Betse & Clarke. River Still Rise

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Last we heard from Betse Ellis, the firecracker fiddle player of The Wilders, was on her fine solo album High Moon Order (which we reviewed here ), an album that portrayed her very fine skills in the world of traditional American music while dipping its toes into more contemporary waters as on her cover of The Clash’s Straight To Hell. On River Still Rise she’s teamed up with banjo player Clarke Wyatt for an entertaining journey of sorts through traditional and old time songs and tunes, their band name and the album title deliberately recalling the exploring duo of Lewis & Clark as the duo carry out their own explorations.

With Ellis on fiddle, viola and vocals and Wyatt on banjos and cello they provide a conduit to the past, the music here (aside from three originals) plucked from a canon that includes the Child Ballads, Charlie Poole, Clarence Ashley and the still with us centenarian Violet Hensley. These old songs and tunes are rearranged by Ellis and Wyatt with brio, there’s a vitality and a sense of fun that prevents the album from becoming a history lesson although part of the enjoyment here is in actually reading the history of the songs and to this end there are extensive notes on the selections available here .  While the pair can easily let loose on songs such as Diamond Joe, Take A Drink On Me and the rollicking Rolling River (with Betse’s vocals whoopin’ away) elsewhere there’s an elegiac grandeur, a reverential nod to those pioneers who created such great music in such hard times. This is probably most evident on the pair of tunes associated with Ms. Hensley, Jericho and Fill My Way With Love, the former almost a chamber piece, delicate and awe inspiring.

There are pieces which will be familiar to folk such as Fair and Tender Ladies, Requiem For Little Sadie and the John Hartford inspired The Quail Is A Pretty Bird, others much more obscure but each and all a delight. With occasional support on upright bass and guitar from the band Brushy Creek Betse & Clarke sail through the album with aplomb, keeping tradition alive. Overall the album is an essential purchase for anyone interested in old time mountain (and river) music.

River Still Rise is available now and Betse & Clarke are currently on tour in Ireland, dates here.

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My Darling Clementine Tour and Album news

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Blabber’n’Smoke is mighty pleased to report that My Darling Clementine (Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish) are returning to Scotland in September, their first dates here since their successful stint at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe where they performed their Americana mystery tale, The Other Half with crime writer Mark Billingham. An intriguing blend of Billingham’s narratives about characters whose lives revolve around a small time bar in a small time town and My Darling Clementine’s songs the show and accompanying album (review here) were acclaimed and the trio performed the show across the UK until the end of last year. While plans are afoot for their next album My Darling Clementine are playing six dates in Scotland starting in Edinburgh on 6th September and two of the shows (Glasgow and Stirling) will feature Billingham as they again perform The Other Half. You can  read about the genesis of this multi media show in this interview from last year.

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On the recording front My Darling Clementine confirm that they are recording their next album which will be one step removed from the classic country duet style that informed their debut How Do You Plead? and its follow up, The Reconciliation. There were hints of a more Memphis based sound on some of the songs on the latter and on the new album, provisionally entitled The 3rd and Final Testament, the pedal steel and fiddle give way to horns and funky guitar, more Delaney & Bonnie than George & Tammy apparently. With a due date of March 2017 we can only patiently await the release but in the meantime the tour offers the opportunity to see the pair who have, according to Country Music People,  recorded the “greatest UK country record ever made”

My Darling Clementine

The Other Half

Mark Billingham

 

 

Les Johnson and Me. 15 Hands. Holy Smokes Records

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Not a new release but one that was new to Blabber’n’Smoke when we encountered Les Johnson at a house gig a few weeks ago (which you can read about here). We were very impressed by Johnson on the night, his baritone vocals and seam of dark humour impressive and both are present and correct on the 12 songs contained on 15 Hands, his debut album. Equally impressive are the settings for his songs, in the main delivered by The Shiverin’ Sheiks, a glorious time capsule of reverbed rockabilly, Cash like boom chicka boom and shimmering Tin Pan Alley melodrama with a hint of Joe Meek weirdness. Johnson croons and slowly burns his way through his set of songs with an easy authority equally at ease with the unabashed romanticism of Break Your Heart, a real tear jerker that sits up there with the best of Richard Hawley, the soul stirring country gospel of Beckon Me To The Light and the Celtic lilt of Sweet Promises.

