ’70s, but that feel is offset by Lund‘s road-weary lyrics. “Talk Too Much” is a swaggering, snarling rockabilly blues with stinging guitars, skittering snare, a fingerpopping refrain, and an instrumental chord bridge that sounds like a mid-’60s British rave-up. The pairing of Lund and Cobb on Things That Can’t Be Undone is a feather in both their caps; as an album, it forges a new path in country music, yet remains exceptionally close to the tradition’s heart.

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.