Review: Michelle Malone’s “Stronger Than You Think”

 by Paul T. Mueller

malone_coverA sense of joy pervades Stronger Than You Think, the latest album from Georgia-based folk-rocker Michelle Malone. Joy in its fullest sense – darkness as well as light – informs Malone’s lyrics, but beyond that, there’s the sheer joy of music – writing it, singing it, playing it, sharing it. Stronger’s 13 tracks are filled with all kinds of joy, making for a richly rewarding listening experience.

Malone has been working at this music business for a few decades now, and it seems she’s got it pretty well figured out. She’s a fine singer, equally comfortable with belting out a rocker or crooning a quiet ballad. She’s also a terrific guitarist, acoustic or electric, and adept on the mandolin and harmonica. She ties it all together with strong production skills, here shared with Gerry Hansen. You get the sense that Malone knew exactly what she wanted out of this album, knew how to get it – and did so.

Stronger gets a strong start with “Stomping Ground,” a Tom Petty-esque, mid-tempo rocker that combines nostalgia for youthful experiences with the recognition that while you can revisit the past, you can’t go back to it. The next track, “Vivian Vegas,” may or may not be straight-up autobiographical. “I got kicked out of three high schools trying to get my rock and roll degree,” Malone declares over a fast rockabilly beat, without a hint of regret. “I’ve always been in trouble,” she concludes gleefully, “and trouble’s always been in me.”

Other highlights include:

  • “My Favorite T-Shirt,” a defiant breakup song, with equal measures of bitterness at a former lover and exultation over newfound freedom. Singing with the venom of the ill-treated, Malone’s narrator demands the return of the titular T-shirt (“the one that I bought at the Stones concert/When you said no one would ever love me like you do”) and notes “I stayed, you held me like a crutch/I stayed ‘til I got up the courage to run.”
  • “Keep My Head Up,” a slide guitar-fueled affirmation of the power of persistence: “When I want to quit/I talk to myself/I say, ‘Girl, you got this/You know you’re stronger than you think.’ “
  • “Ramona,” a heart-wrenching ballad about old age, told from the point of view of a middle-aged daughter dealing with her mother’s slow, painful decline. “She says, ‘Ramona, how many husbands did I have?’ ” Malone’s narrator sings. “ ‘Tell me, Ramona, why did I ever leave Birmingham?’ “

Other players include Hansen and Vic Stafford on drums, Davis Causey on electric guitar, Ben Holst on lap steel and electric guitars, Michael Steele on bass, and Trish Land, credited with “tambo-bomb and shakery things.” Backing vocalists include Amy Ray (Indigo Girls) and Kristian Bush (Sugarland), each of whom co-wrote one song; the rest are credited to Malone.

Malone dedicated this album to “those of you who are fighting the good fight.” This is something she knows a lot about; the album is the product of her struggles, and more importantly of her response to them. It’s the work of an artist at the peak of her creative powers, wiser with maturity but still driven by the passion of youth.

Michelle Malone has always had an enthusiastic fan base; Stronger Than You Think makes the case for a much larger one.


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Jerry Lawson at the Station Inn

By Ken Paulson

It was a long time coming, but Jerry Lawson’s show at the Station Inn in Nashville June 5  was a spirited and often inspiring evening.

Lawson, the 71-year-old lead singer for the Persuasions, was there to celebrate the release of Just a Mortal Man, his first solo album.  His voice broke a bit as he explained that the album’s title hit home for him shortly after he finished recording it.  He said he understood just how mortal he was when a torn esophagus led to a life-threatening medical emergency.

Jerry Lawson and Eric Brace on stage at the Station Inn

 Jerry Lawson and Eric Brace on stage at the Station Inn

Red Beet Records founder and artist Eric Brace explained that he had connected with Lawson years earlier when he wrote a piece for the Washington Post saluting his talents. After years of correspondence, the two ended up on stage together in Phoenix, leading to Brace saying “We should make a record together.” In time, they did.

