Review: Delbert McClinton’s Sandy Beaches Cruise 2015

By Ken Paulson

We’ve just stepped off Delbert McClinton’s Sandy Beaches Cruise, a floating music festival in its 21st year. Though the ship stopped in Antigua and St. Croix, that really didn’t matter. On Sandy Beaches, you come for the music.

The cruise features an amazing array of artists, with blues, rhythm and blues and New Orleans influences among the most common denominators. Headliners included McClinton, Paul Thorn, the Mavericks, Lyle Lovett, Marcia Ball, Wayne Toups, Band of Heathens, the McCrary Sisters, Teresa James, Elizabeth Cook, Lari White and Mingo Fishtrap. Rough seas moved some of the deck shows inside, but the performances didn’t suffer. It was one rich performance after another.

McClinton’s partner on the 2015  cruise was Sixthman, the industry leaders in music cruises. Their cruises (they call them festivals) include ventures with Kiss, Florida Georgia Line, Train and Kid Rock, as well as the popular Americana-folk-rock Cayamo cruise.

We’ve written extensively about the always amazing Cayamo cruise over the years and we’ll have a report on the 2015 cruise shortly. It’s the cruise that most closely matches the vibe and music of Sandy Beaches. While both are impressive festivals, Cayamo tends to have bigger names and a wide range of singer-songwriters (John Prine, Lucinda Williams, Richard Thompson and Lovett are headliners this year), while Sandy Beaches books bands and artists whose primary mission is to get you dancing in the aisles.

Among the week’s highlights on Sandy Beaches:

Red Young and Delbert McClinton

Red Young and Delbert McClinton

Collaborations – some planned, many impromptu – were a big part of the cruise, and Delbert McClinton was everywhere. In addition to three sets with his band, he sat in on a songwriters session featuring Gary Nicholson, Spooner Oldham, Danny Flowers, Glen Clark (of Delbert and Glen) and Bruce Channel. It was Delbert who played harmonica on Channel’s big hit “Hey! Baby,” a #1 record in 1962, and the duo revisited that classic.

The most striking team-up came when Delbert sat down on the piano bench with

veteran keyboardist Red Young for a stirring version of “Georgia,” while members of the audience attempted to slow dance despite high waves and a rocking boat. Young was a revelation throughout the cruise.

He’s played piano for Clyde McCoy, Lloyd Price, Eric Burdon, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and even Sonny and Cher, and he showed up as a sideman on stages throughout the cruise, while also leading a band that played Frank Sinatra and jazzy pop in the Spinnaker Lounge.

Delbert also joined Lari White for a song from her Green Eyed Soul album, to her obvious delight. She had opened her set by telling the audience that she would understand if they filtered out to see the Mavericks, whose set overlapped with hers. She then went on to make

Lari White and Delbert McClinton

Lari White and Delbert McClinton

sure they didn’t, Opening with “Amazing Grace” (her usual encore, she explained), a sizzling take on Steve Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and guest spots with Young and others.

White’s concern about competition from the Mavericks was understandable. They played two robust sets, including songs from their upcoming album Mono, set for release on Valory Music on Feb. 17.

Bass player and longtime Maverick Robert Reynolds is no longer in the band, and the Mavericks used Sandy Beaches to introduce his successor James Intveld. Raul Malo claimed they were throwing Intveld into the mix without much rehearsal time, but it didn’t show. He’s an accomplished solo artist and a great addition to the band.

As hard as Delbert worked, Marcia Ball matched him, headlining her own three sets, hosting an all-star “Pianorama” that featured the most talented keyboardists on the cruise complementing and competing with each other, and doing guest spots in other shows, including a memorable turn with Teresa James.

Marcia Ball and Teresa James

Marcia Ball and Teresa James

Lyle Lovett was probably the biggest draw on the cruise, and packed the largest theater on the boat with acoustic sets that had fans raving.

Paul Thorn’s fans were also out in force, though he surprised many by announcing that after more than a decade on this cruise, this would be his last. He told fans to watch his website for developments, and then delivered an outstanding set that included a guest spot by his daughter on tambourine.

It’s been a few years since we’ve seen Thorn perform, and it’s clear that as his fan base has grown, so has his sound. He’s playing much bigger rooms now and his band is more powerful  and his songs more anthemic. He played a number of songs from his latest album Too Blessed to Be Stressed, including “Everybody Needs Somebody” and a wonderful version of the title song with guest vocals from the McCrary Sisters.

Another highlight from the new album was “Mediocrity is King,” the best protest song we’ve heard in years, taking to task everything and everyone who waters down our culture, and expressing special disdain for both Republicans and Democrats.

A bonus was the Paul Thorn Band’s take on Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes,” from the recent tribute album Looking Into You.

