Written by James Killen
It has been over a month since I began listening to all of the discs that I was given at this year’s event. I listened to each of them at least twice and in detail. I was given more than thirty of them and there was merit to each. I have chosen a number of them to discuss in this article, but please do not be offended if your production was not included. In some cases the music was not within the realm that I enjoy and hence, I would rather leave the fans of those types of music to write those reviews.
Several of the artists offered collections of what would be the same song, done in different styles. A “she done me wrong and left me song” done first in country style, then the blues, then folk, then…well you get the picture. There has to be more to life. Look for some different themes. Maybe write a song as to what it would be like to be your barista, as long as he hasn’t just gone through a bad breakup.
In some cases, the songs had good themes and many good parts, but could be refined to be less awkward in certain lines. In other cases, additional help with production might have made the music a bit more accessible. I am by no means the only person with an opinion on these compositions and I’m certain that there is no single secret to writing a hit song. I have heard it said that a craftsman knows all of the rules, but an artist knows all of the rules and when to break them. In any case let me share these thoughts on a few chosen discs.
Mark Abrahams- My Friends Call Me Marcus– This short collection of six songs gets away with the most basic of production and features only Mark and his guitar. It summons memories of sitting at grandma’s table while the uncles drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and share memories and lies…only done in verse with vivid imagery and striking metaphors. Abrahams’ songs are well crafted and flow naturally in a Southern-speak rhythm.
Andrew Delaney- The Escape Artist– This is Andrew’s seventh disc and his experience is apparent in the quality of the production and the diversity of music. His songs are clever and draw from several genres. His quirky vocals explore a number of subjects. “Groove On” and “Elephants” reflect a father’s advice to his daughter as she reaches dating age. “Howard” is an eerie, jazzy dedication to H.P. Lovecraft. His genre choices range from a heavy metal influence on “The Ghost of Jack Brown” to a straight ahead CW waltz for “Afraid of Falling”. As nerdy as some of Delaney’s subject matter comes across, his songs are well written and entertaining.
Hope Dunbar- Three Black Crows– Hope Dunbar offers us a simple but honest production of some very direct and honest songs. She has been blessed with a strong clear voice which she accompanies with guitar, mandolin, cello and ukulele. “Charlottetown” and “Three Black Crows” deal with the stealing of innocence of children and youths. “The Shooter” and “Revolver” deal with the social issues of gun violence and domestic abuse, but Ms. Dunbar also has a sense of humor. She laughs quixotically at her own small town existence in “I Write” and “Losing Sleep” and outright outlandish satire on “Jeneane”. Three Black Crows is an excellent representation of the work of a highly talented and very intelligent songwriter from the rural Midwest.
George Ensle- Retrospective– George has retrieved and remixed a number of his older tunes on this collection from the Cosmic Cowboy days of the 1980’s and 1990’s. With the passing of Steve Fromholz, Rusty Wier, Kent Finlay and Steve Young, it seems like the right time to pull out the oldies but goodies and that is just what George has done to put those of us back in that time and place with this mellow mix of guitar work and deep country vocals. None of the songs represent the mood of the time better than the opening track, “If It Comes”. There are the songs of Western legends like, “Devil’s Mountain” and the sentimental stories of times that have slipped through our hands, like “On the Sofa Outside”. Retrospective is a great window back into the music of those times for those of you that missed it and those that miss it still.
Eric Gerber- Eric Gerber Three– Eric only wrote four of the twelve compositions on this disc, but the country blues instrumentals put together by Gerber and his collaborating musicians are worth a solid listen. Gerber picks on Greg Brown for four of his covers, delivering a fantastic version of “If I had Known” and an eerie, cello driven “Think About You.” Gerber’s “When Push Comes to Shove” and “Don’t Ask Me How” deliver that feel good, sitting on the porch, laid back mood. “What’s in Your Bag”, derived from Eric’s life as a teacher, is worth the price of the disc on its own. Gerber recounts the lives of different children that each has his own set of issues and how each deserves to be treated with love and sympathy. “Three” features some great performances on dobro, accordion, cello, guitar, and percussion for a mellow collaboration to sooth the savage beast.
Doug Gill- Stronger Back– Doug Gill’s disc is a collection of mellow country tunes with a down-home, big- hearted philosophy reminiscent of Don Williams’ work. Many of the songs deal with love and relationships. “I’m Not Surprised” features a little country scat crooning with the gritty line, “I’m not surprised I got my heart broke. I’m disappointed but I’m not surprised.” Doug uses his smooth, deep voice on songs like “Peace In this House”, “United States of Generica”, and “Stronger Back” to depict the resilience of simple Americans in these changing and discordant times. Doug doesn’t pray for a lighter load, he prays for a stronger back.
