Jack Ingram – Midnight Motel

Jack Ingram left the country mainstream after 2009’s Big Dreams & High Hopes,
an album that failed to deliver on either despite two singles that
became hits. Despite “That’s a Man” and “Barefoot and Crazy” cresting
into the Country Top 20, the album sealed his fate in Nashville, so he
wound up wandering the Americana back roads before resurfacing in 2016
with Midnight Motel on Rounder. The very title of Midnight Motel suggests a bleary pit stop, a place where you stay when you’re waylaid from your planned path. That sensibility infuses Midnight Motel,
a record that lingers upon the unplanned moments, moving slowly through
a series of laments and fireside tales, including a spoken salute to
the late Merle Haggard. This isn’t a sentimental story: it’s about a promoter who tried to run a game on Hag and Ingram. Such sly humor is a good indication of the sensibility behind Midnight Motel,
a record whose heart lies in the tattered corners and slower numbers
but also surfaces on ragged singalongs and the easy-rolling numbers that
give the album a lift. Midnight Motel is an album that asserts Ingram‘s
strengths as a songwriter — nothing here has an eye on the charts but
they’re all accessible, waiting for the right bit of polish — but the
charm of the record is how he leaves loose ends hanging, suggesting that
his story began long before this album and will continue long
afterward.

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Gillian Welch – Boots No. 1

“If any of y’all wanna give me shit about my twang, you can just do it,” Gillian Welch once told a chatty San Francisco crowd in 1994. It was two years before Welch would release her debut Revival,
but the California-bred daughter of two entertainers was already
anticipating the skepticism that would greet her when she rose to
prominence in the mid-to-late ’90s singing about destitute coal miners
and Depression-era whiskey runners with an unsettling familiarity for
someone born in New York City, raised in Los Angeles, and who found
their lifetime musical partner at a conservatory in Boston. 
In 1994, Welch’s repertoire consisted largely of a number
of songs that would never find their way onto a record, a handful of
traditional tunes, and some John Prine
covers. For an artist with an aesthetic as carefully and consistently
rendered as Gillian Welch, it’s strange to think of a time when she
wasn’t producing or reproducing that aesthetic, but was, rather,
searching for it herself.
That sense of fresh discovery and wide-eyed experimentation can be heard plainly on Boots No. 1,
Welch’s first archival release that serves as a 20th anniversary
expanded release for her debut LP.  The two-disc collection is comprised
of outtakes, demos, and alternate takes culled from the Revival
sessions, a time when Welch and guitarist Dave Rawlings were first
honing in on their precise sound, mood, and style. 
All of which goes to show that the authenticity scare that surrounded Welch upon her arrival feels, twenty years later,
almost unrecognizably dated. Perhaps it’s because Welch herself, who
would go on to play an integral role in Americana’s big-bang O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack just a few years later, has since become the very aesthetic
and artistic paradigm for 21st-century roots singer-songwriters. Or,
perhaps, it’s because the anxieties about Welch’s authentic credentials
were so misguided in the first place.

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Ags Connolly – Nothin’ Unexpected

Ags Conolly isn’t going to fool anybody. In a discipline of music
where authenticity is everything, especially in the traditional realm,
the English born, raised, and currently-residing songwriter already
starts with marks against his ability to articulate or even accurately
interpret an artform that is distinct to the American South and West,
and born from rural landscapes, wide open spaces, and a life experience
the British Isles just can’t re-create, however close certain English
locales may come in certain instances.

But the good news for Ags Connolly is he doesn’t try. He understands
this fundamental limitation more than anybody. And that is the key to
his music. Nothin’ Unexpected is traditional country, meaning
you’ll hear fiddle and steel guitar, and many other indicators that your
brain will immediately recognize as the familiar modes of country’s
original and authentic sound. But it’s all done in a voice and
perspective authentic to Ags himself instead of trying to stretch the
truth, or do his best impression. And through this, he’s able to be both
country, and authentic, despite his place of origin…

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