Murder Murder. From The Stillhouse.

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Oh well, another category to file beside rock and pop and insurgent country doo-wop (and if you have any of the latter please let us know). This time it’s Bloodgrass, defined by Northern Ontario band Murder Murder as bluegrass +outlaw country +murder ballads. A six piece shit kicking acoustic set up Murder Murder certainly flail along at quite a pace, the bass and drums propelling their guitars, fiddle, mandolin, Dobro and banjo with some abandon, indeed the occasional break from their breakneck numbers here are welcome respite, a chance to catch some breath.

The songs are frontier tales, bloody revenge, double crossed lovers, death dealing bootleggers and hellfire preaching all included. Written by the band the songs are graphic, with none of the coyness that was sometimes used in the good old trad days. On Half Hitch Knot the brother of a woman beat up by her man hogties him singing, “You’re a polite cocksucker with your hands tied up, like a barnyard pig just about to get stuck” while Bridge County’s bootlegger metes out punishment to a rival, “I found him standin’ by the old ash woods, I cut that fucker down right where he stood”.  Sung with some panache, indeed relish, the vocals are rousing while the band is like a well oiled machine, the instruments meshing splendidly, the songs packed with dynamic shifts in tempo that add to the drama.

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They do rein it in on a couple of numbers. When The Lord Calls Your Name preaches repentance for a life of sin, the melody similar to that of A Satisfied Mind while Bridge County flows slowly, the vocals dramatic, the fiddles scraping over a steady drumbeat, the tension building as the song culminates in a bloody battle with the law. There’s one cover, a poignant choice given recent news, as the band deliver Guy Clark’s The Last Gunfighter Ballad, the tempo upped somewhat from the original but lyrically it fits right in with the band’s own writing skills. Indeed, they even throw in a lusty shanty of sorts about gay pirates on Duck Cove, of course, it ends in murder and mayhem.

There’s a rabble-rousing element to the album, like Old Crow Medicine Show or even Dropkick Murphys music these songs should take to the stage like a duck to water. You can see if that’s the case as Murder Murder are currently on their first tour of the UK. All dates are here and include Edinburgh at Stramash on 28th May and Glasgow’s McChuill’s on the 29th.

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Norrie McCulloch. These Mountain Blues. Black Dust Records

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Ayrshire man Norrie McCulloch’s 2014 album, Old Lovers Junkyard, remains possibly Blabber’n’Smoke’s favourite Scottish album of the decade. McCulloch, seemingly from nowhere, wove a magnificent tapestry of country and folk influenced sounds on the album, its creamy pedal steel to the fore. However, as we mentioned when reviewing the album, there was more than a hint of classic UK folk rock lurking in the grooves, in particular the slightly jazz inflected keyboard work that John Martyn and Nick Drake used to adorn their songs on the cusp of the sixties and seventies. These Mountain Blues, due for release in February, reverses the mix. Yes, there are some sublime songs here which could stand tall beside the works of Townes Van Zandt or Guy Clark, the pedal steel still warms but the prominent instrument here is the piano, its cascading notes colouring the album with an autumnal melancholy and offering an understated grandeur. A perfect accompaniment for McCulloch’s excellent sense of nostalgia and regret expressed through his songs and his very fine, slightly wearied, voice.

Recorded live to analogue tape in the space of three days at The Tolbooth in Stirling (which just happened to have a baby grand piano in situ), These Mountain Blues captures McCulloch and his band (Dave McGowan, upright bass, piano and pedal steel; Marco Rea, bass and piano and Stuart Kidd, drums) in fine fettle. There’s an intimate organic feel to the disc as if they were playing in your room conjuring the images from the songs in front of you. McCulloch’s writing is evocative as he sings of his landscapes, his forebears and his descriptions of outsiders trying to fit in as on the impressive New Joke.

The album opens with Calico Days, a punchy acoustic guitar riff, not dissimilar to Bert Jansch’s work with Pentangle, grabs you before the rhythm section and piano glide in. A hymn in praise of life and the power of music McCulloch welcomes “old friends,” urging them to “bring your stories and your grace on these Calico days.” It’s a wonderful breeze of a song and the most upbeat on the album although the sweeping Pass By My Door which follows is a close contender. Here McCulloch captures some of that heady mix of folk, blues and jazz which informed Van Morrison on songs such as Young Lovers Do on astral Weeks. The freewheeling vibrancy and joyousness of the song is really that good, the piano celebrant, the lyrics approaching Morrison’s stream of consciousness way back then.

