Sean Ardoin may come from a long line of accordion-playing Creole musicians (including Amédé Ardoin and Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin), but he certainly isn’t one to be put in a box when it comes to his music. Ardoin’s newest album, Kreole Rock and Soul, is named after the genre that he created in an attempt to revamp the music of his ancestors. While the album pays tribute to Ardoin’s Creole roots, it also incorporates the styles of contemporary pop and classic rock.Continue reading →
Illinois-based Archeophone Records, a company specializing in acoustic-era reissues, has a long history of uncovering and releasing fascinating recordings from bygone eras.[i] In 2007 they received a Grammy Award for Best Historical Album for the 2-CD set, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922, a companion to the groundbreaking book of the same title by noted discographer and recording industry historian Tim Brooks. One of the musicians listed in the book was Charles A. Asbury (born ca. 1956, d.1903). Though referred to variously in the 1890s as “the popular colored banjoist” and performer of songs in the “negro style,” at least one reviewer mentioned Asbury as the only white member of an African American troupe. This conflicting evidence led Brooks to assume Asbury had been “misidentified as Black.” New research, however, reveals a more complex and fascinating story—while the discovery of extant copies of Ashbury’s earliest recordings likewise expands our knowledge of early banjo traditions.
In a diligent search through archival records that would impress any genealogist, Archeophone’s Richard Martin slowly unraveled the story of Charles A. Asbury with assistance from Asbury’s heirs. Born in Florida and raised in Augusta, Georgia during the Reconstruction era by his adoptive “mulatto” parents, Asbury joined a prominent traveling theater troupe, performing the role of Sambo in one of the many minstrel adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (apparently the George L. Aiken version). From there he can be traced to an all-black ensemble featuring his first wife, Annie Asbury, plugged as “the great shout singer.” In the liner notes, authors Richard Martin and Ted Olsen surmise that Asbury may have learned the banjo, or at least studied the technique of Horace Weston, “the internationally famous African American banjo virtuoso,” who was one of the biggest stars in Annie’s troupe. Whatever the case may be, Asbury toured with various Black jubilee ensembles throughout the South, further honing both his banjo and singing skills, and growing his reputation as an artist.
Now, for the recorded evidence. From 1891-1897, Asbury’s songs with banjo accompaniment were captured on wax by the New Jersey Phonograph Company in Newark—likely the oldest extant recordings of this genre by an African American artist. These wax cylinders are extremely rare, and thus far the only Asbury recordings known to survive are those featured on 4 Banjo Songs (he recorded many more). “Haul the Woodpile Down” was first made available via University of California Santa Barbara’s Cylinder Audio Archive website. The other three cylinder tracks are publicly available for the very first time on this set. Most of these songs—the popular “Haul the Woodpile Down,” “Never Done Anything Since” and “A New Coon in Town”—bear the hallmarks of the minstrel banjo tradition and early “coon songs,” while the fourth and earliest, “Keep in de Middle ob de Road” (1891), is a seldom recorded semi-religious jubilee hymn. What sets these apart from other minstrel tunes is Asbury’s “remarkably fluid, rhythmically complex” five-string banjo technique. With the assistance of experts in online banjo discussion groups, Martin was able to learn more about Asbury’s unique “stroke style” of playing, which is detailed at length in the liner notes. Because the stroke style was seldom used or recorded after 1900, these four Asbury cylinders are historically significant, documenting a 19th century performance practice that sheds further light on the African American banjo tradition.
The cylinder transfers were carried out by John Levin, developer of the CPS1 Cylinder Playback Machine. Now used by a number of institutions, the machine yields astonishing results, rendering Asbury’s performances in the best possible sonic resolution, with additional restoration from Martin. The accompanying 16 page illustrated booklet provides further insight on Asbury’s life and music, with notes on each track plus endnotes and technical notes. Lyrics are printed on the sleeve of the 7-inch 45-rpm disc. 4 Banjo Songs is a first-rate package, well-worth the $16.99 list price for this significant piece of musical history. Please note: the limited run of 1000 copies will likely disappear quickly.
Canadian singer-songwriter AHI (pronounced “eye”) offers a refreshingly earnest commentary on life, love, and the concept of home on his sophomore album, In Our Time. His first album, We Made It Through The Wreckage, was independently released in 2017, and despite a lack of promotion, the album resonated with listeners and began receiving recognition across Canada due to AHI’s gritty, soulful vocals and commitment to honest, simplistic music.
The opening track on his newest album, “Breakin’ Ground,” is an uplifting introduction, telling of AHI’s journey to becoming an artist and musician. Lyrics like “I’ve been told I’m worthless so much that it gave me purpose” are honest and real, and are complemented by AHI’s raspy and raw-sounding vocals over an upbeat melody. “Made It Home,” the following track, presents the second chapter of AHI’s personal story. In the song, the father of three explores the concepts of family and home in a way that simultaneously expresses vulnerability and strength.
The other songs on the album, from the energetic “Five Butterflies” to the more emotional and softer “Just Pray,” highlight AHI’s ability to blend folk, soul, rock influences with his personal experiences and feelings in a way that makes his music poignant and engaging for anyone and everyone.
On In Our Time, AHI manages to use his mesmerizing vocals and catchy melodies to create a personalized yet relatable collection of folk rock tracks based on his own experiences of life, love, and family.
One of the most sought-after songwriters in the business, Priscilla Renea now offers her own solo project, Coloured. Growing up in Vero Beach, Florida, music has always been a mainstay in Renea’s life. As explained in an interview with Rolling Stone, her mother and grandmother loved to sing and her father played the trumpet. After writing her first song at the age of eight, Renea’s mother gave her a note book to write in and eventually she received a guitar from her father and taught herself to play. By the age of 16, Renea became a YouTube sensation, setting her on a path to become one of today’s greatest writers with songs you know and love such as “Timber,” by Kesha and Pit Bull, Charlie Puth’s “River”, and “California King Bed” performed by Rhianna. With Renea’s own album Coloured, we get to truly hear her voice as she tells her own story.
Renea describes her new album as, “a big gumbo of everything that’s happening in my life,” and explains it was created when she spent a few months in Nashville in 2016 with her friend and colleague Brett James. While in Nashville, she attended a performance of the Grand Ole Opry, discovering there were only two photos of black artists on display backstage—Chuck Berry and Darius Rucker. Taking this as a challenge, Renea was inspired to create Coloured, a very unique album with a style all its own she calls “country soul,” seamlessly combining a classic Nashville sound with R&B and hip hop in a manner she describes as “unapologetically black.”
Coloured begins with the song, “Family Tree.” Opening up with a guitar progression that is just so stereotypically country it sounds like you could be listening to a Dolly Parton album, Renea enters and quickly shows her versatility as vocalist. Though she maintains a country “twang” throughout, it doesn’t take long for her to knock you back with her robustly gritty voice, showcasing vocal prowess and control reminiscent of powerhouses like Etta James.
Throughout the remainder of the album you can hear other spectacular tracks like, “Gentle Hands,” a fun upbeat song with a driving trap beat, followed by the gorgeous track, “Heavenly,” where Renea plays more to her R&B sensibility. She actually brings these songs together in one storytelling music video:
With songs like “You Shaped Box,” “If I Ever Loved You,” and “Different Color,” Renea incorporates a reggae feel, blurring the line between genres as she tells stories of love, not only love of family or a significant other, but love of oneself.
Having made such a name for herself as a songwriter, Priscilla Renea is clearly just gearing up to shock the world with her own vocal talents, and Coloured is only the beginning.
Americana duo Birds of Chicago is a marriage, literally, of singer-songwriters JT Nero and Allison Russell. Formed in 2012, the group has developed a loyal following through their relentless touring schedule. Since their last full-length project, Real Midnight (2016), the Birds have flown from Chicago to Nashville, where they now reside. Their new album, Love in Wartime, co-produced by Luther Dickenson, reflects the sounds of both hometowns as the duo artfully intertwines elements of country, folk, blues and rock.
While Russell’s voice has been prominent on previous albums, Love in Wartime is perhaps more evenly divided between the duo, contrasting Russell’s silky, soulful soprano against Nero’s grittier baritone. Opening with the intro “Now/Sunlight,” Russell hums a whimsical, folksy tune over plucked banjo chords, then segues into the uptempo roots rock song, “Never Go Back,” with Nero on lead vocals. On the title track, twangy guitars come to the fore as Nero recounts the realities of longterm relationships and parenthood, “we sat there and tried to remember our dreams, no such luck, no such luck.” Life on the road is the subject of the poignant “Travelers,” as Russell sings “there’s no home in this world, got no home in this world.” One of the most effective duets on the album is “Try,” with Russell and Nero trading verses before coming together on the chorus, “Try a little harder, give a little more.”
Other highlights include the uplifting bluesy song “Roll Away” which encourages folks to “roll away the heavy stones, roll away the heavy hours, roll on in the summer moon,” and the banjo accompanied ballad “Superlover.”
Love in Wartime is jam-packed with carefully crafted songs and inspirational lyrics that celebrate life and love despite troubled times and the daily grind.
This month’s top picks include a new recording of Florence Price’s Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 performed by Er-Gene Kahng, and “American Songster” Dom Flemons’ collaboration with Smithsonian Folkways on an exploration of the music of Black Cowboys.
April is Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), with April 30th designated as International Jazz Appreciation Day. Jazz and social justice is the contextual lens for JAM this year, showcasing the progressive ways jazz continues to play a transformative role with respect to the civil rights of individuals from multiple facets of society. The jazz collaborations of both Wynton Marsalis Septet’s United We Sing and Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock & Jack DeJohnette‘s After The Fall demonstrate the excellence that prevails when groups work collectively towards a common goal. Don’t Play with Love released by the John L. Nelson Project showcases the formidable talents of Prince’s father, John L. Nelson, both of whom fostered positive inspiration in others through their artistic legacies. Perseverance plays a central role in Sy Smith’s Sometimes a Rose Will Grow in Concrete and saxophonist Lekecia Benjamin’s Rise Up, as both albums urge continuance despite the cost. Young Street by bassist Reggie Young rounds out this category with a blend of jazz and funk.
