Review: A.J. Croce’s soulful “Just Like Medicine”

By Ken Paulson

Just like Medicine is A.J. Croce’s most soulful album to date, and with good reason. His compelling collection of new songs is in the hands of producer Dan Penn,  abetted by an amazing band including Colin Linden, David Hood, Bryan Owings, the Muscle Shoals Horns and the McCrary Sisters.

We loved Penn’s production of Greg Trooper’s Make It Through This World, creating a vibe, but also staying out of the way. That same approach is evident here.

Highlights include “The Heart That Makes Me Whole” with Steve Cropper and “Name of the Game,” an unreleased song written by A.J.’s father Jim Croce. Vince Gill joins on guitar.

Croce will bring his new music to the City Winery in Nashville on August 10, joined by Penn, Linden and the Time Jumpers’ Jeff Taylor.

Review: The Mastersons’ “Transient Lullaby”

By Paul T. Mueller
Transient Lullaby, the most recent album by The Mastersons – singer/guitarist Chris Masterson and singer/multi-instrumentalist Eleanor Whitmore – reads as an account of the couple’s musical and personal lives. Marked by well-crafted lyrics and beautiful harmonies, these songs form an insightful look at the highs and lows of a life of almost constant togetherness, on and off the stage. They’re backed by Masterson’s excellent guitar playing and Whitmore’s fine performance on pretty much anything with strings, including but not limited to guitars, violin, cello and mandolin.

The album’s sequence seems to track the arc of a relationship; the 11 tracks cover a lot of emotional ground, and easy answers are in short supply. The first track, “Perfect,” sums up the beginning of a relationship, with a mix of wariness – “You seem like a great find/But I’m broken, so please be kind” – and optimism – “We’re not perfect, but we’ll turn these tears to gold.” Conflict surfaces in the title track, in the struggle between personal bonds and professional demands: “It’s time to go/It’s been great, but I can’t stay long.”

Several of the songs that follow explore, with sometimes painful honesty, the everyday conflicts that challenge relationships. The titles hold clues: “You Could Be Wrong,” “Fight,” “Don’t Tell Me to Smile,” “This Isn’t How It Was Supposed to Go.” But it’s not all darkness. “You are my light,” the couple sings on “Shine On.” “We’re gonna shine on/Gonna shine on.”

By the end of the album, restlessness seems to have won out. “The time has come for us to part ways,” Masterson sings on “Happy When I’m Movin’,”the last “official” track. “ ’Cause we both know/I’m happy when I’m movin’.” That would make for a sad ending if not for the bonus track, “Anchor,” which closes a lyrical circle by echoing a line in the opening track – “Can’t you feel me? I’m your anchor” – with a similarly upbeat sentiment. “ ‘Cause I want to be right by your side,” they sing. “I promise you/In a world untied, you’re my anchor.”

Instrumental support comes from Andrew Pressman and the late George Reiff on bass, David Boyle on keyboards, and Falcon Valdez, Cully Symington and Conrad Choucroun on drums.

Reissue: B.J. Thomas’ complete Columbia singles

By Ken Paulson

We’ve written in the past about B.J. Thomas’ continuing vibrancy as an artist, most recently during his appearance at the Franklin Theater in greater Nashville this spring.
His concert longevity has been fueled by multiple decades of hits, as we’re reminded by the new Real Gone Music release New Looks from an Old Lover: The Complete Singles.
Thomas had his first hits on Scepter Records in the ’60s, piled up more hits in the ’70s on MCA and ABC and then gracefully moved to Columbia in 1983, where he had several more hits, largely on the country charts. On top of all of that, he had a highly successful career in Christian music.
None of this new collection is “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On my Head,” but it’s well-crafted and throughly enjoyable pop music by one of the genre’s best vocalists.
Highlights include “As Long as We’ve Got Each Other,” (Yes, from Growing Pains), “New Looks from an Old Lover,” “Whatever Happened to Old-Fashioned-Love,” “Two Car Garage” and “Rock and Roll Shoes” with Ray Charles.


Sharon Vaughn to be honored at Country Hall of Fame

Americana Music News – Sharon Vaughn, a fine songwriter we interviewed last January on the Sandy Beaches Cruise, is being honored at the Country Music Hall of Fame at 2 p.m. August 8th. Here’s the Hall’s announcement, along with our conversation with Sharon:
Sharon Vaughn’s first songwriting hit was a career maker: “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.” It appeared in 1976 on country music’s first certified platinum album, Wanted! The Outlaws, sung by Waylon Jennings. Four years later, Willie Nelson’s version went to #1 when it was included in the soundtrack to the film The Electric Horseman. Vaughn hails from Orlando, Florida. She was discovered by fellow Floridian Mel Tillis and she moved to Nashville in 1969 to pursue a singing career. During the 1970s Vaughn released her own singles on several labels, including ABC/Dot, while juggling studio work as a vocalist. Vaughn’s songwriting credits include the Oak Ridge Boys’ breakthrough country hit, “Y’All Come Back Saloon,” Reba McEntire’s “I’m Not That Lonely Yet,” the Lorrie Morgan-Keith Whitley duet “’Til a Tear Becomes a Rose,” Patty Loveless’s “Lonely Too Long,” and Randy Travis’s “Out of My Bones.” Today, Vaughn splits time between Orlando and Stockholm, and she has had success writing for international pop stars. In 2009 her song “Release Me,” recorded by Swedish singer Agnes, reached #1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play Chart. This interview and performance will be illustrated with vintage photos, film footage, and recordings.

