Dean Owens recorded his second solo album, Whisky Hearts, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. For Into The Sea, his latest release he’s returned to Tennessee, this time Nashville, enlisting again the talents of Will Kimbrough along with appearances from Suzy Bogguss and Kim Richey. Although the Nashville connection (and Owens’ past with The Felsons) might lead one to expect a pedal steel adorned collection of country songs, instead, Into The Sea is a mature set of reflective songs that showcase his ever improving writing skills and vocals. As is often the case with Owens he delves into family memories and his roots in Leith. I’m sure someone somewhere must have said this of him; You can take the man out of Leith but you can’t take Leith out of the man.
The album opens with the wonderful Dora, a song that rings with faint echoes of Richard Thompson especially in the guitar chords as Owens delves into his family tree to tell the story of his grandmother, raised in a travelling circus. He follows with the grand sweep of Closer To Home which opens with strummed guitar before a folksy accompaniment adds a lift to the song. A yearning tribute to those soldiers who didn’t return from war the song gains a melancholic piano refrain as it soars towards the end. Owens sparkles when he is in nostalgic mood and Evergreen is a nod to his past as he sings,
“I remember you and me as we were that summer on the beach at Gullane”
on what turns out to be a fine love song with Kim Richey adding fine harmonies. Kids (79) again mines his memories, a school picture leading to recollections of old school friends and their chequered stories. With a degree of resignation and sadness the song gradually gives way to anger with guitar bursting in as Owens recites,
“Jimmy died at 20, Andy’s a drunk. Stevie’s still a good friend, Davy’s on the junk.”
There’s a cosy warmth to the soft acoustic rock of Virginia Street and Up On the Hill vibrates with shimmering guitars that slide and swarm around the vocals. A more subdued feel attends the organ draped It Could Be Worse which has a crumpled melancholic tenderness to it while Owens’ elegy for the late Michael Marra, Sally’s Song (I Dreamed Of Michael Marra) successfully marries Marra’s wearied delivery with more of Owen’s reflections on his own past as he again remembers past friends and times in a recently demolished housing estate. The melody and arrangement along with the lyrics are a fitting tribute to Marra and the closing words are obviously from the heart.
Owens hits a peak towards the close of the album with the guitar undulations that reverb gently through The Only One adding a fifties dreamlike quality to the song. Written for a friend whose partner had a terminal illness the song is masterful and evocative. There’s sadness sewn into the melody while the words convey the loss and sense of emptiness thereafter. Finally, there’s a bonus track tacked onto the end of the album, a reprise of a song from Owens first album, I’m Pretending I Don’t Love You. It’s a wonderfully woozy honky tonk waltz in the George and Tammy tradition and features Suzy Bogguss duetting with Owens and some insouciant whistling.
Owens will be appearing at the Southern Fried Festival in Perth next week and is also performing his show, Cash Back, Songs From Johnny Cash at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Dates here
Last time we encountered Ms. Bogguss she was delivering a primer for kids on the American Folk Songbook . She sounded great then but now it’s the adults turn as she offers up an album’s worth of Merle Haggard covers that hum and buzz with a fine honky tonk spark. A tribute album one might say but Bogguss is adamant that she never meant to go down that route. Instead she was hunkering back to her country roots and just about fell into singing old Haggard songs (her first release was a Haggard cover) in the studio and it was going so well she saw the project through. You want a tribute album? Check out Tulare Dust on Hightone Records , in the meantime here’s an album of Merle Haggard songs sung by Suzy Bogguss, perhaps dreaming his dreams.
