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

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Norrie McCulloch & Iain Sloan with Howie Reeve and Michael Anguish. Seven Song Club. Tron Theatre Glasgow. Friday 13th February

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Norrie McCulloch’s Old Lovers Junkyard was one of Blabber’n’Smoke’s favourite home grown albums of 2014. Its honeyed country stylings coupled with McCulloch’s warm rasp of a voice and his fine song writing all added up to a winner, an album that’s been receiving ongoing radio plays and gathering new followers; certainly anyone we’ve recommended it too has been quite effusive in their praise. Friday was our first opportunity to see McCulloch in action as part of a trio of acts appearing at the Seven Song Club in one of Glasgow’s hidden treasures, The Victorian Bar at The Tron Theatre. All warm and woody it was a perfect setting for his heartfelt songs. An added attraction was that McCulloch was appearing accompanied by Iain Sloan of The Wynntown Marshals playing pedal steel guitar, an instrument he uses not only for the Marshalls’ jangled rock but also as the current dreamweaver for progressive rock band Abel Ganz. An intriguing set up we thought. Old Lovers Junkyard wallows at times in the pedal steel yearnings of Dave McGowan but a two man show, acoustic and pedal steel only remains a rare beast. Willie Vlautin and Richard Buckner have appeared thus in live situations but on record we can only recall the magisterial And The Hits Keep On Coming, Michael Nesmith’s 1972 album recorded with just him and Red Rhodes on board. While there’s a recording of Nesmith and Rhodes playing live live on The Amazing Zigzag Concert box set this set up is not one that you would generally come across. It intrigues in two ways; pedal steel is apparently difficult to master and naked might miss a tight rhythm section to bolster it. However, with its ability to change pitch and harmonics it’s almost unique in its ability to accompany human voice, to echo, support and cosset the singer.

Anyhow, waffle aside, McCulloch and Sloan fitted together like bread and butter. Seven songs, as advertised, wafted around the room, McCulloch assured, warm throated and ebullient, Sloan caressing the songs, creating wafts of billowing buttered sounds and occasionally soloing with a deftness and warmth that demonstrated the emotional capabilities of the instrument that Danny Wilson (of Danny & The champions Of The World) describes as the ironing board of love. Indeed as McCulloch sang Sloan appeared to be almost caressing his instrument, coaxing it into life, a winning combination indeed. As for the songs there was a fine mix of old and new, four from Old Lovers Junkyard and three from McCulloch’s current recording sessions. Old Lovers Junkyard itself was given a desolate and yearning feel with Sloan’s pedal steel weeping along to the forlorn lyrics while Too far Gone had some heart breaking pedal steel glissandos on this bitter sweet tale. Call Me Home was a lesson in frailty, the pedal steel keening away, McCulloch’s voice halting, reminiscent of seventies singer songwriter neurosis, questioning and wondering and adorned with an excellent steel led outro. Still Looking For You , the closing song on Old Lovers Junkyard and the closing song tonight had a warm, laid back country feel to it. Of the new songs New Joke was a hard luck tale written while travelling home from Bridge Of Allan had a harsher edge to the vocals with the pedal steel adding some bite. McCulloch was inspired to write These Mountain Blues on a road trip to see Townes van Zandt’s grave in Texas and the song does indeed inhabit TVZ territory as he sang about an oak tree next to the grave, achingly evocative it offered an opportunity for Iain Sloan to deliver his finest solo playing of the night. The other new song of the night bridged whatever gap there is between Ayrshire and Texas as McCulloch went solo and off mic to sing a song inspired by his grandfather’s toils in the mines, Black Dust. A powerful piece, this was the folkiest moment of the night as he sang, “he didn’t know he was digging his own grave” with guitar and harmonica and gusty vocals in the working class folk tradition.

A short set perhaps but throughout the show the audience appeared mesmerised, the combination of the songs and performance transfixing, McCulloch affable and commanding on stage in between songs. The queue for his album afterwards testament to the quality on show.

A mea culpa here regarding the other acts, both new to Blabber’n’Smoke but Howie Reeve was very impressive as he delivered a set of fairly challenging aural assaults, played on an acoustic bass which he banged, clattered, tweeked and plucked at times with some ferocity, at others a surprising tenderness. With lyrics that recalled the absurdities of Ivor Cutler or the surrealism of Robert Wyatt he was incredibly engaging, a cross between R M Hubbert and Eugene Chadbourne and he deserves some delving into his catalogue. Michael Anguish closed the night with a full band set that portrayed him as a fine performer who strays into Avett Brothers company at times. Loose limbed Americana styled songs flowed from the band with one in particular reminding us of the long lost Granfalloon Bus while there was also an element of 1970’s folk weirdness in the mix on the closing song.

Best of 2014

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There’s a lot or pros and cons when it comes to listing end of year best ofs or favourites. Two years ago Blabber’n’Smoke eventually plumbed for the pros outweighing the cons so this is the third time we’ve presented what, when it comes down to it, is an arbitrary choice of remembered listen. Albums that have stood the test of (a relatively short) time, the ones we’ve returned to or recommended to others in the pub. Above all it’s been fun to look back, read the reviews and see if they still stand. So with this in mind the following are the official Blabber’n’Smoke 2014 picks, in alphabetical order.