For a man who says he never wrote a song until he was 46 Johnson certainly has a way with words, his more straightforward lyrics packed with arresting couplets such as the chorus on the stumblebum lament Small Time Big where he sings “Oh My Lord you made me your son, I got a god but you’re not the one. No, money is the one I want, ‘cos I ain’t got none, yet.”  The aching ballad Someone Who Cares rivals Kris Kristofferson with its descriptions of a troubled man as Johnson sings, “And you can walk wide and slipslide but you still ain’t able to move. With the evil and deeds done to you, you got nothin to lose.” This version of Kristofferson of course would be overweight in a soiled gold lame suit searching for the searchlight in a seedy Vegas nightclub. Elsewhere Johnson’s dark humour is evident as on the title song’s tale of a cowboy’s love of his horse which may go beyond the platonic, at the very least he advises, “Don’t fuck with my baby, she’s fifteen hands.The Morning After (The Night It All Came Down) is a homoerotic vision of comradeship in the face of adversity while Silver Suit complete with cheesy organ trimmings is an over the top obituary, Elvis in his cups, that celebrates a fallen idol whose showbiz career goes to pot when a man catches fire at the front of his house.

At his best Johnson reminds one of the garish karaoke weirdness of Dean Stockwell channelling Roy Orbison in Blue Velvet but we need to mention the most Scottish song contained here, the wonderful duet with Katie McArthur that is Dear Marvin. Here Johnson and McArthur inhabit George Jones and Tammy Wynette as played by Rab C Nesbitt and his wife Mary Doll, she singing “I’m gonna brain you Marvin” as she lists his defects, he, a Govan Zen master, accepting his fate.

A grand album then and if you’re quick off the mark you can catch Les Johnson tonight as he is appearing at Glasgow’s Broadcast, information here.

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Martha L Healy. To Be Free EP

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Glaswegian Martha L Healy recorded her fine debut album Better Days  in Nashville and is soon heading back over there for an extended stay in anticipation of album No. 2. In the meantime she has brought a little bit of Nashville over to Glasgow in the form of this four song EP which was recorded “on a cold January weekend” at La Chunky Studios with producer Johnny Smillie. The EP, two original songs and two covers, features Healy in fine voice, gutsy and with just the right amount of high and lonesome yearning, accompanied by Rebecca Brown on fiddle, Sean Thompson, banjo and David O’Neill on double bass with backing vocals from Paul Healy.

The acoustic set up (and excellent playing) allows Healy’s voice to shine, tackling the Patsy Cline standard Walkin’ After Midnight excellently, her bluesy inflections mirrored well by Brown’s fine fiddle. Likewise on Hank Williams’ I Saw The Light where she and the band sound as if they’re veterans of The Grand Ole Opry, Healy in effervescent Gospel mode over the string band jubilations.  Of her own songs, Too Much Time (co-written with Paul Healy) is a reflective piece that recalls the likes of Gretchen Peters or Mary Chapin Carpenter with the band creating a sumptuous and sweetly flowing backdrop. Speaking of Gretchen Peters we know that Healy was a participant in the recent song writing workshops held by the award-winning songstress recently in Edinburgh. Hearing a song like Too Much Time one wonders why as Ms. Healy here manages to encapsulate an artist’s dilemma wonderfully, melody and hooks and all. Joking aside the EP’s title song, To Be Free,  does portray Healy as an excellent writer and performer with the song able to stand tall alongside creations from Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. Here the band head into Appalachian Carter Family territory as Healy rails devotional and defiant, her voice as vibrant as her Nashville heroines, a staggeringly good song.

As we said earlier Ms. Healy is heading back to Nashville for a while but there’s a chance to catch her in concert this Thursday at the EP launch at Glasgow’s Glad Cafe. On this form it’s sure to be a great night. Tickets here

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Tildon Krautz. A Love (No. 3)

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Two years back Tildon Krautz came into my life via an intricate, delightful and slightly mysterious package that contained their second album (which I reviewed here ). Recently a similar package arrived, another homemade delight with drawings that recall Edwards Lear and Gorey and within, Tildon Krautz No. 3 AKA A Love (although a delicate scribble on the sleeve records that main man Greg Weiss wanted to call the album Nonszalancki, a Polish word that roughly translates as flippant or nonchalant). Flippant they may be (see the brief song they call Extracts which is basically singer Gabi Swiatkowska and Weiss singing karaoke style over an MOR arrangement of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You which bizarrely pops up halfway through the album), but at heart they deliver yet again a wonderfully spare and left field take on old time roots music with hints of chanson and music hall thrown in.

