Review: The Mastersons’ “Good Luck Charm”

Mastersons 150x150 Review: The Mastersons Good Luck CharmBy 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.


mastersons 350x234 Review: The Mastersons Good Luck Charm

Photo by Paul T. Mueller


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Review: Chris Smither’s “Still on the Levee”

Still on the Levee 150x150 Review: Chris Smithers Still on the LeveeBy Ken Paulson
It’s going to be a good year for fans of Chris Smither, the veteran folk-blues artist from New Orleans.
On July 22, his complete lyrics will be published in book form and in September, a tribute CD called Link of Chain is scheduled for release.
Most intriguing though is Still on the Levee: A 50 Year Retrospective, which finds Smither revisiting songs he’s written and recorded throughout his career, beginning with “Devil Got Your Man.” The handsome 2-CD package, with full lyrics in a beautifully illustrated booklet , is a compelling collection.
Smither is a skilled fingerpicker, who draws on both Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt for inspiration. He enjoyed early success when Bonnie Raitt covered his “Love You Like a Man  in 1972, but missteps left him largely under the radar. Still on the Levee shows us what we all missed.

The lyrics are painstakingly crafted and have the feel of truth. They chronicle both troubles and hope. Sobering songs like “Don’t It Drag On” are offset by lighter fare, most notably Smither’s duet with Loudon Wainwright III on “What They Say:” “They say the good die young, but it ain’t for certain/I been good all day, and I ain’t hurtin’.”
Allen Toussaint guests on “No Love Today” and the closing songs with Rusty Belle are among the collection’s best. Their performance with Smither on “Winsome Smile” is as close to rock as he gets and brings John Kay to mind.
Both discs close with different versions of “Leave the Light On” a telling take on mortality and a most appropriate way to close this decades-spanning collection.

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Sun 209: 60 years on

NBC Nightly News had a nice feature tonight reminding us that Elvis Presley recorded “That’s All Right Mama” 60 years ago today in a session that led to Presley’s first single. The B-side was “Blue Moon of Kentucky. (Its catalog number inspired the name of this site.)
It’s extraordinary that the studio that ignited rock ‘n’ roll and countless other genres is still open as both a tourist attraction and recording studio. Sam Phillips would be proud.

Review: Matt Harlan’s “Raven Hotel”

 harlan raven 160 150x144 Review: Matt Harlans Raven Hotelby 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.


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Review: Allen Toussaint in concert

By Paul T. Mueller

Allen Toussaint’s performance at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston on June 19 was a textbook example of how to please existing fans and win new ones.

Following performances by three other acts (including a brilliant set by Austin’s Ruthie Foster), the legendary New Orleans musician took the stage after a short intro by his ace band. He spent the next hour or so filling Miller Theatre, an outdoor amphitheater in one of Houston’s oldest parks, with the distinctive rhythms and melodies of his native New Orleans.

 At 76, Toussaint is a revered and beloved figure in American music, but this was no phone-it-in nostalgia gig. In addition to his skills as a songwriter and producer, he’s a tremendously gifted piano player and he put that skill to full use on a set list drawn from his extensive repertoire, including “Southern Nights,” “A Certain Girl,” “Mardi Gras Man,” “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” and “Yes We Can Can,” among others. Toussaint has a fine voice as well, and most of his songs included his soulful singing. One notable exception was a haunting and beautiful instrumental rendition of the folk classic “St. James Infirmary,” sad and joyful at the same time.

As if the music weren’t enough (actually, it was), Toussaint also left his grand piano during one song to throw souvenirs into the crowd from the edge of the stage, in the spirit of Mardi Gras float occupants distributing beads and doubloons to the masses along the parade route.

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Review: Willis Alan Ramsey in Houston

ramsey photo 150x150 Review: Willis Alan Ramsey in Houston

Willis Alan Ramsey

By Paul T. Mueller

Cult-favorite singer-songwriter Willis Alan Ramsey had a rocky outing on June 17 at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck in Houston.

Ramsey’s set got off to an unexpected start, with an unannounced opening set by Ramsey’s wife, Alison Rogers. After only one song, a morose musing on love and loss, Ramsey hollered “Time out!” from his barstool at the back of the room, and then spent the next 15 minutes conferring, or arguing, with the guy running the sound board. Rogers finally resumed her set and got in one more song before another long break. And so it went.

When Ramsey finally took the stage, he started out with yet more fiddling with equipment and arguing with the soundman. He managed to get through a few songs before interrupting himself again – mostly bluesy folk performed in a laconic style, accompanied by guitar and harmonica.

Five or six songs of what eventually turned out to be a 14-song set were from his semi-legendary debut (and so far, only) album, 1974’s Willis Alan Ramsey. These included “Wishbone,” “The Ballad of Spider John,” “Angel Eyes” and “Northeast Texas Women,” among others. Unfortunately, they were interspersed with long, rambling stories, lots of tuning and “breaks” taken for no apparent reason.

