Reviews by Stephen Rapid


TWO FROM CANADA: A hotbed of some traditionally orientated country music

Ginger St. James One for the Money Busted Flat 

St. James is a Canadian singer and songwriter who has a passion for traditional country, rockabilly and blues. You can add the word rowdy to this description to help sum up her sassy attitude which may spring from her previous involvement in the burlesque scene. This 9 track album also has some more thoughtful and quieter moments like Honeymoon Stage, Best Of Me and You and Somebody Shot Me alongside the more up-tempo stompers like Train Whistle and the hard rockin’ Hair of the Blackdog

St. James has a commanding voice as well as a way with words that suits her chosen musical path. She is accompanied by a band of players including longtime guitarist Snowheel Slim and pianist Chris Altman, who join her on the credits for the mostly self-written songs. The set was produced by James McKenty and it is a step up from her previous entertaining EP release Spank, Sparkle & Growl, recorded with her previous band, The Grinders. One for the Money affirms that St. James is developing her craft in what might be considered a segment of the musical spectrum that is under represented. This is one for the moment.  

Eli Barsi Portrait of a Cowgirl Red Truck Int.

Barsi is an artist with a string of releases under her (cowgirl) belt and one I have not encountered previously. The Canadian roots/country scene is full of artists who tend not to receive much recognition outside their homeland. Barsi’s experience and talents shine on this album, which deals with themes related to farm and ranch life. She also touches on the more personal aspects of relationships such as He’ll be Back Again and I See You Everywhere.  

Barsi’s sound is a fairly satisfying blend of traditional and contemporary. A solid rhythm section gives a radio friendly base under the banjo, fiddle and steel guitar embellishments. Add keyboards and electric and acoustic guitars and you have a layered sound that isn’t retro, but stays within what can be rightly credited as country music. 

She has written all the songs here and the sound has a wide ranging appeal. Perhaps she should be considered as a parallel to singers like Joni Harms and Wylie Gustafson. They all come from a background rooted in the land, horses and a western lifestyle. Indeed Barsi has a number of “western” albums to her credit and Portrait of a Cowgirl fits well, as it is a musical evocation of an attitude and ethos that is fast disappearing, one which many are attracted to but don’t have the opportunity to live. This is something that Barsi considers (as have others) in Big Hat, No Cattle, but in the end the song Country Music Was Made for Saturday Night sums up the letting off steam, end of the week release that country music seems well suited for.

TWO COVERS ALBUMS: Two artists offering their choice of favourite songs - with the mixed reaction that that often entails.

Karl Blau Introducing Karl Blau Bella Union 

This album from Blau is far from an introduction; it is more an introduction to some of his favourites and is being presented as a country/soul album. This is a combination that is big buzz word right now. A look at Blau’s discography on his website highlights some of the numerous releases he has made over a 20 year recording career. 

There are twelve songs on this album which opens with the oft recorded That’s How I Got to Memphis. The sound is, in truth, not overtly country in a sense that fans of honky-tonk or Texas dance floor might imagine. Rather it is a blend of smooth delivery with soulful overtones that allows Blau’s warm, rich, deep vocal to sit front and centre. However, a little against type, there is little brass featured. Strings and keyboards feature with acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitars.

The overall feel is perhaps a take on the more refined countrypolitan Nashville melodious sounds of the 60s and 70s. Producer Tucker Martine gathers together a set of players who clearly understand what the songs need to give them a makeover. How successful this is, and indeed, any cover is, depends on your relationship to the original or best known version. I’m curious as to how many of these songs Blau’s audience would have encountered previously. 

Woman (Sensuous Woman) was recorded by Don Gibson, No Regrets was written by Tom Rush and recorded by the Walker Brothers (amongst others). If I Needed You is perhaps Townes Van Zandt’s best know song. Dreaming My Dreams was written for Waylon Jennings, was a hit in Ireland when covered by Marianne Faithfull and was also covered by Patty Loveless. To Love Somebody is a Bee Gees song that has been recorded by a number of roots/country artists such as Blue Rodeo. The first single from the album is a compelling version of Fallin’ Rain, written by Link Wray. 

There is plenty here to both admire and enjoy and the album may serve as an introduction to Karl Blau’s broader musical world. It might even get some indie fans to explore the richness of country music’s past and in turn open the minds of some usually more strictly focused country fans. In the endit is down to the performance, the singer and the songs. Here the match is good enough to hold attention and to reassess the songs that Blau has chosen. He’s the one wearing the cowboy hat and embroidered jacket on the cover and this gives you a clue as to where he’s coming from this time.