While initially a listener might think that there’s a naiveté abound here, simple songs with catchy choruses, closer listening reveals a smart wit within the words while the playing is deceptively simple, a ramshackle tumble that takes talent to sound this good. This is evident from the opening Benny Song, a delightful ditty that  tiptoes along with a mandolin carrying the main tune as Weiss and Swiatkowska squabble wonderfully like Sonny & Cher sitting on an Appalachian back porch. This back porch picking continues on the fine Life Apart and on Weiss’  excellent Fish, a song that brings to mind John Sebastian in a sunny mood while Disney Song plinks and plunks along as the pair sing surreally about a cat and a discombobulated mouse.

With Marco Hertz and Noel Migliasso on hand on various stringed instruments along with Jim Rowe adding drums on occasion there’s a bit more heft to several of the songs. Disco Song won’t be worrying the Bee Gees but its up tempo banjo beat drives yet another squabbling couples song, Weiss and Swiatkowska sounding quite impassioned here. La Chanson Grave adds a string section for a sombre showcase from Swiatkowska, her fluttering voice sounding vulnerable against the woody timbre of the cello and viola. Weiss delves into darker areas on Longer Than 29, a pensive song that recalls the work of poet Robert Frost and the mournful meanderings of Will Oldham, a trick he repeats and surpasses on the closing song Letter To Dango. A brooding missive that opens with a portentous swell of strings it’s an existentialist folk song that finally lands on the side of human kindness.

Not your everyday cup of tea perhaps but Tildon Krautz are simply sublime and deserve wider hearing.

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Steve Grozier. Take My Leave EP.

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If you’re familiar with Glasgow’s local music scene then chances are that the name Steve Grozier is not new to you. Since his return to the city last year after a spell abroad he’s been a regular at pub and club gigs while also appearing at various festivals and at prestige venues such as King Tuts and Edinburgh’s Voodoo Rooms. Normally a solo act and described by one reviewer as a player of “drifting, haunting, charming, bluesy folk”  Grozier has opted for a band approach for this four song debut EP and is ably supported here by up and coming Glasgow Americana band Anton & The Colts who drape his songs in a warm Laurel Canyon vibe.

Drink Before Dawn opens the EP, lush strummed guitars driving the beat as Grozier’s effortless vocals evoke carefree times driving through the night with friends and eking it out at the last road stop. With guitarist Roscoe Wilson turning out some fine acoustic lead lines the song is more Gene Clark than the Eagles, a fine melancholia offsetting the freewheeling lifestyle Grozier is recalling. Porcelain Hearts is chunkier, a wee bit of Stray Gators in the syrupy rhythm here, the band on top form actually with the guitar curling excellently around swampy byways as Grozier almost croons a delicate love song couched in mystery.

Take My Leave is raw in comparison to its predecessors, the acoustic guitar big and bold, closely miked, Grozier’s voice velvet in comparison as he revisits streets and a home that knows his name, passing broken down arcades searching for memories. Ringing Of The Bells returns to the carefree strum of the opening song, the band freewheeling in fine style with a neat country rock lope that is ramshackle in the best Big Pink sense.

Overall the EP is a fine introduction to Grozier’s world, a world that benefits from the very fine accoutrements of The Colts particularly on Porcelain Hearts. A recent live session on Pulse Radio saw him play several of the songs solo and he’s more than able to carry them off armed just with his guitar, the band here are the icing on the cake. The good news is that there will be a launch party for the EP at Glasgow’s Hug and Pint on September 1st with The Colts playing with the man, the ticket price including a copy of the EP.  Should be a fine night.