Thorn also showed up on Jason Wilber’s “In Search of A Song” radio show taping and as a flamboyantly dressed guest on Fred Eaglesmith’s mock talk show. The Sandy Beaches audience will miss him.

Elizabeth Cook battled an illness early in the week, and only made it through four songs before her voice gave out.

To our surprise, she battled back on Friday to deliver a solid set that drew heavily from her recent Gospel Plow album and her 201o release Welder, including “El Camino” and “Heroin Addict Sister” from the latter.

Whether it was the bug or the mix, her vocals were sometimes overwhelmed by her new band, but she played for almost 90 minutes.

Jill Sobule’s time on the boat was limited, but she delivered one of the most entertaining sets of the week, backed by members of Paul Thorn’s band. she opened with “If I Had a Jetpack,” followed by the defiant “I’ve Got Nothing to Prove,” immediately winning over the audience.

Jill Sobule and her instant chorus

Jill Sobule and her instant chorus

“Where is Bobbie Gentry?,” from her California Years album, was next, and Sobule said she had been told that Gentry thought the song was very funny. It was a  sweet tribute to Gentry and the sound of “Ode to Billie Joe.”

Sobule explained that she had been hired to write a song about the history of immigration in America, and enlisted more than a dozen audience members to serve as a chorus on a powerful and profane song that makes the point that virtually all of us are in the U.S. because of immigration.

Sobule closed with a sampling of fan favorites, including “Supermodel” from the Clueless soundtrack, “Bitter,” “When My Ship Comes In, “Underdog Victorious”  and “Lucy in the Gym,” with an atrium-wide sing-along on the encore of Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes.”

Of course, all of this just scratches the surface. There were more than 60 shows, with outstanding sets by Wayne Toups, the Band of Heathens, the McCrary Sisters, Jimmy Hall, Teresa James and many more.

Spooner Oldham and Glen Clark

Spooner Oldham and Glen Clark

As musically memorable as the week was, some of the smaller moments were the most memorable. When Muscle Shoals great Spooner Oldham performed his “I’m Your Puppet,” a hit for James and Bobby Purify in 1966, Glen Clark couldn’t contain himself, rushing all the way across the stage to harmonize with Oldham. We know the feeling.

(The 2016 Sandy Beaches Cruise is scheduled for January 9 through 16 on the Holland America Line. More information is available on Delbert McClinton’s site.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New releases: Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle

6PAN1T-R PSDAmericana Music News – New releases in our mailbox this week:

Robert Earl KeenHappy Prisoner DualtoneKeen’s latest is a bluegrass album, set for release Feb. 10. Full of familiar favorites, it includes “T for Texas,” Long Black Veil” and “Vincent Black Lightning. Among the guest artists: Lyle Lovett, Sara Watkins, Natalie Maines and Peter Rowan.

Tom Paxton Redemption Road – Pax Records – The folk legend’s latest is set for release March 10; features appearances by John Prine and Janis Ian. www.tompaxton.com

American Aquarium Wolves – The follow-up to Burn.Flicker.Die. is set for release Feb. 3. Produced by Brad Cook.

TerraplaneSteve Earle and the DukesTerraplane – Set for release on Feb. 17, this is Earle’s blues album, produced by R.S. Field. Most intriguing song title: “Go Go Boots Are Back.” www.stevearle.com

Susie Fitzgerald Restless –Big Purr Music, Fitzgerald’s second album, set for release Feb. 9. www.susiefitzgeraldmusic.com

Scott WooldridgeScott Wooldridge – Solo album from Minneapolis-based singer-songwriter; Midwest tour planned. www. Scottwooldridge.com

The David MotelPeople, Places, Things – New project from Nashville-based singer-songwriter David Brooks, produced by Dave Coleman of the Coalmen. www.TheDavidmotel.com

Drew holcombDrew Holcomb and the Neighbors Medicine – Magnolia Music – First single is “Shine Like Lightning;” album produced by Joe Pisapia. www.drewholcomb.com

PI JacobsHi-Rise Ranch – Six-track collection from L.A. musician, produced by Eugene Toale.

SeahorseThe Fire’s Heart – Raven’s Flight Records – A Kickstarter-fueled album from Oregon anchored by Rich Swanger. www.seahorselovesyou.com

Chris CarrollTrouble & Time – Debut album from Texas-based congwriter, produced ny David Beck. www.chriscarrollsongs.com

The WestiesWest Side Stories – Michael McDermott and Heather Horton present a “song cycle” about gangsters in Hell’s Kitchen in the ‘60s and ‘70s. www.westiesmusic.com

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Snapshots: Scenes from the Sandy Beaches Cruise

Americana Music News - A sampling of scenes from Sixthman/Delbert McClinton’s 2015 Sandy Beaches Cruise:

Delbert McClinton played with pretty much everybody on the Sandy Beaches cruise, but was clearly in his element as Gary Nicholson accompanied him in a stellar guitar pull.

