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Mixing Up The Medicine: 3 Spring Americana Releases

review by Peter Stone Brown

Willie Nelson’s recording career has been so prodigious and has touched on so many musical explorations and lyrical themes, that it’s often easy to ignore a lot of it. But every so often he puts out an album that immediately stands far above the rest of the pack. God’s Problem Child (Legacy), his 61st album is one of those records and fits right in with such Nelson classics as Phases And Stages, Red Headed Stranger and Across The Borderline.

At 85, Nelson confronts his own mortality with dignity, grace and humor. Considering his age, Nelson’s voice is remarkably intact. Every once in a while there might be a slightly weaker note or phrase, but that’s about it, and his guitar playing remains as vibrant and incisive as ever. Combining his own songs co-written with producer Buddy Cannon with songs by other writers, Nelson takes on a variety of topics from the meaning of love to the internet and the election, but hovering over everything is the inevitability of aging and that time is running short.

A hot finger-picked bluegrass intro kicks off the opening song “Little House On The Hill,” written by Buddy Cannon’s mother Lyndel Rhodes. The songs swings like mad – one could imagine Bob Wills doing it – and the country gospel feel of the chorus makes you think that little house on the hill is not of this earth. It’s followed by a slow, moving ballad, “Old Timer” written by Donnie Fritts and Lenny LeBlanc that accurately deals with aging: You’ve still got dreams inside your head/Some days it’s a struggle just to get out of bed.

“True Love” is the first of several excellent originals where Nelson digs deep, and you realize it’s not a person but love itself he’s singing about when he sings, I’ll leave this world believing/True love, you’re still my friend.

Nelson then shifts gears into a subtly rocking, “Delete and Fast Forward Again” clearly inspired by the last presidential election: We had a chance to be brilliant and we blew it again.

“Still Not Dead” is an upbeat country tune about the social networking habit of announcing that Nelson is either dead or dying: If I was dead, I wasn’t dead to stay.

This bit of frivolity is immediately countered by the title track, a deep, at time scary blues written by Tony Joe White and Jamey Johnson. White, Johnson and Leon Russell all share the vocals, alternating verses and sometimes lines within verses, and Nelson contributes a truly great solo on guitar. When Russell appears on the third verse on one of the last things he recorded, it has the effect of a voice from the dead appearing.

The album ends with a moving tribute to Merle Haggard, “He Won’t Ever Be Gone” written by Gary Nicholson. With an arrangement that’s clearly a nod to Haggard’s sound, and his son Ben Haggard on lead guitar, but Nelson makes the song his own especially on the second verse: We were friends right from the start/And we shared some high times/I would sing some songs he wrote/And he would sing a few of mine.

If time and fate do not permit Willie Nelson to record another album, this one which manages to touch on a lot of the forms of music he’s explored over the decades of his career, only reinforces his brilliance as a singer, a songwriter and guitarist.

In April, I saw Marty Stuart and his band The Fabulous Superlatives who more than live up to their name deliver a concert that’s going to be hard to beat. It was superb from the first note to the last. It was also the only show I’ve been to that when the sound crew was setting up, the instruments which included Clarence White’s b-bender telecaster received applause.

Stuart’s latest album Way Out West (Superlatone) which features his band and was produced by Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers is well worth checking out. Stuart clearly is not trying for the country charts with this album – he’s making the music he wants to make, current trends be damned. He’s done this before with albums such as The Pilgrim which didn’t endear him to the major record labels.

The album is a tribute to The West or more accurately the ghosts of the old west, and the desert where strange things can happen. Musically the ghost of Marty Robbins along with old cowboy ballads and The Sons of the Pioneers lurk in the shadows, and instrumental interludes set the tone and mood. The CD booklet and the photos that illustrate it alternate between being clearly in focus and then out of focus and hazy, the perfect complement to the music. It’s an album about seeing things that may or not be there, mirages, hallucinations and maybe things you shouldn’t ingest play a part. Never specifically mentioned, but felt in the sound and texture of the music is the history of the west.

The music ranges from dreamy landscapes to the out and out rock and roll of “Time Don’t Wait” and the spectacular guitars of “Air Mail Special” which sneaks up on you from nowhere followed by the outrageous twang of “Torpedo.”  When Stuart sticks in two sort of straight country songs, “Please Don’t Say Goodbye” and “Whole Lotta Highway,” a truck driving song, they take you by surprise, but still fit into the dreamy landscape of the album.
Way Out West is an album that is meant to be heard as an album in one listen, not as individual tracks. Every note that is sung and every note that is played is there on purpose, yet it sounds fresh and spontaneous. The guitar work by Marty Stuart and Kenny Vaughan is beyond spectacular. Stuart, his band, and Mike Campbell all deserve major credit.

Dan Montgomery is a singer-songwriter from Memphis who just released his fifth album, Gone (Fantastic Yes). Unlike his previous albums, which were mostly centered around acoustic guitar, Gone is hard charged rock and roll. Hard charged does not mean devoid of melody, but it does mean searing and soaring guitar work by Montgomery and lead guitarist Robert Maché. Like the two albums mentioned above, Gone also has a theme, the breakup of a marriage which is looked at from several aspects.

Many of the songs are built around guitar riffs that sound classic, but are changed just enough so you can’t quite place them. Montgomery is an excellent storyteller who knows how to set a scene. The characters in his songs are always struggling, struggling with day jobs they don’t like or want, struggling with each other and struggling with their emotions. They drink, take drugs, and there’s rarely time for contemplation or peace because every time they’re about to reach that point, one or both screw up. The album starts with a rocking pop tune, “Getting Up,” that begins with the line, Take a look at the bright sun shining/Bet you never thought you’d see that again, and later moves to the chorus, Falling down is a breeze/All it takes is two good knees/The hardest part is always gettin’ up. In the middle, there’s a close to dreamy part psychedelic interlude, and then back to the chorus. You barely have time to breathe before the hard rocking title track kicks in, with the lines I came home last night/I knew something wasn’t right/She said, I love you true/But I’m leaving you/She’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone. The song rocks like mad with blazing lead guitar.

Things slow down slightly for the next song, “Sleeping Beauty,” which starts with the chorus from “All I Have To Do Is Dream,” and Montgomery sets the scene with a photographic description of a wedding, but the marriage starts falling apart that very night. The song is set to a moderate rocking close to pop melody with an incredibly catchy chorus. In another time, in another place, in another music business, this song would at the very least be an FM radio hit. It’s followed by a pounding, almost scary rocker, “Tonight,” and then the album shifts gears effortlessly into a country tune “Look At Us Now,” where Montgomery shares the vocal with Candace Maché who contributes backup vocals at various times throughout the album. This brief dip into country is put to rest by the hardest rocker of the album, “Desperation Row,” about a woman caught in the web of drugs. Again the chorus as well as the lead guitar, particularly at the end of the song are as intense as it gets.

“What Am I Here For” set to the feel of the earliest rock and roll ballads again find a husband alone in the house that was never a home, wondering why he’s there.

Throughout the album, in addition to maintaining the theme, Montgomery pays tribute to various genres and styles as within rock and roll as well as other songwriters and bands. After rocking furiously through most of the album, Montgomery closes it with a softly picked solo ballad on acoustic guitar, “A Little Tear,” where he tries to put the anger and fury of the rest of the songs to rest. Like the other two musicians in this article, Montgomery knew exactly what he wanted to do, and with Robert Maché coproducing, and his excellent band, with a few extra players sitting in where needed, he achieved his goal. Play this album loud!