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Jake Xerxes Fussell



On his solo debut, Jake Xerxes Fussell sounds like an explorer. He was the son of a folklorist who documented vernacular culture in the Southeast. He’s worked with blues men and played in country bands. He was a student in the Southern Studies program at Ole Miss. He recorded with Rev. John Wilkins, and now he’s made this record, produced by guitarist William Tyler and engineered by Mark Nevers. All that travel lends the looseness and curiosity of a wanderer to the folk and blues numbers Fussell makes his own on this record. “Let Me Lose” embraces the freedom in the down and out, and you can feel that freedom, that shrugging off of burdens we don’t need, in the rolling guitar work and shuffling percussion. “Star Girl”, with melting pedal steel and Fussell’s clear, soft-spoken singing, is pastoral, bittersweet and lonesome in the best way possible. It contrasts nicely with the stomping, dusty “Raggy Levy” or the shadowy atmosphere of “Boat’s Up the River”. The album rolls through folk and blues traditions but pushes them to fresh new horizons. There’s something almost scholarly at the heart of Fussell’s approach. There’s an in-the-blood knowledge of these traditions at play, but with Tyler and others following along, it’s always Fussell’s sense of discovery, the looseness of wandering, that wins out. Even with all the history built into these songs and this record, Fussell still emerges as a fresh and vital new voice, as a singer, a musician and a torch bearer for every true sound he’s come across to now.


Paul Thorn

Tupelo, Mississippi’s Paul Thorn has a knack for synthesis. His father was a Pentecostal preacher, so Thorn grew up with gospel, but he noticed that, in his own words, “white people sang gospel like it was country music, and the black people sang it like it was rhythm & blues,” and a mix of the two gospel styles — with some gutbucket blues, old-time rock & roll, a sharp pop sense, and a gift for good old storytelling thrown in — pretty aptly describes Thorn’s own brand of inspirational roots rock. Like the professional boxer he once was, he drives his music home with patience, skill, and purpose, putting his own restless energy at the heart of things. This set of originals, which follows 2012’s What the Hell Is Goin’ On?, an album of covers, finds Thorn at his best, and no song here even comes close to being filler. Thorn writes about his native South and its characters with incisiveness, and that old Saturday night/Sunday morning split between the secular and the sacred has always been his favorite theme, the notion that you can mess up, fall from grace, and then still find some kind of personal redemption is what makes Thorn’s blend of gospel country rock and R&B sound so naturally joyous. There are several wonderful tracks here, from the opener, the easy-shuffling “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” to “I Backslide on Friday,” a fun and infectious ode to good intentions and procrastination. Thorn has been touring and recording with this same set of musicians for two decades, and the tightness and graceful, funky garage rock versatility of the band shows on the melodic country-pop gem “Don’t Let Nobody Rob You of Your Joy” and “Old Stray Dogs & Jesus,” a Tom Waits-like swampy blues that morphs into a full-blown country honky tonk tune with easy charm. Thorn was born in the cradle of rock & roll, which is also the cradle for modern gospel, blues, R&B, soul, and so much else that has gone into American pop music. He gets it. He gets how it should all go together, and like a boxer with a keen eye, he hits it solidly here.

Willie Sugarcapps

Willie Sugarcapps is a singer/songwriter supergroup comprised of Will Kimbrough, Grayson Capps, Sugarcane Jane (Savana Lee and Anthony Crawford), and Corky Hughes. Its members — most of whom live on or near the Gulf Coast of Alabama (only Kimbrough lives in Nashville, but is an Alabama native) — came together while performing a songwriter’s round at the Frog Pond gathering on Blue Moon Farm in Silverhill, Alabama. All five have deep attachments to organic music traditions of the Deep South in general, and the Gulf Coast in particular. They enlisted Grammy-winning producer / engineer (and Capps’ longtime partner) Trina Shoemaker, who also mixed the ten-song set. The album was cut in a single eight-hour session on the front porch of Sugarcane Jane’s house. Acoustic and electric guitars, mandolins, banjos, lap steel, hand percussion, kick drum, and whatever else was available were used in the moment — though minimal overdubs were added later. Country, bluegrass, blues, roots rock, gospel, and folk come together in this Southern Americana stew that reflects the rich musical culture of the Gulf Coast. Capps’ opener, “Willie Sugarcapps,” is a minor key, banjo and guitar, bass and drum-fueled blues, dressed out by staggered country-gospel harmonies. The protagonist of his “Magdalena”‘ admits his wrongs for the sole purpose of learning to do right by his beloved. Kimbrough’s “Oh Colorado” places Lee’s alto way up front; her delivery drips with longing for a return to a place whose meaning is held deep in the memory of her heart. She is accompanied by a bass drum, strummed 12-string, and lap steel. Crawford’s jaunty, cut-time “Energy,” with its banjo and fat acoustic Kala U bass, is accompanied by ringing mandolins and urgent acoustic guitars; its lyric is almost transcendentally elevated by four-part vocal harmonies. Capps’ “Poison” is a reworked reprise from his catalog; a funky, Gulf Coast shuffle that wryly yet poignantly discusses the toll of the BP Oil disaster in the region. The homey, raw grit of the instrumentation stands in sharp contrast to the seamless integration of multi-part harmony. Kimbrough’s “Trouble” weds high lonesome, bluegrass-gospel harmonies, mandolins, and his grainy baritone in the intro, before transforming the tune into a choogling blues without losing any of its otherworldly impact. Lots of records get made in a single day, but few possess the quality songwriting and inspired performances this one does. Fewer still so authentically evoke the sense of the region, topography, history, and people of a particular place. Willie Sugarcapps does all this. It is raw and immediate, yet warm, full, and inviting, all while seeming effortlessly rendered. This is the very definition of Americana.

