Sunday, August 27, 2006

CD REVIEW: Joey Allcorn's "50 Years Too Late"

Label: Self-Released

Fiddle. Steel Guitar. The Yodel. These are all elements of country music that have long been forgotten. Artists who strive to be Lynyrd Skynyrd-lite rather than Ernest Tubb now dominate mainstream country radio, and fans of country’s golden years are led to believe that the genre’s heart and soul have been buried along with the previously mentioned country elements in favor of corny ballads and faux rodeo cowboy ditties. To these fans, rejoice, for a different kind of country scene is alive and well… one that celebrates the past, yet still sounds fresh in 2006. This scene features several artists, including Joey Allcorn. The young singer/songwriter from Columbus, GA’s debut album 50 Years Too Late is a perfect introduction to those fans interested in exploring this other side of country music. On his outstanding debut, Allcorn shines with a blend of the heartbreak and honky tonkin’ of old and a heavy modern grunge rock attitude.

For someone only 25 years old, 50 Years shows that Joey Allcorn has an extensive knowledge of what used to make country music so special. He has a strong, nasal vocal delivery complete with a yodel that would make even the Opry stars of old smile. His songs of broken hearts (like the fiddle-driven “So Say Goodbye”) do not sound plastic or fake, and his hard-living numbers (such as the rockin’ “Tired of Being Blue”) are raw without being ridiculous. He also delivers an excellent prison song that quickly has listeners singing along (“Alabama Chain Gang”), pays tribute to the legends in the album’s title track, and sends an angry message to Nashville and its pop country sound in “In Nashville, Tennessee.” 50 Years proves that Allcorn is no one-trick pony as a songwriter. Whatever kind story he decides to tell, he always does an incredible job.

Of course, what makes 50 Years particularly interesting is the wide range of sound it covers. The album begins with songs like “I Just Don’t Know” and the Lefty Frizzell-like “Here I Go Again” that have a straight, old school country sound. As the album progresses however, the style changes. Dark tales like “Son of a Ramblin Man” and more progressive numbers like the jazz-fused “Don’t You Call on Me” are featured. Finally, towards the album’s end are songs that could just as easily fit in on a hard rock album as a country album, like the outstanding country/grunge rock hybrid “Like I Never Will Again,” where both the heavy electric and steel guitar play powerful roles. Yet, even these heavier songs have a country heart that is beating strong. In a way, the album plays like a country music trip through time, which makes for a listen that is both interesting and highly entertaining.

50 Years Too Late is also given a major boost from Allcorn’s talented friends who appear on the record. The most famous of these friends, Hank Williams III, gives perhaps his most thought-provoking vocal performance ever on “This Ain’t Montgomery”: a song about avoiding Hank Williams Sr.’s shadow to create one’s own identity in a world far different than the one he dominated fifty years ago. Lonesome Wyatt of Those Poor Bastards, the writer of Hank III’s hit “Pills I Took,” also lends his creepy vocal chops on the dark, Jimmie Rodgers-esque “Graveyard Bound.” Several outstanding musicians are also featured, including the amazing Donnie Herron of BR549 and Bob Dylan’s current touring band on fiddle, Andy Gibson of Hank Williams III’s Damn Band’s steel guitar perfection, guitar master Johnny Hiland, and legendary country pianist Walter Cunningham. This all-star cast makes Allcorn’s already great songs even better, and 50 Years an even bigger pleasure for country fans.

Allcorn states in the album’s title track that, “it might turn out that it was fate that I was born fifty years too late.” 50 Years Too Late listeners will agree, for the record could have just as easily been titled “50 Years in the Making.” He would have been a star fifty years ago just like his idols, but after listening to his wonderful debut album, fans will be very happy that we have Joey Allcorn here with us in 2006, and if the good Lord’s willing, for a good fifty years more to come.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

CD REVIEW: James Reams and the Barnstormers' "Troubled Times"

Label: Mountain Redbird Music

Bill Monroe lives! Bill Monroe lives!

Okay, well unfortunately this isn’t entirely true, for Mr. Monroe passed away in 1996. However, the wonderful style of music he is credited with creating, bluegrass, is alive and well in the new millennium. Those of you who only know of the modern country scene presented by country radio and CMT are likely thinking I am crazy, but a few outstanding bands in the underground music community have me not only celebrating bluegrass’s past, but its present as well. One of these bands is James Reams and the Barnstormers and their 2005 release Troubled Times is an indicator of the band’s tremendous talent.

