By James Kelly
Contributing Music Editor
There is so much great music coming out these days, and I will try to keep you posted on what I am listening to the most. This week’s column is a mix of legends, newbies, and a very nice compilation of sorta gospel songs. A lot of these are on small or independent labels, and don’t get the sort of publicity push that the horrible commercial radio crap has, so please spread the word if any of these hit your sweet spot.
Willie Nelson is my hero. He can pretty much do no wrong, and I do not know a soul who doesn’t appreciate his work. HEROES is a collection of duets and more, featuring his old pals Merle Haggard, on a rerecording of “A Horse Called Music,” and Ray Price on the classic “Cold War With You.” There’s a slew of cuts with Willie’s kid Lucas, and their voices are so similar it’s spooky. There are a few oddities here, but they work in Willie’s own peculiar way. The almost novelty song “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die” includes a few lines from Kris Kristofferson, hardcore honkytonker Jamey Johnson, and… Snoop Dogg? Yep, that Snoop. There’s a really nice take on Tom Waits’ “Come On Up To The House” with Sheryl Crow and son Lucas, but the show-stopper is Willie’s stunning version of Coldplay’s “The Scientist.” I’m not a Coldplay fan by any definition, but in Willie’s hands, this is a jewel.
[ Editor's Note: Willie Nelson plays Chastain Park Amphitheatre with Jamey Johnson on Fri. June 15. Tickets here.]
MERCYLAND: HYMNS FOR THE REST OF US
Nashville is an interesting place. There are so many small music communities that have little or no relation to the mainstream industry, and what comes out of these enclaves inevitably is so much better than the major label drivel. One borderline fringe group consists of several really talented studio musicians and writers, who fit more into the “Americana” mold than anywhere else. And interestingly, most of them are Christians. Not the type that sit in pews every Sunday and listen to the good word, then treat people like crap the rest of the week, but Christians who are comfortable enough with their faith to be respectful and tolerant of others with different beliefs. They live it instead of simply talk it. Phil Madeira pulled a group of like-minded artists together and has constructed a wonderful collection of tunes that take a much different perspective on faith and spirituality than your usual “Gospel” record. From Buddy Miller’s plaintive “I Believe In You” to the very traditional “Lights In The Sun” by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, each song provides a unique and ultimately entertaining discourse on some aspect of faith. Atlanta’s own Shawn Mullins scores with “Give God The Blues,” and Madeira’s title track is a captivating slow groove. Even this card-carrying atheist felt a little spark of something, mostly respect.
A joker with a dark side, Todd Snider has been making provocative and polarizing music for over two decades, and on AGNOSTIC HYMNS, he takes a bit of a step out of his unusually wide comfort zones. Snider’s been on both major and indie labels, while never compromising the type of music he makes for anyone. Over the years he has always had a fine backup band on deck, and the records always sounded really clean and neat in spite of his sometimes bizarre lyrics and stories. Well, this time around Snider sounds like he is backed up by a hillbilly punk band, with crashy drums, raw electric guitars and slightly dissonant harmony vocals. It’s all very primitive and deceptively simple sounding, but lyrically this is some of his roughest work. Life has been tough for everyone for the past few years, and obviously for Snider as well. His provocative observations on life, love and the state of affairs in the world can be a bit depressing, if they weren’t so entertaining. Throw in a few bouncy acoustic tracks, crank it up, and appreciate Todd.
[Editor’s Note: Todd Snider performs at Variety Playhouse on Wed. June 13. ]
After making a few ripples in the underground Nashville scene a decade ago, the bluesy-voiced Chelle Rose disappeared into motherhood for a few years, only to be recently rediscovered by the legendary Ray WylieHubbard, who produced this fine album. The original tunes on GHOST OF BROWDER HOLLER perfectly channel Rose’s Smoky Mountain heritage, and anybody who covers Julie Miller’s “I Need You” is OK in my book. Rose is bit grittier than Miller’s girlish sound, and gives the song a rock hard edge that works on all levels. Hubbard’s production (and the accompaniment of some of Texas’ finest) provide Rose with the perfect canvas, and even with 10 years of cobwebs and dust to knock off, she still has it.
A near-perfect songwriter, Darrell Scott has penned monster hits for people like the Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks, Travis Tritt, and both Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. Lucky for us, he keeps the really good ones for himself. With the freedom to do whatever he wants, Scott decided to do a straight-up country record, and on this 16-track jewel, he nails it to the wall. Joined by a band of Nashville studio legends – Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano, drummer Kenny Malone, along with steel player Lloyd Green and harmonica master Charlie McCoy, Scott delivers an amazing collection of rich classic country tunes, not a clunker in the bunch. His duet with Guy Clark on “Out In The Parking Lot” actually improves on Guy’s original recording, and “You’re Everything I Want Love To Be” is a love song as country as it gets. Scott has a clear and comforting voice, a way with words, and has once again made a truly great album.