Reviews by Declan Culliton

Andrew Combs Canyons Of My Mind Loose 

Nashville can often be a contradiction in musical terms. The home of what is marketed today as "country music" is essentially controlled by Music Row and its influence on country music radio, dictating a style of music that could not be further from what many of us consider to be traditional country music. However, take the short trip over the Cumberland River and out to East Nashville and you will find a cooperative of musicians who for the past number of years have been representing and playing a different brand of music altogether, mixing country with folk and fortunately also making industry breakthroughs in recent years. Often influenced by hoovering up their parents record collections their impact has been gradual but noteworthy. Caitlin Rose unlocked the door a few years back with her 2013 album The Stand In, Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price simply kicked the door in with their 2016 recordings which both deservedly made inroads in the Billboard Charts. 

Andrew Combs is probably the next most likely candidate from the East Nashville musical community to follow in their footsteps. His second album All These Dreams (2015) established him as an intelligent, reflective singer songwriter with obvious comparisons being made to Nilsson and Glen Campbell. Canyons of My Mind finds the Nashville resident taking a large leap into areas not often visited by country artists. The song writing is equally impressive as his earlier work, visiting lost love (Hazel, Lauralee, What It Means To You), environmental (Dirty Rain) and political issues (Bourgeois King, Blood Hunters) but with arrangements that are much more adventurous, aggressive and in some cases mind-blowing. The swashbuckling anti-Trump anthem Bourgeois King ("feed us fiction, fabrication, make this country great again") introduces strings into a wonderful mix that you simply do not want to end. Heart Of Wonder, which opens the album, features screeching guitars, incessant piano and even a woozy sax finale. Dirty Rain, showcasing his incredibly gentle vocal range, finds Combs deeply concerned environmentally about our children’s future "nothing shines like it did before."

Combs writing has always been inspired, thoughtful and confessional and having recently wed his long-term girlfriend a number of the songs catalogue previous relationships and what might have been, possibly by way of exorcism as he enters this new phase of his life.

If there is any justice Combs should expand his fan base considerably with Canyons Of My Mind which represents the best of both worlds with beautiful Nilsson like ballads and more experimental material entering Tim Buckley territory. He certainly has the potential to be one of the standout Americana artists of his generation. Here’s hoping.

Jason Eady Self Titled Old Guitar 

An artist releasing a self-titled album mid-career is often making a statement or revealing a body of work more personal and reflective than their previous output. The sixth release from Texas resident Jason Eady is a departure from his previous recordings in that it is acoustic in total with the exception of pedal steel guitar.  It’s also a body of work that in a just world should further the reputation of an artist whose recordings to date are up there with the finest outputs of country music in the true sense over the past decade. Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton may be hoovering up the awards and accolades, and more power to them, but Eady’s music is truer to the tradition of country music of outlaws Haggard, Jennings and Nelson than most other singer songwriters of his generation.

His latest album is so much more personal and reflective than his previous work. Exit the drinking, womanising and honky tonking and enter the concerned parent, loving husband and possibly reformed hell raiser as Eady pours his heart out over the twelve tracks on the album. Always an intelligent wordsmith, Eady has reached the age of forty and the album reflects midlife reconciliation rather than midlife crisis. More suited to the back porch than the barroom and clocking in just over thirty minutes the album includes what could be described as three spiritual tracks, the opener Barabbas, Rain and a cover of the Channing Wilson/Patrick Davis song Black Jesus. No Genie in This Bottle enters George Jones territory with its anti-drinking sentiment. Not Too Loud is a beautiful song written for his daughter as he considers the passing years from her childhood to womanhood. 40 Years closes the album with Eady delivering a semi spoken reflection of his arrival at middle age. Waiting To Shine (the longest track on the album at 4.21, coincidentally or not five of the other tracks are between 3.11 and 3.13 long) finds the writer on the road again and searching for the elusive words to pen another song ("Words are like diamonds, the best ones are the hardest to find, buried in the bottom on a hole, waiting to shine"). 

Eady once again employed Kevin Welch to produce the album which was recorded at The Blueroom Studio in Nashville, a venue used previously by Welch to record acoustic albums. Vince Gill, Tammy Rogers of The Steeldrivers both joined Eady in the studio with Courtney Patton (Eady's wife) contributing, beautifully it has to be said, backing vocals. Fellow Texan and pedal steel supremo Lloyd Maines input is telling on pedal steel, dobro and slide guitar. 

Eady already has a back catalogue behind him that sets him apart as a writer and story teller and which to date has not rewarded him with the recognition he deserves. It may require a song or two of his to be recorded by a ‘name’ in Nashville to introduce him to a wider audience. The sooner that happens the better.

Steve Gardner Bathed in Comfort Self Released

The story behind Yorkshire born Steve Gardiner’s debut album is worthy to be written about in its own right. A totally amateur musician, Gardner had written a few songs over the years without ever having performed them in a live setting with a backing band. He attended a Chuck Prophet show in London and having been blown away by the performance he started to contemplate how his handful of songs would sound rocked up with professional help.

