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.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #852:
The Jack Grace Band – Drinking Songs for Lovers
This brand-new 2010 album has the Martini Cowboy reverting to the classic 1960s C&W party vibe of his 2005 cd I Like It Wrong, but with a better band, better songs and an unbeatable concept: this is party music for smart people. With a swing jazz rhythm section of Grace’s wife Daria on bass, Russ Meissner on drums and either longtime Johnny Cash pianist Earl Poole Ball or New Orleans bluesman Bill Malchow on keys, Grace himself takes over the lead guitar here, with literally delirious results. It’s a tribute to all states of drunkenness and those who indulge in it: the crazy neighborhood guy you run into at the bodega on a beer run right before four AM, the guys at OTB, the serious dude who watches his roommate drink himself into a dangerous state, and the drunken parent (on the album’s absolutely brilliant centerpiece, If You’re Gonna Raise a Drunk). The titles pretty much say it all: Morning Margaritas; Drink a Little Hooch; Drinkin’ and Gamblin’; I Drank Too Much Again; and a surprising, vividly cautionary cameo from Daria, Drank Yourself Into a Corner. Jack’s George Jones-inflected baritone offers just the hint of a tequila-infused wink as the band sway and careen behind him. For nondrinkers who find the appeal of this album utterly impossible to fathom, consider that reality – woops, we mean sobriety – might just be a little less fun.
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).
The Brooklyn Country folks like living dangerously: they didn’t even put a canopy over the stage before the all-day parade of bands started. But they didn’t let a few drops of rain, a massive bank of cumulo nimbus overhead moving closer and closer or the miserable tropical humidity stop them from putting on one of the best shows this city’s seen this year. Their frequent Brooklyn County Fair shindigs go all day and into the night: this time around, the daytime venue was the pleasant Urban Meadow community garden space where President Street deadends into the water in Red Hook. The only ironic thing about the country music being made in Brooklyn these days is that it’s better than 95% of what’s coming out of Nashville: Saturday’s lineup was a goldmine of both retro and cutting-edge country and Americana talent.
Plagued with technical difficulties, Maynard & the Musties’ opening set was a wash (and looked like it would be a wash in more ways than one, with the clouds as dark as they were, but the sky never broke). They’re playing Lakeside on Friday the 23rd if you missed them here – and by the looks of the crowd, you probably did.
String band Me Before You blended bluegrass, folk and oldtime hillbilly sounds with some gorgeous vocal harmonies from brother and sister Anthony and Amy Novak, who switched on and off between guitar and mandolin, anchored by Carlos Barriento’s often haunting, bowed bass and Joyce Chen’s soaring fiddle. Their version of Blue Moon of Kentucky started slow and soulful, then turned on a dime and went doublespeed. But their originals were the best, Amy’s wary, somewhat wounded delivery akin to Patsy Cline. Toward the end of the set, Anthony finally cut loose with a sizzling guitar solo on one of their upbeat numbers, somehow managing to keep his fingers on the fretboard despite the heat and humidity.
The Dixons didn’t let the heat phase them either. Decked out in their retro hats and suits, they looked and sounded straight out of Bakersfield, 1964 – there hasn’t been a New York band who’ve done this kind of honkytonk so effortlessly and expertly well since Buddy Woodward put the Nitro Express in mothballs and headed for the hills of Virginia. Dixons frontman and rhythm guitarist Jeff Mowrer sang with a sly baritone a lot like Junior Brown while drummer Brother Paul hung back with a stick in his right hand and a brush in his left, delivering the slinkiest shuffle beat you could possibly imagine, Smilin’ Joe Covington pushing it along with his upright bass and Telecaster player Chris Hartway bringing back the ghost of Duane Eddy to guide his fast fingers. Guest pedal steel player Skip Krevens would kick off the solos and then Hartway would finish them, taking it up a notch with one lusciously reverb-drenched, twangy, tuneful fill after another – a little bluegrass, a little blues, a little surf, he did it all. Between songs, the crowd was silent: they didn’t know what hit them. They turned Ernest Tubb’s Thanks a Lot into a Hudson Hornet era boogie and happily repatriated Waylon Jennings’ Sweet Sweet Mental Revenge to a time before Pam Tillis was born. Their briskly shuffling opening tune, Still Your Fool (title track to their excellent album) set the tone for the day; The Lonesome Side of Me was period perfect not just with the music but also the lyrics, a vibe that would happen again and again during their set.
