This week's a roots music bonanza with the debut releases from The Lonesome Trio (featuring Ed Helms from "The Hangover"), the latest from soulgrass experts The Steeldrivers (Chris Stapleton's old band), Aaron Burdett and a look at a handful of hits projects (Tim McGraw, Hank Williams, Jr) and indie artist releases from the likes of Cory Morrow, Chris Hennessee and Love and Theft.
The Lonesome Trio - The Lonesome Trio (Sugar Hill Records) [buy]
The latest comedic actor to take up bluegrass and roots music is Ed Helms (“Vacation,” “The Office”) and while he is well-known for his comedic chops, Ed Helms joined Ian Riggs and Jacob Tilove as students at Oberlin College in northern Ohio where they bonded over cheap whiskey and bluegrass. Helms plays guitar and banjo, Riggs on bass and Tilove on mandolin. As life happened, they reconvened from disparate careers in performance art (Helms), architectural history (Tilove) and Jazz bass studies (Riggs) and became the band to see in NYC’s bluegrass circles (who knew?). The band showcases their chops immediately on the Helms-fronted opener “Asheville City Skyline” and the killer “Pigeon’s Foot,” which is fronted by Tilove (who fronts most of the songs here). Riggs’ lone composition is chock full of interesting and heartbreaking lyrics and strong melodies. There’s certainly a lot of interesting bluegrass here but for bluegrass traditionalists, the record may be lacking but they’re notoriously a hard lot to please if you’re not playing 100% covers of Bill Monroe songs or speed picking.
Love and Theft - Whiskey On My Breath (Hate and Purchase Music/Thirty Tigers) [buy]
After releasing their first two projects via major labels, Love and Theft goes the indie route with Whiskey On My Breath and showcases a rootsy side that was only hinted at previously. Even “Cant Wait For The Weekend” is a song that one might assume to be “bro” in approach and while lyrically it might be, the song is far from that with tight harmonies and a soulful, southern rock vibe to it. The title track, “Whiskey On My Breath,” showcases Eric and Stephen’s ability to write and sing the kind of timeless country story songs that have long been the standards of the format. Their harmonies throughout the record are once-again the duo’s best calling card, showcasing a band who is right there with Little Big Town and Zac Brown Band as the best of country music’s harmony-driven vocal bands. Fun tunes like “Tan Lines” and “Anytime, Anywhere” keep the duo contemporary and fresh but clearly Whiskey On My Breath was a record that the duo needed to make. Other standouts “Everybody Drives Drunk,” “Easy,” and “Wrong Baby Wrong.” (Note: originally hard to find, this album is now available in most Walmart and Target locations thanks to Thirty Tigers).
Aaron Burdett - Tinderbox (Organic Records) [buy]
This is his sixth album and second release for Organic Records. Fans of great singer/songwriters, (think James Taylor, John Hiatt, Darrell Scott, Ron Sexsmith, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell) will certainly dig Aaron Burdett’s music. Signed to a roots music label, Burdett makes vivid songs with engaging melodies with songs like “Rattling Bones,” “Tinderbox Heart,” “Stark Raving Sober,” “Next Big Thing,” “Write What You Know and “Daydream” among an album of expertly crafted singer/songwriter fare. Tinderbox is amongst the best albums released in 2015 and if I were an A&R guy looking for great songs to record, I’d be keeping Tinderbox near my desk (like I would the folks mentioned above) to cherrypick from.
The Steeldrivers - The Muscle Shoals Recordings (Rounder) [buy]
This band has weathered member changes commonly found in the bluegrass circuit and survived to tell the story. As great as that is though, if any band has come out sounding largely similar to or perhaps even better than the original version of a band, it's The Steeldrivers. The Muscle Shoals Recordings represents the band's second album with lead vocalist/guitarist Gary Nichols and mandolin player Brent Truitt in the band with original members Tammy Rogers (fiddle), Richard Bailey (banjo) and bassist Mike Fleming. This record feels as raw and real as any Steeldrivers record and serves up "soul"grass that the band has become known for with Nichols' soulful, bluesy wail often the main focus of the tracks. The band doesn't hide from their past recording/touring partners with both Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson among the songwriters on The Muscle Shoals Recordings. The album was recorded at the legendary Fame Studios, where Nichols was reared and he's in fine soulful rasp throughout. This is a progressive bluegrass band but still a bluegrass band. Standouts include "Long Way Down," "Here She Goes," "Hangin' Around," "River Runs Red" and "Drinkin' Alone." Jason Isbell (Nichols' cousin) co-produced two tracks including "Here She Goes."
