A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
I’ve said it before: If you think they ain’t making country music like they used to, you’re just not looking hard enough. You won’t find much of it on so-called “country” radio, but it’s out there. This week I look at a bunch of recent country albums I’ve been playing the holy heck out of on KSFR’s The Santa Fe Opry (101.1 FM, Fridays 10 p.m.-midnight) in recent weeks.
* Slingin’ Rhythm by Wayne Hancock. Wayne the Train is back with a fistful of mostly original, good, solid honky-tonkin’ songs with lyrics full of wicked wit and heartache — often in the same song — and lots of impressive picking. Hancock’s got a new band, including an impressive new steel guitarist, Rose Sinclair, and not one but two electric guitarists, Bart Weinburg and Greg Harkins. As usual, Hancock gives his bandmates plenty of room to stretch, while their producer, Lubbock string-titan Lloyd Maines, captures the sound that some call retro, but I call timeless.
Things falling apart seem to be a general theme here with tunes like “Dirty House Blues,” “Two String Boogie,” and “Wear Out Your Welcome,” about a love that’s disintegrated.
My immediate favorite song on Slingin’ is a brand new murder ballad — actually, a double-homicide fantasy — in the great tradition of Leon Ashley’s “Laura (What’s He Got That I Ain’t Got),” Porter Wagoner’s “The Cold Hard Facts of Life,” and Johnny Paycheck’s “(Pardon Me) I’ve Got Someone to Kill.”
Hancock’s song is called “Killed Them Both,” and that’s just what he does to his cheating sweetheart and some funky dude. Hancock sings, “Somebody heard the shots and called 911/The law’s outside to ruin all my fun …” Now that’s what I call country music!
Dale Watson. Dale Watson may be the hardest working honky-tonker in Texas. He’s known to play gigs without taking a single break. He even works holidays. I saw him play the Continental Club in Austin last Christmas — and he’s scheduled to play there on Thanksgiving this month.
Watson always seems to have a new album. In fact, he’s released not one but two in recent weeks.
One album is a live show from his favorite Hedwig, Texas, haunt, known for bingo games that use live poultry instead of balls to determine the numbers being called.
The other is an album full of cover songs made famous by the musicians who most influenced him.
Big T Roadhouse features a bunch of old Watson tunes, including ought-to-be classics like “I Lie When I Drink,” “Where Do You Want It” (an ode to Billy Joe Shaver’s infamous shooting incident), and one of his best trucker songs, “Birmingham Breakdown.” There area couple of Merle Haggard favorites, “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “The Fugitive,” plus my personal favorite here, a spirited cover of Jerry Reed’s “Amos Moses.”
And speaking of covers, Under the Influence is a true treat. Watson performs Bob Wills’ “That’s What I Like About the South,” Buck Owens’ “Made in Japan,” and two relative Haggard obscurities: “Here in Frisco” and “If You Want to Be My Woman.”
My favorites are Watson’s version of “You’re Humbuggin’ Me,” a classic recorded by Lefty Frizzell, Rocket Morgan, Ronnie Dawson, and others, and Danny Dill’s “Long Black Veil.” That’s a well-worn chestnut first made famous by Frizzell. But Dale’s treatment is unique. He actually makes this ghostly murder story swing.
* Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars … by Dwight Yoakam. Yoakam undoubtedly was the best-known neo-honky-tonker of the 1980s.
Though he’s dabbled in bluegrass before, this is Kentucky-born Yoakam’s first all-bluegrass album. All the songs are new acoustic versions of old Yoakam originals, including the title song of his first album, “Guitars, Cadillacs,” refitted with fiddles and banjos.
All but one, that is.
The album ends with Prince’s “Purple Rain.” And while a lot of people chuckle at the thought of a bluegrass rendition of Prince, this is nothing to snicker at. Yoakam kills it. Without a trace of irony he finds the soul of the song and makes it into the perfect hillbilly tribute to the ascended master from Minneapolis.
Martha Fields. She has roots in Texas and Oklahoma, though these days Fields is living part-time in Bordeaux, France.
But just because she’s across the ocean doesn’t mean she’s forgotten her musical roots. Last year, with a band of Frenchmen called House of Twang, she released an album full of rocking country boogie called Long Way From Home. But while that one was fun, her new acoustic banjo- and dobro-driven record is much deeper and hits much harder.
With a strong, throaty voice, Fields sings about her Southern heritage with stark honesty. A major theme running through several songs on Southern White Lies is how poor, rural people are manipulated by politicians and big business to keep them poor and ignorant for the sake of keeping up the supply of cheap labor and soldiers for wars.
There’s a real current of righteous anger running through many of these songs. Fields sums it up in “American Hologram,” singing, “No pot to piss in, believe in that trickle down/Snake handlers and TV tellin’ ‘em it’s for the best ... No need for education, no money for schools/Easier for Limbaugh, to play ‘em like the fool.”
A tasteful handful of covers like Woody Guthrie’s “Lonesome Road Blues” — better known as “Going Down That Road Feelin’ Bad” — and Janis Joplin’s “What Good Can Drinkin’ Do” adds a little levity to the album. “Pandering politicians, we need more musicians,” Fields sings in the title song.
There’s a political slogan I can get behind.
Here are some videos that you can get behind: