Michael Rank. Red Hand. Louds Hymn Records


A Blabber’n’Smoke favourite, Michael Rank continues his unfettered exploration into the hinterlands of bare boned  Americana on Red Hand, his sixth album in four years. Over the course of these albums his husk of a voice has drifted over music that has Appalachian roots but also recalls a grizzled alt country sound that goes back to The Band and The Stones’ occasional forays into country music while elements of The Grateful Dead, Neil Young and The Jacobites have been woven into the thread at times. The slow drizzle of guitars, plaintive fiddle and tentative mandolin with occasional licks of pedal steel that have characterised his latter work have also included an increasing use of a female vocal foil with Emily Frantz and Skylar Gudasz previously featured. His last album Horsehair found him singing with Heather McEntire (of Mount Moriah) and she returns here singing on all of the songs, the pair of them a wonderfully fractured duo, an alternative George and Tammy if you will.

In his press interviews for Red Hand Rank has spoken of his introduction to music back in the seventies and his liking of “soft rock” troubadours such as Cat Stevens, the PR blurb saying it’s like “70’s radio filtered through a Civil War fiddle.” However there’s no Moonshadow type meanderings here as Rank continues to dig into the sinews of deep dark and weird Americana, a perfect embodiment of what Greil Marcus was hinting at when he described The Basement Tapes as “palavers with a community of ghosts.” Rank and McEntire sing like a pair of revenants, wraiths gathered around a microphone whispering their covenants, the band wrapped around them like a Kudzu plant.

That Civil War fiddle opens and closes the first song River Road, a plaintive intro to a gutsy song that does indeed recall the more muscular Cat Stevens of Can’t Keep It In as Rank’s usual skeletal backing is adorned by the Wurlitzer playing of James Wallace adding a bit of oomph. There’s more of that oomph on the horn backed 1964, a swampy ooze of a song but the following Jacob, a magnificent swoon of a song with creamy pedal steel stamps Rank’s standing as a major player. It’s a perfect song suffused with emotion, the vocals stained with an authenticity that beggar’s belief as they strain to connect generations. There’s a heartbreak woven into the fabric of the album with Milkweed a dreamlike recollection of carnal love lost set to a mournful, almost Celtic, lament while The Lord He Take Away is a powerful and intricate assemblage of sawed fiddle and plaintive pedal steel supporting a tale that could be straight from the likes of Cold Mountain. Forever And A Day is a devastating love song as Rank and McEntire sing in unison of their hopes for a wedding day but the music and their delivery seems to suggest that it’s a forlorn hope. Again this song just weeps with emotion, Rank a puppet master of emotive string pulling  delivering slivers of painful beauty.

Red Hand confirms Blabber’n’Smoke’s belief that Michael Rank is an artist of the first degree. Six albums in with all of them somewhat magnificent he deserves to be heard far and wide. Currently he doesn’t travel out with North Carolina but videos of his performances locally show that he can carry off his superb concoction of stained and strained melancholic country laments with ease. Have a listen and then buy the albums, you won’t regret it.

And here’s an older piece from Rank, one that we think shows off his particular talent.


Chatting with Erin Rae


Erin Rae’s album debut album Soon Enough, released on Clubhouse Records earlier this year was a reminder (as if we needed one) that Nashville is not only an inexhaustible well of talent but it also has the ability to surprise us. I don’t think that anyone would categorise Ms. Rae as typically Nashville, a song like the excellent Clean Slate seeming to cling more to the era of LA troubadours.

With some excellent reviews for the album under her belt Rae is embarking on a major tour of the UK over the next four weeks (all dates here) which will include some shows with her label mate Cale Tyson. On the eve of embarking for the tour she took some time out to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke.

Hi there,
Can I ask you about the opening and closing tracks on the album? They bookend it really well but there’s a different feel, I think, to them than the rest of the album, the vocals more elaborate. Was that deliberate?

Hi! Yes, Light Parts 1 & 2 I think came from a different side of my writing from several years ago. My friend John Furr initially created this beautiful arrangement of the song on his own and surprised me with it. So when we started planning a record I knew I wanted to use that song to tie the whole thing together. The sentiment of the song is empathy for another person’s experience, which is a lot of the basis of the entire record. Cori Bechler, one of the first people I collaborated with creatively, wrote the vocal parts for Part 2. There is also a nod to the first EP Crazy talk. 

You seem to mix an “introspective” type of song writing with a sweet, countrified rhythm, a sound that really comes to the fore on the title song to Soon Enough. I was reminded of Janis Ian and The McGarrigles at times. Are these artists you’ve listened to?

I have not heard The McGarrigles as yet though since the release of our album in the UK I have heard a few folks say there is a similar feeling. I’ll have to listen to them now before we arrive. Janis Ian was not someone I was super familiar with until I was 20 or so. My voice teacher and mentor Phoebe Binkley was a friend of hers and I actually have a signed copy of Janis’s autobiography on my shelf that she gave to Phoebe. The more I’ve learned about her, the greater the compliment of a comparison is. What a brave artist. I hope I can channel some of that. 


The album was apparently recorded “live” over just two days. Had you and the band been playing the songs for a while?

