Tyler Childers, Country Squire. Let’s hand it to RCA Records. In signing new country music hero Tyler Childers, surely they knew they were getting into business with a rebel, and these days Nashville’s halls of wisdom aren’t really in the rebel business. They’re hard to sell, impossible to control and generally aren’t that popular on Music Row. Still, when one comes along as flat-out gifted as Childers, how could anyone say no? Lawrence County, Kentucky’s finest has a voice that sounds like it was born out in a dry dirt field, songs that are so undeniably timeless that Waylon Jennings would likely record a whole album of them if he were still kicking up sand, and a sense of spirited purpose that most likely won’t take any guff. One look at Tyler Childers’ new album cover probably sent shivers of fear down the backs of the RCA brass when they first saw it, but there it is: an hallucination of a man who looks like he’s coming off speed surrounded by a wolf, a gargoyle, a guru, a rooster and eight hands. Not exactly Target material. Don’t let any of this cause concern, because COUNTRY SQUIRE is all-time country music that looks at modern life and love and won’t back down, and performed in a way that takes no prisoners. Producers Sturgill Simpson and David Ferguson know it when they hear it. Hear this now.
Gracie Curran & Friends, Come Undone. There are certain times when nothing less than a flat-out blues-wailing woman will do. There can be no overt refinements to the music: it should have a fatback bottom, just enough guitar to know there’s one in the band, and if the gig money allows, a keyboard ace and a couple of horns. Of course, the final outcome all rides on who’s singing, and when it’s Gracie Curran, have no fear. This vocalist is strictly entertainment, as she piles on the emotions on songs like “Ernestine,” “The Things We Love” and “If Mama Ain’t Happy.” This is real life, up close and very personal. It’s been five long years of constant road-dogging since Curran’s last album, and her abilities have leapfrogged from good to great like a pogo-sticking chanteuse. It’s clear in the way she gets next to a song and gives it the guts needed to tear up a room. It’s no accident this album was recorded in Memphis. The Mississippi River is written all over it. And add in an all-time heart-twister ballad near the end titled “Love is the Cruelest Thing I Know,” and this is one lady who’s ready to take her victory lap right away. Stay up late.
Eilen Jewell, Gypsy. There is something about Idaho that twists its residents into psychic knots, encourages them to break out to freedom while making them capable of creating unforgettable music. Eilen Jewell is the latest shining example of such a fate for those from that state, and her new album is something that comes around only once or twice a year. It’s a collection of truly breathtaking songs and a haunting voice that captures what it’s like to live in the semi-United States in 2019. Something is going on inside that lets her lay out the puzzle of existence, one that seeks promise at the same time allowing for the unknown. Eilen Jewell’s voice is so real and so moving that she disarms any questioners and lets truth rush in like one of Idaho’s overflowing rivers. It really is something to behold, not to mention being unstoppable. Her posse of players is right there with her, never making a musical move too soon or overplaying their hand. That’s another Idaho attribute: subtlety. If there is one singer in America right now that holds a full hand and is ready to lay it down, it would be this one. Score extra points for covering buried treasure Pinto Bennett’s “You Cared Enough to Lie.” Now there’s digging down deep into the earth for an obscure classic in the making. It’s like the whole album: a treasure hiding in plain sight. Discover this Jewell.
Delbert McClinton and Self-Made Men + Dana, Tall, Dark, & Handsome. This Texas icon is one wandering boy. He’s been tearing up dance halls and sundry other roadhouses for so long they ought to name a honky tonk franchise after him, where he could pull out all the stops. Delbert McClinton is almost beyond definition: he can sing blues, rock, country and a number of other styles, always with a lusty eye on what makes humans do the push and pull whenever possible. He once claimed he’s put a half-dozen record labels out of business, and was proud of it. McClinton’s latest release is on his own Hot Shot Records, where it should be, and is a perfect example of what the singer does best. He’s got a fired-up band, some low down songs (ref: “Let’s Get Down Like We Used To” and “Fool Like Me”) and the kind of feeling which proves the soul of man will surely live forever. There just isn’t anyone else who sings with such immediate punch and heaving heartache. The album ends with one of Delbert McClinton’s most left-field concoctions: the short “A Poem,” where it sounds like the spirit of Tom Waits came knocking on his door past the midnight hour, and McClinton let him in. It’s so strong that hopefully it points to future off-road visitations, where Texas’ finest throws caution to the wind and takes that wild-eyed bohemian ride to the promised land. Bluebonnets for all.
Dylan LeBlanc, Renegade. It’s high time the powers that be in the universe turn their eye to Dylan LeBlanc, and let the world know that greatness lives among us. The son of the South has recorded a handful of albums that define everything that music is capable of achieving, from tearing the heart into little pieces to painting a sky so full of miracles it’s hard not to fall to the knees and thank the lucky stars. Each release LeBlanc gets a little closer to the recognition that is surely waiting for him, but it doesn’t quite arrive with the thunder necessary to get noticed. Straight out of Shreveport, Louisiana, the still young artist has wandered around America looking for a home. From Nashville to Muscle Shoals and all points east and west, it’s like the singer-songwriter is a troubadour searching for his cloak. The good news is that he will someday find it. It’s just a matter of time. New songs like “Born Again,” “Domino,” “Sand and Stone” and “Honor Among Thieves” assure that. Dylan LeBlanc has a voice of the angels and an eye for life-changing revelations, renegade of not. The world must surely be waiting. “Bang Bang Bang.”
