Pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album was #490:
Merle Haggard – 20 Greatest Hits
One of the great transformation stories in musical history, a guy who (either despite or because of his criminal past) started out as a supporter of the extreme right, looked around and then realized that there was a better way, one that made sense given his populist background. This covers pretty much everything. It doesn’t have the honkytonk classic Swinging Doors but the 20 tracks here include most of the others: Mama Tried; Workingman’s Blues; Okie from Muskogee; Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down; the reworked Irish ballad Branded Man; and the Ford/Carter recession-era If We Make It Through December, a tribute to striking Detroit assembly line workers that’s as resonant today as it was thirty years ago. Here’s a random torrent via Kerala MV; if you’re here, and you like this kind of stuff, you might also enjoy Bryan & the Haggards’ twisted jazz instrumental cover album of Merle tunes.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #797:
Lefty Frizzell – 16 Biggest Hits
Lefty Frizzell was a legendary Texas honkytonk singer from the 50s, a guy who sounded a lot older than he was. By the 70s, now in his 40s, he sounded close to 70. One of the songs here, an early proto-rockabilly number, is titled Just Can’t Live That Fast (Any More), but in real life he didn’t seem to have any problem with that. He drank himself to death at 47 in 1975. But he left a rich legacy. This album is missing some of his best-known songs – notably Cigarettes & Coffee Blues – but it’s packed with classics. Frizzell’s 1950 version of If You’ve Got The Money I’ve Got The Time topped the country charts and beat Hank Williams – a frequent tourmate – at his own game. Other 50s hits here include the western swing-tinged Always Late (With Your Kisses), the fast shuffle She’s Gone, Gone, Gone and Frizzell’s iconic version of Long Black Veil – with its echoey, ghostly vocals and simple acoustic guitar, it’s even better than the Johnny Cash version. From the 60s, there’s the surprisingly folkie version of Saginaw Michigan, the sad drinking ballad How Far Down Can I Go, the torchy, electric piano-based That’s the Way Love Goes and I’m Not the Man I’m Supposed to Be. His later period is best represented by I Never Go Around Mirrors, later covered by both George Jones and Merle Haggard. This is one of those albums that pops up in used vinyl stores from time to time, but isn’t easy to find online. There’s a popular “500 greatest country songs” torrent with several of these on it out there; if you see one for this particular album, let us know!
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #803:
Emmylou Harris – Pieces of the Sky
If you like country music, everything Emmylou Harris did back in the 70s is worth hearing. We picked this one, her sad, beautiful 1975 debut album because the group behind her is so excellent (with lead guitar monster James Burton and drummer Ronnie Tutt from Elvis’ road band). Like her old duet pal Gram Parsons, Emmylou was retro before retro was cool: the playing, and the songs reach back to an earlier era before top 40 pop started to infiltrate Nashville. It’s got a particularly poignant version of the Louvin Bros.’ If I Could Only Win Your Love, which she used to sing with Parsons, along with Sleepless Nights (the title track to his second, posthumous album) and the lone original here, Boulder to Birmingham, a fond reminiscence of her good days on the road with him. But the real showstopper here is Too Far Gone: a lot of good singers have done it, but her hushed anguish is viscerally intense. Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors gets a similarly emotional treatment; there’s also a somewhat subdued yet very compelling version of Merle Haggard’s Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down, a surprisingly effective countrified take of the Beatles’ For No One and Shel Silverstein’s winking Queen of the Silver Dollar. Another first-class Emmylou album that was a contender for this list is Red Dirt Girl, with Buddy Miller on lead guitar, a collection of excellent original songs from 2000 which fell out of contention on account of a Dave Matthews appearance on one of the songs. Here’s a random torrent.
