Friday, January 30, 2004

Terrell's Tuneup: A Little Country

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican, Jan. 30, 2004

Good country music is timeless. That’s my justification for including some of the following CDs in this column -- the ones that were released several months ago that I somehow didn’t get around to writing about until now.

With that weasely introduction, here’s a bunch of fine country albums.

*Country For True Lovers by Eleni Mandell. This L.A. honky-tonkin’ punk rock girl has perhaps the most subtly seductive and soulful voice I’ve heard in country music in years. Unlike the countless latter-day Patsys and would-be Lorettas out there among rock gals turned country songbirds, there’s not a trace of campiness here. Mandell’s sultry alto rips into your gut before you know what hit you.
Producer (and former Santa Fean) Tony Gilkyson wisely keeps the emphasis on Mandell’s voice, despite some fine instrumentalists here. (Greg Leisz plays on a few cuts and Dave Pearlman plays some heartbreaking steel.)
There’s a few covers here -- Naomi Neville’s “It’s Raining” (fans of the movie Down by Law should remember this one) Merle Haggard’s “I’ve Got a Tender Heart” and a devastating version of Hank Cochran’s “Don’t Touch Me.”
But most impressive are Mandell’s originals. You don’t get a chance to get over the ache of the opening cut “Another Lonely Heart” before she assaults you with the nearly as powerful “Don’t Say You You Care.”
Mandell’s web site says a new jazz album will be released early this year. I bet it’ll be good, but I wouldn’t mind if she stuck around country for awhile.
*Chicago Country Legends by The Sundowners. Want to know what a real-life urban honky tonk sounded like 35 or 40 years ago? This compilation of Chicago’s best known journeymen country band is an enjoyable little document, capturing The Sundowners in their element.
Guitarists Bob Boyd and Don Walls and bassist Curt Delaney were known for their lonesome cowboy harmonies and their huge repertoire of songs. The trio mainly sang country hits, but they also tried their hand at pop oddities like “Clementine” (as in “oh my darlin’,” though The Sundowners covered a weird Bobby Darin novelty version), commercial folk ( The Kingston Trio‘s “Tom Dooley”) and even The Beatles (a shuffling “Something” is included here.)
The fi ain’t high, but if you listen closely you can hear the beer bottles clink and the neon buzz.
*Famous Anonymous Wilderness by Graham Lindsey. If you want to get picky, this one’s closer to folk than country. Lindsey, a former punk rocker who once was a member of Old Skull, an infamous band of pre-teens, sounds pretty close to early ‘60s Freewheelin’ Bob. This is especially true on the near-5-minute “My Museum Blues” and the near-7-minute “Dead Man’s Waltz,” which resembles “To Ramona” with a steel guitar.
This might be off-putting to a casual listener. But some folks said the same thing about Butch Hancock when he started out, and Butch is one of the coolest songwriters alive.
Besides some of Lindsay’s tunes like “Hey Hey” are so addictively catchy you don’t care if it’s Lindsey, Dylan or Fred Flintstone.
Overall I prefer the songs where he uses a full band instead of the guitar-harmonica template. “Emma Rumble” is a brand new murder ballad, while “Viola” sounds like last-call at some backwoods dance.
*From Santa Fe to Las Cruces by Bill Hearne. O.K. Here’s a brand new CD.
Bill and Bonnie Hearne have played together for well over 30 years, most of that time based out of Santa Fe. Although Bonnie released a solo album a few years ago (Saturday Night Girl), this is Bill’s first solo project.
And it’s a mighty good one. Produced by local bass goddess Susan Hyde Holmes (she’s played with Bill & Bonnie for years, as well as the bands Milo de Venus and The Buckerettes), it’s a showcase for Hearnes’ impeccable flat picking, his raspy drawl and his fine taste in songwriters.
There’s three (!) Gordon Lightfoot songs, only one of which I was already familiar with, two by Delbert McClinton, plus tunes penned by Mickey Newbury, Jerry Jeff Walker, Lyle Lovette, Ian Tyson and Guy Clark.
My favorite though -- as is usually the case with Bill & Bonnie albums -- my favorites is an outright honky tonk stomper, “One More Time,” a Mel Tillis song featuring steel guitar (Carmen Acciaoli) and fiddle (Ron Knuth).
From Santa Fe to Las Cruces is available at Borders in Sanbusco, at Clint Mortenson's Silver & Saddles on Rodeo Road, the La Fonda Newstand, at Bill's gigs and online.
*Cold Mountain: Music from the Motion Picture by Various Artists. This compilation won’t set the woods on fire anywhere near the level as producer T. Bone Burnett’s landmark soundtrack of O Brother Where Art Thou? did a few years ago.
Nothing here is as loveable as Harry McClintock‘s “Big Rock Candy Mountain” or as earth-movingly majestic as Alison Krauss’ “River to Pray.” And why did Burnett feel obligated to include the orchestrated incidental music by Gabriel Yared?
Still, there’s some great traditional and traditional-sounding music here. White Stripes honcho Jack White -- who has never hidden his love for country bluesmen like Blind Willie McTell and Charlie Patton -- impressively pulls off hillbilly music, backed by the likes of Norman and Nancy Blake, Dirk Powell and fiddler Stuart Duncan.
Also impressive are the two “sacred harp” songs here. Recorded at Liberty Baptist Church at Henagar, Alabama, this foreign-sounding but very American style of gospel music is strong medicine.
Krauss has a couple of gorgeous tunes here, the best being “The Scarlet Tide,” which sounds like it might be some forgotten Civil War-era song, though it was written by Burnett and Elvis Costello.

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