Bruce Channel

Bruce Channel

That guitar pull included Bruce Channel, who performed a number of his country hits, along with a fine rendition of his 1962 hit “Hey! Baby,” accompanied by McClinton on harmonica. McCinton played on  the original record.

The McCrary Sisters previewed  their upcoming album (produced by Buddy Miller) with outstanding performances throughout the ship. Particularly memorable were covers of the Staples Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” and an unexpected medley of “Oh Happy Day/Happy.”

Danny Flowers

Danny Flowers

Danny Flowers’  next album features the McCrary Sisters throughout, and the women could be seen quietly singing along in the audience at one of his songwriter sessions. He began one of the shows with what he described as his worst song (“East Batcave”),  and opened another with “Tulsa Time,” one of his best.

Sitting next to Flowers at the first songwriters session was Al Anderson, a highly successful songwriter and founding member of NRBQ.

Jill Sobule rocked the atrium with an energetic (and very entertaining) set, backed by members of Paul Thorn’s band. She’s a remarkable songwriter, but there was also real joy in her cover of the Mott the Hoople hit “All the Young Dudes.”

Along with Lyle Lovett, the Mavericks were the biggest draw on the cruise, previewing songs from their new album Mono in sets at the Stardust Theater and outside on the deck.

Lari White and Delbert McClinton

Lari White and Delbert McClinton

You knew it was  going to be a great set (from a confident performer) when Nashville’s Lari White opened up her Stardust Theatre set with “Amazing Grace.” Lari also did a great show in the Atrium, and teamed with husband Chuck Cannon to lead the renewal of marriage vows on the ship.

Etta Britt, another fine Nashville artist, did her own soulful sets throughout the cruise, including a memorable show in the Atrium.

Jimmy Hall, yet another performer from Nashville, closed his show with “Keep On Smilin'” a Top 10 record in 1974, when he was lead singer of Wet Willie.               IMG_8802One of the final shows on the cruise was also one of the best. Teresa James delivered a stirring set in the Stardust Theater, with a guest spot from Marcia Ball and a multi-performer finale that channeled Aretha.

Bonnaroo announces 2015 lineup

Americana Music News — The Bonnaroo Music Festival has announced its  lineup for 2015 and a fair number of Americana music artists are in the mix, including Sturgill SimpsonJerry Douglas and the Earls of Leicester, Mumford and Sons, Alabama Shakes,  Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn and the Punch Brothers.

The line-up so far:

Billy Joel

Mumford & Sons

Deadmau5

Kendrick Lamar

Florence + The Machine

Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters

My Morning Jacket

Bassnectar

Alabama Shakes

Childish Gambino

Flume

Hozier

Slayer

Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals

Belle & Sebastian

Spoon

The War on Drugs

STS9

Ben Folds

SuperJam !

Atmosphere

Atomic Bomb! Who is William Onyeabor?

Tears for Fears

Brandi Carlile

twenty | one | pilots

The Bluegrass Situation SuperJam featuring Ed Helms and Special Guests

Flying Lotus

Earth Wind & Fire

Caribou

Gary Clark Jr.

SBTRKT

Punch Brothers

Medeski, Scofield, Martin, & Wood

Tove Lo

Run The Jewels

Dawes

G-Eazy

Trampled By Turtles

Sturgill Simpson

Moon Taxi

Awolnation

Sylvan Esso

Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn

Guster

Jamie XX

Against Me!

Odesza

SOJA

Jerry Douglas presents Earls of Leicester

Bleachers

Rudimental

Mac DeMarco

Tycho

The Very Best

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib

Shakey Graves

Shabazz Palaces

Gramatik

Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Jungle

Benjamin Booker

Houndmouth

The Growlers

Glass Animals

Ana Tijoux

SZA

Courtney Barnett

Rhiannon Giddens

Royal Blood

Tanya Tagaq

Woods

Hurray for the Riff Raff

Iceage

Temples

Between the Buried & Me

Rustie

Ryn Weaver

Dopapod

Pokey LaFarge

Priory

Bahamas

Strand of Oaks

Phox

Gregory Alan Isakov

Brownout Presents BROWN SABBATH

The Districts

Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear

DMA’s

Catfish & The Bottlemen

Jon Cleary & The Absolute Monster Gentlemen

Pallbearer

Dej Loaf

Christopher Denny

Hiss Golden Messenger

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard

Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas

Unlocking The Truth

 

Review: Doyle and Debbie on the Sandy Beaches Cruise

The Doyle and Debbie Show

The Doyle and Debbie Show

By Ken Paulson

For years, we’ve heard great things about the Doyle and Debbie Show, a satirical take on country music with a long weekly residency at Nashville’s Station Inn. Instead of seeing it just miles from home, though, we finally caught up with it on Delbert McClinton’s Sandy Beaches Cruise.

