Lee Sims (from the album A Few More Miles to Go available as a self-release)
Uncomplicated words and an easy delivery dig deep roots in the songs of Lee Sims, his stories making front page news of men and women living life outside of daily headlines. Without veering into sensationalism, Lee Sims champions the lives of working men and women with his recent release, A Few More Miles to Go. In its formative years, Country music was centered on the lives of folks that lived away from city lights. If rural living was the target, Lee Sims hits a bullseye with A Few More Miles to Go. The road under Lee Sims wheels keeps time with a tune that points at the album title, “Just a Few More Miles” moving to the echo of tires hitting blacktop and holding tight to keep the beat while an electric guitar knocks open the door to A Few More Miles to Go. Lee Sims takes the stage with the first cut, backed by a soundtrack of honky tonk Rock’n’Roll he claims a night out as his birthright with “Live Myself to Death Before I Die”.
Putting a face to the term Cowboy Crooner, Lee Sims uses his sturdy baritone to build tales of the American West, his stories telling tales of treachery (“Barber Creek Road”), white hat heroes healing hearts (“I’m Gonna Let You Down”), open roads (“Highway to Heaven”), simple pleasures (“Champagne in a Dixie Cup”), and country wisdom (“When Noah Built the Ark”). A Few More Miles to Go takes time to address social issues such as addiction in “Alcohol of Fame” as it paints a picture of love being “Colorblind” while the night sky over Wyoming watches a lover coming back home when Lee Sims cruises by the light of “Big Blue Moon”.
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Western Centuries (from the album Call the Captain available on Free Dirt Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
It is tough to trim the fat when there’s no fat to trim. Apply that idea to a band with three strong songwriters that trade off the role of frontman. When it comes to scissoring the weaker songs from your recording, there is nothing to leave on the cutting room floor when your triple threat ringers toss out all hits as keepers. Cahalen Morrison, Ethan Lawton and Jim Miller may scoff at the term supergroup, yet it applies when you are a leaderless band with a third album in Call the Captain. The recent release showcases thee individual songwriting ability of Western Centuries delivering the album as a team effort.
A steady drum-beat kicks off “Lifeblood Sold” putting a Country Rock groove on the tracks. Western Centuries landing hard right out of the gate as pedal-steel, fiddle and electric guitar trade licks, riffs, and solos. “Every Time It’s Raining” kicks off with a Blues guitar that trails into the Country Blues of “Barcelona Lighthouse”. “Heart Broke Syndrome” lyrically nails every stage, level and personal attempt we go through after getting dumped as Western Centuries dips into a Classic Country shuffle on the cheating song “No Cure”. A hush surrounds “All The Things That I Could Say To You Right Now” with its minimal instrumentation, “Space Force” a twangy Indie Rock humorous Sci-Fi tale, and “Sarah And Charlie” a bouncing dance hall number with barroom piano and swinging fiddle backing a vivid tale of warm spring night, dude gunning up nerve, and asking a gal to dance; full disclosure..it is damn near impossible to not love this cut. Nosokee Fields holds down the bass duties and Western Centuries is joined by guests that include former Stray Bird Oliver Bates Craven on fiddle and Jim Lauderdale on vocals. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Whitney Rose (from the album We Still Go to Rodeos available on MCG Recordings)
The third time is a charm though We Still Go to Rodeos has tough competition when charming is the goal, and the lady with her name on the cover casts her spell, Whitney Rose the enchantress with a microphone. The emotional arsenal of Whitney Rose is hardwired into her vocal delivery. Tenderness calms troubled souls as Whitney Rose sets goals in “A Hundred Shades of Blue” over shaggy guitar strums. She whispers a seductive come-on at the local watering hole, painting a brighter image than the neon surrounding her story, suggesting trading nightlife heat for the warmth of simple pleasures in “Home with You”. Country music comes in many flavors, and over the course of three releases Whitney Rose draws inspiration from former first ladies of Country music such as Tammy Wynette, Lorrie Morgan, and Patsy Cline.