Lawson’s mobility was limited because he’s recovering from knee replacement surgery, but his voice was in fine shape, opening with “Kiddio” and then moving on to perform much of the album. Highlights included Paul Simon’s “Peace Like a River,” Brace’s “Time and Water” and Peter Cooper’s cautionary “Wine,” which Lawson insists could have been written for him.






Reissue: “Nils Lofgren”

nils lofgrenBy Ken Paulson
It’s not unusual for a first solo album to be among an artist’s best. After all, most singer-songwriters have a young lifetime of work from which to select those first 10 or 12 tracks. But that wasn’t the case with Nils Lofgren, just reissued by Real Gone Music.

Lofgren had already put out several albums with his band Grin and toured with Neil Young. The material for this 1975 collection had to be fresh and striking, and Lofgren delivered on both counts.

It’s remarkable to see how many beloved Lofgren tracks show up on this first record, from the blistering “Back It Up” to the wistful “Can’t Buy a Break” and the inventive cover of Carole King’s “Goin’ Back.”

The highlight may well be “Keith Don’t Go,” the celebration of his “main inspirer” Keith Richards. That plea to Keith to stay in the Rolling Stones must have worked; Keith is still on board four decades later.

Nils Lofgren offers a portrait of an absolutely confident young musician. Teamed with Wornell Jones on bass and Aynsley Dunbar on drums, Lofgren aced his debut with consistently strong songs and stellar work on guitar and piano.

New releases: Jerry Lawson, Chris Stapleton

New Americana, folk and soul releases:

Jerry LawsonJust a Mortal ManJerry Lawson – Red Beet Records -Jerry Lawson’s  Just a Mortal Man is a joyous surprise. The 71-year-old lead singer of the Persuasions has just released his first solo album. His rich voice remains a revelation, and the smart song selection showcases his gifts. Highlights include Paul Simon’s “Peace Like A River” and producer Eric Brace’s “Time and Water.” Guests include the McCrary Sisters and Jim Lauderdale. He’ll be in Nashville on June 5 for a show at the Station Inn.

TravellerChris Stapleton – At 37, Chris Stapleton is finally releasing a much-anticipated solo album. He was the lead singer for the Steeldrivers and has had amazing success as a songwriter. Billboard Magazine has a great feature on his songs, as recorded by Adele, Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, Lee Ann Womack and many more.

The TravelerRhett Miller – What are the odds that Chris Stapleton and Rhett Miller would release new albums with almost identical titles? Here Old 97’s frontman Miller teams up with Black Prairie, with guest spots by Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey of REM

Hope You’re Happy NowGrant Langston – The new album from Grant Langston is out now; publicity materials offer this description: “This new record is dark, moody and veers into the downright somber.”

Alicia MichilliAlicia Michilli – We met Alicia Michilli on a plane flying back from the Grammy Awards. She’s from Detroit, but has moved to Nashville to launch her career. Her self-titled EP makes a great first impression. Despite her 22 years, she has an impressive feel for classic ‘70s soul, as evidenced by the five original tracks. And check out her salute to Etta James here.

My Crazy HeadLevi Lowrey – Out now is the new release by Levi Lowrey, described in press materials as his “most revolutionary album yet.”

A Light That Never DiesKaiL Baxley – Forty Below Records – Set for release on June 2, KaiL Baxley’s second album was co-produced with Eric Corne.

Pat McGeePat McGee – This solo album from the Pat McGee Band leader features an impressive array of session players and guest talent, including Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar, Waddy Wachtel, Danny Kotchmar, Jeff Pevar, Paul Barrere, John Popper and Pat Monahan.