The shows tells the story of Doyle, a washed-up old school country singer who never quite made it, and his duo partner Debbie, an earnest and quirky young woman who sees the chance to team up with Doyle as her last, best shot at a career in show business.

It’s laugh-out-loud funny, particularly because Bruce Amston (“Doyle” and the author of the show) and Jenny Littleton (“Debbie”) play it so straight, delivering outlandishly goofy lyrics with heart. Among the songs: “Barefoot and Pregnant,” “When You’re Screwin’ Other Women (Think of Me)” and “Whine Whine Twang Twang.”

There were two performances of the Doyle and Debbie Show on board, and we saw both of them. On the second night, a computer glitch shut down their music in the final minutes of the show, leaving Amston to scramble to a laptop.

At each show, Doyle thanks the audience for being so “forgiving,” but this time, Amston said he really meant it. The computer rebooted, the music kicked in and the show ended with a well-deserved standing ovation.

Paul Thorn’s surprising musical influence

By Ken Paulson

Paul Thorn on Sandy Beaches

Paul Thorn on Sandy Beaches

 

Paul Thorn has been a dynamic and omipresent performer on Delbert McClinton’s Sandy Beaches cruise, with an impressive acoustic solo set in the ship’s Stardust Theatre and a band show on the deck that included a surprising cover of Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes” from a recent double-CD tribute set.

But the bigger surprise was when Jason Wilber of John Prine’s band interviewed Thorn for his “In Search of A Song” radio show. Wilbur asked Thorn what his current musical favorite is.

“The Bee Gees,”‘Thorn replied. There was predictable laughter, but Thorn pressed on, citing ‘How Deep is Your Love” as an example of the brilliant melodies of the Brothers Gibb. They may be seen as a little cheesy today but they were great writers, Thorn said.

Wilbur asked the question again, pushing Thorn for another example of a band he loves. Thorn just smiled and once again said “Bee Gees.”

 

 

Marcia Ball, Wayne Toups kick off Sandy Beaches

Wayne Toups on the Sandy Beaches Cruise

Wayne Toups on the Sandy Beaches Cruise

By Ken Paulson 

The 21st edition of Delbert McClinton’s Sandy Beaches Cruise got off to a rousing start Saturday, despite blustery winds that moved the main events off the deck. This cruise, like the Cayamo cruise next week, features a wide range of Americana, blues and folk performers in often intimate seetings. Headliners on Sandy Beaches include Lyle Lovett, Paul Thorn, the McCrary Sisters, Jill Sobule, Band of Heathens, Etta Britt, Elizabeth Cook, Mingo Fishtrap, Gary Nicholson, Red Young, Teresa James, Fred Eaglesmith, Lari White and the Mavericks.

The weather hitch Saturday meant Sandy Beaches openers Marcia Ball, Wayne Toups and Delbert himself took the stage at the Stardust Theatre, the best venue on the cruise ship. The audience lost a deck party under the stars, but enjoyed superior lines of sight and much better sound. Not a bad trade under the circumstances.

Marcia Ball

Marcia Ball

Ball began the evening with a spirited set that immediately brought dancers to the front of the audience. She’s been part of McClinton’s cruises since the beginning and set the tone for the party to come. She drew heavily from her latest album The Tattooed Lady and the Alligator Man, including the title cut, “The Squeeze is On” and “Human Kindness.”

Yet for all the dance music she played, the highlight may have been her poignant performance of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927.”

Wayne Toups, also a veteran of the earliest cruises, followed with a blistering set that began up-tempo and accelerated from there, just easing up for a phenomenal rendition of Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” and the Neville classic ‘Tell It Like It Is.”

Delbert McClinton closed out the evening at the Stardust with old favorites like “Old Weakness Coming on Strong” and “New York City,” reminding the faithful why this cruise has worked so well for 21 years.

(Photos by Ken Paulson)

Allison Moorer tour dates announced

Americana Music News - The highlight of the 2014 Americana Music Festival in Nashville may well have been Allison Moorer’s  captivating performance at the City Winery. Her new album Down to Believing is due March 17 and she’s headed out to tour in support of the release:

March 19th – Vienna, VA Jammin Java
March 20th – Princeton, NJ Folk Society
March 21st – Wilmington, DE World Café Live
March 22nd – Cambridge, MA Passims
March 24th – Portland, ME One Longfellow Square
March 25th – Fairfield, CT FTC Stage One
March 26th – Buffalo, NY 189 Public House
March 27th – Albany, NY Sawyer Theatre

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Review: Bill Kirchen in concert

by Paul T. Mueller

Sometimes you go to a show for entertainment and get some education as a bonus. Such was the case when Bill Kirchen played at Houston’s Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church on January 3. Kirchen’s solo performance, part of the church’s UniTunes Coffeehouse series, featured plenty of guitar heroics from the “Titan of the Telecaster” (he played two of the classic Fenders during the show), but also a healthy dose of the musical history he has been living, and contributing to, for the past half-century or so.

Kirchen’s shows with his band tend to be lively affairs, but the UniTunes show was more reflective than raucous, featuring a good deal of between-songs commentary in which he described his musical journey. No doubt most of the stories had been told before, but Kirchen tells them with warmth and charm that makes them seem more like personal revelations than practiced patter.

The show also featured a fair number of skillfully picked acoustic songs (guitar fans might be interested to know that Kirchen’s acoustic guitar was a Wayne Henderson instrument, in what Kirchen said was its first public performance).

Some highlights:

Several songs from Kirchen’s stint as lead guitarist of the musically eclectic Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, including “Semi-Truck,” “Down to Seeds and Stems Again” and, of course, “Hot Rod Lincoln,” a rockabilly tune that featured a string of brief but dead-on impersonations of seemingly everyone who’s ever played electric guitar on record.

  • Several covers harking back to Kirchen’s folkie days, including Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”
  • A couple of blues covers – Mississippi John Hurt’s “The Angels Laid Him Away” and Sleepy John Estes’ “Milk Cow Blues.”
  • Two nice instrumentals, one acoustic (Buck Owens’ theme “Buckaroo”) and one electric (Santo & Johnny’s “Sleep Walk”).
  • Several Kirchen originals, including “Hammer of the Honky Tonk Gods,” his tribute to the Telecaster, and “Flip Flop,” his fond farewell to three of his musical heroes, Professor Longhair, Don Rich and Carter Stanley.Kirchen’s signature purple trombone – the instrument he played in his high school marching band – finally made an appearance during his encore song, “Milk Cow Blues.” Partway through, Kirchen turned over his guitar to his soundman while he took up the horn and made a brief visit to the pews before returning to the stage.

Our favorite Americana Music Albums of 2014

It’s the time of year for “Best of 2014″ lists, but we have nothing quite that definitive in mind here. Here’s a sampling of albums that impressed us over the past 12 months:

 John Fullbright’s Songs

By Paul T. Mueller

fullbright_songs_cover_150John Fullbright’s first studio album, From the Ground Up, made him a rising star in roots music circles two years ago. The singer-songwriter from Oklahoma probably could have gotten away with shaking things up the second time out. Instead, the recently released Songs is notable for its restraint. The 12 tracks are marked by clean production by Fullbright and Wes Sharon, with spare arrangements that leave plenty of space for Fullbright’s distinctive voice and lyrics.

Relationships, good and bad, are at the heart of most of Fullbright’s songs. The album starts with the ironically titled “Happy,” a not-very-happy examination of the aftermath of a relationship that apparently didn’t work out so well. In “The One That Lives Too Far,” Fullbright acknowledges the difficulty of long-distance relationships, and “Until You Were Gone” tells the old, sad story of insight acquired too late – “I didn’t know I was in love with you/Until you were gone.”

Fullbright manages a more positive tone in “When You’re Near,” a cautiously optimistic tune that features some nice electric guitar by Terry “Buffalo” Ware. “I’m the one that you can go to/When you need another heartbeat near,” Fullbright sings in the chorus. “Don’t I feel like something when you’re here.” The album closes on an up note with “Very First Time” – “Between love everlasting/And meaningless rhyme/Sits feeling good for the very first time/I’m feeling good for the very first time.”

Fullbright has said he doesn’t understand why some people say his lyrics are vague, but such statements are clearly tongue in cheek. He is a writer who loves words, but he doesn’t always see the need to arrange them in straight lines. He fills his songs with images and metaphors whose meaning isn’t obvious at first glance, or maybe ever. Songs includes several examples of this, including “Write a Song,” a self-referential exercise that begins, “Write a song/Write a song about the very song you sing.” The cheerful “Going Home” starts out in a similar vein – “Bitter hearts from bitter ends/Crooked limps from crooked mends” – but also features the eminently quotable, “I met love. Love met me/And we agreed to disagree.”

The one song on Songs that’s really a narrative is “High Road,” a sweet but sad ballad about a farm couple and the disaster that eventually befalls them. It’s a quiet but powerful story.

Vague or clear, Fullbright’s songs work because he sings them with an imperfect but expressive voice and accompanies them with excellent guitar and even better piano (along with smaller doses of harmonica, drums and even whistling). He’s supported by a cast of fine musicians, including bassist David Leach (a member of his touring band, as is guitarist Ware), drummer Mike Meadows, organist Daniel Walker and steel guitarist Ryan Engleman. Co-producer Wes Sharon, who also recorded and mixed the album, is credited with bass on two tracks and percussion on one.