We had! Most of the songs we had played for at least a year, some of them a little longer but on a couple of them we hadn’t played them before. However, we had been playing together for about 5 years at that point, so even on the newer tunes they felt good pretty quick.

There was a five year gap between your EP release and the album. Was this a case of trying to get a record deal or getting enough songs together for an album?

I think it was a case of early “adulthood”:) Or late childhood depending on the perspective. I was in the midst of writing songs while also living out my early 20s and learning a ton about how to be a person. It’s a messy age, so it just took a while. I think it took about that long for me to shape complete ideas and live those stories out enough to write them. And I think it was just a three year gap! Maybe four for the UK audience. 

Are many of the songs “autobiographical?” I’m thinking of Sleep Away and Minolta for example.

For sure. Most of the songs are, with the exception of Pretty Thing which is a story built from a feeling. 

You grew up in a musical family. What are your earliest memories of hearing music and can you say who your main influences are?

My earliest memories of music are my dad playing with his friend Willie X at Davis Kidd and events around Jackson, TN, and then with my mom in our kitchen. My dad used to do this song called “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke” and I got up at Davis Kidd to sing with him when I was five. “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke that cigarette. Puff, puff, puff until you puff yourself to death! Tell Saint Peter at the pearly gates, that you hate to make him wait, you just gotta have another cigarette”. Hahaha! These little old ladies laughed so hard and tipped us like 20 dollars each.

I think my main influences are my parents along with Greg brown, Kate Campbell, Gillian & Dave, and all those artists that my parents sang songs by. There’s also Nanci Griffith, John Prine, Kate Wolf and Doc Watson. So many! 

You are touring the UK soon. Have you played here before and will you have a band playing with you?

I have only played a couple of shows in Scotland (with Louis of Admiral Fallow) and I played in Switzerland in years past. This will actually be my first time to England and my first official tour in Scotland and I’m so excited about it. I’ll have my trusted friends and players Dominic Billett & Jerry Bernhardt with me for all the dates. Can’t wait!

Erin Rae’s tour starts October 25th in High Wycombe and it concludes with four Scottish dates in November where she will be appearing with Cale Tyson.

Carrie Rodriguez and The Golden Era of Mexican Music.


Texan Carrie Rodriguez first came to most folks’ attention when she teamed up with Chip Taylor back in the early noughties, the pair recording four albums together. She then carved out a successful solo career with her debut album, 2006’s Seven Angels On A Bicycle quickly followed by another six discs leading one writer to describe her as perhaps, “The hardest-working woman in American roots music.” An appellation that’s borne out when you dig around into the background of her latest (and in the opinion of many, her best) album, Lola, released earlier this year. The album is a result of Rodriguez delving into her Mexican family roots, a project she has been considering for some time, the fact that she was more than midway through a pregnancy when she recorded the album no hindrance. Happily, she and her partner Luke Jacobs are now the proud parents of their son Cruz while Lola, their sonic offspring is also thriving.


Lola consists of Rodriguez’s settings of classic Mexican songs; rancheras and boleros, reclaimed from the past along with several of her own songs which were inspired and informed by her listening to the crackly past. The originals are sung in Spanish, her own songs in Spanish and English. The result a collection of songs, some languid, some passionate, all delivered by her crack assemblage, The Sacred Hearts who include Jacobs, Bill Frisell and Viktor Krauss. It’s a magnificent celebration of her Mexican heritage, not dissimilar from some of Ry Cooder’s recent efforts, while it’s not afraid to address current issues that have been stirred up concerning the plight and fortunes of Mexican American citizens.

Ms. Rodriguez is coming to the UK in November offering us a chance to hear these remarkable songs in a live setting and she took some time out to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke about the album and its conception. It all started when she was given a collection of songs recorded by her great aunt, Eva Garza, back in the 1940’s. So first of all we asked her about this and why it eventually led to Lola.

Eva was my grandmother’s older sister and she got her start singing on a programme in the ’40s called Voice of America. It was a radio show that was broadcast all over the world where American troops were stationed and her first gigs were at Radio City Music Hall singing in Spanish. I didn’t really get to hear her music until my grandmother gave me a bunch of her songs taken from old scratchy recordings that had been transferred onto CD. She gave me them when I was in my early twenties and I remember I was living in New York at the time and the moment I heard them I was literally brought to tears. She has this gorgeous big alto voice and the type of music she was singing was very dramatic, ballads and boleros with very melodramatic lyrics and big orchestras behind her, strings, woodwind, trumpets. I was completely blown away that this was my relative although I never met her. She was quite a bit older than my grandmother and she died very young, just in her early forties when she passed away. She was a family legend of course but I probably thought that my grandmother had exaggerated her until I actually  heard her and I was just so moved by her music and her passion so that’s what started my journey into thinking about singing in Spanish. It’s been many years, I started singing one song in Spanish as an encore in my shows and little by little I got braver, I added some more songs in and eventually I worked up to the place where I could make this record.

So the album has been in the making in your mind for a number of years then?

Yes. Maybe for the past seven or eight years I’ve been thinking about doing this, making an album of Spanish songs but I didn’t quite feel ready. I really didn’t know what it would be, I knew I wanted to record an album and I had started to dig into some old songs and I really did think that the album would all be in Spanish. In the end however I wound up writing half of the songs because it just didn’t feel quite authentic to me to make an entire album of classic songs even though they’re adorable to me, these old ranchera songs. I thought I had to introduce more of myself into the album and so I added my songs which in the end turned out to be sort of “Spanglish.”

