Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives Way Out West Superlatone/Humphead

The latest album from this collective is further example of the quartet’s prowess in bringing some hardcore country music to the masses. For Marty, this is a life-long commitment. Way Out West, as the title indicates, is loosely themed with tales of a temporal nature together with the various  temptations and travels in the American West. The album opens with the ambient Desert Prayer (Part 1) which features the voice and drum of Lakota native Everette Helper. That sets the mood for the band instrumental Mojave, one of several on the album. Buddy Mize and Dallas Frazier co-write Lost On The Desert which follows, a simple tale of being adrift in the sun-drenched heat with devilish distractions. It was originally recorded by Johnny Cash and a song that Stuaret remembered when this project was in production. The title track follows. It is a slow paced cautionary tale of a pharmaceutical enhanced entrance into some of the wide-open spaces, in every sense. It is also the story of Big Bill Chisum and a Johnny Cash prison concert.

The Fabulous Superlatives on this occasion welcome bassist and steel guitar player Chris Scruggs to their midst although the former holder of that role Paul Martin, who adds bass and harmony vocals to a couple of songs. Otherwise Stuart is accompanied by his usual top notch team of Kenny Vaughn on guitar and Harry Stinson on drums and vocals. Another factor in the success of the album is producer (and Heartbreaker) Mike Campbell who brings, at times, a broader palate to the sound that not only has elements of his regular musical employment but also of that time in the early 90s when elements of British beat blended neatly with some Bakersfield twang. This is perhaps best exemplified by Whole Lotta Highway (With A Million Miles To Go) a Stuart-penned song of the trucker’s life. Campbell is also a player, adding guitar to the arrangement.

The instrumentals include El Fantasma Del Toro, Quicksand and Torpedo. All are effective in adding to the flavour of the album’s theme and sit as bullet points between the vocal led songs. Air Mail Special is given an up-tempo electric guitar picking workout from Stuart and Vaughn. It is a song written by Charlie Christian, Benny Goodman and James B. Mundy which was later something of a bluegrass standard. Here it is given a vibrant country music makeover that shows the versatility of both the song and the band. On Please Don’t Say Goodbye they use a string arrangement by Kirstin Wilkinson that sees the string quartet playing a role that might otherwise have been taken by pedal steel. It adds much to the songs overall mood of hoping against hope. The second version of Desert Prayer is a brief atmospheric unaccompanied vocal choral that leads into Wait For The Morning, a song that is imbued with hope and promise. The album closes with a reprise of the title song where the string quartet is again used to add a filmic quality. 

In the end a thoroughly satisfying and varied album from a band that lives up to its name. It is one of Stuart’s best and certainly a direction we don’t hear too often in these days of rap, rock and EDM influenced pop country we hear so much today. Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives can take a bow for, again, pointing the music in the right direction and doing so in style.

Will T. Massey 30 Years In The Rearview Route 61

A Texas-born roots artist who released his first album proper back in 1991 on MCA. It had offered the world a new talent and was co-produced by Roy Bittan but failed to gain commercial success. Previously he had self-released a cassette albums. Following a period of illness, he got back on track and has subsequently released several albums of which this compilation is an overview of later releases with three tracks taken from the pre-MCA period.

It opens with A Summertime Graveyard recorded in 2016 and which features Massey’s voice and piano accompaniment. It is a good introduction to the slightly world weary but engaging voice and to a credible songwriter. The original version was on the MCA debut as was You Take The Town. The following three tracks were produced by Lloyd Maines and have a loose, relaxed feel that features some fine playing and memorable songs in Mr Johnson’s Store and Long Distance Love. The latter a country ballad sung with Tish Hinojosa.

From Letters In The Wind, an album produced by Stephen Foster, come three tracks including the title track.  Massey has some notable players on the recordings including Will and Charlie Sexton, Bukka Allen and Lloyd Maines. Peace Train is a soft focused plea for hope.

Wayward Lady was released in 2008 and features two tracks here. Massey produced it himself and Rosie Flores, Mike Meadows and Marvin Dynkuis are among the players. The sound is a gentler and more folkish.

The songs from 2016’s The Weathering include Meadows and Maines and finds Massey coming to terms with the cards that life has dealt him. He is a storyteller in the tradition of many of the notables from Texas through the years.

In the Wind is just Massey and Maines on a demo from The Weathering sessions and has a world weariness that is perfectly underlined by the guitar and pedal steel behind his cracked voice. The final three tracks are taken from the cassettes he released in 1987 and 1988. They featured friends from school and fellow local musicians. They are noticeably a little more lo-fi than the preceeding tracks and show his country roots and his obvious potential. They round out a career overview that has not been an easy one in terms of recognition or reward. But one that has produced some songs that deserve to be out in the open. Will T. Massey’s music has drawn from his own life and from that of others and produced a body of work that he can turn to as a testament to the positivity of music.

Matt Hannah Dreamland Gamine

Influenced by the likes of Steve Earle, Townes van Zandt and Lucinda Williams, Hannah has just released his second album. While there are elements of the aforementioned artists (as well as others) it should be judged on its own merits. This Minneapolis based singer/songwriter has his band around him as he dispenses his folk/roots music with a solid, satisfying demeanour. All the songs are written by Hannah and are supported by the players who use bass, drums, guitar, keyboards and pedal steel. Matt Patrick who plays guitar and keyboards on the album also produced with a warm and generous sound. His overall ethos may be summed up by the lines from Banks Of The Mississippi: “We came here from New York City, worn out feeling bad, these were some of the worst years, and the best I ever had.” His reflections cover the good and the bad.