John Fullbright’s first studio album, From the Ground Up, made him a rising star in roots music circles two years ago. The singer-songwriter from Oklahoma probably could have gotten away with shaking things up the second time out. Instead, the recently released Songs is notable for its restraint. The 12 tracks are marked by clean production by Fullbright and Wes Sharon, with spare arrangements that leave plenty of space for Fullbright’s distinctive voice and lyrics.

Relationships, good and bad, are at the heart of most of Fullbright’s songs. The album starts with the ironically titled “Happy,” a not-very-happy examination of the aftermath of a relationship that apparently didn’t work out so well. In “The One That Lives Too Far,” Fullbright acknowledges the difficulty of long-distance relationships, and “Until You Were Gone” tells the old, sad story of insight acquired too late – “I didn’t know I was in love with you/Until you were gone.”

Fullbright manages a more positive tone in “When You’re Near,” a cautiously optimistic tune that features some nice electric guitar by Terry “Buffalo” Ware. “I’m the one that you can go to/When you need another heartbeat near,” Fullbright sings in the chorus. “Don’t I feel like something when you’re here.” The album closes on an up note with “Very First Time” – “Between love everlasting/And meaningless rhyme/Sits feeling good for the very first time/I’m feeling good for the very first time.”

Fullbright has said he doesn’t understand why some people say his lyrics are vague, but such statements are clearly tongue in cheek. He is a writer who loves words, but he doesn’t always see the need to arrange them in straight lines. He fills his songs with images and metaphors whose meaning isn’t obvious at first glance, or maybe ever. Songs includes several examples of this, including “Write a Song,” a self-referential exercise that begins, “Write a song/Write a song about the very song you sing.” The cheerful “Going Home” starts out in a similar vein – “Bitter hearts from bitter ends/Crooked limps from crooked mends” – but also features the eminently quotable, “I met love. Love met me/And we agreed to disagree.”

The one song on Songs that’s really a narrative is “High Road,” a sweet but sad ballad about a farm couple and the disaster that eventually befalls them. It’s a quiet but powerful story.

Vague or clear, Fullbright’s songs work because he sings them with an imperfect but expressive voice and accompanies them with excellent guitar and even better piano (along with smaller doses of harmonica, drums and even whistling). He’s supported by a cast of fine musicians, including bassist David Leach (a member of his touring band, as is guitarist Ware), drummer Mike Meadows, organist Daniel Walker and steel guitarist Ryan Engleman. Co-producer Wes Sharon, who also recorded and mixed the album, is credited with bass on two tracks and percussion on one.

Matt Harlan’s Raven Hotel

 harlan_raven_160by Paul T. Mueller

Houston-based singer-songwriter Matt Harlan isn’t one of those musicians who puts out an album every year – his last was released in early 2012 – but you can bet that when one does finally show up, it’s worth the wait. Raven Hotel is an excellent showcase for Harlan’s writing, playing, singing and production skills.

The album’s second track is titled “Half Developed Song,” but that may be a little inside humor (it’s actually about getting past everyday obstacles and getting on with life). There’s nothing half developed about any of Raven Hotel’s 12 songs. All are carefully written, skillfully played and sung. Clean production, for which Harlan and Rich Brotherton share credit, makes the most of them.

The title track deals with the struggle to maintain human connections in a busy world. “I’m living in my own world now, you can stop by if you like,” Harlan sings, “ ’Cause I’ll forget to call and I’ll forget to write.” Even more personal is the love-is-tough theme of “We Never Met (Time Machine).” “Well, it’s hard to be your lover, and it’s hard to be your friend,” goes the second verse. “When you don’t offer no forgiveness, it’s a game nobody wins.”

In “Second Gear,” a father’s instructions to his child during a driving lesson (“Drop it down another gear/The roads are slick this time of year”) turn into larger life lessons (“You’ll find a higher place that you can climb to/Just leave a trail to show them where you’ve been”). “Burgundy and Blue,” a sweet love song, marks a departure from Harlan’s usual folky style – it’s done as a jazz ballad, backed by the smoky tenor sax of John Mills.

Harlan’s wife, Rachel Jones, gets the vocal spotlight on “Riding with the Wind,” an ode to freedom that Harlan has said was written with her voice in mind. She also contributes nice harmony vocals on several other songs.

Other members of the all-star cast Harlan and Brotherton assembled for this project include Bukka Allen on organ, piano and accordion (the latter used to good effect on “Old Allen Road,” a dark tale of implied violence); Maddy Brotherton on violin; Floyd Domino on keyboards; Glenn Fukunaga on bass; Jon Greene on drums, and Mickey Raphael, best known for his long association with Willie Nelson, on harmonica, best heard on the wistful “Slow Moving Train.” Brotherton, who’s the longtime lead guitarist in Robert Earl Keen’s band, contributed on guitars and several other stringed instruments, as well as synth and vocals.