One of the many reasons that Troubled Times is such a great listen is the quality of the music. A single spin of the album is enough for one to conclude that it is bluegrass at its best. Reams is a wonderful bluegrass vocalist and delivers each song with a voice straight out of the 1940s, and band mates Carl Hayano and Mark Farrell provide effective complementary backing vocals. The musicianship is equally impressive, especially Farrell’s work on mandolin and fiddle, and the banjo-playing of Mickey Maguire, which is good enough to bring a smile to even Earl Scruggs’s face. This is no attempt to shrug off Reams as a guitarist or Hayano as a bassist, however, for they do a fine job as well. There are no better examples of this excellent musicianship than on the album’s three cookin’ instrumentals: a cover of country fiddle legend Arthur Smith’s “Lost Train Blues” and Maguire’s originals “Erin’s Flight” and “Lost Forest.” Troubled Times proves that James Reams and the Barnstormers are not only well schooled in the old school bluegrass sound, but have mastered it.

While the music is outstanding, what makes the album so memorable is the song-by-song quality. Filled with great bluegrass covers, Troubled Times is appropriately titled. Bluegrass may have a lively sound, but overall, this record has a dark aura. This is established right from the beginning with the classic “Head of the Holler,” which, despite its deceivingly happy sound, contains a harsh warning to anyone who might consider moving in on the speaker’s woman. This early warning tells listeners that happy love songs will not be found on Troubled Times. “You Better Wake Up” features a fed-up husband telling his wife that he’s sick of her ways and is about ready to make like Hank Williams and become a long gone daddy. Other songs dealing with men and women take a much more violent turn. “Cruel Willie” tells the tale of a man who mistreats one woman too many, and ends up paying for it with his life, while the outstanding Robbie Fulks cover “Cold Statesville Ground” is one of the best murder ballads ever written. The Barnstormers’ version of this masterpiece surprisingly lives up to Fulks’ original. The album also contains songs about religion including “Lazarus,” which warns listeners that they can’t buy their way into heaven, and the traditional number “Cool Down on the Banks of Jordan,” which finds the Lord calling the troubled and weary down to the river to find eternal happiness and salvation. Finally, some songs simply deal with life’s rocky path (“Ain’ta Bump in the Road”) and hard work (“Winsboro Cotton Mill Blues”).

However, the best of these “troubled times” come from James Reams’ own pen. The album contains three Reams originals (two of which were co-written with usual songwriting partner Tina Aridas), and all three are standouts. The heartbreaking title track finds Reams lamenting about the loss of a family farm to a bank foreclosure, and in perhaps the album’s finest track, “The Hills of My County,” while watching mining companies destroy his county, friends, and family, he ponders whether or not God wishes He had never “blessed” the hills with coal. Finally, the album’s most interesting track, “Eye of the Storm,” has a couple of possible meanings. Literally, it plays out like a tragic Hurricane Katrina story where a man makes the mistake of attempting to wait out the storm and loses everything. The “storm” can also have a figurative meaning though, representing, appropriately enough, any troubled time in the song’s family’s life. Whether or not the storm is real or a metaphor for something else is up to the listener, giving it a kind of depth not found in the average bluegrass number.

In the year 2006, we are now without most of the bluegrass legends that made the genre so great. We lost Jimmy Martin last year. It’s been a decade since Bill Monroe left us, and several years more since Lester Flatt left Earl Scruggs to join heaven’s angel band. Fortunately, thanks to bands like James Reams and the Barnstormers, it has been ensured that bluegrass will not die along with its creators. Troubled Times, along with its bonus DVD, which includes over 100 minutes of outstanding bluegrass documentary, is Reams and his band’s statement to the world that not only do they want to help listeners remember bluegrass’s history, but that they are ready to lead the genre into the future.

CD REVIEW: The U-Joints' "Straight Out of the Trunk" EP

Label: Self-Released

Hellbilly. It is a word that is becoming more and more common in the world of underground country as a certain “son of a son” with the last name of Williams gains even greater popularity. Yet, it is a word that is often used inaccurately. Some artists are simply too traditional and others’ sounds go down way too smooth to be considered “hellbilly,” but still get tagged with the label regardless. However, this is not a problem for the Houston, Texas band The U-Joints. With a heavy rockabilly sound that delivers a hard honky-tonk-punk-rock punch to the jaws of listeners, the band establishes their hellbilly status on their debut EP, Straight Out of the Trunk: an outstanding six song set that is sure to get juke-joint hearts beating strong.

Dominated by Warren Rhone’s edgy Texas vocals and Ray Marchese’s powerful guitar, The U-Joints’ sound shows a wide range of musical influences. One can hear heavy doses of rockabilly in one song, punk in another, and in others… both. And in some cases, the songs are just straight-up rock and roll. Yet, the songs never sound cluttered. Somehow, all of these sounds seem to blend together. This makes Straight Out of the Trunk an interesting and very satisfying musical experience.