On We Still Go to Rodeos, Whitney Rose is the constant as the melodies shift the soundscape of the album. Guitar distortion adds the bite of her kiss-off in “Thanks for Trying” as the drums pound out a path forward for “In a Rut”. The Rock’n’Roll backbeat of “I’d Rather Be Alone” erects a solid structure while Whitney Rose decorates the storyline with a sad Blue. Whether confronting a rival head-on (“Believe Me, Angela”) or turning a plea into a promise (“Don’t Give Up on Me”), Whitney Rose charms her way through the album as she confidently walks through tales of tough choices (“Just Circumstances”). We Still Go to Rodeos slides into a groove that carries “You’d Blame Me for the Rain” like a leaf in a fast-moving current as Whitney Rose closes out the album with the title track, her vocal a reverie, the musical current underneath her voice chugging on a perpetual flow, her mind matching the rhythm as her mental movie screen replays good times.
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Steve Forbert (from the album Early Morning Rain available on Blue Rose Music)
A wizened storyteller of his own tales, Steve Forbert collects the songs of fellow musicians, re-imagining their words and music on his recent release, Early Morning Rain. Even if the album did not benefit from the care and consideration that Steve Forbert gives each and every note, his vocal the perfect mix of hope and heartache for the Judy Collins hit “Someday Soon”. If the charisma of a sideshow barker seducing with a smile in The Kinks “Supersonic Rocket Ship”, the bartalk gossip Blues of “Frankie and Johnny”, or the sad cowboy crooner in Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Withered and Died” cannot make you a believer, there is a prize still needed to be handed over. Steve Forbert deserves some sort of plaque, commemoration, or horseshoe flower trophy for his record collection.
The songs that Steve Forbert has collected are gems with tracks that have run along divided musical lines in their original form. Steve Forbert pays back the kindness offered him to the songwriters that have given him lifelong friends by stamping the tunes on Early Morning Rain with a style the NYC songman has polished during his twenty-album, forty-plus year career. Steve Forbert shares the simple rational behind the album as ‘I recorded this album to renew people’s appreciation for the fine craftsmanship these songs represent and as an acknowledgment of how much good ‘ol songs like these have meant to me’. The cuts span decades going back to 1958 for the Charlie Walker hit, Harlan Howard-penned “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down” to Bob Dylan’s 1994 release, “Dignity”. The first hits for two of his fellow songwriters are added to the listing for Early Morning Rain with “Suzanne” from Leonard Cohen and “Your Song” from Elton John included in the Steve Forbert covers. A song that mirrors the times closely, Steve Forbert offers a fine version of a Danny O’Keefe cut, his voice perfectly pinning the isolation of “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blue”.
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Sarah Siskind (from the album Modern Appalachia available as a self-release)
Reacting only to the Modern Appalachia album title for the recent Sarah Siskind release could spark a judgment that the album is all about the sound of the mountains. Modern Appalachia gives mountain music a new view from native daughter Sarah Siskind, the stories reflecting Sarah’s relationship with North Carolina where she was born and grew. Raggedy Rock’n’Roll guitar jangle sparkles like stars in “Carolina”, Sarah Siskind whispering ‘who you are isn’t where you’re from/but where you’re from is always close/and when you go digging in that dirt/get ready to find what you fear the most’. Sarah Siskind is joined by Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) on the track, the musician one of several guests on Modern Appalachia including guitarist Bill Frisell on two tracks (“Porchlight”, “Modern Appalachia”) and Rose Cousins adding vocals for “Me and Now”.
The natural music of the mountains that grew up in her Roots is blended with the her draw towards progressive Rock and fusion, Sarah Siskind creating her own sound for Modern Appalachia. The questions, fears, and realizations of the woman are the fodder for the stories, Sarah Siskind becoming the “Punk Rock Girl” fooling herself on the beat’s repetitive rhythmic chug while she saddles up and rides a runaway rock’n’roll riff, shredding the tattered souls wandering “A Little Bit Troubled”. The guitar noodling of Bill Frisell makes a melodic musical quilt for the title track when Sarah Siskind tells her personal history with “Modern Appalachia”. Ragged electric guitar riffs make a rhythmic row for Sarah Siskind to tend her heart “In the Mountains” as worldweary strums walk hesitantly into the longing of “Maybe There’s Love Between Us” as she tenderly exits Modern Appalachia on lullaby thoughts and prayers in “I Won’t Stop”.
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After six years off, Rock’n’Roll gal on a mission, Devil Doll, is out of the gate well-rested and wide-swinging with her latest release, Lover & a Fighter. Hitting on every great elements and shady deal of Rock’n’Roll music, Devil Doll aka Colleen Duffy mixes sultry vocals with a throwback speakeasy lounge vibe, fronting a band bouncing from Jump Blues to rumble-ready Rockabilly. The album opener finds Devil Doll defying the demon master in the slow burner “You Can’t Have Me”, a prohibition era back alley Jazz cut with a sly, muted trumpet.
The violin of “One Night Stand” gives the tune a gypsy vibe and the title track is Rock’n’Roll dangerous, big guitar riffs met with a revved-up, locomotive breath click-clack rhythm. The ballad “Back Home to Me” has big New Orleans horns, “Steeltown Heart” ready for two-stepping on a sawdust honky tonk dance-floor, “Mother Mary” a slow and sad gospel driven by church organ, and the Rock’n’Roll charge of a searing guitar solo returns to back the duet in “Ballad of the Rearview Mirror.” The tough and gritty male vocals come compliments of producer Charlie Overby.
Devil Doll gives Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe” the 1950’s slinky R&B treatment while adding fiddle to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man”. Delivered from a punk-charged band capable of serving up the appropriate chug to Devil Doll’s tough croon, the album is a big nod to Rock’n’Roll’s (in)glorious past as every instrument or genre that ever joined the band gets some Lover & a Fighter cred. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Ismay (from the album Songs of Sonoma Mountains available on Fast Atmosphere Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
Ismay aka Avery Hellman present a debut record of observations both curious and sturdy. A storyteller’s knack for description, the Ismay release Songs of Sonoma Mountain plays out as Folk lullabies with classically-trained undertones, a gentle recording featuring soft vocals surrounded by beautiful instrumentation. Intense acoustic guitar finger-picking introduces “A Song in Praise of Sonoma Mountain”, an album opener completed by gentle breezes carrying singing birds, Ismay speaking for the animals, a musical fairytale narrator citing ‘the fox and the blackbird are crying aloud, but they’re not in pain, they’re simply singing your name’. “The Stones” finds Ismay half-speaking, half singing a tale about a keepsake in a house; it’s a song with countless details like coming from a photographic memory.
“The 100 Mile View from Virginia City” finds the instruments providing ambience above melody, “The Bird in the Shed” is a cut about making a deal with whatever your god works while “Sonoma Mountain Theme” walks a line between bluegrass and classical music, soundtracking like a film score for a rural mountain movie.
The album closer, “On Leaving Sonoma Mountain”, is a somber ending about leaving, the storyline bummed-out about a place you love that that sees landscape changing with ‘all the homes going up day by day’ as it seeks a place ‘where memories aren’t on my mind’. Ismay offers a personal story, an album loaded with snippets and verbal snapshots, Songs of Sonoma Mountain is a vivid glimpse at minutes and moments of Avery Hellman’s past. Worth also mentioning is her lineage. Ismay is the grand-daughter of Warren Hellman, founder of San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Carolyn Sills Combo (from the album Return to El Paso available as a self-release)
As a collective group, the characters that walked the sawdust floor of Rosa’s Cantina get a voice, sixty-years on, through Return to El Paso, the E.P. release from The Carolyn Sills Combo. Continuing the storyline with Marty Robin’s backstory in “El Paso”, the E.P. introduces familiar names….”Feelena”, “The Handsome Young Stranger”, “The Ranger”. The Combo backs the song with Country and Western rhythms, hitting a gallop in “Hold Your Horses” when Carolyn Stills tells the tale of the horse that rides the original open range of “El Paso”. The cantina jukebox hits the heart, the Honky Tonk of Return to El Paso receiving a South of the Border stamp when The Carolyn Sills Combo spins Tex Mex sadness into the background of “I’m Not Crying, I’ve Just Rubber Jalapenos in My Eyes”.