Being aware that Chuck Prophet took on production duties together with recording and touring killer albums he audaciously e-mailed Prophet to ask if he would be prepared to give his four songs the kiss of life. To his surprise the challenge was accepted and in 2015 he found himself in San Francisco with Prophet and his backing band The Mission Express having booked a week in the studio to record a four track EP. To maximise the use of the studio time the four tracks ended up been increased to six with two late additions (in fact two versions of the same song), a country and a rocked up offering of The Day The Aliens Saved The World.  Encouraged by Prophet to consider writing  some more material to record a complete album Gardner did just that and returned to the same studio some months later with the balance of the album. Strongest tracks on the album are the instantly catchy What Would I Do, the opener Rosalie with slick banjo picking by James Deprato and both versions of the aforementioned Aliens, the ‘rock’ version recalling Jona Lewie’s You’ll Always Find Me In The Kitchen at Parties.

The packaging and artwork are particularly impressive and wouldn’t  any artist, whether amateur or professional, just love to credit his band as including Chuck Prophet, Stephanie Finch, Vicente Rodriquez

Lauren Alaina Road Less Travelled Humphead

Voted American Country’s New Artist of The Year in 2012, Georgia born Lauren Alaina is a product of the American Idol TV series having achieved runner up spot in the tenth season. Road Less Travelled is her second album following the release of her debut album Wildflower in 2011 which entered the Billboard 200 Charts at number 5 selling 70,000 copies on the first week of its release.

Sticking very much to the roadmap of the commercial pop/country crossover genre,  Alaina’s output compares favourably with her peers Rae Lynn, Little Big Town and Lady Antebellum.With a career very much in the ascendancy Alaina is currently on tour with Martina Mc Bride having supported Alan Jackson on his 2016 Still Keeping It Country tour. The twelve tracks featured are co-writes with Alaina working with some of the strongest songwriters in Nashville including fellow female country singer songwriters Emily Weisband, Emily Shackleton and Lindsey Lee.

The album is typical of what is been marketed in Nashville as country even though many of the tracks are devoid of any elements which qualify as country in the traditional sense. That said as a pop album it is undeniably strong if a tad over produced. Alaina possess a powerful and heavenly vocal and songs such as Doin’ Fine, Think Outside The Boy, Crashin’ The Boys Club, Queen of Hearts and the title track   are a clear indication of her ability to pen catchy radio friendly storytelling songs while  dealing with personal issues honestly such as parental break ups, growing up pains and  peer pressures.

Don’t expect to hear much pedal steel guitar or country fiddles and purist country fans will hardly embrace Road Less Travelled whereas lovers of radio friendly country pop will lap it up. A very talented young lady doing what she does remarkably well.

Urban Desert Cabaret Shadow of a Ghost Pumpkin

Urban Desert Cabaret is the vehicle used by  Joe City Garcia to produce and record his take on music and stories inspired by a life time of experiences in New Mexico, Los Angeles and California. His earlier career had included indulgences in psychedelia rock, Tex-Mex and punk rock having played in a number of bands in California including Joe City and The Nightcrawlers, The Crawlers and Dream Army. Having side stepped the music industry for a number of years Garcia was reinvigorated by his involvement in the Joshua Tree Music and Art scene and relaunched his career playing open mic nights in pubs and coffee houses in Los Angeles. 

The name of the project originates from a monthly event in 2013 organised by Garcia and his wife Joanna Fodczuk, a Polish abstract artist, which essentially was a meeting group for singers, songwriters, poets, artists and painters. Garcia vocal delivery is reminiscent of late career Guy Clark and indeed Terry Allen, his gravely delivery more often than not semi spoken.

Stand out tracks Go Away and Delta Bar both feature some delightful violin playing by Bobby Furgo, whose claim to fame includes being part of Leonard Cohens touring band in the early 90’s. UK famed folk singer songwriter Kirsty Mc Gee contributes backing vocals on Wouldn’t You Agree and the particularly impressive title track Shadow of a Ghost. Gar Robertson, who co-produced the album with Garcia, plays pedal and lap steel, electric and bass guitar. Danny Frankel plays drums and percussion.

Kelly’s Lot Bittersweet Self Release

Kelly’s Lot have been playing and recording (Bittersweet is their eleventh release) in Los Angeles since the mid 90’s. They consist of singer songwriter Kelly Zirbes and her band Perry Robertson and Rob Zucca on guitars, Matt McFadden on bass, Sebastian Sheehan on drums, Bill Johnston on sax, Dave Welch on trumpet, Bobby Orgel on keyboards and Frank Hinojosa on harp. 

Bittersweet, containing a hefty fourteen tracks, finds Zirbes stretching her musical parameters to deliver folky ballads, funky country, rocking blues and some full on, in fact very full on, rockers. Consistent throughout all the genres represented is the wonderful vocal delivery by Zirbes who also delivers a moving a capella on the hymn like Proud.