Gurf Morlix

                                         

                                                 The Sound of Infamous Integrity
Once, when asked by a promoter for a copy of his biography, Gurf Morlix responded with just two words, “legendary integrity.” He would later admit that his response was perhaps a bit pompous, “but true,” he added. “Well, half true anyway.” The story is a telling one, demonstrating not only Morlix’s directness, which is famous among his musical colleagues – or perhaps infamous, depending on who you ask – but also his dry sense of humor and no-bullshit approach to life, music, and the music business.

Had he sent the promoter a more traditional bio, it likely would have noted that Gurf was born in Lackawanna, New York (near Buffalo), saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, formed a band (in which Peter Case made his stage debut), moved to Austin to escape the cold and play music, befriended Blaze Foley and a bunch of other Austin characters, moved to Los Angeles, worked for more than a decade as Lucinda Williams’ guitarist, band-leader and backing vocalist, produced Lucinda’s acclaimed Sweet Old World and eponymous albums, famously left Lucinda, toured with Warren Zevon, moved back to Austin, produced a number of classic Americana albums you likely own if you are any kind of Americana music fan, played on many more albums you probably own if you fall into that category, got inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame, received the Americana Music Association’s “Instrumentalist of the Year” award, went on to make seven critically acclaimed albums of his own, and then toured the world supporting them. He now continues to play live, produce albums for the artists that move him, and make his own albums. He even goes fishing ever once in a while.

That’s the resume, but it’s Gurf’s integrity, combined his near innate sense of music and how to make it sound not just good, but great, that have attracted so many well-respected artists to work with him over the years – folks like Ian McLagan, Patty Griffin, Robert Earl Keen, Buddy Miller, Mary Gauthier, Tom Russell, Butch Hancock, Slaid Cleaves and Ray Wylie Hubbard, just to name a few. And, oh yeah, he can make nearly any instrument with strings either sing or growl, depending on the needs of the song, like no other musician out there.

Gurf’s eighth album, 2015’s Eatin’ At Me, kicks off with wailing guitars and an annual family car trip to “Dirty Ol’ Buffalo.” Never one to shy away from the gritty side of life, the portrait he paints of the rust belt city of his youth, with its rugged roads and smoky orange air, ain’t pretty, but it’s real and authentic to the core. Unlike the shiny city of today, all polished up with money and a thin coat of paint barely hiding the grease below, “Dirty Ol’ Buffalo” is the kind of place that stays with a person long after they’ve left.

The nine songs that follow on Eatin’ At Me have that same lasting quality and clearly come from a man who looks at life and the world around him, with all its grit and glory, unflinchingly. His songs tell tales of love and regret, happy memories and heartbreak, the kinds of things that stay will with a person, eating away at them, if allowed. What makes the songs unshakable is indeed Gurf’s “legendary integrity,” the authenticity of the characters he introduces, the empathy and fearlessness with which their stories are told, and the care with which the songs are made. No word, no note, is out of place, and like the many well-known and well-loved albums he’s produced and played on, Gurf’s own records are infused with his trademark grit and muddy groove resulting in quality that’s so real, listeners will feel it in their bones. Indeed, it’s the kind of album that stays with a person long after they’ve listened.

Cahalen Morrison & Eli West

It means something that the word about Americana roots duo Cahalen Morrison & Eli West spread first among musicians. Their debut album was passed around the ranks of some of the best American roots bands, raved about to fans online, and seen as a model to strive for in songwriting and musicianship. In this way, you could think of Cahalen & Eli as musician’s musicians. They’re the artists that other artists run to see at a festival. This is because their music seems effortlessly simple, but is complex enough to engage us far beyond the usual way we listen to roots music. Cahalen Morrison’s songwriting is as much informed by the dark lyricism of Cormac McCarthy as it is by Appalachian stringband songs, and Eli West’s angular, racing arrangements owe as much to the speed and aggression of early jazz as they do to bluegrass greats like Bill Monroe. Together they make music that draws from the well of American tradition, but reshapes these traditions into beautiful new forms.