Black cowboys may not be the first thing that comes to mind when the Wild West is mentioned, but they were prevalent and left an undeniable impact on the development of the American West. Following the end of the Civil War in the late 1860s, thousands of newly-freed African Americans moved westward to start new lives. Some chose the grueling and often dangerous path of becoming a cowboy, an occupation in which work ethic mattered more than skin color. These pioneers worked long, hard days alongside Mexican vaqueros, Native Americans, and white cowboys and often turned to song for comfort on the trails.
The newly released Black Cowboys featuring co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dom Flemons (aka “The American Songster”), places these often forgotten pioneers of the Old West in the spotlight. Produced by Flemons and Dan Sheehy for Smithsonian Folkways as part of its African American Legacy series, the album pays tribute to the music, poetry, and complex history of these cowboys. The accompanying 40 page booklet includes essays by Flemons (on the cowboy’s music) and Jim Griffith (on the history of Black cowboys), as well as detailed notes on each track complemented by many archival photographs.
In addition to Flemons, who performs on all tracks (vocals, 6-string guitar, resonator guitar, 4-string banjo, cow “rhythm” bones), backing musicians include Alvin “Youngblood” Hart (12-string guitar), Jimbo Mathus (mandolin, kazoo, harmonica), Stu Cole (upright bass), Brian Farrow (fiddle, upright bass, vocals), Dante Pope (cow “rhythm” bones, vocals, snare drum), and Dan Sheehy (guitarrón). Together, these musicians create a rich instrumental background for the lyrics.
Many of the songs on Black Cowboys are traditional tunes arranged and performed by Flemons, such as “John Henry y los vaqueros,” which highlights instruments with roots in African American minstrel shows like the fiddle and cow “rhythm” bones. Another track arranged by Flemons, “Black Woman,” is a field holler collected in the 1930s that has themes of ranching and leaving behind loved ones. Although it isn’t a traditional cowboy song, the song honors the thousands of African American women who helped develop the West.
From Southwestern cowboy poems like Gail Gardner’s 1917 “Tyin’ Knots in the Devil’s Tail” to Jack Thorp’s traditional cowboy tune “Little Joe the Wrangler,” the album also includes songs written by actual cowboys in the early 20th century, offering a rare look into the post-Civil War cowboy’s life.
Other tracks were newly composed by Flemons to pay homage to notable historical figures. For example, “Steel Pony Blues” is about Deadwood Dick, sometimes called “the greatest Black cowboy in the Old West,” who later became a Pullman porter, while “One Dollar Bill” is a tribute to legendary rodeo rider Bill Pickett who invented the sport of bulldogging. “He’s a Lone Ranger” recalls the life of Bass Reeves, the first African American U.S. Marshall.
In the words of professor and author Mike Searles (quoted in the liner notes), “many people see the West as the birthplace of America . . . if they understand that African Americans were cowboys, even Native Americans were cowboys, Mexicans were cowboys, it really opens the door for us to think about America as a multiethnic, multiracial place.” Black Cowboys creates a sonic portrait of a more diverse American West, expanding our knowledge through its varied collection of songs and poems by and about African American cowboys.
Following are additional albums released during February 2018—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.
Blues, Folk, Country Memphis Minnie: Volume 1: The 1930’s [4CD] (Real Gone)
Bernard Allison: Let It Go (Ruf)
Hypnotic Wheels (w/Cedric Burnside): Muddy Gurdy Mississippi Project (Vizz Tone)
Johnny Tucker: Seven Day Blues (High John)
Leyla McCalla: The Capitalist Blues (Jazz Village)
Luther Lackey: Contender (Cds Records)
Reverend Shawn Amos: Breaks It Down (Put Together Music)
Sam Kelly’s Station House: No Barricades (Roxbro)
Sunny War: With The Sun (ORG Music/Pledge Music)
Funk, Rock, Pop, Electronic Buttshakers: Sweet Rewards (Underdog Records)
Beatchild & The Slakadeliqs: Heavy Rockin’ Steady (BBE)
Flyer Learning: Flyer Learning (digital)
Kay-Gees: Keep on Bumpin & Masterplan; Find a Friend; Kilowatt (Robinsongs)
Marenikae: Ajebutter (The Zuchia Nexus)
Mark Grusane: Real Sound of Mark Grusane (BBE)
Soulive: Cinematics Vol. 1 (digital) (Soulive Music)
Tony MacAlpine: Death of Roses (Sundog Records)
Gospel, Christian Rap, CCM Beverly Crawford: Essential Beverly Crawford – Vol. 2 (JDI)
Elevation Worship: Elevation Collective (digital) (Elevation Worship)
Enyo: Glorified (GospelNaija)
God’s Own Radicals: Under Construction (GospelNaija)
Jekalyn Carr: One Nation Under God (Lunjeal)
Restine Jackson: No Fear (Dream)
Jazz Caesar Frazier: Instinct (Doodlin)
Charles Mingus: Live At Montreux 1975 (Eagle Rock)
David K. Mathews: The Fantasy Vocal Sessions Vol. 1 (Effendi)
David Murray & Saul Williams: Blues for Memo (Motema)
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong: Cheek To Cheek : The Complete Duet Recordings [4 CD] (Verve)
Lin Rountree: Stronger Still (Trippin n’ Rhythm)
Marion Meadows: Soul City (Shanachie)
Matthew Shipp: Sonic Fiction (ESP)
Oscar Peterson Trio: Oscar Plays (Box Set) (Verve)
Raphaël Imbert: Music is my Hope (Jazz Village)
Roscoe Mitchell: Ride the Wind (Nessa)
Sonny Rollins: Way Out West (60th Anniv. Deluxe Edition) (Craft)
Subtle Degrees: A Dance That Empties (NNA Tapes)
Various: We Out Here (Brownswood)
Victor Gould: Earthlings (Criss Cross)
Walter Smith III: Twio (CD Baby)
R&B, Soul Jonathan Butler: Sarah Sarah – The Anthology (Soul Music)
Bettye Lavette, Carol Fran: Bluesoul Belles: The Complete Calla, Port & Roulette Recordings (Music on CD)
DD’s brothers: From the Day Till the Dawn (Soul Brother)
George Jackson: Leavin’ Your Homework Undone: In the Studio 1968-71 (Kent)
Ink Spots: Best of the Singles 1936-1953 (Real Gone)
Otis Blackwell: The Songs & Recordings Of Otis Blackwell 1952-62 (Acrobat)
Spencer Wiggins: The Goldwax Years (Kent)
Starchild & The New Romantic: Language (Ghostly International)
Sy Smith: Sometimes a Rose Will Grow in Concrete (Psyko)
Tatiana Ladymay Mayfield: The Next Chapter (digital) (Ladymay Music)
The Agency: Philosophies (digital) (Philosophies)
Various: The 24-Carat Black Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth (vinyl reissue) (Craft)
Rap, Hip Hop Negash Ali: The Ascension
ABBA Zulu: Problematic Vol. 1 (digital) (Utmost Musik)
Abz Tha Kid: Thoughtz…From a Park Bench (digital)
Alchemist: Paris L.a. Bruxelles Instrumentals (vinyl) (ALC)
Ash Kidd: Cruise (digital) (Caroline Int)
Audio Push: Cloud 909 (digital) (Good Vibe Tribe)
Black Milk: Fever (Mass Appeal)
Cozz: Effected (digital) (Interscope)
Demo Taped: Momentary EP (digital) (300 Entertainment)
DePaul: Damage Already Done (Twenty Two Music)
Digable Planets: Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) (25th Anniv. Ed.) (Light in the Attic)
DJ Smoke: Dolla Bill: The Ty Dolla Sign Mixtape (JWS Records)
East Man: Red White & Zero (Planet Mu)
G Herbo: Humble Beast Deluxe Edition (Machine Ent. Group/Orchard)
Keezy off 38th: Trials & Tribulations (digital) (.38th Muzyk)
Khago: Walk a Mile (Streaminn Hub)
Kodak Black: Heart Break Kodak (digital) (Atlantic)
LARS: Last American Rock Stars (Majik Ninja)
Mark Battles: Vasi World (digital) (Fly America)
Nipsey Hussle: Victory Lap (Atlantic)
O.C.: A New Dawn (Ditc)
Onyx: Black Rock (X-Ray)
Ralo LaFlare: Diary of the Streets 3 (digital) (Famerica)
Rockstar JT: Streets Signed Me the Mixtape
Shirt: Pure Beauty (Third Man)
Skipper: Prezidential (digital) (Empire)
Skyzoo: In Celebration of Us (Empire)
Stalley: Tell The Truth Shame The Devil (Vol. 1) EP
Tenacity & D.R.U.G.S. Beats: Discussions (digital) (SoulSpazm)
Tony Colliseum: Legacy (digital) (BeatRocka Music)
Too Short: The Pimp Tape (Dangerous Music)
Various: Black Panther: The Album (Interscope)
Various: Death Row Chronicles OST (eOne)
Yukmouth: JJ Based on a Vill Story Three (Smoke-A-Lot Records)
Reggae, Dancehall Bobby Digital: X-tra Wicked – Reggae Anthology (VP)
Bobby Digital: Serious Times (VP)
Etana: Live in London (Freemind Music)
Freddie McGregor: Bobby Bobylon Deluxe Edition (Studio One)
Justin Hinds & the Dominoes: From Jamaica With Reggae (Treasure Isle)
Ras Michael & the Sons of Negus: None a Jah Jah Children (VP)
Various: Roots Reggae Party (Warner)
World, Latin Afrika Mamas: Iphupho – A Cappella from South Africa (Arc Music)
Boubacar Traore: Dounia Tabolo (Lusafrica)
Elida Almeida: Kebrada (Lusafrica)
Ernesto Chahoud presents Taitu: Soul-fuelled Stompers from 1960s – 1970s Ethiopia (BBE)
Femi Kuti: One People One World (Knitting Factory)
Lucibela: Laço Umbilical (Lusafrica)
Nene Brown: Raízes por Outras Óticas (Time Forte)
Tal National: Tantabara (FatCat)
Various: Levanta Poeira (Jazz & Milk)
Various: Putumayo Kids Presents Kid’s African Party (Putumayo)
Various: Putumayo Presents African Café (Putumayo)
Newer artists showcase their talents as well. No stranger to the field, the Ebony Hillbillies enter the scene once again with their latest release, 5 Miles From Town. Delta Deep’s East Coast Livespins a soulful blues/rock sound and Project Mama Earth’s self-titled debut Project Mama Earthpulls listeners expertly into the realm of world music activism. Jason Marsalis and the 21st Century Trad Band weigh in with their original compositions based on jazz standards and 80s popular music with Melody Reimagined: book 1, while saxophonist David Murray and poet Saul Williams’ collaboration on Blues for Memo offers a contemplative tribute to socially conscious issues and figures throughout modern history.
