Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Tawny Ellis 'Ghosts of the Low Country' - Self Release 

Ghosts of the Low Country is a four track EP recorded in Muscle Shoals Fame Studios after Ellis met Rick Hall and was invited down to record. The result is a memorable 4 song EP. The most striking thing on first listen is Ellis’ evocative voice. She has five previous release to her name.The title track of her latest is the story of a Native American, Teh-La-Nay, and the enforced displacement of her tribe to an Oklahoma reservation. It is one of two original songs. The second track Evolve or Die has a tighter sound of voice, drums, guitar and bass pedals with Ellis adding lap steel guitar. It is a song that has a sense of warning tinged with hope;  “… hell’s a big place with an open gate, but heaven’s calling, for there I’m bound.”

Ellis’s partner Gio Lio co-produces with her, co-wrote Ghosts of the Low Country  and adds guitar, bass pedals and Hammond to the recording. The rhythm section is Peter Hamilton and Patrick Ferguson who are joined by guitarist Sean Dunn on a couple of tracks. Desperate Tonight is the third song, written by Mike Manitone from the band Five Eight - from which Ferguson and Dunn are both on loan.

The playing has that vibe that can be captured when the feel is just right. The final song is the well known Alan Block /Donn Hecht song Walking after Midnight. The Patsy Cline version is ingrained in the memory, but this version has an understated feeling, with a tender vocal from Ellis and the musicians delivering an understated performance with brushed drums, low bass pedals, guitar and Ellis’ lap steel. The latter is an instrument she took up from watching her friend Daniel Lanois play. The overall sound is also reflective of Lanois too. It is a rootsy and soulful sound that arguers well for the future of a talent artist. Ellis has also built a reputation as a sculptor and jewellery maker,  but it is her music that has the potential to createa wider impact, as witnessed by the strength these four songs.

Clint Black 'On Purpose' - Blacktop

Killing Time, Black's debut album, was a major success and positioned Black as a front runner in the neo-traditionalist movement of the late 80s. For whatever reason, Black was unable to sustain that high profile and the major label success of contemporaries Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson. He has had a number of charting albums and singles over the years and continues to perform and write.

On Purpose shows that he has not lost his skills as a singer or writer but seems, to these ears, to be missing the vital spark of the best of his previous work. Most artists with Black's track record are, to a degree, conscious of the requirements of getting on radio, having already been there in the past. On Purpose ‘s sound is more now than then and it opens in fine style with one of the best songs, Time For That which has mandolin and electric guitar over a solid beat that features a hard working man "on track for a heart attack" who is looking for some time to kick back. Elsewhere keys and guitar dominate over the judicious use of fiddle and steel and while the latter never leads it remains a distinct flavor. Summertime Song is about writing a song to fit the title, one that is "a real good, feel good" number that might get played a lot and would fit one of the current crop of ‘radio friendly’ boys to a T(and backward ball cap).

The stand-out song is another that could easily fit the bill for Black, or any number of younger artists, is Beer, a song about the universal language of the popular beverage. It has a simple, easily to assimilate message that will be a big crowd sing-along/ pleaser and it could be the song that gets Black back on radio. Again the drum beat is upfront and the guitar rocks and there’s some banjo in there to add a country element. It seems to be trying to be ‘now’. It's not ‘then’ either, but rather seems somewhere in the middle with Black trying to find out what will work for his fans and for radio as this is his first album in ten years.

The closing song, The Last Day, is a ballad with strings that encourages us to live each day as if it could be our last the same theme as Tim McGraw’s Live like you were Dying. This is an admiral sentiment that will find favor with those fans who have stuck with Clint Black throughout his career. It shows off Black's voice to good effect. There is also a duet with his wife Lisa Hartman (You Still Get to Me) that confirms a strong love that indicates that this album is full of songs which mean something personal to Black. He is making music which is positive and he, doubtless, has an audience. Whether he can bring new fans to the fold is yet to be seen.

Clint Black still has a strong and immediately recognizable voice; many would love to have him in these times of somewhat indistinguishable voices and that is a good thing. But in the end, those of us who were hoping for something a little more "country" may have to wait or look elsewhere.