This program takes place in the Museum’s Ford Theater.

After the program Vaughn will sign commemorative Hatch Show Print posters. Ford Theater. Included with museum admission.

New releases: Slaid Cleaves, Calico

Review: Gurf Morlix’s “The Soul & the Heal”

By Paul T. Mueller

On his latest CD, The Soul @ the Heal, Austin-based singer-songwriter Gurf Morlix celebrates humanity in all its flawed glory. These 10 songs comprise an unsparing examination of what’s good and what’s not so good in people, all seen through Morlix’s critical but sympathetic lyrics and conveyed in his familiar gruff voice.

Now in his mid-60s, Gurf Morlix has had the opportunity to observe a wide variety of people, from his early years in upstate New York through his long musical career in places like Nashville and Austin. It’s a safe bet he’s known the subjects of these songs, or people much like them. Some of his characters aren’t very likable – for example, the narrator of the ominous “Bad Things,” who insists, not entirely convincingly, that he’s “a good man who may have done some bad things.” Some, such as the wounded-by-love protagonist of “I’m Bruised, I’m Bleedin’,” come across as more victim than perpetrator.

But amid the darkness, there is also light. “Love Remains Unbroken” celebrates the emotional connections that help us through tough times; “Right Now” is an ode to focusing on the present instead of dwelling on the past or the future; “Quicksilver Kiss” recalls the first flowering of new romance; “Move Someone” is a plea for human interaction.

The contradictions of life are neatly summed up in “The Best We Can,” the album’s closing track, which is built around what Morlix has described as a “pretty chord” of the kind he rarely uses. “Ain’t none of us are noble/We lead tawdry little lives/We’re animals roaming the land,” he sings matter-of-factly. “We might be made of stardust, but that don’t make us special/And we gotta do the best we can.” It’s not exactly a rousing pep talk, but Morlix’s gentle, jazzy guitar and restrained optimism make for a welcome message for anyone dealing with the daily grind.

The songs’ thematic contrasts are echoed by the artwork of the CD cover – on the front a cross-section of a cherry, bright red and shaped like a heart, and on the back an amorphous splatter, also bright red, that looks a lot like blood.

In addition to producing, Gurf Morlix handled all of the singing here and much of the playing – guitars, bass, keyboards and percussion. Other contributors include Rick Richards on drums, Ray Bonneville on harmonica and Nick Connolly on B3 organ.

Class reunion: The original Alice Cooper band

By Ken Paulson

It’s been more than four decades, but I still remember seeing the Alice Cooper “School’s Out” tour. Complete with guillotine, they rocked Chicago Stadium. And there they were tonight, the band’s original members reuniting to deftly play “Eighteen,” “School’s Out” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy” in Nashville at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.

I’d be surprised if Dennis Dunaway, Neal Smith and Michael Bruce have played those songs in recent years, but the rust didn’t show. The mini-set offered up driving rock and nostalgia in equal measure.

The first part of the set featured Alice’s current band, and with the early classics saved for the original band, was little heavy on album tracks of the past 20 years. That said, “Under My Wheels” and “Halo of Flies” were absolute highlights.

One side note: Alice Cooper’s shows have always been about theatricality, but it was a little jarring to have him pull out a dagger at the end of his sympathetic “Only Women Bleed” and have the audience cheer in anticipation of the stabbing to come. Maybe it’s time to retire that.


Tonight was a reminder, though of the enduring appeal of  radio-friendly songs, imaginative staging and a persona that never seems to age. Alice Cooper was always about hard rock and humor. Some things never change.






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Conroe Americana Musical Festival’s winning debut

By Paul T. Mueller

Conroe, Texas – The good times continued through the weekend at the premiere edition of the Conroe Americana Music Festival. Fair weather, a strong lineup and a relaxed vibe made for a fine experience for the hundreds in attendance in the small city north of Houston.

Dale Watson and Ray Benson at Conroe Americana Music Festival

The schedule on Saturday, May 6, began at 12:30 p.m. and ran until midnight, with 26 shows at six venues. A noon-to-6:00 Sunday schedule featured 17 shows. Many fans found themselves trying to decide among several good options at the same time; the event’s relatively small footprint, spread over a few blocks, made it possible to see parts of multiple sets without spending too much time in transit.

