("Exploring the Classics" (ETC) is an ongoing series in which I highlight and discuss an album from country music's past that is of particular noteworthiness due to general acclaim, influence, historical import, commercial success, or some combination thereof. While in many instances I'll be revisiting albums with which I've long been familiar, in others I'll be experiencing these works for the first time. What albums count as "noteworthy" is obviously highly subjective and determined at my discretion, but I'm not too strict about it. I do, however, feel that these are the works that tell the story of country music and all of its many roots and branches.)
Collaborative and duet albums have a long and storied history in country music, but in truth they rarely live up to their billing. There have been many good ones, but few I would classify as genuinely great. I don't know if the problem is the difficulty of two artists working together on a unified vision ("too many chefs spoil the soup") or what, but such albums are seldom as interesting as the individual artists' best solo material. However, this general observation in no way applies to Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice's self-titled album from 1980, which is a thoroughly excellent bluegrass album from start to finish.
By the time this album came out, Tony Rice was already a big name in bluegrass with a handful of acclaimed albums to his name and a reputation as a virtuoso of the acoustic guitar. Ricky Skaggs was only in his mid-twenties and had just released his first solo album, but already had a considerable amount of musical experience under his belt as a member of various bluegrass bands since the time he was a teenager. The two men knew each other from their time in J.D. Crowe's The New South and set out to create an album together that paid tribute to the music they loved and grew up on.
Author: Leon Blair
So as many of you probably know by now, despite being a Country oriented blog, I have been known to review music that sits outside a little outside of what could be considered that. Heck, I covered albums from the likes of Lydia Loveless, Robert Ellis, Elizabeth Cook, and Chris King which all borrowed from the likes of Pop and Rock music.
If there's one genre of music I'm surprised I haven't ever talked about though, it's Bluegrass. Trying to answer why that is just isn’t something I have much of a good answer for. Heck, it's closer to Country than anything else, so you’d think it would be a good fit for the blog. Even with that being said, Bluegrass really feels like one of the last “pure” genres of music out there. One that really hasn't been torn and twisted by corporate labels to make a quick buck. Sure, there's been acts that have tried to modernize it like the Punch Brothers and the Infamous Stringdusters, but not by ripping out the genre's heart and soul. For the most part, with its healthy balance of traditional leaning acts mixed in with acts who are evolving the genre, Bluegrass feels like the genre all other genres wish they could be.
This brings us to Broken Records husband and wife duo, Jim and Lynna Woolsey, a Bluegrass act that retains the glorious richness of traditional bluegrass. Now, I rely on a ton of blogs and other media outlets to find new music to check out. I owe the credit of finding these two to Bill Frater's radio show over at FTB Podcasts. Their newest album, Heart and Soul, Blood and Bone is only their sophomore release, however both Jim and Lynna have been surrounded by music all their life. After sitting down and really digging into their latest album, I think I'm going to have to cover more bluegrass music folks. This is an excellent album.
If you're looking for a motif on this album it's “time”. Sure, it's the name of the opening song, but it also sets the stage for a large portion of the album. Joined by the always excellent Jim Lauderdale in the opening track, the song carries a message that states that time is a fragile thing. We can't go back in life. We must move on and do all that we can in our time on Earth. Of course, while we all are aware of that, it's still a hard to pill to swallow, even for our narrators. Tracks like “Give Me Back Tomorrow” and “Yesterday” both reflect on times forgotten, the former in a much melancholier way than the latter. Elsewhere, an album highlight in “Notes From Home” is another bittersweet tale that tells of an old man who at this stage in his life has nothing left but notes and pictures of his family from long ago. Time may only move one way, but that doesn't mean it has to be easy. It's okay to reflect on the past and relive the memories that were once made. Those are the times we remember the most anyway, right?
Other tracks on the album deal with the struggles of rural life in America (an essential Bluegrass theme). The title track highlights the hard work and struggles that came with our narrator's grandparents living in the Depression. “Pike County Blues” takes a different spin as it tries to interject humor into some of the failings of our narrator (and does a pretty great job with it if I might add). Then you have what seem to be some more personal tracks here such as “Just Like Me” and “Last Train Out”, the latter of which is a beautiful song dedicated to Lynna's mother, Elsie. The former of which, “Just Like Me” tells of the imperfections in all of us, highlighting that none of us are perfect and that we all learn from each other. Again, the lyrics and themes are all compelling and insightful.