Review: Amy Speace’s “That Kind of Girl”


By Paul T. Mueller

speaceIt seems a bit of a shame that singer-songwriter Amy Speace had to turn to crowdfunding to get her latest album released. Still, maybe making an album independently is the best way to end up with exactly what you want, and That Kind of Girl has that kind of sound about it. It’s an excellent collection – 12 songs full of raw, honest emotion, beautifully conveyed by Speace’s powerful, expressive voice. It also features skillful instrumental and vocal backup from a cast of outstanding musicians, including some of her East Nashville neighbors.

There’s no filler here; these songs demonstrate Speace’s mastery of songcraft, which should come as no surprise to those familiar with her previous work. Her writing – on this set she’s credited as sole writer on three songs and co-writer on the rest – is clear and filled with the kind of nuance that can bring a smile, a tear or both. “You know you never really told me when you knew that you chose her,” she sings in “Epilogue (I Don’t Know How to Stop Loving You),” one of the solo efforts. “So I folded you inside my dreams, like an old concert poster.” And, from “Raincoat,” written with Katie Klim: “It’s a strange kind of sadness/And it’s hard to explain/You were my raincoat/You were my raincoat/You were my raincoat/Now you’re the rain.” It’s a simple metaphor, but so effective.

The songs span a range of styles, from the soulful ’60s vibe of opening track “Nothing Good Can Come from This” and the title track, to sad ballads such as “One Man’s Love” and “Raincoat,” to the vintage country sound of “Come Pick Me Up “ and “Trouble Looks Good on You.” There’s also the jazzy, eerie feel of the spiritually themed “Three Days,” the bouncy pop of “In Chicago” and the Irish air – somewhere between dirge and celebration – of the farewell song “Hymn for the Crossing” (the latter written with Irish songwriter Ben Glover the day after Pete Seeger died, according to Speace).

Credit for the fine production goes to Neilson Hubbard (who also did the mixing and contributed drums, percussion and vocals, plus co-writing two songs) The excellent supporting cast includes Will Kimbrough and Carl Broemel on guitars (the latter also on pedal steel), Dan Mitchell on keyboards, Eamon McLoughlin on violin, viola and mandolin, and Dean Marold on upright bass. Contributing vocalists include Glover, John Moreland, Garrison Starr, Tim Easton, Doug and Telisha Williams and Rod Picott.

New releases: Greg Trooper, the Grahams

New Americana, folk and bluegrass releases:

greg trooper liveLive at the Rock RoomGreg Trooper – Due in June is Greg Trooper’s Live at the Rock Room, recorded in Austin with Chip Dolan on keyboards and accordion and Jack Saunders on bass. It’s Trooper’s third live recording and a testament to his exceptional songwriting and performance skills.

Trooper has been a recording and touring artist for many years, a longevity that only comes with a compelling stage presence and catalog. The new album draws from recent albums, with themes ranging from quiet resignation (“They Call Me Hank”) to enduring lust (“Mary of the Scots in Queens.”)

Trooper writes about real lives and challenges; his “We’ve Still Got Time” is one of the best songs you’ll ever hear about aging and romance.

Highly recommended.

Glory BoundThe Grahams – There’s an ambitious new album and film on the way from the Grahams. Glory Bound  has a companion film Rattle the Hocks that explores the intersection of railroads and roots music. Our favorite track on Glory Bound is the driving title song. It begins with youthful regrets and then soars in window-rattling style.

Holidays and Wedding RingsJamie Lin Wilson – Also out Tuesday is a solo album from Jamie Lin Wilson of the Trishas.  Jon Dee Graham and Wade Bowen are among contributors to the set.

OnwardChristian Lopez Band – Blaster Records – Christian Lopez is a 19-year-old songwriter with West Virginia Roots. Produced by Dave Cobb.

Restless YouthDeer Run Drifters –This is the second album from the Virginia-based roots band. Anthem in the making: “You Go to Hell, I’m Going Drinking.”

Sour BridgesSour Bridges – The band calls its music “browngrass,” explaining that it’s bluegrass, “but a little dirtier.”