The album opens with Perfidia, a song that’s fairly well known as its been covered by the likes of Glenn Miller and Linda Rondstadt but the other covers are much more obscure. How did you go about selecting the songs?

Well after listening to my great aunt, I started researching into these old songs and learning more about other artists of her time. I’d listen to her singing and see who wrote the song, say, Cuco Sanchez, one of the greatest Mexican writers so I’d look up Cuco Sanchez and see who else had covered his songs. Just through listening to my great aunt I discovered so many wonderful artists that I now listen to all the time, people like Chavela Vargas, Lydia Mendoza, Javier Solis and Lola Beltran. It really was a golden era of Mexican music that went all the way through to the sixties, they called it  “Época de Oro“, the golden era and it wasn’t just the music, Mexican films were being made in Hollywood, really big productions and the music was part of that. So I dug through all of that and found my favourite songs which weren’t necessarily the most popular ones. But Perfidia is definitely the most recognisable one and the version I find most inspiring is the one by Trio Los Panchos which has the most incredible harmonies all the way through. And from the moment I knew I wanted to cover Perfidia I also knew that I wanted Raul Malo to sing with me on it.  I just thought it has to be Raul and of course he did it. I was so thrilled that he said yes.

Of course the words for these songs are in Spanish and they often tell a tale, usually fuelled by love, lust or treachery. When you’re playing them live do you explain the stories to the audience?

I do because I don’t expect everyone to be fluent in Spanish. So I explain the story and one of the interesting things that came to me over the course of doing the album was how many parallels there are between Mexican ranchera music and American country music. For example I did a song called Que Manera De Perder which means What A Way To Lose. It’s a bilingual duet on the album and the first time I heard it I couldn’t believe how much it sounded like a Merle Haggard song, one of his really sad songs like Today I Started Loving You Again. You know, the kind of song that makes you want to stay up too late and drink and cry and look at old photos. So I like explaining the songs and pointing out the similarities. I think that these days it’s really important to point out the similarities between our countries because we’re just so insanely divided right now.

There are a couple of your songs that address these issues head on. Llano Estacado is about the plight of immigrants into the USA and West Side recalls a sort of schoolyard apartheid with Mexican kids shunned by the white kids. Why did you put these songs into what is essentially an album of old love songs?

Diving into the older songs and singing them in Spanish brought about some feelings, memories and such that I really wasn’t aware were in there. Thinking about how I grew up, what it was like when I was growing up, what it felt like to be half Mexican American, half Anglo American and living on the west side which was the Anglo side of the tracks. I hadn’t thought about my school since I was a kid but as I was working on the record the memory came back and I sat down and wrote the song (West Side) in like 10 minutes. It was something that had been sitting there but hadn’t been brought to the surface until I started looking back at these old songs and it kind of got mixed in with the way things are right now. So some of the songs do have that sort of political slant and even though it’s kind of strange to have them there along with these romantic ballads I think the album is a reflection of who I am, my culture, my roots. I think it’s an authentic representation of me.

And of course Chip Taylor has just released a new song with you, Who’s Gonna Build That Wall, which addresses one of these issues head on.

That’s an amazing song. Chip just wrote that recently and we were touring Canada and decided to record it because it’s so timely. We really wanted people to hear it so I know Chip’s doing everything he can to get it out there before the election.

The album is beautifully played and sung and very evocative of the images and sounds that many of us have of Mexico. Images gleaned from Hollywood of hot cantinas and Latin passion. How long did you and the band spend on working up the arrangements?

Luke and I did a lot of the work together before the band showed up so we had the basic arrangements. Luke’s background is more rock and pop so it was a nice juxtaposition for these classic Mexican songs. I wanted to have a “mariachi” sound of sorts but I also wanted it to be something modern, kind of culturally mixed up. I didn’t want to just play the songs as they originally sounded so we started off with the arrangements Luke and I did and then the band got together for about four or five days before we went and recorded the songs live in the studio. The only overdubs were a little bit of pedal steel at the end. It was so much fun and this is the first record I’ve made where I didn’t need to fix any vocals afterwards, it’s all just live takes as I was inspired by the music and the band around me. I was also seven months pregnant and I think that also inspired me having this little life in my belly dancing around as I was singing.

The album certainly reminds me of some of Ry Cooder’s recent work, Chavez Ravine and his album with the Cuban Manuel Galbán, Mambo Sinuendo.

I have’t heard those albums but I’ve got Ry Cooder’s Talking Timbuktu which he recorded with Ali Farka Touré  and of course Buena Vista. So I don’t know too much about his work but I like the comparison. The idea of getting Bill Frisell in was too make something completely new and to take these classic songs into outer space. For example, on the instrumental take of Si No Te Vas I worked up an arrangement where I was thinking of a Phillip glass type figure in it that took it somewhere else, like we were up there with no ground to stand on and when we recorded it just exceeded my expectations of it, it does sound otherworldly to me.

We’re looking forward to hearing these songs when you tour the UK in November. Who will be playing with you on stage?