Valentine’s Day hits its mark in the form of Eric Valentine and the Velvet Groove’s smooth offering Velvet Groove, R&B artist Calvin Richardson is sure to put you in a loving mood with his newest release All Or Nothing, and Jamison Ross’s All For One focuses on family and neighborly affection.
After four successful albums and TV appearances on the BBC and ABC’s “Good Morning America,” The Ebony Hillbillies are back with their latest album, 5 Miles From Town. The group, which hails from the streets of New York City, is keeping African American string band traditions alive for new generations. Their fifth album features 12 tracks that seamlessly combine pop, folk, bluegrass, and jazz to create The Ebony Hillbillies’ trademark sound.
In addition to reviving string band music through tracks such as “Hog Eyed Man,” a classic 19th century American fiddle tune from the Upper South, the group also offers new songs with strong social commentary. The gritty “Another Man Done Gone (Hands Up Don’t Shoot)” explores the issue of police brutality, while the similarly-themed “I’m On My Way To Brooklyn” ends with the ominous sound of gunshots.
Other songs, like “Fork in the Road,” are more lighthearted and highlight the beauty of the fiddle and banjo, as performed by group leader Henrique Prince and Norris Bennett, respectively. Additional performers include Gloria Thomas Gassaway, Allanah Salter and Iris T. Olden (vocals, bones, shaker), William “Salty Bill” Salter (acoustic bass), Newman Taylor Baker (washboard percussion), and A.R. (aka Ali Rahman, cowboy percussion).
The album concludes with the title track, “Five Miles From Town,” a very lively rendition of the old-timey classic that’s punctuated with plenty of whoopin’ and hollerin’ before fading out on an extended percussive improv section with hints of jazz.
Almost 15 years after the release of their first album, The Ebony Hillbillies continue their mission to educate and inspire, fusing the sonic textures of the past with contemporary music elements and socially-relevant lyrics. 5 Miles From Town lives up to the legacy created by the Manhattan-based band and offers a fresh take on the sound that listeners love.
Following are additional albums released during January 2018—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.
Blues, Folk, Country Robert Nighthawk: The Collection, 1937-52 (Acrobat)
Various Artists: Classic Delta and Deep South Blues from Smithsonian Folkways (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings)
Various Artists: Rough Guide to Holy Blues (World Music Network)
Funk, Rock, Pop, Electronic Tony Macalpine: Death of Roses (Sundog)
Jeffrey Gaines: Allright (Omnivore)
The Brit Funk Association: Full Circle (Jazzman)
Noah Airé: I Shine Brightest in the Dark Mixtape (Noah Airé)
Gospel, Christian Rap, CCM Todd Dulaney: Your Great Name (Urban Inspirational)
Various Artists: Wow Gospel 2018 (RCA Inspiration)
Jazz Dr. Lonnie Smith: All In My Mind (Blue Note)
Herbie Hancock: The Broadcast Collection 1973-1983 (Forced Exposure)
Clovis Nicolas with Kenny Washington: Freedom Suite Ensuite (Sunnyside)
Booker Irvin: The Good Book: The Early Years 1960-62 (Acrobat)
Marion Meadows: Soul City (Shanachie)
Sun Ra: Of Abstract Dreams (Strut)
Dan Block: Block Party (Miles High)
Wayne Escoffery: Vortex (Sunnyside)
Mariea Antoinette: Overture (Masaii/Infinity Records)
The Bad Plus: Never Stop II (Legbreaker)
R&B, Soul Shareef Keyes & the Groove: Cooking Something (Shareef Keyes & the Groove)
Dionne Warwick: Odds & Ends–Scepter Records Rarities (Real Gone)
Main Ingredient: Brotherly Love: RCA Anthology (Soul Music)
Carla Thomas: The Memphis Princess – Early Recordings 1960-1962 (Jasmine)
Diana Ross: Diamond Diana: The Legacy Collection (Motown)
LaVice & Co.: Two Sisters From Bagdad (Reissue) (Jazzman)
Various Artists: Stax Singles, V4: Rarities & Best Of The Rest (Craft)
Justine Skye: Ultaviolet (Republic)
Sugar Pie DeSanto: In the Basement: The Chess Recordings (Geffen/Universal)
David Craig: The Time Is Now (RCA)
Mark Grusane: The Real Sound (BBE)
Omar: Love in Beats Deluxe Edition (Freestyle)
Birthday Boy & Trish: Joseph EP (Bastard Jazz)
Rap, Hip Hop One Week Notice: One Week Notice (Beatstars)
CupcakKe: Ephorize (CupcakKe)
Maxo Kream: Punken (TSO/Kream Clicc)
Future: HNDRXX (Epic)
Lil Uzi Vert: Luv is Rage 2 (Atlantic)
Lil’ Keke: Don’t Mess wit Texas (Jam Down Records)
Big K.R.I.T.: 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time (Multi Alumni/BMG Rights)
DePaul: Damage Already Done (Twenty Two Music)
Rapsody: Laila’s Wisdom (Jamla/Roc Nation)
Planet Asia: The Golden Buddha (Brick)
Evidence: Weather or Not (Rhymesayers)
Young Thug: Beautiful Thugger Girls (300 Entertainment)
Migos: Culture II (Capitol)
Reggae, Dancehall The Beat: Live in London (Plastic Head)
Desmond Dekker: Israelites Live In London (Secret)
Damian Marley: Stony Hill (Republic)
Dennis Brown: Stick By Me (Abraham)
Various Artists: Merritone Rock Steady 3: Bang Bang Rock Steady 1966-1968 (Dub Store)
Ras Michael & The Sons Of Negus: None A Jah Jah Children (Reggaeville)
Sly & Robbie Meet Dubmatix: Overdubbed (Echo Beach)
World, Latin Quantic & Nidia Góngora: E Ye Ye (Tru Thoughts)
Various Artists: Soul Jazz Records Presents Brasil (Soul Jazz)
Laraaji: Vision Songs (Numero)
Brenda Navarrete: Mi Mundo (Alma)
Following are additional albums released during December 2017—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.
Blues, Folk, Country Doctor Ross: Memphis Breakdown (ORG Music)
Robert Finley: Goin’ Platinum! (Easy Eye Sound)
Vance Kelly: How Can I Miss You If You Don’t Leave (Wolf)
Various: Memphis Blues Festival 1975 (Klondike)
Various: Chicago Blues All Stars 1970 (Klondike)
Comedy, Spoken Word Nephew Tommy: Won’t He Do It (TNT)
Funk, Rock, Pop, Electronic Bartees & The Strange Fruit: Magic Boy (Pineapple)
Danielia Cotton: The Mystery of Me (Cottontown)
Dk Aakmael: Take It Back (Scissor & Thread)
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble: Book of Sound (Honest Jon’s)
Gospel, Christian Rap, CCM Alma Brown and A One Gospel Singers: Thank You Jesus
Jazz Ella Fitzgerald: Ella at Zardi’s (Verve)
Incognito: Another Page of Incognito (P-Vine)
Irreversible Entanglements: S/T (International Anthem )
Khan Jamal Creative Arts Ensemble: Drum Dance to the Motherland (reissue) (Forced Exposure)
Melvin Sparks: I’m Funky Now (Westbound UK)
Tony Tixier: Life of Sensitive Creatures (Whirlwind)
R&B, Soul Bettye Swann: The Money Masters (Kent)
Bobbi Ruffin: Chapter Five (digital)
Dionne Warwick: Odds & Ends – Scepter Rarities (Real Gone Music)
K. Michelle: Kimberly – People I Used To Know (Atlantic)
Kashif: Essential Kashif – Arista Years (Legacy)
Lee Moore: A Gram of Boogie: Story of Moore, Score & L&M Records (Past Due)
Minnie Riperton: Perfect Angel (Deluxe Ed.) (Capitol)
Next: Too Close EP (Arista/Legacy)
Otis Redding: Definitive Studio Album Collection (7 LP box) (Atlantic)
Ruby Camille: R C 1 (Moore-Caldwell Plus)
Sugaray Rayford: The World That We Live In (Transistor Sound)
Tamar-kali: Mudbound OST (Milan)
Various: Soul on Fire: Detroit Soul Story 1957-1977 (Cherry Red)
Vedo: From Now On (New WAV)
Rap, Hip Hop A Cat Called Fritz: Vertical Iris (HHV.De)
Allan Kingdom: Lines (LP) (Omerta Inc.)
Big Sean/Metro Boomin: Double or Nothing (G.O.O.D Music)
Boosie Badazz: BooPac (Atlantic)
Boulevards: Hurt Town USA (Don’t Funk With Me)
Chief Keef: Dedication (digital) (RBC)
Cobra íl Vero: Ecdysis (NS3T Ent)
Euroz: Two Birds One Stone (digital)
Fes Taylor: Hood Famous (Chambermusik)
Futuristic: Blessings (We’re The Future )
G. Perico: 2 Tha Left (So Way Out)
G-Eazy: When It’s Dark Out (RCA)
Jeezy: Pressure (Def Jam)
Juicy J: Rubba Band Business (Columbia)
Kidz In The Hall: Free Nights & Weekends (digital)
Kipp Stone: Dirty Face Angel (L.I.F.E. Art & Content Co.)
KXNG Crooked: Good vs. Evil II: The Red Empire (Empire)
Marty Baller: Baller Nation (LP) (Omerta Inc.)
Miguel: War & Leisure (RCA)
Mike Lowery: Before It’s Too Late (Music Junkies)
N.E.R.D: No One Ever Really Dies (Columbia)
Nyron: Appreciation Day (digital)
Pell: Girasoul (Payday)
Quaz: In My Mind (Odic)
Red Storm Chicago: Redemption (digital)
Saba: Bucket List Project (LP) (Omerta Inc.)
Snug: 70812 Where It All Started (Money Gang)
Supa Bwe: Finally Dead (Empire)
TheKidGeeQ: TheKidFrOmElmStreet (FlyOverEverything)
Too $hort: The Pimp Tape (Dangerous Music)
Trizz: Ashes N Dust (Below System)
Visioneers: Dirty Old Hip Hop (reissue) (Tru Thoughts)
Whispers: Whismonoxide (That’s Hip Hop)
WizKid: Sounds From the Other Side (Sony Music Canada)
Z-Ro: Codeine (1 Deep Ent.)