In 1964, Jerry Garcia and some friends took a road trip east to hear bluegrass music. Among those bands was the legendary Jim & Jesse & the Virginia Boys, whom they got to see more than once on that trip. Almost fifty years later, that band’s mandolinist Jesse McReynolds has recorded an album of Grateful Dead songs – some circles just won’t be broken. Still vital at 81, McReynolds doesn’t sound anywhere near his age, vocally or picking-wise, alternating between long, soulfully expansive solos and the incisive, edgy playing that’s influenced literally generations of musicians. Here he’s joined by a crew including the New Riders of the Purple Sage’s David Nelson on guitar, Randy Brown on bass, Stu Allen on acoustic guitar, Shawn Apple on drums and assorted other players. For those who find the concept of this album absolutely mystifying, the real shocker is that it actually works. Which it should. McReynolds got into the Country Music Hall of Fame on the first ballot: his presence here brings out the best in the supporting cast, who don’t waste any notes throughout a surprisingly varied mix of bluegrass, oldtimey Appalachian folk and straight-up, mellow Americana rock. On his solos, Nelson does an impressive job evoking Jerry’s signature, meandering, scale-based style without going completely over the top.
McReynolds characteristically nails the emotion of every vocal here: the plaintive lament vibe of Black Muddy River – which perfectly captures the folk song feel that Jerry was going for – along with the lonesomeness of Bird Song – an eight-minute version with terse interplay between mandolin and acoustic guitar – and especially the bitter cynicism of Loser, done here far more tensely and faster than the original. Likewise, The Wheel gets a counterintuitively vigorous treatment, layers of hypnotic electric guitar against McReynolds’ long, spiky, gently wintry staccato solo. Some of these songs evoke the Dead on the Reckoning album, especially a swinging version of Ripple. Others rock out a lot more than you’d expect from this crew, notably a darkly pedal steel-tinged Stella Blue and a violin-fueled Fire on the Mountain with yet another devastating vocal from McReynolds – he really gets these songs. By the time they get to Deep Elem Blues, they’re completely in their element: McReynolds makes it clear that it’s a cautionary tale!
Not everything here works: a brand-new co-write between McReynolds and Robert Hunter sounds like a mid-70s outtake, and the big anthemic concert singalongs Franklin’s Tower and Deal swing and miss when they try to the energy up a notch. But their version of Alabama Getaway is a knockout, done as a straight-ahead country shuffle rather than trying to imitate the second-generation Chuck Berryisms of the original. Who is the audience for this? Deadheads, obviously, as many as are left after all these years. And for that matter any fan of the new crop of Americana bands, from Mumford & Sons to Deer Tick. The Dead may be history now, but the music never stopped. This one’s out on the independent Woodstock Records label.
Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #880:
The Louvin Bros. – Tragic Songs of Life
Best known for their 1960 album Satan Is Real (and its campy fire-and-brimstone cover image), Charlie and Ira Louvin were a popular country gospel group until Ira’s death in a 1965 car accident (ostensibly running from the law – he was wanted on a drunk driving warrant). They’re also the group responsible for one of the earliest nuclear apocalypse anthems, The Great Atomic Power. This album gets the nod over the rest of their catalog because it’s more accessible, minus all the proselytizing that a lot of people find off-putting. A lot of these songs were already country/bluegrass standards when the album was issued in 1956 – and they’re not all as gloomy as the title might indicate. The Louvins play to the crowd with the home-state anthems Alabama and Kentucky (the latter a delicious mandolin-and-guitar picking party), get maudlin with a seven-year-old who misses his sweetheart on A Tiny Broken Heart, and go back in time with the traditional Mary of the Wild Moor, Let Her Go, God Bless Her and the gold-digger cautionary tale What Is Home Without Love. But their versions of In the Pines, My Brother’s Will, Take the News to Mother and the murder ballad Knoxville Girl (a big hit for the Blue Sky Boys in 1937) are as grim and evocative as any rural music ever recorded. The album was reissued in 2007 as a twofer along with Satan Is Real, easily downloaded. Here’s a random torrent.
Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #907:
A popular country singer whose cult audience lives on six years after her death, Skeeter Davis first hit the country charts in 1953 as one of the (unrelated) Davis Sisters with I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know. Years ahead of her time, Davis wrote her own material and grew from chirpy, starstruck Nashville ingenue into the prototypical David Lynch girl, best exemplified on the haunting 1964 noir pop smash It’s the End of the World. Nuance was everything for her: even on her most upbeat songs, there’s a restraint, a frequently wounded resignation and a style that’s every bit as sophisticated as Patsy Cline. As with virtually all the country artists from that era, her many albums are riddled with both gems and duds (for one, the label had to get the album out there quick to ride the success of the hit single) – this one, a 1996 compilation, is a particularly well-chosen collection including both I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know and It’s the End of the World along with the proto-Amy Allison The One You Slip Around With, the bouncy Gonna Get Along Without You Now, the lushly noir-tinged Optimistic, and Mine Is a Lonely Life. Easy to download – like all the major label albums on this list, just google “album title” and “torrent” and you’ll find plenty to choose from. It’s streaming at the link above if you want to check it out first (keep your finger on the mute button for the annoying commercials after every three songs).
We strive for counterintuitivity: bet you never thought you’d see a Dolly Parton album here, let alone a country gospel record! Letter to Heaven is a reissue, most of its tracks recorded over a three-day span in 1970 and released on her Golden Streets of Glory album in 1971, included in its entirety here along with an outtake and a small handful of subsequent singles, some hits, some not. This is as pop as country ever got back then and yet it’s more country than most anything coming out of Nashville these days. As was the case back then, on many of these songs, by the time the last chorus rolls around, the only things left in the mix are vocals, orchestra and drums. But the changes, and the voice are pure country gospel: Carrie Underwood, eat your Philistine heart out. As with any Dolly Parton recording, she’s the star, although an allstar cast of Nashville studio veterans including pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, the late pedal steel player Pete Drake and guitarist Chip Young all get to contribute memorably, if only for a bar or two at a time.
The test of spiritual music is how well it resonates outside the choir, and if there’s anyone capable of transcending that limitation, it’s Dolly Parton. You hear that brittle vibrato and you don’t realize what an explosive upper register she has – it’s amazing how little that voice has aged. Plaintive, longing and above all, humble, she probably had no idea how well this album would withstand the test of time – or maybe she did. She was a first-class songwriter in an age when women were not exactly encouraged (other than by Owen Bradley) to write their own material, and unsurprisingly it’s her own songs here that stand up the strongest. The best song on the album is, perhaps expectedly, the previously unreleased track, Would You Know Him If You Saw Him. Pretty and jangly with guitar and organ, it has Parton gently yet pointedly reminding us not to turn away from those in need: a test could be involved – or just the opportunity to do a mitzvah and feel good about it. Robbins gets to add some marvelous barrelhouse piano on Master’s Hand, which switches in a split second from a retelling of the story of the Flood to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednago. Church is fun for this crew! The country gospel classic Wings of a Dove gets mariachi horns; Comin For to Carry Me Home, a country shuffle reworking of Swing Low Sweet Chariot gets a remarkable bounce courtesy of an uncredited bass player (they just ran ’em in and ran ’em out in those days – how little times have changed!). Daddy Was An Old Time Preacher Man, a duet with longtime harmony partner (and civil defendant) Porter Wagoner has a Johnny Cash feel to it. And the title track runs from schmaltzy to creepy in seconds flat – the little girl misses her dead mom, so she gets hit by a bus. Ostensibly the two are happy together again. By the time the last track, The Seeker (a #2 country hit in 1975) comes up, it’s striking how fast things have changed – the dirt has been scrubbed out of it and exchanged for a swamp-pop bass groove.
Dolly Parton’s latest initiative is typical: it’s called “Dolly Helps Nashville,” a campaign to aid survivors of the recent floods there. Details at her site at the link above. Bless her heart.
