Archive for the Top 10 Americana Albums: 2000-2009 Category

Top 10 Americana Albums of the Decade: #1 – Barricades & Brickwalls by Kasey Chambers

Posted in Kasey Chambers, Top 10 Americana Albums: 2000-2009 on December 6, 2009 by spe529

Kasey Chambers’ 2001 CD Barricades & Brickwalls is the #1 album on my list. It has to be. No other album did for me what this one did. Essentially… this album is the reason I am a fan of Americana music, it’s the reason I’m an Americana DJ, and it’s the reason I write this Americana (and other stuff) blog. I know it sounds trite and simplistic, but this album changed my life. That’s the only way to say it.

I wrote about it back in September of last year as an Essential Album, and I don’t think there’s anything I could say here that I didn’t say there. Here’s what I wrote then…

In the spring of 2002, I was working as a Graduate Assistant at Morehead State Public Radio in Morehead, Kentucky. I mostly worked in the newsroom writing news and sports copy and anchoring the occasional newscast. On Friday nights, it was my job to sit in the broadcast studio and make sure nothing went wrong while we aired a few nationally syndicated music programs. Essentially, I would introduce a program, do nothing for an hour, and then introduce the next program.

I spent most of those Friday nights chatting with friends on line, making fantasy baseball trades, or just reading and doing classwork. Every so often, however, I would actually listen to the shows I was airing. One night, on a show called E-Town, I heard the voice of an Australian country singer named Kasey Chambers. The down under twang in her voice was unlike anything I had ever heard before. I wasn’t sure what I was hearing… but I knew I liked it.

The next week, I asked the music director at the station if he had ever heard of this Kasey Chambers person. He started raving about this thing called “Americana Music” and how great it was and how great Kasey Chambers was, and he gave me a copy of her CD, Barricades and Brickwalls that had just been released in the U.S. I still wasn’t sure what this Americana thing was he kept talking about, but I took the CD home for a listen. I had no idea at the time what that CD would lead me to.

I pushed play and was immediately met with the ominous guitar riff of the title track followed by Kasey’s distinctive vocal twang. I was immediately hooked. The song itself is a meditation on obsession. Kasey runs through a laundry list of things that have been placed between her and the object of her desires. Barricades and brickwalls, iron bars and big ol’ cars, locked doors, screaming and shouting… nothing will hold her back. In the chorus, she makes her intentions clear by declaring, “I’ll be damned if you’re not my man before the sun goes down.”

The rocking title track is followed by the softer “Not Pretty Enough” (the song that got my attention from the E-Town broadcast) and continues to mix ballads like “On a Bad Day” and “Nullarbor Song” with country weepers like “A Little Bit Lonesome” and “Still Feeling Blue” and alt-country blueprints like “Runaway Train” and “If I Were You.”

Each time I listened to the disc and read through the liner notes, I heard something different and discovered something new. The album became my gateway drug into Americana music. It was my introduction to Buddy Miller, who provided backing vocals on “Runaway Train.” I heard Lucinda Williams for the first time on “On a Bad Day.” The album also introduced me to Gram Parsons with Kasey’s cover of Parsons’ “Still Feeling Blue.”

Not long after I fell in love with the album, I discovered that Kasey would be appearing at a taping of The Mountain Stage just a few hours up the road in Charleston, West Virginia. Of course, I wanted to go see the show. I didn’t even care that I also had to sit through listing to four other artists who I had never heard of. Of course… those artists turned out to be Laura Cantrell, Dar Williams, James McMurtry, and Rodney Crowell with Kenny Vaughn.

Holy Cow! How could one artist and one album expose me to so many other artists who would all become such staples of my music collection just a few short years later? I don’t know… but Kasey Chambers did it.

I first heard Kasey Chambers and Barricades and Brickwalls in the early months of 2002. That summer, I began hosting Morehead State Public Radio’s nightly Americana program one night a week. The story goes on from there. Who knows what might have happened to me and my musical tastes without this album?

That’s it… my favorite album of the last decade. Earlier this year, I had the chance to meet Kasey Chambers and her husband Shane Nicholson when they played a show at the Bijou Theatre in Knoxville. I told her the story of how her music led me to so many other artists and sounds. She helped fill my last decade with great music, and it was nice to be able to say, “Thank You.”

