SPIN Country Report: Willie and Merle Light Up, Rhiannon Giddens Revives Revivals
Plus: Recent records from Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tyler Farr, Luke Bryan, Cam, Punch Brothers, and Dean Brody
The first half of 2015 was a slightly strange moment for country, especially chart country, because it mostly made for some serious waiting. Though there have been significant releases, the biggest names will either return later in the year, or remain sleeping off their collective residual hangover from 2014. We’re still waiting for Billy Currington’s Drinkin’ Town With a Football Problem, teenage sensation Hunter Hayes’ 21, Kip Moore’s delayed sophomore release Wild Ones and a new album proper from Luke Bryan. But this doesn’t mean that there are not some new pop-country discoveries, two albums from artists with half-century careers, and the solo debut from the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ inimitable Rhiannon Gibbons.
Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard, Django and Jimmie (Legacy)
Willie’s product line has far outpaced Merle of late, boasting plenty of albums that are both very funny and very smart about what it means to be closer to death than birth. Their voices may be worn, but the guitar writing is as strong as ever. And for all their pot smoking, it seems like they have not lost a single memory — and though Django and Jimmie could have been a mere nostalgia trip, it’s more akin listening to your favorite uncles at family reunions, telling stories that they aren’t supposed to.
Buffy Sainte-Marie, Power in the Blood (True North)
Buffy Sainte-Marie’s genre-detonating early-1970s recordings, which found a happy medium between indigenous, country, electro-acoustic, and folk, have been rediscovered by indie stalwarts like Owen Pallett. In the age of Idle No More, her politics have seemed prophetic. After working for years on a variety of projects less related to music, she returns with an uncategorizable collection of profound resonance. Power in the Blood is the work of an elder working against genre, knowing history, and moving forward into aesthetically unknown territory. For a septuagenarian, the optimism of it is heartening.
Cam, Welcome to Cam Country (Arista Nashville)
Sam Hunt was a prominent Nashville writer with a love of contemporary R&B, and in a painfully hip move, released an honest-to-blog mixtape last year that was advertised as an EP. It performed well, and the album that was released almost immediately after housed two Billboard Hot Country No. 1’s. Arista is trying to find similar success with Cam. Having written for Miley Cyrus among others, Camaron Ochs can cross genres as efficiently as anyone in her industry sector. Her voice has some twang, and her songwriting is first-rate, with surprising musical range over the four tracks of her debut EP. The emotional range is as wide any album with ten more tracks to boot; and the blistering “Runaway Train,” is a worthy edition to the train-song canon as well as the women-done-wrong one.
Punch Brothers, The Phosphorescent Blues (Nonesuch)
Chris Thile is the best mandolin player working today, and on his best days, he’s the equal of Bill Monroe. His spirit of adventure, and his dedicated commitment to extending the instrument as far as it can go, could find itself in difficult territory, but instead underscores elegant and nimble songs that are intricate in their beauty and restless in their heartbreak.
Dean Brody, Gypsy Road (Open Road)
Brody has been working towards this record for a few years now, and his efforts have been rewarded with a perfect chart-country album. From the whistling introduction in “Upside Down,” to singing in “Hillbilly” how that epithet has come to evade geography, his voice is small and intimate. This is to say nothing of how he uses it on the genuinely moving “Footprints of a Giant,” or for small-beginnings reminiscence on “Like I Know This Town.” His central goal is not the big choruses or the rococo production, but a well-constructed framework that prioritizes narrative cohesion.
Rhiannon Giddens, Tomorrow Is My Turn (Nonesuch)
Giddens’ role fronting Carolina Chocolate Drops provided a necessary recalculation to historical reenactors of folk and blues: She made it her history, and her precedent. Tomorrow Is My Turn continues that task with her clarion call gracing a smart collection of classic folk and country standbys, rather than an act of anthropology for the sake of it. Turn is a haunting, often painfully beautiful example of how songs that may seem dead and buried can sublimely rise from the grave. This includes the best version of “Black Is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair” that you have heard since Joan Baez.
Tyler Farr, Suffer in Peace (Columbia Nashville)
Much of this aptly named album isn’t worth listening to — just the usual working-class portrayals with expected, Foghat-quoting riffs. The first song features the phrase “hillbilly rich” and an unironic reference to wow, Truck Nuts. And the breakthrough single, “Guy Walks Into a Bar,” rests on one, not very funny joke.
But there are surprises: “Better in Boots” is the sexiest song about getting literally dirty since Kip Moore’s “Somethin’ ‘Bout a Truck,” and “Poor Boy” is more astute about money than the genre’s offered recently. And even if you’re bored with Jason Aldean, his guest turn singing on “A Few Good Friends” is impressive. And the love/sobriety fail “I Don’t Even Want This Beer” might redeem the whole enterprise. When Farr gets introspective, he’s worth hearing, but he doesn’t do shallow well, and it’s a shame that’s his norm with only a couple exceptions per full-length.
Luke Bryan, Spring Break…Checkin’ Out (Capitol Nashville)
The seventh and final release in Luke Bryan’s Spring Break series is to understanding how mainstream Nashville works. These annual grab-bags are unsurprisingly looser, more fun, and sharper musically than his “serious” albums, and if the first single off of Bryan’s upcoming Kill the Lights is any indication, Bryan aims to become a lot less playful than this kind of (semi-literal) fucking around.
It’s also the strongest of the seven. Plowing through 11 songs in just under 40 minutes, some genuinely terrible metaphors abound — as well as some great storytelling and writerly details. There are no musical clangers, and occasionally the guitar work is more ambitious than it needs to be. Bryan’s voice, when it is low and slow, is more exciting than his bro-holler, but both are pleasure for pleasure’s sake — and pleasure is enough reason to listen to this collection. Checkin’ Out tries to solve the ongoing problem of audience, authorial intent, and how anxious and melancholic Nashville gets about who’s listening.