2015 Americana Music Awards nominees announced

The Americana Music Association announced this afternoon the nominees for the 2015 ama_logo_button_redAmericana Honors and Awards. The winners will be announced at the association’s annual conference, set for Sept. 10-15 in Nashville.
2015 Americana Honors & Awards Nominees
Album of the Year (Award goes to Artist and Producer)
And The War CameShakey Graves; Produced by Alejandro Rose-Garcia and Chris Boosahda
Down Where The Spirit Meets The BoneLucinda Williams; Produced by Lucinda Williams, Tom Overby and Greg Leisz
Metamodern Sounds In Country Music Sturgill Simpson; Produced by Dave Cobb
The Way I’m Livin’Lee Ann Womack; Produced by Frank Liddell
Tomorrow Is My Turn – Rhiannon Giddens; Produced by T-Bone Burnett
Artist of the Year
Rhiannon Giddens
Jason Isbell
Sturgill Simpson
Lucinda Williams
Lee Ann Womack
Duo/Group of the Year
Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn
The Lone Bellow
The Mavericks
Punch Brothers
Shovels & Rope
Emerging Artist of the Year
First Aid Kit
Nikki Lane
Doug Seegers
Shakey Graves
Instrumentalist of the Year
Hubby Jenkins
Laur Joamets
Greg Leisz
John Leventhal
Stuart Mathis
Song of the Year (Award goes to Artist and Songwriter)
“Dearly Departed” – Shakey Graves; Written by Alejandro Rose-Garcia and Esme’ Patterson
“East Side Of Town” – Lucinda Williams; Written by Lucinda Williams
“Terms Of My Surrender” – John Hiatt; Written by John Hiatt
“Turtles All The Way Down” – Sturgill Simpson; Written by Sturgill Simpson
“You’re The Best Lover That I Ever Had” – Steve Earle & the Dukes; Written by Steve Earle

This just in: 2015 Americana Music Festival line-up

ama_logo_button_redThe  Americana Music Association has just announced its initial artist line-up for the 16th annual Americana Music Festival and Conference, set for September 15 – 20, 2015, in Nashville.

It’s always an extraordinary week of music and one of the best festivals in Nashville each year.

You’ll find conference and wristband information at


The roster so far:
Anderson East
Andrew Combs
Anthony D’Amato
Barna Howard
Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn
Billy Bragg & Joe Purdy
Birds of Chicago
Brian Wright
The Bros. Landreth
Caleb Caudle
Caleb Klauder Country Band
Carly Ritter
Carsie Blanton
Christopher Paul Stelling
The Contenders
Corb Lund
Dead Winter Carpenters
Dom Flemons
The Dustbowl Revival
Emma Swift
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen
The Freightshakers
The Grahams
Grant-Lee Phillips
Guthrie Brown & The Family Tree
Hackensaw Boys
The Hello Strangers
Henry Wagons
Horse Feathers
Horseshoes & Hand Grenades
Hugh Bob and the Hustle
Jackie Greene
James McMurtry
Joe Pug
John Moreland
John Paul Keith
Kingsley Flood
Kristin Diable
Kristin Andreassen
Laney Jones and the Spirits
Lee Ann Womack
Legendary Shack Shakers
Lera Lynn
Leyla McCalla
Lilly Hiatt
Liz Longley
Los Lobos
Low Cut Connie
Lydia Loveless
Martin Harley
Mary Gauthier
Nikki Lane
Nora Jane Struthers
Oh Pep!
Packway Handle Band
Patty Griffin
Pokey LaFarge
Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen
Ray Wylie Hubbard
River Whyless
Sarah Borges
Sean McConnell
Shemekia Copeland
The Show Ponies
Session Americana
The Steel Wheels
Stephen Kellogg
The Stray Birds
Tall Heights
The Vespers
Water Liars
The Whistles and The Bells
Whitey Morgan and the 78s
The Wild Reeds
William Elliott Whitmore


Review: James McMurtry’s “Complicated Game”

by Paul T. Mueller   

mcmurtry“Honey don’t you be yelling at me when I’m cleaning my gun.” Is there a better opening line for a song or an album anywhere? Could there be? Hard to imagine. A dozen words into “Copper Canteen,” the first song on Complicated Game, James McMurtry’s ninth studio CD, and you know you want to know more about these people. That’s one of McMurtry’s great strengths – sharp, clean writing that sketches characters and their lives with only a few well-chosen words.