However if there’s a template for this album then it’s a fair bet that John and Beverly Martyn’s Stormbringer would fit the bill. Recorded in Woodstock in 1970 with Levon Helm on drums that album was produced by Joe Boyd with arrangement by Paul Harris who also played the very elegant piano parts. The sound they created informs much of These Mountain Blues with the title song a fine example. It’s a poignant recollection of McCulloch’s visit to the grave of Townes Van Zandt and as it soars and weeps the piano chords are resonant amid the guitar balladry at the heart of the song. Hard To Be The Man You Are Not and New Joke follow in similar style, wearied songs almost limping along but buoyed up by the piano along with pedal steel on the latter and it’s pedal steel which predominates on the tremendous When She Is Crying Too, a song which fulfils the promise shown on Old Lovers Junkyard. It’s a beautiful song, expertly played; steel guitar gliding over the slow rhythm and rich piano playing as McCulloch turns in a great vocal and lyrics,

” when that thief nightime comes around and steals the stars before they’re even out / that’s not the only crime even when you’re not here/ all it takes is a song for the pieces of my heart to start to disappear.”

Wreathed in a forlorn LA country vibe, When She Is Crying Too has some of the emotional heft and melancholic beauty of Gene Clark in its veins and is the stand out song here. That’s not to dismiss the remainder as McCulloch sings of his grandfather’s travails in the coal mines on Black Dust, a song that is defiantly rooted in local folk roots while The Old Room is another heady bout of nostalgia delivered with a light touch. Cloudberry Flowers is suffused with jangling acoustic guitar and woody bass and again captures some of that late sixties folk vibe and the album closes with another superb song, the ethereal Heart’s Got To Be In The Right Place. This tale of a split family, mother and father separating, is given a superb arrangement, the instruments delicately tip toeing around each other as McCulloch sounds forlorn, it’s a song that tugs at the heartstrings.

Richly textured, warm and chilling, soaked in memories and delivered with its heart on its sleeve These Mountain Blues is proof that Norrie McCulloch is mining a rich seam of songwriting. He transcends his influences creating some beautiful music which deserves to be heard by all who care about music.

Release date 26th February but you will be able to pre order the album on CD or vinyl soon via Norrie’s website

Tom Russell. The Rose Of Roscrae. Proper Records

The first thing to say about this album is that if you intend to listen to it then best go out and buy some beers and snacks beforehand. Next, get a comfy seat, set up your audio for its best “widescreen” effect and prepare to sit through two and a half hours of prime Americana country folk opera. It’s an effort for sure to sit throughout The Rose Of Rosecrae but having done so on three occasions (along with several dips into individual songs) Blabber’n’Smoke can confidently declare that ultimately it’s an interesting and rewarding endeavour and that the album, while not quite the masterpiece that some are pronouncing, is poised to loom over competitors in year end lists.
Tom Russell is no stranger to themes and concepts with previous albums such as The Man From God Knows Where and Hotwalker comprised of songs and spoken word, sound collages and guest artists. The Rose Of Roscrae takes this to another level, it’s a full blown musical story that traces the journey of a young Irishman to America where he goes West (as young men were inclined to do) allowing Russell to include Celtic laments, talking blues, cowboy songs, square dance, slave songs, Native American chants, Gospel and Mariachi music. Weaving traditional songs, standards and his own material into his sonic tapestry Russell has engaged a luminous cast of characters using archive recordings and contemporary collaborations to flesh out the story, the list is daunting……………
Jimmie Dale Gilmore, David Olney, Johnny Cash, Joe Ely, Augie Meyers, Fats Kaplin, Barry Walsh, Jimmy La Fave, Gretchen Peters, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Walt Whitman, Moses “Clear Rock” Platt, Jack Hardy, David Massingill, A.L. “Bert” Lloyd, Finbar Furey, Sourdough Slim, Blackie Farrell, Tex Ritter, Glen Orhlin, Pat Russell, John Trudell, Henry Real Bird, Thad Beckman, Maura O’Connell, Eliza Gilkyson, The McCrary Sisters, Ian Tyson, The Swiss Yodel Choir of Bern, Bonnie Dobson, Lead Belly, Guy Clark, Dan Penn, Gurf Morlix, Pat Manske, The Voices of the Waverley School, Pasadena, California and The Norwegian Wind Ensemble.
You get the picture.
As we said the album is a night in, the songs rolling over you. Some are snippets, over in less than a minute but like connective tissue essential to the overall sinewy aural chew. However there is sustenance galore in many of the individual songs which cleave to Russell’s familiar styles, bold and proud American folklore with sparkling guitar and Dobro providing punch and his spoken soliloquies that paint campfire pictures with tender guitar backdrop. When his hero is thinking back to his homeland Russell captures a fine Hibernian air which is best heard when Finbar Furey provides an excellent Carrickfergus/ The Water Is Wide before Russell wades in with a fierce expatriate’s memories of the Irish landscape. Throughout the album Russell deploys his “actors” as a director might with Jimmie dale Gilmore’s high lonesome voice capturing the frontier while David Olney rants magnificently as a hang ’em high judge. Meanwhile Eliza Gilkyson is a fine vocal foil to Russell on the opening songs of the second disc as does Gretchen Peters before the story heads down to Mexico allowing Augie Meyers and Joe Ely to shine.
Overall there isn’t enough space here to dig deeply into the 52 songs that comprise The Rose Of Rosecrae. Suffice to say that it’s a bold adventure and one that by and large succeeds. It’s begging for a visual accompaniment, a stage show or film gathering all of the cast (although the deceased might have to phone it in) but it’s safe to say that for those who have enjoyed Russell’s previous thematic albums this is essential. As for the others I’d recommend a deep breath, some popcorn and open ears and prepare to be astonished. Tom Russell will be appearing in Glasgow as part of Glasgow Americana in October.