The Malpass Brothers 'Self-Titled' - Organic

There is nothing of the new, neutered country about this retro-sounding brother duo. They are highly relevant to those who love classic country - something they themselves describe as "the real deal". The 12 track album has a broad range of styles that touches on the storytelling sound of Marty Robbins on Here In Alberta I'll Stay to Hank Sr on Baby, We're Really In Love and then to Jerry Lee Lewis on the piano throbbing It'll Be Me written by Jack Clement. Other established writers whom they have picked song from include the aforementioned Williams and Robbins as well as Willie Nelson (the perhaps over-familiar Hello Walls), Charlie and Ira Louvin and Bob McDill.

There nothing that isn't easy and enjoyable here and Doyle Lawson's production is warm and welcoming. The lead and harmony vocals by the brothers Christopher and Taylor are excellent and the band provides very sympathetic playing from David Johnson on steel guitar and fiddle and Jeff Collins on piano with a spot on rhythm section who let the songs and melodies sound as open and fresh as possible.

The Malpass Brothers have written two of the songs and they show that the lads have absorbed traditional songwriting styles. Learn to Love Me Too and I Found Someone to Love fit the relationship themes and don't sound out of place in company. One of the best is the opening take on Bill Anderson's A Death in the Family, a song that is not as morbid as the title might suggest, although it hasn’t an uplifting theme. It's the sort of song that country music does (or rather used to do) so well.

This is the third album from the duo and anyone with a penchant for traditional country will find themselves quite happy to spend time with the brothers. When people decry the current state of the country charts it is often because they haven't sought out such quality acts like the Malpass Brothers who have, and always will, play the music they love. 

Jason Boland and the Stragglers 'Squelch' - Proud Souls

I have been listening to this band since their 1999 album Pearl Snaps and the essential basic premise of the music hasn't changed a lot since then. The band has got better, as has Boland as a writer and singer. They have now reached the stage that they know who they are and who their audience is. Boland had a chapter in Neil Alexander Hamilton's book Outlaws Still at Large and up until then I had not really pegged him as an outlaw; alt-country, insurgent country or whatever the then current tag was, but not necessarily the current outsider tag of "outlaw".

When you butt this up against someone like Eric Church, who has the moves and the talk, Boland wins hands down. Can you imagine a major label sanctioning a track called Fuck, Fight and Rodeo? This is the closing track on the album and one which admonishes those "running the show”, those who control such things as radio. The title refers to the ability of old radios to have a function that kept out, to varying degrees, unwanted noise. This Squelch is a most welcome noise - a set of eleven songs that have energy, intent and substance. The band are tight and tenacious in their delivery of these mainly uptempo, songs that look inward, outward and upward.

The rhythm section of Grant Tracy and Brad Rice (bass and drums respectively) has been with Boland since the ban's inception and they are joined here by guitarist/steel player Cody Angel -a recent addition to the line-up replacing longtime member Roger Ray. The final band member is Nick Worley on fiddle. Boland provides vocals and guitars. The five make a might fine noise as witnessed by songs like I Guess It's Alright to be an Asshole, another song that ain't going to get radio play  soon. The ballad Do You Love Me Any Less? However, could easily fit in to a well-programmed show.

A part of what is know as the Red Dirt scene, Jason and the Stragglers came from Oklahoma and have steadily built a following around the US, especially in Texas and their home state. Their music is a mix of influences and has been honed in the honky-tonks, bars and festival that want to keep the music grounded in real people and places. Boland acknowledges Steve Earle as someone who could rock without compromising the country element. He might also include Merle Haggard and David Allan Coe as well as a singer like Ronnie Milsap which would show the range that most of us listened to early on. These were all singers Boland listened to growing up and with whom he found affinity for a variety of reasons.

