Willie Nelson. My Way. Legacy Recordings

wn_myway_cd_grandeLest we forget, it was Willie Nelson’s album of standards, Stardust, released back in 1978, which saw him becoming a household name. Of course by then he had a chequered career, writing huge country hits for Ray Price and Patsy Cline (with what is perhaps his most famous song, Crazy) in the early sixties before becoming a country star himself and then fading out somewhat towards the end of the decade. He reinvented himself in the seventies, abandoning Nashville for Austin, Texas, releasing albums which eschewed the Nashville sound and signing up to the Outlaw Country movement with buddies Waylon Jennings, Tompall Glaser and Jessi Coulter. 1975’s Red Headed Stranger was the pinnacle of his wayward battle with Nashville but it was the following year’s Stardust, a 10 song collection of standards, which saw him burst into the pop charts.

Since then Nelson has achieved iconic status while remaining, for the most part, true to his country roots and is still releasing albums at the age of 85. Last Man Standing, released only a few months ago, proved that he remains a vital force in country music while his immediately recognisable voice, rich and supple, remains in fine fettle. The latter is especially noticeable on this album which is Nelson’s tribute of sorts to another golden voiced singer, Frank Sinatra. As on Stardust Nelson takes familiar songs and transforms them with his voice, coaxing and teasing out all the subtleties inherent in what has come to be known as the great American songbook. Nelson and Sinatra apparently were friends and Nelson says that, “I learned a lot about phrasing listening to Frank,” and that is apparent here. His laconic vocals on the energetic opener Fly me to the Moon never show any sense of urgency or trying to match the jump rhythm the band strike up.

There are some lavish string and horn arrangements on the up tempo numbers with A Foggy Day really swinging while Blue Moon has a hip nightclub jazz cool vibe to it and Night and Day is given a slight bossa nova feel. Norah Jones turns up to swap vocals on What is this thing called Love, another swinging number, but it’s on the ballads where Nelson really hits the spot. Summer Wind has the band evoking the birth of the cool while a guitar solo (presumably Nelson playing his guitar Trigger) is just excellent. One for my Baby and One for the Road continues to nestle in its late night bar room wallowing and Young at Heart has what may be Nelson’s best vocal on the album as harp player Mickey Raphael echoes his voice. This reviewer’s favourite moment however is Nelson’s reading of It was a very good Year, perhaps because it’s our favourite Sinatra song but Nelson sings it so well while the arrangement is more supple than on Sinatra’s original. The album closes with a very dignified version of My Way with none of the bombast with which the song has been unfairly burdened with over the years.

Website

Advertisements

Willie Nelson & Leon Russell. One For The Road. Retroworld Records

1577We’ve had an interesting batch of reissued albums sent in recently so over the next few weeks we’ll be indulging in a little bit of nostalgia. First up is this 1979 collaboration between Willie Nelson and Leon Russell recorded after the pair toured together. Russell, who died in 2016, was riding the coat tails of his fame by then while Nelson was gearing up his “outlaw country” persona breaking out of his Nashville straitjacket but the pair were even then old troupers and this album, originally a double vinyl release, finds them delving into country and tin pan alley standards.  As such it’s not what you might call an “essential” part of either man’s catalogue but it’s a rollicking good listen with Russell and Nelson trading vocals, their voices quite complementary while there’s plenty of Russell’s piano work while Nelson throws in some fine guitar parts.

The album opens with a fiery trio of songs – Detour, I Saw The Light and Heartbreak Hotel which rock as if they were playing in a Texas roadhouse (and apparently Heartbreak Hotel reached No. 1 on the US country charts, a feat Nelson has never again achieved).  Let The Rest Of The World Go By slows the pace on a typical Nelson tearjerker with strings and his sensitive guitar solo while Russell is content to tickle the ivories but it’s back to some barrelling boogie on Trouble In Mind with the pair sharing vocals with Maria Muldaur and Bonnie Raitt (who also adds some wicked slide guitar). They seems to be having great fun on their take of the old chestnut, Don’t Fence Me In which is followed by a superb reading of Wild Side Of Life and they amble to the end of the first of the original discs with a sunny side up attitude on Riding Down The Canyon which is given a fine Western Swing feel and Sioux City Sue.

There’s quite a shift on the second half of the album as they drop the rock’n’roll for Russell’s arrangements of which include Danny Boy, You Are My Sunshine, Stormy Weather and Summertime. As on his own album of classic songs, Stardust, here it’s Nelson’s voice which is the main attraction but there’s no denying Russell’s skills with his arrangement of Summertime particularly grand. The closing One For My Baby and One More For The Road has some funkier keyboards than one normally hears on this old saloon ballad.

Retroworld website

 

 

 

Asleep At The Wheel. Still The King. Proper Records

Celebrating The Music of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys runs the banner under the album title and aside from that there’s precious little to say about this fabulous album; if you’re a fan of Asleep At The Wheel or Western Swing then you’ve probably already bagged this one. However there are folk out there who might not be so enamoured of the genre and who might be persuaded to dip a toe in the water, if so then this is as fine a place to start as any.

Western swing was a jazzy big band country pop phenomenon in the late thirties and forties, fiddle and pedal steel taking the place of sax solos and Bob Wills And His Texan Playboys were the kings of Western Swing. Asleep At The Wheel, led by the irrepressible Ray Benson appeared from the Austin, Texas melting pot of the early seventies, swinging with a vengeance and have been doing so ever since. Still The King is in fact their third tribute to Wills and pretty much follows the same formula, a roster of well-known country artists backed by Benson and the band. With several of the songs featured on all three albums (along with a few of the guest artists) one might wonder why Benson continues to record these. Well, Still The King features some of the younger country musicians who have come to prominence over the past decade with Old crow Medicine Show, The Avett Brothers and Pokey LaFarge all making an appearance. As Ray Benson told Rolling Stone recently “This album is just me trying to get younger and older Bob Wills aficionados together. Every time we put one of these out, I always say it’s the last one. But I shouldn’t say that because it’s not like this music ever died.”

So here we have 22 Western Swing classics, every one a winner really. The old timers are all here, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Del McCoury, George Strait, Robert Earle Keen, Lyle Lovett along with two surviving members of the original Texas Playboys, vocalist Leon Rausch, now aged 86, and sax player, the 92 year old Billy Briggs. There’s a host of others, all bringing something unique to the project but we only have space to mention a few favourites. The Avett’s have great fun with The Girl I Left Behind Me as they get back to their roots. Lyle Lovett croons as only he can on the bluesy Trouble In Mind while Brad Paisley does a great job on My Window Faces The South. Robert Earl Keen dives headfirst into the tongue twisting Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas with Benson duetting (and a special mention here for the very fine pedal steel solo, sublime!). Old Crow Medicine Show deviate somewhat from the overall sound as they basically overlay their own act over Texan swing pedal steel on their fiddletastic and frantic version of Tiger Rag. Of the youngsters Pokey LaFarge perhaps comes out tops as he really lets rip vocally towards the end of What’s The Matter With The Mill, small wonder as he’s been playing this type of music for the past decade. As for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, well, they stamp their authority on their respective numbers (Navajo Trail and Keeper Of My Heart) and both are excellent.

Sure, the songs are somewhat corny but these days corny might actually be hip and there’s no denying that throughout these 22 songs the playing is exemplary with some excellent fiddle, mandolin, piano and pedal steel all present. If you dig classic country then this is a no brainer. Buy it, get the other tributes and then seek out other Asleep At The Wheel classics and maybe some Bob Wills originals, you’ll be a satisfied soul.

website

The Howlin’ Brothers. Trouble. Continental Rose

It’s always nice to get an album to review that doesn’t require much dissection allowing instead for 40 minutes of unalloyed wallowing in Mississippi mud with banjos and fiddles flailing away as the band whirl around the Southern States whippin’ up a deal of fun. The Howlin’ Brothers’ Trouble is just such a beast with the Nashville based trio scraping and scrapping their way through old time music with dashes of country, Cajun, and blues in their particular brand of seasoning. Produced by Brendan Benson (of Raconteurs fame) and with guest appearances by Ricky Skaggs and Mike Fried Trouble comes across almost as a Ry Cooder soundtrack with each of the songs worthy of scoring a scene in the likes of Southern Comfort, The Border or The Lost Riders and on one occasion (Pack Up Joe) harking back to the groundbreaking bluegrass accompaniment for Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. There’s actually a concept of sorts I think with woman trouble at the heart of it judging by some of the lyrics and the intriguing map of a woman’s heart included in the liner note but the overall breadth of the album more than anything reminds me of the early Nitty Gritty Dirt Band who slipped from country to Cajun to blues without pausing for breath.