Reggae, Dancehall Ethiopian & His All Stars: Return of Jack Sparrow (Omnivore)
Randy Valentine: New Narrative (Royal Order Music)
Various: Rise of Jamaican Dancehall Culture (SoulJazz)
World, Latin Fela Kuti: Box Set #4: Curated by Erykah Badu (Knitting Factory)
Hamad Kalkaba: Hamad Kalkaba & Golden Sounds 1974-75 (Analog Africa)
The Secret: The New Africa – TNA (Secret Records Music Group)
Various: Beating Heart – South Africa (Beating Heart Music)
Though the state of Florida doesn’t immediately come to mind as a hotbed of soul music, journalist John Capouya attempts to correct this oversight with his new book Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band. Using his “antennae for passionate vocals and funky sounds with Florida origins,” he delves into the period from 1945-1980, when Florida produced “some of the most electric, emotive soul music this country has ever heard.” Capouya attributes this flourishing scene in part to the fact that Florida, along with Texas, was the “densest and richest segment of the chitlin’ circuit,” bringing all of the major African American artists through the state.
Each of the 20 chapters is dedicated to a particular artist or producer, some famous and others lesser known, but all contributing an interesting story: Ray Charles (“the catalyst of the entire soul explosion came from Greenville, FL”); Sam Moore (“from Miami’s Overtown neighborhood”); sax players Ernie Calhoun and Noble “Thin Man” Watts; Lavell Kamma and the 100 Hour Counts (“one of Florida’s longest-running soul groups”), the singing duo James & Bobby Purify (one chapter each); vocalists Helen Smith, Frankie Gearing, Jackie Moore, and Timmy Thomas (his 1972 anthem “Why Can’t We Live Together” is sampled in Drake’s “Hotline Bling); Latimore (who first recorded for Henry Stone), Wayne Cochran (“the white James Brown”); white soul singer Linda Lyndell; producer Papa Don Schroeder, and of course KC and the Sunshine Band. Other chapters are dedicated to the state’s most famous label owners—Henry Stone and T.K. Productions (which rightly receives two chapters) and Willie Clarke and Deep City Records—plus a chapter explaining how “The Twist Came from Tampa.” Along the way many other artists are mentioned, along with other Florida labels such as Jayville, Tener, Marlin, Leo, Alston, D & B, Glades, and Bound Sound.
Florida Soul is an engaging and informative read, placing an emphasis on the stories behind the singers and the songs gleaned from historical research as well as interviews with surviving musicians, singers, producers, deejays, and other industry personnel. The book is an important resource on a music scene that’s never been fully documented within a single volume, adding greatly to our understanding of American music and, in particular, the soul, R&B, disco and funk grooves emanating from the Sunshine State in waves the spread across the nation.
Following are additional albums released during October 2017—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.
Blues, Folk, Country
Darius Rucker: When Was the Last Time (Capitol Records Nashville)
Du-Rites: Greasy Listening (Redefinition)
James Armstrong: Blues Been Good to Me (Catfood)
John Lee Hooker: King of the Boogie (Craft)
Kim Wilson: Blues and Boogie, Vol. 1 (Severn)
Mighty Mo Rodgers & Baba Sissoko: Griot Blues (One Root Music )
Nico Wayne Toussaint: Plays James Cotton (Dixiefrog)
Original Blues Brothers Band: Last Shade of Blue Before Black (Severn)
Supersonic Blues Machine: Californisoul (Provogue)
Various: Stax Country (Stax/Concord)
Holiday Fantasia: Christmas After Midnight (Concord)
Leslie Odom Jr.: Simply Christmas (S-Curve)
Various: Cool Blue Christmas: Mr. Santa’s Boogie (Contrast)
Funk, Rock, Pop, Electronic Ayo: S/T (Believe Direct Limited )
Benjamin Clementine: I Tell A Fly (Virgin)
Bootsy Collins: World Wide Funk (Mascot)
Crowd Company: Sun and Stone (VLM)
Ikebe Shakedown: The Way Home (Colemine)
Jimi Hendrix Experience: American Landing Live at Monterey (DVD) (Legacy)
Kele Okereke: Fatherland (BMG)
Nubiyan Twist: S/T ( Wormfood )
Phonk Beta: Symplex 3 (digital) (Fahrenheit)
Rock Candy Funk Party: The Groove Cubed (J&R Adventures)
The Clubs: Funk on the Floor (digital)
Various: Funkadelic Reworked By Detroiters (Ace)
Gospel, Christian Rap, CCM Ada: Future Now (FreeNation)
Angella Christie: Intimate Conversations (ACSM)
Chad Brawley: WeWorship Project (digital) (CKBMusik)
Coliér McNair: Intimacy (COGEO Ent. Group)
Deanna Ransom: The Real Me EP
Earnest Pugh: Survive (Black Smoke)
Felton Hodges & The Annointed Voices: Fix It (Ecko)
Lisa Knowles-Smith & The Brown Singers: Evolution-The Legacy (EvoWorld)
Mission: All of You None of Me (RPSMG)
Optimist & Fresh Yardey: The Mission, Vol. 1 (digital)
Parxx: Uncharted (RLVNC Music Group)
Tasha Page-Lockhart: The Beautiful Project (RCA Inspiration)
The Porter’s Gate: Worksongs (Fuel Music)
Troy Sneed: Taking It Back (Tyscot)
Tye Tribbett: The Bloody Win (Motown Gospel)
Visionz Of Destiny: The Works
Williams Brothers: Timeless (Blackberry)
Jazz Céline Rudolph & Lionel Loueke: Obsessions
Chantae Cann: Sol Empowered (Ropeadope)
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah:Emancipation Procrastination (Ropeadope)
Cornell Thigpen: History (Hitman)
Ezra Collective: Juan Pablo: The Philosopher (Enter The Jungle)
Joey Alexander: JOEY.MONK.LIVE! (Motema)
Johnny O’Neal: In the Moment (Smoke Sessions)
Sherman Irby: Cerulean Canvas (Black Warrior)
Sonny Emory: Love Is the Greatest (Universal )
Various:You Need This: Introduction to Black Saint & Soul Note (1975-1985) (BBE)
Virginia Ayers Dawson: Standards of Love (Ayerplay Music)
Wadada Leo Smith: Najwa (TUM)
Wadada Leo Smith: Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk (TUM)
Wally Badarou: Unnamed Trilogy, Vol. 1 (Diskotopia )
Wayne Ellington: Sings ‘Unforgettable (digital)
R&B, Soul 112: Q Mike Slim Daron (eOne)
Bigg Robb: Born 2 Do This (Music Access Inc.)
Bobby Byrd: Help For My Brother – Pre-Funk Singles 1963-68 (BGP/Ace)
Boyz II Men: Under the Streetlight (Sony Masterworks)
Brik.Liam: The Ascension (digital) (Cre8Daily)
Chante’ Moore: Rise Of The Phoenix (CM7)
Charlotte Dos Santos: Cleo (Fresh Selects)
Chuck Jackson: Big NY Soul – Wand Records 1961-66 (Kent/Ace)
Curtis Harding: Face Your Fear (Anti/Epitaph)
Demetria McKinney: Officially Yours (eOne)
Detroit Emeralds: I Think Of You-Westbound Singles 1969-75 (Westbound /Ace)
Deva Mahal: S/T (Motéma Music)
Devvon Terrell: Weird Nights (digital)
dvsn: Morning After (Warner Bros.)
Eartha Kitt: I Want To Be Evil – The Wicked Eartha Kitt (Jasmine)
Eric Roberson: Fire (Blue Erro Soul)
Jackie Shane: Any Other Way (Numero)
Jamila Woods: Heavn (Jagjaguwar)
Kelela: Take Me Apart (Warp)
Kenny Latimore: Vulnerable (Sincere Soul)
Keyshia Cole: 11:11 Reset (Epic)
Leroy Hutson: Anthology 1972-1984 (Acid Jazz )
Lyrica Anderson: Adia (Empire)
Marcus Randolph & My Peeples Peeple: Transplant (American Showplace Music)
Mic Lowry: Mood (Island)
Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland (DVD) (Lionsgate)
Mpho Sebina: Neo (digital)
Nicole Willis & UMO Jazz Orchestra: My Name Is Nicole Willis (Persephone)
PP Arnold: The Turning Tide (Kundalini Music)
Rationale: S/T (Warner Bros.)
Rhyon: Pretty Girl (Empire)
Saràyah: Feel the Vibe (Basin Street)
Tom Tripp: Red EP (Prime Sound)
Vivian Green: VGVI (Make Noise)
Rap, Hip Hop Juice Aleem: Voodu Starchild (Gamma Proforma)
Aaron Alexander: Memento Mori (Ignant Art)
Belly: Mumble Rap (Republic)
Big K.R.I.T.: 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time (BMG)
Blood Before Pride: Mimesis, Catharsis and Imitation of Art in Life (Fatbeats)
Blu & Exile: In The Beginning: Before The Heavens (Fat Beats)
Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Outlawz: Thug Brothers 3 (Real Talk Ent)
Chief Keef & Fredo Santana: Turbo Bandana mixtape
Cunninlynguists: Rose Azura Nijano (A Piece of Strange Music)
Da Flyy Hooligan: S.C.U.M. (Lux Ent.)
Dame D.O.L.L.A.: Confirmed (digital) (Front Page Music)
Earthgang: Robots (digital) (Spillage Village)
Edo.G: FreEDOm (5th & Union)
Future & Young Thug: Super Slimey (mixtape) (Epic)
GhostWryter: 27 Darvin (digital) (Never Basic Assoc.)
Gospel of Rufus: Alternate Path (Alternate Path Music Group)
Hex One: Words Worth a Thousand Pictures ( Mic-Theory)
Hustle Gang: We Want Smoke (Roc Nation/Grand Hustle)
IDK: Iwasverybad (Commission Music/BMG)
J. Stalin: Gas Nation 2 (Livewire)
Krayzie Bone: E.1999: The LeathaFace Project (Real Talk Ent.)
Krept & Konan: 7 Days & 7 Nights (mixtapes)
Lil Pump: Lil Pump (digital) (Warner Bros.)
