Kayla Ray Yesterday and Me Self Release
Less than half a minute into Rockport, the opening track on Yesterday and Me, and Kayla Ray’s husky drawl and edgy tale of looming despair and heartache had me hooked. The combination of her distinctive and very country vocal and the unfolding tale stopped me in my tracks, getting my full attention. It’s the first of twelve, often compelling stories, the album contains, each one tumbling effortlessly into the next, by an artist that is as brutal in her candidness as she is gifted in her song writing. The stories don’t deliver many happy endings and encompass all the elements that contribute to a great country album, with hurtin’, cheatin’, lovin’, leavin’ and drinkin’ always close to the surface. However, the album’s tales of disarray read like a personal diary and stand head and shoulders above the majority of formula written albums that masquerade as country recordings these days.
The previously noted Rockfort is a hard-hitting story of a woman’s intended liberation and escapism only to degenerate into drug addiction and suicide. The alcohol fuelled Hell of a Day to Drink All Night is a hell raising and somewhat tongue in cheek up tempo journey and the Keith Whitley written Once A Week Cheaters is a dreamy duet that pays homage to Dolly and Porter, with Ray and Colton Hawkins sharing vocals. Pills tackles the thorny subject of anti-depressants in a no holds barred manner but not without a slice of humour, the type of song that Elizabeth Cook was writing in her early career. Fair Warning addresses domestic abuse, Camel Blues laments doomed love ("it takes two hard working fools to build a wall, it takes two fools in love to make it fall’’) and title track Yesterday and Me is reflective, stained with regret and broken dreams of unfulfilled expectations.
Ray was born and reared in Waco, Texas and took full advantage of the musical opportunities offered to her at a young age, which included performing with Jimmy Gimble’s family band The Gimbles and eventually acting as tour manager for Jason Eady. Her debut recording Love and Liquor from 2014 highlighted her distinctive and very country vocals and suggested an artist with the potential to write clever sassy lyrics to match. That album was produced by Jason Eady, who obviously recognised her potential when she worked for him. This time around Jason Eady is joined by Pat Manske (Robert Earl Keen, Joe Ely, Tom Russell, Wayne Hancock) as co-producers and the pairing is inspired. Avoiding the temptation to over produce – the ruination of so many country albums in recent times - they achieve the perfect balance between Ray’s vocals and the stellar contributions of some crack musicians. The players are Joshua Barnard on guitar, Cody Braun on fiddle, Dick Gimble on upright bass, Ray Rodriguez on drums, Bukka Allen on piano, Jason Clyde Cartier on electric bass and Geoff Queen on steel guitar and dobros, whose contribution is particularly central to the overall quality of many of the tracks.
Kayla Ray possesses the ability to articulate true life stories of pain, loss and waste, with a dynamic similar to that of Brandi Clark and Kacy Musgraves but with far more edge and delightful guiltlessness, avoiding any degree of sugar coating on her parables. She’s unlikely to grace the stage at The Grand Ole Opry and country music radio stations will no doubt run a mile from the album - two factors that suggest a great traditional country album from a hell raising and fearless young lady that’s not going to be shackled. Thank God for that! A contender for album of the year for me.
Pat Reedy and The Longtime Goners That’s All There Is (And There Ain’t No More) Muddy Roots
There’s a somewhat charming innocence to Pat Reedy, as if he’s been taken by surprise by the critical acclaim for his recently released and second album, the wonderfully titled That’s All There Is (And There Ain’t No More). It’s not too long since Reedy was toiling on building sites to make ends meet, writing and performing in the little spare time available to him. Prior to his days on construction sites, Reedy paid his dues as a busker in New Orleans, learning his trade and eventually hooking up with some other New Orleans street musicians to form the first incarnation of his backing band, The Longtime Goners. Trips to Nashville followed, where his performances began to raise a few eyebrows, gaining him a reputation as an old school, no frills artist, delivering genuine country music without any extraneous bells and whistles. Reedy has managed to translate his live shows seamlessly on to this album, thanks to the excellent production by Richard Bailey, who creates the perfect mix between instrumentation and Reedy’s alluring monotone vocals.