The Keller Sisters- Hourglass Dance– The Keller Sisters put out this sentimental pop collection of simple but versatile folk songs. The girls have a great vocal harmony that is really elevated by Phillip Milner’s production. They tap country-western for “My Disguise”, blues for “Green-Eyed Blues”, psychedelia for “Hourglass Dance”, and exotic rhythms for “Mystery”. The pleasant mellow tunes on this disc fits my definition of “morning music” that gently pushes one out of the sleepy fog, through the door and into the sun.
Terry Klein- Great Northern– Great Northern is a collection of raw productions of some very adventurous country songs. Klein had me drawn in at “Watchman”, declaring himself independent of the prevailing line of thought. There are feel good, sentimental tunes like “Dull Women Keep Immaculate Homes” and “Notches”. The true courage that Terry shows is dealing with issues that traditional country music hasn’t really dealt with. “Better Luck Next Time” portrays the grief that follows a miscarriage while “Back to Being You” faces living with clinical depression head on. Terry turns his wordsmithing talent on this disc to taking country music where it has never gone before.
Lynn Langham- Stones in the River– Lynn Langham put out this pop piano disc featuring many songs co-written with other artists. She and Doug Gill play together regularly and co-wrote “I’m not Surprised”, an excellent jazzy version of which appears on Stones. She also includes “Trains”, co-written with Bonnie Bishop. The entire disc mixes jazz, pop and country influences with some heartfelt lyrics that could make the grade in Nashville as easily as Austin.
Mia Rose Lynne- Follow Me Moon– Mia Rose has a soft voice that sneaks witty word-play and powerful imagery into your mind with simple, but beautiful accompaniment. “Different”, “Gunshy” and “Colorado” are about trying to save relationships in danger. The finger picking guitar, fiddle and cello keep it mellow and delicate, but tasty. Every song flows like a dream through your mind.
Ordinary Elephant- Before I Go– Crystal Hariu-Damore and Peter Damore play a unique pop bluegrass style with a tempo that doesn’t assault the listener, but rather blows him along with the lyrics. “Best of You” kicks it off with a fine case for facing life with a positive attitude. “Can I Count on You” is a gentle waltz featuring a nice mandolin and fiddle melody and a story of a relationship slipping away. The couple makes their statement for veterans with PTSD on “The Things He Saw”. Ordinary Elephant with Crystal’s unique vocals stakes out a sound that defines their identity somewhere between pop, folk and bluegrass.
Heather Pierson Acoustic Trio- Singin’– Heather and her trio have one of the most diverse offerings of music styles of any of the discs that I received at the conference. Davy Sturtevant’s muted jazz coronet fit Pierson’s bluesy piano for “The Get Up and Go”. They slip just as easily into the sad Appalachian lament, “Dark as a Dungeon” and the religious warning, “Righteous Song.” They even lay down some vintage jazz with “(I’m) Confessin’ (That I Love You)”. The trio has put out a fantastic recorded production that matches the excitement of their live performances.
The Wide Open- We’ll Get By– The duo of Season Ammons and Allen Rayfield mix blues, folk and country for a fine Americana mixture. Rayfield lays down some excellent harmonica on the bluesy “Slot Machine”. They mix in some fine country harmonies on “Hate the Way That I Love You”. Season demands attention with a blues-charged vocal admonition on “Shut Your Mouth”. “He’s Out of Money” (I’m out of love) features Rayfield’s cutting blues harmonica and the soulful blues scolding from Ms. Ammons. The Wide Open is on the verge of releasing their next production, “Long Road Home”. I believe that I’ll go ahead and get in line for that one.
Young and Rusty- Come Back Coming On– Sue Young and Rusty Nelson put together a traditional Texas folk record with Come Back Coming On. They covered one Townes song and one Guy Clark number and drafted Richard Bowden and Joel Guzman for fiddle and accordion respectively. All of that said, this disc is not a buy-out. Rusty’s contribution of “Don’t Get Me Started” and Sue’s “San Antonio Honeymoon” add some original Texas songs with a little of the ethnic diversity that goes into all things Texan. “Hard Times” depicts the heartbreak brought by flooding. “Something in the Water” is a social awareness piece about how the fracking fluids left after the drilling boom are affecting Texas residents’ health. “Shadow on the Wall” is written in the tradition of Texas country music. Rather than flashing all things Texan, this record actually comes from the perspective of long time Texans.