Bobby Messano featuring Bob Malone, Lemonade. Gather enough lemons and voila: lemonade. Bobby Messano is a blues-slinging guitarist and singer who knows his way around the back alleys of New Orleans’ Decatur Street in the French Quarter and, most likely, some of the seedier spots on Nelson Street in Greenwood, Mississippi. He’s one of those people who has to go where the action is so he can wash himself in the water. For Messano’s ninth studio album, he has enlisted piano king Bob Malone and a primo rhythm section to stir things up this time around. Naturally, the aggregation had to record in Maurice, Louisiana at the infamous Dockside Studio to make sure the funk smelled just right. For extra kicks he invited Roddy Romero on squeeze box to the get-down. Co-producer JoeBaby Michaels stirred things to a boil and the end result is one of the most righteous roots albums of the year. Messano’s voice can jump and jive with the best of them, but he can also turn on a dime and lay into a song like Stephen Stills’ “Find the Cost of Freedom” and bring things to a stirring salvation. This is music to change the channel on the modern trickinations of our roiling times and, truly, let the good times roll. Turn it up.
Janiva Magness, Weeds Like Us: A Memoir. Some lives are destined to be wild. Maybe it’s the stars, maybe it’s the family, or maybe it’s just sheer destiny. But singer Janiva Magness got handed a juiced-up life from the very start. In a rushing miracle of memories, this memoir of a life well-lived reads like fiction, but be assured every simmering detail is true down to the core. There is violence, bullying, incest, addiction, alcoholism, rape, clinical depression, parental suicide and that’s just for starters. She took off on her own at 14 years old, figuring anything was better than where she was. When she found the life-saving fate of making music, it looked to her like she had half-a-chance to survive. Survive Janiva Magness did, from winning a shelf-full of music awards, recording albums that will live forever and building a life outside the darkness that threatened to take her all the way down for so many years. Her book is a life-affirming look at the hell she went through, as well as the miraculous change that perseverance and passion allowed her to find. Against nearly all odds, Janiva Magness beat the terminal curse of loneliness to find her way to the other shore. Shine a light.
Claudia Nygaard, Lucky Girl. After a cafe blessing in Nashville by none other than folk hero John Prine, singer Claudia Nygaard’s sophomore release can’t lose. With the miracle of a Kickstarter campaign and Grammy-winning producer Neilson Hubbard, Nygaard has shown what ambition and attitude can accomplish. These are songs ripped right out of our tumultuous country, and sung with such strong belief that it all feels like a come-to-Jesus experience. There are songs of struggle and breakthroughs, heartaches and make-do. There is no way to lose with “The Codependent’s National Anthem,” “Tumbling Down,” “Stitches” and “The Hero.” No blinking is allowed as real life rushes in and takes over. Then there’s “Me Too,” sung to a despicable departed one who stole too much from a young girl. How’s this for a chorus: “And this isn’t like me / it’s not how I behave / leaning on your headstone / and pissing on your grave.” Take that Hee Haw.
Graham Parker, Squeezing Out Sparks: Solo Acoustic 40th Anniversary. In the second half of the 1970s, rock & roll started busting at the seams. Between new wave and punk, the rules had been rewritten, and a different style of artist had found a way to be heard. At the head of that class was Graham Parker. Like so many of his brethren, the Englishman was loud, angry and ready to shake some action. As the ’70s were closing, Parker released SQUEEZING OUT SPARKS, considered by many to be his grandest achievement. Produced by the indomitable Jack Nitzsche, it was a collection of ten songs of extreme achievement, a thrilling mix of audacious floor burners and heart-tugging ballads. And while it gained considerable notice, it didn’t really amount to what it should have. Now, forty years later, Parker has recorded a totally solo acoustic version of the classic album. Most songwriters agree that the way to tell a really great song is to sing it stripped-down to its bare bones and see how audiences react. Here, the effect is stunning. From album opener “Discovering Japan” all the way through “Passion is No Ordinary Word” to “Love Gets You Twisted,” the singer pulls no punches and lets the power of the songs hit full-on. They feel like body blows, even now in their minimalist form, and remind all this man was on blazing fire at the time. Especially devastating is “You Can’t Be Too Strong,” a blistering tale of an abortion that is still capable of peeling the top of the head clear off. Parker adds the non-album “Mercury Poisoning” at the end, just to drive home the disdain he had for his record label then after SQUEEZING OUT SPARKS failed to find its rightful success. It’s a joyous time when music this thrilling is given another opportunity to be heard, one that should be celebrated from all corners. Squeezing out second-chances.
Various Artists, Red Gold Green & Blue. First things first: if there’s going to an album of blues songs recorded by various reggae masters, along with a Neville brother, then at least a few of the songs demand a drummer nicknamed “Horsemouth.” It just goes with the territory down Jamaica way at Trojan Studios. That’s exactly what’s happened, courtesy of Zak Starkey’s ingenious concept and song selection, along with singers like Toots and the Maytals, Freddie McGregor, Big Youth, Andrew Tosh, Phylea Carley and others. Considering such blues perennials as “Wang Dang Doodle,” “.44 Blues,” “Just Your Fool” and more are brought to the party, the sessions couldn’t help but be a high life and low down celebration of goodness. It’s common knowledge in the backrooms of blues clubs that the music played there is to erase sadness and replace it with happiness. Add on the irresistible rhythms of reggae and the easeful emanations of Jahness, and these lucky 13 songs are a can’t miss shot at emancipation. Freedom is here.