Bloodshot Heart gets things underway, with enough hooks and twang to draw you in on first listen,followed by Lucky I’m Alive which includes some sweet pedal steel by Leo Grassl. A reality check on Music City is included compliments of Nashville Tennessee At 3AM, (“Everyone’s an outlaw until the cocaine wears off, the only thing that’s cheap in these bars is talk’’). Some marvellous fiddle playing introduces the classic country sound of Wedding Ring and the rip roaring You Don’t Have To Tell Me Again is laced with clever witticisms and killer guitars and pedal steel (“you say I like living dangerous, you must take me for some kind of fool, there’s arithmetic that runs my life that you don’t learn in school’’). That track could very well be a precursor for the title song and album highlight That’s All There Is etc, a leaving song as his woman packs her bags for another man.
It’s difficult to exclude a mention of any track on the album such is the quality and Conversation With Jesus also deserves note. Out of the Hayes Carll school of songwriting it refers to an imaginary conversation with the Lord after escaping injury in a drunken car crash where Reedy is given sound advice. ("Lay off whiskey and remember this one thing, Holy-rollin’ preaching just ain’t worth a damn, What matters most in life is how you treat your fellow man"). Funny Thing About A Hammer laments the endless toil of the working man and the album is bookended by a lively train song Coal Train Blues.
I really can’t overstate how much I’m continuing to savour this album and finding it’s melodies unshakable. Let’s hope it gets the exposure it so richly deserves and that Reedy follows in Joshua Hedley and JP Harris’ footsteps in being recognised as one of the premier ‘country’ artist performing in Nashville this year. A must buy for lovers of ‘real’ country music.
Cliff Westfall Baby You Win Self Release
From time to time judging a book by its cover is not such a bad idea. Without doubt this was the case with New York based artist Cliff Westfall’s knockout album Baby You Win. The striking album cover design is very much in the ‘pulp fiction’ expression and a fitting metaphor for the music contained within. It was designed by New York artist and musician Billy Woodward, whose previous employers include Rolling Stone, Sun Studio and National Geographic. Very much a retro sleeve made for twelve inch vinyl, it’s front cover is striking and the rear cover notes the six tracks on both side one and side two. Westfall also hired some New York big guns to feature on the album, including Scott Metzger (Shooter Jennings, Nicole Atkins, Stanton Moore) on guitar, Dan Lead (Kevin Morby, Norah Jones) on pedal steel and Jeremy Chatzky (Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Laura Cantrell) on bass. Recording took place at Trout Recording in Brooklyn, produced by Bryce Goggin and Graham Norwood, who manage to achieve the perfect balance between vocals and instruments.
Most impressively the musical content more than matches the packaging with an equally retro country sound that instantly recalls early Dwight Yoakam on the opener It Hurt Her To Hurt Me and does not contain a weak moment over the course of the eleven tracks that follow. Till The Right One Comes Along is unadulterated classic country, tingling piano and plenty of twang keeping pace with Westfall’s elongated vocals. The Man I Used To Be and A Live If You Must slip back a gear or two, the former a tale of regret and remorse, the latter – with honeyed backing vocals from Barbara Endes - visiting denial and unacceptance. Hanging On, written by Ira Allen and Buddy Mize, and a hit for The Gosdin Brothers in 1967, is the one cover on the album, a slick delivery sympathetic to the original. The Odds Were Good closes the album in style, chunky guitar working alongside Westfall’s tale of visiting an Oklahoma dive bar.
Baby You Win is classic West Coast country via New York and satisfyingly a further indication that real country music is alive and healthy outside Austin and East Nashville. A majestic recording that hopefully will not be ignored. You really need to get your hands on this one!
Jon Byrd Dirty Ol’ River Longleaf Pine
The title of Jon Byrd’s debut solo album, recorded back in 2007, was Byrd’s Auto Parts, following a career of performing as a sideman previous to its release. The Tee-shirt available for purchase with the album had the slogan "Byrd’s Auto Parts: We Don’t Rock Ever," printed on the front. The catch phrase just about sums up the Alabama born musician to a tee (pardon the pun). Byrd is pure country with a distinctive semi spoken vocal style and clever songs that inevitably are accompanied by pedal steel guitar. Equally impressive live, Byrd currently performs a weekly residency at Bridie's Bar in Nashville where he delivers two hour sets, generally alongside Paul Niehaus on pedal steel.