It will be Luke and me. We’ve toured as a duo in the UK many times and we’ve been playing these songs as a duo over here in the States. They come across really well and of course Luke’s got his lap steel which adds a lot of atmosphere. So it’s Luke and me and we’re bring our son, Cruz and my mom who is the granny nanny, it’s a family affair

Carrie’s UK tour starts in Birmingham on 3rd November ending in Edinburgh on 17th with a Glasgow show on the 16th November. All dates are here.

Austin Lucas and The Dreaming Spires. Broadcast, Glasgow 18th October


On paper, it seems an odd match. Indiana based outlaw country and California inspired jangled rock, Austin Lucas, “the tattooed George Jones,” backed by the 12 string fabulations of Oxford’s The Dreaming Spires. Sure, they share a record label in common but this could be something like Willie Nelson backed by Big Star which, when you think about it actually doesn’t seem like a bad idea so maybe the folks at At The Helm Records were “thinking out of the box” when they dreamed this one up. It helps of course that Lucas’s latest album has several songs that have a silvery sheen to them, a cross between Sturgill Simpson’s metaphysical moments and Gene Clark’s cosmic wanderings and a sound which The Spires were well equipped to provide in the live setting along with the tougher Bakersfield type songs.

Akin to the old “package” tours, we got two acts for the price of one tonight with The Dreaming Spires playing a set before backing Lucas. From the off there was a powerful thump in the rhythm section to back Robin Bennett’s jangled Rickenbacker on Everything All The Time, a glorious swatch of Paisley Underground/Overground rock (and not a womble in sight). The cowbell intro to Strange Glue hinted at a Stones type raunch but instead we were led into a slightly surrealistic wordy perambulation backed by a fuzzy Big Star like Memphis soul sound mashed up with the percussive drive of Cornershop. There was a sense of the baroque Gene Clark in the keening Road Less Travelled, a mild venture into psychedelia on Strength Of Strings (dedicated to Dylan’s Nobel prize) which slowly built up into a crescendo before they crashed into Harbuton Mead which thrashed around with an energy that recalled the halcyon days of The Long Ryders. House Of Elsinore was a throwback to long lost days of hippie minstrels channelling ye olde folke songs with electric 12 strings supplanting lutes as Shakespeare and Bach like riffs floated from the stage before ending with a sly nod to The Who’s psychedelic masterpiece, I Can See For Miles.


Far away from being a whimsical recreation of jingle jangle times The Spires thrummed and throbbed with keyboard swells and Eastern accents from Tom Collison while Jamie Dawson powered away on drums along with Joe Bennett’s supple and melodic bass playing. Their climatic Dusty In Memphis was a fine salute to the power of rock and soul while Searching For Supertruth was a blizzard of strings and things.

After a short break, Austin Lucas took to the stage for a feisty couple of solo numbers starting with a powerful rendition of Go West. With gutsy vocals and a dramatic habit of snapping his guitar strings he immediately grabbed our attention. Somebody Loves You was a ferocious example of high mountain folk allied to a punk like snarl with his guitar playing reminiscent of Michael Chapman’s fluid fingertips. The band then came on, Telecaster in place for a muscular Ain’t We Free and a rousing Kristie Rae with The Spires locking into Lucas’s hard-boiled country sound, their harmonies opening the song, but it was back to the Rickenbacker chimes for Thunder Rail, a welcome reminder that Lucas can write soaring pop tinged anthems. Unbroken Hearts, the opening song from the latest album, Between The Moon and The Midwest made the case for the evening’s pairing, the band capturing excellently the glossy sheen of the recorded version and adding a soulful groove with some fine organ playing.  Likewise Wrong Side Of The Dream and Alone In Memphis hit a fine and soulful country groove but there was a step into a deeper country mode when lap steel was added for the keening country lament Pray For Rain. Here Lucas showed why he has been compared with George Jones, the sadness of the song at one with Lucas’s recent loss of his dog Sally, an event which had soured his arrival in Europe. Despite this Lucas was in fine form jesting with the audience and the band.

All too soon we were near the end of the night with the band departing leaving Lucas asking the audience what he should play next. Amid a plethora of requests the overwhelming winner was Shoulders, so, perched on the edge of the stage, Lucas tentatively began this moving song off mic, slowly building up into a spellbinding rendition with some of the crowd singing along. For the last song the band returned for a blistering Call The Doctor, a vibrant slash of spangled joyous rock’n’roll and a perfect end to a perfect night.


Dean Owens. Into The Sea: Deluxe Edition. Drumfire Record


2015’s Into The Sea is perhaps the most perfectly realised of Dean Owens‘ albums rivalling Whisky Hearts for fans affections despite the presence of his two most iconic songs (Man From Leith and Raining In Glasgow) on the latter. Both albums were recorded in Nashville and both feature Owens’ long time compadre Will Kimbrough but Into The Sea, recorded seven years after Whisky Hearts is a better distillation of Owen’s Celtic Americana, the players and producer Neilson Hubbard at the top of their game. It’s also a more passionate album. At the time of recording Owens and his family were coming to terms with the death of his sister Julie from cancer, the album is dedicated to her. When I spoke to him about the recording of the album he said,” It was a difficult time for me when I was making the album for various reasons and a lot of that I poured into the song writing… It’s quite an emotional record… it was a time in my life when a lot of unexpected things, tragic things were happening and as a songwriter that comes through in your craft. “The song Evergreen in particular addresses his loss, it’s tender, affectionate and moving, happy memories recalled despite the sad reality. Owens sings powerfully here with some magnificent support vocally from Kim Richey.