Ramsey started losing his audience about halfway through, as a considerable part of the crowd headed for the door during a particularly testy exchange with the soundman. Some unpleasant comments about local favorite Lyle Lovett, with whom he wrote “North Dakota,” did little to endear him to those who remained.

Three and a half hours in, the audience was down to 20 or so diehards, plus a few noisy patrons at the bar. Ramsey asked them to quiet down, but that had little effect other than prompting one particularly vocal heckler to urge him to just play and finish the show. By this point he had given up on his equipment and was singing and playing without amplification. Ironically the two or three songs he did this way were among the better performances of the evening.


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Americana Festival announces 2014 line-up

Avetts AMA 350x233 Americana Festival announces 2014 line up

The Avett Brothers at the 2011 Americana Awards show

Americana Music News – The ever-growing American Music Association announced today that its annual Nashville festival  will feature an outdoor concert on the city’s riverfront on Sept. 20 with the Avett Brothers as headliners.

The concert will anchor the Americana Music Festival and Conference, scheduled to take place Sept. 12-21. Tickets go on sale June 27 for the riverfront concert. Admission is free to conference registrants.

The Americana Music Association also released this list of 2014 festival acts, with more to come:

Allison Moorer • Amy Ray • Angaleena Presley •  The Barefoot MovementBen Miller BandBilly Joe ShaverBlack PrairieBrennen Leigh and Noel McKay • Buddy Miller • The Cactus BlossomsCarlene CarterCaroline RoseChatham County LineChuck Mead • Danny & The Champions of the World • The Deadly Gentlemen • Del Barber • The Deslondes • Doug Seegers • The Duhks • The Dustbowl Revival • Emily Barker & the Red Clay Halo • Ethan Johns • The Fairfield Four • The GrahamsGrant-Lee PhillipsGreen River OrdinanceGreensky BluegrassGregory Alan IsakovGreyhounds • The Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer • Hayes Carll • Howlin’ Brothers • Immigrant UnionIsrael NashJamestown RevivalJason Eady • J.D. Wilkes & the Dirt DaubersJoe HenryJoe Pug • Joe Purdy • John MorelandJonah TolchinJonny Two BagsJosh Ritter • Joshua James • Lake Street DiveLee Ann Womack • Leo “Bud” Welch • Lera LynnMarah Presents: Mountain Minstrelsy • Marty StuartMatthew RyanMcCrary Sisters • Nathaniel Rateliff • New Country RehabOh SusannaOtis GibbsParker MillsapPaul ThornPete Molinari • Quebe Sisters Band • Rhett MillerRobbie FulksRobyn HitchcockRodney CrowellRuthie FosterRyan MontbleauSam OutlawSarah Jarosz • Sean Rowe • Shakey GravesSuzy Bogguss • Todd Snider & Friends • Tom Freund • Tony Joe White • Trigger Hippy (featuring Jackie Greene, Joan Osborne, Steve Gorman, Tom Bukovac & Nick Govrik) • Whiskey Shivers • Willie Watson

Review: John Fullbright’s “Songs”

fullbright songs cover 150 150x150 Review: John Fullbrights SongsBy Paul T. Mueller

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.


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Hank Williams: Rediscovered classics

Hank 150x150 Hank Williams: Rediscovered classicsBy Ken Paulson

Historical documents rarely sound this good.

The Garden Spot Programs, 1950 is an extraordinary treat, capturing Hank Williams in his prime in performances that have gone unheard for 64 years.

The recordings stem from discs distributed to a number of radio stations across the country,  and in this case, aired by KSIB in Creston, Iowa in February 1950. Stations created the illusion of a star in their studios, a sponsor received valuable exposure and the artist managed to “visit” far-flung communities without leaving Nashville.

These recordings were intended to be heard just once in each community and never listened to again. Instead, we now have vibrant versions of “Lovesick Blues,” “Mansion on the hill” and “Mind Your Own Business,” among others. Highly  recommended.

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Bill Lloyd on NRBQ’s “honest joy”

Brass Tacks 150x150 Bill Lloyd on NRBQs honest joy By Bill Lloyd

I became a fan of NRBQ sometime around 1980.  I was completely smitten with their sound and vibe and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t “gotten it” earlier. I had previously never paid them much attention thinking they were simply a ’50s throwback band. Oh, how I was wrong!

They had already gone through several personnel changes in lineup since their late ’60s beginnings. I felt late to the party at the time, but it really didn’t matter as they were at their peak as an amazing live act and fearless recording artists. Their appeal was eccentric and scattershot and hard for record companies to market, but they deftly hit all the musical touchstones for me.