Some Saturday highlights:

  • The appropriately named Caleb and the Homegrown Tomatoes, from Conroe, kicked off with a lively set that included “Family,” a look at the ups and downs of life on the road, and nice covers of the James Gang’s “Funk 49” and Robert Ellis’ “California.”
  • Sophia Johnson, a native of England who relocated to Austin a few years ago, played an energetic set of bluegrass and swing that showcased her impressive guitar skills. The supporting cast included Beth Chrisman on fiddle.
  • Texas honky-tonker Mike Stinson demonstrated his gift for catchy hooks and rocking riffs on songs such as “Late for My Funeral” and “The Box I Take to Work.” The set featured nice contributions from ace guitarists Lance Smith and Brian Whelan (for whom Stinson played drums in an earlier set).
  • Eric Taylor

    Iconoclastic singer-songwriter Eric Taylor, a mainstay of Houston’s folk scene in the ‘70s, played a few long songs featuring his unorthodox vocals and guitar playing, interspersed with rambling stories about marital misadventures and the time Lucinda Williams introduced Bob Dylan to Townes Van Zandt. Taylor eventually left the stage to his wife, Susan Lindfors, who played a couple of nice songs including her “A Matter of Degrees.”

  • Notable moments from Sunday:
  • Houston-based trio The Great Trumpet played an engaging set of energetic folk featuring guitar, washboard and cajón, plus nice contributions from a guest fiddler (but no horns). The songs were marked by interesting arrangements and nice harmonies by guitarist Andrew Smythe and washboard player/singer Sarah Haug.
  • Folksinger Ray Bonneville, a native of Canada now living in Austin, entertained an attentive audience at the Red Brick Tavern with songs exploring the problems and rewards of living, all filtered through his weathered voice and distinctive guitar playing. Selections included “When I Get to New York,” “Funny ‘bout Love,” “What Was I To do,” and a couple of requests “Canary Yellow Car” and “Tiptoe Spider.”
  • Honky-tonk star Dale Watson and Western swing master Ray Benson (frontman of Asleep at the Wheel) put on a clinic in crowd-pleasing showmanship during one of the festival’s closing sets. Songs included some by Watson (“I Lie When I Drink”), some by Benson (“Miles and Miles of Texas”), some by both (“The Ballad of Dale and Ray,” “Feelin’ Haggard”), and some classics (Merle Haggard’s “Misery and Gin,” Bobby Troup’s “Route 66,” Commander Cody’s “Hot Rod Lincoln”). There was also plenty of comic interplay between the two veteran performers. The encore consisted of exuberant renditions of Hoyle Nix’s “Big Ball’s in Cowtown” and Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” featuring assistance from fellow festival performers Guy Forsyth, Jon Dee Graham, Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis.Festival talent booker Tracy Brandon, speaking shortly after the last notes had faded and crews had begun breaking down the outdoor stages, pronounced the festival a success. “The fans had a great time,” Brandon said, noting that the event had drawn attendees from other states as well as from around Texas. Asked about future plans, she said the event’s producer, the Conroe Downtown Area Association, “hope[s] to continue to grow the festival.”

Drew Holcomb and Neighbors set for Ryman

Americana Music News – This is a very big weekend for Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors. They’re playing two nights at the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville – and they just have to drive across the river to get to their shows.

East Nashville is home base for this talented band, currently touring in support of their excellent new album Souvenir. We wrote  briefly and approvingly about the album in February, but may have undersold it. This is a band with top-notch musicianship and a healthy respect for hooks. “California” still looms large in our personal playlist.

Some tickets are still available for the Friday and Saturday shows, with Joe Purdy and Penny & Sparrow opening on respective nights.

2017 Americana Music Awards nominees announced

The Americana Music Association unveiled its nominees for the 2017 Americana Music Awards in a press event at the Country Music Hall of Fame.  It’s a nice mix of veterans (Rodney Crowell, John Prine), today’s mainstays (Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson) and emerging artists (Aaron Lee Tasjan, Margo Price and more.)

Album of the Year

“American Band,” Drive-By Truckers, Produced by David Barbe

“A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” Sturgill Simpson, Produced by Sturgill Simpson

“Close Ties,” Rodney Crowell, Produced by Kim Buie and Jordan Lehning

“Freedom Highway, Rhiannon Giddens, Produced David Bither, Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell

“The Navigator,” Hurray for the Riff Raff, Produced by Paul Butler


Artist of the Year

Jason Isbell

John Prine

Lori McKenna

Margo Price

Sturgill Simpson


Duo/Group of the Year

Billy Bragg & Joe Henry

Drive-By Truckers

Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives

The Lumineers


Emerging Artist of the Year

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Aaron Lee Tasjan

Amanda Shires

Brent Cobb

Sam Outlaw


Song of the Year

“All Around You,” Sturgill Simpson, Written by Sturgill Simpson

“It Ain’t Over Yet,” Rodney Crowell (with Rosanne Cash & John Paul White), Written by Rodney Crowell

“To Be Without You,” Ryan Adams, Written by Ryan Adams

“Wreck You,” Lori McKenna, Written by Lori McKenna and Felix McTeigue


Instrumentalist of the Year

Spencer Cullum, Jr.

Jen Gunderman

Courtney Hartman

Charlie Sexton

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