 

Western Centuries. Weight Of The World. Free Dirt Records

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Back in 2014 Blabber’n’Smoke enthused about Cahalen Morrison‘s offshoot album under the guise of Country Hammer . Morrison is best known as one half of Morrison & West, prime purveyors of bare boned roots music but Country Hammer saw him head into honky tonk dance music, joyous and tear stained, rooted in Hank Williams with a touch of The Band, Morrison aided and abetted by chums Jim Miller and Ethan Lawton. Now Country Hammer has evolved into Western Century, essentially the same trio but with a more democratic spread across the writing and with Miller and Lawton more in evidence on their respective lead vocals. Morrison, Miller and Lawton deliver here a tremendous album that is cooked in a delicious stew brewed from Waylon Jennings grit filled barnstormers, tear filled ballads and some of that old cosmic cowboy music from the seventies with several of the songs reminding us of The New Riders Of The Purple Sage and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

The trio swap various guitars and share drum duties with bass supplied by Dan Lowinger along with stellar pedal steel throughout from Rusty Blake and fiddle from Rosie Newton on nine of the twelve songs. A versatile bunch they can tackle with ease outlaw honky tonk on What Will They Say About Us Now, Big Pink romps like Knocking ‘Em Down, tear and beer stained ballads on Sadder Day or the gliding country rock of The Long Game. Newton’s fiddle and Blake’s pedal steel dart and dash over the steady beat with occasional twanged solos while the three vocalists add more variety to what is an already  varied set. There’s a cornucopia of delights to be found here with repeated listening throwing up new favourites each time. A casual airing might find the light and breezy tones of Philosophers And Fools and In My Cups a balm on a summer day and Sadder Days just right for those who like to be reminded of George Jones’ like lachrymose broodings. Anyone hankering after The Band will love Rock Salt and The Long Game, the spirit of Levon Helm surely residing therein. Closer attention pays dividends however as lyrically all three writers excel, at times deconstructing or updating the familiar tropes of country music. Philosophers And Fools is a break up song that challenges Sturgill Simpson’s metaphysical leanings and is surely the first country song to mention Tinder. The truck driving intro to What Will They Say About Us Now leads into a song about a mid life crisis while the halting and slightly off kilter love song Off The Shelf is wonderfully sung by Lawton not to a woman but to his first hit of booze in the morning.

Weight Of The World is, quite simply, a delight. Country rock heaven for anyone into Gram or The Band or even The Dead back in their Workingman days along with more recent stalwarts such as Sturgill Simpson or Ryan Adams.

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The Westies/Michael McDermott

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The Westies, a Chicago based outfit fronted by husband and wife Michael McDermott and Heather Horton are named after an Irish affiliated New York gang of the ’60s and 70’s whose home turf was Hell’s Kitchen. Their debut album, released last year was a powerful package of bruised and gritty urban tales which recalled the likes of Springsteen and Willie Niles. Six On The Out very much continues in this vein with McDermott saying, “I was focused on the story, a second instalment. What happens next to these characters?” What happens next is more tales of urban struggle, the outsider trying to fit in, damaged characters with traumatic pasts, physically and emotionally wounded, McDermott gives voice to them all with a grim authority that is partly drawn from his own back story.

As in a Peckinpah movie there is violence galore here but it’s delivered with panache, the blood and guts offered an artistic out, in this case the craftsmanship and, at times, the sheer beauty of the lyrics and music. For the most part there’s a muscular drive to  the songs which vary from pained country styled ballads to blue collar rock, Horton’s fiddle as much to the fore as guest Will Kimbrough’s guitar. The opener If I Had A Gun is a fine scene setter, the protagonist just released from jail straight back into the scene’s that sent him there in the first place.  A sinister piece with lashes of guitar over a slow beat as McDermott huskily narrates it’s dramatic and somewhat unnerving and he repeats this on several other songs on the album with the closing song Sirens  a raw tale of childhood violence, drugs and jail and car wrecks, as dark as the darkest hardboiled American authors.

While the lyrical content is not much lighter the band offer up the Irish influenced The Gang’s All Here, head into Bruce territory on the driving Santa Fe and retell the tale of Billy The Kid on Henry McCarty  (the Kid’s real name). Horton gets to sing lead on Like You Used To Do, a wonderful broken down country waltz, her voice so evocative as she sings about a relationship shattered by her man’s drinking, her voice echoed by a hurting guitar solo. Is it fair to ask that McDermott and Horton consider doing more of this as an album of hurt Heather Horton songs could be a winner.