Masta Killa: Loyalty Is Royalty ( Nature Sounds)
Meyhem Lauren & DJ Muggs: Gems from the Equinox (Soul Assassins)
Moneybagg Yo: Federal 3X (Interscope)
Playboi Carti: S/T (Interscope)
Rob Stone: Don’t Wait For It (Grove Town)
Sivion: Dark Side of the Cocoon (Illect)
Snoop Dogg: Make America Crip Again (Empire)
Stalley: Another Level (mixtape)
Swissivory: Real Dreams 2 (NoHook!/Rough Trade)
Tech N9ne Collabos: Strange Reign (Strange Music)
TeeCee 4800: Realness Over Millions 2 (digital)
Trippie Redd: A Love Letter to You 2 (mixtape)
Ty Dolla $ign: Beach House 3 (Atlantic)
Vandalyzm: Rumors of My Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated (Blue Collar Initiative)
Waka Flocka Flame: Flockavelli 2
Wu-Tang: The Saga Continues (36 Chambers ALC /eOne)
Yo Gotti: I Still Am (Epic)
Young Dolph: Thinking Out Loud (digital) (Paper Route Empire)
Young Dro: Da’ Real Atlanta (Real Talk Ent)
Young RJ: Blaq Royalty (Ne’Astra Music/Slum Village)
Young Spray: Invisible Tears (RTM)
Reggae, Dancehall Emeterians: The Magic Touch (VP)
Frightnrs: More to Say Versions (Daptone)
Jamaiel Shabaka: Land of the Rising Sun ( Roots Vibration )
Lee Perry & The Upsetters: Trojan Albums Collection, 1971-73 (Trojan)
Prodigal Son: Pure Gold (Main Street)
World, Latin Adriano Trindade & Los Quemados: Balançando o Jazz (Loop Publishing)
Da Cruz: Eco do Futuro (Boom Jah)
Diron Animal: Alone (Soundway)
Eduardo Sandoval: Caminos Abiertos (Egrem)
Elida Almeida: Kebrada (Lusafrica)
Emo Kid: Gqomtera EP (Gqom Oh! )
KOKOKO!: Tongos’a EP (ICI)
Leila Gobi: 2017 (Clermont Music )
Miles From Kinshasa: Limbo (Quality Time)
Orchestre Les Mangelepa: Last Band Standing (Strut)
Professor Rhythm: Bafana Bafana (Awesome Tapes from Africa)
Thandeka: Thandanani Ma Afrika (Chocs Pro Sound)
Various: Jukebox Mambo Vol. 3 (Jazzman )
Few African American artists have succeeded in country music. As Charles L. Hughes wrote in his groundbreaking book, Country Soul,* “In the 1960s and 1970s, nothing symbolized the rift between white and black in the United States more than the music genres of country and soul.” Those who did cross musical boundaries to dip a toe into country music typically infused generous drops of blues, gospel and soul. Classic examples of this fusion include Ray Charles’ highly successful Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962), Joe Tex’s Soul Country (1968), and Linda Martell’s Color Me Country (1969), to name just a few.
Enter soul singer Brian Owens. This preacher’s son from Ferguson, Missouri, first saw Johnny Cash on TV when he was 11 years old. Later, as an up-and-coming soul singer in his mid-20s, he was fascinated by the Cash biopic Walk the Line (2005), and decided there was just something about the famous country singer’s music and life story that really resonated. Perhaps the idea for a cover album has been germinating since that moment; whatever the case, the project has now come to fruition with Soul of Cash.
With this album, Owens seeks to bridge the divide by demonstrating that “a white man born in the South, who’s now passed on” and “a young African-American guy born in the Midwest, raised on soul music” can find common ground through music. Supporting Owens on this endeavor are a number of special guests as well as members of his regular backing band, The Deacons of Soul: Alvin Quinn (bass), Rob Woodie (drums), and Shaun Robinson (guitar).
While some singers might have sought out lesser known songs, Owens reaches for the gold ring, covering seven of Cash’s most iconic hits. Opening with “Ring of Fire,” he follows in the path of Brother Ray, but where Charles’ sweetened the mix with strings, Owens’ rendition punches in with a Stax-style horn section and the talented Daru Jones on drums, while Nashville session musician Zander Wyatt provides the country twang on acoustic guitar. This is followed by “Folsom Prison,” which Cash sang over a chugging acoustic guitar. Owens, however, raises the rafters with his uptempo rhythm and blues delivery, accented by Tripp Bratton on congas.
On “Walk the Line,” Owens captures the essence of the original version, but substitutes a driving, syncopated rhythm and gospel inflected vocals that heighten the emotional intensity of the lyrics. If there was ever a song that calls out for a soulful crossover version, it’s “Cry, Cry, Cry.” Owens fulfills this mission while still respecting the simplicity of the original, with excellent backing vocals by Anita Jackson and Trunesia Combs. Country music fans may enjoy “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and especially the mournful “Long Black Veil,” which maintain their country roots with pedal steel by Tony Esterly.
The final cover song, “Man in Black,” really struck a chord with Owens, who has seen his share of injustices on the streets of Ferguson. Indeed, any given line is as relevant today as when the song was written, including the second verse: “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down / Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town / I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime / But is there because he’s a victim of the times.” This is definitely one of the highlights of the album, with Owens’ passionate delivery echoed by The Vaughans on backing vocals.
The album closes with an original, “Soul in My Country,” by Owens and Rissi Palmer, who share vocals with Robert Randolph sitting in on pedal steel. Ending on the refrain, “It’s a feeling I know / it’s the soul in my country / the country down in my soul,” the song expresses the commonalities between the genres. As Owens explains, “You shouldn’t look at me strange if I say I dig Johnny Cash, because I don’t look at you strange when you say you dig Otis Redding or Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye. All of these guys came out of the church; that’s what binds them and us together.”
One album can’t heal the soul of this country, but with Soul of Cash Brian Owens proves that bridging the divide can bear sweet fruit.
With a name meaning “Get Funky!” or “Work It,” it is no surprise that Charleston, South Carolina’s Ranky Tanky created lively, dynamic arrangements for their self-titled album. Ranky Tanky is composed of five members, four of whom are of Gullah descent—African American communities in the islands and coastal regions of North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Gullah traditions, which retain strong elements of African language, music, and lifeways, are present throughout Ranky Tanky. For their debut album, the group pulled from the ring shouts, praise songs, and nature tales of Gullah music while incorporating their own jazz twist.
The opening track, “That’s Alright,” is a feel-good song that lives up to the band’s funky name. Vocalist Quiana Parler’s soulful voice is complemented by a tambourine accompaniment to create an uplifting spiritual reminiscent of traditional Gullah praise songs. Other songs on the album are less upbeat and more instrumental but still maintain a connection to Gullah and other African cultures—“Knee Bone,” for example, is influenced by the West African belief that rigidity and death are connected and that one must move to feel alive. “Been in the Storm” is especially poignant in the wake of the recent hurricanes and tropical storms that have affected areas heavily-populated by the Gullah, and serves as a testament to their resilience.
By creating tracks that have roots in Gullah folk music and Afro-diasporic traditions, Ranky Tanky is helping to keep alive the vibrancy and expressiveness of Gullah culture.
Walter Trout’s We’re All In This Together marks the newest addition in what has already been a prolific career as a recording artist. One could view this recording as a celebration of sorts since Trout underwent a liver transplant in 2014. While this isn’t his first release since the transplant, it certainly has a much more upbeat feel overall when compared to his 2015 release, Battle Scars, which dealt with his battle with liver disease.
Helping Trout celebrate on this recording are a number of notable guest artists. With each track featuring a collaboration with a different artist, this album stands out for its stylistic variety. The various formidable guitarists should interest any guitar aficionado, although not every guest artist is a guitarist. Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica on “The Other Side of the Pillow” stands out as one of the best performances on the album. However, make no mistake about it: this is a guitar album!
Trout’s history playing with major names in the blues world such as John Lee Hooker, Canned Heat, and John Mayall—just to name a few—must have contributed to his ability to lure so many great guest artists to this project. His ability to blend well with each of the guests and play complementary to their style was undoubtedly a factor. With 14 different guests, there is likely an artist to suit almost any taste. Trout is joined by his former bandleader John Mayall on “Blues for Jimmy T.” Other standouts include performances by Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Sonny Landreth, Robben Ford, Eric Gales, Joe Louis Walker, and Joe Bonamassa.
Bonamassa might be the most recognizable name in today’s guitar world, and his performance on the title track is a knockout. Nevertheless, it is the playing of Eric Gales, who recently released his Middle of the Road on the same label, that reminds the listener why Joe Bonamassa himself has described Gales as “one of the best, if not the best guitarists in the world.” “Somebody Goin’ Down,” which features Gales and begins with an intro reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix, ultimately manifests itself as a medium-tempo rock track that becomes a vehicle for some brilliant improvising by both Trout and Gales, who end up trading guitar licks during the outro solo.
Another standout track is “Crash and Burn,” an upbeat blues with a Chicago feel featuring Joe Louis Walker on vocals and guitar. Like many tracks, this one also features guitar playing suitable for in-depth study, but Walker’s vocals are also worth mentioning. His voice would not be out of place on a Stax recording from its heyday, and at times it is akin to Albert King, who recorded at Stax in the late 1960s.
We’re All In This Together is a welcome addition to any blues fan’s collection. It is an even more welcome addition to the collection of someone who loves guitar playing. Walter Trout is at the top of his game on this record, and his selection of guests perhaps inspired him to new heights. Whether the catalyst for this performance was newfound inspiration from great players or a new lease on life, the final product is a solid recording that will hopefully introduce Walter Trout to a new generation of listeners.
This remarkable release is the first for Sherman Holmes since the passing in 2015 of both his brother and bandmate, Wendell Holmes and Popsy Dixon of the Holmes Brothers. Despite these somber circumstances, this uplifting project is a dedication to both the Holmes Brothers and the Americana music that brought the band together and sustained their career for over 50 years. Produced by Jon Lohman of the Virginia Folklife Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and recorded at Montrose Studios in Richmond, The Richmond Sessions is a collection of bluegrass, gospel, blues, and traditional songs that represent the roots of Holmes’ extensive musical career.
