Reviews By Stephen Rapid

The Rizdales  Blue Ain’t the Word: A Tribute to the Music of Ray Price - Self Releas

Canadian band the Rizdales have made  a wonderful tribute for the singer many consider to be arguably country music’s finest vocalist. Price’s passing has been largely ignored in mainstream Nashville, which makes this collection doubly better. What is even more rewarding is that the Rizdales have not attempted to duplicate his sound, rather they take some of his better known as well as some lesser known songs and recorded them as if they were their own songs, giving them the Rizdales honky-tonk treatment. Tara and Tom Dunphy are the band’s mainstays and they are joined by Steven Crew on drums, Blair Heddle on guitars and Oscar Macedo on upright bass with Burke Carroll on steel guitar and Michael Bonnell on piano among the musical guests. This is essentially the same team who made their last album, the equally worth hearing, How the Marriage Ended.

There is no doubting their love of Ray Price, and traditional country in general, and they bring songs from the early, more honky-tonk, part of Price’s career which fit easily alongside later countrypolitan hits like For the Good Times and Night Life. And they do so with great energy and style. The Dunphys share the vocal leads and this give some of the songs an unusual female perspective. Both Tom and Tara excel in the vocal department and considering that they are inviting direct comparison to a master,  give highly credible performances, as does the assembled team of musicians. Again the decision to record them with their sound is part of what makes the album work not only as a tribute but as a piece in its own right.

The playing is tight and effective and Tara is also a fine fiddle player as well as vocalist, while Tom holds his own on acoustic guitar. All of which makes the Rizdales a band who keep a notable tradition alive and bring some fresh energy to something more timeless.

The fourteen songs include such strong numbers as Bill Anderson’s City Lights,  the Kris Kristofferson classic For the Good Times and My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You written by Bob Wills and Lee Ross. These are songs that were well crafted and have more than stood the test of time. The Dunphys are the producers and directors here and have made an album will doubtless be rank as one of the best tributes around. Maybe blue ain’t the word; “hot” may be a better one.

Sam Lewis Waiting On You - Brash

There is a t-shirt on Lewis’ site that says, above and below his name, the words ‘country’ and ‘soul’ which, in so many ways, sums up the direction that Sam Lewis is heading. Both Leon Russell and Willie Nelson have been cited as a reference points and Lewis has said that he sees himself following the path of observational troubadours like John Prine and Fred Eaglesmith, an interesting combination. With his second album Lewis finds himself in good company who help him on the way to achieving his vision of that classic combination.

Producer Oliver Wood, Wood Brothers band, helmed a 3 day live-in-the-studio session at Southern Ground Studios in Nashville.  Players such as Mickey Raphael, Darrell Scott, Kenny Vaughan, Will Kimbrough and the McCrary Sisters all took part in the recording. The songs, the voice and the aspirations were all Lewis’. He has a warm, full voice which is effortlessly comfortable in the place he finds himself. Lewis fronts the band with authority and while his voice may not yet be immediately identifiable, it is quality. There is a relaxed feel across the grooves, which, given the nature of the recording may not be how Lewis felt, but it didn’t let it show in his assured delivery.

The songs have a confessional aspect that is exemplified in Love Me Again or in the heavier beat of Things Will Never Be The Same. Place is the subject, in one way or the other, in Texas and Virginia Avenue. The former is a salutary piece that features Raphael’s emotive harmonica. The latter is a folk song that reminisces about growing up. It is stripped back to voice and resonator and acoustic guitar and underscores the strength of Lewis’ songwriting and voice by bringing it back to a simple place that gives the song great resonance. The twelve song album closes with I’m Coming Home, a song that starts with the same stripped back approach but slowly builds up by adding piano over the rhythm section of JT Cure and Derek Mixon before finishing with testifying background vocals reinforcing the sentiment of the title and the both spiritual and geographic nature of that promise. Whether full on or back to basics Waiting On You is a tasty album to enjoy at length and Lewis is an artist who gives you so much to savour. 

Tom Van Stockum Self-Titled - Self Release

Growing up playing in his father’s band in Louisville, Kentucky gave Tom Van Stockum a taste for the likes of J. D. Crowe as well as for the wordsmith magic of such craftsmen as John Prine. Now based in New York, Van Stockum has released his debut EP, six song original songs that have a harder edge than his initial influences might suggest.