The key thing though is being true to himself and those he associates with which gives rise to a song like Christmas in Huntsville which understands the underdog facing prison time. Likewise Fat and Merry allows for living life to the full while you can. Boland and many of his underground contemporaries are in music to make money, while understanding that it's money that keeps any band on the road or in studio recording. This is about an honesty and an integrity that seems to have been lost once you become a part of the record machine. Squelch is a highpoint for Jason Boland and the Stragglers, an album that should tale them to a higher level that will find them gaining new fans while pleasing those who first put on pearl snap shirts and liked what they heard.

The Turnpike Troubadours 'Turnpike Troubadours' - Bossier City 

With this fourth album the Troubadours have reached a highpoint, reaching number 3 in the Billboard Country charts which means they have a set of fans who believe in both them and their music. On the evidence here they are justified as it is a solid and steadfast piece of work. The songs, largely from frontman Evan Felker (either solo or with other band members), are good, honest and literate storytelling that understands how people are and how their lives can be unreal at times. Fiddle and steel are prominent in the mix. Guitarist Ryan Engleman also handles the steel duties with confidence and also sits in the producer's chair (along with engineer Matt Wright). Kyle Nix is the man with the fiddle. They play with guests such as fellow singer/songwriter and former member John Fullbright on keyboards, banjo and accordion. The rhythm section of RC Edwards and Gabe Pearson lay down the driving beat that this train runs on.

The band have re-recorded two songs from their debut album Bossier City (the name of their label) and also cover Doreen from the pens of Old 97 members Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond which is a high energy riff driven song of the unfaithful lady of the title’s name. This is followed by the slow, pain-infused tale of lost love Fall Out of Love that is, in it's delivery and passion, an album highlight. Ringing In the Year and A Little  Song both look inwards to consider how to salvage something from failed or failing relationships. Elsewhere the Troubadours play with a conviction and energy that is invigorating. I was reminded at times of two old favorites of mine as I listened to the album; The Backsliders and Bob Woodruff. Both those artists came from a time when there seemed to be a much broader horizon open to new artists and the emerging sounds of roots/Americana. 

But right now we have a band like The Turnpike Troubadours to believe in and their inroads into the charts, doing it their way - without compromise - is something to celebrate. They are not the sound of Texas dance halls or strict retro routes and as such will not please every taste, but they have easily done enough here and on their previous albums, to gain  respect and reward for sticking to the guns. Their Red Dirt roots music is intermingled with a lot of different influences, but understands where country music came from and where it might go and how it might grow. 

Tiffany Huggins Grant 'Jonquil Child' - Self Release

Huggins is a Nashville based artist who grew up in Georgia and this is her second album. She has a soulful voice that is clear and concise. Jonquil Child continues her exploration of Americana mores. Ain't Nobody Leaves This Place is full of Hammond B3 and finds her at her most soulful and channeling her influence from the great records released by Stax in the past. Throughout the album the balance shifts between the soul aspect and the country side. The confessional One Too Many (written by Pamela Jackson) is a more subtle admission of human failing with pedal steel underscoring a sense of lost opportunity, but is obviously a song whose sentiments Huggins Grant understands. The title song and If You Only Knew are slow burners that give full rein to her voice, a voice that is a subtle yet powerful instrument. There is often a temptation to over-emote when singing, but here she mainly falls on the right side of being diva-esque. Her voice may not yet be as instantly distinctive as some, but is one that will likely find its signature in time.

Producer and guitarist Mark Robinson had gathered together some fine players including drummer Paul Griffith, keyboardist Jen Gunderman and steel player John Heinrich. Huggins Grant also plays acoustic guitar and the assembled musicians do a fine job with her songs. Ten of the twelve are written or co-written by Huggins Grant and show a developing skill, one who is writing to tell her story and in that of others too. The opening song Some Days a Dollar was written by Walt Wilkins and Drew Womack and tells some days are a dollar and some days are only a dime. Life has its ups and downs, a theme that is further considered in other songs here. Many have a late night feel, best enjoyed where you can appreciate the different parts at work. In other words best, they are best listened to where one can hear the songs without distraction. Tiffany Huggins Grant is a talent who can only develop and Jonquil Child is a satisfying enough album of southern country soul.