Occasionally I hear a disk that grabs me so hard during the first ten seconds that it makes me stop whatever I'm doing and just plunk my scrawny butt down to listen. Chris Knight's The Jealous Kind did exactly that. Knight has a voice that wears an aura of suffering and grit like a merit badge. Couple his bone-chilling vocal delivery with songs that reel you in with hooks and bridges worthy of the best A-list Nashville song-crafters and the final result is killer music.
An often-heard complaint about contemporary country music is that it lacks depth, purpose and true feeling. Less than totally cheerful tales and experiences from marginalized Americans are an anathema to the happy hit-makers of hot country. Personal experiences and idiosyncratic viewpoints of the disenfranchised populate every cut on The Jealous Kind. Imagine the social concerns of Bruce Cockburn coupled with the musical sensibilities of Clint Black. Call it anti-hot country. You might think that stories about roofers turned outlaws, or hitchhikers picked up by Satan driving a big black Cadillac Couple Deville would be depressing, but like Bruce Springsteen's best material, most function as anthems celebrating America's soft white underbelly.
Co-producers Dan Baird and Joe Hardy assembled a fine collection of performers for Chris Knight's third solo release, including Bob Britt, Don Baird, and Ty Tyler on electric and lap steel guitars, Keith Christopher on bass, Greg Morrow on drums and percussion, Tony Harrell on B-3 organ, accordion, and harmonium, Dan Dugmore on pedal steel, Tammy Rogers on violin and viola, and Matraca Berg on harmony vocals. Chris Wright wrote all the songs on The Jealous Kind. But all but three are collaborations with an impressive list of co-conspirators. Gary Nelson, Chuck Prophet, Christie Sutherland, Gary Nicholson, Stacy Dean Campbell, David Leone, Matraca Berg, and Austin Cunningham all share co-writing credits.
Perhaps there are songwriters and singers producing more genuine country music, but I haven't heard them. The Jealous Kind is the kind of country music that makes hot country sound lukewarm in comparison. It would make Hank Williams smile.
Bill is short for Belinda. I can't help but wonder how someone with such a decidedly feminine musical demeanor ended up being called Bill, but Bill it is. Although relatively unknown in the United States, Ms. Jones has won the BBC's Horizon Award for Best New talent in 2001, and already has two previous albums under her belt. I think it's about time we North Americans got up to speed.
The opening cut on Two Year Winter, "From My Window" by Eamon Freil and Dave Duggan brings you face to face with Bill Jones' most notable asset, her voice. Her vocals have a simple purity and disarming intimacy that could bring traffic to a dead stop during rush hour at Piccadilly Circle. Her harmonic purity coupled with an almost total absence of vocal artifice (she does very occasionally add a smidgen of vibrato at the end of a line) makes it seem as if she isn't really doing anything. Willie Nelson has a similar vocal trait. Their phrasing makes it sound so uncomplicated and effortless that you think to yourself "That's easy. Even I could do it." Try and you soon discover delivering a song as simply and directly as possible is harder than tarting it up.
To compliment her disarming voice, Bill Jones also plays piano and accordion. The title cut "Two Year Winter," written by Ann Hills, features Ms. Jones' masterful piano. As with her vocals, she eschews flash in favor of delicate runs and precision power chords. Joined by David Wood on guitar, Stewart Hardy on violin, Sarah Wright on flute, Miranda Sykes on double bass, Shanti Paul Jayasiha on cello, and Keith Angel on percussion, Jones also adds an occasional flute, diddle, or whistle. What is a diddle you ask? Sing the word diddle and you've just diddled. Now go diddle yourself.
In addition to a full 12 cut CD, Two Year Winter includes a bonus CD entitled Bits and Pieces EP with four additional selections. Two Year Winter certainly doesn't need any additional padding, so the second CD serves as a spectacular dessert to a most filling musical meal. Recorded with the same personnel, and in the same recording studios, the Bits and Pieces EP has a very similar sonic signature to the main 43:14 minute disc. Since Bits and Pieces is only 14:34, I can't help but wonder why its material wasn't just included on Two Year Winter. But it's good to have some mysteries, right?
Much of Bill Jones' material is either from traditional Gaelic sources, or written by Anne Hill, who is able to write songs that mate contemporary lyrics with a strong traditional feeling. Here in the United States the "Americana" musical movement has heralded a welcome return to traditional musical forms and sounds. In Great Britain a similar revisitation to older influences (Britannica?) from artists such as Kate Rusby and Bill Jones has also rejuvenated their airways. What was old is once more new, and Bill Jones' Two Year Winter can penetrate musically jaded sensibilities like the first cold north wind of autumn cuts through a lightweight fall coat. This is great stuff.
When asked to name the two most influential mandolin players of the last twenty years most mandolin aficionados will say Sam Bush and David Grisman. Although they have shared the same stage and often jammed together, they've never released any joint studio recordings playing together. Hold On, We're Strummin' rectifies this serious oversight.
Recorded at Grisman's Dawg Studios during April 2001, except for four tunes, Hold On, We're Strummin' consists entirely of new material composed especially for this release. Titles like "Crusher and Hoss," named after their two primary signature mandolins, and "Hartford's Reel," dedicated to the memory of their friend, the late John Hartford, indicate the personal and intimate nature of the music on Hold On, We're Strummin'. Besides their regular vintage Gibson F-5 mandolins Grisman and Bush play mandocello, octave mandolin, National steel-bodied mandolin, fiddle, octave mandola, banjo-mandolin, and even (sigh) banjo. Jack Lawrence and Dave Nunally on guitar, Jim Kerwin and Sam Bush on bass, and Hal Blaine on drums join the party.
Extensive liner notes by the fine jazz mandolin player Don Stiernberg and spirited Stax-Volt inspired graphics make a package that successfully foreshadows the eclectic yet erudite music within. As usual with Acoustic Disc CD's the sonics are first-rate throughout. Engineers Larry Cumings and Dave Dennison bring out the best from all the acoustic instruments used on Hold On, We're Strummin', even the difficult ones to record like a National mandolin. I applaud their decision not to add artificial reverberation to enhance the warmth or space of the recording venue. The real sound of acoustic instruments recorded in natural way rules.
Several years ago David and Sam played together during a memorial service for Charles Sawtelle at the Boulder Theater. During their dual solos I couldn't help but think "I sure would love to hear a whole CD of these two playing together." Now my wish is a reality. As Charles Sawtelle would have said "You need this CD." Yup, you do.