Chris Hennessee - Greetings from Hennessee (Big Gassed Records) [buy]
The first artist to release an album on Jamey Johnson’s new label imprint, Chris Hennessee is a talented artist. Whether running through his eight original songs or the three covers (Charlie Daniels Band’s “Dixie On My Mind,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “All I Can Do Is Write About It” and the closing P.D. Gospel song “I Surrender All”), Hennessee is a fine vocalist with an ear for great melody. Standouts are “The Gospel According To Lane,” “Rollin’ Away,” “Knoxville” and “Long Way Down.” This is one record fans of country/rock should want to own.
Big Smo - Bringin’ It Home (Elektra/WMG Nashville) [buy]
For his second national release, Big Smo branches out a bit in his approach to his brand of rural rap. The title track opens up the record and melds Muse-like rock melodies with Smo’s trademark rural rapping. “Rebel Road” showcases the sound that has helped Smo become one of the biggest rural rappers in the genre, blending the hiphop style with country rhymes and melodies, something that also happens on “Rednecks Got It Right,” a song featuring Haden Carpenter. “Meet Me In The Mud” is also one where he mentiones the Kinfolke for a muddin’ banger of a track (which debuted on RoughStock). All in All the six songs here show an evolutionary growth in Big Smo with closer “You Can’t Hide” offering up a look at where Big Smo is heading to next. He may never be a mainstream country star but in the world of rural rap, he’s one of the biggest stars and Bringin’ It Home only serves as proof of his status as a top star.
Laura Bell Bundy - Another Piece of Me (Big Machine) [buy]
the talented singer/songwriter/actress is back with her third record (and second major label recording). Featuring a healthy dose of 15 tracks, Another Piece of Me is definitely all Laura Bell Bundy, melding Shania-like sass and ‘dude with “Love Me Like A Lady” with stellar story songs like “That’s What Angels Do,” “Give My Broken Heart A Break” and “I Am What I Am.” She’s still one of the best female vocalists the mainstream doesn’t know and proves it on these songs and “China And Wine” while getting happy and dance-y on “Two Step,” “She Only Wants To Dance,” “Kentucky Dirty” and “Wait Until The Sun Goes Down.” Finally, she shows she’s a fine country singer (really throughout the whole project) on “Lets Pretend We’re Married” and “Another Piece Of Me.” This is a nice, strong, consistent album and perhaps she’ll get a track or two out to radio but even if she doesn’t, it’s worth seeking out.
Cory Morrow - The Good Fight (Write On Records) [buy]
A longtime star of the Texas Music and Red Dirt Music scenes, Cory Morrow has certainly had an interesting career as of late. One of Pat Green’s buddies, Morrow returns with The Good Fight, his first all-new in five years. “Breaking Me Out” has a nice Petty-like vibe to it while the Texas Music Chart hit “Old With You” showcases Morrow that longtime fans have grown to love. The songs primarily found on The Good Fight concern matters of the heart and that’s not uncommon for artists who outgrow the wild and wily ways of their youth. Other standouts include “Little Man,” “I Don’t Mind,” “In & Out Of Light” and “Old Soul.”
Tim McGraw - 35 Biggest Hits (Curb) [buy]
His most-loyal fans may find they already have these songs and that McGraw’s longtime label Curb is milking yet another dollar or a thousand out of McGraw’s music but they’re really not unlike other labels with catalogs of superstar hits. This compilation, actually, serves as the best one of his career with a chronological look at McGraw’s career from opening hit “Indian Outlaw” to juggernaut “It’s Your Love” to “My Next Thirty Years” to signature songs “Live Like You’re Dying,” “Don’t Take The Girl,” “The Cowboy In Me,” and the closer of his curb career, “Better Than I Used To Be.” If you only wanted the hits from Tim McGraw you could do far, far worse than to buy this 35 song collection of nothin’ but hits.
Hank Williams, Jr. - 35 Biggest Hits (Curb) [buy]
One of the original stars of Curb Records, Hank Williams, Jr. has long been gone from the label but like McGraw’s collection above, Hank Jr’s 35 Biggest Hits works as one of the best single packages of his career-spanning hits. From “Family Tradition” to “Kaw-Liga,” from “The Blues Man” to both “All My Rowdy Friends” songs and “Born To Boogie,” all the hits are here. There may not be a need for any hit making era packages after the release of this collection and that’s fine the average fan or Walmart or Best Buy shopper where these projects will sit.