Their self-described “omni-pop” was a mix of classic rock-pop, country, rockabilly, Monk-inspired jazz and the kitchen sink. If they liked it, it was in the musical stew and they threw in some goofy humor for good measure.

For many, their records came with the caveat that you had to see them live where they would raise the roof with crazy-good energy. They rarely played to a set list and you never knew what was coming next. They played their own material but there was always a load of unexpected covers that seemed spur-of-the-moment, but were performed with jaw-dropping musicianship. The best part was that there was no fashion or show-biz or pretense about them. It was honest joy pouring off the stage and through the audience. I was hooked and would see them every chance I got.

During this era of the band’s career (1974-1994), NRBQ housed three strong songwriters in Big Al Anderson, Joey Spampinato and founder Terry Adams. The 4-man lineup, along with their great drummer, Tommy Ardolino, is still considered by many fans, as the “classic lineup”.

From this version of the group, Big Al broke rank first and came to Nashville to write songs, play guitar and make records and, without qualification, succeeded on every kind of level. Al’s first replacement for the ‘Q was Joey’s younger brother, Johnny, from The Incredible Casuals. He seemed a perfect fit with some really good songs and fine guitar playing. After a few more years and some wonderful studio and live albums, NRBQ went on hiatus in 2004 when Terry Adams received a cancer diagnoses.

The Spampinato Brothers went off to make their own fine records. As Terry’s health began to return, he made a wonderful record with original guitarist Steve Ferguson shortly before Ferguson passed on and then began playing with his own Terry Adams Quartet. Tom Ardolino would guest sometimes with Terry, but Tommy’s own failing health kept his appearances sporadic. He passed in 2012. Terry Adams decided to reclaim the name of NRBQ in 2011 with the members of his own quartet.

All this history is meant to be a glimpse into the backstory of Terry Adams’ amazing persistence and musical vision of what a band ought to be. I heard the “new Q” live in 2012 with Scott Ligon, Pete Donnelly, Conrad Choucroun and rejoiced that the renamed quartet totally captured the wonderful vibe that every version of the band had before them. At the show, I bought their cd, “Keep This Love Goin’”, and found the spirit of the band still in the grooves. My only disappointment with their recording was that I felt that the songwriting in the new band didn’t have the same depth that the “classic” lineup with Big Al and Joey had. I was, as a fan, a bit judgmental and holding on to old allegiances.

It’s 2014 and there’s a new NRBQ album scheduled for release June 17 called Brass Tacks. As I listened to it, I found my “happy meter” starting to peg. Couldn’t stop smiling as one track played after another. One of the first things I noticed as I let it wash over me is that it’s a great sounding record from a sonic point of view. Really well recorded and mixed with cool and thoughtful sonic touches throughout. The songwriting is spread out among Adams, Ligon and new bassist, Casey McDonough. Longtime sideman/sax-man, Jim Hoke is also represented with the charming Everlys-like “I’d Like To Know”.

All of the music feels and sounds great and, for longtime fans, covers beloved familiar stylistic ground. It’s not fair to compare a new batch of songs to the best of the Spampinato and Anderson songs from years past. Maybe it’s not fair to compare Adams songs to the best of his own work over the years.

As a fan, I’m happy he’s healthy, recording and touring. Throughout the NRBQ catalogue, those guys wrote songs that could compete with their heroes – McCartney, Bacharach, whoever.  The songs on “Brass Tacks” are also informed by their influences. I would guess that, for the newer members of the band, their influences would include Adams, Anderson and Spampinato. It’s not an easy thing to hold your creative ground and hold up a 40- plus-year legacy at the same time.

Scott Ligon must have absorbed every musical nuance the old “Q” had to offer. When you see them live, his voice and guitar covers ground that both Anderson and Spampinato held. He can powerhouse-telecaster his way through jump blues and rockabilly and then turn on a dime and sing some sweet Beatlesque-pop, one of Spampinato’s fortes. Ligon’s songs on “Brass Tacks”, in particular his acoustic “It’ll Be Alright”, transcend imitation and he’s proven to be Adams’ reliable partner in the “new Q”. Adams offers some wonderful new compositions. “Places Far Away” is an atmospheric and lyrical treasure. “Greetings From Delaware” echoes their classic “Green Light,” but is that a bad thing? Nope.

NRBQ has always been as much about taking cover material and making it their own and their take on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s  “Getting To Know You” is such a perfect choice.

Despite whatever musical ghosts are along for the ride, this album holds its own. Excellent singing, playing and bottom line still the joyous feeling that you get when you hear NRBQ play. Thank you Terry Adams for keeping on keeping on.

Bill Lloyd is a Nashville-based songwriter whose songs and own recording career has swung between genres and formats. With country success as part of the Foster and Lloyd duo and power-pop critical acclaim from his many solo records, Lloyd’s appreciation of NRBQ comes honestly. He has also written songs with Al Anderson including “It Came From The South”.


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