Owens addressed other losses on Virginia Street, Kids (1979), The Only One and Sally’s Song (I Dreamed Of Michael Marra) but it would be false to describe the album as a series of eulogies. The opening song, Dora, a musical genealogy, is quite stirring and the glorious sweep of Up On The Hill is a celebration of open spaces and the opportunity they offer to reflect on and give thanks for the good things in life (along with an opportunity to hear some wicked slide guitar from Kimbrough). 18 months on from its release Into The Sea remains an album that stirs and invigorates and we can personally vouch for the power of these songs when delivered live with Dora and Up On The Hill especially moving. This Deluxe Edition adds four more songs to the album including one from the original sessions, Alison Wonderland, a song which fits snugly into the overall feel of the album with Kimbrough’s guitars keening throughout as Owens disappears down a rabbit hole of yearning. There’s Cotton Snow, previously only available digitally, Owens’ setting of a civil war battlefield which is wonderfully realised along with two songs  recorded at the time of the Into The Sea sessions which didn’t make it into the studio process, here delivered as solo acoustic guitar and voice performances. Again one refers to shows we’ve seen over the past year, Owens with his band a mighty prospect but on his own he can still deliver and here Forgotten Shadows is a fine mix of memories and regret, faded pictures pored over with Owens in fine honeyed voice. Shadows appear again in his rendition of Warren Zevon’s Keep Me In Your Heart, again it’s delivered perfectly and it dovetails perfectly with the overall sense of love, loss, memory and family.

If you haven’t got the original album then this release is a no brainer. For those who have it already then I suppose it depends on the degree of fandom but we can guarantee that if you do plunge then you won’t be disappointed. Having reviewed the original album here and Cotton Snow here it’s been quite invigorating to having to listen more carefully to the album for the purposes of this review and the bonus songs are now irretrievably entwined within the whole and it is an album that deserves to be on the shelves of any discerning music lover. Meanwhile Dean, with and without the Whisky Hearts continues to roam around the country with several dates coming up including full band shows in Glasgow, Stirling and Edinburgh, all dates here.

The Deluxe Edition is available here and there’s an opportunity to support Dean in his next endeavour, Southern Wind,  another collaboration with Nielson Hubbard here.

Finally Dean and his band The Whisky Hearts appeared on Radio Scotland’s Quay Sessions last week and you can see them in their full glory here


Tommy Hale. Magnificent Bastard. Holiday Disaster Records.


Apparently a well known figure on the Dallas roots rock scene Tommy Hale was a member of cult rockers Swank Deluxe before breaking off to record two solo albums in 2003 and 2008. Blabber’n’Smoke was oblivious to the man until Magnificent Bastard, his third album, a mere eight years after his second effort, popped through the post but a little delving allowed that more discerning folk had welcomed him to the UK a decade or so ago. Chief among those folk were Simon George Moore and John O’Sullivan of UK band The Snakes (see here) and this pair appear on Magnificent Bastard which was recorded in rural Wiltshire, a world away from Dallas.

The album opens with a killer slice of punk infused swagger on the title track. That’s punk as purveyed by NY types such as Mink Deville and Jim Carroll as Hale sneers arrogantly, the guitars switch and flash while a Farfisa organ parps away. An excellent start but somewhat misleading as there’s only one other song here that rocks, the burnished chrome glide of Backburner, this time with Blue Oyster Cult coursing through its rifftastic veins. While it’s a bit of a head banger it does feature some bonkers Theremin throughout although the horn section that muscles its way in towards the end is a bit top heavy.

Perhaps exhausted by this effort Hale reins it in for the rest of the album proving himself to be a dab hand at wistful pop infused melodies,  the recollection of school proms on Homecoming Mum and the rippling Simple Song fine examples but his best effort is on Can I Lay Down Next To You. Here there’s a soulful touch (reinforced by the organ and percussion recalling Otis’ try A Little Tenderness) allied to some sweet pedal steel on a song that recalls Wilco at times. There’s another comparison to be made when the gospel country strains of Just How She Died start up taking us into the land of Gram Parsons. Almost a parody (an affectionate one) of country duets with Madison King the female foil,  it’s stuffed with black humour  – “It’s all a bit hazy now but I remember a few things, about how she kicked my dog and flushed my wedding ring” and “I can’t remember how she died or if she’s just dead to me.”  They capture perfectly Parson’s wide eyed cosmic cowboy persona, Hale’s delivery mimicking Parson’s mixture of yearning and insouciance.

There’s more dark humour (although no laughs) on the brooding Mexican tale of Sonrisas y Sunshine wherein a young punk hopes to be the star of the next narco-corrida hit by killing his girlfriend. With spooky Theremin adding a fifties sci-fi touch to the coiled menace of twanged guitar and lone Tijuana trumpet it’s a killer song. The centrepiece of the album however is deadly serious. Save Me (The Ballad of Odell Barnes Jr.)  is informed by the story of a classmate and friend of Hale’s who was convicted of a murder and executed. Opening with a brief encapsulation of the crime from Barnes’ viewpoint delivered over a sole piano it then swells into an epic ballad with slide guitar recalling Lynyrd Skynyrd as Hale imagines the condemned man’s plea to be saved. While it’s not a song that can be considered a condemnation of the death penalty it does ask one to consider the condemned. As Hale says, “I don’t know if he did the murder or not but I want people to know what it is and to know the story.” Whatever his intentions it does pack an emotional punch.

