NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Some Treasures in Johnny Cash and Kellie Pickler

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Nobody asked me, but here are some good sounds I’ve been listening to lately.

Rocky Hill, Texas Guitar Legend: Hill was one of the best guitar players to ever emerge from Texas, a state known for its prodigious crops of great pickers. He was ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill’s older brother. This album was recorded by John Lomax III in 1977, but the master tapes were lost for many years. Listen to his blistering guitar work on Townes Van Zandt‘s six-minute “Waitin’ Around to Die” and just marvel at his strong chops. His chaotic career ended with his untimely death in 2009. He is still regarded as “the best guitarist you never heard.” Texas Guitar Legend shows him at his peak.

Kip Moore, “Crazy One More Time”: This is a live radio version. I very much enjoyed Moore’s “Somethin’ ‘Bout a Truck” and “Mary Was the Marryin’ Kind.” Not many country songs sound like they wear a beard and were born full-grown. Moore’s are sounding that way. I look forward to his debut album, due this May. There’s a lot of potential here.

Bradley Gaskin: His “Mr. Bartender” is one of the best songs I’ve heard in recent years. But it disappeared very quickly. I was talking to a friend in the office the other day, and he reminded me that Gaskin and “Mr. Bartender” were all the talk at last year’s Country Radio Seminar. Gaskin’s live performance of the song drew a standing ovation from the CRS crowd. Then … nothing. My friend reminded me that this sometimes happens when radio jocks go back home and discover that a song that they personally like just doesn’t fit in with their station’s conglomerate’s sensibility and playlists. So, goodbye “Mr. Bartender.” It didn’t help that Gaskin is not what is considered a pretty boy by present-day mainstream radio standards. Plus, the otherwise interesting video for the song ended with a shaggy dog story that ruined the song’s effect.

Dry the River: This British group came heralded as a sort of folk/rock cross between Mumford & Sons and Radiohead. I mostly enjoyed their debut EP last year. But the new album, Shallow Bed, is sounding more intentionally commercial and polished. Lead singer Peter Liddle’s choirboy voice is beginning to grate a little, as are the sometimes overblown backing choruses. Still, I’m enjoying the cut “Weights & Measures.” If you’re at South by Southwest in Austin this year, you can check them out there for yourself.

Mark Collie, Alive at Brushy Mountain: Collie delivered the best hard-bitten and realistic portrayal of Johnny Cash I have ever seen in the short film, I Still Miss Someone. Obviously, Cash’s live prison albums inspired Collie to record one of his own. He went to Tennessee’s Brushy Mountain Correctional Complex with producer Tony Brown in 2001, and this is the result — which has been sitting on a shelf for more than a decade. I’ve been listening to some downloaded cuts from it, and it’s some hard-edged, gritty country music that will stick with you. The album will finally be released on May 1.

Johnny Cash, Bootleg IV: The Soul of Truth: Isn’t it amazing how, almost 10 years after his death in 2003, new releases just keep on a coming from Cash? Well, I for one am glad about it because I know I will always find some songs I like. This latest is a double CD with 51 songs. A dozen or so of them are duets, mostly with family members, but there’s also one with Cash’s longtime bassist Marshall Grant, one with former son-in-law Rodney Crowell and one with Grand Ole Opry star Jan Howard. Some critics say these posthumous Cash releases are only for Cash completists, but for me there is always something to hear and appreciate in a Johnny Cash recording. Throughout his life and career, there was always an undercurrent of the ongoing struggle between good and evil. That conflict and tension made for memorable music.

Kellie Pickler, 100 Proof: No shrinking violet, American Idol alumnus Pickler is not at all what she seemed when we first got a glimpse of her. I’m still waiting for her to write her definitive F-bomb song, but this album shows how she has come into developing into an interesting and strong country singer and performer. Before this, I mainly saw the performer in her and couldn’t hear much in the songs. Now she’s changing that. Drawing on songwriters of the caliber of Leslie Satcher, Dean Dillon and Liz Rose shows Pickler’s song sense these days, and she co-wrote two songs here with Satcher. Satcher’s fine song, “Tough,” was an especially good choice for Pickler.