Originally from Christchurch, Virginia, the Holmes Brothers formed as a trio after years of performing the Chitlin’ Circuit. They are known for their eclectic blend of southern American genres supported by Wendell Holmes’ effortless electric guitar playing, Popsy Dixon’s drum work and falsetto voice, and Sherman Holmes’s deep resounding bass. In 2014, they were honored with a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship after working with the Maryland Traditions Apprenticeship Program, and from 2014-2015, they participated in the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program where they mentored a new generation of musicians, passing on cultural knowledge and musical techniques. The Sherman Holmes Project took shape shortly after Holmes performed “I Want Jesus” at the Virginia Apprenticeship showcase in memory of the Holmes Brothers, a beautiful blues traditional song featured on this album.
Several accomplished artists are featured on the Richmond Sessions including the Ingramettes singing backup vocals, Dobro player Rob Ickes, banjoist Sammy Shelor, and multi-instrumentalist DJ Harrison. Special guest Joan Osborne sings alongside Holmes on “Dark End of the Street” while “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” brings the studio band together for a three-minute instrumental jam. Many of the recorded songs are favorites of Holmes, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Green River” and Vince Gill’s “Little Liza Jane.” Other tracks feature songs the Holmes Brothers once performed together, such as “Homeless Child” and “Rock of Ages.”
Produced by the Virginia Foundation of the Humanities, The Richmond Sessions genuinely represents a public appreciation for the music and memory of the Holmes Brothers as Sherman continues to perform and record music. Sherman Holmes will be performing at various festivals this summer and fall; check his website for tour dates/locations.
First broadcast as a 3-part, 3.5-hour documentary on PBS, “American Epic” explores the beginning of regional commercial recording in the U.S. The program’s premise and logo is these early recording field trips resulted in “the first time American heard itself,” a somewhat grandiose claim. Along with the TV mini-series, Sony released a 100 song, 5-CD box set of newly-transferred/newly-restored vintage recordings, organized by recording locations, plus a single-CD soundtrack album, covering only recordings used in the TV programs. And, taking advantage of a fully-restored vintage recording system, the films’ producers teamed up with producer T. Bone Burnett and musician/producer/entrepreneur Jack White to stage a series of recording sessions in a Los Angeles studio with performances by a wide assortment of contemporary musicians. Those recordings, transferred from the lacquer discs on which they were inscribed, are collected in “The American Epic Sessions” 2CD set. A two-hour documentary, covering some of these recording sessions and detailing the vintage recording equipment, was also broadcast on PBS.
In 1926, Western Electric developed an electrical recording system, which quickly replaced the acoustic (“screaming into a horn”) systems that had used sound-pressure energy to cut grooves into cylinders and discs up to that point. With Western Electric’s system, sound waves hitting a microphone created an electrical current, which was then amplified by a 6-foot rack of tube electronics, and used to drive an electro-magnetic cutting stylus, which cut grooves onto wax blanks. The system used in “The American Epic Sessions,” lovingly restored and expertly operated by engineer Nicholas Bergh, cuts onto lacquer discs.
The key take-aways relevant to this project: the Western Electric recording system was portable, and at the time it was developed, radio was killing the commercial record business. During the acoustic era, record companies had concentrated on urban-centric popular “dance band” music and formal classical recordings. But the U.S. was a regional and tribal country at the time, and local music genres and styles remained local. Desperate for new record-buying customers, the record companies sent electrical recording systems and crews out into the land, searching for new musicians and musical styles in hopes of “the next big thing” that radio didn’t offer.
A typical recording trip would include a blitz of advertising in local newspapers and word-of-mouth announcements at general stores and post offices, offering local musicians a chance to make a record. The musicians would flock to a central location, such as a disused hat factory in Memphis or a hotel in San Antonio, for recording sessions. Through this process, the genres of country/hillbilly, Delta blues, Tejano, and Hawaiian music gained national distribution and influence. Some big stars emerged, like country music legends The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers and Tejano pioneer Lydia Mendoza. Many other recordings, by artists such as Dock Boggs, Willie Brown and especially Robert Johnson, didn’t sell well in their day but were incredibly influential on later musicians and musical genres. Other artists such as Charley Patton, the Memphis Jug Band, and even Hopi Indian Chanters, enjoyed regional success and years of fruitful recording sessions.
The “American Epic” documentary and the 5-CD set concentrate the regional styles and genres. The documentary is divided into 3 parts, with each focusing on a handful of artists and songs. Herculean efforts were made to track down descendants or first-person associates of the original artists, and their stories bring life to the people behind the old records. The filmmakers concentrated on the music, and avoided the dull academic tone that slows down too many PBS programs. There is a nerdy hip-ness to the whole project, and the technical details of the early recording process are explained enough for a casual music-oriented viewer to understand by not descending too far in the weeds. Above all, these stories tie together music, people and places.
Recording location rather than music type or artist divides the 5-CD set. This makes for more interesting listening, because each of the CDs is its own “mix tape” of genres and artists, alike only in that they were recorded in a particular region of the U.S., and even then not in a single location or studio. That said, the sequencing choice makes more difficult comparisons of artists within a single genre.
Engineer Nicholas Bergh, using a system he developed based on his understanding of the original recording process, transferred all of the recordings used in the CD box. A quick comparison of previous reissues of a handful of tunes indicates that Bergh was able to squeeze more fidelity and musical content from the discs, varying from a shade better to much better. It’s worth noting that there is a good bit of overlap between the “American Epic” box set and the classic “Anthology of American Folk Music,” so one can compare the transfer technology and aesthetic evolution over the past 50+ years. There is also some overlap with various Yazoo collections, not surprising since Yazoo owner Richard Nevins contributed rare records from his collections and is thanked in the liner notes.
For a person interested in the true roots of what today is called “roots” music, as well as the original Delta style of blues, and the history of what became country music, this set is invaluable. In some cases, this is the first opportunity to clearly hear the musical subtleties and even decipher the lyrics, since the day the discs were cut. The amply illustrated booklet includes printed lyrics and as close to a first-person description of each artist as the producers were able to find.
“The American Epic Sessions” is a bit more of a creative-license undertaking. The documentary producers were clearly enamored with Bergh’s restored recording system, so the logical thing to do, with music-industry bigwigs like Burnett and White involved and a documentary crew in tow, was bring some modern musicians in and cut some 78s. The results are mixed, musically, and the listener must accept the somewhat low-fidelity sound quality captured in the lacquers, but the exercise was net-net successful. I recommend the video documentary over the 2CD music-only set, because it’s interesting to watch modern musicians, accustomed as they are to endless re-takes and overdubs, adjust to the antique one-mic/one-take recording process. Suffice to say, some adapt better than others, but all were able to wax a successful side or two.
Overall, the “American Epic” project was an important undertaking, introducing some seminal music to a new audience in a sound quality not heard before, and bringing life to the musical and recording pioneers who first spread the American musical vernaculars out of their local wellsprings. The “Sessions” video and audio aptly demonstrates the conditions and limitations of the early electrical recordings.
Editor’s note: There is also a separate hardcover book, American Epic: When Music Gave America Her Voice, written by series producer Allison McGourty and director Bernard MacMahon, with Elijah Wald (Touchstone, 288 pages). According to colleague Steve Ramm, there is little crossover in terms of illustrations and content between this book and the one accompanying the Sony box set. Please note that the book’s title is listed variously on other sites as American Epic: The First Time America Heard Itself and American Epic: Companion to the TV Series. Also, there have been hints from some quarters that a director’s cut of the PBS series will be issued on Blu-ray later this year, so you may wish to hold off on your purchase of the version covered here. For various compilations associated with the series (but NOT remastered) see our June 2017 Releases of Note.
After eight albums recorded on Blue Corn Music, Ruthie Foster has released Joy Comes Back, a truly heartwarming collection of gospel, soulful rock, and blues songs. Joining Foster on this album are talented instrumentalists Derek Trucks of Tedeschi Trucks Band, Willie Weeks, Joe Vitale, and Warren Hood. The inspiration for this album draws from Foster’s deep emotional struggle of claiming custody of her five-year old daughter and transforming her family life for the better.
Foster worked with Austin producer Daniel Barrett to record ten tracks of mostly reimagined cover songs. The album opens with two songs presenting Foster as a sensitive, yet strong and relatable woman—the smooth and easy “What Are You Listening To?” followed by the much harder rock song “Working Woman.” On the gospel title track, “Joy Comes Back,” Trucks complements Foster’s richly spirited vocals with masterful electric slide guitar.
The core of Foster’s music, particularly on her only original song “Open Sky,” reflect the strength, insight, and even uncertainty about love that arises when prolonged emotional battery comes to an end. The chorus of “Good Sailor” is especially expressive of her experience:
I’ve been tossed around the deepest blue / I almost drowned a time or two Easy living never did me no favors / smooth seas never made a good sailor
Other eclectic, yet surprisingly fitting songs covered on this album include “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath, “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” written by Stevie Wonder and Ivy Jo Hunter, and “Richland Woman Blues” by Mississippi John Hurt. Joy Comes Back concludes with two emotionally powerful songs, “Abraham” and “Forgiven.” For Foster, music is therapeutic and gives her the strength to overcome challenges in her life, to embrace her family, and to celebrate happiness in both its hidden and exposed forms.
Rhiannon Giddens maintains a heightened level of excellence as a musician and activist songwriter throughout Freedom Highway, her second full album since Tomorrow Is My Turn (2015). Co-produced by Dirk Powell, Giddens presents nine original songs and three reimagined arrangements of civil-rights era and traditional music featuring guest performances by Bhi Bhiman, Lalenja Harrington and Leyla McCalla.
Giddens opens the album with “At the Purchaser’s Option,” sung in the first person about a woman facing the physical, mental, and spiritual magnitude of enslavement:
The album creatively and poetically addresses historical and contemporary forms of racial oppression in the United States. In “Julie,” Giddens sings a fearful ballad about the imminent separation between a maid and her white mistress by Union soldiers. The story reveals complex emotions as the maid reminds the mistress of how she sold away the maid’s children in order to produce the money the mistress re-gifts to her. The slow and sweet duet “Baby Boy” is a both somber lullaby and loving tribute to mothers who raise and protect the future “saviors” and leaders of mankind:
Baby Boy, young man, beloved
Don’t you weep, I will watch over you, I will stand by you
You will be, You will be, a savior
But until then
Go to sleep
From the darker themes of the electrically blue “Come Love Come,” to the funky precision of “The Love We Almost Had,” Giddens exhibits her eclectic and perfectionist talent down to the fine detail as a vocalist, banjo player, and bandleader. In “Better Get It Right the First Time,” she sings a soulful chorus of multi-harmonies as her band mate, Justin Harrington, performs a rap verse enhancing the traditional American roots music style. “Hey Bébé” differs significantly midway during the album, drawing on Cajun rhythmic and instrumental patterns.