Anyway, It almost goes without saying that the songs here are all excellent. Tear stained laments, beer drenched wallows, mournful love songs with some fighting and jail time, that’s Haggard territory after all. Bogguss captures most of these exceptionally well with a variety of styles. Outright Honky Tonk on Let’s Chase Each Other Through The Night, rockabilly roustabout on The Runnin’ Kind, Southern slinkiness on I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink. There’s a magnificently boozy and woozy Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down with Boguss sounding as sassy as hell. Hearing this reminds Blabber’n’Smoke of hearing Haggard’s songs for the first time courtesy of Emmylou Harris and, trawling back, The Burritos and Gram Parsons. Back then his songs stood out as honest and earnest and it’s as true now as it was then. It must be difficult to produce a bad cover of a Haggard song and Ms. Bogguss delivers a classy set that entertains in its own right and hopefully might lead some who listen to go back to the originals.
Farmer Jason and Buddies. Nature Jams
Farmer Jason is of course Jason Ringenberg of Scorchers fame. Over the past few years he’s carved out this sideline as a children’s entertainer playing live gigs for the little ones and releasing several albums in this guise although this is the first one to have come to our attention. For anyone who’s seen the Scorchers the energy and sheer enjoyment Ringenberg brings will be familiar and its to his credit that the songs musically don’t make any concessions to what one might expect of kiddie music. Turbo charged country rockers are the order of the day with regular foil Warner E. Hodges adding his whirlwind guitar to several of the songs. With a stellar cast of characters including Mike Mills (REM), Tom Petersson (Cheap Trick), Steve Gorman (Black Crowes), Iris Dement, Suzy Bogguss, Tommy Ramone and The Saw Doctors Farmer Jason sings about the great outdoors and the many sights, activities and fauna one can engage with.
As an adult the hokum introductions and the frequent admonitions to ensure the parent or care giver is involved does interfere with the enjoyment although the rousing Prairie Riddles with Iris Dement could easily fit on a Scorchers album. Guest Tod Snider however joins in with particular relish relating the tale of his lost Moose. But after all this is an album for kids and the rollicking tale of Dison The Bison , the galumphing country thump of Manatee with Hank Williams 111 or the banjo driven Can You Canoe should delight the discerning tot. The disc comes with a DVD of four of the songs where Farmer Jason goofs around with a bunch of kids canoeing, spelunking, hiking and being chased by Dison. Buy this and you need never watch Barney The Dinosaur again.
For copyright reasons we can’t post a song here but you can listen here
Suzy Bogguss American Folk Songbook.
Bogguss, who appears on the Farmer Jason album is another artist with kids on her mind. The genesis of this album was when she toured with Garrison Keillor and was impressed by the audience participation on songs like Red River Valley that everyone there seemed to know. Recalling her own experience of learning such songs in school she decided to produce an album and associated songbook in the hope that listeners and in particular younger generations would continue to learn how to play and sing cherished songs that have graced campfires, choirs and family gatherings for years.
The album in itself is a delight with superb renditions of songs familiar to all such as Froggy Went A-Courting, Swing Low Sweet Chariot and Shenandoah. Perhaps less familiar to the general public but well known in folk circles songs such as Wayfaring Stranger, Shady Grove, Careless Love and Wildwood Flower all turn up.
Bogguss as always sings beautifully and the arrangements and playing are tasteful and uncluttered. The acoustic ensemble led by Pat Bergeson (guitar, harmonica, Jews harp) play fiddle, mandolin, accordion, concertina, banjo and hammer dulcimer can be as delicate or as invigorating as required. As a result all 17 songs are impressive whether it be the rollicking Ol’ Dan Tucker, the yodelling cowboy song Get Along Little Dogie or the powerful Erie Canal. Special mention must be made of Bogguss’s very impressive vocal acrobatics on the sprightly Froggy Went A-Courtin’ while Wildwood Flower with its hammer dulcimer is a wonderful rendition of this old Carter family song.
An impressive album overall, the companion book is well worth investigating. With charts for piano and guitar plus lyrics Bogguss write a short introduction to each song which demonstrate her obvious love and respect for the songs and the tradition. As a package this would be a fine introduction for any youngster hankering to learn how to begin to delve into Americana music.