Kasey Chambers: On a Bad Day (Buy Album)
Kasey Chambers: If I Were You (Buy Album)

Top 10 Americana Albums of the Decade: Honorable Mention

Posted in Hayes Carll, Loretta Lynn, Patty Griffin, Ryan Adams, The Avett Brothers, Top 10 Americana Albums: 2000-2009 on December 5, 2009 by spe529

We’ve almost made it all the way to the number one spot on the list of my favorite albums of the past decade. Before we get to that #1 spot, however, I’d like to quickly run through a few albums that just as easily could (should?) have been included on the list instead. Here are five “Honorable Mention” albums listed alphabetically by artist.

First up is Ryan Adams’ 2001 release Gold. It’s very likely that this album would be on the final list if not for the fact that it was mislabeled on my iTunes, and I skipped over it when I was making my preliminary list. By the time I discovered my mistake, the final order was set, and I couldn’t really justify removing any of the other albums to make room for this one.

Still, this is one damn fine album, and one of the first “Americana” albums I was ever given. Lost Highway sent roughly a dozen copies to our station, and our music director loved the album so much he made sure that all the student workers got a copy. I remember it taking me several listens to warm up to the album as a whole, but I was instantly grabbed by tracks like “Firecracker” and “When the Stars Go Blue.” I’m glad I stuck with it.

Ryan Adams: Firecracker (Buy Album)

Next is the Avett Brothers’ 2004 effort Mignonette. The Avett Brothers are another one of those artists I fell in love with at the 2004 Americana Music Association Conference. They played the conference opening party on Thursday night at The Mercy Lounge, and I made a special point to see them again later that week at The Station Inn as well. I had never seen anything quite like them before with their string band sound and punk rock ethos.

I was completely entranced by their live show and found much to love on this album as well. Where the show drew me in with pure energy, the album showed that the band could deftly create those quieter moments as well. This album was the perfect mixture of the bombastic (“Hard Worker,” “Nothing Short of Thankful”) and the sublime (“Swept Away,” “SSS”). This song has a decent dose of both flavors.

Avett Brothers: Please Pardon Yourself (Buy Album)

If I continued to rank things beyond #10, this one might actually be #11. The 2005 release Little Rock was actually the sophomore effort for Hayes, but this is the one that put the Houston born songwriter on the map. It’s full of the same sort of rough edged tunes that have become the calling card of this road worn artist. You can actually feel the road beneath Hayes’ wheels on tunes like “Wish I Hadn’t Stayed So Long,” “Sit in with the Band” and the title track.

Little Rock also holds the distinction of being the first independent release to make it to the number one spot on the Americana Album Airplay chart. Hayes is still one of only two artists (Band of Heathens) to accomplish that feat. We’ve played this album so much at WDVX that it will no longer load in our CD players.

Hayes Carll: Down the Road Tonight (Buy Album)

If I had made a list of favorite artists of the decade, there is no doubt that Patty Griffin would be at or near the top. Her body of work is incredibly strong, and I don’t think there is a finer vocalist working in the business today. What she doesn’t have, however, is that one album that grabs hold of me and keeps me enthralled from start to finish. Her albums in this decade are a little more serene overall than the two she put out in the 1990′s.

All of them except for her unreleased gem Silver Bell from 2000. This album brings the fire on songs like the punkish title track, the churning “Sorry & Sad,” and the rollicking “Boston.” Of course, the quieter moments are here as well in early versions of “Making Pies” and “Top of the World.” There’s also a great, country duet with Emmylou Harris on “Truth #2.” Patty’s label refused to release the album because it wasn’t radio friendly enough. Idiots.

Patty Griffin: Boston (You can’t buy this album, but Patty has tons of other great stuff out there)

The most surprising album of the decade may have been Loretta Lynn’s 2004 release Van Lear Rose. Loretta had been largely absent from the music world for most of the 1990′s and had all but disappeard from the public consciousness. Like many of her contemporaries, she had been rendered mostly irrelevant by the changing aesthetic of popular country radio. That all changed with this album when Loretta teamed with producer Jack White of The White Stripes to blend her classic country sound with his modern rock production.

There is also a certain geographical element that speaks to me on this album. I grew up in the same rural Eastern Kentucky county where Loretta was raised. I spent a good part of my childhood in Van Lear, KY… my babysitter lived there. The song I’m featuring here may be about the West Coast, but I’m always transported back home when I listen to this album.