Robert Rex Waller Jr. Fancy Free Western Seeds

Waller fronted the band I See Hawks in LA for some years now before deciding to release this solo outing, funded by Kickstarter. Divided into Side A and Side B, the first song from Side A is his take on Walking through your Town in the Snow and it is a good opening choice as it highlights Waller’s deep baritone voice. Written by Bruce Utah Philips the song sets you up for the Americana that follows, including a melancholic, but uplifting take on Neil Young’s Albuquerque.  From then on there are versions of songs from Ray Davies (Waterloo Sunset), Albert Hammond (The Air That I Breathe) and Dylan’s She Belongs to Me, which features an extended guitar outro. There are also lesser known songs such as the title track or Mike Stinson’s Counting My Lucky Stars. There is also a short piano and vocal version of Amazing Grace 

Each listener will find their own loves and loathes, although nothing here should deserve the latter opinion. Waller has produced the album with Marc Doten and they ring the changes across the songs; some are stripped back while others offer a more cosmic sound. The version of the Doors The Crystal Ship fits that particular sonic sound well.

Doten is at the heart of the sound, playing keyboards, guitar and bass and he is joined by drums, guitar and violin. The album takes each song on its own terms and as such is difficult to pin down to any one single genre direction. Which, if you are listening without a particular preconception, offer a wide ranging listening experience.

With I See Hawks in LA Waller sings original song. Here he is given the freedom to interpret songs that have entered his consciousness in an individual, stylised way that makes the most of his voice and their musical settings. Enjoyment will depend largely on how willing you are to follow him down a winding path.

TWO FROM THE PAST: Two artists offering popular songs, with the mixed reaction that often entails.

Billy ‘Crash’ Craddock Mr Country Rock Humphead

Craddock is a singer whose recordings on this 2CD collection go from 1978 to 1986. He was a vocal stylist rather than a songwriter, recording songs that had a solid enough country backing, but were in many ways more associated with rock and pop. The set opens somewhat ominously with Knock Three Times which was a big country hit for him. After that we get 49 other songs including Dream Lover, You Better Move On, Come a Little Closer, Slippin’ and Slidin’, Think I’ll Go Somewhere (and Cry Myself To Sleep), Sea Cruise and a live version of Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On. Starting out as a rock ’n’ roll/rockabilly singer Craddock released records and toured in the 50’s before taking a career break. After that he returned as a country singer and it is from this period that these recording come.

There is a certain nostalgia about these songs that are largely inoffensive and inessential. They are not without a certain charm and highlight Craddock’s serviceable voice that owes a little to Elvis Presley in tone. The production makes the best of the backing musicians who include Lloyd Green on steel and there is enough variety in the tempo and tone to ensure a solid listenable experience. The penultimate track She Belongs to Me is not the Bob Dylan song but an unrelated, uncredited one. By this time, as exemplified by the final track I Didn’t Hear The Thunder, things had moved on as it is a largely keyboard-based song with backing vocals that is neither rock nor country. Billy “Crash’ Craddock is an performer who largely changed with the times and this compilation misses his early rock phase and goes from country to something more middle of the road.

Dave Dudley Truck Drivin’ Son-of-a-Gun Humphead

Humphead put together these two CD collections and, depending on individual preferences, some hit the spot more than others. This collection spans recordings from 1965 through to 1977, so the production from each period changes the sound and the musical backing styles. The difference between tracks 5 and 6 (You’ve Got to Cry Girl and What We’re Fighting For) is quite wide apart from Dudley’s voice. It is the earlier recordings that largely hit home the most for me.  

The version of Six Days on the Road is not the original version from 1963 but a later recording from 1975. The subject matter Dudley’s best known for are those that dealing with the trucking fraternity. Songs like the aforementioned signature songs along with Me and Ole C.B., Farewell to the Road, Trucker’s Prayer, Truckin’ Dad and the title track. There are also a wide variety of relationships that were also a staple of any singer’s repertoire. You Got to Cry Girl, a song he co-wrote in 1972, sounds like mainstream crooner pop to me. 

The majority of the songs are more about relationships than on the road themes. What is apparent throughout is the strength of Dave Dudley’s deep baritone vocals. He seems at home with the choices that the producers made to keep the songs relevant with radio styles when these songs were recorded. One writer Dudley turned to was Tom T Hall who provides some 14 of the songs - two co-written with Dudley and one, Day Drinkin’, on which Hall and Dudley duet on a song illustrating the title.

There is no getting away from the period sound of the production on these tracks, but that is part and parcel of the appeal. Dudley’s voice was suitable for this material, but he is most fondly remembered for the truckin’ songs. However there is enough here to show that Dudley loved what he did.

TWO FROM THE SAME SOURCE: Michel McDermott is the primary songwriter for both of these albums.