“Birmingham Sunday” may perhaps be the most emotionally compelling song on the album. Originally written by Richard Fariña and performed by Joan Baez on a fingerpicked acoustic guitar, Giddens suitably infuses the ballad of the Birmingham bombing of 1963 with a gospel style. She concludes with an instrumental banjo and bones duet on “Following the North Star” that leads into “Freedom Highway,” a soulful celebration of the fight for civil rights reminiscent of Aretha Franklin’s 1968 “Think.”
Rhiannon Giddens’ expertly produced Freedom Highway traverses the historical roots of racial unrest in the United States. Her work possesses an unwavering determination as she strives for accuracy connecting musical traditions with related contemporary genres to illustrate the deeply embedded patterns of racial oppression and resilience.
Multi-instrumentalist folk music enthusiasts Martin Simpson, an English singer and songwriter, and Dom Flemons, co-founder of the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, were commission in 2014 by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) to explore the musical exchange between their respective folk song traditions. The duo combed the Cecil Sharp House archives, where they discovered many of the traditional songs they chose to revive. The result of their collaboration is Ever Popular Favourites, a collection of English and American folk music recorded live during the duo’s 2015 tour.
The album liner notes, written by Flemons and Simpson, provide first-hand impressions as well as their descriptions of the music. On the opening track, “My Money Never Runs Out,” Flemons sings and plays plectrum banjo while Simpson provides rhythm on acoustic guitar. Originally recorded by Gus Cannon, aka Banjo Joe, and ragtime guitarist Blind Blake in 1927, this “coon” song was released on Paramount Records. Flemons explains in the liner notes that raucous “coon” songs brought mainstream attention to Black entertainers in the U.S. at the time.
“John Hardy,” a song made famous by Leadbelly’s recording, has been arranged by Simpson to highlight his mastery of fingerpicking technique on the acoustic guitar. “If I Lose” follows with Flemons singing a falsetto blues melody along to a duet of mellow slide guitar vibratos. “Little Sadie,” a ballad that’s been performed by Hedy West, Doc Watson, the Grateful Dead, and many other folk musicians, picks up the pace with an arrangement featuring a bones rhythm and 5-string banjo.
According to Simpson, “Short Time Come Again No More” (track 6) is an English parody of Stephen Foster’s classic American song “Hard Times Come Again No More,” though its origin remains a mystery in his explanation. Simpson discusses how his early guitar playing was heavily influenced by Mississippi John Hurt’s “Pay Day,” a song arranged on this album for slide guitar featuring a steady fingerpicking style resembling that of Hurt. This stylistic inspiration can be heard again on “Too Long (I’ve Been Gone),” the only original song on the album, written by Flemons about the life of a touring musician.
“Bulldoze Blues” and “Coalman Blues” both incorporate dark lyrical themes into otherwise joyful instrumental tunes, especially since they feature Flemons playing the quills, a traditional African American pan flute. Talented on a variety of instruments, Flemons plays bones on “Buckeye Jim” and “Champagne Charlie,” and further demonstrates his innovative creativity by performing electric kettle instead of using a traditional jug on the recording of “Stealin’.”
Hopefully Simpson and Flemons will share more selections from their expansive repertoire of traditional English and American folk music in the near future as a follow up to this thoroughly entertaining album.
The goal of multi-instrumentalist Leyla McCalla’s project is to link the musical heritages of three areas: Haiti, Southern Louisiana, and the larger United States. On her second album, A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey, McCalla draws from each of these traditions, as well as her own compositions, for an album that navigates between haunting reflections and carefree charm.
A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey is inspired by a book of the same title, written by ethnomusicologist Gage Averill. The work explores popular music, power, and politics in Haiti. Keeping with this theme, McCalla’s covers “Manman,” by Haitian singer-songwriter and political activist Manno Charlemagne, in a lilting political statement. On “Manman,” McCalla is joined by Rhiannon Giddens, her former bandmate from the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Their experience sharing harmonies translates beautifully to this new context.
McCalla’s focus on folklore and politics moves to a darker place with a cover of “Vietnam”—Abner Jay’s haunting reflection on going to war. “Salangadou”—a creole song about a distraught mother seeking her child—finds McCalla and vocalist Sarah Quintana reflecting the song’s helplessness with a sorrowful interpretation: Their voices weave in and out of key, much like a mother’s emotions at the thought of losing their loved one. The title track is an ominous performance, exhibiting the beautiful insecurity of McCalla’s voice. This aesthetic adds an urgency throughout the album.
The entirety of McCalla’s album, however, does not focus on life’s heavy tribulations. The light-hearted “Bluerunner” shows off a rollicking good time between fiddler Louis Michot, ti fer (triangle) player Daniel Tremblay, and McCalla on cello. McCalla’s cello is a constant presence throughout the disc, moving between solid accompaniment and a subtle lyricism.
Watch the music video for A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey:
While A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey is an ambitious, transnational, and well-performed project, McCalla has yet to construct a focused bridge between the heritages she represents. As such, the album can feel disconnected amidst its individual tracks. Despite this shortcoming, A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey is a sound contribution to the musical map of hopes, fears, and history that link the Afro-Atlantic.
Not many musicians make their solo debuts at the age of 71, but Jerry Lawson is no ordinary artist. The former lead singer of the legendary vocal harmony group The Persuasions, Lawson has been performing for over 40 years and recorded 22 albums with the group. But singing a cappella all of those years left Lawson with a burning desire to perform and record with lush instrumentations, and to choose his own songs “with lyrics that really matter to me.” His wish has been realized with Just a Mortal Man, the title likely a comment on his near death experience prior to the album’s completion. Working closely with singer-songwriter Eric Brace, who produced the album, they assembled some of Nashville’s finest musicians including Brace on acoustic and baritone guitar, Joe Pisapia on electric guitar and pedal steel, Jen Gunderman on keyboards and accordion, Duane Blevins on drums and percussion, and the McCrary Sisters on backing vocals.
Lawson opens with Paul Simon’s ethereal “Peace Like a River,” closely following the original arrangement until the chorus, which becomes the deeply personal spoken proclamation, “You can beat us with wires, You can beat us with chains / You can run out your rules, But you know you can’t dream the history train.” Two of the tracks were selected as tributes to Lawson’s favorite singers: the Temptations’ David Ruffin and the late blues singer Bobby “Blue” Bland. Lawson retains the ‘70s vibe and orchestration on the title track “I’m Just a Mortal Man” (from Ruffin’s 1973 solo album), while Bland’s “Members Only,” about “a party for the broken hearted,” is a bit smoother around the edges with the McCrary Sisters taking over the chorus.
Other album highlights include the country song “Woman in White” written by Lawson and Robert Hunter (Grateful Dead), Eric Brace’s “In the Dark,” and my favorite track—“Down on My Knees” by the artist Ayọ (2006), which retains the original reggae rhythms but in Lawson’s hands becomes an emotional, deeply soulful song with the pleading chorus, “Down on my knees, I’m begging you / Please, please don’t leave me.”
Featuring a mix of classic and contemporary songs, Just a Mortal Man has broad appeal, effortlessly crossing genres but with a definite Nashville sound. The album is a fine showcase for Lawson’s vocal abilities, which after 40 years are still above and beyond the range of most mortal men.
Darius Rucker’s newest album, Southern Style, follows a formulated approach in contemporary country music. The record uses slick Nashville production and songs that speak to a white middle-class audience, while romanticizing the Southern United States and the experience shared by some—certainly not all—who call it home. Where Rucker differs from other contemporary country musicians is in his focus on South Carolina as the object of his romanticism. Born in the city of Charleston, South Carolina, Rucker is well-positioned to have the state as his topical focus. However, the lyrics and iconography on Southern Style speak to a particular South Carolina experience Rucker wants to romanticize.
The lyrics of “Lowcountry” praise the natural beauty of the state’s coastal area and “You Can Have Charleston” laments his separation from the city due to a romantic breakup. The album’s photos place Rucker in a rocking chair on a front porch, presumably at the beach, wearing a conspicuous belt buckle of the South Carolina state flag. The protagonists of his songs are men attracted to the innocent aspects of women, rebels without a cause or much conviction, and those attracted to the “freedom” of a rural get-away. The result of Rucker’s album is the reinforcement of a South Carolina, masculine nationalism: one whose anti-intellectualism reinforces faith, family, and the way things are.
What appears to be missing from Southern Style is any critical stance on the racial and cultural politics of the region; but at second glance this is not absent from the album. Rucker’s nationalism is naturalized, just like the oak trees and sandy beaches, to form a banal nationalism, which reinforces Southern white identity and a blindness (or ignorance) to the problems faced in the state. As Rucker is African American, it begs the question: is Darius Rucker the Tim Scott of country music? To be fair, Rucker’s intent rests far away from tackling these issues. However, the romanticizing of the South always comes at a cost—one that contemporary country music repeatedly overlooks in favor of commercial success.
Musically, the performances on Southern Style are impressive. Rucker has hired some of the top Nashville session “cats”—such as Brent Mason, Michael Rhodes, and Shannon Forrest—for this recording. These musicians sound if as they have played together for years—and perhaps they have: their arrangements are confident and tasteful, creating a sound comfortable in honky-tonk, indie, and rock, while never losing its familiarity as country music. Rucker’s voice remains strong, yet unvaried, with this accompaniment behind him. The melodies on Southern Style are catchy and it is notable that Rucker is listed as a songwriter on each of the albums’ thirteen songs.
If you are eager for Southern stereotypes, Rucker’s album deserves a listen. If more accurate representations are your fancy, Southern Style will help you understand why race remains such a contested issue in the region: comforts, and not critical dialog, carry the day.