Loretta Lynn: Portland, Oregon (Buy Album)

Top 10 Americana Albums of the Decade: #2 – Tambourine by Tift Merritt

Posted in Tift Merritt, Top 10 Americana Albums: 2000-2009 on December 2, 2009 by spe529

We’re almost to the end of the list… can you feel the excitement in the air?

The album at number two is Tift Merritt’s 2004 release Tambourine. This album was released at the end of August in 2004, and I still have vivid memories of this album serving as a large part of my personal soundtrack later that year at the Americana Music Association Conference in Nashville in September. I drove into Nashville listening to this album, saw Tift give an amazing performance at The Mercy Lounge that weekend, and left town knowing that Tambourine would be a steady part of my listening rotation for some time to come.
I had enjoyed Tift’s debut album Bramble Rose when it was released in 2002, but this one took me completely by surprise. For this album, Tift paired with producer George Drakoulias (Hollywood Town Hall) to craft a sound that is full of breezy country-rock riffs while also carrying a heavy dose of Dusty Springfield inspired Memphis Soul. The effect is stunning and led to Tambourine garnering a Grammy Nomination for “Best Country Album” and three nominations (Album, Song, Artist) at the Americana Music Awards & Honors.
The first sound you hear on the album is Tift’s voice as she sings the opening line of “Stray Paper.” Her vocals on this track are breathy at first, but build in intensity as her band builds an impressive country rock track around her. The intensity builds again as Tift rips through the album’s second track, the guitar and organ fueled “Wait it Out.” This is the song that most succinctly offers Tift’s mission statement for this record when she boldly announces that she, “just got to burning, and I won’t stop now.”
From there, Tift brings out the soul influences for the slow burning and horn drenched “Good Hearted Man.” She continues to explore her R&B and soul side by blasting through James Carr’s “Your Love Made a U-Turn,” and the concert staple singalongs “Shadow In the Way” and “I Am Your Tambourine.” Robert Randolph lends his Sacred Steel guitar to the latter song to take the album to lofty new heights. “Late Night Pilgrim” also pushes the pace of the album as a high energy rocker with a booming chorus that keeps Memphis in the back of your mind.
Even with all the energy and attitude present here, Tift manages to keep things grounded by also mixing in a few slower numbers like “Laid a Highway.” This down tempo tune tells of a small town that finds itself getting smaller as a major highway is built through a neighboring town. It’s easily the most traditional country tune on the album and stands in fine contrast to the bluesy “Still Pretending.” “Still Pretending” is tailor made for a slow dance. In fact, the last time my wife and I saw Tift in concert, she called for the audience to dance along as she played that song. We did… right in front of the stage.
And that brings me to the other reason this album is so special to me and so high on this list. That weekend in 2004 when I fully discovered this album was also the weekend when I met my wife for the first time. Over time, I introduced her to Tift’s music through my radio show (she used to listen to me online when we lived in different states), and eventually gave her a copy of the album. It was probably one of the first albums (outside of Patty Griffin & Scott Miller) that we truly bonded over, and we travelled from Nashville, TN to Charleston, WV to watch Tift perform in the early days of our relationship. When we got married, my wife insisted on using “Good Hearted Man*” as the song to play behind the pictures of me that were displayed during the photo montage that we showed at our rehearsal dinner and reception.
I loved the album before any of that happened… but the fact that a lot of that happened in large part due to this album makes me love it even more.
Tift Merritt: Good Hearted Man (Buy Album)
Tift Merritt: I Am Your Tambourine (Buy Album)

As a special bonus… here’s a YouTube vid of Tift Merritt singing “Stray Paper” on Austin City Limits.

*I don’t necessarily agree with her assessment of me, but I am deeply flattered that she feels that way.

Top 10 Americana Albums of the Decade: #3 – A Man Under the Influence by Alejandro Escovedo

Posted in Alejandro Escovedo, Top 10 Americana Albums: 2000-2009 on December 1, 2009 by spe529

Alejandro Escovedo’s 2008 release Real Animal easily topped my Albums of the Year list last year. It probably would have popped up on this list as well if not for Alejandro’s tremendous 2001 effort A Man Under the Influence. Of course, I’m limiting myself to one album per artist on this list. This has to be the one.

It will probably be hard for me to articulate exactly why this album is one of my favorites. I always find it especially hard to write about Alejandro’s music because of the complexity it presents. In doing research for this post, I found separate reviews that compared parts of this album to Hank Williams Sr., Leonard Cohen, John Cale, and The Rolling Stones. It’s hard to believe that one album or one artist could possibly conjure up comparisons to such a diverse group of artists… but this album does.
Alejandro expertly captures Williams’ heartbreak, Cohen’s poetry, Cale’s punk experimentalism, and The Stones’ Rock & Roll swagger. He does it all while also creating his own sound of textured, Austin roots rock. There is a reason No Depression magazine named Alejandro their artist of the decade for the 1990′s.
As for the themes presented on the album… It would be easy, given Alejandro’s well publicized history with drug and alcohol abuse, to assume that the title referred to being under the influence of some sort of narcotics or distilled spirits. Closer inspections, though, reveal the songwriter to be affected by the far more intoxicating influence of love in all of its forms.
In some cases, it’s the love of an idea that motivates the characters in the songs. The album opens with “Wave,” a song based on the story of how Alejandro’s father first came to the United States from Mexico. Alejandro’s grandparents had left for the States when Alejandro’s father was very young. As a boy, Alejandro’s father would go to the local train yard with his grandmother to wave at the trains as they left to journey across the border. They would wave to those who, like Alejandro’s grandparents, had snuck aboard the trains in an attempt to find a better life, and a better way to provide for their families. When he was twelve years old, Alejandro’s father jumped on one of those trains motivated by the idea of seeing his parents again and joining them in their new land. He never told his grandmother what he was about to do, and she was left behind, not knowing that she was waving at the train that carried her grandson away.
The album continues with “Rosalie,” a tender song that tells of a love carried out through letters between two lovers separated by a border and miles of desert. The love fades, however, in “Across the River” as Alejandro is forced to ask the question, “What kind of love destroys another?”
In fact, most of the tunes on this album deal with heartbreak in one way or another. “Rhapsody” reads as an apology to a departing lover even though the narrator can never seem to find just the proper way to express himself. In the plaintive “Don’t Need You” the singer sounds as though he is trying to convince himself of that fact rather than actually declare the statement to someone else.
Even my favorite track on the album, the fiery “Castanets,” finds Alejandro dealing with inflamed passions for a woman he can’t stand to be around. He begins by running through a list of things he loves about this woman… her tangled hair, the sunshine on her dress, the way she “turns me on like a pick up truck.” In the end though, this is a woman who drives him so crazy that he finds he likes “her better when she walks away.” This song is built around a Hall of Fame worthy guitar riff and is not only my favorite song on the album, but also one of my favorites of all time.
This is easily the most complex album on this list and one that is worth spending some time with. I think that’s what it takes to full come to appreciate this one. Alejandro and producer Chris Stamey created an album that possesses layers and layers of sound and rewards multiple listens. You can start with the two tracks that I highlighted in this post.
Alejandro Escovedo: Wave (Buy Album)
Alejandro Escovedo: Castanets (Buy Album)

Top 10 Americana Albums of the Decade: #4 – Decoration Day by The Drive-By Truckers

Posted in Drive-By Truckers, Top 10 Americana Albums: 2000-2009 on November 30, 2009 by spe529

We took a bit of a break for the Holiday, but it’s time now to continue with the list of my favorite Americana albums of the past decade. The album here at number four stands as a stark contrast to the subdued beauty of Neko Case at number five, and is probably the loudest, most guitar driven album on the list.

Album #4 is The Drive-By Truckers’ 2003 release Decoration Day.
Others may place the band’s 2001 effort Southern Rock Opera in this spot… and that would certainly be hard to argue against (although I would rank SRO third behind even 2004′s The Dirty South). Southern Rock Opera was an ambitious, two-disc, concept album that used a backdrop of Southern landscapes and Southern issues to trace the career path of a Skynyrd-esque band of Rock & Roll misfits. The album tackles what front-man Patterson Hood refers to as the “Duality of the Southern Thing” all while presenting a dualistic quality in the music as well. Hood and guitarist Mike Cooley wrote an album full of loud, bombastic songs about heavy topics such as racism, Southern politics, death, drugs and alcohol, and the gaudy excesses of fame. They did so however with a careful and caring eye for detail that forced the listener to think while the electric guitars wailed.
Even with the bar that was set by Opera, I still can’t help but list Decoration Day as my favorite.
Some of the themes from the previous record are present here as well. Hood’s “Hell No I Ain’t Happy” is a classic “band on the road” song that both celebrates and curses the lifestyle they have chosen and could have easily blended in with the story arc of Southern Rock Opera. In fact, the formula here is basically the same. Start with powerful stories about flawed people in flawed situations, mix in some heavy guitar riffs, and play the whole thing as loud as possible.
The one thing that makes this album different from The Truckers’ previous work (and makes it my favorite) is the addition of guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Jason Isbell to the group. This is Jason’s first (of three) albums with the group, and he wasted no time in making his presence felt. Jason only wrote two tracks on this disc, but they are undoubtedly two of the highlights.
One of those is the album’s title track “Decoration Day.” It tells the tale of a modern day Hatfield and McCoy type family war. The feud has lasted so long that no one can remember how it started, or how many in the warring families have died. As the narrator, Isbell wants it all to end, but his father forces him to continue the fight. By the end, he comes to hate his own Lawson family as much, if not more than, the Hill clan he is sworn to destroy.
Isbell’s other contribution is also possibly the band’s finest moment. “Outfit” is another tune that features a relationship between a father and a son as its narrative touchstone. In this song, however, the dad offers some fatherly advice from a man who wants better for his son than he had for himself.
Of course, I don’t want to gloss over the contributions of the band’s other two songwriters. Patterson Hood is the longtime leader of the band and the author of nine of the album’s 15 tracks. Hood’s highlights include the full-on guitar assault of “Sink Hole,” the aforementioned “Hell No I Ain’t Happy,” and the somewhat jangly “My Sweet Annette.”
Hood is a master at capturing the feelings of the flawed and confused. His characters often must face harsh realities or make hard decisions. In “Sink Hole” a desperate farmer fantasizes about killing the banker who has come to foreclose on his family’s land. His characters also leave their brides at the alter (“My Sweet Annette”), struggle through the trials of divorce ["(Something's Got to) Give Pretty Soon" & "Your Daddy Hates Me"], and take their own lives (“Do it Yourself”).
If you’re looking for sunshine on this album, Mike Cooley isn’t the one to turn to either… although he may come the closest with the musical proposal “Marry Me.” The protagonist here simply realizes that while he isn’t perfect (and neither is she), he gets by much better by his girl’s side than he does when he’s off chasing some other dream. As Cooley puts it, “I’d rather be your fool nowhere than go somewhere and be no one’s.”
Of course, Cooley lets his dark side out on this album as well. “When the Pin Hits the Shell” offers another point of view on suicide. “Loaded Gun in the Closet” offers another picture of wedded non-bliss and leaves us wondering who will use the weapon first… and who they will use it on.
It’s a dark album to be sure, but one that continues to draw me in. The Drive-By Truckers essentially crafted an album full of tragedies and train wrecks, but those stories are told in such a compelling fashion that it’s impossible to turn away. Here are three tracks from the album… one each from Hood, Cooley, and Isbell.
Drive-By Truckers: My Sweet Annette (Buy Album)
Drive-By Truckers: Marry Me (Buy Album)
Drive-By Truckers: Outfit (Buy Album)

Top 10 Americana Albums of the Decade: #5 – Blacklisted by Neko Case

Posted in Neko Case, Top 10 Americana Albums: 2000-2009 on November 25, 2009 by spe529

You may notice that this album is a little different from the others on this list so far… and the ones that come after. Where most of the others on this list are mostly guitar driven with heavy doses of up-tempo rockers, 2002′s Blacklisted by Neko Case is a much more subdued and understated affair.

In fact, that understatedness led me to overlook this album for quite some time. I was first introduced to Neko through her debut album, 1997′s The Virginian, an album full of country rave ups and rockabilly stomps. As her music made the transition the darker sound and tone of Blacklisted, it took me a while to make the move with her.
Even as I hesitated to go along with Neko for the ride, I kept reading reviews on message boards and music mags about how wonderful and essential this album was. Every time I would read one of those reviews, I would go back and revisit this release. One day it just clicked.
I can’t say exactly what it was that finally put me over the top on this disc, but I think it’s probably safe to say that Neko’s voice had a lot to do with it. I once read her voice described somewhere as sounding like “Patsy Cline’s ghost.” I’ve always felt that was an appropriate comparison, and it really feels right here due to the etherial nature of most of the songs on this album and the subtle nods to Cline’s classic country sound. There is a natural resonance to Neko’s voice that shines throughout the album, but there’s also a bit of reverb added in the production on a few tracks that adds yet another otherworldly quality to her vocals.
As for the songs themselves… Blacklisted is a fairly dark album throughout, and the tone for that is set right off the bat with the album opening “Things That Scare Me.” Neko evokes images of birds frying on telephone wires and references to some sort of bloody revenge. That song is followed by my favorite track on the album, “Deep Red Bells.” Neko has said that this song deals with the sense of fear she felt while living in Washington state during the time the Green River Killer was at large. She has also said the song is an attempt to give voice to the Green River Killer’s victims, who were mostly prostitutes and runaways and who were often not given much sympathy in news reports of the slayings.
The darkness continues with threats of ruination in “Outro with Bees” and visions of plane crashes in “Lady Pilot.” Neko’s reading of the classic soul tune “Look For Me (I’ll Be Around)” comes across as a menacing warning to the object of her desires instead of a heartfelt display of devotion.
Even when the lyrics aren’t overtly dour, Neko’s band (including slide guitar wizard Jon Rauhouse and Dallas Good of The Sadies) does a great job of conveying that feeling by exercising restraint and keeping things relatively down beat. The music provides a perfect backdrop for Neko’s haunting and emotive vocals. Her voice is given room to soar even as the tone and themes of the album keep things grounded. Overall, the album meets the definition of the phrase beautiful sadness.
Here are two tracks from the disc… and one bonus cut. First is “Deep Red Bells,” my favorite cut and one that is full of wonderful and complex imagery. Next is Neko’s take on Aretha Franklin’s “Running Out of Fools.” Her reading of the soul/R&B classic adds an element of country heartbreak while still doing justice to Aretha’s original. Finally, since I mentioned her earlier… a bonus track from Miss Patsy Cline.
Neko Case: Deep Red Bells (Buy Album)
Neko Case: Runnin’ Out of Fools (Buy Album)
Patsy Cline: You’re Stronger Than Me (Buy Album)

Top 10 Americana Albums of the Decade: #6 – Thus Always to Tyrants by Scott Miller & The Commonwealth

Posted in Scott Miller, Top 10 Americana Albums: 2000-2009 on November 22, 2009 by spe529

You knew he had to show up on this list at some point didn’t you?

Scott Miller is the one artist I’ve written about more than any other at this site. He’s been very good to me during my time in Knoxville, and he’s been very good to this website as well. Heck, he even agreed to let me use a lyric from one of his songs as the title for the site. That song, of course, is “I Made a Mess of This Town” (you can listen to it in the “About Me…” section on the right-hand side of the page) from this album… 2001′s Thus Always to Tyrants.

In fact, I’m not really sure what else I can say about Scott Miller and The Commonwealth that I haven’t already said before. I can, however, use this album as a vehicle to illustrate exactly why Scott is one of my favorite aritsts.

To me, the most interesting aspect of Scott’s music has always been his ability to write songs that deal with a wider range of topics than many other songwriters. He embraces self-destruction on the rocking “Absolution,” laments lost love on “Loving That Girl,” and muses on family dysfunction on “Daddy Raised a Boy.” The latter song being one of the most well written tunes in Scott’s catalogue. It shares a similar theme with Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s In the Cradle” in that the sins of the father eventually become the sins of the son.

“Now when I look into my father’s eyes,
We both see something we can recognize.
He sees a young man who’s lost his way.
I look at him I swear I see the same.”
Where Scott really changes things up sonically and thematically, though, is on a two song stretch in the middle of the album. In the midst of an album full of up-tempo guitar rockers, Scott slows things down for two Civil War period pieces in “Dear Sarah” and “Highland County Boy.” “Dear Sarah” is an old fashioned string band number based on letters written by one of Scott’s ancestors to his beloved while he served as a soldier in the War. It’s a love song, but it’s a love song wrapped inside a history lesson.
Scott’s sneaky that way. He holds degrees in American History and Russian & Soviet Studies from the highly prestigious College of William & Mary. He’s written songs about The Civil War and World War II. He’s even written one song that is nothing but a musical biography of the great Tennessee and Texas statesman Sam Houston. He’ll make you learn something if you aren’t paying attention…
…Then he’ll sing a song about why he hates babies, tell a crass joke on stage, call himself a dipshit (one of his favorite words to describe himself), and shatter whatever illusion he’s built. That’s the true dichotomous nature of Scott Miller and his music, and it’s in fine display on this album.
Take the final two songs on this disc for instance. The album closing “Is There Room on the Cross for Me” is a gospel drenched piano number that ends the proceedings on a solemn and somber note. The song itself is prayer for God to bring some peace to the singer’s soul as he, “cannot bear this world alone.” Very touching. Very dignified.
The song before that? A fire breathing rocker called “Goddamn the Sun.”
Ladies and Gentlemen… Scott Miller.

Top 10 Americana Albums of the Decade: #7 – Fate’s Right Hand by Rodney Crowell

Posted in Rodney Crowell, Top 10 Americana Albums: 2000-2009 on November 20, 2009 by spe529
I don’t know if it’s possible to fully love an album without having actually heard it. If it is, then that is exactly what happened with me with Rodney Crowell’s 2003 album Fate’s Right Hand.

On Father’s Day in 2003, I drove to Charleston, West Virginia for a taping of The Mountain Stage radio program. This trip was made fairly early in my discovery phase of Americana music, and I attended the show primarily to see Kasey Chambers. Kasey was great, but I also left the performance as a fan of several of the other acts on the bill as well. One of those acts was Rodney Crowell.
Rodney was in Charleston to promote his new (as yet unreleased) album, Fate’s Right Hand, and he brought his friend, the phenomenally talented guitar player Kenny Vaughn, along with him. With the Mountain Stage Band behind them, Rodney and Kenny played a stellar set including three songs from this album. I was hooked then, and when the album came out about a month later I grabbed a copy immediately.
The album begins with two of the songs Rodney performed at that concert in Charleston. The album opener, “Still Learning How to Fly,” is a song Rodney wrote for a friend who had recently lost a battle with cancer. It’s a very introspective and reflective song dealing with memories of a life well-lived with an anticipatory eye turned toward what lies ahead in the afterlife.
The opener’s sweetness is followed by fire on the vitriolic title track. In it, Rodney takes the role of a “Honkey with an attitude coming unglued” as he breezes through a stream-of-consciousness rant against the ills of modern society. War, drugs, sex, materialism, the 24-hour news cycle… even Ken Starr… are all mentioned here. Some of the references may seem a little dated today, but the anger still holds true and the song still holds up. This track was named Song of the Year at the 2004 Americana Music Awards & Honors.
Bela Fleck’s chiming banjo brightens the tone once again on “Earthbound” as Rodney searches out the good things in the world. He finds several examples… Charlie Brown and Ringo Starr among them… and decides that he would like to stick around.
Though he finds peace with his environment, much of this album deals with Rodney finding peace with himself. As the titles may suggest, “Time to Go Inward” and “The Man in Me” both find the artist struggling with his own personal demons. The former song is quiet and contemplative as Rodney examines his own conscience and causes. The latter takes a more confrontational tone as the singer examines the reflection he sees in his own mirror, and finds the person looking back at him to be lacking.
The album continues on with several more songs of self-examination and ruminations on societal woes. The contemplative tone of things can make the album seem bleak at times, but the sunny outlook returns on the album closing “This Too Will Pass” (the third song from Rodney’s Mountain Stage set). It closes the album with a rousing and uplifting sing-along and a reminder that most of the setbacks we suffer are only temporary and can be overcome.
I’ll leave you with this lyric from “Time to Go Inward” that I think sums up the overall theme of Fate’s Right Hand while also setting up a guest list for what would surely be an interesting dinner party.
“Jesus and Buddha and Krishna and Minnie Pearl knew,
Do unto others the things you want done unto you.”

Rodney Crowell: Fate’s Right Hand (Buy Album)

Rodney Crowell: Earthbound (Buy Album)

Top 10 Americana Albums of the Decade: #8 – Buddy & Julie Miller by Buddy & Julie Miller

Posted in Buddy and Julie Miller, Top 10 Americana Albums: 2000-2009 on November 18, 2009 by spe529

I love Steve Earle and Allison Moorer.