With their new album, I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands, Cahalen Morrison & Eli West have perfected their chemistry as a duo, falling into long-form instrumental grooves and threading their vocal harmonies together as tightly as a weaver. Produced by Grammy-winning artist Tim O’Brien, they recorded the album at the Colorado Rockies studio ofAaron Youngberg. Colorado FiddlerRyan Drickey returned for the album, and renowned Boston fiddler Brittany Haas joined on as well. Erin Youngberg played bass, and Tim O’Brien brought out the mandolin and bouzouki, but the focus here belongs on the musical intimacy shared between Cahalen & Eli. As instrumentalists (Cahalen on banjo, mandolin, bouzouki, and dobro and Eli on guitar and bouzouki), their interplay is revelatory. Their melody and harmony lines duck and weave around each other; an interconnected roots system of music that seems to have no beginning or end. Their vocals intertwine as well, with Eli’s harmonies nudging Cahalen’s melodies into new and unexpected directions. Here they trade the lead more than ever, with Eli moving to the front on songs like “Pocket Full of Dust.” The traditional songs covered on the album are chosen with great care, from old-time singer Alice Gerrard’s slow dirge “Voices of Evening” to country legends The Louvin Brothers’ “Lorene.” As a songwriter, Cahalen has brought a lighter touch to his songs, as can be heard on “James is Out” about an ornery mule, or “Livin’ In America,” a fun yet biting song about American privilege. But his raw, transcendent power as a lyricist is still on display here. Songs like “Fiddlehead Fern” or “Down in the Lonesome Draw” showcase his uncommon ability to use evocative natural imagery to channel human emotions.

Cahalen Morrison & Eli West make music with the hands of master craftsmen wise beyond their years. They make music that’s informed by the roots of American music, whether country, bluegrass, old-time, or blues, but also music that touches deeper than the tradition. They approach music not as a craft that must be labored over, but as an act of creation, an effort to touch the unknown with eyes closed and fingers wrapped around the neck of your instrument and voices raised in beautiful harmony.

anchor & the butterfly

anchor & the butterfly is a collaboration between songwriter and singer Bridget Robertson and guitarist Lance Hillier. From their home in Central Victoria, Australia they create music in a converted tin shed in their back garden. Music that is emotionally honest, beautifully lyrical with a healthy dose of heartbreak and toil.

Taking their inspiration from artists like Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris, anchor & the butterfly play comfortably on the sidelines of the indie folk and country traditions, using subtle instrumentation of acoustic instruments coupled with lush electric guitars.

The duo released their debut album Nothing to Win Nothing to Lose in early 2014. The album was written and recorded over a three year period between life and other commitments including a spell for Lance to engineer and co-produce The Cannanes critically acclaimed album Howling at all Hours.

The duo has conjured a rousing collection of songs on this album, appearing like odes and tributes for old friends and comrades. Lyrically the album swings beautifully between the dichotomy of human emotions in times of change -sadness and celebration, joy and despondency.
The album brings into sharp focus that feeling you have just before something big occurs, as an influential moment descends– the last breath, the final goodbye, an acute shift in circumstance.
Songwriter for the duo, Bridget Robertson is well know for her masterful ‘turn of phrase’ and emotionally charged lyrics. Nowhere is this more evident than on the title track of the album Nothing to Win Nothing to Lose- “you went from the north, coast to coast, a stranger and a ghost, making plans, you were my friend first when that overwhelming thing crashed into us, it was a hastened act”.
The delicately constructed lyrics are perfectly supported by the lush and looming arrangements of mood driven guitars and flourishes of mandolin, piano, keyboards and percussion.
The creative process for this release is unique for a musical act that spends so much time together and plays onstage with such an alluring chemistry.
Bridget says of the process “We created this album mostly in single isolation from each other. We only really worked together when laying down the guide tracks and when friends arrived to lay down bass and percussion tracks” she says.
“Once the guide tracks were put down Lance would disappear into the studio for days on end finessing tracks. The studio often resembled a mad scientists workshop with instruments, effects units and equipment strewn across the floor”.
The end result is worth it. Anchor & the butterfly have crafted a beautifully expansive album that flourishes with joyful melancholy and a harnessed intensity. An attention to detail and craft that should be celebrated and keenly observed.

Gretchen Peters

“I get a lot of juice from the musicians in the room,” says Gretchen Peters.