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Greg Trooper Upside-Down Love.

For every Steve Earle or John Prine there are a dozen of other singer songwriters who don’t shift as many units or garner as much press acclaim. You could call them second division but essentially that’s unfair. Time after time I’ve been pleasantly surprised and on occasion gobsmacked by an album that is simply terrific but which struggles to get out of the starting gate. There’s a vast hinterland out there, jobbing musicians, troupers indeed who might not have the killer touch or the luck to be plucked out and cast into the spotlight. Instead they carry on, delivering quality songs to a small but discerning audience who benefit from a unique relationship with the artist, mingling after a gig, communicating via the big old interweb and most recently helping to finance the recording and delivery of an artist’s album.
If a police artist was asked to produce a photofit of someone fitting the above description then it could very well look like Greg Trooper. With several albums under his belt since the mid eighties he’s had his songs recorded by Steve Earle and Vince Gill and been produced by Buddy Miller and Dan Penn. Setting up his own label, 52 Shakes, he’s used kickstarter to finance this album with donations from his fanbase. Well, his fanbase kicked in and here’s the result, released in time to prime UK fans for a tour in April and May.
While the album doesn’t blaze any trails Trooper is a confident and assured writer and he’s gathered a band that deliver a sweet, slightly southern soaked slice of Americana with a Muscle Shoals organ and guitar sound on many of the songs. This results in the driving Time For Love and the J.J. Cale groove of Nobody In The whole Wide World, both guaranteed to have the hips swinging. Elsewhere Trooper’s singer/songwriting roots are well displayed on a brace of songs that deliver the goods in the tradition of Guy Clark and Butch Hancock. First True Love is a delicate love song while Everything Will Be Just Fine could be used as a template for a perfect Americana troubadour song.
The good news is that Trooper is touring the UK from late April with some Scottish dates including Laurie’s in Glasgow on 30th April. Check the others on his website.

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Everything Will be Just Fine

Steven L Smith. Outside of Tupelo.

An accomplished luthier and self confessed fan of The Band (in particular Levon Helm), Merle Haggard and The Allman Brothers, Smith looks like a big bear of a man according to his picture on the sleeve. Appropriately enough he has a big sound as well. Vocally he comes from the Waylon Jennings school, gruff and loud, untutored perhaps but commanding attention. His songs are very much country rock with an acoustic bed over which the guitars (lead, pedal steel and slide) bite and caress, at times rocking away but able also to cradle a tender ballad. Listening to this folk such as Steve Young and Guy Clark came to mind while fiddle is used in a Charlie Daniels’ Style. While there is nothing new here when it comes to subject matter Smith writes convincingly about drunken truckers (Woman On A Pole) and fallen women who follow their dreams (Molly). Woman on A Pole in particular is a fine addition to the grand tradition of truck driving songs where a red neck trucker loses his heart and wallet to a pole dancer. It’s a grand opening song with the band playing at full tilt. Big Sky is an almost perfect country song with bright piano, rippling mandolin and fine swirls of pedal steel. Smith can write some fine and touching songs (Cowboy Song and Oregon in particular), and can also get down and dirty as on I Stole The Bible with devilish fiddle and bluesy slide. All in all this is an accomplished slice of country rock with a southern bent.

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Listen to Big Sky

J Shogren. Bird Bones and Muscle.


From the opening bars of this album it’s clear that Shogren has a unique take on traditional American styles. “Burnt Fields” squirms and squiggles with scratchy guitar riffs and banjo on a song that sounds like a cross between David Lindley and Loudon Wainwright. The Wainwright comparison continues on the next song. “Charlie Poole, Charlie Poole” which has lashings of banjo and a great driving rhythm. “Salvation” which follows maintains this glorious banjo driven take on country blues, imagine vintage Taj Mahal souped up with a glucose jag and you’re halfway there. Mention must be given to Jalan Crossland who carries banjo duties and who flails away like a man possessed on many of the songs here.
Shogren calms things down on “ Big Blue Bird of Happiness” which is a ballad in the manner of Guy Clark while “Paper Barn” and “Wandering Foot” are couched in the singer songwriter idiom and sound as if they were forged in the Texas of the seventies.
While there is a touch of the magpie here with Shogren visiting other genres (including polka and swamp blues) he has a sure hand on the tiller throughout. The title song is a pumped up voodoo blues with some great gutbucket guitar while “Younger” is a tremendous country rock song where the banjo takes on the lead guitar part. A highlight is “Southern Isle a Pearl” which has Shogren crooning over a dreamlike backing with swooning guitar, a miniature gem.
Overall this is a fine example of someone grabbing tradition by the collar and bringing it bang up to date.
You can buy the album here

Meanwhile Salvation awaits here