(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
As year’s end approaches and thoughts drift toward best-of-CD lists for the year, I was thinking that there should also be some consideration given to those releases that haven’t garnered the attention that perhaps they deserve. Here, then, are some under-utilized CDs of 2003, in no particular order:
Bernie Leadon, Mirror (really small intertainment). This founding member of the Eagles and now-Nashville resident told me, when I ran into him not too long ago at the Corner Market in Belle Meade, that he was proud of a new solo album he had just finished that he said wasn’t in the least bit country. He was right, except that the backstory of many Nashville recordings carry undeniable country ghosts that hang in the grooves. It’s also proudly a tube and analog recording; which is to say, not digital in the least. As Leadon says in his liner notes, “No digits were harmed in the making of this recording.” That staunch integrity and fundamentalism carries over to the music. The songs, based on only a few listenings in the few days I’ve had it, strike me as a bold post-Eagles acoustic exploration of modern realism in popular music. “I don’t have a back-up plan,” he sings plaintively — with Emmylou Harris adding winsome harmonies and echoing the recent past. There’s a lot of anger here and a lot of retrospective and introspective navel-gazing. But it’s a very rich and complex album, with some lovely writing and strong emotions.
Suzy Bogguss, Swing (Compadre). Even when she was a mainstream country hitmaker back in late ’80s and early ’90s, some of Bogguss’ best work was her duets with Chet Atkins, which darted all over the musical map. Now she trains her sultry voice full-bore on swing music, and the result is a pure joy. Co-produced by Bogguss and Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, the album also features several stellar works by the fine Nashville songwriter and jazz singer April Barrows.
Darrell Scott, Theatre of the Unheard (Full Light). One of Nashville’s best songwriters, Scott wrote the Dixie Chicks’ “Long Time Gone” and “Heartbreak Town,” “Great Day to Be Alive” for Travis Tritt, “Born to Fly” for Sara Evans and “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” for both Patty Loveless and Brad Paisley. Here, he re-records songs from his debut solo album that a certain Nashville label decided not to release a dozen years ago — hence the album title. Scott is a convincing singer-songwriter in the best tradition of the appellation, with an appealing voice, and some profound tales to tell.
Various Artists, All Night All Stars (Capitol). Country comic Tim Wilson, who I think is usually very funny (please direct hate mail to firstname.lastname@example.org), says that he was cutting one of his comedy albums (which include music) when he looked around the studio and realized he had “one of the best bands in the world sitting in front of us.” He was right: he was looking at the likes of Levon Helm from the Band, Bobby Whitlock from Derek & the Dominoes, Jim Horn from the Rolling Stones’ horn section, David Hood from the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, and Michael Rhodes from the present-day Nashville version of the legendary “A Team” of Nashville pickers. So, he put together some very gritty blue-eyed soul music with vocals provided by the Allman Brothers’ Gregg Allman, Wet Willie’s Jimmy Hall, the Amazing Rhythm Aces’ Russell Smith, Whitlock with Kim Carmel, T. Graham Brown, Mike Stewart and Amy Helm. Sometimes an inspired mess; mostly a great reminder of some solid bedrock music.
McHayes, Lessons in Lonely (Universal South). Former country hat act Wade Hayes joins forces with former Alan Jackson fiddler/mandolinist Mark McClurg. The result is big, real, confident country like nobody else is doing these days. A new duo is born. They’ve already attracted the best songwriters around — Jeffrey Steele, Leslie Satcher, Jerry Salley and more — and they’ve created a very sturdy framework for some strong country music of the future. This album was due for a late summer release but has been delayed.
Wanda Jackson, Heart Trouble (CMH). Once one of the hottest singers in rockabilly and country, Jackson returns with a flourish. She’s joined by the likes of Elvis Costello, the Cramps, Lee Rocker, Dave Alvin and Rosie Flores in a raucous, ragged work that reminds us that a woman’s place in the ’50s was onstage wearing sequins behind a microphone.
Dan Reeder, Dan Reeder (Oh Boy). This is the only artist for whom John Prine has ever written a press release. If that doesn’t perk your attention, I don’t know what will. The telling message in Prine’s release is that he — as an artist and a label executive — gets many, many music submissions from wannabe artists. Most are from people who are trying to write a John Prine song. In Reeder, he heard what he tried to do himself when he started out: to write songs that would entertain himself. Reeder certainly succeeds at that in a vividly idiosyncratic way. “Work Song,” for one, will blow the mind of any office cubicle inhabitant. I leave it to your imagination to divine the subject matter of the song “My Little Bitty Pee Pee.” (This CD is available only at ohboy.com).
Sam Bush & David Grisman, Hold On, We’re Strummin’ (Acoustic Disc). Some lovely and driving cosmic acoustic work by the Rhythm Twins of bluegrass. Ralph Stanley’s “Ralph’s Banjo Special” done up as a filigreed mandolin reel is a special treat. The album title is, of course, inspired by Isaac Hayes’ “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” which gets an inspired, almost five-minute bluesy-bluegrass workout here (with the great Hal Blaine on drums).