The Flower of Muscle Shoals by Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer

The title of Cahalen Morrison’s latest solo effort — The Flower of Muscle Shoals — implies a nostalgic tie to roots music history. Through his duo work with Eli West, Morrison has already demonstrated a reverence (and considerable talent) for acoustic Americana. The Flower of Muscle Shoals turns up the volume, augmenting Morrison’s gentle vocal twang with a rock-solid backing band easily at home in the diviest of honky-tonks.

That’s not to say The Flower is a raucous collection of tunes; Morrison errs toward the tear in your beer, as opposed to the fighting side of classic country. Fans of Morrison/West will find much to appreciate in the pace and acoustic ambience of this album, from the easy two-step of “Cascabel Valley” to the western swing of “Our Love is Like a Hurricane.” The fingerpicked acoustic guitar, walking bass, and reverb-laden Telecaster of “The Delta Divine” is particularly satisfying, marrying toe-tapping country blues rhythm with concise and skillfully crafted lyrics. Morrison started in ranchero, and as a fellow New Mexican I couldn’t help but smile at the accordion and fiddle-fueled romp of “Hobbled and Grazing.”

The Flower of Muscle Shoals is a deeply satisfying album, amply demonstrating this artist’s versatility and potential across a range of roots idioms. It’s also proof that great country & western music is still readily accessible — you just have to switch off the radio and tune in to the sounds of a true craftsman like Cahalen Morrison.

Brent Mason’s Hot Wired Session Playing

I have a soft spot for session players and sidemen. I’ve never been inclined to front a band, but I enjoy backing up a good leader on stage or in the studio. Country pickers know that Brent Mason is easily one of the most prolifically recorded guitarists in Nashville, with thousands of recordings and commercials to his credit, in addition to a slew of CMA Awards and Grammy nods. Hard copies of his out-of-print debut solo album, Hot Wired, fetch a pretty penny on the used market. Fortunately, the tracks were recently (though quietly) re-released in digital form, making Hot Wired accessible to the masses again.

Mason’s penchant for smooth jazz is arguably a little over-represented on the record, with tracks like “Cayman Moon” and “Blue Water Girl” sounding a bit dated in 2013. However, his virtuosic chicken picking on the title track and western swing-inspired tunes like “Sugarfoot Rag” and “Swing with a Sting” more than compensate. Listeners should also check out Smokin’ Section, a collection of tracks recorded with brother Randy in 2006. The album leans a little more decidedly toward country music, and the jazz tracks swing harder. Both albums are essential listening for aspiring masters of the Telecaster.

Interestingly, Paul Reed Smith recently picked up Brent as an endorser, releasing a bolt-on signature model. He had previously been affiliated with Valley Arts Guitars, endorsing a signature instrument inspired by Mason’s famous — and extensively modded — 1968 Telecaster. With a minibucker in the neck, strat pickup in the middle, and a B-Bender for pedal steel sounds, his #1 is the ultimate country session guitar. I’m sure Brent sounds like Brent on the new PRS, but I’m still partial to his classic Tele and Twin combo, featured on cuts like Alan Jackson’s 1993 hit “Mercury Blues” (the early Alan Jackson albums provide a great introduction to Mason’s output as a sideman).

Speaking of that ’68, check out this great vid of Brent and Randy tearing it up on the jazz standard “Cherokee”:

Album Review: Searching for the Song by Andy Vaughan and the Driveline

Listening to the eleven tunes on Searching for the Song is like feeding quarters into a dusty juke box in a throwback honky tonk. Fans of classic country are rewarded by strains of Hank, Waylon, and Buck. Guitars, pedal steel, and even Mariachi horns recall Bakersfield and Nashville rebellion. Richmond-based Andy Vaughan and the Driveline are not aiming to reinvent country; the band is committed to tried and true country formulas from the 1960s and 70s – an aesthetic that sits just fine with this reviewer.

Continue reading

Album Review: Goodbye Normal Street by the Turnpike Troubadours

As readers may gather from previous reviews, I have a conflicted relationship with country music. I love the guitar-based sound, two-step rhythms, and well-worn themes of heartbreak and hard-living. That said, I have a really hard time with what contemporary country music has become – a slickly produced pop parody of its former self, mass marketed to the lowest common denominator and promoting a crude stereotype of the “real” America. No, I don’t think Hank done it this way. But I do think Hank would take comfort knowing that bands like the Turnpike Troubadours – who in May released their third album, Goodbye Normal Street – are still putting out quality country music, even if only at the margins of the radio mainstream.

Continue reading

Let’s Hope that J.P. Harris and the Tough Choices Keep Calling

You wouldn’t know it from tuning in the radio dial, but country music is alive and well. Quite well in fact, if the debut Cow Island Music release from J.P. Harris and the Tough Choices is any indication. I actually did a double take when I read “debut album” in the press sheet that came with I’ll Keep Calling. What I heard coming from the speakers was the kind of tightly crafted, authentic honky tonk swing that’s been missing from the Nashville Top 40 for decades now.

Continue reading

Willie and Trigger

Besides being a great song, Willie’s guitar solo in this performance is constructed just about perfectly. My parents are big fans of Willie Nelson, so I heard a lot of his music growing up. Until relatively recently, I had overlooked Willie as a guitar player — an unfortunate oversight on my part.

The man has a truly unique sound and style that perfectly complements his vocal approach. Part of that uniqueness comes from his number one instrument, Trigger (a 1969 Martin N-20). Most country, folk, and bluegrass players pick steel string instruments. The N-20’s nylon strings yield a mellower tone, and require a different technique and approach. You can’t strike the strings quite as hard, and pedal steel-like bending is largely out of the question. The other (probably more crucial) part of the equation is Willy’s influences and development as a guitar player. He grew up on the jazz-inflected sounds of western swing, and is a huge fan of Django Reinhardt.

You can really hear the Django influence in this solo — melodic single note lines, two-fingered chord voicings, tremolo picking. Good stuff.