Paul Thorn’s Too Blessed to Be Stressed

By Ken Paulson

thornPaul Thorn’s Too Blessed to Be Stressed is sort of a children’s album for adults.

Just as kids’ albums teach cooperation, manners and personal hygiene in song, Thorn offers a few life lessons of his own:

  • Remember that we’re “Too Blessed to Be Stressed.”
  • Keep the faith and know that “Everything’s Gonna Be All Right.”
  • Make friends because “Everybody Needs Somebody.”
  • Walk a different path and “Don’t Let Nobody Rob You of Your Joy”

While that may sound preachy, it’s anything but. This is largely joyous and affirming music, supplemented with the vocals of the McCrary Sisters.

“Mediocrity is King,” the album’s highlight, is considerably more cutting. This is a contemporary protest song, bemoaning an era in which the shallow are celebrated, family businesses are obsolete and Johnny Cash would never have made it. In just 18 words, Thorn explains why our democracy is in disarray “When you don’t expect much, you’re never let down; you get the kind of government we’ve got now.” This is smart and pointed songwriting and we need a lot more of it.

The album isn’t wall-to wall messages. “I Backslide on Fridays” is more familiar Thorn fare, explaining how good intentions disappear over the course of a week.

Thorn and co-writer Billy Maddox have crafted a fine album with hook-laden songs that actually say something about the world we live in, a surprisingly rare achievement. Too Blessed to be Stressed continues Thorn’s remarkable run.

Parker Milsap

millsap.coverBy Paul T. Mueller

 Oklahoma singer-songwriter Parker Millsap put together a very good debut with 2012’s Palisade. His self-titled sophomore effort, released earlier this year, is even better, demonstrating the kind of growth and perspective good songwriters acquire as they mature. It’s a little scary to think about where Millsap might be in a few years, given that he is now all of 21 years old.

 For someone barely old enough to buy a legal drink, Millsap already possesses a phenomenal grasp of the art and craft of songwriting. Consider the album’s fourth track, “The Villain.” In its three verses (there’s no bridge), each constructed around a different theme, Millsap sings a gentle but profound apology and goodbye to a lover. “I don’t wanna be the missing piece of track anymore,” he sings in the final verse. “I don’t wanna be the guy/that straps you to a railroad tie/and listens for the rumble and the roar/I don’t wanna be/the villain in your dreams anymore.” The imagery is straight out of an old silent melodrama, but the emotional impact is immediate and intense.

Some of the album’s other songs – “Forgive Me,” “When I Leave,” “Yosemite” – work this quieter vein as well. But Millsap is equally good at letting it rip. His fuzzy electric guitar fuels “Truck Stop Gospel,” which seems to poke fun at evangelical Christianity – or does it? “I’m Paul the apostle preachin’ truck stop gospel/I’m not angry, no I’m not hostile,” Millsap sings, later adding, “Just wanna modify your behavior/I just want you to love my savior.” Sincerity or satire? You could argue it either way.

Some songs are better than others, but there isn’t a bad one in this collection. “Disappear” tells a sweet story of a young couple moving on to a fresh start (“Leave behind the things that never stood a chance/Like your mother’s good china and all our original plans”), while “Quite Contrary” and “At the Bar (Emerald City Blues)” relocate familiar characters (from nursery rhymes and Oz, respectively) to unexpected settings. The album’s closer, “Land of the Red Man,” is a joyous, resonator- and fiddle-soaked rave-up that takes some good-natured swipes at both Millsap’s native state and its rival to the south. “Maybe Oklahoma’s hotter than hell,” he wails, “but it’s better than Texas.”

Millsap’s performing style is compelling as well. His raspy voice, which makes him sound older than his years, is well suited to the stories and observations in his songs. For some listeners, the occasional yelps and yodels that punctuate his lyrics may take a little getting used to, but there’s no denying the absolute conviction with which he delivers everything from quiet ballads to all-out rockers.

Millsap is also a fine guitarist and harmonica player, and he has some excellent people helping him out here, starting with his touring band, fiddler Daniel Foulks and bassist Michael Rose (who also plays bowed saw). A couple of guys borrowed from fellow Oklahoman John Fullbright’s band make notable contributions – David Leach on trombone (he plays bass for Fullbright) and drummer Giovanni Carnuccio III on a few tracks (Millsap handles drums on the rest). Millsap and producer Wes Sharon also make effective use of a couple of other horn players, Eric Walschap on baritone sax and Marcus Spitz on trumpet.

Millsap was recently named one of five nominees for the Americana Music Association’s Emerging Act of the Year award. One listen to Parker Millsap will tell you why.