Dirty Ol’ River offers ten tracks with a common thread, clever well-constructed songs, delivered by Byrd’s gnarly deep vocal with some sweet, sad pedal steel always close by. The pedal steel on the album is courtesy of Eddie Lange, a ‘go to’ player in Nashville for many years. The opener I Get Lostis the album’s tour de force, but there lots to savour before the closing song, a cover of Steve Young’s Many Rivers. The toe tapping You Taught Me How and the tongue in cheek If Texas Is So Great all work well, as does the Willie Nelson sounding Silent Night. Well-chosen covers include Tammy Wynette/Billy Sherrill’s ‘Til I Can Make It On My Own and Giving The Devil His Due, written by Davis Raines. All in all, a clutter free bunch of songs by an artists who appears uncompromising and remarkably comfortable in his own skin. Lovers of Tom Russell will certainly warm to Dirty Ol’ River and understandably so.
Currently residing in Nashville, Byrd recorded the album locally at TJ Tunes under the guidance of Thomm Jutz whose previous employers included Nancy Griffith, Todd Snider, Jason Ringenberg and Otis Gibbs. An album well worth checking out - you won’t be disappointed.
James Houlahan The Wheel Still In Spin Gumbo Luvah
An album that had me scratching my head on first listen but unravelled and revealed itself after a few more spins. Difficult to define genre wise, it skits between folk, experimental indie and mainstream across its twelve tracks. Houlahan’s website bio describes his music as ‘eclectic Americana’, creating another sub-genre which does not really inform or prepare the listener’s expectations. A meeting of minds between Jim White and Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) possibly best describes the album, which includes two stunning tracks in the achingly beautiful All I’ve Got and the almost gothic Stuck In Between, alongside the empirical Spirit/Music and a cover of Joe Ely’s Indian Cowboy. Echoes of Neil Young present themselves in the closing track California.
This is the fourth album from Houlahan, a founding member of Boston bands The Dogs On Television and The Jody Grind. His music has been used in both TV commercials and in films. His composition Going Home (For Thanksgiving) featured in film Little Pink earlier this year alongside contributions from David Crosby.
Like the aforementioned Jim White and Conor Oberst, it’s unlikely the wheel will ever stop spinning for Houlahan, landing him in one particular musical genre. No harm either, as his eccentricities and musical detours are exactly what makes this album most appealing.
Kerry Fearon Honky Tonk Girl Self Release
There’s certainly no questioning Kerry Fearon’s work ethic, enthusiasm and energy. Together with holding down a career as a teacher and hosting a radio show on Downtown Radio, she also presents her own tv show on the Keep It Country channel every Friday. What does she do in her spare time, you might ask? Well, in the limited downtime she’s had this year, the South Armagh young lady has recorded a covers album of ‘close to her heart’ standard country classic songs, some from yesteryear and some from more recent times.
Recent years have also been traumatic for Fearon with the loss of her father, a well-known local singer, in 2013 having been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease the previous year. Turning tragedy into positivity, and having been too shy to sing in public, she vowed to honour her father’s legacy by deciding in her own words ‘not to waste her own voice anymore’. She recorded a few tracks herself which were eventually uploaded to Soundcloud by a friend and got some very positive feedback.
Those reactions resulted in Fearon having the confidence to release a couple of singles before embarking on recording Honky Tonk Girl. What particularly impresses me about the album is Fearon’s reluctance to go down the country crossover route – which may have been an obvious choice – instead she has selected classic country songs that are dear to her. It may be an exercise in ‘testing the waters’ prior to considering penning her own material for future recordings, but on the evidence of her vocals – and indeed the musicianship – she has passed her entrance exam with flying colours. Jessi Coulter’s Storms Never Last opens the album in fine style and classics such as Loretta Lynn’s Honky Tonk Girl, Maybelle Carter’s Juke Box Blues and a particularly impressive delivery of Gram Parson’s Luxury Liner all work. Also included are two Ashley Munroe co-writes, I’m Good At Leavin’ and If The Devil Don’t Want Me.