So the album is steeped in American music traditions but the delivery more than does this justice with the songs leaping from the speakers and grabbing the listener by the feet demanding recognition. There’s a fine sense of familiarity to some of them with Hard Times borrowing a tune from Cocaine Blues while Louisiana brings forth memories of the original Holy Modal Rounders (without their zaniness). With the exception of the “country dub” song Love which jars somewhat in the midst of its siblings each and every one of the songs here is a cracker. Put It Down is a call and response old time rag tune while Boogie is a risqué funky country blues. Night and Day has a devilish slide guitar as the band zip along before the comforting “jolieness ” of the gumbo soaked Monroe with its zydeco allure . World Spinning Round is solid country tears and beers with lonesome fiddle and weeping pedal steel on a song worthy of Willie Nelson. Troubled Waltz continues in the Nelson vein with its saloon piano familiar to anyone who has heard Spirit while a gnarled guitar spurts and stammers proving this to be the highlight of the album. A seventies breeze blows through the lilting Sing A Sad Song which recalls the Texas troubadours of the early outlaw movement while the band end the album with a revivalist clap happy Gospel refrain on Yes I Am before the tent shuts up for the night.

As we said at the beginning the songs don’t need to be interpreted, this album’s not aimed at the head however it’s guaranteed to have your soul uplifted and feet a tappin’.

website

Hank Wangford and The Lost Cowboys. O2 ABC Glasgow. Thursday 15th May.

wangford

With his fine new double album, Save Me The Waltz, safely in his saddlebag veteran Hank Wangford ambled into town with his posse, The Lost Cowboys, in tow looking to entertain the folks on Sauchiehall Street.

Seriously this was a welcome return to Glasgow for Wangford who has roots in the city (which was his mother’s birthplace) with several audience members recalling fabled Mayfest community shows in the likes of Castlemilk Community Centre (although the primary recollection there was of the band having much of their gear nicked!). Tonight Wangford was backed by a stellar line up which included guitar and pedal steel wizards Martin Belmont (Ducks Deluxe, Graham Parker and The Rumour, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Carlene Carter) and BJ Cole (Cochise, Deke Leonard’s Help Yourself and innumerable sessions including Elton John’s Tiny Dancer along with appearances with REM, David Gilmour and Iggy Pop). Rock history in person! Aided and abetted by drummer Roy Dodds (ex Fairground Attraction) and bassist/harmony singer Anna (Spanner) Robinson (The Hallelujah Trails) the five piece set up was at times magnificent with Dodds and Robinson setting the pace with some aplomb while Belmont and Cole showed why they are so sought after as throughout the night they pulled out some astonishing licks.

Aside from the sheer pleasure of hearing some top notch musicians doing what they do best Wangford remains a singularly good frontman. Wearing his years very well (and looking as if he could well take up Kris Kristofferson’s Hollywood role as the wise and grizzled cowpoke should Kris ever retire) he commanded attention as he related his love of the country waltz and offered potted histories of some of the legends who wrote the songs including the unfortunately named Bollick Brothers who eventually saw sense and renamed themselves the Blue Sky Boys, as Hank said “you don’t have to make this up, it’s all out there.” With particular attention to Willie Nelson and George Jones, Wangford proselytised on their behalf and as the songs poured out the attraction was plain to see. Nelson’s Permanently Lonely and Half A Man along with Jones’ Brown To Blue and Golden Rings were well served while the essential banality of song titles such as He Forgot To Tell You He Was Married and Let’s Be Lonely Together Tonight was undermined by the heartfelt delivery.

Mischievous as ever Wangford delighted in picking up his ukulele and teaching the audience the choruses of several of the songs pointing out their simplicity all the while celebrating that self same simplicity. The audience duly sang along as the sorrowful waltz time songs surely invited some tears in beers in the back rows. With some fine low strung twang guitar and country runs along with weeping pedal steel or Dobro the venue was slowly transformed into a south west honky tonk. Ms. Robinson took lead vocals on the excellent Insured Beyond The Grave while Cole was afforded the opportunity to beguile us with an inspired dreamlike rendition of Santo and Johnny’s Sleepwalk , a tune that inspired him (along with Peter Green) all those years ago. And while most of the night was an invite to waltz with Wangford there were some moments when the band let rip with Baby In Black conjoining Nashville and Liverpool while He Forgot To Tell You He Was Married rocked with the energy and feel of Commander Cody’s Lost Planet Airmen. A magnificent night.