Blue Rose Code. Ballads Of Peckham Rye
Birds Of Chicago. Live From Space
Fire Mountain. All Dies Down
Bradford lee Folk and The Bluegrass Playboys. Somewhere Far Away
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West. I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands
Jim Keaveny. Out Of Time
Parker Millsap. Parker Millsap
Michael Rank & Stag. Deadstock
Sturgill Simpson. Metamodern Sounds In Country Music
John Southworth. Niagara

Random honourable mentions go to

Lucinda Williams Down Where the Spirit Meets The Bone,
The Johnny Cash Native American album reboot, Look Again To The Wind,
Danny and The Champions Of The World’s Live Champs!
Dan Michealson & The Coastguards Distance
Cale Tyson’s EP, High On Lonesome,
Luke Tuchsherer’s debut You Get So Alone at Times It makes Sense,
Petunia’s Inside Of You,
Ags Connolly How about Now,
Chris Cacavas & Edward Abbiati. Me And The Devil along with Abbiati’s band Lowlands who delivered the excellent Love Etc.,
Zoe Muth. World Of Strangers,
Hank Wangford & The Lost Cowboys. Save Me The Waltz .
Grant Peeples and the Peeples Rebublic. Punishing The Myth.
Simone Felice. Strangers.
Bronwynne Brent. Stardust.
Sylvie Simmons. Sylvie (allowing an honorary mention here for Howe Gelb who produced).
The War On Drugs. Lost In The Dream.
Lynne Hanson. River Of Sand.
Gal Holiday & The Honky Tonk Revue. Last To Leave.
And finally John Murry’s EP, Califorlonia which is brilliant and hopefully just an appetiser for his follow up to the majestic Graceless Age.

Digging through the archives it’s been noticeable that there’s been a fine contribution this year from Scottish acts who dip into or draw from an Americana well to a greater or lesser extent. While Blue Rose Code’s Ballads Of Peckam Rye features above the following are all stellar contributions to the local scene.

Dropkick. Homeward
Dumb Instrument. The Silent Beard (with the Scottish song of the year, Suffering from Scottishness).
John Hinshelwood. Lowering The Tone.
The David Latto Band. Here Today, Ghost Tomorrow EP
Norrie McCulloch. Old Lovers Junkyard
The New Madrids. Through the Heart of Town.
Red Pine Timber Company. Different Lonesome
The Rulers Of The Root. Porky Dreams
Ten Gallon Bratz. Tales From The Long Shadows

Although his album, Little Glass Box came out in 2012, Fraser Anderson is a major find of the year while another local lad, Daniel Meade unleashes his Nashville recorded Keep Right Away in January. Hopefully folk will have long enough memories to recall this when it comes to compiling the 2015 lists. In the meantime it can be first on the New Year shopping list.

Norrie McCulloch. Old Lovers Junkyard.

The name gives it away really. Norrie McCulloch, couldn’t come from anywhere else but Scotland , Ayrshire we believe. The voice also has a hint of the auld nation about it without being over obvious in a Proclaimers fashion. However McCulloch is another ( and in this case exemplary) case of local artists diving into the pool of Americana music and coming back up with a handful of treasure featuring twangy guitars, banjos and pedal steel dredged from the deep. Armed thus McCulloch adorns his UK folk influences to deliver a very fine hybrid indeed.

Recorded with Angus Braid on electric and steel guitars, Marco Rea & Stuart Kidd from Glasgow’s The Wellgreen and multi instrumentalist Dave McGowan of Teenage Fanclub / Lightships McCulloch hits pay dirt immediately with the first cut, Call Me Home. The smooth undulating guitar that floats over gliding pedal steel and a slow steady beat immediately brings to mind Fairport Convention back before they caught the trad folk bug and Meet On The Ledge was their signature tune. With McCulloch’s weathered vocals on top it’s a winner and reason enough to give the album a listen. Fortunately the remainder of the album offers several other gems, some folk, some country, with Branded opening with a Richard Thompson like guitar flourish while Wrong heads into Nashville West territory with Clarence White guitar twanging. Helen is a ringer for some of Guy Clark’s early work, a fine dust stained Dobro fuelled ballad before Hardline’s heat haze floats into view almost knocking Call Me Home off of its perch as the best song here. It opens with a sublime pedal steel keening away before acoustic guitar stumbles into view allowing the song to amble along in its restrained glory. Praise indeed but listen to the song and deny that it could easily sit alongside the best of the Eagles or Poco back in the days.

Rex is a fine country skiffle which paves the way for another belter in the shape of the title song which ripples with shimmering guitar and pedal steel as McCulloch buries his memories of an old car in fine fashion before it’s back to 1969 for Too Far Gone. The addition of piano here adds a stately air and a whiff of Witchseason productions with the young John Martyn the template as opposed to Fairport Convention. Losing Hand is simply a wallow in a wonderful sound with the pedal steel paramount and the album ends with a fine Stray Gators laidback country vibe on Still Looking For You.

All in all Old Lovers Junkyard is an absurdly well assured album of excellent country and folk flavoured songs that deserve further hearing. Iain Anderson on Radio Scotland has picked up on it and so should you. You can catch Norrie McCulloch at next weekend’s Southern Fried festival in Perth where he’s playing at the (free) outdoor stage on Saturday afternoon. In the meantime you really should buy this album.

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