Hale closes the album with a cover of Bill Withers’ Hope She’ll be Happier, another powerful punch that features Hale and a corrosive guitar that sears, his voice calling into a wilderness, an eternity of loneliness.

So, a magpie of sorts, an album that picks up shiny forebears but overall it’s quietly magnificent.  Hale, the titular Magnificent Bastard, keen eyed and whip smart, tender and tough. The picture on the back of the album is a fine joke and reminded us of Geoff Dyer’s story White Sands in his latest book of the same name.



Austin Lucas On Why Sad Songs Are Here To Stay


For those in the know Between The Moon and The Midwest by Austin Lucas is one of the finest albums released this year. It’s an album that tugs in two directions. There are chunks of tough country music and then there’s a shimmering, almost psychedelic sheen to several of the songs. Sound familiar? Well when the album was released back in February, several reviewers compared it to Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, in particular with the song Turtles All The Way Down. Good company for sure but in the end it’s a shorthand way of saying that both artists are at the forefront of reclaiming country music from the plethora of truck’n’beer’n’broads crap that’s been masquerading as country over the past few years.

Based in Indiana Lucas had a punk rock background before edging into his country sound on albums such as Somebody Loves You and A New Home In The Old World. His 2013 album Stay Reckless was considered by many to be his best but it coincided with a collision of personal and business problems that almost derailed him. Amidst a failing marriage and bouts of anxiety and depression his record label dropped him saying they didn’t hear any singles on the album. Cast adrift Lucas could have sank but instead he’s back, leaner and fitter and with a new label who believe in him and in the record. Between The Moon and The Midwest, recorded with Joey Kneiser from Glossary and featuring appearances from John Moreland, Lydia Loveless and Cory Branan is a tremendous slice of modern country and Lucas is touring the UK over the next few weeks promoting the album. An opportunity then for Blabber’n’Smoke to talk to the man about the album and its torturous conception. First of all we asked him about those comparisons to Sturgill Simpson.

I think there are several comparisons that can be made considering that we’re both legitimate country artists who are trying to push the boundaries of what the genre can be. Although it may be worth mentioning that his releasing Metamodern Sounds very nearly derailed the making of Between The Moon and The Midwest. I got pretty worried when I first heard Turtles All The Way Down reckoning that he’d already done the thing that I was in the middle of working on. However, in the end I decided to allow it to hearten me. Firstly, it showed that there was interest in this style of music. Secondly, his wasn’t a concept album. Nor was it psychedelic all the way through. Merely one song and a couple of small hints at psychedelia scattered throughout. Therefore, I felt I was still innovating the genre in a way that he hadn’t exactly done with his album. 

While people have honed in on the psychedelic aspect of the album at heart there’s a lot of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings in the album. Are they big influences on you?

Of course they are. In my mind, they are two of the greatest and most innovative artists from that period in country music or any other genre. These are two guys who pushed more boundaries than anyone else and who did things their own way. In many ways, they’re role models for me and who and what I want to be and how I want to do things.

Some of the characters reappear throughout the album, is it a concept album, were you trying to tell a story?

Yeah, I actually came up with the concept for the album under the influence of a very special brownie, in the desert while on tour with Willie Nelson in 2011. It’s a love story about 3 best friends and how they miscommunicate, hurt each other and eventually ruin each other’s lives.

You open the album with Unbroken Hearts singing, ““I’ve been told to walk away nearly every time I make an album. I hear there’s no good men left, everyone in Nashville’s deaf, sad songs are a thing of the past.” I read that actually happened to you when you took the album to your previous label. The album’s been out for about eight month’s now so are there people out there wanting to hear “sad songs?”

There are absolutely people who want to hear sad songs and I am glad to say that I think there will always be people of quality who are interested in real songs. Truthfully though, since we’re on the subject, the song isn’t an indictment of the world at large, or even music row. It’s simply something that I wrote because I find the large scale music industry overall to be sort of unnecessary. There are many artists who court mainstream success but I’m not one of them. I exist in a world where that’s never been a desire or even an option. I’ve always existed on the fringes of the music world. Even within the scenes that I play in I’ve generally been an outsider. As a result I’m no stranger to the fact that, there has always been and always will be a place for independent artists, people who make extensive bodies of work for nothing more than the need to do so. My records or career may not ever have big money behind them. But quality music always finds fans and since I’m not interested in being a pop star music row is something that exists outside of my career equation. To be direct in a way that I haven’t been before, the words to that song in particular were only meant to shine a small amount of light on exactly that. The idea that these traditions of great song writing and storytelling would die after all these years is ludicrous. I think most of us know that, at least my friends and I know that. So I wrote it as a tongue in cheek battle cry of sorts. Nothing more, nothing less. 