The first thing you notice when you see the Jack Grace Band up close is what a well-oiled machine they are – in both senses of the word. OK, maybe not everyone onstage last night was half in the bag, but they’d been on close to a 36-hour tear, nonstop, with appearances on the WPIX morning show and then a live performance on satellite radio, so with a long Cinco de Mayo evening ahead of them at Rodeo Bar, the tequila was flowing and a lot of it had made it to the stage by the time they started playing. The Jack Grace Band’s new album Drinking Songs for Lovers is just out, so ultimately it all made sense. “Everything seems so simple after three martinis” is Grace’s mantra, and the band played that song, a careening version of The Lonesome Entertainer, on album a noir-ish blues shuffle a la Tom Waits but this time out it was more Grateful Dead, except with a brief interlude into a perfectly executed, funky excerpt from Kurtis Blow’s The Breaks. Tequila, an older song from Jack Grace’s old jam band Steak, swung mightily along on a sunbaked minor-key hook, part bossa nova, part hallucinatory Tex-Mex anthem.
Jack [scrunching his face into a tortured scowl]: Would you rather be dead?
Bass player Daria Grace: [completely deadpan]: No.
It’s kind of sweet how he gives his wife the best of the punch lines every time. They’d started, appropriately, with Morning Margaritas, the twangy, retro 60s country song that opens the album, everybody from the horn section to the pedal steel player stepping out, boisterous and tequila-fueled, so the sound guy could get the levels right. Daria swooped and dove on her gorgeous hollowbody bass on a more 70s, outlaw country style tune from the album, True Tonight. They jammed on Jambalaya, took a stab at the Mexican Hat Dance (Jack wanted to keep going but the band wouldn’t let him), then piano player Bill Malchow sang one. At the end, Jack put his guitar down and the piano and rhythm section playing a pretty generic power ballad melody. Which morphed into the early 70s Neil Diamond hit I Am, I Said. Jack got up on a chair, pondered the highly vandalized stuffed bison head coming out of the wall at the edge of the stage and then decided against doing something to it (that’s a prop for another song of his). Then when he got to the line in the song where no one heard him, not even the chair, he got off the chair and raised it high. And then went into the audience, caught a table full of diners completely off guard, sat down with them and then serenaded them. With the chair. Meanwhile, the band didn’t blink an eyelash. Pretty punk rock for a country band. And that was just the first set.
The Jack Grace Band continues to celebrate the release of the new album with shows at Hill Country tonight at 9, Barbes at 10 tomorrow (Friday the 7th), and a doublebill with the equally devious Luther Wright and the Wrongs at the Rodeo on the 11th.
The Jack Grace Band is at Rodeo Bar every Sunday this month at about 9:15, and this is a residency you should see. As the Dog Show said, Saturday nights are for amateurs, so it follows that Sundays are for the pros. Seeing the baritone country crooner/guitarist and his cohorts onstage with such a small crowd in the house was bizarre: in fact, being able to see everybody in the band without standing on tiptoe behind a bunch of people was weird. But good. This residency is born of tragedy: Grace is trying to put together a new sound without the services of his longtime lead player, lapsteel genius Drew Glackin, whose sudden, unexpected death at a young age last January caught everyone he played with (and that’s a LOT of New York musicians) completely off guard. But Grace is an excellent lead guitarist, with a terse, incisive, bluesy style, and armed with his new Telecaster, he let loose a lot of searing, even raging solos, getting the new axe to scream like his trusty old hollowbody Gibson can’t. It’s clear that this is somebody who’s still furious about losing his good friend and bandmate (Glackin had a rare thyroid condition that, if he’d had health insurance, would almost surely have been diagnosed long before it killed him). Although the anger doesn’t make it into Grace’s voice: his smooth, soulful delivery was as sly as ever, as he and the band kicked off the set with a new song, the swinging drunk-driving anthem The Worst Truck Driver in the World, a dead ringer for Junior Brown at his most entertaining.