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In the meantime it’s McDermott who has released a solo album, Willow Springs. Apparently it’s his tenth effort after being signed to a major label back in the early nineties. His bio is refreshingly honest in that, alongside the initial hype of the times, he screwed up, succumbing to booze and drugs,  eventually kind of limping along until he achieved sobriety. A couple of years clean now and with a wife and baby daughter egging him on he is on a roll with two albums from The Westies (along with his wife Heather Horton) under his belt and now this solo album. In fact many of the names on The Westies’ album reappear including Horton, Will Kimbrough and Lex Price and the difference between the albums is at times paper thin. McDermott still reminds one of Springsteen although in this case it’s the Springsteen who reminded folk of Dylan way back in the seventies. Lyrically the albums do differ, Willow Springs still contains its fair share of stories but they’re more opaque than the blood spattered city street tales of Six On The Out and one gets the sense that the romantic losers and redeemed rebels sung about here are McDermott’s way of making sense of his own journey.

While Getaway Car and Half Empty Kinda Guy press the pedal on the E Street highway a little too enthusiastically the opening title song points the finger at Dylan as McDermott fires out the alliterative lyrics with machine gun rapidity as he travels down his own desolation row. The venom at the beginning of the song is eventually supplanted by a sense of hope and the album follows suit almost with its closing songs portraying a man more comfortable in his own skin and able to manage his emotions. In between there is confusion on the brisk These Last few Days, a rebel without a cause on Getaway Car and on the haunting Soldiers Of The Same War casualties build up as folk try to run from their past.

They say before you can get up you have to hit bottom and on Butterfly McDermott paints a grim picture of addiction before seeing a light at the end of the tunnel on Half Empty Kind Of Guy and trepidatiously allowing himself to feel again on One Minus One. On the self mocking Folksinger McDermott is in control and able to poke some fun at the thought of him and Bono sitting on top of their millions and there’s a genuine sense of joy and relief in the sweet and soulful Let A Little Light In, a song that recalls Danny and The Champs country soul with its backing horn section. In the notes for the album McDermott says that in his turbulent years he also had to endure the death of his father and Shadow In The Window is an affectionate tribute to the man who raised him. Switching generations Willie Rain is a delightful ditty dedicated to his daughter (which opens with her saying “I love you daddy”) and it’s delivered with a jaunty country lope. McDermott closes the album with the grand sweep of What Dreams May Come, a powerful and emotive song of hope and dreams that again centres on his father but which also looks to the future. Sung and played with a dignified restraint the song avoids mawkishness and is a fine closing statement on what is a very fine album.

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Petunia & The Vipers. Dead Bird On the Highway.

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Joy indeed to have the third album from the oddly named and even odder sounding Canadian outfit Petunia & The Vipers as Blabber’n’Smoke was somewhat enamoured of the two previous releases which we reviewed here and here. Dead Bird On The Highway sees Petunia continuing to wander into the more esoteric byways of popular music while still retaining the core mixture of Western Swing, Blues and Rockabilly which are the foundations of his sound. Although there is yodelling to be found there are songs by Otis Blackwell, Ike Turner and a stunning version of Little Willie John’s I’m Shakin’ along with several numbers that have African roots. All in all a very eclectic mix but if you’ve been following Petunia’s career this should come as no surprise.

Petunia’s reedy vocals in themselves are a joy to listen to as he croons, scats and yodels with a zest that is at times exhausting while The Vipers can lay down a vampish beat, rock like hell and kick the gong around as easily as you switch car gears. At times they do this within the space of a song as on Gonna Put On My Suit where they switch from a bluesy opening into tom tom fuelled guitar blizzards and then tumble into a jazzy Slim and Slam interlude which is then interrupted by pedal steel coming down the tracks. On paper, this seems like a train wreck but it’s an exhilarating ride, the twists and turns coming so fast that by the end the listener is dizzy but satisfied.