Jack Clement’s Once and For All

Jack ClementBy Ken Paulson

I spent my day Friday interviewing nine members of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame as part of an archival project and one name came up again and again: Cowboy Jack Clement.

The producer, songwriter and occasional artist had a knack for identifying talented young songwriters and artists and nurturing them. In Memphis at Sun Records, in Beaumont, Texas, and finally in Nashville, Clement made friends, helped build careers and made great records.

That’s why it’s no surprise to see so many remarkable guests on For Once and For All, the final Clement album , released 11 months after his death in August 2013.  Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Emmylou Harris, Bobby Bare, Duane Eddy, Dickie Lee, T- Bone Burnett, Buddy Miller, Dan Auerbach, Leon Russell, Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, Shawn Camp, John Prine, Dierks Bentley, Jim Rooney, Jim Lauderdale and Will Oldham are all on hand for this farewell album.

For Once and For All revisits 12 of Clement’s songs, a number of which were first recorded by Charley Pride. Clement and Pride broke down racial barriers in country music, and made some great records in the process. “Just Between You and Me,” “Got Leaving On Her Mind,” “Baby is Gone” and “I Know One” are among Pride’s best.

“Jesus Don’t Give Up on Me,’ with guitar by Duane Eddy, is the closest thing to a religious song on the record, but Peter Cooper sets the record straight in his liner notes: “Jack was about as religious as a corn cob, but he was a spiritual guy.”

“The Air Conditioner Song” is a reminder that keeping our windows sealed may make us more comfortable, but there’s beauty through an open window. Gill and Camp contribute background vocals and Joey Miskulin is on accordion.

It’s all quite an informal affair, with gentle instrumentation and Clement’s relaxed vocals.

I knew Jack just well enough to say hello, but I treasured every meeting. For Once and For All truly captures his spirit. Buy it for the joy.

Shovels and Ropes’ “Swimmin’ Time”

By Ken Paulson

shovels 2Shovels and Rope – Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent –  have released a striking album that melds folk, country, blues and rock in a truly compelling style.  Swimmin’ Time  marries often rudimentary rhythms to fascinating narratives and compelling lyrics.

There’s a lot of water imagery here, including “Fish Assassin” possibly the most unsettling fishing song of all time.

“Mary Ann and One Eyed Dan” tells the saga of a waitress and a man who lost part of his eyelid in combat: “She said “Do you like the menu or do you need me to read it to you?’ Her question leaves him ” half way angry, half turned on and half confused.” It’s  lousy math, but good songwriting.

Those kinds of lines jump out at you throughout the album. “I got wasted and sat around the fire all day, see if I could find someone to make love to,” Hearst sings on the plaintive album opener “The Devil is All Around.”

The music is still direct and basic, and often ominous, no surprise with song titles like “Evil” and “Bridge of Fire.” It’s a worthy follow-up to their highly successful debut.

The MastersonsGood Luck Charm

MastersonsBy Ken Paulson

We first saw the Mastersons two years ago on a Cayamo cruise and were knocked out by their tight harmonies and penchant for great hooks.

Those traits show up in abundance on their second album Good Luck Charm on New West Records. Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore, also members of Steve Earle’s Dukes and Duchesses, make for an impressive duo and their new album is even more fully realized than their first, Birds Fly South.

While not overtly political, the title track and “Uniform” make their points in highly melodic settings. “Closer to You” is a reminder to break down the barriers that keep us apart, a serious message delivered in an upbeat vessel.

There are songs of love and lost love, all with the engaging hooks and harmonies that drew us to the Mastersons in the first place.

Masterson and Whitmore have clearly committed themselves to releasing great sounding songs that say something. Mission accomplished.

Jesse Winchester’s A Reasonable Amount of Trouble

By Ken Paulson

JesseI braced myself for the first listening to Jesse Winchester’s A Reasonable Amount of Trouble. After all, this was his final album, recorded while he was dying of cancer. And the cover image of his painting of a crying woman was anything but upbeat.

Who would have guessed such dour packaging would contain such a joyous album? With loving production from Mac McAnally, A Reasonable Amount of Trouble truly celebrates Winchester’s talent. Set for release on Sept. 16, the album features McAnally on guitar, Roscoe Beck on bass and Eric Darken on percussion, with guest turns by Jerry Douglas and Jim Horn.

Opener “All That We Have is Now” tells us to embrace the moment; it’s encouraging and lilting throughout. And then there’s the charming goofiness of “Never Forget to Boogie,” a bluesy shuffle and a pretty good way to live your life.

Winchester tapped into his childhood for three ‘60s-era hits, offering up sweet and fun covers of “Rhythm of the Rain,” “Devil or Angel” and “Whispering Bells.”

Closing out the album is “Just So Much,” a touching reflection on mortality and the most truthful song you’ll ever hear. Stunning.

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