Another of McMurtry’s gifts is his almost uncanny ability to embody a wide range of personas in songs. Most of Complicated Game’s songs are written in the first person; the protagonists include a husband dealing with the frustrations and pleasures of a long-term relationship (“Copper Canteen”); a man reminiscing about his younger self and a long-ago love (“You Got to Me”), a rootless wanderer (“Ain’t Got a Place”), a man planning his own disappearance (“Forgotten Coast”), a returning veteran who finds that things back home are not what he’d hoped for (“South Dakota”), and – in what McMurtry described recently as “the deepest and darkest song I ever wrote” – a person of unspecified gender who deals with emotional pain through self-injury (“Cutter”). These are people you might pass on the street any day without knowing anything about them, but McMurtry’s skill as a lyricist brings them vividly to life.

The overall sound of Complicated Game is closer to that of older, quieter albums, such as It Had to Happen and Walk Between the Raindrops, than to the louder, angrier tone of McMurtry’s more recent work. There’s plenty of fine guitar playing, but this time out it’s mostly acoustic. Much of the backing is by longtime touring bandmates Cornbread (bass), Daren Hess (drums) and Tim Holt (guitar and vocals). The impressive list of contributors includes McMurtry’s son Curtis on banjo and vocals, Benmont Tench on keyboards, Dustin Welch and Danny Barnes on banjo, Derek Trucks on slide guitar, and many others.

McMurtry’s vocals have more animation here than on his past few albums; he’s been quoted as crediting co-producer CC Adcock with expanding his range. (Mike Napolitano is also credited with production. He and Adcock did a fine job; there’s a lot going on musically, but it all serves the songs without overshadowing them.)

James McMurtry has been an excellent musician and storyteller since he launched his career more than a quarter century ago, and he shows no sign of letting up now. Complicated Game is one of his best, and one of the best albums of 2015 so far.

New Releases: Alabama Shakes, Susie Glaze

alabama shakes 2New in our mailbox this week:

Sound & ColorAlabama Shakes – ATO Records – Alabama Shakes’ second album is a statement of extraordinary confidence from a young and ambitious band.

It would have been so easy to echo the sounds and success of debut release Boys & Girls. Instead Sound & Color is a bold amalgam of soul, psychedelia, rock and electronica.

For every heart-rending ballad like “Give Me All Your Love,” there’s a punk-propelled “The Greatest” or Stones-influenced ‘Shoegaze.”

Brittany Howard’s vocals are stunning throughout, giving these far-flung sounds a soulful core. Alabama Shakes are in it for the long run.

The LightUncle Lucius – Boo Clap/Thirty Tigers Due June 9, the fourth album from the Austin-based band will be their first independent release since exiting a label deal.

glazeNot That Kind of GirlSusie Glaze and the Hilonesome Band – Produced by Herb Pedersen – Suzie Glaze’s website touts her band as a “Newgrass Americana Folk Fusion Quartet,” but that’s probably working too hard. As Not That Kind of Girl firmly establishes, this band plays engaging bluegrass and Celtic music, eagerly drawing on a wide range of influences and inspirations. A highlight: A sweet cover of J.D. Souther’s “Prisoner in Disguise.”

Melancholy SeaThe Pinder Brothers The opening few seconds of Melancholy Sea bring  “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” to mind, an apt influence for the Pinder Brothers, whose father Mike Pinder was a founding member of the Moody Blues. Deft melodies and harmonies abound on this third album from the duo.

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