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Pam Tillis (from the album Looking for a Feeling available on Stellar Cat Records)
The support that Pam Tillis offered on her slate of hits was subtle, the songs themselves taking a stand, portraying women owning their mistakes (“Cleopatra, Queen of Denial”), welcoming seduction with open arms (“Maybe It Was Memphis”), and taking charge of their lives (“Let That Pony Run”). The singer let the song speak, her role as narrator championing the accomplishments of her gender as an observer. On her recent release, Looking for a Feeling, Pam Tillis sings to the face in her mirror, sharing opinions on her own life as she puts judgments down on life choices on the title track. Smoldering melodies curl like smoke underneath “Burning Star” as a Pop sheen polishes the payback tale in “Karma”, Pam Tillis whispering a wish for “Better Friends” and sharing the tale of a young man with stars in his eyes dancing with “Lady Music”.
A fixture on Country Pop charts, Pam Tillis began to back her songs with Roots-flavored influences after moving to East Nashville in 2016. The styles shuffle on Looking for a Feeling, Pam Tillis feeling that ‘stylistically, there’s so much here that’s always been a part of me. It’s a story I haven’t told on any of my records so far. I wanted work that’s as close to true and unselfconscious as possible, to provide access to my heart’. The smell of sulfur mixes burning tires hitting the road for the rumble beneath “Demolition Angel”, the scent of sawdust trailing the honky tonk sway of “Dark Turn of Mind”. The daughter of Country star Mel Tillis, a younger Pam met many idols, tributing a special childhood memory with “Dolly 1969”, sharing that ‘I met Dolly as a little girl, and you could see that drive; the legends I grew up around taught me that it takes nothing less than a fire to make it in this business. Even if that fire causes a little collateral damage along the way, you know nothing’s going to stop that burning to create music’. Quiet notes hum in harmony with Pam Tillis as she toasts memories in “Last Summer’s Wine”, feeling the cut to be ‘the distant cousin of ‘Maybe It Was Memphis.’ Older, wiser, wine and wistfulness’.
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Pete Bernhard (from the album Harmony Ascension Division available on Kahn Records)
The themes on Harmony Ascension Division are divided in three columns to match its title, the subjects on the Pete Bernhard solo outing within reach as a personal accounting. The topics are explained by Pete Bernhard as ‘this record is about friendships, relationships, success, happiness and failure. Harmony. Ascension. Division. Many of these songs are about friends from my early teens and ‘20s so I thought the best way to talk about them would be by playing the way I did back then’. Pete is referencing his time prior to tenure as frontman for The Devil Makes Three, the setting from the past putting man and guitar center stage. Folk music is the style Pete Bernhard on Harmony Ascension Division as he steps away from the TDM3 model of buskers on steroids that he has helped develop.
Blues is in the picking underneath the tale in “Land of Milk and Honey”, Pete Bernhard’s fingers flying as he lists accomplishments in excess for “Down the Line” and builds a heartbeart for the guitar string rhythms in “Waiting for You”. The recording of Harmony Ascension Division was scheduled between touring stops for The Devil Make Three, Pete Bernhard returning to his home state of Vermont. The story of old friends and lovers finding a way through the world opens Harmony Ascension Divisionwith “I Knew You” as Pete Bernhard leans in close for the advice and opinions of “Long Night”, finds “Fool’s Gold” in a tangled melody, and exits the album on the effervescent bubbles rising from the beat and storyline of “Lightning”.
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