The album was recorded and produced by (former bass player with Van Morrison) Clive Culberston at his own No Sweat Studio in Coleraine, Co. Derry.
Fearon will, without doubt, continue her ascendancy in the music industry in Ireland or abroad. Whether her career path travels the roads of presenter or performer, or a combination of both remains to be seen. She most certainly has the vocal ability, personality and drive and if those talents crossover into song writing, watch this space.
The Weight Band World Gone Mad Self Release
Former members of The Band, Jim Weider and Randy Ciarlante performed at Levon Helm’s Woodstock New York Barn in 2013, joining original Band member Garth Hudson to perform "Songs of The Band." Following the success and positive feedback to that event, Weider decided to recruit others to form The Weight Band, a vehicle to continue the tradition and legacy of a group many consider to be one of the most influential forefathers of what some decades later would become known as Americana.
Five years on and after touring and performing classic Band material, Weider and his colleagues have taken a giant step forward in recording their debut album, which includes eight self-penned songs among the eleven tracks that feature on the album. Indeed, the final track is a live and rousing version of Remedy, originally recorded for The Band’s 1993 Jerico album, which was co-written by Jim Weider. The aptly titled World Gone Mad kicks the album off in fine style, Weider’s slick mandolin playing and a harmony driven chorus setting the template for what is to follow. Big Legged Sadie would sit comfortably on Levon Helm’s 2007 Dirt Farmer album. Wish You Were Here Tonight, a beautifully constructed ballad, slows things down temporarily before You’re Never Too Old (To Rock ‘N’ Roll) and Every Step Of The Way raise the tempo once more.
Joining Weider in The Weight Band to create a supergroup of sorts are a bunch of highly regarded and seasoned musicians, a number who have connections or have performed with Levon Helm, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, B.B. King and Al Green. Michael Bram plays drums and vocals, Brian Mitchell keyboards and vocals, Matt Zeiner also keyboards and vocals and Albert Rogers bass and vocals.
As expected the album follows a similar landscape to the original Band material with shared vocals, multi instrumentation and timeless material. World Gone Mad establishes The Weight Band as much more than merely a tribute or cover band but an essential ingredient in keeping the gospel according to The Band alive and kicking
Mark Wayne Glasmire Can’t Be Denied Traceway
Pennsylvania born Glasmire had been a closet musician since the age of ten, finally plucking up the courage to perform in public by an insistent college girlfriend who encouraged him to play at a coffeehouse at Kutztown State University. Having completed college he performed semi-professionally, playing in New York by night, while working on construction sites by day.
To fulfil his ambitions as a career musician Glasmire pitched his tent in Nashville, before moving to Dallas and eventually settling in Arlington, Texas, where he currently resides. His song writing has been acknowledged with awards in The B.W. Stephenson Competition in Dallas, The Dallas Songwriters Association International Songwriting Competition and The GINA/LAWIM Songwriting Competition in Los Angeles and most notably the Grand Prize in the Country Song section of the 2010 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at Merlefest.
By his own admission one of the challenges his musical career has faced from the outset has been to establish himself in a particular genre and capture the appropriate listenership. ‘When I spent time in New York, people told me I should be in Nashville. When I moved to Nashville, they told me I should be in California. Now I live in Texas!’. Pre- Americana, his style would have been described as ‘country rock’, closer in texture to The Eagles than Gram Parsons, but his writing style also brings to mind Guy Clark at times, an artist that Glasmire had the pleasure of supporting. Other notable performers that he also supported include Jesse Winchester, Gordon Lightfoot, Tracy Chapman and Dierks Bentley.
Borderline – a common song title in recent times – Those Nights and the title track Can’t Be Deniedare the pick of the crop on what is Glasmire’s seventh studio album. Released on the Traceway Records label, the twelve-track album was co-produced by Glasmire with John Albani at his Sonic Eden Studios in Nashville.