The traditional sounding ’Til the Ohio Don’t Flow is a strong song that considers that the  protagonist will persist until he achieves his objectives or the titular river ceases its function. He is nicely balanced on the song vocally by his wife Brittany. Other songs that are notable are Closer to the Ground, an uptempo guitar-driven tale of a high flying lady. The sound is an Americana blend of alt, folk, rock and roots, nothing that you haven’t heard before but delivered with enough heart to make it worth hearing in its own right.

Van Stockum covers all this and more on the tracks here, but manages to make it all sound cohesive and captivating. The band of players that join him give him solid support with some brass added by Peter Ecklund to good effect as required. This is a real foundation of bass and drums with both piano and guitar adding to the overall detail of the individual song structures. Producer Alex P. Wernquest gives the sound a robust clarity that serves the music well. Von Stockum is a part of a thriving DIY scene that is making music to be heard but, perhaps, more crucially, for their own satisfaction (and sanity). Everyone who makes music wants it to be heard but if it doesn’t come from within then we can usually do without.

This six song set has enough variety that it allows Van Stockum plenty of scope to develop his songs and sound. There are a couple of stand-out here that indicate that he is a performer who will develop and hone his influences and writing as he play more shows and gains the life experiences that will filter into his songs to give them a sense of unvarnished truth - with three chords or even more. In the end Tom Van Stockum has made an impressiver first mark on his way to reaching a wider world.

Martha L. Healy Better Days - Self Release

Glasgow girl goes to Nashville and records an album. That’s the story of Better Days. Healy grew up listening to Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline and the blues/rock tones of Bonnie Raitt and the Eagles. She absorbed those sources of inspiration and a whole lot more, I’m sure, while others around her were into the pop and rap of the day. She obviously learned from these acts and soon began writing her own songs and has a credit on seven of the eleven songs here. Phil Ferns, a fellow Glaswegian and the album’s executive producer, co-wrote some with her and two on his own. Too Much Vodka is one of the more buoyant tracks, a ‘girlfriends get wild’ type of song. By way of contrast there is the more acoustic setting of Nobody’s Dead, a mandolin and fiddle-based song about being apart from a loved one.

The influences mentioned above neglect to include her Celtic influences, which are very apparent in the song Burtonport which is a tribute to her family. The CD booklet includes pictures of a visit there and a picture of her grandparents’ wedding, as well as a photo of her own. These show a sense of family and location and could easily have come from a country and Irish album. It is also the closest her voice moves away from more universal phrasing on the other songs.

You can’t discount that she has a strong voice and inhabits these songs which touch on several aspects of a broad country palate. The album was mostly recorded in Nashville with bassist David Spicher. He has played with a range of artists such as Lorrie Morgan at the Grand Ole Opry and Sarah Gayle Meech in a Lower Broadway club. Spicher has brought in some like minded players who gave the music the range that it requires from Buddy Spicher’s fiddle to Tommy Hannum’s pedal steel. Some additional recording also took place in Glasgow including keyboards, banjo, fiddle and backing vocal overdubs. Songs like the title track, which has harmonica and Cajun tinges has an upbeat feel. The declaration of fidelity in The Lovin’ Kind, has an accordion which takes the song to an altogether different place.

Healy joins the growing number of artists making credible country music of many hues in the UK and Ireland. She is writing her own songs, exploring the music she makes and makes sure what she records sounds the way she wants to which is to be applauded. Where her ambitions are going to depend on circumstances that are not always under her control, but on the strength of Better Days she has a future, but a limited one perhaps. However doing it the way she wants will lead to better days and already has, if the smile on her face on the cover is anything to go by.

Light Over There Self Titled - Self Release

This is the debut five track release for an Irish American duo, Aileen Henderson and Rex Habeman, who stuck up a friendship and began this recording project via the internet. The backing tracks were recorded in the U.S. and the vocal track in Ireland. The producers for each part were John Richardson and Ray Diamond. Henderson and Habeman has written all five songs. The sound is roots rock with solid bass and drums, over which either takes the lead vocal and the middle is filled with keyboard, mandolin and rockin’ guitar; witness She Cries to You. There is a strong sense of melody that has seen comparison with Fleetwood Mac. This is not surprising as Habeman has a rock background.

Perhaps more surprising is that they will meet in person for the first time to prepare for the first gigs together. For all that, it sounds cohesive and when they join together vocally, as in I Ain’t that Bad, you sense that a common goal has been achieved and that it is a testament to how distance and age is no real barrier to making music these days.

The song Where Memories Live deals with dementia, something that was personal to Habeman as a close relation suffered from Alzheimers. The music overall is focused roots rock that never overwhelms the vocals but is far removed from the acoustic guitar bedroom demos that Henderson had posted on her YouTube channel.

All in all this is an auspicious start that could lead to interesting things on a full album recorded when both are together in the studio. The combination of different backgrounds, age and experiences could well create something vital. For now these five songs are enough to be going on with and to warrant further investigation and illumination.

Bumper Jacksons Too Big World  - Self Release

The first song, Coffee Mama, opens in 30’s jazz style with clarinet and trombone prominent and then the steel guitar takes us to the dance halls of 50s. This mix of jazz, country and more, is neither new or unique, but the way it is delivered here is justified by the exuberance with which it is played by the band. The vocals are ably handled by the two vocalists, Jess Eliot Myhre and Chris Ousley. Both have a presence which holds your attention and give the songs both focus and gravitas. The songs are a mix of traditional and well chosen covers. The “and more” comment is readily apparent in the version of Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down, which opens with a dynamic vocal from Myhre over a syncopated rhythm and trombone, only to be offset by an off-kilter, but oh so right bluesy guitar solo!

Bumper Jacksons (which also includes Alex Lacquement on upright bass, Brian Priebe on trombone, Dan Cohen playing suitcase percussion and Dave Hadley on pedal steel) are a forceful, inventive combo who balance the quieter songs with up-tempo, old-timey exhilaration. Adventure Story, I learned I was Wrong and Jubilee all dial it down to slow, soulful mediations. The latter with the two voices in duet mode has some effective fiddle playing (from guest Anna Roberts Gevalt) that sets it more as a folk ballad that the jazz inflections of some of the other material. The include a healthy 16 tracks and a near hour running time, but because there is such a wide ranging approach to style and tempo the album never overstays it’s welcome.

The final track is from the pen of singer and guitarist Chris Ousley and show that their original songs can fit with the other, older material. This is something that will enable them to develop as a band and tailor their sound with their own songs. Hell is Hot is a goodtime New Orleans styled slice of fun that caps off an entertaining and heartwarming album. The band are currently based in the Washington DC area, which has had a thriving roots scene for some time now. They have made their mark there, winning music awards. But they deserve a wider recognition and as the likes of Pokey Lafarge make international inroads, the Bumper Jacksons might find the world big but also quite appreciative. 

The Grahams Glory Bound - 12 South

The Grahams are a husband and wife duo who have been making music together since their teens. This, their second album, is a lively and dynamic set of songs written by the duo with Bryan McCann. It was produced by Wes Sharon and recorded in a studio in Norman, Oklahoma with a set of musicians that included the producer on bass as well as the likes of Byron Berline on fiddle and mandolin, John Fulbright on piano and Ryan Engleman on guitar and pedal steel. Sharon has previously worked with notable artists John Fulbright and Parker Millsap. He has delivered a concise, big sounding album of country roots music that centres around the duo’s vocals and memorable songs. Alyssa Graham has a particularly forceful and assertive vocal that has both power and passion and is the perfect focal point for their music. Douglas Graham handles the back-up vocals and harmonies, alongside Camille Harp, as well as playing guitar and Dobro.

The end result is one that immediately appeals as a strong slice of Americana that won’t fail to get toes tapping and engage the listener. Just listen to Kansas City with it’s driving fiddle and twangy guitar or the opening song Glory Bound with it’s reflection of time of misspent youth. Not that they can’t take their collective foots off the throttle when required, as on the more acoustic sounding (and suggestive) Biscuits.  Blow Wind Blow is a song which fits the general theme of travel and times gone by, and with having to deal with the consequences of earlier actions. It is a particularly poignant consideration of the sometimes debilitating effects of loneliness.

The Grahams have delivered a set of songs that will, doubtless, find favour with a varied set of listeners, as there are many memorable moments. The lasting impression is of the duo’s vocal prowess and their well-constructed material They have also been involved in a new documentary, directed by the Mississippi Allstars’ Cody Dickinson, titled Rattle The Hocks (a trailer can be viewed online on their website); it follows their train travels and the influence of that mode of transport on American roots music. In their current endeavours they appear to be moving on down a very productive and pleasing line.