You’re on a new record label, Last Chance, who have a deal with At The Helm in the UK. Are you able to say anything about them in terms of releasing albums that some major labels don’t see as hit material. After all, there is something of a resurgence in a more traditional country and songwriter form at present.

There is no question that they release a lot of stuff which would not be considered to be viable from a commercial standpoint. Certainly they are benefactors of the arts and in that way, I’m very proud to be a part of their team. 

The album and its predecessor Stay Reckless were recorded when you were going through a rocky patch, your marriage ending and such. I hope it’s not glib of me to ask if you subscribe to the notion that “break up” albums bring out the best in an artist?

I have no idea. I think that turmoil is well documented as being extremely fertile artistic soil though I’d rather not hypothesize on whether one must be in an aggravated or depressed state of being in order to make great art. To me, I think it’s simply a matter of staying hungry and being interested in getting better at your craft that should propel one to ever greater musical endeavours. 

You’re touring here with The Dreaming Spires who will be your backing band as well as playing their own support slot. It’s an interesting prospect and I was wondering what your thoughts are on what they’ll add to your sound.

I met them last year in the States during Americana fest through our shared UK label At The Helm. We got along very well and I quickly grew to respect them musically as well as personally. I have no question that they’ll have an effect on my sound and that’s exciting to me. The beauty of playing with new and different people is that freshness that you can get on old songs. Every new set of ears hears things in a different way and therefore, you can quickly find yourself in new musical territory. I’m excited to explore what those talented guys are going to show me about of my own songs. 

Before we go can you tell us anything about any future plans?

Just gotta get back into the studio and work on another album. Hopefully that will happen in the next half a year or so. 

Well, thanks and the best of luck with the tour. austinlucas_euro2016-800x565

Austin Lucas with The Dreaming Spires tour the UK and Ireland starting in Oxford on the 15th October with a Glasgow date at Broadcast on the 18th October. All dates are here.

Freakwater. Scheherazade. Bloodshot Records


This album’s been out for a while now but with Freakwater playing in Glasgow tonight it deserves a mention. Essentially a vehicle for Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Irwin’s love of ancient sounding Appalachian and American Gothic sounds Freakwater set the standard for a bare boned and raw Americana sound in the nineties, Old Paint being a particularly good example. Scheherazade is their first album in ten years and while the vocal pairing of Bean and Irwin remains the focal point the album is their fullest yet in terms of arrangements with their long term bass player, David Wayne Gay, augmented by a host of Kentucky musicians and pertinently Warren Ellis, presumably happy to be ensconced in the badlands yet again.

From start to end the album is a glorious collection of blood soaked tales and grim narratives. The opening What the People Want recounts a violent and bloody encounter, a woman “split from stern to stern” and thrown down a well as Ellis’ spooky fiddle scrapes away. The lullaby Rock A Bye Baby is transformed into a vertiginous nightmare replete with squalling guitar battling an unhinged banjo on Down Will Come Baby. There’s a crepuscular element in the sly guitar lines on Falls Of Sleep, a song that foreshadows an execution while The Asp and The Albatross derives from Coleridge and Shakespeare as the band deliver a powerful folk rock sound which recalls the singular oddity that was Farewell Aldebaran, Judy Henske and Jerry Yester’s psychedelic folk masterpiece.

Bolshevik and Bollweevil and Take Me With You are more akin to the Freakwater of old, the voices prominent over a restrained backing but sitting in perfect harmony with their sibling songs here. The album as a whole is a fine addition to what was already a fine canon.

Freakwater are playing Broadcast, Glasgow tonight. On the strength of this album it looks like a night to remember.



Chip Taylor. Little Brothers. Train Wreck Records


Where do you start with Chip Taylor? Well. First off he’s one of the headliners at this week’s Glasgow Americana Festival playing Friday at the Classic Grand. Simple, go get a ticket. After that it gets weird. On one level Taylor is connected, star wise, Hollywood firmament stuff, his brother is Jon Voight, his niece Angelina Jolie, he should be larging it up in Malibu. More pertinently he’s the guy who wrote the sublime Angel Of The Morning and the classic garage punk perennial Wild Thing, yes, that Wild Thing, covered by The Troggs, Hendrix et al. In fact, he was a regular one man Brill Building back in the sixties and early seventies churning out hit songs for numerous artists. Then he packed it all in and became a professional gambler (told you this was weird) only returning to music in the late nineties. A series of albums recorded with Carrie Rodriguez were classic dusty Americana while Chip himself rolled out his discs including the immense triple CD The Little Prayers Trilogy. Across these discs Taylor delivers his songs and spoken words like a sage Walter Brennan addressing you by a campfire. Words of wisdom suffused with a humanity which is occasionally tempered by an anger at the ways of the world. The albums are a comfort and a delight and this latest release is no different.

Addressing the plight of refugees, documenting a dream about his brothers (Jon and volcanologist Barry) and offering up a self-help mantra of sorts Taylor softly spins his wisdom across the album. The songs are laid back, guitarist John Platania (renowned for his days in Van Morrison’s Caledonia Soul Orchestra) and keyboardist Goran Grini delicately supporting the slim melodies. The album opens with Taylor delivering a narrative about his brother Barry and his granddaughter driving to a golf tournament for kids then driving back. A simple tale but one invested with a sense of dignity and pride as Taylor’s homespun voice delivers the story before coming to the conclusion that, “we all need some great rides home.” Similarly a dream about Taylor and his brothers in a taxi spins into a meditation on their relationship, their shared Yonkers background and their occasional differences on the title song. As Time Goes By, dedicated to his wife, is an affecting love song that acknowledges the passage of time and the deepening bond that develops, a wonderful song.

