New Releases: Vince, George, Willie, Chicks

Vince Gill hasn’t hit No. 1 since 1994, so titling his album Next Big Thing (MCA Nashville) might not be so far off. True, he’s not exactly a newcomer, considering he’s won more CMA awards than anyone in history. But as they say in Nashville, you’re only as popular as your last hit, so it’s a relief for Gill’s fans to see “Next Big Thing” climbing the country singles charts. If the label plays its cards right, this radio-friendly album could spawn a number of successful singles — especially with a whopping 17 songs to choose from.

An Opry member since 1991, Gill wrote or co-wrote the entire album and produced it as well. This one’s a lot less love-centric than his previous effort as he pays tribute to his Oklahoma youth (“Old Time Fiddle”), his late father (“Whippoorwill River”), musical heroes like Merle Haggard (“Real Mean Bottle”) and modern-day Nashville (“Young Man’s Town”). Harmony vocalists abound: Emmylou Harris , Lee Ann Womack , Michael McDonald, Leslie Satcher , Bekka Bramlett, wife Amy Grant, daughter Jenny Gill and several members of his road band.

Texas superstar George Strait has no shortage of country hits to include in concert, dozens more than appear on For the Last Time — Live From the Astrodome (MCA Nashville). Recorded at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo last year, the performance preserves the classics (“Amarillo by Morning,” “The Chair,” “The Fireman”) as well as newer favorites (“Run,” “Blue Clear Sky”). Fortunately, he sounds far better here than he does singing live on awards shows. Former President Bush even pops up for a few kind words about his fellow Texan.

In the 1960s, Willie Nelson recorded a number of spare songwriter demos for Pamper Publishing, including a version of “Crazy” that convinced Patsy Cline to record it. These tracks were subsequently archived on a large reel vaguely labeled “Pamper demos” and ignored for several decades. Then, in 1994, somebody stumbled on the reel and recognized the famous voice that slithered through the speakers. Finally, after digital restoration and re-mastering, Crazy: The Demo Sessions (Sugar Hill) offers early insight to one of country music’s most prolific songwriters.

(More information about this album is included in the Jan. 30 edition of’s Nashville Skyline.

Seven songs have been added to the DVD version of the NBC special An Evening With the Dixie Chicks . All 12 selections from Home are included, as well as “Wide Open Spaces,” “Cowboy Take Me Away,” “Goodbye Earl” and “Sin Wagon.” The Texas trio filmed the concert at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles.

A bunch of supposedly rowdy friends gathered together for The Songs of Hank Williams Jr. (A Bocephus Celebration) (Warner Bros. Nashville). Sure, most of these acts — who will courteously not be named — played Hank Jr. ’s songs in smoky bars long before signing to major labels, and, yes, they’re still a lot of fun to sing in concert. However, without Hank Jr.’s feisty vocals, there’s simply something missing. It could be a recording budget. Please let the two upcoming Waylon Jennings tribute albums sound better than this.

The Father of Bluegrass gets a more honorable salute with The Legend Lives On: A Tribute to Bill Monroe (Koch/Audium). Taken from a lively 1997 concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the 2-CD set features performances from Ricky Skaggs , John Hartford , the Del McCoury Band , Connie Smith , The Whites, Marty Stuart , Ralph Stanley and many other esteemed musicians.

Compass Records releases two fine albums for fans of progressive instrumental music. On Walking on the Moon, The Matt Flinner Quartet blends jazz, funk and bluegrass — not exactly the typical path for an award-winning mandolinist like Flinner. John McCusker may sport a mohawk, but his playing and writing on Goodnight Ginger fit perfectly with folk’s fiddle traditions. Kate Rusby, herself a wonderful warbler, sits in on vocals.

Emory Joseph enlists some primo players for his debut, Labor & Spirits (Capsaicin). Enhancing Joseph’s bluesy take on Americana are sturdy studio stalwarts T-Bone Wolk, Myron Dove, Jon Carroll, Duke Levine, Kenny Aronoff, Dave Mattacks and Levon Helm. It’s tough to categorize this breezy album, but those who spent their youth tuning into late-night music programs in the 1970s, as Joseph did, may quickly embrace it.

Craig Shelburne has been writing for since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.