Grace didn’t have his usual bassist, his wife Daria with him onstage tonight, but the sub guy held up his end admirably (drummer Russ Meissner, a jazzcat playing country music, made it easy). Piano player Bill Malchow added a New Orleans blues feel, especially on the darker, minor-key, somewhat Tom Waits-inflected numbers, and sang in a Dr. John-style N’awlins drawl when Grace gave him a lead vocal.
The band mixed upbeat party anthems including This Hangover Ain’t Mine and 7:30 in the Afternoon (a wise, knowing guide to how to kick a really bad hangover: sleep!) with several eerie, bluesy tunes including Kick off Your Shoes Moonshine, an older song that Grace has yet to record. Grace’s lyrics are craftsmanlike and imbued with great wit. He knows that the best country music is anything but unsophisticated: in the pre-rock era, if you wanted really good lyrics, you either had to listen to blues or “hillbilly music.” This sophistication came to the forefront on the dark, haunting, minor-key Cry, from Grace’s most recent album The Martini Cowboy, which begins as the blissed-out, wired narrator offers a girl coke, knowing fully well that the blow will only keep the angst away for so long.
Late in their first set, they segued out of a song into a long, meandering, somewhat swampy interlude that could have been vintage Little Feat. And then they played (Let Your) Mind Do the Talking. It’s Grace’s best song, a haunting, backbeat-driven blues tune about a drunk slowly losing it, and his version tonight was nothing short of transcendent. “I got a dream for a dog but it always needs walking/When you’ve got nothing to lose you let your mind do the talking,” Grace intoned ominously, building to a crescendo at the end with a screaming, noisy guitar solo while the piano and drums pounded out the beat. Grace and his band have a pretty Herculean live schedule, so you always have several chances a month to see them, but if this residency is anything like tonight’s show, it could be something special.
By the way, in case there are any deep-fried pickle enthusiasts out there, Rodeo Bar is one of the few places in town (other than, say, some stand at the San Gennaro festival) that sells them. They come with a sour cream and onion dipping sauce – and if you ask, the waiter will bring you some freshly chopped jalapenos as well – and are enthusiastically recommended.
It’s hard to believe that such a good band would have been playing such a small room in New York City. Although a lot of bands use small-room shows for rehearsals, and since Reckon So have a gig coming up at Rodeo Bar a little after the first of the year, that might have explained it. Saying that they might be the best country band in New York might be like saying someone else might be the best country band in Cairo or Buenos Aires, but tonight they played as if they were onstage at the Ryman. Guitarist Danny Weiss, late of Buddy Woodward’s excellent Nitro Express, is instantly recognizable for his warm, soulful use of the lower frets on the guitar, but tonight he didn’t do that. Instead, he showed off his jazz and western swing chops, and the whole band followed suit, drummer Bruce Martin punching in hard occasionally on the offbeat to make sure everybody’s on the same page, brilliant steel player Jon Graboff playing five on four, bedeviling his bandmates, and frontwoman Mary Olive Smith singing her North Carolina soul out. They did a couple of George Jones/Tammy Wynette covers, the best of which was a slow, sultry blues. They also played a very fetching version of the big Jones/Wynette hit Something to Brag About, which takes on some pretty heavy significance when you consider that Smith and Weiss married shortly after he narrowly survived what could have been a lethal assault.
Led down the trail by Smith’s heartfelt, heartwarming vocals, they did justice to Jean Shepherd’s Cigarettes and Coffee Blues, as well as a Gillian Welch song. But as good as their covers were, the best song they played all night was Weiss’ original, possibly called I’m the Lucky One (which would be pretty apt, actually), a swinging number that takes an unexpected turn into the minor key at the end of the verse. Wilco would have collectively died to have written that song. There’s nothing better than a country band playing at full tilt on a rainy night where you can get a seat at the bar and a couple of whiskies and enjoy the sound, which was actually excellent, by comparison to the disaster it was last Sunday here for the Inbreeds’ show. Reckon So play Rodeo Bar on January 3, they’re doing two sets starting around 10:30 PM and you should go see them.