Over the course of his albums Taylor has displayed his wry sense of humour and also his deep love of humanity and both are well displayed here. Enlighten Yourself has Taylor delivering a lecture of sorts with an occasional mantra (which is reprised at the end of the album). Sounding almost like Mr. Magoo as he stumbles through his guide to becoming enlightened he highlights the absurdity of many gurus while pointing out the simplicity of just being yourself and enjoying the simple things in life.  Refugee Children is prefaced by Taylor setting the scene as he recalls a tour in Sweden and coming across a group of refugees. The song again is simple, painting a picture of the children fishing in a brook but Taylor makes his point midway as he reads from the Human Rights Convention relating to the status of refugees. Simple but effective.

As we mentioned up above Chip Taylor is appearing this Friday as part of the Glasgow Americana festival. It’s his first appearance in Glasgow for 15 years and a rare opportunity to see one of the legends of American music.


Unfortunately none of the videos from the album are available here in the UK but just this week Taylor released this new song he has recorded with Carrie Rodriguez.





Ben Glover. The Emigrant. Proper Records


Although Blabber’n’Smoke hasn’t previously reviewed any of Ben Glover’s albums his is a name which has cropped up several times.  He co-wrote Gretchen Peters’ wonderful Blackbirds, winner of ‘International Song of The Year’ at the UK Americana Awards back in February and he was one third of The Orphan Brigade who released the very fine Soundtrack To A Ghost Story around a year ago.

An Irishman who has lived in Nashville since 2009 Glover was drawn to consider the theme of migration as he was going through the process of getting his Green Card. Of course Ireland has had waves of emigrations over the centuries but the current political climate, dominated by the plight of refugees across the globe and the ensuing backlash and rise of xenophobia assures that this resulting album has a topical purpose. For all that it’s far from a polemical album. Instead Glover has reached back to popular and traditional Irish songs that evoke feelings of displacement and exile  and to these he has added four songs, three co-written with Gretchen Peters, Mary Gauthier and Tony Kerr, the title song, commenced in Ireland and finished in collaboration with Peters being the starting block for the album.

Co produced with fellow Orphan Brigadier, Neilson Hubbard, the album stays close to its Irish roots, the instrumentation is spare; acoustic guitar, piano, fiddles, Uilleann pipes, whistles the primary instruments. Glover skilfully wrests the traditional and cover songs from any cosy sense of familiarity, the arrangements breathing new life into them while the presence of his own songs prevents the album from becoming a set of “well kent” Irish songs, the album as a whole a powerful listen.

Opening with a stirring rendition of The Parting Glass, the upbeat tempo belying the air of farewell within the song, Glover immediately takes us into an Irish heartland, a fiction perhaps of a jolly lot managing their loss through alcohol, oft posited by numerous screenplays. Aside from a slight return to a toe tapping moment on the traditional Moonshiner, another song with drink at its centre, the rest of the album is a more sombre affair, the reality of alienation and loss hitting hard. A Song Of Home, one of the originals is a magnificent effort, glover’s voice yearning, at times approaching Van Morrison’s stream of consciousness repetitions, the song celebrating the landscapes, mists and mysteries of a remembered homeland. The title song follows opening with plangent piano, a Tom Waits’ like moment considered perhaps but it then swells with Uillean pipes as Glover dissects with his poet’s scalpel the curse of the emigrant, “to be cut loose from all you knew, beyond the pale, beyond the blue…the restlessness, the discontent…” It’s a deeply moving song that stakes its claim immediately to be considered part of the folk canon. The co-write with Mary Gauthier, Heart In My Hand, is a roving fiddle fuelled ramble while Dreamers, Pilgrims, Strangers is a very brief reiteration of the lines inscribed within the album sleeve, Glover’s alternative to Emma Lazarus’ words welcoming emigrants to the USA.

Woven between these bitter pills are the familiars. Ralph McTell’s From Clare To Here, Glover more impassioned than McTell’s original, more bereft. The Auld Triangle wrings out all the emotion it can from this well travelled song with a touch of Shane McGowan to be sure in here. The Green Glens Of Antrim closes the album and again Glover summons up ghosts and memories, an emigrant looking back through rose tinted glasses, delivered here like a Hibernian Tom Waits. Finally Glover manages the almost impossible task of breathing new life into a song that through familiarity has somewhat lost its original impact. He tackles Eric Bogle’s And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda with a raw vocal and a tremendous arrangement, half Waits, half Weill as he snarls and rages, finally collapsing into a bereft croak, the band playing on.

It’s not that often that an album captures such a terrible zeitgeist but Glover here lays down a powerful challenge to those who just see immigrants taking up their council houses and jobs. Several of these songs should accompany news items but that’s too grand to ever happen. Still, there’s social media there to spread his message. On a more local level we should mention that Glover is appearing at next week’s Glasgow Americana Festival performing in the round with Boo Hewardine and Roddy Hart (information here).