For much as the lyrics and themes do to grab your attention, the instrumentation and production just may be what ultimately take the cake as the album's greatest assets. Now, when I said that I didn't cover much Bluegrass before, I didn't mean to imply that I know nothing about the genre. While I haven't made the time to listen to as much as I would like to, I can safely say I recognize some excellent bluegrass music when I hear it, and that's what I hear on this album. So much credit needs to be given to producer Mike Sumner (who also plays banjo on here) for crafting an album that quite simply put sounds beautiful. Like I said before, it's traditional bluegrass complete with plenty of luscious fiddle, banjo, mandolin, bass, and dobro that make way for some incredible solos on this album. The best example would be on what I consider to be the album's best track, “Freedom”. It's a look into the lives of soldiers and the effects that the aftermath of a war can have on them. I really enjoyed the buildup to each chorus and how the fiddle was used to accompany that buildup. Honestly there's beautiful instrumentation all across the album. These two know how to make bluegrass music.
Vocally, both Jim and Lynna have the ability to evoke a lot of passion into their works. I can't find the words to express how much Lynna's vocals on “Last Train Out” really bring out the gut punching effect this song carries. I will say that Jim's voice is better suited for more heartwarming and or melancholy material such as “Give Me Back Tomorrow”, and “Just Like Me”. “Pike County Blues” certainly is a funny song on paper, but I'm not quite sure I get the full level of humor that I'm supposed to get from Jim's more serious vocal tone.
But hey, that's an extremely minor nitpick on an absolutely gorgeous album. Heart and Soul, Blood and Bone is an extremely well-crafted album and a triple threat when it comes to great songwriting, vocals, and production. It really makes me ashamed that I haven't covered more bluegrass acts by now. For me, I'm giving it a solid 9 out of 10. Not only does the album sport an awesome cover, but it's easily one of the best of the year folks. Heart and Soul, Blood and Bone comes highly recommended.
Best Songs: "Freedom", "Last Train Out", "Give Me Back Tomorrow (feat. John Pennell
Author: Zackary Kephart
I really didn't know what to expect coming into an album named Circle Round The Signs by a guy from Chicago named Al Scorch. To be fair, you never know what you can expect from a member of Bloodshot Records, and that's not meant to be taken as an insult. Actually, it speaks to the level of creativity embodied under that label, and Al Scorch is certainly what one could call creative.
I'm honestly a little intimidated with how to start off this review folks. I've listened to Circle Round The Signs at least a dozen times by now, and all I can say is – holy shit. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that creativity is a trait that isn't evident in Country or Americana these days, but I think we need to award Al Scorch for crafting one of 2016's best releases thus far.
Circle Round The Signs is the complete package in terms of excellent lyricism, instrumentation, and vocals. Normally I go into albums with a notebook ready to jot down notes and write down anything I see fitting to talk about in great detail. I have to be honest folks, I didn't do that for this album. I was actually losing myself to the music, something that I don't think any album in 2016 has done for me thus far.
Alt-country legend Steve Earle famously dealt with a bevy of personal problems in the late '80s and early '90s, not least among them a heroin addiction and a short stint in prison. Thankfully, he managed to achieve sobriety and put his life back on track, and it was living through those experiences that brought about the most creatively fertile portion of his career. He released the excellent acoustic record Train a Comin' in 1994, followed it up with the masterful I Feel Alright in 1996, and continued the winning streak with 1997's El Corazón ("The Heart" in English), which I'll be reviewing today.
Steve Earle is one of those artists whose sound is impossible to pigeonhole. He can pull off country-folk, hard rock, and traditional bluegrass, often all on the same album, and El Corazón is a great example of his versatility. Successful stabs are taken at bluegrass ("I Still Carry You Around" with the Del McCoury Band, foreshadowing their later collaborative album), pure country ("The Other Side of Town"), and hard rock (the outstanding "N.Y.C.", in which Earle is accompanied by the alternative rock band the Supersuckers). While the production of "N.Y.C." is laid on thick, specifically in an apparent vocal distortion in the chorus, it completely works in the context of the song's narrative of a young man visiting the Big Apple for the first time. Other strong tracks include the alt-country/rock humdinger "If You Fall", the confident mission statement "Here I Am", and "Poison Lovers", a well-crafted duet with English pop singer-songwriter Siobhan Kennedy.