The alt country scene is crowded these days, which is great for fans but tough for artists looking to stand out. Fortunately for Amy McCarley, the first thing that strikes a new listener is her distinctive voice. There are shades of genre luminaries in her Alabama drawl — a little bit of Lucinda Williams slur, a touch of Dwight Yoakam-esque mountain twang. But comparisons are really only useful for reference purposes; McCarley’s sound is all her own, and her latest album Jet Engines showcases an artist firmly grounded in Americana, yet well-poised to make an individual statement.
Roots guitar fans will immediately be drawn to the production imprint of Kenny Vaughan, probably most well-known for his picking in Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives. Indeed, Vaughan leads a rock-solid band, and tasty blues-meets-country riffs abound. However, it’s Amy’s songwriting that commands the stage. Her voice is a nuanced instrument best paired with a strong lyrical hook, evidenced by honky tonk gems like “Here I Am” and “Radio On” — hard-driving, foot-tappings tunes with country soul that puts the current Nashville radio crop to shame.
That’s not to say McCarley can be narrowly categorized; Jet Engines is sonically diverse while maintaining a coherent thread throughout. The title track segues seamlessly between a swampy blues verse and a dynamic, melodically memorable chorus. The anthemic “Hands Tied” is probably the most pop-oriented track, recalling Tracy Chapman at her radio-friendly rootsiest. Amy McCarley could easily take her music in any one of these directions and create a name for herself; hopefully she continues to follow the more eclectically rewarding muse that yielded Jet Engines.
My inaugural “Favorite Tones” post was rock-centric. For the next round, I thought it appropriate to back off the volume and put the spotlight on some of my favorite recorded acoustic sounds.
Tony Rice on “Manzanita (1st Variation),” from Unit of Measure by the Tony Rice Unit
It’s hard to pick one Tony Rice recording that exemplifies the warm but punchy, even-throughout-the-neck tone of his signature instrument — a reconstructed herringbone D-28 once owned by Clarence White. No other guitar backed over by a car ever sounded so good. This album was released not long after Tony stopped singing because of damaged vocal chords. Naturally, the focus is on his guitar playing, a consistently mesmerizing Americana blend of bluegrass, country, and jazz.
The New Year is fast approaching, and the folks at No Depression recently sent out a call to their bloggers for the Top 10 albums (Americana) of 2012. I tried to strike a balance in terms of genres, labels, and mainstream name recognition. Feel free to suggest your own additions in the comments.
Number 10: “Across the Imaginary Divide” by Bela Fleck & the Marcus Roberts Trio
In the early days of jazz, the banjo was the stringed rhythm instrument of choice. The guitar — particularly the electric guitar — eventually overtook the banjo. On this album, Americana and jazz pioneer Bela Fleck puts the six-stringers to shame, trading both rhythm and leads with the piano/drums/bass lineup of the Marcus Roberts Trio. It’s a classic sound with a modern twist.
Number 9: “Goodbye Normal Street” by the Turnpike Troubadours
Solid country tunesmithing for those who can’t stomach most of what’s coming out of Nashville these days. Goodbye Normal Street is evidence of a band that’s maturing and broadening its appeal, while at the same time staying true to their sound and Americana roots. Highly recommended for those who are tired of the same old same old on country radio. (full review)
I wasn’t familiar with Coty Hogue until I received a press release regarding her latest CD, When We Get to Shore. While scanning the track list, my eyes instantly gravitated to three words — “I’m on Fire.” Could this be a Springsteen cover? Indeed it is — on banjo. Apparently Ms. Hogue has a series of banjo covers in the works (fans can vote on the selection), and if they’re anything like “I’m on Fire,” it should be worth the wait.
Recorded live at Empty Sea Studios in Seattle, When We Get to Shore is a thoroughly enjoyable acoustic set. Hogue’s originals like “Cannot Deliver” and “Venus Flytrap” show that she’s a creative songwriter in her own right and just as adept on acoustic guitar as the banjo. The album strikes all the right Americana nerves, with an assortment of covers by popular artists like Lindsey Buckingham and Hank Williams, as well as arrangements of traditional tunes like “Going to the West” and “Wedding Dress.” Her trio includes multi-instrumentalists Kat Bula and Aaron Guest. I’m looking forward to more banjo covers, and especially new originals from Coty.
A melancholy ode to the King, and one of my favorite Gillian Welch tunes. I have a soft spot for acoustic folk duos, having played in one in college. Welch’s longtime partner David Rawlings is a superbly tasteful lead player and producer. You pretty much can’t go wrong with any of the records in the Welch/Rawlings catalog; last year’s The Harrow and the Harvest is a great place to start.
Album and gear reviews are coming, once I find a spare moment…