Three More Great Albums from 2003

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Rodney Crowell has long been an exceptionally talented tunesmith. His early work produced a string of successful and influential albums for Columbia in the '80's.  His early music combined equal does of country and rock in a way that revitalized contemporary country music. Without Rodney Crowell I seriously doubt that "Hot Country Radio" would exist today. By the late 80's Crowell's string of mega hits ceased and his label dropped him in a manner that has become all too common in the shark-infested waters of Nashville's music scene. 


After three albums co-produced by Tony Brown on MCA, Crowell left to pursue a more personal musical vision. His 2001 release on Sugarhill Records, The Houston Kid, proved that he could make intensely personal music that still appealed to his fans.  Critics like myself were also smitten by his combination of infectious melody lines and frank lyrics.


While Fate's Right Hand shares many of the best traits of The Houston Kid, including catchy melodies and clever musical hooks and bridges, its lyrics are less involving. Instead of stories, Fate's Right Hand delivers sermons. The title song comes off like a country rap song, complete with jivy X-rated lyrics. Another tune, "Time To Go Inward" describes Crowell's difficulty facing himself across a meditation mat.  Don't get me wrong, not a single song on Fate's Right Hand is bad, but none of the tunes here have the accessibility or universality of the material on The Houston Kid. Everyone enjoys hearing stories, even sad ones, but few of us feel comfortable being subjected to personal confessions. It's the difference between a late night campfire conversation and a twelve-step meeting.

Fate's Right Hand features impeccable musicianship from the likes of Jerry Douglas on dobro, John Jorgenson on mandolin and electric guitar, Steuart Smith on electric guitar and organ, Pat Buchanan and Will Kimbrough on electric guitar, Bela Fleck on banjo, and John Cowen, Carl Jackson, David Rawlings, Gillian Welch, and Marcia Ramirez on background vocals. Crowell shared production credits with recording engineer Pete Coleman, who worked with Crowell on The Houston Kid. The final sonic results have a similar perspective, honest, yet beautiful sounding. 

While I can't fault the music on Rodney Crowell's latest offering, I think that Fate's Right Hand will be a more difficult album for most people to enjoy than The Houston Kid. Perhaps at the end of Rodney Crowell's period of introspection he will once more examine the outer world with the same candor he brings to his internal landscape. Here's hoping, anyway.

 

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Del McCoury and his boys have risen to the top in bluegrass music by epitomizing a traditional approach that makes the best use of each member's talents. Their sound is built around Del McCoury's instantly identifiable and uniquely backwoods-flavored vocal twang. Combined with the instrumental prowess of his sons Ronnie on mandolin and Robbie on banjo, fiddle wunderkind Jason Carter, and standup bass master Mike Bubb, Del's band has garnered more awards and a larger fan base than any other bluegrass band in history. Unlike even the great Bill Monroe, Del McCoury's band actually makes enough money to live comfortably playing bluegrass year round.

The opening cut of It's Just the Night, Richard Thompson's "Dry My Tears and Move On," amply displays what endears the Del McCoury band to their fans. Kicked off by a catchy banjo intro, the opening chorus features three part harmonies with Del on tenor, Ronnie handling the lead, and Robbie covering the baritone part. On the verse Del switches over to lead. Like Willie Nelson, Del McCoury's singing seems deceptively simple, but if you try to duplicate his phrasing you quickly discover its sly complexity. His delivery has a rhythmic precision that mimics the way Bill Monroe played the mandolin. His voice drives the pace by pushing it ever so slightly at the beginning of the line and then dropping back into the groove. His vocal embellishments never diminish the forward motion of a tune. Ronnie McCoury's first mandolin solo amply displays his musical style as well. The younger McCoury uses simple melody lines that reinforce the tune coupled with classic Monroe-style ornamentations such as double stops and tremolo. Fiddler Jason Carter, who takes over the second solo section, delivers the kind of "hot" fiddle licks that Monroe fiddling greats Chubby Wise and Kenny Baker made famous. Finally Robbie McCoury finishes the instrumental section with the same signature lick that began the song. Throughout these solos the tune's forward motion and pace are never compromised. Great bluegrass is all about continuous forward motion.

Speaking of forward motion, sharp-eyed consumers will notice this latest release is on McCoury's own label, distributed by Sugarhill, rather than Ricky Skaggs's Ceili Music the company that released McCoury's last two CDs. Taking a page out of Ricky Skaggs's own playbook, Del and Ronnie McCoury decided to finance and produce this release themselves and then shop it around for the best deal. Welk Music's Sugarhill division came up with the winning numbers. Since Ronnie and Del had handled production duties on their last Ceili Music release "Del and The Boys," It's Just the Night has an uncanny sonic similarity to their last release. The sound is clean but warm, detailed yet comfortable.

Judging by its quality and Del McCoury's tremendous popularity I can confidently predict that It's Just the Night will rapidly ascend to the top of the bluegrass sales charts. Go on, join your fellow fans and pick up a copy. It's Just the Night delivers exactly what you've come to expect from Del McCoury and his boys - first class blue-ribbon bluegrass music.

 

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Some famous musical duos originate in the womb, like The Louvin or Everly brothers. Others are created by love, like Ian and Silvia, Richard and Mimi Farina, and Buddy and Julie Miller. Finally there are musical combinations that seem to occur by lucky happenstance. Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez were born at least a generation apart, but together they create as intimate a musical combination as any I've heard.

The Trouble With Humans comes a little over a year after their first release Let's Leave This Town. Like its predecessor, from the very first song The Trouble With Humans seduces with direct lyrics and infectious melodies. Populated only with original songs, most written by Chip Taylor who also wrote "Wild Thing and "Angel of the Morning", three songs are collaborations between Taylor and Rodriguez. My favorite tune is the opening song  "Don't Speak in English" with its quirky lyrics, beautiful melody, and captivating vocal harmonies. The second song "Memphis Texas," one of their co-written tunes, is a tome to the panhandle Texas town of Carrie's grandmother. Their vocal harmonies during the chorus fit as perfectly as a twenty-year-old custom-made Stetson hat.

Taylor and Rodriguez roped together a first class posse of sidemen for The Trouble With Humans. Longtime sidekick John Platania on resonator guitar joins Dave Mattacks on drums, Redd Volkaert on guitar, Earl Poole Ball on piano, and Lloyd Maines on steel guitar. These seasoned old pros know how to make a song sound loose while still keeping it in their pocket. Recorded in Boston by the same engineer who recorded their first album, Huck Bennert. The Trouble With Humans shares a similar warmly intimate sonic signature and naturally relaxed ambience. The sound, just like the backup playing and musical arrangements, works to deliver the songs as effectively and directly as possible. 

Some music is addictive in a bad way, the tunes that you desperately try to evict from your head once they take up residence. The cure? Next time a car ad or peanut butter commercial tries to take over your brain just put on The Trouble With Humans and these musical demons will vanish like cockroaches exposed to a bright kitchen light.

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