Many of the songs are taken at a slower pace but on occasion they kick the beat up and are driven with a harder energy on such songs as Set Free and Gone. There is an overall feeling to the album that sits well together as a set of songs that move with ease around each other. The assembled players all get behind the mood of each lyric to highlight its essence. Often understated the music retains the essential nature of guitar and voice yet adds much to the overall presence in a way that is effective and enjoyable. Hannah songs are melodic and memorable and Dreamland highlights a talent that, in his own space and time, may be under recognised but is never-the-less worthy of greater attention.

Bill Scorzari Through These Waves Self Release

A voice for the ages that has been left to rust and crack in all the right places. One of those voices that is full of resonance and raspy righteousness, if not of great range; so more Kristofferson than Caruso then. Yet it is a voice utterly perfect here. Scorzari’s songs are often about seeking a kindred soul and in that finding solace. There is a poetic grace that makes them worth listening to and reading. In Holy Man, he writes “I questioned the wrong, I questioned the right … I got no answers to my questions, why?” Despite this, Scorzari songs look towards the light and navigate the waves that are sent his way.

This is an album full of atmosphere and allocation. Scorzari has, with producer Jonah Tolchin, assembled a select crew of seasoned players who bring much to the recording without ever taking centre stage away from the song itself. To name a few of those involved may be a disservice but those who will be familiar to many include Joachim Cooder, Will Kimbrough, Chris Scruggs, Laur Joamets, Eamon McLoughlin and Kim Richey. Alongside Scorzari and Tolchin there are 14 players listed in the credits. All bring something important to the process and make an album that has depth and diversity.

There are 12 songs here, all recorded in a thirteen-day period, in the Bomb Shelter studio in Nashville. They were written over a period of a few years but represent a writer who is crafting songs worthy of exploration both lyrically and in musical terms. There have been comparisons to Sam Baker and that is understandable yet Scorzari is as unique in his telling of tales. There is a sense of profoundness in the way these songs unfold in a compelling and truthful way. Scorzari has made previous albums but this release finds him at the top of his game. However, there is also the sense that there is more to come and that Through These Waves finds him discovering his sense of purpose and need.

Miss Tess Baby, We All Know Rights

A feisty singer and accomplished songwriter who performs original songs that straddle various aspects of Americana. A Maryland native now located in Nashville she and her band The Talkbacks have built up a strong reputation for their live shows. In the studio, she has with co-producers Dan Knobler and Thomas Bryan Eaton put together a selection of players to bring these songs to life. Utilising keyboards, guitar, fiddle, pedal steel, upright bass and drums, as required to suit the needs of the individual songs, she has made the best album of her career to date.

Miss Tess possess a sultry and silver-tongued voice that swings and sashays across these country, blues, jazzy and rockabilly sounds. As timeless as a well-stocked jukebox but equally contemporary in outlook. There seems nothing contrived about her love for these classic forms that she uses as the basis for her fiery songs. The eleven songs are all written or co-written by Tess and include the sax savaged I Can’t Help Myself that should have graced a 50s-teenage rampage movie. Equally invigorating and upfront is Shotgun Wedding with its pointed urgency and unequivocal message. However, as Do You Want My Love proves, she can be subtle and sensual as much as she can enliven and energise.

Throughout, the players get in some telling licks that both highlight their individual skills as well as giving the songs that added zest. Miss Tess is part of a wave of women who are exploring roots music but doing so under their own terms and in their own way. Baby, We All Know lets you know that Miss Tess understands and delivers on a promise of an authentic take on a musical heritage that lives and breathes and continues to get people up on their feet as well as listening. There’s not a track here that feels out of place and that shows that Miss Tess loves what she does. You should too.

Manitoba Hal Live In Ghent Hal’s Kitchen

Some may feel that a double CD of 24 tracks recorded live and featuring just voice and guitar might be a little too much. However, be that as it may, and it largely depends on just how much you enjoy the big voice of Manitoba Hal and his acoustic guitar (or ukulele) skills. Hal Brolund (for it is he) has numerous other albums to his credit prior to this live set. He has a baritone voice that is totally suited to these songs that range from classic blues songs by names like Robert Johnson, Bukka White and Mississippi John Hurt or later exponents like Bo Diddley, to the theme of the Wire; Way Down In The Hole and the closing show version of B.B. King’s The Thrill Is Gone.

The authors of the songs are uncredited but there are a mix of classics and originals. There’s Baby Please Don’t Go, St. James Infirmary, Ain’t No Grave and Evangeline Blues, sitting alongside more humourous outings like Taste Likes Chicken. There are songs like Turn Out The Lights which he dedicates to all those in love in the audience. All highlight Brolund’s big personality and obvious love of performing live. He also has the chops to entertain and hold the audience and tells some tales between songs that are all part of the show and who he is.

Some of the songs run over the five-minute length and are best exemplified by a strong version of the music voodoo of Ellas McDaniel’s Who Do You Love. Over the course of the evening Manitoba Hal entertains this live audience and while it’s an obvious souvenir for anyone who attended the event it stands up well as an example of his skill and talent in its own right. For lovers of the blues (and more) by a man who himself loves the blues.