The opening song, Blue Yodel Blues, a tremendous mash up of western swing and Jimmy Rogers doesn’t prepare the listener for what’s to come as it’s one of the most straightforward numbers here, straightforward that is for Petunia. As they proved when they played here back in 2013 The Vipers are a deadly force when it comes to delivering hi octane rock, rhythm and blues and they do so here on several occasions. Oh What A Wonderful Time, an Otis Blackwell number finds the band in a viperish mood, all Cotton Club and Cab Calloway swing as Petunia comes across all lascivious, My heart Cries Out For You skitters along like a mutant Buddy Holly number while Bloom, Bloom, Bloom is like Tav Falco with a nervous tic. Throughout the album Petunia takes on familiar styles and mutates them, Chained is a frantic dash that resembles a Merrie Melodies cartoon soundtrack that marries Eastern melodies and hard boiled gangster film noir grit and Put Yourself On The Market (AKA Why Don’t You Do Right or Weed Smoker’s Dream) out Waits Tom Waits with its junkyard jackhammer blues.  We reach the outer limits on the surf guitar fuelled  Asaw Fofor, a  cover of a Ghanaian song from the sixties by Ignace de Souza which finds Petunia switching between English and Swahili over a tremendous groove and on the crowning achievement here, the spooky netherworld of Death Himself. Shimmers of guitar and a rain slicked noirish sheen glower over a slow beat that breathes menace, a shadow in the dark stalking the living. Petunia casts himself as a torch singer, lapsing into French in a danse macabre although he can’t help himself from comparing the man with the scythe to a lumberjack, the Canadian in him coming out I suppose. In any case it’s shivering in its cold beauty.

While it’s not your normal country folk rock blues fodder Dead Bird On The Highway is firmly rooted in supremely listenable roots music as it challenges and provokes the listener to delve and explore but best of all it’s huge fun.

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BJ Barham. Rockingham. At The Helm Records

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Sometimes an album comes along that just packs a punch, a visceral jolt to the emotions. One such is Rockingham, the first solo outing from American Aquarium’s front man BJ Barham. A carousing alt country rock band American Aquarium gained plaudits for their last release Wolves as Barham, reported at one point as a heavy drinker, was by then sober and married, settling down as he approached his 30s. Apparently he had been mulling over doing some solo songs but it was back in November last year when, marooned in Holland in the panic following the Paris terrorist attacks, he began scribbling the songs that ended up on the album, songs that reach back to his formative years.

Barham grew up in Reidsville in Rockingham County, North Carolina, a tobacco town that prospered until the American Tobacco Company shut up shop in the mid nineties. On Rockingham he delivers eight songs which he describes as “fictional narrative in a very real place,” You might consider it to be a hardscrabble equivalent to Lake Woebegone, the latter’s small town whimsy replaced by fly on the wall reportage of hard times. He forsakes the alt country rock of his band for a stripped back approach that only on occasion approaches a full band sound. Instead, his dirt stained voice is backed by his acoustic guitar, accordion, banjo, Dobro and spare keyboards and percussion, his narratives akin to those of Kris Kristofferson or John Prine.

The album opens with the sly country picking of American Tobacco Company, an encapsulation of the dead end drudgery of the factory worker, his hopes and dreams crushed by the 9-5, a theme pursued on the following title song with plaintive banjo and harmonica to the fore. Madeline hits an emotional chord as the protagonist cradles his newborn daughter and lists his advice for her future years. The song itself is cradled in a fine, almost spiritual, collision of guitar picking, stately piano and muted organ swells as his homegrown wisdom conjures up nuggets such as “never trust a man who does hard drugs in his thirties.” This intimacy is reversed on Unfortunate Kind where Barham strips it all back to voice and guitar as he inhabits the persona of a bereaved man holding onto memories of his 39 years of marriage, his courtship, life together and a descent into illness and death.

O’Lover is one of the fuller arrangements here as Barham recounts the tale of a farmer driven to robbery while Road To Nowhere almost skips along, its jauntiness at odds with the romantic desertion sung about. Here Barham hits the heights on a song that bears true comparison with the best of the troubadours, Guy Clark included, as he delivers a perfectly formed marriage of words and music, a song that will dwell in your mind. Reidsville is a fine capture of small town living, teenage cars, early marriage and married doldrums all wound around wheezy accordion and slinky Dobro. The album ends with the cracked and dusty Water In The Well, a rural equivalent of the opening blue collar worker’s dilemma as a farmer contemplates suicide while seeking an answer from his bible for a way out of his woes. Again Barham delivers this with an emotional punch, his voice straining with desperation, devoid of hope as the music haltingly shadows his dilemma.

Time will tell as to whether Rockingham will be considered in the same vein as an album such as Guy Clark’s Old No. 1 but in the meantime it’s probably the best of its kind this year.

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