Each of the six songs on Straight Out of the Trunk is a sonic treat, especially for the hellraisers that have lived the tales that the songs tell. Numbers like “Hellbilly Holiday Weekend” and “U-Joint Boogie” have a rockabilly foundation, but with a hard edge that reminds one more of The Reverend Horton Heat than Carl Perkins. A dark, eerie, western atmosphere is given to “Train Song”: a tale of a man who escapes his life of misery through the sound of the trains passing by. “There’s the Door” is a particularly interesting tune, as while one person could argue that it sounds like a Waylon Jennings song, another could just as legitimately dub it to be a Social Distortion rocker. Either way, it is an EP standout, as is “I Can’t Live Alone”: a song that leaves listeners wondering why it is not being celebrated on rock radio. Finally, “Walkin My Tab,” Trunk’s closer, has a Johnny Cash feel… if the Man in Black were on a heavy dose of speed, that is. A successful combination of country heartbreak and a heavy rebellious rock nature, Straight Out of the Trunk is a major achievement in musical diversity.

While the label “hellbilly” will likely continue to be given to several upcoming bands and artists in the future, The U-Joints actually deserve this honorary distinction. The only downside to the EP is that it leaves listeners wanting more. However, if Straight Out of the Trunk is any indication of what is to come from The U-Joints, their full-length debut will be well worth the wait!

Friday, August 25, 2006

CD REVIEW: JB Beverley and the Wayward Drifters' "Dark Bar in a Juke Box"

Label: Helltrain Records

“I hear that train a ‘comin.” These immortal words by Johnny Cash begin his classic song, “Folsom Prison Blues.” The song was recorded early in The Man in Black’s career, and these opening words forecasted his nearly fifty years as the dominant force in country music. While today’s mainstream country radio bears next to no resemblance to the soulful sound established by Cash and others, in the underground scene, there’s a new train a ’comin to take country back. JB Beverley and The Wayward Drifters are not only on this train, but their debut album, Dark Bar and a Jukebox, establishes them already as preeminent passengers. With a sound that combines the hobo spirit of Jimmie Rodgers, the attitude of Johnny Cash, and the heavy banjo of Bill Monroe, Beverley and the band have created an album that will please any traditional country music fan.

As a songwriter, Beverley shows a great deal of skill. Dark Bar and a Jukebox features several well-crafted songs, both lyrically and musically. There is a lot of variety as well, and many standout tracks. The album begins with the excellent, straight-up fast bluegrass number, “Shoulda Thought About It.” The title track, a to-the-point criticism of today’s country radio, stands up with the best of the songs with a similar message. ”Memories of You” is an old-time country weeper, which could have been written by Hank Williams, Sr. “Before They Get These Cuffs On Me” is a fun, Jimmie Rodgers-esque story song about a bank robber. Beverley pays tribute to the dedicated live supporters of live music in “Going to the Show,” and “Ghost of Old DC” is quite possibly the greatest song ever written about a haunted train. Perfect musically and lyrically, it’s a masterpiece in every way. Finally, the album also features a different sort of “Train Song,” an excellent high-speed rumble down the musical tracks. Listeners can’t help but go along for the ride.

Yet, the album’s greatest tracks find Beverley writing autobiographical episodes. These songs, “Lonesome Loaded and Cold,” “Rainin in Philly,” and “Wayward Drifter” are written with so much heart that even if they aren’t 100%, the listener believes every word. Filled with helplessness, hopelessness, homelessness, and heartbreak, they don’t just pull at one’s heartstrings, they rip them apart.

Of course, the lyrics aren’t the only strength of the album. The music is also tremendous. Beverley and Johnny Ray Carroll, Jr (AKA Johnny Lawless) play a great acoustic guitar and bass, respectively, and the incomparable Dan Mazer (AKA Banjer Dan) handles the banjo, dobro, and mandolin duties. Mazer is incredible, and his signature banjo is essential to the band’s sound. To make these songs even better, Beverley brought in other excellent musical guests as well. The fabulous Donnie Herron of BR549 and Bob Dylan’s current touring band brings his skill with the fiddle, Andy Gibson of Hank Williams III’s Damn Band contributes on steel guitar, and Ronnie McCoury shines when his mandolin is called upon. Fellow underground country traditionalist Kenneth Brian lends his vocal and guitar chops, and some guy who sounds eerily similar to Hank Williams III, credited in the liner notes as “Dixie Coon,” sings with Beverley on a couple songs. Old-timey with an edge, Dark Bar and a Jukebox is a musical pleasure.

Despite Music Row’s attempt to bury it, this 13-song effort by JB Beverley and the Wayward Drifters shows that real country music is very much alive. While all of these songs like they could have been written in the 1930s-1950s, the band gives them a modern, heavy edge, making them accessible to fans of old school country and punk rock alike. 2006 has been a very strong year for traditional country music releases with several more still scheduled, but Dark Bar and a Jukebox ranks right up there with the year’s best. Go ahead and get on the train. The Wayward Drifters send you on a hell of a ride!