In the case of her new album, ‘Blackbirds,’ “juice” is certainly understatement.
Recorded in Nashville, the album features a who’s who of modern American roots
music: Jerry Douglas, Jason Isbell, Jimmy LaFave, Will Kimbrough, Kim Richey, Suzy
Bogguss and more. But it’s not the guests that make ‘Blackbirds’ the most poignant and
moving album of Peters’ storied career; it’s the impeccable craftsmanship, her ability
to capture the kind of complex, conflicting, and overwhelming emotional moments we
might otherwise try to hide and instead shine a light of truth and understanding onto
them.
‘Blackbirds’ is, in many ways, an album that is unafraid to face down mortality. But
rather than dwell on the pain of loss, the music finds a new appreciation for the life
we’re given.
“During the summer of 2013 when I began writing songs for ‘Blackbirds,’ there was one
week when I went to three memorial services and a wedding,” remembers Peters. “It
dawned on me that this is the way it goes as you get older – the memorial services
start coming with alarming frequency and the weddings are infrequent and thus
somehow more moving. You understand the fragility of life, and the beauty of two
people promising to weather it together.”
Peters found herself drawn to artists courageous enough to face their own aging and
mortality in their work (Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Nick Lowe),
but noticed all the material was coming from a male perspective.
“As brave an artistic risk as it may be for a man, it’s much riskier for a woman to speak
about it,” says Peters. “There’s a cultural expectation that women artists should either
shut up about it or disappear entirely. Aging seems to be a taboo subject for female
singer-songwriters, in part because our value has depended so much on our youth and
sexuality. The depth and beauty and terror and richness of life in my fifties is
obviously, to me, the deepest well of experience I can draw from as an artist. I want
to write about that stuff because it’s real, it’s there, and so few women seem to be
talking about it.”

If anyone can open up that conversation, it’s Peters. Inducted into the prestigious
Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014, she has long been one of Music City’s most
beloved and respected artists, known never to shy away from darkness and struggle in
her writing. Martina McBride’s recording of her stirring “Independence Day,” a song that
deals with domestic abuse, was nominated for a Grammy and took home Song of the
Year honors at the CMAs, and her work has been performed by everyone from Etta
James and Neil Diamond to George Strait and Trisha Yearwood. “If Peters never delivers
another tune as achingly beautiful as ‘On A Bus To St. Cloud,'” People Magazine wrote,
“she has already earned herself a spot among country’s upper echelon of contemporary
composers.”
‘Blackbirds’ follows Peters’ 2012 album ‘Hello Cruel World,’ which NPR called “the album
of her career” and Uncut said “establishes her as the natural successor to Lucinda
Williams.” If anything, though, ‘Blackbirds’ truly establishes Peters as a one-of-a-kind
singer and songwriter, one in possession of a fearless and endlessly creative voice.
In an atypical and unexpectedly rewarding move, Peters teamed with frequent
tourmate Ben Glover to co-write several tunes on the new album, which evokes the
kind of 1970’s folk rock of Neil Young, David Crosby, and Joni Mitchell that Peters grew
up on, albeit with a more haunted twist.

“I haven’t been a big fan of co-writing and it’s not my natural M.O.,” she explains, “but I
feel a deep kinship with Ben. I knew before I went in to write with him that there
were no depths to which he wouldn’t go. I felt a certain safety.”
The first song she penned with Glover, the murder ballad “Blackbirds,” is set deep in
southern Louisiana and opens the album with an ominous, country-noir vibe that
simmers just below the surface of the entire collection.
“That song just kind of came out of us,” says Peters. “Writing it was a lot like
investigating a crime. We were sitting in my writing room and we had some lines and
the chorus and we were just talking to each other trying to figure out ‘What actually
happened here? What’s the story?’ It felt like we were following clues.”
Geographically, the album leaps around the country, with particularly heartrending
stops in Pelham, New York, where Peters probes the hidden darkness of the leafy
suburbia in which she grew up (“The House On Auburn Street”), and the Gulf of Mexico,
where a fisherman lays his wife to rest after losing everything in the BP oil spill
(“Black Ribbons”). “When All You Got Is A Hammer” is the story of a veteran struggling
to adjust to life at home after fighting overseas, while “The Cure For The Pain” takes
place in the waning days of illness in a hospital, and “Nashville” brings us back to
Peters’ adopted hometown.
Despite the varied locations, the songs on ‘Blackbirds’ are all inextricably tied together
through their characters, whom Peters paints with extraordinary empathy and vivid
detail.
“These songs are stories of lost souls, people trapped in the darkness, or fighting their
way out of it,” she says. “I think we need to talk more about that, more honestly. We
throw words like ‘closure’ around as if it’s a panacea, but sometimes pain outlasts us.
Sometimes it doesn’t go away. There is no way out but through.”
Finding the way through is what Peters does best. The songs on ‘Blackbirds’ may take
place in the dark night of the soul, but Peters ensures we never lose sight of the
delicate beauty of the journey. Sometimes, as she sings so compassionately, “The cure
for the pain is the pain.”