I think Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis are great.
Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler of Over the Rhine make me giddy.
You know how I feel about Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson.
For my money, though, Buddy & Julie Miller are the first couple of Americana music.
Buddy is the multi-instrumentalist/producer/singer/songwriter who is the most decorated artist in the history of the Americana Music Awards with a voice that can instantly transport you back to the glory days of country music.
Julie is the master songwriter who will break your heart with the pain and longing she packs into every verse and piece it back together with the warmth of her voice.
Together, the whole is even greater than the sum of its parts. That’s no small feat when you consider the two main parts involved.
This self-titled release from 2001 served as my real introduction to the couple’s sound. I recall being completely enamored by Julie’s voice upon hearing the song “The River’s Gonna Run” on a sampler CD that came with the December 2001 copy of the British music magazine, Uncut (I heard Gillian Welch for the first time on the same disc as well). It wasn’t long before I realized that Buddy Miller was one of the artists featured on the new Kasey Chambers CD that I was just starting to get into at the time (more on that disc later in the list). That was all I needed to push me toward giving this album a shot.
The album opens with a cover of Richard Thompson’s “Keep Your Distance,” a song about the power of lust to consume and destroy. Buddy and Julie bring a certain fire to the track with soulful harmonies on a vocal performance that highlights the longing in the in the words while cursing the restraint that must be exercised. “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast” studies similar themes as Buddy’s guitars wail over Julie’s words that carry all of the passion with none of the restraint of the previous tune. I heard Julie say once that this song was her attempt to write a song like “Wild Thing”… a rocking, unrestrained, love song. Mission accomplished.
It was songs like those that first pulled me into this album. I loved the juxtaposition of the heavy electric guitars and pounding drums that just scream “Rock & Roll” with the breathy raspy twang of Buddy & Julie’s voices that come straight from days of Nashville past. Songs like their cover of Bob Dylan’s “Wallflower” fit that description perfectly. Fiddles cry while cymbals crash in a perfect blend of country, blues, and roots rock that forms a perfect blueprint of Americana.
Buddy & Julie Miller was named “Album of the Year” at the inaugural Americana Music Honors & Awards in 2002. It’s hard to argue with the panel for their choice.
Buddy & Julie Miller: You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast (Buy Album)
Buddy & Julie Miller: Wallflower (Buy Album)

Top 10 Americana Albums of the Decade: #9 – Rainy Day Music by The Jayhawks

Posted in The Jayhawks, Top 10 Americana Albums: 2000-2009 on November 16, 2009 by spe529

The Jayhawks are one of the most respected acts to come out of the early days of the alt-country movement. Led by Gary Louris and Mark Olson, The Jayhwaks won a legion of fans with their Byrds inspired jangle pop/country sound and their extremely tight vocal harmonies. The formula worked to perfection on three wonderful albums… 1989′s Blue Earth, 1992′s Hollywood Town Hall, and 1995′s Tomorrow the Green Grass.

Despite the band’s success, founding member Olson left the group following the Tomorrow the Green Grass tour to pursue other projects. With the departure of his songwriting and vocal partner, Louris could have called it quits as well, but decided to keep the band together and keep releasing albums under the Jayhawks name.
Critical reviews were split on The Jayhawks first two post-Olson releases… 1997′s Sound of Lies and 2000′s Smile. On these releases, Louris seemed to abandon the group’s signature rootsy blend to explore a sound that drew from more pop and rock influences. Without Olson by his side, Louris took the opportunity to experiment a bit and try to expand his sound. He did so even while many fans were waiting and and hoping for a return to The Jayhawks sound of old.
In 2003, that return came in the form of the album Rainy Day Music.
The album’s opening track, “Stumbling Through the Dark,” begins with a finger picked riff that clearly recalls the band’s Byrdsian influences before settling into a loping country beat. The band’s trademark harmonies reappear here as well. This time, however, Louris blends with drummer Tim O’Reagan instead of Olson.
The next track is “Tailspin,” a song that adds an element of rock to the proceedings all while still featuring banjo (played by Bernie Leadon) and steel guitar. This track, along with the folksy rockers “The Eyes of Sarahjane” and “You Look So Young” go the furthest to remind me of the sound The Jayhawks so masterfully captured on Hollywood Town Hall.
The quieter moments on the disc play well here too. “All the Right Reasons” features harmony vocals from alt-popster Matthew Sweet (who also co-wrote “Stumbling Through the Dark”) and is a touching love song without being saccharine. The album closing trio of “Tampa to Tulsa,” “Will I See You in Heaven,” and “Stumbling Trough the Dark (Acoustic)” also provide a nice easy bookend to the proceedings.
Rainy Day Music doesn’t quite stand up to the level of the work The Jayhawks were doing when Olson and Louris were still a pair, but it does hearken back to that sound. This was also one of the albums that was very instrumental in shaping my appreciation of the Americana genre in the early part of this decade. For that reason, it belongs in my Top 10.
The Jayhawks: Tailspin (Buy Album)
The Jayhawks: All the Right Reasons (Buy Album)
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