The Westies Six on the Out Pauper Sky

On this second Westies album the band continue in the vein that they set up on their fine debut release. The band is fronted by Michael McDermott and Heather Horton with five other players including guitarist Will Kimbrough and bassist Lex Price, who also produced and mixed the album. For the uninitiated there are some comparisons to the writing and sounds of Dylan, Springsteen and Elliott Murphy in the mix, but the Westies stand on their own feet and make a sound that will appeal to fans of certain periods of those other artist’s work.

McDermott is the writer and main singer here and the songs are dark and dirty and deal with the lives of those who exist in shadows and on the margins of a largely uncaring society. The songs tell truths and have undoubted passion and understanding for those who inhabit these songs. The Gang’s All Here is a strong ballad with tin-whistle that suggests a certain Irishness in ethos and community. Like You Used To is another ballad, sung this time by Horton, that seeks love from another in a way that may have been lost over time. Love is something that these characters seek and other songs here look for the meaning of that. Everything is All I Want for You and This I Know are declarations of hard won solace.

The opening If I Had a Gun pulls no punches in that the lethal weapon could either be “pointed back at me” or equally used to “blow them all to hell” and the sense of desperation is palpable. Henry McCarty is the tale of an Irish-American outlaw better known as Billy the Kid. It tells his tale, one often told before, in a way that has an understanding for who and how he became that legend. Sirens is the about murder and the deep devastating loss that results from loss of family. These may be not the stuff of mainstream music, but the performances here make these songs stand up and fight for themselves and they put up a good fight.

Michael McDermott Willow Springs Pauper Sky

Ostensibly this is a solo album from Westies frontman Michael McDermott, although the cast of players has names common to this album and Six on The Out. McDermott sits in the production chair this time, and while the Westies recorded their album in Nashville, this album was recorded in the titular Willow Springs in Illinois. McDermott started out as a lauded songwriter and singer and released his debut album 620 W. Surf  in 1991. Stephen King called him “one of the greatest songwriters in the world.” Indeed his Irish heritage has given him the gift of storytelling.

This album seems a little more oriented around an acoustic guitar, folkish approach, though the full band is present throughout to fill out the melodies and add a texture to the sound palate. The songs take a similar approach to those on the Westies album in that they are considered and concerned tales of the lives of everyday working or unemployed folk. 

A wider audience has so far eluded McDermott and that may be due to a superficial comparison to Bruce Springsteen’s work. That may be something initially obvious, but there are songs her that I’m sure the Boss would have been proud to have penned. Both men come from the “Judas” tradition of amped up electric folk rock in any case. This is something McDermott addresses in Folksinger. “I don’t wanna be a folksinger anymore, I wanna hear some big guitars.” In truth though he may always be a folksinger at heart , though one who also rocks hard.

There is a strong sense of melody and lyricism on display throughout the album. Soldiers of the Same War notes that man has been “fighting for a thousand years” and that war and all it brings is a constant, something we never seems to learn from. From reading the lyrics in the booklet one gets a sense of an overall despair and downbeat hearts. The feeling that a person who is a half empty guy who if he “wasn’t laughing … you could bet that he would cry”. But that would deny the positivity that is inherent in McDermott’s music and life. He has been through bad times and has come out the other side. In Let a Little Light In and Shadow in the Window, he underlines a need and search for love, both to give and to receive. 

I would place him along side Elliott Murphy as singer/songwriters who plows their own furrow, who continue to write songs that are relevant and real. They are artists who exist outside mainstream commercial success but who may be the better for it in terms of their artistic endeavours. Willow Springs is an album to savour, one to admire and one that salutes the human heart for all its frailties, faults and fervour.

Ginger St. James Spank, Sparkle & Growl Self-Release

A powerful torch singer with a burlesque background and a sound that touches on blues, rockabilly, country and jazz. All elements that came together in the 50s (and earlier) to create rock 'n' roll and what we now call roots music. This self produced ep of 6 tracks, 5 written by St. James gives the world a chance to listen to this Canadian performer's dynamic delivery. With her band The Grinders she lays out a soild beat behind their singers force of nature naughtiness. Boom Boom Room is a raunchy riot of upfront love and licentiousness. There's plenty of YouTube evidence of her live libido but here her recorded renditions stand up too. Her vaudevillian vantage point may be taken from a different era but sounds right up to date and one cannot escape the similarity in her approach to that of Imelda May's own. They draw from similar sources and attitudes but each has their own audience and, no doubt, developed with awareness of the other but both have a sense of direction and devotion to their chosen path that makes them equally rewarding. Spank, Sparkle & Growl is the first step that will hopefully see St. James develop and expand on her elemental essence and bring it to a wider audience.