Sturgill Simpson/ Daniel Meade. The Admiral Bar. Glasgow. Sunday 23rd February.

simpson

Glasgow’s premier Americana promoters, The Fallen Angels Club celebrate their tenth anniversary of bringing top class acts to the west of Scotland this year and they kicked off the celebrations with Sturgill Simpson, a star in the ascendant who’s riding high on the back of the UK release of his superb album High Top Mountain. Simpson, from Kentucky but now living in Nashville has been touted by all and sundry as “the next big thing” in country music here and in the States as High Top Mountain pumps a shot of adrenalin into the flat lifeless chest of Nashville music. Whether he makes it big remains to be seen but there’s no doubting that he can rip it up with the best of them and then add a George Jones like mournful ballad straight after.

Tonight it’s just him and his guitar and he’s drawn a sizeable crowd for a wintry Sunday night. Announcing that he’s going to play a bunch of songs he wrote and a bunch that he didn’t he proceeded to deliver several songs from High Top Mountain that, stripped of the country rock trappings, highlight his “hillbilly” leanings while his covers were for the most part a dip into classic country with selections from Lefty Frizzell, Carter Stanley, Willie Nelson, Charlie Moore and Bill Napier along with Steve Fromholz and Jimmy Martin. As Simpson said, he has hundreds of these songs in his head and currently he plucks them out at random. He may choose them at random but he proved to be well versed in their delivery with his voice capturing the slight nasal mountain style that goes hand in hand with Appalachian songs while his guitar playing is fluid, deftly picked and strummed with several of the songs featuring breaks that recalled bluegrass picking. Sad Songs and Waltzes Aren’t Selling This Year, I’d Have To be Crazy, I Never Go Round Mirrors, all plucked at the heartstrings the way they’re supposed to with Sturgill sounding as if he’s lived these songs all of his life.

Achieving an easy rapport with the audience Simpson explained the provenance of several of the covers and had us laughing as he described the “laundry list” conception of his collection of Nashville clichés that constitutes You Can have The Crown. He’d done his homework as well even venturing a joke about the local football rivalries but the highlights of the evening were the songs from High Top Mountain. You Can have The Crown was given its full title (King Turd of Shit Mountain) and the solo delivery allowed for the humour of the lyrics to stand out. However it was the songs that relate to those heartstrings and the sad tales that excelled with Water In A Well, Time After All and in particular the story of a mining community left high and dry in Old King Coal all getting fine deliveries. The Storm, a powerful brooding number on the album, was transformed into a reflective introspective piece while Life Ain’t Fair and The World Is Mean retained its jaundiced punch.

In the midst of this Simpson announced that he has a new album poised for release in a few months (High Top Mountain had a belated UK release) and offered us a peek with Living The Dream, a bittersweet reflection at the end of a career in music which bodes well for his next release. If its half as good as High Top Mountain then it will be well worth getting.

Simpson had some solid support on the night from local picker, Daniel Meade who regaled us with several songs that ranged from talking blues to ragtime to folky songs with a Guy Clark feel. Several songs from his album, As Good As Bad Can Be, Hard To Hear and If It’s Not Your Fault (I Guess It’s Mine) were all well above par. You can listen to the album (and buy it) here.

Kimmie Rhodes “Dreams Of Flying”

With 14 album releases under her belt since 1981, Lubbock, Texas born Rhodes has steadily carved a reputation as a solid songwriter and a vocal foil to numerous country stars. These include Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and even Townes Van Zandt. Despite this she has never achieved the popularity of peers such as Emmylou, Nancy Griffith or Lucinda Williams. Plowing on, her latest release Dreams of Flying is a firm reminder of her songwriting and performing qualities.
Recorded in Austin and featuring a stellar band (Charlie sexton, John Gardner, Mike Thompson and John Mills, check them out) and produced by her son Gabriel Rhodes who adds some fine guitar touches the album sounds wonderful with Rhodes’ tender voice ably supported by some sumptuous playing. This is immediately evident on the opening title song which has a dreamlike quality similar to the otherworld inhabited by David Lynch’s ethereal soundtracks. Rhodes glides through Back Again with a quiet majesty while the band inhabit an ambient space that Emmylou Harris used to great effect on Wrecking Ball that wraps itself around the listener like a warm blanket. Like Love To Me has a touch of Van Morrison’s Caledonia soul to it with muted horns adding the honey. One By One is an almost unbearingly poignant song while New Way Through is an almost perfect song. Rippling mandolin and a wheezy keyboard sounding like an accordion support Rhodes who does indeed sing like an angel here as she uses clouds as a metaphor for her state of mind. With a cover of Donovan’s Catch The Wind, performed as a duet with Joe Ely that transforms the song into another elegiac rhapsody the overall feel of the album is of lost opportunities delivered in a heart melting style.
This might be Rhodes’ most fully realised album and there is an opportunity to hear and see her at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow when she appears in May.

website