Carnival of Miracles (2015) is the latest album from Seattle’s Paula Boggs Band. At its core, the album serves as an emotional outlet for Boggs as she confronts the loss of loved ones and as she experiences the transition from a professional career to a full-time musician—Boggs quit her job as an attorney and as an executive for Starbucks to follow her passion. Carnival of Miracles is introspective and somber in its reflection of the pain. Yet, underlying the pain is an uplifting message of hope and perseverance. At the forefront of these complex emotions are Boggs’s intelligent and poetic lyrics. By featuring the claw-hammer banjo, lap-steel guitar, accordion, and haunting melodies, the album is rooted in an eclectic Americana sound.
Carnival of Miracles opens with “Grateful,” a country-styled song intended as an ode to Boggs’s lover. As the song progresses, the delicate melodies of the banjo and accordion tenderly wrap around each other creating a musical metaphor for the song’s characters. As the words “You have saved me” are repeated in the chorus, it becomes clear that Boggs is not only singing about the joys of love but the pain that love allowed her to leave behind.
The album’s title track is also gentle and introspective. Here, Boggs sings of her own struggles to find happiness in the wake of personal tragedy. Her voice, deep and dark, conveys both the anguish she currently feels and the solace she hopes to find. She sings, “We dance to mask our mourning and lift our souls” before adding the encouraging proclamation that “together we make the most of this great land.” Again, the accordion and the banjo are highlights of the song.
For track five, “Look Straight Ahead,” driving solos on the electric guitar replace the soft melodies of the claw-hammer banjo and accordion found in previous tracks. The change in instrumentation makes this the grittiest, most rock-oriented song on the album. “Look Straight Ahead” is also the most empowering of the album, as Boggs casts off the role of victim and takes up the mantle of the fearless fighter.
“Lenny’s in the House,” the seventh track, is a fun-filled and quick-tempo country song honoring the great songwriter and musician Leonard Cohen. While the song stands in stark-contrast to the somber tone of the album’s earlier tracks, it is no less introspective and personal. Boggs is clearly inspired by Cohen and her debt to him is one she does not take lightly. Although “Lenny’s in the House” fills Boggs’s audience with the desire to dance, it also encourages reflection on and celebration of similarly inspirational people in our own lives.
Carnival of Miracles closes with a cover of Neil Young’s “When You Dance I Can Really Love” from his 1970 album After the Goldrush. Again, it is the banjo, accordion, and lap-steel guitar that are at center of the song. Although Boggs and her band perform this classic rock song as a modern country song, the transition of style feels appropriate. A highlight of the song is the use of a large “choir” at the end of the song. This “choir,” which is formed by layering Boggs’s voice on top of itself, not only increases the emotional impact of the song but shows off Boggs’s talent as a vocalist.
Carnival of Miracles is produced by Grammy award winner Trina Shoemaker and is the follow-up to Paula Boggs Band’s 2010 debut album, A Buddha State of Mind. The Paula Boggs Band is currently on tour across America.
Tomorrow is My Turn, the first full-length solo album from Rhiannon Giddens, perhaps best known as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, showcases the folk singer doing what she does best—providing stirring interpretations of others’ songs. This project, produced by T-Bone Burnett, showcases Giddens’ voice in rich arrangements of material from a variety of sources, including traditional folk melodies, classic country hits, and one original song.
Perhaps the most potent feature of this album is its arrangements, carefully crafted by Giddens and Burnett. Many of the songs included here are likely familiar to roots music listeners, but Giddens’ interpretations cast them in a new light, challenging listeners with fresh approaches to well-known songs. Her interpretation of the traditional “Black is the Color” is a prime example of this—beginning with just her voice and vocal percussionist Adam Matta on beatbox, the arrangement gradually builds, adding upright bass, piano, and harmonica, providing a groove that is influenced by the folk song’s roots in the oral tradition but that simultaneously has a feel pleasing to fans of pop music. Giddens also incorporates more conventional approaches to her interpretations, paying tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s guitar-driven gospel style on “Up Above My Head,” featuring a stomping rhythm and Tharpe-influenced electric guitar.
In addition to pulling consciously from roots music, Giddens also pays homage to popular musical icons of yesteryear, including a stirring rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let it Trouble Your Mind,” an R&B influenced treatment of Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You” complete with a growling sax section and 6/8 feel, and a cover of Odetta’s “Waterboy” in which the band’s hushed intensity is matched by Giddens’ belting vocals. The album’s title track, a translation of a Charles Aznavour song, continues this stylistic mélange, featuring a lilting, almost soundtrack-esque feel that would not be out of place in a film montage. Giddens finishes the album with her own original composition, “Angel City,” which fits well with the other classic material that she has chosen on this album, with introspective lyrics situated in a bed of beautiful strings and acoustic guitars.
Fans of Giddens’ previous projects no doubt have high expectations for the songstress’ debut solo offering, and they will not be disappointed by Tomorrow is My Turn. In terms of sheer listening pleasure, this album deserves repeated spins for Giddens’ careful vocal treatment of each of these songs alone. If one adds the delicately structured arrangements that pervade this album to the mix, it is nearly impossible to not discover something new upon each listen.
Leyla McCalla’s debut album, Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes, is an ambitious setting of Langston Hughes’s poetry to old-time and blues arrangements. Released in February and funded via Kickstarter, this collection of songs speaks to multiple diasporas within the Black Atlantic. McCalla has been inspired by the poetry of Langston Hughes since her youth, and also deeply moved by her own Haitian heritage. In addition to the Langston Hughes poems set to music, this album also contains several traditional Haitian songs arranged and sung in Haitian Creole by McCalla, such as “Mesi Bondye.”
McCalla wears many hats on Vari-Colored Songs, playing banjo, cello, guitar, and providing vocals. She showcases her arrangement and composition skills as well. Several tracks also feature members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, with whom McCalla previously toured and recorded. Hubby Jenkins plays bones on “Latibonit,” and Rhiannon Giddens contributes vocals and shaker on several songs, including “Rose Marie” and “Manman Mwen.”
The strength of this album lies in the textural transparency of its arrangements combined with McCalla’s clear vocals, which allow the words of Langston Hughes to shine through. Be it the sorrowful “Song for a Dark Girl” or the contemplative “Heart of Gold,” McCalla’s treatments of Hughes’s poems are remarkable. The Haitian songs are similarly arranged, featuring a layering of banjo, steel pedal, and vocals. The liner notes include translations and, when applicable, histories of some songs, such as “Kamèn S W Fè?,” which is based on an arrangement by Ago Fixè recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax.
Although this album is subtitled “A Tribute to Langston Hughes,” it is much more. Simple yet complex, Leyla McCalla’s combination of old-time, blues, and Haitian folk music makes for an impressive debut.
In August of 1969, Linda Martell (born Thelma Bynem) made history when she became the first African-American woman to appear on the Grand Ole Opry. However, she didn’t begin her career singing country music. Instead, she made her recording debut as a member of the group The Anglos in 1962 with R&B songs “A Little Tear (Was Falling From My Eyes)” and “The Things I Do For You.” The group also recorded for Vee-Jay records and Vee-Jay’s subsidiary Tollie Records. When the group disbanded, Martell continued solo as an R&B artist until a single performance thrust her into the world of country music.
After Martell was asked to sing a country song at the Charleston Air Force Base, she was discovered by Nashville agent Duke Rayner, who then worked to secure demos and eventually a deal with Plantation Records. In 1969, she released her first single, the top-25 hit “Color Him Father,” and in 1970 made appearances on Hee Haw and The Bill Anderson Show. That same year she released her second single, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” which also landed in the Country & Western Top 40, followed by her one and only album Color Me Country on Plantation Records. This album has finally been re-released in its entirety by Real Gone Music, with liner notes by Bill Dahl.
Color Me Country is a body of work that makes it clear that Linda Martell was a talent that needed to be heard. This collection includes her first single, “Color Him Father,” a dynamic cover of The Winstons’ original song about accepting your stepfather. Martell’s immense vocal ability is undeniable on tracks like “San Francisco Is a Lonely Town,” and “Then I’ll Be Over You.” And on tracks like “Bad Case of the Blues,” “The Wedding Cake,” and “There Never Was a Time,” she is masterfully rooted in the country& western vocal and musical styling.
This re-release of Color Me Country gives further credence to Linda Martell’s importance in country music and the talent she offered as a country music artist.
Though Ruthie Foster has received many accolades over the past decade as a blues singer, on her latest release, Promise of a Brand New Day, she draws a bit more from the folk-rock style popularized in the ‘60s, including a commitment to socially conscious message songs. But this is no sentimental journey of covers. Producer Meshell Ndegeocello, who plays bass on the album, encouraged Foster to stretch her composition skills, resulting in seven new songs delivered in a wide range of styles. Ndegeocello was also given free reign regarding the selection of accompanying musicians, adding her regular guitarist Chris Bruce to the lineup along with keyboardist Jebin Bruni, drummer Ivan Edwards, and backing vocalist Nayanna Holley. The result is a fairly sparse but cohesive instrumental mix that never overpowers.
On the opening track, “Singing the Blues,” Foster takes an autobiographical approach by recounting her recent songwriting experience “trying to find a new home / trying to write a new song / trying to find a rhythm that will help me get through it.” The following track, “Let Me Know,” is one of the highlights of the album. Featuring special guest guitarist and fellow Austin, Texas native Doyle Bramhall II (Eric Clapton), Foster showcases a church-honed voice that reflects her early influence from “the sisters in the amen corner” at her grandmother’s house of worship. Foster’s gospel roots resurface to great effect on her cover of the Staple Singers’ classic “The Ghetto,” where she croons a soulful prayer in the lower register, then unleashes with Mahalia-style intensity on the high notes. Another cover, the civil-rights protest song “Second Coming” penned by the late Alabama blues guitarist Willie King, is reinterpreted as a handclapping, guitar strumming folk song that’s no less riveting than King’s hard-driving version.
One of the most effective of Foster’s original songs is the a capella title track “Brand New Day.” Sung in the rhythmic call and response style of an early work song, she offers encouragement to the downtrodden in the chorus “‘cause love heals / and love lives / and time will rebuild a brand new day.” But the pièce de résistance is undoubtedly “It Might Not Be Right.” Co-written with legendary Stax songwriter William Bell, the song gives a “musical nod to the late soul-stirrer O.V. Wright” while addressing a more contemporary topic— gay marriage—in the lyrics “it might not be right for the world, but it’s all right with this girl.” Closing the album is “New,” written by and featuring another special guest, Toshi Reagon. This gorgeous, contemplative song accompanied by acoustic guitar continues the life-affirming theme of the album.