Led by Texas expat and bartitone crooner (and Brooklyn Country honch0) JD Duarte alongside chanteuse Carin Gorrell, the Newton Gang were just as good – but in a completely different way. The Dixons sound as fresh as they do because hardly anyone around these parts has that kind of sound, and the same goes for these guys. But where the Dixons have every part completely nailed down cold, the Newton Gang are just loose enough to be dangerous, part outlaw country, part evil-tinged paisley underground rockers. With a careening two-guitar attack of Duarte and agile, smartly terse Telecaster player Alan Lee Backer, they shifted unexpectedly and edgily between major and minor keys, through a brutal ballad about a kid who kills his entire family, several escape anthems (a recurrent theme in this band) and a pretty unhinged version of A Woman Scorned, a fiery, chugging tune from the band’s upcoming album. Pedal steel player Gordon Hartin built a river of dark textures, giving a fluid underpinning to the crash-and-burn overhead while drummer David Ciolino-Volano and bassist Chet Hartin teamed up for a backbeat pulse that swung like crazy – not what you’d expect from a twangy monster like this group. Unlike the parade of Carrie Underwood soundalikes out there, Gorrell goes for an often darkly aware, no-nonsense Tammy Wynette approach. Her lead vocals packed a mean punch on the rousing Mistreat Me, just as much a challenge as a come-on, a test to see if the guy’s man enough for her.
By the time they were done, the temperature had tumbled pleasantly by at least twenty degrees, but the clouds looked like they’d finally reached their limit. Alana Amram & the Rough Gems, another excellent band who mix country and rock in a cool rather than cheesy way, were next, followed by zydeco/honkytonk band the Doc Marshalls and then Americana singer Michaela Anne. But the way the sky was looking, it was time for a raincheck. We made it just past Abilene on Court St. before the monsoon hit.
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.
It’s no secret that New York has one of the most vital, thriving country music scenes anywhere. Forget any snide commentary you may have overheard about urban musicians playing country: if anything, the music coming out of the New York country scene is far more traditionally-oriented than most anything Nashville is producing these days. Tonight’s bill paired two of the more popular country acts in town. Monica Passin, frontwoman of long-running Rodeo Bar honkytonkers L’il Mo and the Monicats played mostly solo acoustic, with occasional help from a couple of women who sang harmonies, and the New Jack Ramblers’ amazing lead guitarist. She’s pretty much everything you could want in a country singer: pretty voice, good songs, good taste in covers and backing musicians. Her best song was a minor-key rockabilly number – the first one in that style she’d ever written, she said – possibly titled This Cat. The lead player used Passin’s ominous chord changes as a springboard for a riveting, intense, jazz-inflected solo that drew roars of appreciation from the crowd. On the last song, Passin invited Lisa, the bar owner up to sing harmonies, and as it turned out she’s actually good! Not since the days when Juliana Nash ran the show at Pete’s Candy Store has there been a bar owner who’s been able to show off such a soaring, fearless voice. Bands in need of a frontwoman ought to stop by the bar: she won’t embarrass you, and if all else fails you’ll always have a place to play.
Sean Kershaw and the New Jack Ramblers aren’t exactly under the radar, maintaining a hectic gig schedule in addition to the regular Sunday night residency they’ve been playing at Hank’s for what seems forever. They’re a rotating crew of some of the best players in town: the weekly Sunday show originated out of necessity, as this was the only night everybody in the band didn’t have a gig. Tonight, backed by just lead guitar and upright bass (their awe-inspiring pedal steel player Bob Hoffnar wasn’t available, and you really don’t need drums in a small room like Banjo Jim’s), Kershaw ran through a mix of what sounded like covers but probably weren’t. The guy’s a hell of a songwriter, a prolific, versatile writer as comfortable with western swing as honkytonk, rockabilly or stark, Johnny Cash-inspired narratives. Tonight’s show was the western swing show, driven by lead guitarist Skip Krevens, whose ability to burn through a whole slew of styles was nothing short of spectacular, everything from jazz to rockabilly to blues. He made it seem effortless. They gamely ran through the old standard Smoke That Cigarette in addition to a bunch of originals, some recorded, some not, closing the first of their two sets with what has become Kershaw’s signature song, Moonlight Eyes. Originally recorded with his first band, the fiery, rockabilly unit the Blind Pharaohs, it’s a genuine classic, something that sounds like a Carl Perkins hit from 1956. Kershaw has played it a million times, but still manages to make it sound fresh, the ominous undercurrent beneath its blithe romantic sway more apparent than ever tonight, stripped down to just the basics.
And what was even more apparent was that both of the acts on this bill would probably be big stars in a smaller metropolis: here, they’re only part of a widespread, talented scene.
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.