In an alternate universe, country music had its punk moment, somewhere around the time actual punk emerged. In this other dimension or timeline, Nashville was flooded by a wave of bands and artists who rebelled against overblown productions and slick commerciality. Their music was fast and loud, and pundits thought that Music Row could just ignore them, and they would go away. But these rebels came out with Country Music Television, (remember, this is an alternate universe), and suddenly they started to sell massive amounts of records. The first artist on CMT, (“I want my…”), was Rank and File, and Dwight Yoakum would get there in due course. In the way of these things, there would eventually be a mellower sister channel, which welcomed the “new traditionalists” like The Whites with open arms, and later broke artists such as Red Molly. The upshot of the matter was that now, thirty years later, country music is only just rediscovering huge productions and glib faux emotion. But the biggest songs are still the ones that are descended from that country-punk wave of the eighties. Let’s have a listen to some recent and upcoming chart-toppers, shall we?
Mick Reed: That Old Brass Ring
For country, Mick Reed’s voice would be considered a high baritone. He can deliver a biting uptempo number like Singapore Sling, complete with the word play that has such a venerable history in country music. But Reed really shines on the ballads, and there are plenty of those here. That Old Brass Ring presents an older man looking back at the dreams and plans of his youth. The song is eloquent, musically as well as lyrically, and the production is exactly right, with not a note wasted. There is one ringer on this album; the closing number is a duet with pop-jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux, and it works beautifully. So the feel here is mostly country, but Mick Reed can do other things as well. Based on the music on Goodnight Texas, it will be well worth seeing what he does next.
Emma Hill and Her Gentlemen Callers: Meet Me at the Moon
Any discussion of Emma Hill must begin with her voice. Hill has a rich and smooth alto that I could listen to all day. But emotion comes first, and Hill delivers that beautifully. Meet Me at the Moon, the album, is a collection of ballads and midtempo songs, all delivered from the heart. The Gentlemen Callers are a new addition since I last looked in on Emma Hill, and they give the proceedings a definite country flavor. It suits Hill beautifully, and the title track is a fine example. Meet Me at the Moon, the song, is a wonderful declaration of love from a distance. It starts with just Hill and her acoustic guitar. The pedal steel comes in at the chorus, intertwining beautifully with the vocal line. Finally, the rest of the band comes in on the second verse, and the song acquires a road rhythm that perfectly sets the mood of travel. Hill and her lover are apart, but the band lets us know that she is coming home.
Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers: Let‘s Just Be Friends For Tonight
[to be released April 19, 2011. Link from here to purchase at that time]
I stated in my introduction that everything changed in my alternate 1980s, but the music of Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers looks back further, to the classic country sounds of the 1950s. Muth has that classic twangy alto down, and it’s no pose. Let’s Just Be Friends For Tonight is about a woman who wants to avoid commitment as she rebounds from a hurtful breakup; most of that story comes through not in the words themselves but in how Muth sings them. The music on Starlight Hotel begins with a Mariachi blast on the opening song, and proceeds through a marvelous tour of classic country sounds. You can tell that Muth and her band love this music, and they mean every note. Starlight Hotel comes out on April 19. Watch for it.
Lunch at Allen‘s: Sweeping the Spotlight Away
Lunch at Allen’s is a band that consists of Canadian singer-songwriters Marc Jordan, Murray McLauchlan, Cindy Church, and Ian Thomas. More… is their third album, and Church and McLauchlan cowrote one of the songs here, so the level of collaboration is a bit tighter than a Redbird or a Cry Cry Cry. The music ranges over many genre boundaries; there are tastes of folk, country, blue-eyed soul, and even jazz. Murray McLauchlan steps out for Sweeping the Spotlight Away, and he delivers a portrait of the man who stays when everyone else has gone, and cleans up the dreams of the circus. This would unbearably maudlin in some other hands, but McLauchlan and friends hit it perfectly, and make the song something profound. The album as a whole is far more coherent than it ought to be, with all of the different musical styles, and the quality is consistently high. This album does what any collaboration should: it makes me want to know more about each of the individual artists.
Renee Wahl: Keeping You For Mine
The scorned lover is a classic figure in country music. Renee Wahl takes this archetype and plays with it a bit. I don’t want to give anything away, but keep your ears open at the chorus, and you’ll see what I mean. The song gets a beautifully rendered spooky vibe. On Cumberland Moonshine, the twang in Renee Wahl’s voice comes and goes. It’s not an affectation; it’s just a tool that Wahl uses to get the emotion of her songs across, and she has others. She can go from the sweetness of a Dolly Parton to almost the sharp tone of a Maria McKee, and Wahl uses this expressive range perfectly, giving each song what it needs. The music has rockabilly accents, and even a bluesy flavor in places, but it is unmistakably country.