Come Home is a stripped back love ballad, featuring only Zirbes vocal and acoustic guitar courtesy of Perry Robertson. Mr.Chairman turns the heat up, a bluesy detour with a nice sax break by Johnston. Thorn, a dreamy country ballad, features aching pedal steel throughout by guest player Doug Pettibone (Lucinda Williams, Tift Merritt, and Tim Easton). Sleep explores darker territories, very effectively it has to be said. 

The title track Bittersweet is a heartfelt recognition for many Vietnam War veterans, lamenting their often lack of recognition and acknowledgement when returning from the frontline. Opening and closing with acoustic guitar and a whistling intro by Zirbes of ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ it also features neat harmonica playing by Hinojosa.

Love Is Hard To Catch, with its sultry almost spoken delivery and kicking in at over six minutes, enters Marianne Faithfull territory as does the equally impressive On Fire with its thundering chorus.

Rick Monroe Gypsy Soul MRG

First things first. Rick Monroe ticks all the boxes for inclusion  in what is currently defined as country music in Nashville. Big arena sound, formula ballads, heavy production and slick guitar riffs. Think Eric Church, Zac Brown etc. Don’t expect any pedal steel or banjo. The Florida born Nashville resident six track mini album Gypsy Soul should without doubt  introduce Monroe to a wider audience given that it’s likely to be well received by Country Music Radio and credit to the young man as it is very good indeed in this genre.  Twelve years have passed since the release of his debut EP Against the Grain in 2005 and in that period Monroe has gained a reputation as a relentless touring artist visiting every US State except Oregon and playing support to Eric Church, Dierks Bently, Dwight Yoakam and The Charlie Daniels Band. His 2016 schedule included 120 shows and 100,000 miles of travelling.

The opening track This Side of You is a slick, sultry, come on song and is typical of what is to follow. The title Track Gypsy Soul, possibly autobiographical, follows a similar path, neat riffs, backing vocals and solo guitar breaks. Production duties were undertaken by Sean Giovanni on five of the tracks with JD Shuff credited with the remaining song.

Monroe has the songs, the image and the work ethic to join the elite modern country artists that play to large stadiums of fans on tours like Country 2 Country. Gypsy Soul could very well be his passport.

Norrie McCulloch Bare Along The Branches Self Release 

It only seems like yesterday when I put pen to paper to review Norrie McCulloch’s second album, These Mountain Blues, recorded less than twelve months ago. Not one to let the grass grow under his feet Bare Among The Branches is the third album in three years for the prolific songwriter from Glasgow. 

The Son Volt influences so evident on These Mountain Blues remain but this outing is possibly more adventurous with the two opening tracks Shutter and Little Boat giving the thumbs up to early Van Morrison and Frozen River offering a more traditional country leanings with the inclusion of some slick mandolin playing by Iain Thompson. Around The Bend is an impressive ballad and very much true to form for McCulloch and the album closes with Beggars Wood a seven-minute journey through the passage of time beautifully articulated and enhanced by some distinctive guitar playing throughout.

Studio colleagues are his regulars, Dave McGowan (Teenage Fanclub, Belle & Sebastian), Stuart Rea and Marco Rea (The Wellgreen) together with Iain Thompson of The Bella Hardy Band on mandolin and Iain Sloan of Wynntown Marshals adding pedal and backing vocals. 

McCulloch’s work sits comfortably at the crossroads between folk and country and Bare Among The Branches is further evidence of a proficient and maturing artist, very much part of the wealth of UK talent currently representing the Americana genre. 

Cory Goodrich Wildwood Flower Self Release

Cory Goodrich is certainly no stranger to country music having won Jeff Awards for her portrayal of June Carter Cash in the Johnny Cash Revue Ring of Fire and her role as Mother in Ragtime. Together with her acting career she is also a singer songwriter and children’s music composer with two award winning albums, Hush and Wiggly Toes to her credit.

Wildwood Flower, her latest work, is a collection of folk and country songs, covers and originals, all featuring Goodrich playing autoharp, an instrument she was introduced to while researching for her role as June Carter for the stage play. The cover versions chosen are standards and include Ring of Fire, Shenandoah, Will The Circle Be Unbroken and all work comfortably together with a number of self-penned additions by Goodrich of which C’est Plus Facile Sans Toi (It’s Easier Without You) and Home To You particularly impress.  

Goodrich, together with being an accomplished musician, is blessed with a controlled vocal range which captures the intended old timey atmosphere throughout the recordings.

The title of the album is a Maud Irving poem, immortalised in song by The Carter Family and given an interesting makeover by Goodrich.

Production duties were undertaken by musician, actor and former musical director at Goodman Theatre Malcolm Ruhl, who together with Goodrich also contributes autoharp and backing vocals.